Intermedia Art

New Media, Sound and Performance

Past-Potential-Futures  May 2008


Googolplex, Lillian Schwartz 1972
Googolplex 1972 c. Lillian Schwartz, Courtesy of the Lillian Feldman Schwartz collection, The Ohio State University

Past-Potential-Futures: Early Experiments in Computer Animation
Sunday 25 May 2008, Tate Modern, Turbine Hall

See also: Four films by Stan VanDerBeek

This screening celebrated the inspiring technical and aesthetic advances of early computer animation, including work by key pioneers such as Charles Csuri, Larry Cuba, Ed Emshwiller, Pierre Hébert, Denys Irving, Kenneth Knowlton, Malcolm Le Grice, Lillian Schwartz, John Stehura, and Stan VanDerBeek.

Long before our contemporary CGI-saturated media landscape, artists during the 1960s and 70s – working at Bell Laboratories, IBM, and in their own studios – created radical experiments at the vibrant intersection of art and technology. Approximately four decades after achievements such as the landmark exhibition Cybernetic Serendipity: The Computer and the Arts (1968-69), curated by Jasia Reichardt for the ICA, London, and the book, Computer Graphics / Computer Art (1971), by Herbert W. Franke, the history of this crucial cultural moment remains largely unwritten and under-explored. By no means a definitive history, this evening’s event seeks to present the pulsating, kinetic and colourful rhythms of several important vanguard films to rekindle interest in a body of work too little seen, and too often detached from contemporary discussions of new media.

John Stehura, Cibernetik 5.3, 1965 - 69 USA, 8 minutes
‘Perhaps the 1st digital computer animated movie ever made and probably the only example of an 'Artificial Intelligence' used to simulate a filmmaker: (an IBM 7094 computer, after being instructed in genetics and graphics, generated approximately 50 billion machine instructions to design the first 2/3s of the film - I finished the last 1/3 to get it out of a warp.) The film was first shown at UCLA`1066, J. Hendrix Concerts, Brussels, Tours, 7th International Animation Festival, 1st L.A. FILMEX '71 etc. The film should be shown only around midnight and good luck to human embryo implantation in England.’ (John Stehura)

Denys Irving, 69, 1969 UK, silent, 8 minutes
A film by an early British pioneer of computer generated filmmaking.

Stan Vanderbeek and Kenneth Knowlton, Poemfield # 2, 1966 USA, 6 min
‘All of the Poemfield films explore variations of poems, computer graphics, and in some cases combine live action images and animation collage; all are geometric and fast moving and in colour. As samples of the art of the future all the films explore variations of abstract geometric forms and words. In effect these works could be compared to the illuminated manuscripts of an earlier age. Now typography and design are created at speeds of 100.000 decisions per second, set in motion a step away from mental movies.’ (Stan VanDerBeek)

Pierre Hébert, Around Perception, Canada 1968, 16’27 min
Around Perception is an early experiment in employing computers to animate film. The result is a dazzling vibration of geometric forms in vivid color, an effect achieved by varying the speed at which alternate colors change, so producing optical illusions. In between these screen pyrotechnics there appears a simple line form gyrating in smooth rhythm. Sound effects are created by registering sound shapes directly on the sound track of the film.

Charles Csuri, Hummingbird, 1967 USA B/W, silent, 10 minutes
‘We completed a ten minute computer animated film entitled Hummingbird. The subject was a line drawing of a hummingbird for which a sequence of movements appropriate to the bird were outlined. Over 30,000 images comprising some 25 motion sequences were generated by the computer. For these, selected sequences were used for the film. A micro-film plotter recorded the images directly to film. To facilitate control over the motion of some sequences, the programs were written to read all the controlling parameters from cards, one card for each frame. Curve fit or other date generating programs were used to punch the parameter decks. We also built a windowing option into our plot subroutine.’ (Charles Csuri)

Malcolm Le Grice, Threshold, 1972 UK, 13'47 min
Malcolm Le Grice, an early pioneer of multi-media performances using film and performance, used the latest technology in his commissioned film Threshold. The hypnotic loops of customs officials conducting a nocturnal raid were produced with the help of the then streamlined Fortran computer of The Atomic Energy Institute - in secret, outside official computing hours.

Lillian Schwartz and Kenneth Knowlton, Googolplex, 1972 USA, 5'20 min
With its synchronised tribal rhythms and flickering visual white noise, Googolplex is a hypnotic film that is effective for its minimalism.  Extended editing techniques based on Land's experiments affect the viewer's sensory perceptions. Lillian Schwartz's career evolved from the traditional study of Chinese brushwork in Japan to self-taught computer programming. When she connected her artistic concepts with the scientific ideas of Kenneth Knowlton at Bell Laboratories, innovators at the Thomas J. Watson Research Laboratory and Bell Labs Innovations, her interest in science and art blossomed. From video animation to electronic art analysis to preservation, Schwartz's pioneering work created the basis for the expansion of computer art.

Ed Emshwiller, Sunstone, 1979 USA, 2'57 min
Sunstone is a landmark tape, a pivotal work in the development of an electronic language to articulate three-dimensional space. Sculpting electronically, Emshwiller transforms perspectival representation: the archetypal ‘sunstone’ is revealed to be one facet of an open, revolving cube, each side of which holds a simultaneously visible, moving video image. Created with what was then complex technology over an eight-month period, this emblematic spinning cube metaphorically describes a three-dimensional, temporal space, both hyperreal and simulated. Emshwiller's humanistic approach to technology ushered in the 1980s with a new electronic vocabulary for conceptualizing and visualizing images in space and time. Reflecting an image-saturated world, Sunstone marked a new stage in electronic art.

Larry Cuba, Two Space, 1979 USA, 8 min
Two dimensional patterns, like the tile patterns of Islamic temples, are generated by performing a set of symmetry operations (translations, rotations, and reflections) upon a basic figure or tile. Two Space consists of twelve such patterns produced using each of nine different animating figures (12 x 9 = 108 total). Rendered in stark black and white, the patterns produce optical illusions of figure-ground reversal and afterimages of colour. Gamelan music from the classical tradition of Java adds to the mesmerizing effect.

Films provided by Center for Visual Music, EAI, Lumen, LUX, the Lillian Feldman Schwartz collection at The Ohio State University, and National Film Board of Canada.


VanDerBeek Films

Four animated films by Stan VanDerBeek exploring collage, assemblage and cut-up: A La Mode 1957, Science Friction 1959, Breathdeath 1964 and Poemfield #2 1966