<< preface

this blog is nina wenhart's collection of resources on the various histories of new media art. it consists mainly of non or very little edited material i found flaneuring on the net, sometimes with my own annotations and comments, sometimes it's also textparts i retyped from books that are out of print.

it is also meant to be an additional resource of information and recommended reading for my students of the prehystories of new media class that i teach at the school of the art institute of chicago in fall 2008.

the focus is on the time period from the beginning of the 20th century up to today.

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2008-06-26

>> Cybernetic Serendipity, ICA London, August 2nd - October 20th, 1968

from the press release of the exhibition:
"«Cybernetics - derives from the Greek «kybernetes» meaning «steersman»; our word «governor» comes from the Latin version of the same word. The term cybernetics was first used by Norbert Wiener around 1948. In 1948 his book
«Cybernetics» was subtitled «communication and control in animal and machine.» The term today refers to systems of communication and control in complex electronic devices like computers, which have very definite similarities with the processes of communication and control in the human nervous system. A cybernetic device responds to stimulus from outside and in turn affects external environment, like a thermostat which responds to the coldness of a room by switching on the heating and thereby altering the temperature. This process is called feedback. Exhibits in the show are either produced with a cybernetic device (computer) or are cybernetic devices in themselves. They react to something in the environment, either human or machine, and in response produce either sound, light or movement. Serendipity – was coined by Horace Walpole in 1754. There was a legend about three princes of Serendip (old name for Ceylon) who used to travel throughout the world and whatever was their aim or whatever they looked for, they always found something very much better. Walpole used the term serendipity to describe the faculty of making happy chance discoveries. Through the use of cybernetic devides to make graphics, film and poems, as well as other randomising machines which interactc with the spectator, many happy discoveries were made. Hence the title of this show.» London 1968

from mediaartnet:
Statement by the curator, Jasia Reichardt: «One of the journals dealing with the Computer and the Arts in the mid-sixties, was Computers and the Humanities. In September 1967, Leslie Mezei of the University of Toronto, opened his article on «Computers and the Visual Arts» in the September issue, as follows: «Although there is much interest in applying the computer to various areas of the visual arts, few real accomplishments have been recorded so far. Two of the causes for this lack of progress are technical difficulty of processing two-dimensional images and the complexity and expense of the equipment and the software. Still the current explosive growth in computer graphics and automatic picture processing technology are likely to have dramatic ef
fects in this area in the next few years.» The development of picture processing technology took longer than Mezei had anticipated, partly because both the hardware and the software continued to be expensive. He also pointed out that most of the pictures in existence in 1967 were produced mainly as a hobby and he discussed the work of Michael Noll, Charles Csuri, Jack Citron, Frieder Nake, Georg Nees, and H.P. Paterson. All these names are familiar to us today as the pioneers of computer art history. Mezei himself too was a computer artist and produced series of images using maple leaf design and other national Canadian themes. Most of the computer art in 1967 was made with mechanical computer plotters, on CRT displays with a light pen or from scanned photographs. Mathematical equations that produced curves, lines or dots, and techniques to introduce randomness, all played their part in those early pictures. Art made with these techniques was instantaneously recognisable as having been produced either by mechanical means or with a program. It didn't actually look as if it had been done by hand. Then, and even now, most art made with the computer carries an indelible computer signature. The possibility of computer poetry and art was first mentioned in 1949. By the beginning of the 1950s it was a topic of conversation at universities and scientific establishments, and by the time computer graphics arrived on the scene, the artists were scientists, engineers, architects. Computer graphics were exhibited for the first time in 1965 in Germany and in America. 1965 was also the year when plans were laid for a show that later came to be called «Cybernetic Serendipity,» and presented at the ICA in London in 1968. It was the first exhibition to attempt to demonstrate all aspects of computer-aided creative activity: art, music, poetry, dance, sculpture, animation. The principal idea was to examine the role of cybernetics in contemporary arts. The exhibition included robots, poetry, music and painting machines, as well as all sorts of works where chance was an important ingredient. It was an intellectual exercise that became a spectacular exhibition in the summer of 1968." Jasia Reichardt, London 2005


from "Cybernetic Serendipity Revisited" by Brent MacGregor:
"Jasia Reichardt was Associate Director of the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London, when, as a result of organizing an exhibition on concrete poetry, she met Max Bense whose inspired words to her in 1965 were ‘look into computers’. Through various periodicals such as Data Systems and Computers and Automation (and their annual computer art competition), she made contact with Michael Noll of Bell Telephone Labs. These two contacts in Europe
and America and the computer Technique Group in Tokyo led her into new networks. After a substantial period of research, the ICA held a press conference in December of 1966, announcing the exhibition and commencing the process of fund raising. Supported by the Rt. Hon. Anthony Wedgewood Benn, Minister for Technology, letters went out to over 200 appropriate firms seeking support. This futile search for sponsors led to some of the tight fisted corporations being named and shamed later at the exhibition press launch. Only IBM helped with significant contributions in kind without which the exhibition would have not gone ahead. In all £20,000 was raised with the Arts Council providing £5000 and the US State Department coming up with a travel grant to support a research visit to New York. The scale of the project can be compared to the contemporary Matisse exhibition at London’s Hayward Gallery which cost £60,000. The exhibition was advertised at selected sites in the London underground (subway).

PARTICIPANTS
These ranged from corporate giants such as IBM, Boeing, General Motors, Westinghouse, Calcomp, major research institutes such as Bell Telephone Labs and US Airforce Research Labs. There were the ‘founding fathers’: Charles Csuri, Charles [hic! should be Gordon] Pask, Frieder Nake, Michael Noll, John Whitney, Edward Ihnatowicz, the Computer Technique Group, Tokyo (a list in no particular order and not exhaustive). These creators from various backgrounds who
were using computers in exciting new ways were joined by ‘traditional’ (non digital) contemporary artists who worked with machines and whose work would already have been seen in various gallery contexts. These artists included Bruce Lacey (photographed at the opening with Princess Margaret), Naim June Paik, Roger Dainton, Tsai Wen Ying, Jean Tinquely, and James Seawright. Lowell Nesbitt’s paintings of computers were also shown. There was the work of avantgarde musicians such as John Cage, Iannis Xenakis and Peter
Zinovieff and poetry including Edwin Morgan’s Computer’s first Christmas card. Films by Kenneth Knowlton, Michael Noll, Nicholas Negroponte and John Whitney among others were shown in a specially build viewing area. Finally the status of the event was such that Umberto Eco came from Italy to view its wonders.

THE EXHIBITION
As clearly stated in the exhibition Cybernetic Serendipity, was organised in three sections:
• computer generated work
• cybernetic devices-robots, painting machines
• machines demonstrating use of computers/history of cybernetics
It aim was clear: ‘. . . dealing with an exploratory field, all attempts at a historical perspective or firm evaluation were out of place. The exhibition and this record, therefore, are essentially a reportage of current trends and developments’ [7].
Quite sensibly the exhibition did not tear machine assisted creative work from its context and contemporary work which was not made in any way by machine was included. For example, Bridget Riley's geometric work was exhibited alongside similar computer generated work. Equally the contemporary avant-garde music on the exhibition record included work which was, for the most part, produced in nondigital ways but which helped to set the context for the computer generated work. Also it is important to note that a wide range of disciplines were represented in the exhibition, not just the visual arts. Poetry, music, dance, film and animation work with a technological dimension were all shown.
The much quoted and consulted publication is not, as is so often assumed, a catalogue of the exhibition, but rather a publication to coincide with the show. Many of the machines and some of the works displayed or referred to in the publication were not actually in the ICA show. which was nevertheless described as ‘a gallery full of tame wonders which look as if they’ve come straight out of a science
museum for the year 2000’ [8].

FINDINGS
Cybernetic Serendipity has a reputation as being the first computer art exhibition. It was not. There had been computer art exhibitions earlier in Germany and America. More crucially perhaps, Cybernetic Serendipity was, just as its title suggests, about cybernetics - ‘control and communication in the animal and machine’ [9] rather than exclusively concerning itself with computer generated work. The stated aim of the exhibition was to explore ‘the relationships between technology and creativity’ [10]. While clearly
centering on computers for publicity (and fund raising) purposes, there were only two digital machines in the exhibition and much of the work was produced using analogue technology. Of the two computers on show at the opening, one had nothing to do with creative work. This was an airline reservation system provided by IBM (the only industrial sponsor of some 200 approached to make any kind of contribution). The second, used by Peter Zinovieff to
compose music was removed for use by the composer for his continued use. The robotic devices in the exhibition which were a big hit with critics and the public alike were not digitally enabled.

INSIGHTS AND FORESIGHT
‘one can foresee the day when computers will replace railway trains and airliners as the cult symbols of the under twelve’s’ [11].
‘Cybernetic Serendipity deals with possibilities rather than achievements, and in this sense it is prematurely optimistic. There are no heroic claims to be made because computers have so far neither revolutionized music, nor art, nor poetry, in the same way that they have revolutionized science’ [12].
‘The computer is only a tool which, at the moment, still seems far removed from those polemic preoccupations which concern art. . . . The possibilities inherent in the computer as a creative tool will do little to change those idioms of art which rely primarily on the dialogue between the artist, his ideas and the canvas. They will, however, increase the scope of the art and contribute to its diversity’ [13].
These observations, made by curator Jasia Reichardt were, and remain, remarkably insightful, standing the test of time. The exhibitors were a mixture of artists and scientistengineers experimenting in a way not possible today. Whereas in 1968 scientists, engineers and artist all had to write software to produce work, today artists can use digital tools without needing coding skills. Teams of artists and engineers are less likely to exist today. Equally engineers and software developers are also less likely to experiment with artistic output.

--> what do you think about the last highlighted paragraph?, is the computer just a tool?


article in Time magazine from October 1968:
http://www.time.com/time/printout/0,8816,838821,00.html

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... is a Media Art historian and independent researcher. She is currently writing on "speculative archiving && experimental preservation of Media Art" and graduated from Prof. Oliver Grau's Media Art Histories program at the Danube University in Krems, Austria with a Master Thesis on Descriptive Metadata for Media Arts. For many years, she has been working in the field of archiving/documenting Media Art, recently at the Ludwig Boltzmann Institute for Media.Art.Research and before as the head of the Ars Electronica Futurelab's videostudio, where she created their archives and primarily worked with the archival material. She was teaching the Prehystories of New Media Class at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC) and in the Media Art Histories program at the Danube University Krems.