Digital Art has its origins in 1067–1046BC

Tom Barker
8 min readOct 27, 2017
“Expiry Dates” Digital Artwork by Dennis Kavelman; R&D by Tom Barker & Nick Puckett (2017)

Digital art became feasible after the invention of electronic digital computing and the evolution of digital art has run in parallel with digital technology. Perhaps surprisingly, electronic digital technology itself has philosophical and mechanical origins.

Logos

The first record of logic dates from 1067–1046BC when Esagil-kin-apli, the chief scholar of the Babylonian King, wrote a diagnostic handbook for healthcare. Esagil-kin-apli was a doctor of sorts and certainly a philosopher. A few centuries later Aristotle (384–322BC) developed logos, now known as logic, more formally. Logic was systematised by Boole much later on in 1847 and the modern computer still uses Boolean logic.

Once we had logic, we could have computers.

Computers from the machine age

Computers have a history that predates even the Victorian machine age. Joseph Marie Jacquard invented the famous Jacquard loom in 1804. This loom used punched cards to program woven textile patterns but it was based on even earlier designs from Basile Bouchon in 1725.

The Anlaytical Engine was the first general purpose mechanical computer. The Engine was designed by Charles Babbage in the UK and he worked on it from 1837 until his death in 1871. Although only parts of the machine were built, Babbage effectively invented the modern computer architecture that was later refined by Turing and Von Neumann in 1936 and 1944 respectively. Babbage’s collaborator Ada Lovelace wrote algorithms for the machine and is credited as being the first ever computer programmer.

Purely mechanical general purpose computers proved to be incredibly complicated to build so during the 19th Century and early 20th Century the focus was on mechanical devices with specific purposes. The oldest IT company in the world is IBM and it has origins going back to the 1880s when it was selling employee time-keeping systems and other punched card equipment. IBMs first large-scale general purpose digital calculating machine was the SSEC and this didn’t appear until 1948. SSEC was decimal. The first binary computer using 1s and 0s was EDVAC. Created in 1949 by the University of Pennsylvania’s Moore School of Engineering for the US Army’s Ballistics Research Laboratory, EDVAC was operational — amazingly — until 1961. But neither SSEC or EDVAC were fully electronic, using vacuum tubes and electromechanical relays.

New media — a reminder of what it is

Lev Manovich writes in his 2001 book “The Language of New Media”:

“All new media objects, whether created from scratch on computers or converted from analog media sources, are composed of digital code.. media becomes programmable”

Manovich states also five principles of new media: numerical representation, modularity, automation, variability, cultural transcoding.

At this point it is worth looking at a timeline of art and new media. Rama Hoetzlein created a timeline that runs from 1900 to 2010. He usefully includes some of the key media theorists and theories, along with events in politics and science. This is Hoetzlein’s personal perspective and it is incomplete, but it does illustrate the increasing splitting and diversification of digital art. The chart is shown below.

Timeline of art and new media 1900–2010

Year zero

The first fully electronic digital computer was TRADIC, completed in 1954 in the USA by Bell Labs. The breakthrough that made this possible was the development of reliable transistors as primary logic elements.

So the theoretical year zero for digital art is about 1954. This is marked in Hoetzlein’s chart above with the word COMPUTER under science timeline in 1955. However, some interesting artwork in the 1950s predated digital and used mechanical systems and analogue computers. “Oscillon 40” is an example from 1952 by Ben Laposky that distorts the wave of an electrical signal displayed on an oscilloscope and this is in London’s V&A collection. Access to computers was very limited until the mid 1960s and the output from computers was in printed or plotted format. 1965 the artist Frieder Nake programmed “Hommage à Paul Klee” to draw line images on a plotter. Manfred Mohr’s “Une Esthetique Programée” used computer algorithms for his drawings.

Interactive and participative art

The idea of interactivity in digital art predominantly originated in cybernetics. The American philosopher and mathematician Norbert Wiener first defined cybernetics in 1948. Wiener and his fellow cyberneticists were studying control and communication in animals and machines. Gordon Pask (1928–1966) was a prominent cyberneticist and he took part in a ground breaking exhibition at the ICA in London in 1968 with an interactive exhibition called “Colloquy of Mobiles”. The exhibition included drawing machines, a light-sensitive owl and vibrating kinetic sculptures.

Interactivity and viewer or audience participation was a growing theme in the art scene. For example, Fluxus was an international group of artists, designers, poets and composers that evolved in the 1960s and 1970s. They produced performance events and experimental art that emphasised interaction along the ideas of John Cage, notably that artwork is a site of interaction between artist and audience and that it should be embarked upon without a conception of its end.

Birth of new media art

Starting with moving image technologies of the 1800s, new media art evolved with kinetic and light art, and then embraced the television set. Wolf Vostell was the first artist to use a TV in his work entitled “The Black Room Cycle”, in 1958. Allan Kaprow coined the term “Happening” in 1957 and this idea was embraced enthusiastically by the new media art scene. The seminal multimedia performance art presentations “9 Evenings: Theatre and Engineering” by artists and engineers in 1966 led to the formation of Experiments in Art and Technology (E.A.T) a year later. New media programmes began to launch at colleges and universities from the 1960s onwards. The Slade School of Art at the University of London established the Experimental and Computing Department in the early 1970s offering students unparalleled access to a computer system. The Slade programme produced alumni such as Paul Brown who made computer assisted drawings and artist-engineer Darrell Viner who was known for his sound-activated machines. Roy Ascott, one of the Fluxus protagonists was briefly The President of Ontario College of Art where he launched a programme in Photo-Electric Arts in 1972. These programmes inevitably created more new media artists and interest grew.

It was acceptable in the 80s

Advanced and more affordable technologies in the 1980s and 1990s gave artists access to computer graphics and the internet, offering up new forms of interaction and audience communication and participation. Although the internet is a development of ARPANET that dates back to 1969, access was initially limited to defence and research labs. The explosion in uptake of today’s internet was the invention of the World Wide Web in 1989 by Sir Tim Berners-Lee. The Web provided a graphical interface and clickable hyperlinks to connect together sites around the world. The widespread popularity of personal computers, games consoles and video games also created new commercial digital artforms and interactions. The painting software in the early days of the personal computers was rudimentary and the work of the period has a very clear pixelated computer aesthetic. By the 1990s, computer graphics and printers had developed to the point where the digital aesthetic was no longer a requirement. Computers increasingly became a tool used by many artists, often integrated into their work as photographers, painters or sculptors. For example, James Faure Walker blends computer generated images with painterly techniques in his 2007 piece “Dark Filament”, now at the V&A.

Post-Internet art

What is post-Internet art? Ian Wallace writes in Artscape that:

“Post-Internet artists have moved beyond making work dependent on the novelty of the Web to using its tools to tackle other subjects. And while earlier Net artists often made works that existed exclusively online, the post-Internet generation (many of whom have been plugged into the Web since they could walk) frequently uses digital strategies to create objects that exist in the real world.”

Examples includes Artie Vierkant’s “Image Objects” (2011) and Oliver Laric’s “Icon” objects (2014, ongoing). Intriguingly, post-Internet art can still exist online, but more as a process of exploration and explanation that leads either to physical work or digital-physical crossovers. The Los Angeles-based artist Petra Cortright has a complex online presence in the form of videos and web pages that use both nostalgia and constant change, but she also produces physical artwork that is derived from her online work. Cory Arcangel is a post-conceptual artist known for his modified video games and his “Super Mario Clouds” was a hacked Nintendo game cartridge showing only moving clouds; this work was shown at the Whitney Museum in 2002. Arcangel continues to subvert or appropriate digital media and creative intellectual property in his work today.

Post human, trans human

This is about existing in a state that is beyond being human, or to enhance a human with new technologies:

“Your mind is downloaded out of your head and somehow spread across a million foglets. I get that. What I don’t get is why. If you’re bored out of your body, you could buy a new one, or temp, or even go transient. Why become dust?” — Warren Ellis, Transmetropolitan Issue #7 (1997).

Artists have been exploring the post human or transhuman condition by augmenting machinery to their bodies, as Stelarc did with his 1980 work “Third Hand”, or Eduardo Kac’s 1997 “Time Capsule” in which he surgically inserts a microchip with a programmable identity number into his body. Canadian artist Norman White created a piece called “Telephonic Arm Wrestling” (1986 and 2011) that allowed contestants in two separate cities to arm wrestle via a robot arms connected with a telephone link.

The last 10 years and how to exhibit it

This brings us to the last ten years. Digital artists now have a dizzying array of technologies to choose from, including: information visualisation, the internet of things, hacktivist, cybernetics, kinetic art, generative, Net, wearables, post human, post-Internet, artificial intelligence, games, 3D prints, drones, augmented and virtual reality.

The question of how a museum or gallery today can continue to function as a repository of captured states, as an archive or as a memory when faced with the onslaught of all this technology is something that Jacques Derida worried about in the 1980s:

“The immense questions of artificial memory and of modern modalities of archivation which today affects, according to a rhythm and with dimensions that have no common measure with those of the past, the totality of our relation to the world … and everything within the transformation which affects all relations to the future.”

To allay these concerns in the context of a digital art exhibition, a gallery is performative and dynamic states can simply replace captured states for content. Dynamic states are something that we are familiar with on the Web. The challenge for a curator is in benefitting from the immediacy and immersive nature of much of the artworks in terms of topicality and interest of the public and press, while at the same time encouraging reflection and understanding.

The gallery’s role must not simply become that of a high-brow amusement arcade. Such challenges are perhaps the reason why many galleries steer away from digital art even as interest in it is growing among collectors, art lovers, and the public.

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Tom Barker

President and CTO Six Trends Inc. Digital Transformation. Helped create world’s first Bluetooth Headset, London Eye ferris wheel, many projects with Zaha Hadid