CYBERNETIC SERENDIPITY (1968) – THE COMPUTER AND THE ARTS

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by fosco lucarelli

contemporary artelectronic artspast futuressynthesizerstechnologyvisions

A breakthrough exhibition curated by Jasia Reichardt at the ICA London (from August 2nd to October 20th, 1968).

“It was the first exhibition to attempt to demonstrate all aspects of computer-aided creative activity: art, music, poetry, dance, sculpture, animation. The principal idea was to examine the role of cybernetics in contemporary arts. The exhibition included robots, poetry, music and painting machines, as well as all sorts of works where chance was an important ingredient. It was an intellectual exercise that became a spectacular exhibition in the summer of 1968.” Read full text from the press release at the bottom of the post.

Press Release for the exhibit curated by Jasia Reichardt at the ICA London August 2nd to October 20th, 1968:

«Cybernetics – derives from the Greek «kybernetes» meaning «steersman»; our word «governor» comes from the Latin version of the same word. The term cybernetics was first used by Norbert Wiener around 1948. In 1948 his book «Cybernetics» was subtitled «communication and control in animal and machine.» The term today refers to systems of communication and control in complex electronic devices like computers, which have very definite similarities with the processes of communication and control in the human nervous system.

A cybernetic device responds to stimulus(刺激物) from outside and in turn affects external environment, like a thermostat which responds to the coldness of a room by switching on the heating and thereby altering(改變) the temperature. This process is called feedback. Exhibits in the show are either produced with a cybernetic device (computer) or are cybernetic devices in themselves. They react to something in the environment, either human or machine, and in response produce either sound, light or movement.

Serendipity – was coined by Horace Walpole in 1754. There was a legend about three princes of Serendip (old name for Ceylon) who used to travel throughout the world and whatever was their aim or whatever they looked for, they always found something very much better. Walpole used the term serendipity to describe the faculty of making happy chance discoveries.

Through the use of cybernetic devides to make graphics, film and poems, as well as other randomising machines which interactc with the spectator, many happy discoveries were made. Hence the title of this show.» London 1968 Statement by the curator, Jasia Reichardt: «One of the journals dealing with the Computer and the Arts in the mid-sixties, was Computers and the Humanities. In September 1967, Leslie Mezei of the University of Toronto, opened his article on «Computers and the Visual Arts» in the September issue, as follows: «Although there is much interest in applying the computer to various areas of the visual arts, few real accomplishments have been recorded so far. Two of the causes for this lack of progress are technical difficulty of processing two-dimensional images and the complexity and expense of the equipment and the software. Still the current explosive growth in computer graphics and automatic picture processing technology are likely to have dramatic effects in this area in the next few years.»

The development of picture processing technology took longer than Mezei had anticipated, partly because both the hardware and the software continued to be expensive. He also pointed out that most of the pictures in existence in 1967 were produced mainly as a hobby and he discussed the work of Michael Noll, Charles Csuri, Jack Citron, Frieder Nake, Georg Nees, and H.P. Paterson. All these names are familiar to us today as the pioneers of computer art history. Mezei himself too was a computer artist and produced series of images using maple leaf design and other national Canadian themes. Most of the computer art in 1967 was made with mechanical computer plotters, on CRT displays with a light pen or from scanned photographs. Mathematical equations that produced curves, lines or dots, and techniques to introduce randomness, all played their part in those early pictures.

Art made with these techniques was instantaneously recognisable as having been produced either by mechanical means or with a program. It didn’t actually look as if it had been done by hand. Then, and even now, most art made with the computer carries an indelible computer signature. The possibility of computer poetry and art was first mentioned in 1949. By the beginning of the 1950s it was a topic of conversation at universities and scientific establishments, and by the time computer graphics arrived on the scene, the artists were scientists, engineers, architects.

Computer graphics were exhibited for the first time in 1965 in Germany and in America. 1965 was also the year when plans were laid for a show that later came to be called «Cybernetic Serendipity,» and presented at the ICA in London in 1968. It was the first exhibition to attempt to demonstrate all aspects of computer-aided creative activity: art, music, poetry, dance, sculpture, animation. The principal idea was to examine the role of cybernetics in contemporary arts. The exhibition included robots, poetry, music and painting machines, as well as all sorts of works where chance was an important ingredient. It was an intellectual exercise that became a spectacular exhibition in the summer of 1968. Jasia Reichardt London 2005

From the book: Cybernetic Serendipity (1968) – The Computer and the Arts
Higher defs here

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Link (http://dada.compart-bremen.de/)

Last change by jana on 15th of December 2010

Cybernetic Serendipity was the first large international exhibition of electronic, cybernetic, and computer art. It took place at the Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA) in London, UK, from 2 August to 20 October 1968.

There are reports saying that between 44,000 and 60,000 people visited the show during its more than two months duration. However, ICA did not take real counts.

Jasia Reichardt was the show’s chief curator. She headed a team also comprising Franciszka Themerson (exhibition and graphic design from Gaberbocchus Press, London); Mark Dowson (technological advisor from System Research Ltd., London); Peter Schmidt (music advisor, London).

The idea for the show had emerged when Max Bense visited the 1965 exhibition of concrete poetry at theICA and responded to Reichardt’s question, “what should I do next?”, by suggesting, she should look into computers. (It should be noted that only shortly before, on 5 February 1965, Bense had opened the first ever show of computer generated art in his Studiengalerie at Technische Hochschule (later: University) Stuttgart.

Cybernetic Serendipity was the first exhibition to attempt to demonstrate all aspects of computer-aided creative activity: art, music, poetry, dance, sculpture, animation. The principal idea was to examine the role of cybernetics in contemporary arts. The exhibition included robots, poetry, music and painting machines, as well as all sorts of works where chance was an important ingredient.

Cybernetic Serendipity was organised in three sections: 

• computer generated work 

• cybernetic devices-robots and painting machines

• machines demonstrating the use of computers and the history of cybernetics.

The exhibition dealt with an exploratory field, it aimed at INSIGHTS and FORESIGHT. One statement claimed, “one can foresee the day when computers will replace railway trains and airliners as the cult symbols of the under twelve’s”. Possibilities rather than achievements were its domain, and in this sense it was prematurely optimistic.

Parts of the show were shipped to the USA in 1969 to be displayed at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C. Some of the exhibits were damaged during transport. After repair, they were on display inWashington and the Exploratorium in San Francisco.

What remained after the exhibited works had been sold or returned to their owners, was transfered to the Kawasaki City Museum, Japan, at the time of Jasia Reichardt’s leave from the ICA in 1971. However nothing of the material is on display there. (The Exploratorium bought some of the works in April 1971.)

Estimates are that, in one way or another, 350 people contributed to the exhibition, among them 43 artists, composers and poets, and 87 engineers, computer scientists and philosophers.

The literature about the exhibition is substantial (see pointers below). In hindsight, one could characterize it as an intellectual exercise that became a spectacular event: noisy, funny, exciting. If digital media depend on two ingredients, event and research, then the first was Cybernetic Serendipity in London, the second, Tendencies in Zagreb (at the same time).

The year, 1968, is also the year of student protest and riots in the USA, France, West-Germany, and other countries – not, however, in the UK. “It could not have happened elsewhere,” one critique says.

ICA staff: Hercules Bellville, Juliet Brightmore, John Brown, Michael Bygrave, Pat Coomber, Brian Croft, Sue Davis, Michael Kustow, Julie Lawson, Mimi Lipton, Mary Llewelyn, Andrew Logan, Dorothy Morland, Sir Roland Penrose, John Sharkey, Leslie Stack, Ann Sullivan, and Darcy Vaughan-Games. For further research, it might be useful to know the names of five Bath Academy of Art students, who supported Franciszka Themerson: Colin Oven, Carolyn Robinson, Diana Seymour, David Skilbeck, and Noelle Stewart.

Exhibition Catalogue : Cybernetic Serendipity. The Computer and the Arts

Shown at: Institute of Contemporary Arts, ICA (1968-08-02 until 1968-10-20), Corcoran Gallery of Art(1969-07-16 until 1969-08-31), Exploratorium (1969-11-01 until 2009-12-18), , ,

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