Computational Arts Research & Theory Blog

Post 4 - Nov 1st, 2018
V&A: Chance and Control

The Victoria and Albert Museum is an amazing museum. The building architecture with its inlays, frescoes, tile work, and ceiling design being worthy of study. The founding director, Henry Cole sent the first Christmas Card in 1843! Did Henry Cole inadvertently create the “hallmark” card culture? (I looked this up and it turns out the history of greeting cards can be traced back to ancient Egyptians and Chinese who enjoyed exchanging messages on special occasions such as New Year's.

There are always thought-provoking exhibitions at the V&A and the permanent collection is amazing. It includes weird and wondrous objects from history such as The Great Bed of Ware (something about this name reminds of the Face of Bo from Dr. Who). This bed was mentioned/referred to in Shakespeare’s 12th Night. I love the idea of a bed with curtains which provide an extra layer of nesting – like a bed fort from childhood.

I went to the V&A to see the exhibition, Chance and Control: Art in the Age of Computers which celebrated computer-generated work and explored aspects of intentional and serendipitous design and code. The show was timed to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the Cybernetic Serendipity exhibition held in 1968 at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London. The V&A acquired its first computer work in 1969 following Cybernetic Serendipity.

In her July 2018 article in Studio International, Catherine Mason writes that “Cybernetic Serendipity was a groundbreaking show and the first international exhibition devoted to exploring the relationship between the arts and new technology and featured collaborations between artists and scientists. It laid the foundation for decades of advancement, how much so is apparent in the work of subsequent generations on view in this V&A homage, including Damien Borowik, Fabrizio A Poltronieri, Casey Reas and Esther Rolinson, all of whom are in their 40s.

The V&A has previously mounted displays of this collection, most significantly Digital Pioneers (2009-10) for which it published a small book of the same name, but this exhibition demonstrates the depth of the current collection and the extent that donations and acquisitions have enriched it. It now encompasses more work from Argentina and Brazil, in addition to enhancements in the holdings of European, American and English artists. This exhibition truly showcases the museum’s impressive riches in this field.”

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CYBERFLOWER, Sunshine Version I, Roman Verostko, 2008

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Untitled, Georg Nees, 1970, Germany
Chance and Control presented an excellent opportunity to reflect on the 1968 show and compare those works to current generative and computational works of art. The work was truly impressive but if I didn’t understand a little about computational methods, I’m not sure I would appreciate the difficulty in creating work of this caliber. It is perhaps easier to understand how current artists approached their generative art, but it is almost unfathomable to me how the artists in the 1950’s, 60’s, and 70’s managed to produce computational work. One artist in particular that produced astonishing work is Manfred Mohr. Mohr states, that his early work was “influenced by atonal music, modern Jazz and abstract expressionism. The art of K.H. Sonderborg gave me a profound visual guidance and the understanding of Max Bense's philosophy a unique direction. As a consequence, geometry and the reduction of my visual vocabulary to black and white as binary decisions, took more and more importance in my work after 1963.”
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Manfred Mohr, drawing, ink on paper, 1963

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Manfred Mohr, Bild 17/1265, Tempera/Leinwand, 1965
He began using computers in his work in 1969 to plot “a logical and automatic construction of pictures... For the first time algorithms (rules with a beginning and an ending) are used to calculate the images. My consequent thinking is rendered visible through computer programs I wrote. The resulting drawings were realized by a computer controlled drawing machine (plotter). With a choice of different line characteristics, an alphabet of arbitrary generated elements is created. Individual algorithms are invented for each work from which all forms and structures are solely generated. The algorithms are built from imposed as well as from random selection principles which I called "aesthetical-filters"…The algorithm places elements in a horizontal direction and has a high probability to move from left to right and a limited probability to backtrack. Thus an abstract text is created.”

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Manfred Mohr, detail from “P-049” from the portfolio “Scratch Code”
We had the opportunity to explore creating work inspired by Manfred Mohr in the Friday Processing Class with Lior Ben-Gai. I tried to code a piece inspired by Mohr’s plotter work by making a random walker but this proved to be above my current level of ability. I turned my attention to his later work which studied the cube and used the box function in Processing 3 to create a nested loop and rotate the box increasingly as the loop progresses. It was a great assignment to explore computational art and to grow our skills. We printed out our sketches and presented the work in A3 format. It was lovely to see our designs out in the wild away from the immutable aspect ratio of computer screens - free range code!
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