IASLonline NetArt: Theory

Thomas Dreher

History of Computer Art

I. Introduction

auf Deutsch

Books on the history of computer art discuss either the developments being contemporary at the time of their publication 1, or they integrate computer art into histories of new media art. 2 After five decades of computer art more detailed reconstructions of the development lines of the use of computers and computing processes in artists´ projects are helpful for being able to recognize computer art as a distinct field of media art.

Computer experts experimented in the fifties and sixties for the first time with mainframe computers and developed several ways to use them in art and entertainment. Several projects of pioneers have been developed further by younger artists profiting from the progress of technology producing smaller and smaller computers. These works constitute a dense field of possibilities that contemporary artists can take up and evolve further. Meanwhile in the sixties and seventies information aesthetics offered a goal turning working with computing processes into a project shared by many artists, after the postmodern criticism of such dominant `projects´ a plurality of technological configurations has been developed complicating the effort to present an overview: We are faced with an advanced stage of the differentiation of computer art.

This overview integrates animation and games as relevant development lines of computer art and doesn´t avoid confrontations between corporative organized and distributed arts on one side and on the other side artistic developments beside the interest of investors and corporative organized production methods, because both sides realize different aspects of "computational aesthetics". 3 To avoid artificial separations between three-dimensional visual simulations in digital film animations and computer games on the one hand and in computer art on the other hand these developments are discussed as being equivalent, complementary, or paradigmatic.

Computer art evolves partially in simultaneous development lines: The evolution of computer art is multilinear. Each of the chapters features one of these lines. The sequence of the chapters results from the dates of the early mature projects being examples for the main characteristics of a line in a trailblazing manner. The successors of the first mature projects are not included in this outline of the history of computer art. Some development lines have longer evolution phases provoked by the evolution of computer technology from mainframe computers to personal computers (see chap. IV.2.1, VI and VII).

The development lines are sketched out hereinafter, and the succession of the chapters helps to get a survey of the overal development.

Cybernetics thematise characteristics common to technic and biologic systems (see chap. I.1). William Ross Ashby´s "homeostat" and the self navigating robots constructed by William Grey Walter are technical models whose characteristics to react to external factors are to find in biological systems, too (see chap. I.2). These cybernetic models are technical demonstrations for systems navigating themselves in environments under changing conditions. Ashby´s und Walter´s models prefigured cybernetic sculptures. Cybernetic sculptures differ from three-dimensional kinetic art with moving parts 4 in its capabilities to react to environmental influences with programmed elements (see chap. II.3).

The capabilities of mainframe computers to combine signs following programmed rules demonstrate texts that have been generated for the first time in the fifties (s. Kap. III.1). The combinations of letters to build words, combinations of words, parts of sentences, and sentences prefigure a method to organize computing processes that was used and modified in the sixties in computer graphics to generate configurations with a repertory of visual signs. Computers are used as instruments to generate partial realisations of the possible combinations of a visual system´s elements. The results of the computing processes are printed by plotters.

The cybernetics-based information aesthetics offer ciriteria for combinations of visual elements avoiding over- as well as undercomplexity of a print´s appearance. Meanwhile works of Serial-Concrete Art are composed by rules combining visual elements without derivations 5, computer graphics combine serial with pseudo-random procedures (algorithmic procedures to generate non-serial events). Information as a measure for visual perception (see chap. II.2.2) is added to "information" as a measure for technical procedures (see chap. II.1.3).

In the seventies the arising video cultures follow political and formal experimental tendencies. A part of the last tendency are the developments of video synthesizers beginning with analogue components and using digital components since the end of the seventies. Artist use the video synthesizers for the production of 2D-video films (see chap. IV.1). Simultaneously in the seventies methods for 3D simulations with digital mainframe computers are developed and at the beginning of the eighties it is possible for the first time to produce the figures and spaces of sequences for movies exclusively with computer animation (see chap. IV.2).

In the eighties animation procedures for virtual bodies and surfaces are integrated in Evolutionary Art by borrowing from theories on evolution (see chap. IV.3).

Since the end of the eighties reactive installations offer interfaces for real-time navigation in simulations of three-dimensional worlds to visitors of art exhibitions (see chap. V). In the eighties on one side mainframe computers offer 3D real-time animations, meanwhile on the other side personal computers are used (simultaneously with consoles) for games with still rudimentary 3D simulations (see chap. VII.1.3).

In the eighties programs are developed in the demoscene for introductions (intros) to cracked games using codes for scroll texts and moving graphics to control directly the graphic chips of personal computers (see chap. IV.4.3).

In the nineties on one side the 3D animation for personal computers in games, demos and others becomes usual, on the other side a culture of linked (parts of) texts is created by the web´s combination of hypertext and telecommunication (see chap. VI.2.2, VI.2.3) with possibilities to embed low resolution images and short films. In the web of the nineties images and films can get no other than accompanying functions because the transmission time still stretches the users´ patience.

The personal computer culture in bulletin board systems was a precursor of the web in the nineties. The development of net art starts with the internet of the eighties (see chap. VI.I.2), meanwhile the basics of computer networks and the hypertext have been worked out much earlier (see chap. VI.2.1).

In relation to their precursors in the fifties and sixties (see chap. III.1.2, III.1.3, III.2.2) the mutual influences between literature and art are intensified in the networks of the eighties (see chap. VI.1.2) and in the internet of the nineties (see chap. VI.2.2, VI.2.3) because net literature as well as net art use and thematise hypertext structures.

Projects of HTML art (see chap. VI.3.2) and projects of browser art (see chap. VI.3.3) thematise the web conditions of the nineties. Some source codes of these projects don´t operate after the disappearance of the early web conditions.

The easy availability of data via web access, its storability and their repeatability in follow-on projects provoke artistic projects demonstrating and thematising (apparent) transgressions of copyright restrictions. The American copyright permits in the "Doctrine of Fair Use" to repeat parts of art works for comments. Artists criticise a certain kind of commercialized culture by using montages and modifications of copyrighted works. These re-uses provoke the proprietors of copyrights (and its exploiters) to strengthen their efforts to restrict the applicability of the "Doctrine of Fair Use" via jurisdiction. 6 Two websites from 2002-2003 are selected as examples presenting texts and artistic projects as critical studies of this important aspect of the net culture (see chap. VI.3.4) offering pleas for a Copyleft and Creative Commons culture.

In the forties computer games were not only a side-line of experts but a means to demonstrate the performance of computers to a lay public (see chap. VII.1). The arcade games for amusements centers and the consoles for consumer TVs made it possible to play video games with a hardware constructed for specific needs. In the seventies they became a branch of the entertainment industry (see chap. VII.1.2).

In the eighties personal or home computers are are not only used for EDP (electronic data processing), but with games they become a device for leisure activities. In the nineties strategy games offer an alternative to the popular shooting games. Both kinds of games integrate players in different ways into 3D simulations (see chap. VII.1.3).

Contrary to the multiplayer online games (MMOG), pervasive games are played with and against participants in real environments. Characteristics of pervasive games are short play times without levels and the players´ task to coordinate informations received via mobile devices with conditions as they are found in the environment (see chap. VII.2).

The game-oriented interface-model presented in the chapter on pervasive games is developed further to a method for discourses on interactions between humans and computers (see chap. VIII.2). The developments of computer art are systematized as three modes to organize computing processes: Hypertextual, modular and generative procedures are the main ways to organize computing processes in projects realised by artists (see chap. VIII.1).


Dr. Thomas Dreher
Schwanthalerstraße 158
D-80339 München
Homepage with numerous articles on art history since the sixties, a. o. on Concept Art and Intermedia Art.

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1 Franke: Computergraphik 1971 on computer art of the fifties and sixties; Goodman: Visions 1987 with priority for the eighties; Paul: Art 2003 with priority for the nineties.
Taylor: Machine 2005 presents the history of computer graphics until the eighties. According to Taylor "the real legacy of the computer art phenomenon" (Taylor: Machine 2004, S.236) ended with a questionnaire of the art journal Leonardo (Supplemented Issue 1989) on the actual state of computer art and critical evaluations in the artists´ answers. For Taylor the key aspects of computer art are presented by computer graphics. The projects presented in the chapter VI, VI and VII can be used as examples to demonstrate that computer graphics lost this role in the seventies and eighties.
For improved readability masculine forms stand for the female forms as well: "He" or "his" are short forms for "she/he" and "her/his". back

2 Davis: Art 1973; Lovejoy: Currents 1997; Popper: Art 1993; Shanken: Art 2009.
Stephen Wilsons adds in "Information Arts" (Wilson: Information 2002) many short descriptions of many projects to many short chapters. His waiver of creation dates demonstrates that he didn´t intend a historical overview with a characterisation of central aspects. back

3 The use of the term aesthetics for artistic developments for and with computing processes makes sense only if its meaning is not restricted to visual phenomena. Hardware functions, interfaces, programs (software codes) and computing processes need to be taken into consideration as components of "computational aesthetics". back

4 In Kinetic Art parts of the works are moved by either engines or by movements of the air. On Kinetic Art: Buderer: Kinetische Kunst 1992, p.45-78; Burnham: Modern Sculpture 1968, p.262-284; Davis: Art 1973, p.53ss,123-135; Popper: Kinetische Kunst 1975, p.28-40. back

5 Compare series of works (and series in works) by Richard Paul Lohse, François Morellet and Marcello Morandini. On a Concrete Art organized by mathematics: Crone: Order 1978; Guderian: Parallelen 1997. back

6 Without author: United States Code, o.J. back


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