Computer art at the V&A


Honor Beddard
Curator, Word and Image Department, V&A


The Victoria and Albert Museum has been collecting computer art since the 1960s. In recent times, it has acquired two significant collections of computer-generated art and design, which form the basis of the UK’s national collection. This article considers the collection within the context of the V&A, as well as its wider cultural and ideological context.

 The arrival of the computer into both the creative process and the creative industries is perhaps one of the most culturally significant developments of the last century. Yet until recently, few, if any, UK museums have collected material that comprehensively illustrates and charts this change. The donation of two substantial collections of computer-generated art and design to the Word and Image Department of the Victoria and Albert Museum offers the opportunity to redress this. The donations have considerably strengthened our holdings in this area and the museum is now home to the national collection of computer-generated art and design. These acquisitions(收購) will allow the museum to re-assess(重新評估) the impact of the computer’s arrival and to attempt to position these works within an art historical context for the first time.

The importance of such an endeavour has been recognised by the awarding of  a substantial Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) grant to the V&A  and Birkbeck College, University of London. Since 2007, research has focused  on investigating the origins of computer-generated art from the 1950s, and its development through subsequent decades. As well as full documentation and cataloguing  of the collections, the V&A is organising a temporary display entitled ‘Digital  Pioneers’, opening in December 2009, which will draw almost entirely from the  newly acquired collections and recent acquisitions. This will coincide with  a larger V&A exhibition, ‘Decode: Digital Design Sensations’, which will  include important international loans of contemporary digital art and design,  alongside new commissions. (1) ‘Digital Pioneers’ will present a historical  counterpart to the contemporary exhibition, encouraging comparisons that, until  now, have been drawn far less frequently. A conference covering the subject  matter of both exhibitions will take place in early spring 2010 and will create  an academic forum in which these comparisons can be examined more fully. We  hope it will also allow for an opportunity to further the process of documenting  and recording the history of this field.

The intention of this article is to give a broad introduction to the area of  computer-generated art and design within the V&A, as well as considering  its wider art historical context, both in Britain and abroad. Intended as a  starting point for those who find themselves interested in the topic, a reading  list on this area is available on the V&A’s webpages at

The Word and Image Department and the new computer art collections

The Word and Image Department of the V&A encompasses prints, drawings,  paintings, photographs, designs and the National Art Library. It holds approximately  two million objects ranging from the Middle Ages to the present day. The V&A  has always relied on the generosity of donations to continue to expand and strengthen  its holdings. The new acquisitions from the Computer Arts Society, London, and  American art historian and collector, Patric Prince, provide an extraordinarily  broad range of computer-generated art and design that complements many other  areas of collecting within the department, such as graphic design. (2) The Department  was particularly well placed to accept this material, embracing in its collecting  policy those works or creative endeavours that fall between fine art and design,  such as early computer-generated work, including animation and graphics. The  Department also places significant emphasis on process and technique alongside  the finished product, actively collecting objects such as printing tools and  equipment, for example, as well as documentary material that demonstrates work  in progress.

At present, the V&A’s computer art collections consist predominately of  works on paper, including early plotter drawings by important pioneers such  as Manfred Mohr, and examples of early animation stills and negatives. Holdings  range from screenprints, lithographs and photographs of early analogue computer-generated  images from the mid 1950s, to digital images from the 1960s onwards. Together,  the two founding collections contain around 350 art works. In addition, the  V&A has made significant acquisitions since the beginning of the research  project, which include works by key computer art pioneers such as Paul Brown,  Harold Cohen, James Faure Walker, Desmond Paul Henry, Roman Verostko and Mark  Wilson. (3)

The Patric Prince collection was accompanied by a substantial archive of material  charting the development of computer-generated art. Prince’s husband, Robert  Holzman, worked at the NASA Jet Propulsion Lab in America and encouraged artists  to use the Lab’s powerful equipment out of hours. As a result, she had access  to early practitioners as and when they were experimenting with this equipment  for the first time. Gaining a reputation as an important curator and collector of computer art, artists corresponded regularly with Prince and the archive  includes this correspondence, as well as exhibition cards and literature for  computer related exhibitions in the US, and to a lesser extent elsewhere, from  the 1980s onwards. Press cuttings from mainstream newspapers provide illuminating  evidence about prevailing attitudes to the use of computers in art during this  time. A substantial library of books now listed on the National Art Library’s  catalogue offers a virtually unparalleled reading list for this field, and includes important early and rare texts. (4)

Defining computer art

Quadrate (Squares), Herbert W. Franke, 1969/70. Museum no. E.113-2008

Figure 5 – Herbert W. Franke, ‘Quadrate (Squares)’, 1969/70. Screenprint after a plotter drawing. Museum no. E.113-2008. Given by the Computer Arts Society, supported by System Simulation Ltd, London

The arrival of a complex field of art and design into a national museum has  intensified a need to further define and record the history of this area. Computer art’s development across the fields of mathematics, engineering, computer science  and industry, as well as the fine and applied arts, means that its history is  a shared one, with the term ‘computer art’ meaning different things to different  people at different times. Within the context of the V&A’s collection, computer  art can be understood as a historical term that relates to artists using the  computer as a tool or a medium from around the 1960s until the early 1980s. At this point, the appearance of off-the-shelf software and the widespread adoption  of personal computers meant that more people were able to use the computer as  a graphical tool without needing a background in programming. Simultaneously,  the nature of computer-generated art changed irretrievably. As the sector widened, more artists began to work with digital technologies in increasingly open and  interchangeable ways. The intense focus of early practitioners on basic hardware  and the very building blocks of the computer – something which stills drives  them today, even in the face of more sophisticated technology – is particular  to that first generation of computer artists.

Early beginnings

Figure 6 – Manfred Mohr, ‘P-021’, 1970, Edition 51/80, from the portfolio Scratch Code: 1970-1975, published by Editions Média, Manfred Mohr, 1976. Screenprint after a plotter drawing. Museum no.E.977:6-2008. Given by the American Friends of the V&A through the generosity of Patric Prince

Some of the earliest practitioners were scientists and mathematicians, since  mainframe computers could only be found in large industrial or university laboratories.  Equally, a scientific or mathematical training offered the expertise necessary  to program the cumbersome and complicated early computers that offered no visual  interface – something that would have been virtually impossible for the ‘lay  person’. The involvement of scientists and mathematicians, some of whom went  on to adopt the role of ‘artist’, is one reason why many in the mainstream art  world had difficulty in accepting computer-generated art, both at the time and  for years to come. Until recently it was extremely rare to find any mention  of computer-generated art in accounts of modern and contemporary art history  from the 1960s onwards. Yet an analysis of this type of work reveals many similarities  with other better known movements of the same era, some of which are touched on below. (5)

Conversely, at the time of its production, computer art was widely written  about and documented – more so, in fact, than other movements from a similar  period, such as Conceptual Art. (6) Early computer art shared its origins with  scientific visualisation techniques and much of its development continued to  be charted through science or mathematics journals, with the imagery produced  being regarded as merely a by-product of the more serious scientific pursuits.  This situation, and computer art’s inextricable relationship with the technology  on which it relied, has meant that until recently, most texts on computer art  have tended to be structured around a techno-centric narrative. Other technology-focused  art forms that emerged alongside computer art, such as kinetic art and video  art, have fared better and kept their place in the history books. The constantly  changing technology on which computer art relied, and the speed at which it  developed, meant that recording it was difficult and accounts were frequently  out of date. Computer art did find fame, however, in the more mainstream press  of its day. The mechanical drawings of Desmond Paul Henry, of which the V&A  hold three early examples, were created using an analogue bombsight computer  adapted by the artist into a drawing machine. They were reported in ‘The Guardian’,  the BBC’s ‘North at Six’ series, and, had it not been for the assassination  of John F. Kennedy, ‘Time Magazine’. ‘The Guardian’ article of 1962 described  Henry’s images as, ‘quite out of this world’ and, ‘almost impossible to produce  by human hands’. (7) The sensationalist tone sets it apart from more scholarly  art criticism and suggests the novelty of this new type of art, as well as a  sense of the utopianism surrounding the new technology that was still felt by  many at this time. (8)

Influences and interests

Letters from my Mother, Vera Molnar, Screenprint after a plotter drawing, 1988. Museum no. E.1079-2008

Figure 7 – Vera Molnar, ‘Letters from my Mother’, 1988. Screenprint after a plotter drawing, Artists Proof. Museum no. E.1079-2008. Given by the American Friends of the V&A through the generosity of Patric Prince

The influences on early computer artists are varied, but the increasing interest  in and application of cybernetic(控制論) theories, which followed heavy military investment  in computing during World War II, encouraged a new way of thinking and working  that permeated(滲透) the arts as well as other elements of culture and society. C.P.  Snow’s influential Cambridge Rede lecture of 1959, ‘The Two Cultures and the  Scientific Revolution’, (9) in which he argued for the uniting of the humanities  and the natural sciences, did much to foster a supportive atmosphere for such  work. (10) The application of cybernetic theories in the field of aesthetics  was developed by a number of theorists working at this time, amongst them Max  Bense. Bense’s influence has been acknowledged by several early pioneers in  the field of computer art and design, most particularly, within the context  of the V&A’s collection, the Germany-based practitioners Frieder Nake and  Georg Nees, and, in America, A. Michael Noll. (11)

Max Bense and information aesthetics

Studies in Perception I, Screenprint after a computer-generated print , Leon Harmon and Ken Knowlton, 1997. Museum no. E.963-2008

Figure 8 – Leon Harmon and Ken Knowlton, ‘Studies in Perception I’, 1997. Screenprint after a computer-generated print. Museum no. E.963-2008. Given by the American Friends of the V&A through the generosity of Patric Prince

Between the years 1954 and 1965, Bense developed his theories of information  aesthetics, through which he attempted to establish a scientific model for creating,  or understanding, successful aesthetics. Bense argued for an objective, rational  approach that included ‘breaking down’ images into their mathematical values  and using theories examining the relationship between order and chaos in the  composition. Bense was a key figure of the Stuttgart school, an intellectual  movement that incorporated theories of information aesthetics into its thinking.  He was also professor of the philosophy of technology, scientific theory, and  mathematical logic at the Technical University of Stuttgart, from 1949 to 1976.  Computer art pioneer Frieder Nake was studying mathematics at the Technical  University during this time and has acknowledged the influence of Bense’s lectures.  From 1961 to 1964, Nake worked as an assistant in the University’s computer  centre. Whilst there, he wrote software that enabled him to use the centre’s  ZUSE Z64 ‘Graphomat’ – an early computer-driven drawing machine – as an output  device for the centre’s computer (an SEL ER65).




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