Thinking Machines

A small exhibit at New York’s Museum of Modern Art presents seminal artistic collaborations between human + computer — and offers an opportunity to reflect on what such cooperation can mean for our increasingly hybrid world.

The Max Headroom Show, created by George Stone, Annabel Jankel and Rocky Morton in the 1980s.

One sympathizes with the challenge of the museum curator tasked with documenting recent history. Like a film critic asked if the Oscars got it right this year, one has to feel a sense of standing too close to the frame, the field of vision too narrow to provide the context necessary for proper judgment. After spending an afternoon among the various installations that comprise “Thinking Machines: Art and Design in the Computer Age: 1959–1989,” I wonder if this anxiety applied to the team tasked with creating this exhibit. In this case, I think not. Here, closeness to the frame is a virtue, not a vice.

The thread running through the exhibit’s diverse elements is both lucid and enjoyable: celebrating the collaborative possibilities between human artists and computational machines, and the energies unleashed when the humanistic meet the systematic. Tracing four decades of digital art, it’s the sheer human capacity required to make these bulky machines do our bidding that astounds, in these years before the breakthroughs of desktop publishing. Vera Molnar, for instance, creates intensely intricate geometric patterns by hand, before teaching a machine to plot it with a granularity and scale unachievable by human means. Beryl Korot uses a loom to weave literal textiles, and then renders the work digitally, making observable the inherent computational quality of a physical art form millennia old.

And in an astonishing example of the road not taken, Cedric Price’s ultimately-discarded design for an organization’s headquarters in Florida suggests a building comprised of 150 four-by-four-meter, fully serviced, air-conditioned cubes, each fitted with a logic chip that would allow users of the building to move the cubes at will to create a structure that fit the needs of the moment, the team, the required environment and the desired result. Price’s kicker anticipated machine learning: as users manipulated the space over time, the building’s computer that would, as he put it, “start dreaming up unsolicited plans.” Modern corporations have understood the idea of cube far too well for far too long; the idea of a movable cube is something our workplace design leaders are only now making into emerging forms of hybrid, flexible office space.

Cedric Price. Generator Project, White Oak, Florida, Plan of Menu 25, detail of S.W. Zone. 1978–1980.

In the exhibition’s moment of greatest pathos, iconic photographer Lee Friedlander captures the first wave of cubicle workers to use desktop computers — from the point of view of the screen. While we stare for the hours of our working days, captivated by the content we consume and produce, the silent screen stares back. You simply cannot scan Friedlander’s images without feeling a sense of disconcerting kinship. Not only are these images from not that long ago; these images are also, 1984 fashion and hairstyles aside, simply us.

In one highlighted photo, hanging alone at a distance from the rest, two women hunch over a thicket of cables, their fingers weaving the materials that would become an industrial computer. What we celebrate as digitalization, the image reminds us, required a human’s digits first. Turning away from the women, ten paces away stands a massive CM-2 Supercomputer, red lights darting and blinking, a bulky reminder of the brute physicality of early hardware.

Lee Friedlander. Boston, Massachusetts. 1985.
Lee Friedlander. Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin, 1986.

Fitting to the through-line of “Thinking Machines,” the exhibition’s rather small footprint foregrounds human interaction with the items — and with each other. The cozy viewing space means I could overhear the young students marveling at the individual punch cards required to operate the first computers. And the proud exclamations of MIT students seeing their institutions credited with breakthroughs. And the mothers and fathers looking at early digital photographs, reflecting on how close they looked to the birthday banners they’d printed on home inkjets. And the parents stopping to laugh in front of the video clips of “Max Headroom,” looking at their children to ask, “Don’t you remember this show?”

Of course they do not remember. But they do recognize. Unlike families a few floors up, wandering slowly past the French Surrealists or casting quick glances at the swirling lines of a Matisse, “Thinking Machines” showcases a kind of art whose fundamentals all living generations understand, the youngest among us most of all. To our current moment, defined by a creeping anxiety about what machine learning, automation, and artificial intelligence might mean for our experience as humans who work, this exhibit delivers an elegant message through its very medium: our future will be created cooperatively, in a partnership of carbon-based intelligence and silicon-based machinery, and what we do together will be both labor and art.

Waldemar Cordeiro, Gente Ampli*2, 1972.
Waldemar Cordeiro, Gente Ampli*2 (detail) 1972.