Drawing robots and war games at the V&A

The V&A’s temporary displays dotted around the museum are designed to ‘highlight intriguing objects and untold stories’ – Digital Pioneers unveils such a story, the largely unknown practice of early computer artists, whose finely plotted and printed artworks, selected from the recently acquired collections of computer-generated art by the V&A, illuminate your way from the jewellery gallery to the Sacred Silver and Stained Glass rooms.

Scheduled to coincide with the V&A’s current Decode exhibition showcasing the latest developments in digital and interactive design, Digital Pioneers offers fascinating insights in the history of the relationship between art and technology. Back in the 50s and 60s, limited access to the new computer technology and the restrictive early printing machines such as the pen-and-ink plotters prompted a highly experimental and spontaneous approach. Chance and precision were allowed to mix, producing seemingly ‘crafted’ two-dimensional outputs. With the arrival of personal computers and sophisticated printers, the creative possibilities grew exponentially. Images started to acquire an increasingly digital appearance and, in the 1990s, computers became an everyday tool used in a multitude of creative environments. In spite of the technological advances, computer art pioneers retained their early experimental attitudes, preferring their tailor-made software to the standard applications increasingly available on the market, preserving their unique, personal styles.

One such artist, Jean-Pierre Hébert, has been producing computational drawings and mixed media since the 70s. He describes himself as a ‘algorist’, an artist who ‘creates one’s work of art using one’s algorithm’. Seeing the computer as a creative partner, his art making process is ‘very much akin to composing, choreographing or simply… thinking’ and his work reflects this musical and organic feel. His Masma (1990) is an exquisite ink-and-graphite print whose fine, undulating lines create a wonderful texture that seems to suck one into its centre. Mount Tai (2000), resembling the giant fingerprint of Mother Earth, is part of a series inspired by the mythical Chinese sacred mountain, Mount Tai in Shandong, with its roots in literary traditions, created entirely algorithmically and evoking a sense of timelessness derived from the art of numbers. Hébert not only prints on paper but also on film, glass, steel, copper plates, wood, sand and even on air and water, exploring all the possibilities of drawing. His sand works are particularly attractive, not only for their pure visual pleasure but also for the playful memories they evoke and their fragile, ephemeral quality.

Fellow algorist Roman Verostko also started to experiment with computers to explore formal possibilities and to delve into the unknown depths of abstracted landscapes. He was first to adapt plotters with paint brushes, viewing them as electronic scribes using procedures which are ‘the present-day equivalent of the drawing techniques practiced in medieval manuscript illumination’. His Pathway Series is a cross between Chinese calligraphy and the sound paintings of Kandinsky.

According to Charles Csuri, another algorist presented in the display, ‘the spontaneity of expression is in my mind and not in my fingers. My aesthetic sensibility becomes imbedded in the computer language. The computer responds to my excitement and feeling through my instructions’. In Csuri’s hands, the cool, abstract digital shapes are transformed into hot, political matter. He was the first to use figurative content in his algorithmic work, after having seen a computer-generated face in an electrical engineering publication back in 1964. His Random War (1967-8) reflects America’s troubled times in the grip of the cold war crisis and perhaps his own past as a WWII soldier who participated in the bloody Battle of the Bulge. Csuri created a data set from a toy soldier drawing and fed it to a random number generator programme, which determined the distribution and position of 400 red and black soldiers on a battlefield.  The names of real people, as well as other data such as ‘dead’, ‘survivor’ and ‘efficiency medals’ were entered into the programme, giving the work a more crucial, real-life dimension. The outcome of this randomisation programme, a series of battling, super-imposed black and red toy figures, symbolises the pointless violence of a pathetic game controlled by the hand of higher, political forces.

Earlier in the decade, Desmond Paul Henry built drawing machines from modified ‘bombsight’ analogue computers, which were employed in World War II bombers to calculate the accurate release of bombs onto their target. Henry’s machine-generated effects such as the parabolic 2-headed Serpent (1962) were exhibited at the acclaimed ICA’s Cybernetic Serendipity show in 1968 and were promoted by the BBC. They were also to appear in American Life magazine but the article was scrapped following the assassination of JF Kennedy. The technological optimism that sprung early in the decade was gradually replaced by a widespread political crisis and a general suspicion against technology, partly due to its link to the military-industrial complex and its human and environmentally destructive potential. The increasing politicisation of the art world and the anti-technological stance of the 1970s were certainly part of the reason why these extraordinary artworks such as those produced by Henry’s war machine fell into the cracks of our collective memory.

Digital Pioneers also shows the creative evolution of another humanised drawing machine: Aaron, Harold Cohen’s artificially intelligent alter ego, which mixes its own paints, creates its own artworks and even washes its own brushes. Programmed in ‘C’ and developed in LISP[1], Aaron can produce unlimited variations of what it ‘knows’ about, namely a limited number of plants, trees, objects and the contours of the human figure that Cohen has gradually input into its code during the last 30 years. Untitled (1987) shows Aaron’s distinctive foliage intertwined with human figures emerging out of a jungle. While the picture reminded me of Douanier Rousseau’s snake charmer and exotic scenery, its clean, stylised lines and forms derived from Cohen’s coding, would not quite be classed as ‘naïve’, raising interesting questions on the nature of creativity and what makes the hand of the artist. Cohen describes style as the signature of a complex interactive system and admits that his own style certainly had an influence over Aaron’s creative output. Rather than a child robot learning to draw and becoming a self-aware creative intelligence, Aaron should be seen as an extension of Cohen’s brain, an external drive with its own independent workings adding to the complexity of the artist’s human mind – whether we are witnessing the beginning of a significant evolutionary process, as Cohen believes, remains to be seen.

Beyond the technological prowess and enhanced creative possibilities offered by the computer, the more attractive works in Digital Pioneers remain the ones that infuse a more political and personal touch. Csuri’s satirical take on war games and politics are incredibly prescient and one can easily see his influence in the works of later artists such as Vuk Cosic and the net.art movement of the mid-1990s. Vera Molnar, one of the two women artists showcased in this exhibition, displays a curious mix of personal sensitivity and concrete geometry. In her Letters from my Mother series, she used the computer to simulate her elderly mother’s ‘gothic-hysteric’ writing as she was getting increasing unwell and presented the result as an exercise in symmetry and counter-composition – with the ultimate goal to reconcile modern design with the classical rules of composition. In her accompanying notes Letter to my Mother, she realises that her will to ‘inject order and reason into the impulsive and eccentric’ was a betrayal to her mother, all for the sake of her experimental practice. She seeks forgiveness, swearing never to simulate a person’s writing ever again, other than her own. Her deeply personal and private reflections infiltrate her digital practice, exploring ‘la géométrie du plaisir’ and ‘la sensibilité numérique’ – a dialogue between emotions and methodical thinking. This gives her work an extra, humanistic dimension often lacking in more formal experiments with computers.

Digital Pioneers is a short but well-informed selection of delightful artworks that shed some light on the past fifty years of art, design and technology and presents itself as a useful preamble to Decode’s contemporary digital displays. Why then, is there no explicit reference to it in the introduction to Decode, nor are the V&A staff informed about it?

Digital Pioneers: Computer-Generated Art and Design from the V&A Collections is at the V&A until 7 April 2010.

[1] LISP is the second-oldest high-level programming language in widespread use today. From its inception, LISP quickly became the favoured programming language for artificial Intelligence (AI) research and pioneered many ideas in computer science, including tree data structures, automatic storage management, dynamic typing and the self-hosting compiler.



~ by lavivette on January 25, 2010.

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