1960s

Max Bense & Abraham Moles

Information Aesthetics
Cover of the first issue of Bit International Magazine (source: https://monoskop.org/File:Bit_International_1_The_Theory_of_Informations_and_the_New_Aesthetics_1968.jpg)

Information Aesthetics was a short-lived but influential attempt to establish a mathematically rigorous aesthetic theory that is based on objectification of perception and effort to bridge philosophy, psychology, aesthetics, sciences, and art theory. Influenced by Wiener’s cybernetics, Shannon’s information and Communication theory and Birkoff’s semiotics, its main instigators were Max Bense[1] and Abraham Moles[2] in the second half of 1950. Their theories were widely spread among German and French designers and artists during 1960. Their wide impact on the art world is mainly due to their teaching positions in design schools (Max Bense was appointed professor at Stuttgard School in 1950 and then in parallel, between 1953 to 1958 at the HfG Ulm, Moles taught sociology and psychology in Ulm), their participation in exhibitions (Generative Computergraphik , Cybernetic Serendipity) and multiple publications (magazines: New Tendencies, Bit International[3]). Almost all of their published work however was in German or French; with very few recently translated in English. Although the approach of information aesthetics is reductive and schematic, it is interesting to see the concepts behind the nascent computer art and their implications.

Max Bense called for modern aesthetics that employ “mathematical and empirical procedures, (…) and pursues, besides numerical descriptive also technological goals”. “Modern aesthetics rest on a methodological concept, rather than a philosophical one”. According to Bense, control of the methodology can lead to objective criteria for aesthetics. As an object is a structured set of elements, he proposes to evaluate its aesthetics using a formula where complexity and order are associated. By this way he creates “machine oriented” aesthetic criteria that can be translated into a programming language or a machine code. One can get an idea of the outcome of Bense’s proposition for aesthetics by looking at the artwork of Georg Nees, who did his PhD under Bense’s supervision in the university of Stuttgart.

Left: Artwork by Georg Nees | Right: Schotter Generator: This is a part of the code that created in the plotter-drawing “Schotter”. [Source: Generative Computergraphik (/publication/3) ] Programming Language: ALGOL 60 plus G (G is an extension of Algol implementing graphical primitives and controlling functions for the Zuse Z64 XY-Plotter.)

Besides the naiveté of using a mathematical formula to measure the aesthetic quality, Bense’s urge to apply formulas in the act of creation with mathematics being the language between geometry and the machine is what can be considered as a contribution to the discussion on the use of computers in design. Also we see the shift of the burden on the process, rather than the object itself.

Other artworks of Georg Nees, Bense’s student, based on generative aesthetics logic, published in magazine Rot in 1968

While Bense focused on the generative process of creation, Moles, as a psychologist, extended his ideas to focus on the receiver. As he states in his article “ Cybernetics and the Work of Art”,“Nobert Wiener posed the fundamental social problem of cybernetics: symbiosis with the machine that have discretely invaded our world, or more precisely, the world of our thoughts.” Moles mentions that the predominant conversation about information machines can be translated into two paths: one is the most common interpretation of a “thinking machine” and the other –more interesting according to him- is “a machine that make us think”. In the same article, he thinks that works of art are “more amenable to cybernetic analysis than a work of science, precisely because its criteria of validity are much less exact and much less coherent that those of the later. Based on Shannon’s information theory and semiotics he describes how artists can become critiques and their work would be a critique on people’s perception of art.

He suggests different “Cybernetic organigrams” each reflects a position of the aesthetician/artist in relation to the external world.

Abraham Moles’ “Cybernetic Organigrams”, diagrams published in his article “Cybernetics and the work of art”(1965)

The advent of the computer and the discussion around automation and cybernetics in the scientific realm in 50s and 60s, led the two scientists-philosophers-educators to contemplate on the new modes of creation and to propose the role of the new artist as a critique to ways of perception and production- automation. They also recognized a paradigm shift in design and they articulated that the designer does not only design objects, but also processes. Last but not least, their contemplation on visual perception and the implementation of this into the process of the “thinking machine” suggests ideas of artificial intelligence.


Footnotes:

[1] Max Bense (1910–1990) was a German philosopher, writer, and publicist, known for his work in philosophy of science, logic, aesthetics, and semiotics.

[2] Abraham A. Moles (1920–1992) was an electrical engineer, sociologist and philosopher, who held two doctorates, one in Physics and one in Philosophy.

[3] Bit International (1968–72) was a magazine, which -“in the realm of communications” — aims to bridge the gap between “theoretical knowledge and everyday praxis”, “the artistic and the scientific”, “modern technological possibilities and their level of application”, “current problem of design and educational and teaching programs”. Other faculty of Ulm, such as Tomas Maldonado, also published in later issues of Bit.

References — Bibliography:

  • Rosen Margit, “ A little-known story about a Movement, a Magazine and the Computer’s Arrival in Art: New Tendencies and Bit International, 1961–73”, MIT Press & Center for Arts and Media Karlsruhe, 2011
  • Nake Frieder, “Information Aesthetics: a heroic experiment”, Bremen, Germany, 2012
  • Database for Digital Art: http://dada.compart-bremen.de/item/publication/3
  • Monoskop: https://monoskop.org/Max_Bense