August 1968, London. The Institute for Contemporary Art (ICA) had just opened a new exhibition. It wasn't the first exhibition of computer art, nor was it the biggest, but it was the broadest and the first to take place on English soil. Cybernetic Serendipity - The Computer and The Arts was a turning point in the history of computer arts, and may be the exhibition most responsible for the wide-scale adoption of computer-generated works by the Academy.
The origin of the exhibit was another exhibit at the ICA on concrete poetry. At the event were several of the most important figures in European art and technology circles, including philosopher and curator Max Bense, who had just curated an exhibition in Stuttgart, Germany of Georg Nees' works generated using a Siemanns computer. During the event, Reinhardt asked the audience "what should I do next?" and Bense said she should 'look into computers.'
Computers had been used to create art dating back to the early 1950s, but work at facilities such as Bell Labs in New Jersey, Technisches Hochschule in Stuttgart, and Japan's Computer Technique Group, were assembling technical and artistic talents to collaborate. Computer music was being produced in settings such as the Experimental Music Studio at University of Illinois, and Stanford University, and by well-known composers such as John Cage. MIT and Oxford were leading centers for research into computer creativity in writing. By 1965, it seemed inevitable that computers would enter the mainstream of artistic endeavors, but few traditional museums and galleries seemed interested. The Stutgart show, along with one at New York's Howard Wise Gallery, seemed to show that there was interest from the vanguard of the arts world in showing artistic works created with, and sometimes by, computers.
Jasia slowly began combing journals like Computers and Automation (which ran an annual Computer Art contest) for contacts. Eventually, she came across A. Michael Noll of Bell Labs, who helped in assembling a team that would create the exhibit for the ICA. As is often the case, funding for the exhibit came slowly. Though they announced the exhibition at a press conference in 1966, it wasn't until 1968 that the . Even so, Reichardt began to assemble a team to create the show, beginning with her technological advisor Mark Dowson from Systems Research, Ldt., and graphic and exhibit designer Franscizka Themerson. Painter Peter Schmidt, who had a technical background and a keen interest in electronic and computer music, served as the project's music advisor. The team began reaching out to the major institutions around the world, and forming a network of artists. The theory behind the exhibition was not that of a traditional art show, nor that of a technology fair.
"Cybernetic Serendipity deals with possibilities rather than achievements, and in this sense it is prematurely optimistic. There are no heroic claims to be made because computers have so far neither revolutionized music, nor art, nor poetry, in the same way that they have revolutionized science ," wrote Reichardt in the exhibition catalogue.
The breadth of contributors to the exhibit was remarkable. From Bell Labs, Michael Noll and Leon Harmon, along with early computer art pioneers Frieder Nake, Charles Csuri, Rene Pardo, and Peter Zinovieff. Lajaren Hiller and Leonard Isaacson of the Experimental Music Studio, along with John Cage and various others provided music. Animations from Ken Knowlton and Stan Vanderbeek, special effects legend John Whitney, and Terry Pritchett. Works from IBM, Calcomp, and many more were all included in this massive exhibition. As a gathering of those who formed the basis for Computers in the Arts, this collection of exhibitors was second to none.
These were also not strictly computer-created works, either. Many of the pieces were robots or machine-inspired, though not strictly computer-controlled. Edward Ihnatowicz displayed his sound-activated mobile, while Bruce Lacey brought three robots, none using any form of computer control. The pieces that did not directly use computers demonstrated the influence of technology on the arts and how the computer had influenced the arts even when one was not directly involved with the creation of an individual piece. Perhaps the best example of this are the paintings of IBM computers created by Lowell Nesbit. These works, near photorealistic, at first appear to be the kind used in promotional materials, but when taken in context of the exhibition, they attain a quality of formal portraiture, as if recording members of a royal family whose lives are documented within the exhibition. Much of the musical work was traditionally created and composed, but helps to show the ecosystem in which computer music came about. In fact, the introductory essay in the computer music section of the catalogue by Jospeh Schillinger, Coordinate Expansion, was written in 1948, before any computer music had ever been attempted. The concept was to set a scene in which computers played a role, and then explore the specific computer-related elements within it.
"...no visitor to the exhibition, unless he reads all the notes relating to all the works, will know whether he is looking at something made by an artist, engineer, mathematician, or architect. Nor is it particularly important to know the background of all the makers of the various robots, machines and graphics- it will not alter their impact, although it might make us see them differently" Reichhardt wrote in the catalog.
Though the exhibit was dedicated to the computer in the arts, there were only two complete computer systems displayed. First, IBM provided an airline reservation system to demonstrate the capabilities of networked machines. The other computing system was the Music Computer, a specially-designed composition computer developed by Peter Zinovieff. IBM also provided six panels on the history of computers. These were created for the History and Technology of Computers exhibit at the Smithsonian and repurposed for Cybernetic Serendipity. The computer again plays a role, but it is a surprisingly small role when you consider the subtitle of the exhibit was 'The Computer and The Arts'.
Even the choice of the name for the exhibit seemed to distance it from computers. The term 'Cybernetics' was coined by mathematician Norbert Wiener in 1949 as "the scientific study of control and communication in the animal and the machine." Within it, there is no mention of 'computer', though the term has been broadened to encompass it. Serendipity, coined by Horace Walpole in the 18th century, is best described as a happy accident, or unplanned discovery. The concepts of control and accident would seem to be at odds with one another, especially in regards to computers, but at the same time, it expresses something fundamental about the use of computers in the arts. The Arts are often considered to be serendipitous, the result of random experimentation or chance, while technology is seen as control, the end result of rigorous planning. While both of those views have some truth to them, neither is essential to the creation process on either end. Calling the exhibition Cybernetic Serendipity is akin to saying that both artist and computer are the eventual byproduct of both control and chance.
The catalogue itself was something of a marvel. A special issue of Studio International magazine edited by Reichhardt was released to coincide with the exhibition. Themerson created the cover which incorporated elements from various items in the exhibit. It was not merely a list and description of the exhibits and artists, but a detailed look at the works and the realms in which they were created. Dowson created a glossary of technology terms, as well as a general history of computers and notes on Cybernetics, including re-printing a piece of Norbert Wiener's writing on the subject. Essays from notable computer music pioneers such as J. R. Pierce of Bell Labs, along with Hiller and Cage, are some of the best examples of what the mainstream of the art world saw as the potential for the field. A brief piece on computer dance is one of the first on the subject.
Perhaps the most interesting section of the catalog is that dedicated to computer text. While computer music, graphics, and other endeavors have fulfilled much of the promise that many saw in the 1960s, computer as author has not been as successful. Programs such as RASTER and World Clock have written many works, but unlike the fine arts and film, they've never become staples of the mainstream. There is fine description of processes such as automatic sentence generation and computer simulated poetry. These show what the research world was examining at a time when it was truly believed that computers would be able to write novels, compose award-winning poetry, and script film and television shows. The view from the ground in 1968 is most interesting, as nearly every other area of computers in the art has gone beyond what was envisioned as a part of Cybernetic Serendipity, while the promise computer fiction and poetry remains largely unfulfilled.
Perhaps the most import part of the exhibition was the exhibited items, and it is through their impact that we get a solid idea as to the impact of the exhibit as a whole. The static works include of the most recognisable works in early computer art. Gausian Quadratic and Vertical-Horizontal No. 3 by A. Michael Noll. The Kennedy images from Computer Techniques Group. Georg Nees' 23 Corner Graphic. Csuri and Shaffer's Random War and Hummingbird. Knowlton and Harmon's early scanned images, and Boeing's early wire-frame human figures. Calcomp's early output from Kerry Strand. These images have been reprinted endlessly, and have influenced successive generations of programmers and artists. Each of these images hangs, or has hung, in the finest museums in the world, from the Museum of Modern Art in New York, to the Victoria & Albert Museum. These works form the basis for all static computer art to follow.
The computer film works were equally as important. Perhaps the most important works shown were Bell Labs films created by Ken Knowlton. A Computer Technique for the Production of Animated Movies outlines the use of computers to create films. The film was created using BEFLIX, a computer animation system developed at the Labs. Special effects legend John Whitney, Sr. worked at IBM to create the film Permutations, which was also shown. The Flexipede, a humorous short produced by Tony Pritchett of the Atomic Energy Research Establishment, was shown as well. These three films alone would be enough to establish Cybernetic Serendipity as a major achievement in the presentation of computer animation, and there were at least a dozen other films presented.
Those presented works would be enough to make Cybernetic Serendipity a significant milestone in the history of computer art, but add in the context, the huge number of visitors to the exhibition (estimates range from 45,000 to 60,000) to the wide-ranging coverage, and it would make it into one of the highlights in the history of computer art. A smaller version of the exhibition moved to the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, D.C., and then to the newly-opened Exploratorium in San Francisco. The Exploratorium even purchased several of the pieces and kept them on display for decades. Other pieces were widely reproduced. The Computer History Museum has prints of Hummingbird, one of Kerry Strang's works, as well as copies of films including The Flexipede. Works from the exhibition by A. Michael Noll are found in Revolution: The First 2000 Years of Computing. The fact that even today we see many references, including the 2015 release of music played as a part of the exhibition, indicaates that Cybernetic Serendipity was not merely a significant exhibition, but perhaps the moment when computer art became Computer Art.
Christopher J Garcia - Curator, Fan Writer, Podcaster, and a guy who just loves art.