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A Brief History of Computational Art

Over the past few years, digital art has become a new magnet for contemporary artists willing to push boundaries. Its many names: computer art, digital art, media art (and more)- tend to generally refer to the use of technologies to assist its creations. These technologies have also enabled social networks, Web 2.0, and the information society we live in. Digital art is thus highly diverse and manifests itself in a variety of forms such as space art, time-based art, data-supported art, and mixed realities. While it is often associated with NFTs, its origin begins much earlier than one might imagine: in the mid-20th century.

Before everyone could afford a personal computer that fits in their pocket (aka a smartphone), “computers” were essentially ginormous calculators that filled up an entire room to function. To own one was a luxury: few were manufactured and they were extremely expensive. So expensive that most who needed one ended up renting them. In the 1950s, UNIVAC leased a total of 43 computers for a hefty $130,000 each per month (in current dollars equivalent). Only large institutions such as the military, universities, and corporations could afford such fees. Hence the first digital artists were mathematicians and the first “computer engineers”.

ENIAC, 1946, University of Pennsylvania, first functional digital computer

In 1950, American mathematician Ben F. Laposky manipulated waves on analog computers via an oscilloscope. Oscilloscopes are laboratory equipment used to display and analyze the waveform of electronic signals. By experimenting with the electronic beams, circuits, and generators, Laposky was able to manipulate the signals into geometric abstract forms. These “oscillons”, or “electrical compositions” as Laposky refers to them, were then photographed with high-speed film and displayed as images. These images eventually toured 200 venues in a travelling exhibition in 1953. The electrical waveforms were one of the pioneering graphics generated using an electronic machine, which paved the way for many artists who followed after.

Oscillon 40, Photograph, 1952, Victoria & Albert Museum

Composite Oscillons, Photograph, 1960, Victoria & Albert Museum

A few years after Laposky’s experiments came the late Austrian physicist and scientist Herbert W. Franke’s ‘Analog pendular oscillograms’. An analog device built for Franke to calculate multiple plane curves, produced blurred lines photographed using a camera moving to and fro. Franke could alter the curves by using a mixing console that gave him some degree of control over the image’s appearance, thus forming an image that occured on multiple planes- a pioneering achievement from Laposky’s waveforms over two plane points.

Analog-Grafik P1 (Pendular Oscillogram), Print, 1970, Victoria & Albert Museum

Franke also explored generative graphics based on mathematical principles. In 1979, he collaborated with Texas Instruments to create ‘MONDRIAN’, a software that could produce Mondrian-style images according to user-defined parameters. These adjustable parameters included the size, the alignment, or the colour compositions. ‘MONDRIAN’ became one of the first tools for interactive computer art.

Still from Serie Mondrian, 2009,

Franke’s early digital art has remained a legacy. Franke’s experimentations over seven decades have seen iconic series such as ‘ Drakula (1970/71)’, ‘Cellular Automata (since 1992)’ and ‘lissajous figures (since 1998)’. More recently, at the age of 95, Franke joined Tezos in releasing NFT editions of ‘MONDRIAN’. The iconic artist passed away on 16th July 2022, just weeks after his NFT debut at Art Basel 2022.

Drakula 17A-71, 1970

Cellular Automata #6, 1992

Other pioneer computer artists include Manfred Mohr, who gave rise to a new wave of generative artworks. Mohr’s artistic process included the writing of algorithms that could bring his visual ideas to life. Since 1973, Mohr formulated the rules and various mathematical procedures to generate plotter drawings- whose results had often surprised the artist himself.

P-128, “sphereless”, computer-generated algorithmic plotter drawing, ink on paper, 1972

Computer-aided processes had also developed into drawing programs by Desmond Paul Henry and Frieder Nake.

Henry’s (1921-2004) mechanical drawing machines were adapted from WW2 bomb-sight computers that relied on the ‘mechanics of chance’. It includes capturing the motions of the computers on paper, which eventually were produced as abstract, curvilinear, repetitive line drawings left untouched to preserve the spontaneous element of the machine.

One of Henry’s Drawing Machines

Frieder Nake’s (b.1938) controlled software drawings, on the other hand, defined the parameters for randomness in order to create meaningful “aesthetic information”. The computer is treated as a tool for deeper exploration into aesthetic phenomena, creating graphics dedicated to exploring the extent of computer-generated art.

13/9/65 Nr. 2 ("Hommage à Paul Klee"), 1965, Ink on Paper, compArt daDA

From the world’s first digital computer to oscilloscope graphics, WW2-borne drawing machines, and algorithms powered by the exploration of maths and science, highlight the depth of computational art history. These pioneering achievements were deeply interwoven with one another. The initial developments would leave a lasting impact on the next generation of computational artists, and the sub-genres of computer art explored.

Up next: Digital Art enters the mainstream.


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