Coded: Art Enters the Computer Age, 1952-1982 | Leonardo/ISASTwith Arizona State University

Coded: Art Enters the Computer Age, 1952-1982

Coded: Art Enters the Computer Age, 1952-1982
by Leslie Jones, Editor

DelMonico Books/Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles, 2023
272 pp., illus., 256 col. Trade, $75.00
ISBN: 978-1636810805.

Reviewed by: 
Brian Reffin Smith
May 2023

As if in homage to dot-matrix printers (younger readers, look it up) and to this excellent book, the FedEx delivery slip that came with my copy was in a familiar, slightly fuzzy, greyish typeface on lined paper with holes down the side. The book too has (printed) sprocket holes as an inside cover design motif.

Ah, the joy of that old technology! Greys and pale greens the colours of an ex-East German picnic set. Clacks and whirrs. Misalignments. As alluring as a Teletype machine but cheaper. An absence of aura, at least not the aura of glossiness that today comes with every reinvention of the mechanical in the age of its interactionalist exploitability, a patina of technological determinism and self-delusion sprayed onto value-added insults to the intelligence. No, not always, of course. But too often. The virtual door, the actually-blowing wind, the animated bird, the valise of certainty (multiversal answers to Magritte’s questions, the dimensions all made out of ticky-tacky and they all look just the same), the Walter Benjamin traduced, the Jeff Koons… Don’t think, just walk in and ignore the rather musky smell.

The visitor: “My iPad could have done that!”

David Hockney: “But it didn’t”.

There, your reviewer feels better now. I have nothing against good art (which I define using criteria I am unwilling to divulge here, but some mightn’t like them). Ergo, I have nothing against good computer-based or new media art. Still less am I against dematerialisation, as all that is solid melts into air. But I’ve said it before and I’ll say it here, the sadness of most art is that it doesn’t know its future; the sadness of much computer art is that it doesn’t know its past. Well, here’s a book to change that. Because especially in this area, there is a host of ideas that are still revolutionary but which have been passed over as the next shiny new thing comes along. (Full disclosure: the book quotes me saying something like that in its introduction. This in no way biases me towards the genius contributors and their charming friends and relatives… anyway every other review I’ve seen also thinks it’s fantastic.)

Spanning the years from 1952 to 1982, the book is not just a catalogue of what happened, what was produced, where, when and by whom (it is, though, the catalogue to the eponymous exhibition curated by Leslie Jones at the LACMA this year, but is destined to reach much further). It also discusses the ‘Why’. It should become an important text for those entering into the creative uses of computers and other new media, and I should think a lot of art school libraries will want it too. It is a manual for today, desperately needed, as well as an art history.

It is inevitable that such a book could be criticised for what it does not contain: certain people, places, artworks, journals etc. That would be to miss the point. It is much more than a collection of artworks having to do with computers, and texts about them. Though it starts with an interesting, even exciting, chronology by Leslie Jones (my god, all this happened and people still don’t know about it) this isn’t just a list. It provides solid context, and just about every tendency, every theme, is mentioned, one way or another. As well as visual and interactive works it covers sound, dance, text, film and is truly international and pluri-disciplinary. If this doesn’t become a seminal text, I’ll eat my floppy disk.

The book is crying out to be read and discussed by young artists or students, to save them reinventing the wheel, and to support others who sigh exasperatedly at stuff that thinks it’s pushing the envelope but which was done better 50 or 60 years ago. The book contains IDEAS! Many of them were completely original, arising from the use of computers, those metaphor-machines, and have lain dormant ever since. It needs to be understood: computer art is more than what happened in the last few years or so, as many seem to believe. It has a history older than many other art forms today, about 70 years of history.

Have some artists, critics, journals and public still not comprehended what computers are? They are idea-processors, representation-processors, or can and should be. Stuff and ideas about stuff go in, you do things to it, and it emerges transformed in ways you’ve maybe never dreamed of even if you wrote the code. Utterly revolutionary. World changing, art-changing, life-changing. But what happened? Computers slipped from being seen as technological wonders, mystified beyond all reason, to techno-spectacle, all-singing, all-dancing, trivialised beyond belief until today we give them almost no thought as revolutionary provocateurs and muses.

Much new media art looks like advertisements for something, much of the art-bot stuff looking like adverts for itself with no reference to anything else at all, its perpetrators too ignorant of art to know what to do even with that meagre, solipsistic possibility. Hello? How are your pretend-AI’s coping with minimalism, conceptualism, telematic art, cybernetic art, social and cooperative art and so on? Where is the AI art about AI art, or any art (I don’t mean infantilising, interactive displays of popular art classics)? You, the artbot perpetrators, must surely have heard about art about art, film about film, text about text, thinking about thinking, no? No. Nothing. Nothing to contribute to or say about the last 70 years of art, arguably one of the more significant periods in the history of art, its ideas and models. If I sound irritable it’s only at that which this book succeeds in correcting: a lack of knowledge about the histories and theories of computer art which can sometimes seem almost willful.

The problem is that there are too many bling-y possibilities buzzing around, most of them completely meretricious. Thomas Kuhn described the progress of science as being a more or less straight line, interrupted periodically by periods of turmoil, where paradigms were up for grabs, before settling once again into the normalcy of a new paradigm. The computer-based arts, for decades, have been seen like that but without the periods of normalcy! And today they have approached the condition of their own malapertness. Constant turmoil (far from permanent revolution it is the permanent dry-heave of unicorn sparkles) and hence with no coherent history or theory. Art proceeds partly by failure and partly by breaking rules but failure in the media arts is professionally absent and you’d have a hard job finding any rules to break. Criticism of media art is overwhelmingly positive, as if it’s all brilliant.

(Screaming in caps lock:) IT DIDN’T HAVE TO BE LIKE THIS!

The large, well-produced book makes this plain to all who, on confronting a piece of really good art, or perhaps some other concrete manifestation of creative thought, want to run home and do artwork. Look at the pictures, read the texts and be happy, because I think enough people actually will use the experience of reading it to make all the more serious, effective, masterly and magnificent their artworks, computer based or not. If you gave a studio full of art students a couple of pages each of this book and told them to make some art, any kind of art, you’d have some magnificent results.

I’d suggest that a good way to use the book might be just to dive in and see what grabs you. Then look and read before and after that. Only then allow yourself the satisfaction of reading it from cover to cover.

The rich introductory chronology (22 pages long) by Jones is well illustrated, but the first large photo of her book proper shows a line printer, the sort using sprocket holes to pull the paper through, on a wooden plinth, printing text onto a page of the continuous fan-fold paper waiting in a large pile at its base. This in some other context would just be a boring illustration of a redundant bit of business equipment (pace FedEx) but here, in an art book about an art show, it is redolent of more. Specifically, to your reviewer, it alludes (visually) to conceptual work such as that of Art & Language, with their indexes and filing cabinets. I can’t quite make out what is printed on the page but never mind for now, it suggests that the presentation of data or ideas to us in a gallery via a buzzing printer can be of left-field value. But I have just placed two pairs of reading glasses on my face and am now able to read the tiny print:

A house of steel

             In a hot climate

                         Using natural light 

(a fourth line is obscured)

It’s in fact Alison Knowles’ “The House of Dust”, 1967, an unfolding of computer-generated texts filling gaps in descriptions of a dwelling, its environments and so on with words randomly chosen from a list contained in a computer. This at a time when she was moving house from the East coast to the West coast of the USA. And beginning to live separately from her husband.

Why not just permuted bits of paper, or read aloud? Bronac Ferran writes in his section on generated texts that “the lines are ever-transferring, constantly generating, constantly renewing, never fully built, as if always on the brink of their own vanishing”, which is not only good but also serves as a leitmotiv for much of the work here. And that’s just a peripheral we see. The computer, operating on a trivial level, isn’t even on show. But it’s present by its absence, as it were, and bits of paper wouldn’t remotely be as conceptually redolent.

Now what comes? Just look at some of the 14 section topics: Mainframe Mystique, Mathematical Agents in the Computational Imagination, Reboot: Mondrian and Klee in the Computer Lab, Art and Computer in the Age of Protest, Coding Dance and Dancing Code, Social Cybernetics, Information as Art, Weaving, the hugely influential New Tendencies and so on. The striking thing is that the chronological and conceptual categories often map quite well onto general trends and problematics in art. Someone leafing through the photos might not immediately know that they concerned computer art. These days, the medium is nearly always the message. Earlier it was… different. I can’t quite put my finger on it. There is a great difference between, say, Edward Ihnatowicz’s large interactive robotic sculpture Senster, completed in 1970, and… Oh, I’ve got it I think: that great work was about the interaction it generated. People even got married in front of it as it hovered “proudly” in the background, responding positively to gentle sounds and gestures, shying away from loud noise or violent movements. People’s gaze was on others’ interactions. Today it would be about the thing with which the public incidentally interacted. No one gets married in front of… well, you know the sort of stuff.

Philips, of electrical goods fame, showed the Senster in their flying saucer-like Evolution, in Eindhoven in the Netherlands. To them it was a spectacle, shown in a literal segment of circus ring. When it took too much attention away from their fridges and lightbulbs, they discarded it (it has since been rebuilt) allegedly without even telling the artist. (The director of the Evolution told me he was very sad about this. He himself had completely understood what the work was really about, seeing it every day, with and without visitors.)

This is what hinders much history of the computer-based arts: they are seen as images, or spectacles, but are much more than that. Simpler, quieter, often more in tune with minimalism and conceptualism. Hence, again, the failure of artbots, only dealing what things look like, or we could better say, actually about nothing. We could make art using artbots, but it would not be what the bots produced. Tasked with showing images about artbot- or even AI-art, the bots show images indistinguishable from those generated by first-level prompts.

So the computer arts of 1952 to 1982 could have been so important in the history of mid-century art. Well, I have news: they were central, in themselves. It’s not that that they influenced much art or culture, but that they were, and must surely soon be seen as, the representation of the development and implementation of some of the most serious art concerns of the 20th century. It just wasn’t seen that way then and isn’t much now. If anything will change that, it is this book and the exhibition to which it relates. Much of the art covered in it could have been revolutionary for contemporary art had it been recognised for what it was. I hope and think it will be. We have to incorporate it into present artworks though we can’t just repeat it or use its messages directly of course, we have to understand what went on, and use that knowledge to make new art now, much as earlier artists didn’t merely rework their historical discoveries and awarenesses, but learned from them to make new art, impossible without them. Media art histories, in my view, might well promote the incorporation of the archeology of early computer art into what we do today, artists being media archeologists and vice versa.

The above is about the necessity for such a book, but that would be no use if the book wasn’t adequate. Luckily, it’s very good, and excellently designed. It’s a major contribution to the history of art per se.  A list of some of the artists and theorists shows quite a few that never used a computer for their art at all. You’ll find Rebecca Allen, Siah Armajani, Roy Ascott, Richard Baily, Colette Stuebe Bangert, Charles Jeffries Bangert, Jennifer Bartlett, Jonathan Borofsky, Stanley Brouwn, John Cage, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Thomas Chimes, Harold Cohen, Computer Technique Group, Analivia Cordeiro, Waldemar Cordeiro, Charles Csuri, Agnes Denes, herman de vries, Juan Downey, Charles Eames, Ray Eames, Charles Gaines, Brion Gysin, Hans Haacke, Frederick Hammersley, Leon D. Harmon, June Harwood, Jean-Pierre Hébert, Desmond Paul Henry, Channa Horwitz, Hervé Huitric, Toshi Ichiyanagi, Donald Judd, Hiroshi Kawano, Edward Kienholz, Alison Knowles, Kenneth C. Knowlton, Beryl Korot, Gerald Laing, Ben F. Laposky, Sol LeWitt, Jackson Mac Low, Aaron Marcus, Jean-Claude Marquette, Hansjörg Mayer, Edward Meneeley, Manfred Mohr, Vera Molnár, François Morellet, N.E. Thing Co. Ltd (Iain and Ingrid Baxter), Monique Nahas, Frieder Nake, Lowell Nesbitt, A. Michael Noll, Nam June Paik, Eduardo Paolozzi, Peter Phillips, Sheila Pinkel, Paul Rand, Sonya Rapoport, Bridget Riley, Lillian F. Schwartz, Barbara T. Smith, John Stehura, Peter Struycken, Calvin Sumsion, Angelo Testa, Joan Truckenbrod, Stan VanDerBeek, Victor Vasarely, Gary Viskupic, Lawrence Weiner, Dennis Wheeler, John Whitney Sr, Stephen Willats and Emmett Williams. If that doesn’t make you want to read it, I don’t know what would.

This is a book to change the minds of those who assume that the computer based arts were always just empty spectacle, cynical decoration, playing with numbers or not proper art in some other way. It shows the politics, the philosophy, the virtuosity, the cybernetics of cybernetics behind and in some of the work. The connections the art made visible. As an oBca (old British computer artist) I wish it and its readers, many perhaps new to the field, intriguing discovery and happy creating. The art, ideas, theories, contexts, techniques and histories in this book have been waiting for us, for you. Use them well.