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The Algorithmic Revolution - Heavy machinery and abstract art in a new context at ZKM

[August 25th 2005]

Konrad Zuse, ZUSE Z22 computer, serial number 13, 1957. Permanent item on loan by the state of Land Baden-Württemberg / University of Applied Sciences Karlsruhe – Academy for Technics. Photo: Soeren Pold.

The Algorithmic Revolution
Heavy machinery and abstract art in a new context at ZKM

'Usually, a revolution is about to happen and it announces itself with a 'roar'. The Algorithmic Revolution has already happened, and, despite remaining largely unnoticed, it has been all the more effective. There is, namely, no longer any area of our social and cultural life that is not penetrated by algorithms: Cameras, cars, planes, ships, household appliances, hospitals, banks, factories, shopping malls, traffic, architecture, literature, art, music. The Algorithmic Revolution began around 1930 in science, around 1960 in art. ' (Peter Weibel, ZKM 2004).

The German Centre for Art and Media (ZKM) in Karlsruhe is currently showing the exhibition The Algorithmic Revolution which presents a historical outline of this radical change in the fine arts, music, design and architecture. The exhibition draws both on the ZKM collection and selected loans. It can be experienced until December 2005.

Two writers let themselves be inspired and give two different views on the exhibition in two separate articles. Here is what Soeren Pold wrote. Soeren Pold is ph.d, associate professor and head of the research project 'The Aesthetics of the Interface Culture' at the Digital Aesthetics Research Centre in Aarhus, Denmark. Translation: Sofie Paisley.

Inside the glass door by the entrance to the art exhibition 'The Algorithmic Revolution' at ZKM stands a giant machine, which with its weight of 1000 kg radiates equal parts white lab coats, German objectivity and wirtschaftswunder. It's a Zuse Z22 from 1957, the seventh computer from the world's first computer start-up company, Konrad Zuse AG, and the oldest functioning vacuum-tube computer. It makes a serious humming noise and its 415 electron tubes radiate, and is in this way an esthetical object in itself, drawing admiring and inquisitive glances. You can look in at the tubes, study the teleprinter and the control panel. At the same time it is a mysterious machine - you can't see what it does and how it processes its data - you can't read or follow the algorithms. It was used within building technology, aerodynamics and the construction of nuclear reactors, but some of the very first digital art was also created on it.

Konrad Zuse, ZUSE Z22 computer, serial number 13, 1957. Permanent item on loan by the state of Land Baden-Württemberg / University of Applied Sciences Karlsruhe – Academy for Technics. Image courtesy of ZKM.

Digital literature was made on this computer as early as 1959, when Theo Lutz made computer generated texts based on The Castle by Franz Kafka, which was one of the very first experiments with digital literature.

But at the same time, the machine precisely indicates the dilemma and starting point of digital art: unlike the steam engine which Danish writer Johannes V. Jensen and others praised 100 years ago, the computer lacks sensuous features. Even though Zuse's vacuum-tube model can instil respect in most people, the point is the invisible and unreadable, which takes place in the computer. The computer's processing of data is invisible to most, we only see the results, and the computer's cultural influence has in this way to a large extent centred on making processes invisible and on heightening their efficiency - about complex quantities of data automatically stored and put into effect in opaque bureaucracies. The most important digital art therefore works with the relation between visible versus invisible, sensuous versus concealed, meaningful versus coded. This makes it partially step out of the sensuous, which is otherwise the domain of art. Maybe this is the reason it is so frequently overlooked?

An algorithm is an unambiguous and abstract description of how a specific type of problem is solved. One example is a food recipe or instruction for how to assemble Ikea furniture. If algorithms are completely logical and contain all their requirements they can be carried out by a computer and turned into digital data. The function of computers is actually more or less controlled by algorithms: from the control system to the chips and to the software used on top of the control system, and the routines the software is used for performing.

Algorithmic images
If you think digital art is a new thing - which would be easy to think from the highly sporadic treatment of the subject by Danish museums - then visiting the ZKM and the Zuse Z22 is a good idea. As the literary experiments on the Z22 points to, the first artists used the computer 40-50 years ago. As early as 1955-56, composers worked with computers and ten years later we see the first experiments with algorithmic images and animations created on the computers of the day.

Frieder Nake, who was among the first three artists to exhibit visual computer art in 1965, also started his artistic experiments on Zuse Z22, but the works displayed at ZKM were made on later computers. Frieder Nake's early works are, as several of other early works, attempts at visualising algorithms and algorithmic processes. At making visible the invisible and visualising the abstract.

Frieder Nake: Random Polygon (13/9/65 Nr. 7). China ink on paper, 1965, 40 x 40 cm

One example of this is images that let random processes determine the number of edges on a polygon, their lengths and directions, such as Random Polygon (1965). Or the works where elements are repeated in series, but transposed by the way individual parameters are changed and influenced by coincidence. Nake's art is, similarly to other algorithmic art, a kind of art that depicts the relationship between rigid order and chance, and how new both organic and rational structures occur.

Artificial art
Frieder Nake was a math student in Stuttgart and was given permission to experiment with the computer at night in the early 1960s. The first time digital art (by Georg Nees) was exhibited in February 1965 in Stuttgart, other more traditional artists reacted with negativity according to Nake. Max Bense, the organiser, tried defending the digital art against the insulted artists as being 'artificial art'. An art that was not directly traceable back to a creative artist expressing himself or his intentions, but which was created with the help of programmed computers which most viewed (and still view) as far from the domain of art.

Digital art, however, was not created in a vacuum. At the time of its appearance the most advanced parts of the art scene were preoccupied with opening art in new ways and towards new dimensions. Several of these movements, such as Op-Art, Fluxus and kinetic art, are beneficially viewed in relation to the cultural history of the computer. The exhibition establishes this obvious connection by including these contemporary movements, and it thus places digital art in an art-historic connection. At the same time, the exhibition points out that the advanced art scene of the 1960s was preoccupied with, and can with advantage be viewed in relation to the arrival and growing importance of the computer.

The analogue cousins of algorithmic art
The Fluxus artists dealt exhaustedly with coincidence and with recipes or instructions as art. At the exhibition you can for example see George Brecht's 'Universal Machine' from 1965, named after the computer theoretician Alan Turing's famous description of the computer as a universal machine and not just as a calculator, which had previously been imagined. Brecht's universal machine is a box with things in it, which, when you shake the box, can be arranged randomly on some images. The box also contains some texts indicating how an interpretation of the placing of the objects in relation to the images can answer different questions for the art user.

The exhibition contains several examples of the Fluxus artists' use of instructions as art, e.g. Tomas Schmidt's typewriter poem from 1964, which is a typewriter keyboard with numbers indicating which order to press down the keys in order to produce a poem. In the exhibited form the poem is unreadable - it has to be executed before it can be read - and the instruction is thus an unreadable code in the same way as a computer program. The typewriter poem, however, points out this illegibility in the algorithmic, functional language - actually, it is this awareness that is its artifice. Similarly, digital art points out the way the artist and the human sender take a step back in relation to the expression. The machine creates the expression - the artist has like the lab-coated scientist become an experimenting operator.

The potential of the algorithm was also explored in other ways within contemporary analogue art. The Op-Art movement made virtual images, created by effects in perception - a kind of magic images pointing towards the installations created today by an artist such as Olafur Eliasson. Other artists were like the mobiles of the kinetic art, more preoccupied with dynamics - movements that never repeat themselves, and require an interacting user to get started. The work becomes a machine without a practical function such as Jean Tinguely's kinetic reliefs and sculptures.

Jean Tinguely, Matrac, 1966, kinetic object, Donation Niki de Saint Phalle, Museum Tinguel, Basel. Photo: Christian Baur, Basel. Image courtesy of ZKM.

In this way, the subject is art, which requires a user and an unfolding before being realised. Works that are not realised until you interact with them, and which in this way to a lesser extent express something in themselves. But this is where art reflects the potential in, and the consequences of, the algorithmic revolution. The machines become expressive in a new way - they are not merely impressive objects such as steam engines, but become a part of communication itself. The artist can in return take a step back for the benefit of the user, who through the interaction realizes the work. Art in this way depicts that a new sign and a new machine has entered the world, mediating the relationship between us.

The computer's culture
In the early sixties these artists already recognised that culture and society was rapidly changing, and that large humming machines such as the Zuse Z22 were an important player in this revolution. Even though it had at first been overlooked, it was also culture, social structures and art, which came out of the computer. While most people only saw white lab coats and technical usages, these visionary artists saw the seed of a new culture and a new art. And their visions still seem very fresh in spite of the many years - like visions we are maybe only now beginning to understand and appreciate. At times they are even shockingly visionary compared to the more every day interaction we have with the computer today. Perhaps the potential of the computer was more easily imagined then, when it was not as ordinary and normalised.

Of course, the algorithmic revolution does not end in the 1960s. Artistically, the digital art developed into net art, software art and digital installations of our day, also displayed at the exhibition. Frieder Nake has stated that he and the other early computer artists were often frustrated about only being able to exhibit static printouts, when the actual art was the algorithmic process and its infinity of potential expressions. Later on it has of course become possible to exhibit dynamic and interactive works, such as Golan Levin or Casey Rea's generative works. Computer art has also developed into some spectacular and thought provoking installations, such as Perry Hoberman's Bar Code Hotel (1994) where the audience gets to play with a world of 3D figures via bar codes.

Perry Hoberman, Barcode Hotel, 1994, Interactive Environment, ZKM Collection. Photo: Emil Bach Soerensen.

These works have to a large extent been related to their historic roots, when shown in connection with the early algorithmic art. In this connection they are not only understood as more or less magical and spectacular works with a playing user in the centre, but also as works that unfold the algorithmic process - that take part in the algorithmic revolution.

If you are still hungry for more, ZKM also houses other exhibitions reflecting a fresh look at the societal role of art, e.g. the currently interesting, but somewhat messy, 'Making Things Public' (curated by Peter Weibel and Bruno Latour). In the media museum's collection is also a series of trend setting media artworks by Bill Viola, Nam June Paik along with significant digital works by e.g. Jeffrey Shaw. It becomes apparent that also video art looks good in ZKM's digital media-artistic connection. Finally, the museum also houses a section for computer games. You can safely set aside a couple of days if you are in the southwest corner of Germany.

About ZKM:
The Centre for Art and Media, in German ZKM, has since opening in 1997 been situated in an enormous closed down ammunitions factory in the Rhine city of Karlsruhe, close to the French border. The building houses a media museum, a museum of new art, an art academy plus a number of production- and research departments. Peter Weibel has been the leader of ZKM since 1999. Apart from its large collection of modern art, ZKM is among the leading museums in the world within video-, media-, and digital art. More about ZKM:

More about Soeren Pold:


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