Art + Computer / Time presents computer-generated imagery from the Anne and Michael Spalter Digital Art Collection. Fifteen of the most important early practitioners of digital art are represented in the exhibit. Seven recent digital videos by Leslie Thornton and Anne Morgan Spalter are also shown, including their new collaboration, “Digging in the Water.” Presently comprising more than 1,000 works, collected over the past twenty years and encompassing works from 1954 to the present, the Spalter Collection is one of the most comprehensive bodies of early computer art in the world.
Digital art refers to any art generated by a computer. Merging art, science, and technology, the boundaries are fluid and flexible, continually evolving as technology itself evolves. The artists in this exhibition defy easy categorization and draw from numerous artistic disciplines such as film, video, painting, sculpture, writing, and music.
Many of the first practitioners of computer-generated art were mathematicians and scientists. Their intense fascination with the new technology led them to experiment with its core components in order to explore its graphic and artistic capabilities. Many of their works were created with handwritten code, or utilized software adapted for creative purposes.
Early computer art tended to be linear, geometric, and abstract. Although largely a result of the computer’s limited capacities at that time, these attributes also reflect modernist culture and prevalent art movements such as minimalism, geometric abstraction, and surrealism.
The first person credited with creating computer art, in 1950, was Ben F. Laposky, a mathematician, artist, and draftsman from Iowa. “Electronic Abstractions” consists of wave-like abstract geometric patterns composed from photographs of the screen of an oscilloscope, a device used to observe changes in electrical currents over time.
Frieder Nake, a German mathematician, composer, and scientist, was another pioneer of computer art. In the mid-1960s he wrote programs that used a plotter, a mechanical device linked to a computer that controls the movements of a pen to generate drawings. Nake’s three-color, dense, precise plotter drawings reduce complex data and processes to a visual vocabulary of marks combined into compositions with random yet constrained variation.
Originally a painter, Vera Molnár has employed computer-generated imagery extensively since 1968. Using the computer to process information quickly, she investigates geometric lines and shapes. Like Nake, Molnár uses a plotter to create digitally generated drawings. By injecting small programming “interferences,” she offsets mathematically predictable outcomes, adding an element of chance to her imagery. The relationship between order and disorder, intuition and intention, has informed Molnár’s ongoing work for decades.
The 1980s saw computer graphics and special effects spread into filmmaking and home computing. Artists had access to more and more sophisticated programs in which to create digital art without needing to be scientists themselves.
Leslie Thornton and Anne Morgan Spalter have been colleagues (at Brown University and RISD) for many years. They share a fascination with mathematics, skyscrapers, planes, industrial machines, water in motion, clouds, and amusement parks. Yet their tools, processes, and intended results are often very different.
A seminal figure in contemporary filmmaking, Leslie Thornton pushes the boundaries of cinema, video, digital media, narrative structures, and installation. Weaving throughout Thornton’s oeuvre is a fascination with urbanism, industrial sites, machinery, water, animals, and motion. Regardless of the imagery, her goal is to “position the viewer as an active reader, not a consumer.”
In the three-channel digital video “Luna,” an image of the iconic 1939 Parachute Jump tower at Coney Island is immersed in a video of swarming seagulls. The digitally reprocessed image continually reformats, creating kaleidoscopic mandalas as it changes from black and white to hypercolor. A “whole new universe,” as Thornton calls it, quivers between abstraction and representation in the process of formation.
The video’s audio track is drawn from diverse sound recordings, some archival, spanning from 1900 to the present. Place, memory, and technology merge and separate while subtly shifting our perceptions of what is real or imaginary. “Luna” offers multiple layers for interpretation, as the ordinary transitions to the extraordinary, bringing the deep, mysterious complexities of the moment into an endlessly shifting almost-focus.
Anne Morgan Spalter’s career reflects an abiding interest in integrating art and technology. Spalter travels broadly, shooting videos (often from helicopters) that reflect her interest in the modern landscape, through both subject matter and the digital processes she uses to create her work.
“World of Water,” is a four-minute digital video based on footage Spalter shot at Volcano Falls Adventure Park in northern Illinois. Customized algorithms transform the video footage into a kaleidoscopic landscape that is both hypnotic and meditative. Mandalic forms appear and dissipate, a boy in an orange shirt wanders, tigers emerge from blue waters, and we become dislocated from, yet rooted within, a nebulous landscape and the moment.
“Digging in the Water,” Thornton and Spalter’s first artistic collaboration, is a new digital work created specifically for this exhibit. The artists have produced a hauntingly beautiful piece from Thornton’s video footage of dredging at Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn. A swirling mandalic image moves over water, sludge, and the dredging machine as light reflects from cascading and swirling water. On one level, the video depicts an industrial landscape. But as the rhythms pull the viewer into a deeper space, both kinetically and metaphorically, water, colors, muck, and the machine become inseparable abstractions.
— Christine Holderness
Art + Computer / Time features work by the following artists, in addition to those mentioned above: Leon Harmon and Kenneth Knowlton, Desmond Paul Henry, Jean-Pierre Hébert, Henry Mandell, Manfred Mohr, Richard Rosenblum, Roman Verostko, Mark Wilson, and Edward Zajec.
All work in the exhibit is on loan from the Spalter family.
Artwork: Ben F. Laponsky, Electronic Abstraction 4, (1954-56)noscilloscope, high-speed fil, photo paper, 9 x 7.5 inches