“Art will be sunk or drowned by technology,” Marcel Duchamp told an interviewer in 1966, continuing that the latter was mixed up with the market and destined to destroy original thought.
Duchamp was among the most famous, but not the first, artist made anxious by the age of the mainframe. The computer had debuted a little over a decade earlier, and institutions initially appeared averse to any art made using it, even as automated systems increasingly upended visual culture.
Though it would be decades before the emergence of the personal computer, some artists swiftly recognized the technology as a means to understand the ambitions and alienation of made who alive during the mid-20th century. A new show now on view at the Los Angeles County Museum has assembled over 100 of the strange and wondrous works made in this era, arguing that rather than artistic oddities, they represent a critical chapter in art history.
“Coded: Art Enters the Computer Age, 1952–1982,” curated by Leslie Jones, includes works by more than 75 pioneering digital artists, including experiments in algorithms, software, and code. Some are recognizably inspired by the early computers, like a 1965 sculpture by renowned artist Edward Kienholz, of a small device anthropomorphized by human eyes and doll legs and accompanied by instructions to treat it “with care.” Others are more suggestive of a computer’s innards, like Frederick Hammersley’s 1969 “computer drawings,” made using Art1, one of the earliest computer programs designed for artists that produced inhumanly precise geometry.
This isn’t the first survey of what we now call digital art: in the late ’60s and early ’70s, New York’s Jewish Museum and Museum of Modern Art both staged shows of artistic forays into burgeoning technology. And both had polarizing critical receptions, with the New York Times, for example, calling the Jewish Museum’s presentation “confusing, capricious and sometimes fascinating”.
But LACMA’s show is the most robust yet, and it takes the stance that the initial critical reception reflects less about art than humanity: that stubbornness and fear — of the unknown, of personal irrelevance — kept computer art in a category of its own.
To learn more about the show, ARTnews chatted with Jones via phone.
ARTnews: Why start in 1952?
Leslie Jones: I had originally decided to begin in the 1960s and ’70s, but there was interesting experimental work even earlier. The year 1952 is the date of the first aesthetic objects made on an electronic, computer-like device called an oscilloscope, by the artist Ben Laposky. And it was easy to confirm 1982 as the end, as it was the year that the personal computer became widely available to people. This is art in the age of the mainframe before computers were part of people’s daily lives.
When a truly experimental work like Laposky’s came on the scene, using alien technology for its time, what was the response?
There was a lot of curiosity about the art but anxiety, too. [Laposky] called his art “electronic abstractions,” and they were exhibited in the Midwest somewhere, but there just wasn’t a huge number of people who knew they existed. It wasn’t really until maybe the mid-’60s that there were more “computer art exhibitions,” the first being at the Howard Wise Gallery in New York City in 1963. Its heyday is probably the late ’60s and early ’70s. The Jewish Museum’s “Software” and MoMA’s “Information” didn’t necessarily include work many works by early digital artists, but they did illustrate that there was an awareness of what software even was.
Part of the reason computer art wasn’t taken seriously then was that there were fine artists working with it, but also scientists and engineers. This was a whole field that had access and was experimenting, but they weren’t formally trained as artists. So, you get a lot of art that’s not so interesting, so that may have muddied the waters for more serious artists like Manfred Mohr. He, like his peers, was embracing computer technology as a new tool to expand his practice.
So, apart from a few shows, early digital art was largely overlooked, despite its parallels to mainstream art movements like Conceptual and Op art. How do you understand this reaction?
There’s a lot of hang ups in the visual art community about the artist’s hand, right? Which is ironic, especially with Conceptual art, because many artists didn’t personally make their own work. But you’re right, there are parallels, such as the depersonalization of the creative process, which is fundamental to Conceptual art. Digital art is automatically divorced from the process because of the machine. And the Conceptualists and Op artists were using systems and algorithms, or objects based in geometric forms—all things computer artists were doing too. And after a certain point, the early digital artists just went their own way. They would exhibit in conventions focused on computer graphics, meet in very specific contexts, but were never really incorporated into mainstream discourse. That’s what I’m trying to do here.
And what’s to be learned when you stop treating these art forms as totally distinct pursuits and focus on the parallels?
Viewers will see the formal similarities, for sure. There’s a lot of geometry and circularity and repetition of forms. I hope people learn that they shouldn’t be so quick to dismiss art made with new technology—that’s something that always repeats over time. I feel like a similar thing is going on with, say, NFTs and AI. Some people are saying they’ll ignore it and hope it goes away. And there’s some not-so-great art being made, just like in the ’60s, but critics and art writers should pay attention. If an artist finds new tech worth exploring, then we should be willing to follow on that journey.
One of my colleagues writes often about AI art, how it’s creating all these issues about ownership, but the whole field is too new for anyone to make the obvious judgment on it. Do you think there’s any lessons gained from your research that can be applied there?
Both AI and generative art are not new. They both existed, in some form, in the ’60s and ’70s, so that might be eye-opening for some people. As soon as computers came on the scene, as soon as artists had access to them, they were exploring these issues.
You write in the catalouge that early computer art reflected the “wonder and alienation” of the ’60s and ’70s. Why do you think we have this impulse — an unconscious one, maybe — to projecting ourselves onto these machines and to have these machines imprint themselves onto us?
I think any technology, when it first comes out, creates unease. The thing that’s different about computer tech is that it’s somewhat complex to understand. It’s not like a mechanical machine, where you can see the pistons firing and get how it works. This is mysterious, and as time goes by, it only gets more complicated. But also, we have anxiety when we’re not connected to it. Think about when your phone breaks. It’s a sense of not having complete control of your existence.
So we’re faced with these complex machines, but we still try our best to understand them, often from the best point of reference we have: ourselves. Like one of the show’s artists, Edward Kienholz.
By personifying the computer, it makes it more approachable. Kienholz was being vey tongue in cheek in the way he was anticipating the personal computer, but he used humor to personify the machine to disempower or take control over it. His sculpture is a scary object, too—it’s uncanny. I wouldn’t want to be in a room alone with it. It taps into people’s anxieties about the place of computers in their lives.