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Computational Art's Contemporary Development

When did digital art become mainstream?

In the 1960s, art museums finally paid attention to digital art as they started creating digital art acquisition teams. In 1968, one of the first international exhibitions, “Cybernetic Serendipity” at the Institute of Contemporary Art in London was devoted to the relationship between the arts and new technology.

Cybernetic Serendipity Exhibition poster, Institute of Contemporary Art,1968

This groundbreaking exhibition presented the interactions between artists and science and scientists and art. Focusing more on possibilities than achievements, it showcased how ‘cybernetic devices’ had been employed by artists, composers, and poets and the makers of those devices.

The Digital Age (or Information Age) truly began when personal computers became more accessible and came the subsequent development of various technologies.

Xerox Alto, 1974

In 1973, Harold Cohen created AARON: a series of computer programs that generated art autonomously. It was perhaps the world’s first “AI” powered drawing machine, where AARON constituted “a severely limited model of human cognition”, yet the few primitives it embodied proved to be remarkably powerful in generating highly evocative images: images, that are, that suggested, without describing, an external world.”

Harold Cohen with an Installation at San Diego Museum of Contemporary Art, 2007

AARON, a machine taught to draw, was a predecessor of many drawing machines to come next with more advanced, autonomous abilities that did not need human intervention.

Beloved Pop Art Icon Andy Warhol dealt with drawings on a different type of machine too: Amiga Floppy Disks.

Commodore Amiga computer equipment used by Andy Warhol, 1985-86 Hardware, Andy Warhol Museum

Created in collaboration with Commodore - creator of Amiga, Warhol used the computer software ProPaint to make a series of digital drawings including a Campbell’s soup can, Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus, and flowers. These artworks only surfaced 30 years after their creation- and had to be reverse engineered to be recovered. There was no modern equipment that could easily read these floppy disks. Talk about how far we’ve come… These early computer-based artworks are indeed a testament to Warhol’s engagement with and embrace of new technology.

Campbells, 1985

Venus, 1985

Flower, 1985

Andy2, 1985

As computing power increased, 2-dimensional graphics became 3-dimensional. From computer-generated imagery (CGI) to 3D modelling and 3D rendering: artists could now make any images they imagined feel and look even more real.

Kenneth Snelson’s 3D graphics allowed him to reimagine impossible architectural ideas into surreal sculptures grounded in the delicate processes of engineering. Snelson’s “computer images” are recreations of real work, titled ‘Forest Devil ’ in Pittsburgh (which has since been relocated).

Forest Devil, 1977, relocated to Carnegie Museum of Art Theater

Forest Devils’ Moon Night, 1989, Photograph

The digitally rendered Forest Devils’ Moon Night has an added dimension of other-worldliness especially with the addition of a seemingly vast landscape, punctured by thick protrusions in almost outer space.

Lines are truly blurred when James Faure Walker presented a series of drawings where one could not tell where the hand-drawn line began or where the machine-drawn line ended. A process that involves the hybridization of technology and tradition resulted in wildly abstract paintings where viewers occasionally mistook physical elements to be digital, and digitally-made elements to be physical.

Blue Bowls, 2002, 58 x 58 cm, archival Epson inkjet

The 1990s was truly when digital entered the mainstream as art transcended into contemporary practices and the popular realms of video games, animations, and digital imagery.

Internet-based work harnessed the novel power of the World Wide Web and was able to amass audiences anywhere, as there was no need for a physical space for it to be displayed. In 1994, Heath Bunting created “Kings Cross Phone-In”, a simple web page listing the phone numbers for all the pay phones in London’s King’s Cross Station along with a date and time for people to call. He suggested that people “call and have a chat with an expectant or unexpectant person,” “answer the phones and chat,” or just “do something different.” The results were often unexpected, based on chance encounters between participants and unknowing commuters.

Kings Cross Phone-In, 1994, Online Archive

Yael Kaneraek’s “World of Awe”,1995 -ongoing, combined texts (love letters written by cyborgs), 3D models and landscapes, and full soundscapes to deeply immerse visitors in “a journal of a traveller in search of lost treasure”. As you enter the browser, you are free to explore the desktop interface and discover pieces, or “entries”, that present an immersive narrative. Over the years, the site has developed into a densely packed, breathtaking narrative.

World of Awe, Chapter 1, 2000

No one is estranged from the myriad of video games, memes, and animations that have shaped popular culture. And each one of us can list a favourite game or movie, and perhaps even the style of animation and software used. Yet many have been confused by digital art’s latest development: NFTs. It was easier to understand the rise of the Internet than cryptocurrency, blockchain, and tokens. While there is enough of a consensus that digital art is in fact art, NFTs on the other hand led us to question their place in the art world.

Does the value of NFTs lie in their form as an asset, or as a medium that deals with topics of ownership, authenticity, and scarcity?

Beeple, Everydays – The First 5000 Days NFT, 21,069 pixels x 21,069 pixels (316,939,910 bytes). Image courtesy of the artist and Christie’s.

The buyer of Beeple’s $69 million NFT wasn’t too interested in the actuality of the work itself, as he paid for it without previewing the auction lot. Nevertheless, this was the seminal moment that catapulted NFTs into the mainstream and opened new ways of presenting artworks while re-igniting age-old questions.

What is art, in the NFT age?

Ape #1 of the Bored Ape Yacht Club collection, Bored Ape Yacht Club, 2021

Despite skepticism about digital art’s newest development, pioneer digital artists recognize the blockchain’s potential. Artist Herbert W Franke believes that “volatility and divisiveness” of blockchain technology are “appropriate descriptions”, but was never an issue for himself as an artist, as such skepticism was also given to the development of computers (and with any new development, essentially). Franke released his mathematical art series “MONDRIAN”, in NFT format with Tezos, and presented them at Art Basel 2022.

Herbert W Franke (1927- 2022)

Franke passed away on the 16th of July, “knowing there is a community of artists and art enthusiasts deeply caring about his art and legacy,” as his wife Susanne announced to his community of 15 thousand followers on Twitter.

Most contemporary artists are still expressing themselves through traditional media while breaking new grounds respectively. In parallel, a growing number of them are turning to experiment with digital art, to unlock new artistic possibilities, while tapping into a new un-gated audience, with an appetite for NFTs.

It is fair to say that we have only scratched the surface of what is technically and artistically possible to create with NFTs. This is why we look forward to the development of new technologies as digital art pioneers did and as the pioneers of photography and video art did before them. But technology aside, if there is one reason why NFTs are making a dent in the history of art, it is because of their impressive ability to reach out to a new, massive audience that would not have connected with what the art world has been offering otherwise. NFTs are a formidable engine of artistic expression and democratization.

It is apt to conclude our brief history of computational and digital art with the words of Sylvain Levy, from the eponymous DSL Collection: "Art should be seen, and for that to happen it needs to speak the language of its time."

What do you think of our history of digital art so far? Where do current technologies stand in the face of art, and how can artists and audiences be further included in its development?

If you enjoyed our brief dive into the history of Digital Art, look out for our weekly editions of Artist Spotlight on our social media channels, where we share the best of digital art and its creators.

For NFTs debunked:

For NFTs from an artistic perspective:


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