When Computational Devices are Used for the Visual ArtsTuesday, April 9, 2019
When Computational Devices are Used for the Visual Arts
On June 9, 1974, the halls of the Museum of Fine Arts in Caracas, Venezuela bore witness to an exhibition created by Max Bense titled Art by Computer, in which creators from 25 countries presented 70 graphics produced entirely using primitive plotters (the Zuse Z64 XY and the Stromberg DatagraphX SD-4360). The exhibition was accompanied by one of the first computer-made films made as well as models of buildings that had been designed by these devices.
For Venezuela as well as for Latin America, this show was one of the first opportunities to become familiar with the technologies that have shaped our present: a museum experience that was able to raise questions regarding the relationship between computers and art by exploring these devices’ creative capacity.
“The art of computational devices will be on display at the Museum of Fine Arts this morning. Now anyone can be an artist. Draw a pilot, an airplane, some herons, a face. It’s all about the perfection of the ‘diabolical’ instrument that will take the place of man’s creative spirit in the coming century.”
Such concerns not only had a firm grip on Rojas Jiménez, but were also reflected in the majority of the 1974 press articles through which news of the exhibition was spread. These same concerns drove Max Bense to develop a new aesthetic philosophy built upon computer-based artistic practices, which he called “information aesthetics.” This new way of thinking is tied to Constructivism, and puts forth images based on a methodological, rather than a philosophical, concept: the work of art as an objective process, and not as an object in and of itself.
According to Bense, the work of art “can only be fully understood as a conscious occurrence of our intelligence; and only in the sense of discernment, in the sense of theory.” Therefore, he employs the concept of the aesthetic state: an external, objective state of all objects that functionally differentiates them from their “physical or semantic” states. Following to this logic, he puts forward an aesthetic capable of computing the aesthetic value of objects in order to determine which ones belong to the realm of art.
Bense makes use of a variety of methodological tools, among them theories of information that suggest that all indeterminate phenomena produce information. Thus, according to Bense, aesthetic phenomena produce aesthetic information, data dependent on the aesthetic repertoire, understood in terms of the discrete, differentiable and manipulable material elements. For Bense, the notion of non-physical materiality is an open concept in which meanings, words, imagination and fiction come together. Using this relationship among the repertoire, the aesthetic carrier and its aesthetic state, he constructed his diagram of communication, which aims to depict the process required for the transmission of linguistic signs.
In this diagram, the signs must be minimally shared between transmitter and receiver, and should take into account that the channel or means of communication can experience interference. Although Bense did not clearly outline his concept of interference in communication channels, he does give structure to his concept of the sign, which is developed through its relation to the signifier, defined as the “physical substrate of a mediation”: color in painting, tone in music, pixels on a screen. In this way, the sign takes shape when the physical substrate is “determined as a medium, designates an object and takes on meaning for an interpreter” within a specific timeframe.
Bense brings together these coordinates (medium(x)-object(y)-meaning(z)-time(t)) in an equation that gives clarity to the signifier by means of a material function:
Signif. = Mat. F. (xyzt)
This is also how he explains the sign as a relationship between the medium (M)—which is selectable, transformable or codifiable—, the object (O)—which is nameable and recognizable—and its reference to an interpreter (I) who generates its meaning.
Sign = Relationship (M O I)
Using this relationship between the communication outline and the construction of signifiers as signs, Bense structures a second diagram, the diagram of creation, which “describes the model of selective transmission between a given repertoire of material elements and their selective distribution for the purposes of a singular innovative state. It is made distinct from the communication diagram, for one, by introducing an external observer who represents the generative initiation of the selective transmission. The transmitter (‘expedient’) explicitly takes on the character of the repertoire (‘source’) and the receiver (‘perceiver’) takes on the character of the product (‘outlet’). The channel of creation can also be exposed to interferences, which enhance or reduce a selection’s degree of indeterminacy.”
Based on these two diagrams, Bense proposed the creation of a system of numerical statistics to determine aesthetic states, free of discrimination from any type of aesthetic carrier. Literary works, design objects and natural objects could be studied through the lens of the numerical relationships established among all of the possibilities of their repertoires and products, and it suggests the possibility of creating works of art through the use of numerical functions, or a generative aesthetic.
Toward this end, mathematicians like Georg Nees, Michael Noll and Frieder Nake used a computer to program geometrical functions that were then placed into a loop and altered by a randomness generator that, according to Bense, could be thought of as “a die with a nearly infinite number of sides, thus endowing the machines with creative genius.”
In this image, belonging to one of the studies by Georg Nees and using a randomness generator created in the ALGOL 60 Plus G programming language, the disposition of a grid is randomly altered, demonstrating the generative or creative capacity of computational devices.
However, the first works by these mathematicians (which were part of the show that took place in the galleries of the Museum of Fine Arts) consisted of interpretations of significant Constructivist works from art history. For example, in 1965, A. Michael Noll used a computer to recreate Composition with Lines (Composition in Black and White) (1917) by Piet Mondrian.
Likewise, Frieder Nake decided to undertake a tribute to Paul Klee. However, at this point we stumble upon something peculiar, as the text from the Museum of Fine Arts of Caracas states that the work being remade is Die Zwitscher-Maschine (The Twittering Machine, 1922) by Paul Klee. “Frieder Nake attempted to imitate Paul Klee’s drawing The Twittering Machine using the same signs, circles, horizontal and diagonal lines, in the form of a computer graphic.”
However, in online sources such as the Digital Art Data Base, which was founded by Nake himself, this digital graphic is said to respond to another work by Klee, Hauptweg und Nebenwege (Main Path and Byways, 1929). The database contains a brief review regarding confusion and errors in other publications, along with an explanation of the operations performed by the computational machine in order to pay homage to the work, through which Bense’s aesthetic proposals are put into practice.
This new aesthetic that Bense proposed, based on information or computer data, expanded within the exhibition to create an outlook that brought design, architecture, optics and holography together with cybernetics, demonstrating the contributions that could arise from that exchange by showing some of the computer-generated drawings at the pavilion for the “German Industry” exhibition in Sao Paulo in 1970, in which a short film was presented that allowed for a bird’s-eye view of the pavilion as well as a 360-degree tour. Beyond being used exclusively to project the structure, the computer was also utilized to calculate the quantities of material necessary for its construction.
The objective aesthetic proposed by Bense brought about the first generative works by computers, a moment in which the questions posed by cybernetics began to be introduced into the field of art, along with considerations of the place of computers in the future, their intrinsic problems and the potential promises they could fulfill.
Today, the computer is the primary tool used for processing our contemporary reality. Thinking about Bense’s proposals regarding its creative capacity has proven rich territory for researchers in cybernetics, telecommunications and semiotics. Today, Google is setting out the possibility of creating an artificial intelligence that is sensitive to art, capable of interpreting images, recognizing faces and producing images itself. Even still, the debate regarding art and its relationship with technology remains open, presenting crucial questions regarding where creation resides, how art relates to technology and how computer-generated images fit into the art world.
Translated from the Spanish by Phillip Penix-Tadsen
 Title borrowed from a news article in El Nacional, June 7, 1974.
 In 1960, the term “plotter” had yet to be coined; it was first used to refer to the Zuse Graphomat Z 64, a machine for drafting maps invented by engineer Konrad Zuse.
 News article, Oscar Rojas Jiménez, El Universal, Sunday, June 9, 1974.
 Max Bense, Aesthetica.
 Bense, Small Abstract Aesthetics (1969).
 Published text for Art by Computer, Museum of Fine Arts.