Thinking Through Machines at MoMA

Stan VanDerBeek. Poemfield No. 1. 1967. 16mm film transferred to video (color, silent). 4:45 min. Realized with Ken Knowlton. Courtesy Estate of Stan VanDerBeek and Andrea Rosen Gallery, New York. Photo by Lance Brewer. © 2017 Estate of Stan VanDerBeek
Installation view of Thinking Machines: Art and Design in the Computer Age, 1959-1989. The Museum of Modern Art, New York, November 13, 2017–April 8, 2018. Photo: Peter Butler. Courtesy of The Museum of Modern Art.
Installation view of Thinking Machines: Art and Design in the Computer Age, 1959-1989. The Museum of Modern Art, New York, November 13, 2017–April 8, 2018. Photo: Peter Butler. Courtesy of The Museum of Modern Art.
Installation view of Thinking Machines: Art and Design in the Computer Age, 1959-1989. The Museum of Modern Art, New York, November 13, 2017–April 8, 2018. Photo: Peter Butler. Courtesy of The Museum of Modern Art.
Stan VanDerBeek, Poemfield No. 1, 1967. 16mm film transferred to video (color, silent). 4:45 min. Realized with Ken Knowlton. Courtesy Estate of Stan VanDerBeek and Andrea Rosen Gallery, New York. Photo by Lance Brewer. Courtesy of the Estate of Stan VanDerBeek.
Beryl Korot, Text and Commentary, 1976-77. Five-channel video (black and white, sound; 30 min.), weavings, and pictographic video notations. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Committee on Media and Performance Art Funds. Courtesy of the artist.
Lee Friedlander, Boston, Massachusetts, 1985. Gelatin silver print. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. E.T. Harmax Foundation Fund. Courtesy of the artist & Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco
Vera Molnár, A la Recherche de Paul Klee (Searching for Paul Klee) (detail), 1971. Felt tip pen on paper. The Anne and Michael Spalter Digital Art Collection. Courtesy of the artist.
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“Thinking Machines: Art and Design in the Computer Age, 1959–1989”, currently on view at the Museum of Modern Art, takes pressing questions pertinent to viewers today and presents them through a historical lens, bringing together a selection of artworks produced using computer programs and embodied machine-like thinking from the museum collection.

TEXT: Banyi Huang
IMAGES: Courtesy of MoMA, New York

 

Installation view of Thinking Machines: Art and Design in the Computer Age, 1959-1989. The Museum of Modern Art, New York, November 13, 2017–April 8, 2018. Photo: Peter Butler. Courtesy of The Museum of Modern Art.

 

Can machines think? Or do we think through machines? In what ways have they reconfigured or reconsolidated pre-existing social hierarchies, human relations, and cultural production? “Thinking Machines: Art and Design in the Computer Age, 1959–1989”, currently on view at the Museum of Modern Art, takes pressing questions pertinent to viewers today and presents them through a historical lens, bringing together a selection of artworks produced using computer programs and embodied machine-like thinking from the museum collection. Asides from the dazzling display of what computers could accomplish, the most thought-provoking takeaway from the exhibition lies in its critical conceptualization of gender, labor, and access at the forefront of technology.

Divided into historical segments “Experimentation: 1960-1969”, “Transformation: 1970-1979”, and “Proliferation: 1980-1989”, artworks are displayed alongside notable artefacts that epitomized each stage of technological advancement: a circuit board from IBM’s first commercial computers, the CM-2 Supercomputer, Apple’s 1980s Macintosh series. The invention of this new Euro-American communication technology, having originated from the military need for defending against nuclear wipeout, has developed in deterritorializing ways in scientific research, business, and media culture. Gianni Colombo’s kinetic sculpture Pulsating Structuralization (1959) came out of the Arte Programmata Movement, which developed under the patronage of the Olivetti Corporation, an Italian manufacturer of electronic products. Electro-mechanically controlled, a grid of monochromatic Styrofoam blocks breathes in and out according to a randomized sequence, emulating a “feedback system” that requires the viewer’s presence to complete. One is at once struck by the work’s simultaneous structural and poetic charge.

 

Installation view of Thinking Machines: Art and Design in the Computer Age, 1959-1989. The Museum of Modern Art, New York, November 13, 2017–April 8, 2018. Photo: Peter Butler. Courtesy of The Museum of Modern Art.

 

Like Arte Programmata, computerized languages also gave conceptual artists foray into furthering aspects of their critical inquiries. Departing from Marshall McLuhan’s idealist proclamation that machine “was the extension of man”, they approached the computer as a practical tool that made the impossible possible.

For example, HPSCHD (1969) was an important collaboration between composers John Cage and Lejaren Hills, culminating in massive multi-media event featuring harpsichord solos, computer-generated tapes, and dazzling visuals. To produce the randomly-generated harpsichord scores, Cage and Hills sampled classical music repertoires and fed them through a specialized computer program based on the I-Ching, an ancient Chinese divination text. On display are Cage’s handwritten scores, along with a diagram that shows how the logic flow in the “I-Ching” program allowed for chance operations to govern the outcome. Regardless of how orgiastic and immersive the final performance was, it was still a controlled chaos. Just as Cage relied on the technical expertise of his collaborators and access to the ILLIAC Supercomputer at the University of Illinois, Fluxus artist Alison Knowles equally worked with the composer James Tenney to generate her poem, A House of Dust (1967). The randomized output of words on standard graph paper was meant to challenge traditional notions of authorship.

 

Installation view of Thinking Machines: Art and Design in the Computer Age, 1959-1989. The Museum of Modern Art, New York, November 13, 2017–April 8, 2018. Photo: Peter Butler. Courtesy of The Museum of Modern Art.

 

If all this seems too visually sterile and conceptually-oriented, Stan VanDerBeek’s computer-animated films—characterized by their psychedelic styles and colorful movements—testify to a significant technological leap in the computer’s newly-acquired function as a media machine. Long before the advent of Graphical User Interfaces and real-time interactivity, mainframes were largely understood as machines that performed complex calculations, while the output of graphics and texts were considered peripheral. According to scholar Zabet Patterson, the invention of the Stromberg-Carlson microfilm recorder, which could be attached to existing mainframes and preserve pre-programmed image sequences, offered a powerful means for artistic experimentation in animation and graphic design. With the help of Ken Knowlton, a specialist who had developed a language designed to manipulate images by altering the patterns of square pixels, VanDerBeek was able to program and record each animated frame on magnetic tape at Bell Laboratories, New Jersey. In Poemfield #1, projected on the exhibition wall, words flash and dissolve into kaleidoscopic shapes and colors, enveloping the viewer in a hypnotic and adrenaline-inducing trance.

It is worth mentioning that Lillian Schwartz, whose works are not included in the exhibition, was a female artist embedded at Bell Labs in an unofficial capacity around the same time as VanDerBeek. However, her belated recognition by the art world as well as AT&T Corporation reveals the gender bias deeply ingrained in a system that separates design, craft, and high modernist art into problematic categories.

 

Stan VanDerBeek, Poemfield No. 1, 1967. 16mm film transferred to video (color, silent). 4:45 min. Realized with Ken Knowlton. Courtesy Estate of Stan VanDerBeek and Andrea Rosen Gallery, New York. Photo by Lance Brewer. Courtesy of the Estate of Stan VanDerBeek.

 

Fortunately, the problem of gender at the intersection of computing and artmaking is directly addressed by Beryl Korot’s multi-media installation Text and Commentary (1976–77). Occupying the center of the space, the work features a five-channel video of the artist weaving at a loom, five hanging tapestries, and a number of pictographic scores. As early as the 1970s, Korot recognized the buried connections between weaving, computing, and feminine labor. Invented in 1801, the Jacquard Loom based its weave on patterns automatically read from punch cards—it was indeed the first computer prototype in human history. No less important is the role played by mid-twentieth century women programmers, whose job involved manually feeding information into ENIAC machines. Long before programming became a male-dominated and desirable profession, these women’s labor was deemed secondary and clerical. As one sits encased in the security of the hand-woven textiles, watching the artist’s hands deftly operating the threads, it is apparent that to acknowledge the erasure of women from this history is to see the female body as the first digital machines.

 

Beryl Korot, Text and Commentary, 1976-77. Five-channel video (black and white, sound; 30 min.), weavings, and pictographic video notations. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Committee on Media and Performance Art Funds. Courtesy of the artist.

 

Relatedly, Lee Friedlander’s social-documentary series At Work (1985-1986) takes a generalized sociological approach. Commissioned by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, he took to photographing MIT technicians working at their desk-top monitors. By zooming in on the workers’ blank stares—directed at screens not visible to the audience—Friedlander cleverly captures a changing social landscape defined by a new alienation of labor and inebriation of boredom. One can’t help but wonder as to one goes on in the minds of these workers, the majority of whom are women, as they sit staring into the void of what’s to come.

 

Lee Friedlander, Boston, Massachusetts, 1985. Gelatin silver print. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. E.T. Harmax Foundation Fund. Courtesy of the artist & Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco

 

As personal computers did not become available on the mass market until the 1980s, some artists in the show did not have access to government or corporate-sponsored research facilities. Instead, they tried to mimic and embody computational thinking by placing controlled restraints on drawings and writing. Two iterations of A la Recherche de Paul Klee (1970-1971) by Hungarian-born artist Vera Molnár are hung adjacently: one is a plotter drawing, while the other is made entirely by hand; both are digital re-mappings of Cubist principles. Although the two bear great formal similarities, the hand-drawn one is almost more captivating with its squiggly and irregular lines. Based on a system that Molnár calls “machine imaginaire”, these drawings follow a series of rigorous steps that aligned the artist’s living body with computerized inputs and outputs. If we were to understand the act of drawing as the “art of fixing the shadow” or the preservation of living things, Molnár’s machine drawings are driven by the desire to capture form and motion with what one might call a precursor to the cyborgian body.

 

Vera Molnár, A la Recherche de Paul Klee (Searching for Paul Klee) (detail), 1971. Felt tip pen on paper. The Anne and Michael Spalter Digital Art Collection. Courtesy of the artist.

 

Rather than approaching the machine with dystopian point-of-views often found in science fiction and discussions of artificial intelligence, “Thinking Machines” brings up very real issues in the history of computing and its influence on art production. Before the dawn of the user-dominated era, these artists were already negotiating problems of gender, labor, access, and different modes of collaboration brought by information and communication technologies. We perceive through machines, think like machines, and expand our horizons by reflecting on social hierarchies and limitations through them. As Korot has so eloquently put in an interview, that she was struck by “the encoding of information in lines and patterns throughout human history”, our task would be the decoding of buried connections within this short yet very complex history.

 

 

Thinking Machines: Art and Design in the Computer Age (1959–1989)
MoMA, NY
Nov 13, 2017 – Apr 8, 2018

 

 


 

Banyi Huang is born in Beijing. She is now a free-lance writer, curator, and translator based in New York. She also sometimes dabbles in 3D printing, interactive design, and other technologies that produce new forms, functions, and modes of being. She is currently pursuing an MA in art history and curatorial studies at Columbia University. She is interested in looking at the human body and the formation of identity/performativity within our mediatized and technological landscape.

 

 

 

 
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