Published  16/07/2015

Primary Codes

Primary Codes

This ambitious exhibition by four greats of computer art brings together works from the very start of the genre in the early 1960s to the modern day. Despite being a very successful event, it is fair to question: is this exhibition unearthing an avant garde?

Oi Futuro Flamengo, Rio de Janeiro
16 June – 16 August 2015


Shown for the first time in Latin America, Primary Codes is an ambitious exhibition that brings together four of the most important artists in the history of computer art: Paul Brown (b1947), Frieder Nake (b1938), Harold Cohen (b1928) and Ernest Edmonds (b1942). Curated by Fabrizio Poltronieri and Caroline Menezes, the exhibition, which has opened at the Oi Futuro Flamengo in Rio de Janeiro, is a largely successful event. Combining historical awareness and a torrent of new artworks, this is a show that should be remembered as a momentous event in the long road of computers and the arts. That being said, it is also an exhibition that raises a lot of questions.

It is only natural, then, that a Studio International review of an exhibition that celebrates the beginnings of computer art should not be historically naive. If anything, this is an event filled with symbolism. It was in the pages of this same publication that computer art was discussed for the first time by a fine-art periodical. The exhibitions, the manifestos, the reviews and the theories: all were discussed within its pages. Even today, these past articles feature in the theses and dissertations of many connoisseurs and enthusiasts. Before Studio International, it was technically minded publications such as Computers and Automation that were responsible for publicly announcing the development of what was then a new and speculative artistic practice. Given this context, we must ask: How do we write a brief review that does justice to both this history and the exhibition?

Consequentially, to introduce this exhibition rhetorically, by questioning if it “unearths” an avant garde, requires a self-conscious effort that points to an irony that some may not notice. While the artworks and the history on show at this exhibition are well known to some, art history has largely ignored the astonishing contribution of computer art. This should be a reminder that most of this period has been unjustly relegated to the work of specialists only – folks who, in a sense, acknowledge the importance of an artistic practice that over time regrettably acquired the contours of a specialised field, institutionally too detached and too remote from the larger artistic establishment. Here is where the irony is most visible. We would not have to unearth anything had these works being done without computers. In short, this is the rationale of this exhibition, to unearth that which should have never been buried by a historical technophobia.

The reasons for this detachment are too numerous to be discussed here in detail: an historically anchored prejudice against the computer, lack of understanding concerning the computational apparatus and its processes, eventual institutional specialisation, radical dematerialisation of the artwork, simplistic questions regarding authorship, and so on. Thankfully, efforts such as this exhibition attempt to redress this. Nevertheless, as Brown perceptively posits, to work with the “forbidden medium” was akin to a “kiss of death”.1 We should then see this review working on two fronts, both highlighting the radical ideas that permeated computer art and presenting them in the exhibition. Our result points to a heterogeneous group of artists that contribute to art in particular and sometimes opposite ways.

Oi Futuro Flamengo, which opened in 2005, is housed in a converted telephone exchange and combines a social institute and a three-floored gallery space renowned for its displays of contemporary art. Primary Codes contains more than 60 works and spreads beyond the gallery spaces to occupy the whole building. On the ground floor, the visitor is met by Hommage to Oi Futuro (2015), a large, site-specific installation by Nake, composed of more than 10 displays, and presenting a random number of rectangles containing his signature algorithmic patterns. There are also three videos playing here: Brown’s The Earth Probe, from 1977, a computer-scripted documentary in which takes from Liverpool are cut and pasted together linearly in a manner that indicates not randomised pastiche but very deliberate actions, and Edmonds’ Fragment (1984) and Jasper (1988), both geometrical animations recorded from a previous program. Edmonds’ pieces, which I shall return to later, seemed, ironically, to have improved with age: the squares that appear and disappear, forming simple rectangular patterns, now display that peculiar texture that some may recognise from old videotapes. In my opinion, this can only be seen as an amusing unforeseen detail that adds a new layer to the final object.

Moving on from the ground floor, a clear arrangement emerges. The first and second floors are quasi-chronological, with the first dedicated to the early works of each artist and the second containing more recent developments. It is over these two floors that the exhibition really comes together. Poltronieri and Menezes have grouped the artists’ most iconic artworks together on the first floor and, for the historically minded observer, it is a treat to see them side by side. Nake’s Zufälliger Polygonzug (1964) and Hommage à Paul Klee (1965), for example, are hung facing his more mature Achsenparalleler Polygonzug series (1965). Meanwhile, at the centre of the room, we find Brown’s unique Builder/Eater (1977, recreated in 2014), one of the first examples of real-time generative artwork shown in an artistic context. Perpendicularly hung in relation to Nake’s prints is a hugely contrasting piece, this time by Edmonds. Nineteen (1968-69), a composition with wood reliefs assembled over a large square canvas, was not – unlike the previously mentioned artworks – produced by the computer. Instead, here the computer acts as if organising, guiding the artist in the spatial distribution of these painted wood pieces, in a process analogous to Brown’s Earth Probe.

Only Cohen presents a more recent work in this gallery, originally from 2003, but nevertheless produced by his lifelong AARON program and resembling, surprisingly, the work of abstract expressionists. In addition to the artworks, there are four large LCD screens with video interviews of the artists themselves discussing and contextualising their careers for the visitor in a very direct way. They are not portrayed as the usual strange or idiosyncratic artist. Instead, the films are quite intimate, rather as if the observer is party to an informal chat over lunch. Their excitement is palpable. Despite not being entirely harmonious with the rest of the room, these video interviews do a fantastic job of presenting the artists to the public.

The second floor, which contains the most recent output of each artist, is not only the largest gallery space but also the most revealing. It is here that we can see the progress of these artists, both as producers and thinkers. Take, for example, Edmonds’ Shaping Form series (2007-15), which occupy a significant space on a wall at the centre of the room. Here, we find a very similar proposition to his earlier works shown on the ground floor, Fragment and Jasper, but, this time around, given his choice of colours and display, the result is an incredibly vivid and powerful abstract composition. It is not that his first works were not interesting: quite the opposite. It seems that both Fragment and Jasper had come to full fruition with Edmonds’ newly available materials, as if these previous artworks were done decades before the available technology and its mastery. This is a direct reminder of how much both the technology and its control have changed. Additionally, this change should be seen as a cue to an ongoing and constant artistic struggle. In the end, his work is still focused on simple but enduring premises: colour and form. His emphasis on this subject, concrete art par excellence, is constant throughout Edmonds’ career and can be clearly seen as you move from one floor to the other. The explanation behind this continuity, as discussed at the exhibition’s conference, is simple: “My future is imbedded in my past.” Asked whether those works reflected the (concrete) concern with pure forms and colours, Edmonds replied simply: “Yes, that is very much the case. I have always been a concrete artist.” 

Edmonds’ progress is not alone on this large second floor. There are many different periods of Cohen’s AARON program, from abstract to figurative and then back to abstract compositions. Perhaps a consequence of his own personal struggle over the actual existence of real, unbounded artificial intelligence, these artworks nevertheless show the touches of Cohen himself on to AARON’s program. We should not forget that, by the very nature of artificial intelligence and Cohen’s own rationale, the artist cannot be seen as working alone. Unlike the other participants, Cohen views the computer not as a tool, but rather as an active agent. As he puts it: “There is communication between programmer and programmee.” (Author transcript from the conference). In the same space, we can also see Brown turning to increasingly playful compositions, as in Works on Canvas (1974-79), outputted here not as a rectangular print, but as a large, colourful tiled vinyl cutting over the wall and on to the floor. Likewise, his patterns dissolve into increasingly hypnotic objects via a process not dissimilar to his previous Builder/Eater. Since this and newer artworks were done under the same principle of “bottom-up learning systems”,2 that is, artificial life systems, this is not surprising. Brown’s relentless use of biologically inspired generative systems more often than not produces ever-more intricate and unexpected drawings and simulations. The outcomes of these systems, which show the particular aesthetics of Brown’s methods, are particularly evident over a large time frame in works such as A-B Modulars (1977) or Gymnastics (1997).

Finally, perhaps in contrast to Edmonds’ concretism, we find Nake’s later works, though they are not as numerous as those of his colleagues. His Hommage to Roman Opałka (2015) is worth mentioning. It is here, perhaps more than anywhere else in the exhibition, that Nake really expresses his conceptualist concepts. Not obviously perceived from his early works, especially because he would around 1968 depart from the more rationalistic and formal precepts of his fellow countryman Max Bense, Nake’s Opałka-inspired piece is both a statement and an artwork. Quoting Sol LeWitt’s iconic postulate  – “The idea becomes the machine that makes the art” – Nake is quick to remind us that the algorithmic and procedural construction of artworks had perhaps started with the kind of very early computer art espoused by him. Not only that but, as he advances, “algorithmic art is radical conceptual art”, since, in a way: “Not only does the programmer paint with his mind, but [via the computer] he is also creating a possibly infinite set of artworks.” Realising the historical coincidence between the date of Opałka’s first infinite series and the beginning of computer art itself, in 1965, Nake is not recreating an artistic process but, in fact, is tracing a parallel between two similar artistic ideas: one achieved by subjective human operators and the other by precise and potentially infinite mechanistic designs. Nake is, in other words, paradoxically pointing to the similarities and differences of conceptual and computational art.

The differences between Brown, Nake, Cohen and Edmonds, the only four artists selected for this show, are numerous. Let’s briefly take as an example Cohen, who before working with computers was already a highly established artist in his own right,3 and Nake, who in 1965 was a young mathematician in Stuttgart.4

Whereas Nake has engaged with the possibilities of a single program newly written every year or so, resulting in various artworks driven by its algorithm’s pseudo-randomised variables, Cohen has invested his entire life in a single program whose output follows both AARON’s development and the artist’s own internal questions. The aesthetical differences arising from these and other opposite paths, as we previously saw, are remarkable; so much for placing all these artists in the same art historical bag. While the computer (and perhaps academic life) remains the lowest common denominator between the four artists, much must be rethought. At the same time that the exhibition reinforces the contributions of these pioneers, it also confuses its history even further. This can only be a good thing. As the production of these and other artists become more visible, threads between their history and the larger art history will be remade. What was once seen as “early computer art” only will, inevitably, be dissolved into different, and perhaps opposing, art-historical narratives. Luckily for us, this is only the beginning.

1. An Emergent Paradigm by Paul Brown. First published in Periphery No 29, November 1996.

2. From Systems Art to Artificial Life: Early Generative Art at the Slade School of Fine Art by Paul Brown. In: Brown P, Mason C, Gere C and Lambert N (eds) White Heat Cold Logic: British Computer Art 1960-1980. First Edition. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 2009, page 277.

3. Before starting to work with computers, Cohen, for example, had already represented the UK at the Venice Biennale.

4. It was in 1965 that the first three public exhibitions of computer art took place. Nake was a participant, alongside Georg Nees, in the third one. 

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