<< 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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>> Peter Foldes, "Hunger", 1974

"Hunger" or "La Faim" is an 11 min 2d-computer animation by Peter Foldes, composed of hand drawn images and digital metamorphosis, nominated for the acadamy award in 1974 (didn't win).
Peter Foldes was born in Hungary in 1924, emigrated to France. Hunger was produced with the help of the National Filmboard of Canada.

part 1:

part 2:

>> Bill Buxton, "The Role of the Artist in the Lab", 1988

from: http://www.billbuxton.com/artistRole.html

"For centuries, there has been a kind of love/hate relationship between the arts and science and technology. From the artist's perspective, this has sometimes take the form of confrontation. At other times, it has resulted in new materials and techniques that enabled artistic breakthroughs. (Architecture, for example, is full of such examples.)

Our own era is no different. If anything, artist/technology synergies and confrontations are more visible today than in any previous period in history. Taking this view, as the result of my experience over the past twenty years, I believe the arts/sciences relationship begs scrutiny and discussion. That is my objective in what follows. The perspective that I take will be that of the artist.

My underlying view is that in the art/technology equation, the artist is too often viewed as some kind of welfare case begging for resources and at the mercy of the benvolent technologist who controls the means to production. Admittedly, this is an over simplification. Nevertheless, I feel strongly that the artist brings far more to the relationship than is generally acknowledged.

My central thesis is, therefore, that I believe that there is a vital role for the artist in the laboratory and that this role is equally beneficial to artist and scientist, alike. To summarize before the fact, the objective of what follows is to give my arguments for why I believe "all" research labs should have an artist in residence program. (I will leave it for another time to make the converse argument, why all art colleges should have a scientist in residence program.)

My first argument for the mutual benefit of art/science collaboration is based on precedent. First, there are some good examples of artists collaborating with scientists to produce art. An example is the whole arts-science mix orchestrated by Billy Kl├╝ver and EAT for the Pepsi Pavilion at Expo '70. In the other direction, there is a long history of artists contributing to scientific research. There is the mix of art and science in the work of Da Vinci. Then there is the case of music playing a role in the experiments that resulted in Galileo's discovery of the law of falling bodies.

A more recent example can be seen in research undertaken at the National Research Council of Canada in the early 1970s. This work in human-computer interaction took the form of two case studies: one in music, and one in animation. I conjecture that as a result of this collaborative study, the researchers at NRC knew more about human-computer interaction 15 years ago than 90% of today's "specialists". And from the other perspective, some important art was produced - most notably Pierre Foldes' film Hunger.

This mutual benefit is not isolated. At Bell Labs, for example, Max Mathew's work in computer music has contributed to numerous compositions, as well as our knowledge of psychoacoustics and speech synthesis. And at the same lab, work in animation by Ken Knowlton and Lillian Schwartz resulted in several films, and also contributed towards new techniques for displaying molecules. Finally, at the University of Pennsylvania and at Simon Fraser University, work in dance notation involving computer scientists, dance notators, kinesiologists and a sculptor has resulted in new tools for the study of human motion. This work has contributed new insights into the biomechanics of human locomotion. "Bubbleman", a computer model of human that was developed has even been used by NASA in studies of cockpit design and crash simulation.

To summarize our first argument, there are several clear examples of successful collaborations between artists and scientists (of which we have mentioned only a few). The point emphasize is that the benefits have gone both ways.

This brings me to my second argument. I believe that technology is currently faced with a set of research problems to which the artist can make a particular contribution. The problem is in realizing the full potential of the evolving microelectronic and communications technologies: potential from the the educational, recreational, commercial, social, and information providing perspective. Until very recently, computer scientists have designed systems for computer scientists. However, designing for a more general public presents a whole new set of problems - problems which require a multi-disciplinary approach. We can no longer afford to partition teams by profession. The industrial engineer, electrical engineer, behavioral scientist, computer programmer, psychophysicist, and graphic designer, animator, and composer all have their respective roles to play.

Visually rendering data so that it effectively informs is something that graphic artists do well. An excellent example of this is the work of Aaron Marcus who has made an important contribution to augmenting computer scientists' knowledge about effective display lay-out and typography.

In a similar way, animators understand the use of visual images over time, and therefore have a contribution to make in the effective graphical representation of computer simulations. Finally, musicians (especially those who write for film) have a wealth of knowledge in how to use sound to highlight key features of what is being viewed, or to communicate information in the absence of visual contact. For example, the work of Sarah Bly on using sound cues in the analysis of statistical data could not have been carried out without the contribution of work in computer music.

My third argument is the easiest to state, but the most difficult to measure. I believe that there is a very important socio-political benefit that accrues from collaboration. I believe that our society is increasingly being polarized into two groups: those intimidated by technology (cyberphobics) and those who place all their faith in it (cyberphillics). To break down this polarization, technologist must acknowledge the legitimacy of the cyberphobic's fears, just as the cyberphobic must understand the positive role that technology can play in society. Technical literacy will permit the humanist to function as an informed watch-dog as well as make some contribution to the enlightened use of technology. Involvement in the arts will help the scientist remain conscious of the human impact of technological developments. Polarization between camps is just downright dangerous.

In breaking down these barriers, artists have an important role to play. Their "business" is communication, and I see no better group with which to begin our assault on this artificial and counter-productive humanist/rationalist partitioning.

My final argument is a natural outgrowth of the issues just raised. I believe that the visual and audio arts are important areas in which to apply the emerging technologies. We have already discussed art with technology from the professional's perspective. Perhaps more important, however, is the potential impact of the technology for the amateur artist.

I subscribe to the Platonic view that everyone has some innate artistic ability, and that this creative potential is worth developing. In an era of (largely technologically induced) increased leisure time, I see it as only fitting that we capture that same technology's potential to aid in addressing problems that it helped create. Technology can provide a strong catalyst for artistic development. The New York composer Laurie Spiegel speaks of the microprocessor as "the folk instrument of the 80's", and there is compelling evidence that she is right. The point is, to fully develop the potential of this "digital folk art" will require the active collaboration of both professional artists and scientists.

If there is so much to benefit from arts-science collaboration, then why is it so hard to get projects going?

In my opinion, one reason is that the existing funding agencies are not well equipped to deal with most such projects. Having separate funding bodies for the arts, humanities, and engineering sciences makes interdisciplinary projects difficult to put forward. In addition, the environment for research in most universities is one which rewards increased specialization rather than encourages interdisciplinary cooperation. Clearly we are in need of some new mechanisms and policies.

Next, there needs to be a re-education on the side of both the artist and the scientist in order that each learn to respect the other, understand that they have common problems, and recognize that each stands to benefit as a result. The artist can no more afford to be scientificly illiterate than the scientist can afford to be illiterate in the humanities and arts.

Finally, I do not believe it overly dramatic to conclude by stating that without mutual respect and collaboration between the "two cultures", what future there is will be pretty bleak. Artists are not second class citizens who have access to technologies only at the whim of some scientific "guardian of the castle." Their importance and value is real, and has been sold short for too long. It is time for a change.


I must acknowledge the contribution made to this article by Catherine Richards, Ron Baecker, K.C. Smith, and Alain Fournier. Our (often animated) conversations have not only helped shape my opinions but have also provided yet another example of the benefits of cross-discipline pollination. In addition, Lillian Schwartz, Norm Badler, Max Mathews and Ken Knowlton have all made valuable comments and suggestions."

>> Leslie Mezei

published in Ruth Leavitt's book "Artist and Computer", 1976
article taken from: http://www.atariarchives.org/artist/sec7.php

Computer Art, as many new endeavors, has reached a plateau of stagnation after an exhilarating start full of promise. The computer specialists who first played with these possibilities soon exhausted their ideas and their interest. They merely did what was easy and obvious with their hardware and their even more limited software. Since they were first the results were unique and interesting, but generally 'artless,' and not very innovative. [--> compare to G. Youngblood, p.192: "However, there is a tendency to regard any computer-generated art as highly significant— even the most simplistic line drawing, which would be meaningless if rendered by

The first wave of artists—really only a small ripple—that came to the computer expected miracles from it without a serious effort of learning and exploring and creation on their part. The results were in a way even more disappointing, except in the cases where the artist was already doing a type of art which could be directly assisted by computer techniques, such as modular art. Some instead succeeded in prettifying the output of their technical collaborator, without any real understanding of the processes involved. The rest were confined to existing programs and repeated the technicians and each other's work [--> compare to "creative" software applications such as photoshop & co. what freedom and what constraints do they give to artists?]. Those first class artists that deigned to inquire into the possibilities were quickly discouraged by the lack of convenient control over the computer, the difficulty of communicating visually with it, and the amount of effort required to do it really well.

Today we are left with a small number of people from both sides, each of whom is aware of the long term effort needed to exploit the potential. The promise is as great as ever, but, as usual, requires more application and ingenuity and application than at first realized. The artists, and especially the art students, are willing to learn programming and some mathematics, and to learn to think in an algorithmic, process oriented manner. More importantly, in my view, they are ready to transcend the technological art so far pursued, and learn something of the underlying scientific ideas. [Applying any new technology slavishly results in imitative work, often foreshadowed by visionary artists long before the new technology. (Compare Picasso's drawings with some of our transformations, such as my BIKINI SHIFTED).] It is the new concepts and ideas, the new ways of thinking provided by the information sciences that will provide this. I am referring to our enriched understanding of system, structure, randomness and process as well as of the very process of communication and language, and the more realistic accounts of the methods of discovery in the sciences and the arts.

I have developed an Interdisciplinary course on the Concepts of the Information Sciences, in which we explore many of the concepts which come from cybernetics and computer science, communication theory and linguistics, general systems research and morphology, mathematics and operations research, etc.

The technical computer specialists, on the other hand, have to become aware of the potential contribution of the artists, develop a respect for their pattern perceiving and pattern generating abilities, for their trained sensitivity to the exploration of novelty, their ability to select what is most significant; indeed—at their best—to make concrete the future before it happens, before we can define it, formalize it and verbalize it. We may well end up in the next few years with a few individuals who have mastered both sides reasonably well. Programmer-artists and artist-programmers. Collaboration and multimedia are not impossible, only extremely hard and rarely successful. But then, so is most activity of a high ambition, high risk, innovative nature.

Of course, both should have an awareness of what has been already done, and what directions have been pointed to. My own book (Computer Art), which does just this is still making the rounds of the publishers, and the book introducing some of the information theoretic ideas applied to this field is in the German language ("Asthetik als Informationsverarbeitung," Frieder Nake, Springer-Verlag). Though Franke's book covers too large an area too superficially, it is the only book in English I can recommend ("Computer Graphics, Computer Art," H.W. Franke, Phaidon). In any case no exciting new ideas and results have appeared in the last few years; the next wave of creativity in this field is probably still a few years away.


'Bikini Shifted'





What we ask of the artist is to use the science and technology to explore and expand our reality, and make statements of significance to today's tortured but expectant world. We have all filled pages and pages of programmatic notes, enough aims for a lifetime. Now it is time to raise the standards, to stop applauding the fact that we can do art with the aid of a computer at all, and apply as critical judgment to our results as to any other works of art. The hardware and software are becoming more flexible and less expensive. Our own Dynamic Graphics Group, for example, is developing, under the leadership of Ron Baecker, a system with both a high speed line display and a digital color video tube, with sophisticated software for interactive dynamic graphics for artistic and simulation purposes. We are now making an arrangement with the local art college for a few of us each to 'adopt' one art student to work with us, sit in on our courses and develop themselves in their own way gradually.



My own work, all done a few years ago, has tried to make a novel beginning in the exploration of controlled randomness, of various distortions and transformations. These were neither systematic enough to be scientific, nor did they try to achieve the ultimate exploitation of their medium to be really good art. They merely tried to point the way toward new possibilities. From the still graphics I shifted to animation, and some successful films were produced on our system by a number of artists working with the help of a programmer. But I was not sufficiently involved with this work, merely the producer allowing it to happen. As soon as our equipment and software are advanced enough to undertake ambitious concepts easily, I intend to combine my developing understanding of graphic simulation methods and of the new concepts of feedback, structure, system, randomness and so on to try to create a new combination of science and art.

My background was in mathematics, physics and meteorology by training, and for the last 21 years computers, learned on the job. An early interest in the possibility of computer art (first paper on the subject in 1964) led me to become an academic, and to computer graphics research, as well as many other fascinating ideas and people. There is a constant struggle within me between the symbolic mathematical, the visual artistic and the verbal literary modes of expression, with the verbal winning at the moment. I do have a fascination with the visual possibilities, especially as seen in the incredible complexity and variety in nature—combined within many organizing aspects. However, to express this is—at least for me—a difficult, time consuming and indirect process.

We need to find those things which uniquely suit these new media, which can only be expressed with their help, and thus make the effort worthwhile. I look for the fresh wind of ideas from the new wave of art students who will be literate in the information sciences, and conversant with interactive computers and the new processes which they can help visually explicate.

Toronto, Canada
July 1975

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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.