Hardware and History: Computer art and the Question of the Peripheral

Zabet Patterson, PhD

Assistant Professor, Contemporary Art and Digital Media, Stony Brook University, New York

Computer Generated Pictures was the unassuming title for the first exhibition of digital art in the United States. It was held at the Howard Wise Gallery in 1965, an uptown gallery run by a retired Cleveland executive who had, surprisingly and unexpectedly, become an evangelist for high tech avant-garde art. But Computer Generated Pictures showcased works that were quite explicitly made by non-artists. These two non-artists in question – Béla Julesz and Michael Noll – were scientists working at Bell Laboratories. Julesz was an experimental psychologist interrogating questions of visual perception, while Noll was an engineer working on speech data. Both created images as a consequence of practical, applied experiments, but they were shown at the Wise Gallery under the rubric of art.

What to make of this? The art critics didn’t know precisely – but they knew they didn’t like what they saw. [1] The New York Herald Tribune called the work “cold and soulless.” Time magazine claimed that the images exhibited had all the aesthetic appeal “of the notch patterns found on IBM cards.” [2] The New York Times said “the wave of the future crashes significantly at the Howard Wise Gallery” with an exhibition of images “executed by IBM 7094 Digital Computer with the assistance of General Dynamics SC-4020 Microfilm Plotter.” [3] The review went on to argue that the process of making the works was more interesting than the specific results – a willful look away from the objects on display that speaks to a fear and horror of encroaching computerization. [4]

From our point of view, the works may not look like much. They are simple, stark, black and white. In some ways, they are less finished works than provocations. Some of the titles look forward to the bureaucratic and administrative aesthetics of later conceptual art – “Vertical-Horizontal Number Three,” “Computer Composition With Lines,” and “Ninety Parallel Sinusoids.” But the works weren’t developed as art – they stem instead from the scientific institutes and governmental establishments whose strategies conceptual art would appropriate.

What were they as experiments, then? Julesz’s works were random dot stereograms that that conclusively demonstrated that stereopsis – three-dimensional seeing – took place in the mind, rather than the eye. They were serious psychological research, with accompanying scientific papers. Seen in the Wise gallery though, Julesz’s works became strangely playful – the gallery distributed polarized glasses that allowed two-dimensional images of random patterns to slide into a hovering three-dimensionality of precisely ordered geometric shapes. They were objects to think with, as much as to look at, as were Noll’s experiments. Noll’s work was an investigation into generative, algorithmic computer graphics – explicitly made to see if the computer was capable of mimicking the human artist. Noll made Picasso’s, Mondrian’s, and Riley’s. And then wondered why they didn’t sell at the same frantic rate as the Riley’s then on exhibition down the street.

The answer, of course, lies in their curious disjunction. These weren’t just scientific research, or just art. It is precisely for this disjunction – their orthogonal relation to the discourses and practices of their time – that these works deserve renewed attention. They are both objects to look at – and objects to think with, that offer a unique window into the initial development of computer aesthetics. To stare extendedly at Julesz and Noll’s work during “Computer Generated Pictures” was to stare at onrushing computerization, the mechanization of human enterprise, and to confront the uncertainty of the coming economic and cultural transformation. We can also read this work as looking forward to a future of conceptualism and process based work that moved past the realm of the object. Their language – system, algorithm, process, a certain diagrammatic relationality – is certainly more familiar today than it was then. We could use contemporary software art to generate a teleology by which to look back and use the terminology often applied to this work – generative, relational – to reevaluate Noll’s and Julesz’s practices.

But looking closely at the context of the time suggests a different approach, leading to a non-progressive history. It suggests considering why the critics hated this work by taking seriously their suggestion that the process was as interesting as the object. Julesz and Noll are reinventing the computer as an image machine, at a point when its primary use was text, numbers, and language. They were reinventing the possibilities of media and medium. And their process is one that is multi-layered and almost entirely unfamiliar to us. Both Julesz and Noll used an IBM 7090 mainframe computer, programmed with punch cards, and hooked up to a microfilm plotter that read magnetic tape. Both of them claimed their work was based on and inspired by the capabilities of this microfilm plotter—the S-C 4020. It’s a strange machine, largely forgotten, that nevertheless produced the majority of computer graphics during the late 60s. It was part industrial filming apparatus, part cathode ray tube and part computer itself.

Noll’s initial experience with the S-C 4020 was one of bugs and glitches, where unexpected images were produced from scientific experiments. This pushed him towards experimenting with straight lines and randomness. Julesz was inspired by the grid and blur functions of the machine to produce blocks not unlike pixels. The precision of the machine – and the ease of programming and reprogramming it – led him to create images that were tightly organized variants of each other. Significantly, each of them understood the S-C 4020 as a peripheral that was in some ways more formative than the computer for the production of their individual experiments with computer graphics.

Their rhetoric pushes us to look more closely at peripherals as central elements of computational practice. This requires a close attention to the historical materiality of particular computational systems as they were adjusted and modified over time. It highlights the necessity of considering the unique affordances of partial elements, such as screens and disk drives, as well as microfilm plotters. It also emphasizes the need to situate these peripheral elements as agents within larger systems – computational systems, of course, but additionally broader social, political and economic systems. Attended to closely, historical materialism and media archaeology supplement but also potentially even overturn dominant narratives about computational media, shifting our focus from well-known technological objects and actors to their oft-unattended peripheral servants, in order to reconsider the importance of their influence and agency.

References:

1. Unknown to Noll and Julesz, there had been an exhibition of computer art with Frieder Nake and George Nees called Computergrafik only a few months earlier in West Germany at the Technische Hohschule in Stuttgart. See Michael Noll, “The Beginnings of Computer Art in the United States: A Memoir,” Leonardo 27, no. 1 (1994): 41.
2. See “Computer Generated Pictures,” New York Herald Tribune, April 10, 1965 and “Computer Generated Pictures,” Time, April 23, 1965.
3. Stuart Preston, “Art Ex Machina,” New York Times, 1965.
4. Ibid.

Bio:

Zabet Patterson specializes in the intersection of contemporary art and computational media in the postwar period. Her work is shaped by psychoanalytic and post-structuralist theory and her interests include contemporary art history and criticism, digital media history and theory, performance, and cybernetics. She received her PhD in Rhetoric from UC Berkeley in 2007. Her dissertation was supported by fellowships from the Townsend Humanities Center, the Rhetoric Department, and the Josephine de Karman Foundation. Zabet spent 2005-6 as Visiting Assistant Professor in the departments of Art History and Art at Northwestern University. She has been invited to speak at symposia devoted to modern and contemporary art, digital media, visual culture, and continental philosophy in Instanbul, London, Florence, Vancouver, Tokyo, and across the United States, and has curated exhibitions on sound art and locative media. Her book Peripheral Vision: Bell Labs, the S-C 4020 and the Origin of Computer Art is under contract with MIT Press. She was recently awarded the Warhol Foundation / Arts Writers Grant in support of her next book project, entitled Visionary Machines: USCO, Techno-Utopia, and Technocracy.