When The Machine Made Art The Troubled History Of Computer Art

By Grant D. Taylor

  • Genre : Information Technologies
  • Publisher :
  • ISBN : 1623568846
  • Year : 2014
  • Language: English


When the Machine Made Art INTERNATIONAL TEXTS IN CRITICAL MEDIA AESTHETICS VOLUME 7 Founding Editor Francisco J Ricardo Series Editor J rgen Sch fer Editorial Board Rita Raley John Cayley George Fifield Tony Richards Teri Rueb When the Machine Made Art The Troubled History of Computer Art GRANT D TAYLOR International Texts in Critical Media Aesthetics N E W YOR K LON DON N E W DE L H I SY DN EY Bloomsbury Academic An imprint of Bloomsbury Publishing Inc 1385 Broadway New York NY 10018 USA 50 Bedford Square London WC1B 3DP UK www bloomsbury com Bloomsbury is a registered trade mark of Bloomsbury Publishing Plc First published 2014 Grant D Taylor 2014 All rights reserved No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means electronic or mechanical including photocopying recording or any information storage or retrieval system without prior permission in writing from the publishers No responsibility for loss caused to any individual or organization acting on or refraining from action as a result of the material in this publication can be accepted by Bloomsbury or the author Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data Taylor Grant D When the machine made art the troubled history of computer art Grant D Taylor pages cm International texts in critical media aesthetics Summary Examines the cultural and critical response to computer art by identifying the destabilizing forces that affect shape and eventually fragment the computer art movement Provided by publisher ISBN 978-1-62356-795-8 hardback ISBN 978-1-62356-884-9 paperback 1 Computer art I Title N7433 8 T39 2014 776 dc23 2013046891 ISBN HB 978-1-6235-6795-8 PB 978-1-6235-6884-9 ePub 978-1-6235-6272-4 ePDF 978-1-6235-6561-9 Typeset by Integra Software Services Pvt Ltd To Victoria and Vivienne CONTENTS Acknowledgments viii 1 2 3 4 5 Introduction Unorthodox 1 Future crashes 25 Coded aesthetics 65 Virtual renaissance 103 Frontier exploration 157 Critical impact 201 Epilogue Aftermath 249 Notes 268 Bibliography 305 Index 321 ACKNOWLEDGMENTS The research that provided the backbone to this book was conducted at two institutions on two continents While pursuing scholarship in Australia and doing the same in the United States often differed in significant ways the generous support of my colleagues remained the same At the University of Western Australia in Perth scholars such as Clarissa Ball Patrick Beale Richard Read Nicole Sully and Ian McLean provided helpful suggestions and challenged my thinking at every moment At Lebanon Valley College in Annville Pennsylvania I received the same type of assistance individuals with a critical focus willing to assist a colleague in completing a large research project The members of the art and art history department Karen Beall Barbara McNulty Dan Massad and Michael Pittari continually provided me with positive reinforcement To Jeff Robbins I owe special thanks An ever-generous colleague Jeff always gave sound professional and publishing advice Other peers including Marc Harris Rebecca McCoy Matthew Sayers and Robert Valgenti have provided various forms of aid from language translations to best practices Mike Green and the office of academic affairs also supported my endeavors with multiple research and travel grants Becky Fullmer s editorial work was instrumental in refining my manuscript My LVC student assistants Diana Jo Hoffman and Lindsay Snowden were eager seekers of the most obscure and difficult reference materials I would like to say Diana s service dog Emmy helped but the truth is she slept on my office floor while we toiled away The librarian staff at the Bishop Library also deserve recognition for their remarkable attention to detail Within the global field of digital arts I have numerous people to thank Many of these individuals I first met at the inaugural Media Art Histories Conference in Banff Canada in 2005 and since then they have provided me with much-needed guidance and vital Acknowledgments ix research leads These individuals include Darko Fritz Charlie Gere Douglas Kahn Frieder Nake Margit Rosen and Eddie Shanken Paul Brown Hannah Higgins and Nick Lambert have also supported my research at salient moments I thank J rgen Sch fer along with the editorial board of the International Texts in Critical Media Aesthetics series for bringing my narrative to light Without the endorsement of Francisco Ricardo founding editor of the series this publication would not have been possible I am grateful to the staff at Bloomsbury Publishing especially my editors Katie Gallof and Laura Murray I would also like to thank the Regents of the University of California and the University of California Press for allowing me to publish portions of my 2012 essay The Soulless Usurper Reception and Criticism of Early Computer Art which was published in Mainframe Experimentalism Early Digital Computing in the Experimental Arts edited by Hannah Higgins and Douglas Kahn I am particularly indebted to two individuals Anne and Michael Spalter who have provided unwavering support since the first moment I arrived in the United States Anne has been an advocate of my research as far back as graduate school and Michael introduced me to Hannah Higgins and Francisco Ricardo individuals who opened up new scholarship paths for me My correspondence with Laurens Schwartz became invaluable for both its counsel and its sense of friendship One could say we formed a bond through layers of analogical expression I am also appreciative of the countless artists who have invited me into their studios and homes Viewing their artworks and searching their archives have provided continual sustenance for my intellect and imagination Finally I would like to thank my family in the United States and Australia for without their emotional support and devotion a project of this magnitude would not have been possible Introduction Unorthodox The term computer art is rarely used in today s cultural discourse To use the term is to impart a sense of nostalgia to reminisce about a bygone era of pioneers and antiquated machines For most the term appears thoroughly unsuited if applied to contemporary forms of art Art employing the latest digital technologies no longer relies on stand-alone computers but is embedded in multiple devices interacting globally with mobile and Web-based technologies For this generation of art students computer art is thoroughly pass more a curious preform to the dynamic world of digital art Students are seldom interested in the computer as a singular type of technology a medium defined by a physical machine but are absorbed in digital modalities across diverse social and geographical spaces Young contemporary artists who employ digital technologies in their practice rarely make reference to computers For example Wade Guyton an abstractionist who uses Microsoft Word and inkjet printers does not call himself a computer artist Moreover New York Times critics who admire his work are little concerned about his extensive use of computers in the art-making process 1 This is a marked contrast from three decades ago when artists who utilized computers were labeled by critics often pejoratively as computer artists For the present generation of artists the computer or more appropriately the laptop is one in an array of integrated portable digital technologies that link their social and working life With tablets and cell phones surpassing personal computers in Internet usage and as slim digital devices resemble nothing like the 2 When the Machine Made Art room-sized mainframes and bulky desktop computers of previous decades it now appears that the computer artist is finally extinct However computer art is not yet that historical artifact a fossil from which a new species of technologies can be said to have evolved The term computer art can still be found in academia The occasional conference university graduate program or college course still carries the term computer art which means some educators have resisted current trends of replacing it with the up-to-date descriptors such as digital art or media art 2 The Computer Arts Society formed in 1968 in the UK remains steadfast believing that the term has a historical significance that others designations lack There remain defenders of the term too Dominic McIver Lopes one of those rare aestheticians who still employ the term favors its use and asks audiences to set aside the negative associations that cling to the name those common misgivings that he says propel us toward preferring the term digital art 3 On the whole however digital art has become the term of choice both in the art world and the academy As influential theorist and curator Peter Weibel recently wrote computer art is now finally implemented as digital art 4 While the term computer art appears redundant in the face of rapid technological change there are other reasons for its absence from our current lexicon The negative associations that cling to use Lopes description to computer art give us some clue to the deeper undercurrent of misgiving As Douglas Kahn a leading theorist of early digital music rightly points out when we speak of early computer art it is often branded as bad art 5 For many artists of the period the term both embodies a sense of rejection and reveals the essential contradiction in the art form itself Pairing the noun computer with art has in effect built a label with an unending fission a precarious reaction from joining two seemingly incompatible and oppositional worlds This discomfort concerning the incongruous combination has in fact permeated all writing on the subject For many of its detractors computer art was simply a contradiction in terms for even its most ardent exponents the classifier was simply insufficient to describe the immense diversities within digital practice In fact ever since the birth of this neologism in 1963 to the decline of its use in the early 1990s the oxymoronic overtones of the term computer art have troubled all who have used it The term unlike those within the narratives of modern art Introduction 3 that were coined by a disparaging critic and later accepted by the art establishment Impressionist and Cubist come to mind has remained problematized and contested throughout its entire history In many ways computer art has become synonymous with negative criticism itself Yet the nature of computer art s criticism is complex and multileveled often reflecting modes of traditional art criticism and at the same time being entirely divorced from it Like its history the criticism of computer art is unorthodox For example no single computer artwork has sustained public controversy the engine that frequently drives criticism There is no scandalous artwork like douard Manet s Le d jeuner sur l herbe 1862 3 a painting that raised the ire of the French Academy and insulted public sensibilities in the computer art movement Likewise no computer artwork has ever evoked the same sense of radical dislocation or bewilderment that met Pablo Picasso s Les Demoiselles d Avignon 1907 Yet if we collect all the denigrating judgments of computer art we find that they rival those of if not exceed all previous art movements If we examine responses to computer art by professional critics rarely do they represent judicial appraisals that detached and objective perspective we believe formal criticism requires Many critics were simply uninformed as will be revealed which was particularly troubling since a knowledgeable position was valued above all else Being conversant with the subject was crucial in placing the critic s words above mere opinion However the first writers on computer art were not established art critics They were practitioners of computing most commonly scientists technologists and engineers who understood the complexities of this new technology In addition many of those who wrote on computer art were performing multiple functions the art historian who organized historical facts and brought clarity to context the critic who examined the value of the work and the advocate who generated popular excitement Not to say that these elements were in equal proportion out of the three judgment of aesthetic value remained the scarcest There was no independent disinterested perspective that we associate with art criticism The first writers on computer art were deeply fascinated by the computer becoming as their writings show emotionally invested These disciplinary outsiders had the necessary technical expertise yet lacked a deep understanding of art and modalities In time 4 When the Machine Made Art however computer art would gain the attention of the mainstream critics Art historians and art critics entered the fray with some critics having notable reputations such as John Canaday Stuart Preston Robert E Mueller and James Elkins While these figures were widely known in the mainstream art world there were other influential critics including Jack Burnham Jonathan Benthall Gene Youngblood Herbert W Franke and Jasia Reichardt who would make their name in that difficult intersecting zone between art science and technology Computer art criticism was not limited to known and newly known writers either its discursive space was much wider The criticism of minimalist and conceptual art which was contemporaneous with computer art revolved around a small some say elite avant-garde cluster of celebrated critics who often employed esoteric language to describe the aesthetic or intellectual value of artwork Conversely computer art with its interdisciplinary nature had an even wider audience beyond that of science and technology Computer art was part of the greater social sphere driven in large part by the general public s interest in the future of this emergent technology Computer art has never been deprived of an audience As much cultural as technological the computer was a unique historical artifact While it was one of the most tangible symbols of the late twentieth century the computer remained allusive and mysterious The computer garnered wide public interest and because of its perceived impact on the world the reaction to it was often immediate and impassioned Indeed where computer art lacked consideration from the mainstream art world it certainly made up for it with keen public interest Consequently if we stratify computer art s discursive space we find that its reception and criticism is multi layered with responses and reactions emanating from the mainstream art world the fields of science and technology the new creative space that emerged between art science and technology and the larger public realm It is little wonder computer art s critical response was so diverse it reflected the wide-ranging artistic and scientific disciplines in which computer art first gained attention While responses to computer art can often be described as excitable a celebratory and superficial reaction to the newness and promise of an emerging art form the majority were negative Almost any artistic endeavor associated with early computing elicited a negative fearful or indifferent response Introduction 5 As early as 1956 musicians and poets exploring the vistas of a new technology were ambivalent thrilled at forging new artistic paths and yet subdued by an undercurrent of misgiving from their cultural peers While computer music was often greeted with interest as the latest novelty the early computer experimentalist Lejaren Hiller felt that emerging from many quarters was a deepening incredulity and indignation 6 Joel Chadabe another pioneering computer composer felt that the critics and the traditional musicians feared the machine and its potentially harmful influence on the entire field 7 In the early 1970s Elliot Schwartz in his listening guide to electronic music best summed up the general reaction The notion of music created by a computer always seems to arouse a surprising degree of hostility usually on the part of people who find 20th century art increasingly dehumanized and mechanical 8 Computer poetry fared little better As Christopher Funkhouser has written the literary world was underwhelmed by computer poetry 9 Mirroring the critical responses of mainstream music literary critics focused on the dehumanizing tendencies of the computer and the perceived ontological break between author and reader 10 John Morris writing in the Michigan Quarterly Review in 1967 praised the importance of the written poem as an essential communication from a particular human being and noted that if the difficulty of working with the computer discouraged those currently interested then poems would happily remain one last refuge for human beings 11 In the world of dance also the computer received what Jeanne Beaman described as a curious but cool response 12 Beaman who in the early 1960s pioneered computer dance and choreography explained in her introductory presentation to computer dance Most of us do not even want a machine of any kind to succeed in conceiving any art form at all The arts are usually presented as our last refuge from the onslaughts of our whole machine civilization with its attendant pressures towards squeezing us into the straitjacket of the organized man 13 The most scathing attacks were saved for the visual arts The most common critical position is one that merely dismisses computer art as inconsequential Viewing computer art as tediously repetitious the critics commentaries make clear their belief that it has no claims 6 When the Machine Made Art to the status of art Even when computer art gained fashionable notoriety the critics such as John Canaday from the New York Times spurned computer art exhibitions as popular sideshows 14 Computer art was another example of the vulgarization of science where besotted artists dallying with the latest scientific and technological media produced what was tantamount to science as kitsch Because it emerged from the abstract sciences the computer art form was viewed by many as an anachronistic project akin to the early modernist fascination with pure science In general artists from the mainstream held a common disdain for computer art shows seeing them as science fiction grotesqueries masquerading as art 15 Beyond the ontological debate over computer art s claim to be art the other major response centered on the matter of aesthetics The first critics described computer art as bleak and soulless and bemoaned the arrival of this strange and powerful machine in art Robert E Mueller wrote in Art in America that the visual results from computers had been exceedingly poor and uninspiring 16 According to Mueller technologists lacked the necessary knowledge of art and its history and their visual creations which were mathematically inspired bored the sophisticated artistic mind to death 17 While many galleries showed computer art these exhibitions were often condescendingly reviewed as though the medium was without serious intent or noble aspiration 18 Nearly every computer artist tells a similar story a tale in which their computer art is accepted on its merits only to be rejected once the curators discovered it was generated on a computer Computer artists were regularly rebuked and insulted by gallery directors Such was the stigma attached to computers that artists such as Paul Brown have used the expression kiss of death to describe the act of using computers in art 19 Indifferent as many critics and curators were there were some responses to computer art that were considerably more severe In fact computer art has aroused the kind of extreme resentment that characterized many of the idolatry controversies scattered through the history of art Beyond the sabotaging of computers physical attacks have been made on artists for their involvement with such devices and the careers of art curators have been significantly damaged by their participation in computer art exhibitions Though it is commonly accepted that computer art was unpopular Introduction 7 upon its arrival many are unaware of the level of vitriol directed toward computer artists In a case reaching the levels of harassment and personal attack Grace Hertlein reported that she was called a whore and traitor by a fellow artist who saw her choice of medium as morally questionable and as a complete rejection of authentic artistic traditions 20 While it did not encounter the extreme reactions that modern art received when it was first displayed such as the American public s xenophobic reaction to the Armory Show of 1913 or the Nazi regimes racial slogans and mockery at the Degenerate Art exhibition of 1937 computer art s negation was more enduring The negative criticism lasted the entire duration of the movement and computer art never found the widespread critical and cultural acceptance that modern art received Computer art was different too in that it possessed an inordinate amount of self-deprecation a kind of lack of confidence that meant exponents were unsure how to position the movement Paradoxical as it sounds supporters have been some of the strongest critics In fact a strange kind of defeatism or fatalism permeates much of the writing on computer art producing a sense of the lost and forsakenness that affects the entire discourse Although exponents find the computer intriguing and significant they often judge it a disappointing instrument of representation 21 In the 1990s commentators believed the computer art of the 1960s and 1970s deserved little attention As Michael Rush rightly points out the first large survey of the field Frank Popper s Art of the Electronic Age 1993 gives scant attention to computer art before the 1980s Similarly Rush in his later survey wrote that it was only at the end of the 1990s that the aesthetic bar was raised sufficiently enough for computer art to warrant attention 22 More recently scholars like Douglas Kahn assert that graphic arts in the first decade were less interesting especially as it pertains to contemporary digital practice than the work being completed in the fields of literature and music 23 In the last decade however the perception of early computer art has evolved Writers no longer give a cursory treatment of the pioneering phase but offer more detailed and nuanced accounts Indeed computer art which was long considered non-art by traditionalists well into the 1990s is now generally accepted as art While traditional criteria for defining art have evolved computer 8 When the Machine Made Art art s acceptance is largely due to the art-historical context recently provided by scholars Interrelated with this new scholarship is a new audience who seeks to celebrate the history of digital media in the arts and honor those artists who were central in making it In addition aestheticians with accumulative success have built engaging theories of digital art that have assisted in deepening our understanding of digital practice A small but committed market for digital art has also arisen and collections both private and public have formed The largest and most extensive collections are held at the V A in London the ZKM in Karlsruhe Germany and the Anne and Michael Spalter Digital Art Collection in the United States Offering much needed protection to these media-sensitive artworks these collections have emerged as important research repositories allowing future scholars access to rare digital artworks and their related documents Thanks to a decade of work by scholars and cultural critics the summative accounts of the previous decades have given way to in-depth histories Margit Rosen has described the rush of a new generation of scholars Rosen being a prime example who have set out to find the protagonists and works of the pioneering era collecting and cataloging key documents as they went 24 These new narratives which benefit from extensive research and coherent critical paradigms have particular national focus 25 While the historical vacuum is beginning to be filled there still remains much research to be done and like all new research initiatives questions have emerged The difficulty of generating an appropriate methodology that encompasses the vastness and interdisciplinarity of digital arts also remains Edward Shanken a key art historian in the field rightly points out that there is no clearly defined method for analyzing the role of science and technology in the history of art 26 And Shanken believes that without approaches that adequately make sense of the interconnectedness of the fields digital art will remain misunderstood by traditionalists and marginalized from the larger narrative of art Charlie Gere a cultural historian and leading voice in the field also believes that digital art and its history have been disregarded and woefully neglected by contemporary art galleries and institutions 27 Lamentably nearly all surveys of art since the 1960s fail to mention computer art For many it is hard to reconcile the fact that the digital computer perhaps the greatest and most impactful invention of the twentieth century Introduction 9 and a technology that fundamentally changed the economic and cultural fabric of the globe is continually omitted from the history of art Digital technologies as Bruce Wands asserts are so firmly established in our daily lives that their effect is profound at all levels of contemporary society 28 In a ubiquitous digital culture one with a severe knowledge gap Gere advocates for a more forceful approach believing that new research should elucidate through argument the cultural significance of computer-based arts When the Machine Made Art heeds that call While recent scholarship has begun to uncover the rich history of digital arts it is yet to answer the fundamental question of computer art s rejection Why was computer art so heavily maligned Every narrative mentions it but none explores the reasons for it Importantly computer art s repudiation has meant that all critical or historical endeavors have met with a similar fate first posited as insignificant and then relegated to the margins of art discourse I would argue that a close examination of computer art s criticism reveals a multiplicity of prejudices all of which have affected the field of digital art and added to the discontent and frustration that Shanken Gere and others have expressed However exploring the criticism of computer art is not a straightforward matter For computer art s somewhat turbulent history is like its criticism thoroughly unorthodox Computer art has a fragmented and often capricious history Previous historical accounts of computer art possess idiomatic elements that separate it from traditional art history They tend to be aggrandizing in nature seeking to justify and promote computer art Often simplistic celebratory and utopian these accounts neglect the basic precepts of art history research such as the artwork s physical dimension and completion date The scant archival material available is fragmented and often difficult to access though recent research projects are remedying this One of the main problems however is that narratives of computer art give priority to technical interests over historical context Mirroring the influence of science and engineering journals computer art discourse is filled with technical explanation Consequently computer art requires a specialized technical knowledge of its viewer This is probably why the first histories of computer art focus on technological change as a narrative structure In this deterministic model the emergence of a new technology or

Author Grant D Taylor Isbn 1623568846 File size 2 6 MB Year 2014 Pages 353 Language English File format PDF Category Information Technologies Considering how culturally indispensable digital technology is today it is ironic that computer generated art was attacked when it burst onto the scene in the early 1960s In fact no other twentieth century art form has elicited such a negative and hostile response When the Machine Made Art examines the cultural and critical response to computer art