<< 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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>> Robert Mallary, "Notes on Jack Burnham's Concepts of a Software Exhibition", 1970

from: Leonardo, Vol. 3, pp. 189-190. Pergamon Press 1970. Printed in Great Britain

Jack Burnham has been receiving, in my view, the recognition he deserves for his efforts to draw attention to the impact of cybernetics, general systems theory and computers on contemporary art. My own respect for Burnham is attested to by references to his book, Beyond Modern Sculpture, in my article 'Computer Sculpture: Six Levels of Cybernetics', Artforum (May 1969) and by my discussion of his work at a session of the International Cybernetics Congress held in London in September 1969. Recently, in a communication to the New York Review, Burnham defined his central premise as '... we are moving from an art centered upon objects to one focused upon systems, thus implying that sculptured objects are in eclipse'. In a statement explaining the scope of a 'Software' exhibition he has proposed for the Jewish Museum in New York (tentatively scheduled for late spring, 1970), he made his point even more explicitly by writing 'If the "Software" exhibit is to be successful in emphasizing the nature of electronically supported software, it should then remove the traditional hardware props of art from the eye of the viewer, mainly those vestiges of painting and sculpture'. In this same statement he defined electronically supported software as 'radio, telephone, telephone photo- copying, television, microcard library information systems, teletype and teaching machines'. These quotes make clear what Burnham means by software, though, to my knowledge, he has yet to define precisely what he means by 'systems art', except in the negative sense of repudiating the sculptural object. One can only surmise that his thinking accords more with what we have come to know as 'concept art' and related tendencies, rather than with cybernetics and general systems theory. What he has done in fact, is draw upon the prestige of these disciplines (and some of the vocabulary) to blur the distinction between art as a particular kind of immediate, sensory experience and the process of dealing with it on various levels of abstraction- apparently failing to realize that in both cybernetics and general systems theory it is normal to distinguish between the abstract model and the real-world system it is intended to represent. Burnham's more puzzling mistake, however, lies in his gross misunderstanding of the word software, or at least in his gross misuse of it, and his resort to such a misleading expression as 'electronically supported software'-as if hardware normally supports software, instead of the other way round [1]. This is a surprising choice because Burnham must have learned enough about computers by this time to know that software refers to programming input for the computer-the term having been derived from the use of punched cards and paper tape for this purpose. It is legitimate to speak of software as output if the program generates another program which in turn becomes a second input of the computer. While Burnham is not alone in his abuse of a perfectly good word such as software (e.g. in audio- visual education, slides and films are sometimes referred to as software and the projectors as hardware) there is more involved than mere quibbling over terminology. A large computer, supported by appropriate software, is a general, all-purpose device capable of performing a host of diverse functions. In effect, it is the software that makes the difference. Furthermore, software constitutes roughly half of the overhead costs of the computer industry. Its meaning, therefore, is too specific, too useful and too important to be used in connection with something as distinct and important in its own right as printed and graphic output. which is normally referred to as hard copy. To use software in describing a television image and the acoustical output from a radio or a telephone, is to drain the word of almost any meaning. It is also puzzling why Burnham, with his almost Manichean antiphysicalism and his bias against hardware, would thus limit the possibilities of cybernetic and systems art. Drawing upon computer terminology, it might even make sense to define sculpture as a shifting interface between the spiritual and the physical. In any event, the profound enigma and ambiguity involved in the conjunction of the physical and psychological aspects of sculpture are (for me, at least) one of its greatest attractions. I see no reason why this aspect of the art should not be refreshed and renewed on a higher technological and systems level. Astronauts are walking about on the Moon because software and hardware are brought together as integrated systems, so why should not cybernetic art benefit from the same approach ? Why should artists avoid either software or hardware? Why should not cybernetic art be experienced variously as objects, functions, processes-including conceptual processes-and combinations of these? I am not suggesting that the title of the exhibition be changed from 'Software' to 'Hard Copy' because, despite the label, there is a good chance of its turning out to be an interesting and important event, which will do much to stimulate interest in cybernetic and systems art. Even if the show fails in this or fails to provide us with good examples of 'systems' art, perhaps it will compel Burnham to give us a better idea of what he means by the phrase. In the statement already quoted, Burnham also wrote: 'Some of this educational background will be given in the catalogue but a more important approach will be to build this information into the exhibition as a mixed-media presentation'. This suggests that the exhibition itself may prove to be an example of what Burnham means by 'systems art'. It seems likely that it will turn out to be one of those new kinds of exhibitions in which the 'medium is the message'. An exhibition which, as an integrated entity, is itself the real system, with the individual displays functioning as so many cogwheels, i.e. as subsystems within the exhibition's global scheme.

REFERENCES 1. Terminology, Leonardo 3, 97 (1970). Mr. Burnham's comments on Mr. Mallary's notes will be found in the Letters section of this issue of Leonardo -THE EDITOR. 190

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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.