When the Machine Made Art – Grant Taylor traces the origins of computational creativity

Grant D. Taylor is an Associate Professor of Art History and the Art and Art History Department Chair at Lebanon Valley college in Pennsylvania. He is also the author of the 2014 book When the Computer Made Art: The Troubled History of Computer Art, which is undoubtedly the most thorough and well-researched history of computer art (and by association digital art) to have popped on CAN’s radar. Our editorial team voraciously consumed the book shortly after it was published and we continue to draw on it as an indispensable resource on the not-so-well-documented early years of mainframes and plotter drawings. Taking the position that computer art has (for various reasons) remained the stuff of niche production and consumption, Taylor traverses the distrust of institutions and the military-industrial complex that coloured the 1960s and ’70s, the exuberance and democratization of computing in the 1980s, and the wide-eyed anticipation of virtuality in the 1990s. Excavating the pioneers, periodicals, exhibitions, and technological and cultural shifts of four decades he delineates computer artists as what might be described as lovable misfits, who – while not exactly resonating with massive audiences – have considerable (art) historical and theoretical importance.

We’ve been in touch with Taylor for some time now and we batted a rich set of interview questions back and forth via Google Docs over the winter. Speaking to past and present heroes of computer art, evolving strategies for curation, and the triumphant return of VR headsets, this exchange offers a handy introduction to his research and expertise.


As a genre, or mode of working ‘computer art’ was marginalized, maligned, and sneered at for almost five decades. Now, midway, into the 2010s ‘digital art’ appears to be getting a bit of traction in the contemporary art world – why is that? Has something changed?

The ubiquity of digital technology is one reason. Before the personal computer revolution, digital technology remained particular to some sectors of society, predominantly areas of advanced research and development and business applications. Now, of course, digital technology is infused into every aspect of our lives. There is little separation between the digital and non-digital world, and the social media revolution has made sure of that. The art world, in the broadest sense, has embraced the digital because of its immense ability for communication and connection. Mind you, the art world was slow to capitalize on such potential. It wasn’t really until the 21st century the art world began to embrace digital media. It is worth noting, the first artists to have websites (in the early 1990s) were computer artists. Of course, they had the necessary programming skills to build these new digital spaces. It should also be stated that the first galleries to sell art online were selling computer art. Today, it’s unimaginable for a serious artist, a gallery, or a museum to be without an extensive web presence and social media network. But you are correct, contemporary art critics are less interested in the tools an artist uses than they use to be. Previously, the majority of critics would dismiss artworks made with the use of a computer. Today the medium is not such an issue. After all, everyone works digitally in some capacity. How an artist constructs meaning or engages the world is more important.

↑ One of Anne Spalter’s VIDEO Gems / “Royal Palace” from Daniel Brown’s City of God series 

I certainly agree that everyone works digitally so there is a comfort and everydayness about technology now that was absent in the 1970s. As you note in your book there was a one-to-one association between computers and the military-industrial complex for a while and a widespread skepticism against technocracy – now toddlers have tablets. What would be some artists whose practices represent this new paradigm – where there might be tech ‘under the hood’ of projects, but their work is not really framed or discussed in terms of how it is produced?

Many contemporary artists come to mind. Anne Spalter, for example, does not lead with discussions on the ‘how.’ The artist’s work is computationally rich, but it’s the visual impact of her art that is front and center. Although the viewer is aware there is some algorithmic power shaping the work, they are more transfixed by the interplay of familiar and foreign geometric and organic forms in constant states of flux. In a similar vein, Daniel Brown’s work is visually powerful and evocative. The generative framework is felt in the recursive fractal symmetries and the architectonic complexity of the image, but it is the sheer power of the art that captivates the viewer not necessarily its mode of production. With Brown’s work, the familiar and foreign are also constantly oscillating in the mind of the viewer. While the ‘how’ will eventually arise, it’s only after the viewer has been drawn deeply into the artist’s aesthetic.

Vera Molnar, Interruptions↑ Vera Molnar, Interruptions (1968-69)

At a time when first year art school students are learning coding fundamentals with tools like Processing, it’s easy to look back on the output of pioneers like Manfred Mohr, Vera Molnar, and Frieder Nake, and recognize their significance. Beyond the skill and initiative required to wield mainframes and plotters for creative purposes, what are some of the nuances of these (and other practices of the 1960s and ’70s) that might be lost on contemporary media art audiences?

The pioneers had very little community to speak of. In the early days it was a mere handful of practitioners in each advanced country. It grew, of course, but it was a slow. Nevertheless, they became a close knit group, even reaching out to others in different countries. They shared an inquisitiveness and desire to work digitally that eventually saw them cross international boundaries in search of new techniques and ideas. During the first phase, the artists would have to rely on institutional support to gain access to mainframes. Commonly, they would have to work at night when the computer was not being used for its main purpose (for example, in Mohr’s case, the computer was used to calculate weather models during the day). Imagine if you only had a small window of opportunity to work on art and had to work within the restrictive boundaries of an institution whose focus was far from that of art-making. They were tenacious.

Indeed! That said, communities and meeting places did form despite the difficulty in accessing the technology. When we interviewed DAM Gallery’s Wolf Lieser in HOLO, he talked about the role that SIGGRAPH used to play as a ‘meeting of the minds’ for digital art pioneers. Likewise the journal Leonardo was a lighting rod for a time. What would you consider to be some of the conferences, publications, or venues that were open-minded and interdisciplinary enough to cultivate the development of dialogue around art and technology?

Before Leonardo there was the all important early computer science trade journal Computers and Automation (later to become Computers and People). This journal facilitated the birth of computer art through its “Computer Art Contest” of 1963 and it popularized the term “computer art.” In fact, Leonardo eventually assumed the popularizing and disseminating role that Computers and Automation once held. In Computers and Automation scientists and artists found the contact information for other peers working in different countries. As the only place where computer art was published, the journal was the only way practitioners were able to see what each other were doing. It had true international reach and nearly all pioneers were featured in its pages.


Outside the U.S. there was Bit International. This magazine was published in Zagreb, a city that remains a center for new media art. Published between 1968 and 1972 it showcased artworks and the theoretical directions underpinning the new tendency movement. In the U.K. the Computer Arts Society was formed in London to promote the creative potential of computers in art. Founded in 1968 by George Mallen, Alan Sutcliffe, and John Lansdown as a subsidiary of the British Computer Society, the society was set up to facilitate the growth of computers in art (BCS still promotes digital art today). As a highly successful venture, the society produced the magazine PAGE, which featured international computer artists’ works and seminal writings concerning computer art practice.

My picking out of Mohr, Molnar and Nake earlier is hardly happenstance, those artists have continued to produce work relatively late into their careers and have successfully engaged subsequent generations of artists that are using computers to make art. While these stars continue to shine, who would you identify as being some of the ‘forgotten heroes’ of computer art?

Yes, this is a great question. My favorite lost hero is the American computer artist Lloyd Sumner. Independent of any research program, Sumner started producing computer-generated drawings as early as 1964. Although he studied art at the University of Virginia, it should be noted that his primary study was engineering. It was while working at a part-time job at the campus computer science center that Sumner first came in contact with computing. Eventually Lloyd Sumner would become one of the first to use the computer solely for aesthetic means, and his publication Computer Art and Human Response (1968) was the first text devoted entirely to an individual computer art practice. He was also the first artist to sell substantial amounts of his work. In fact, in 1971 he funded much of his famous round-the-world bike expedition by selling computer artworks and lecturing on the subject. Sumner’s travel memoir, The Long Ride (1978), which records the artist making and selling artworks to finance the next leg of his journey, became legendary amongst adventure cyclists. Even with his success – he was exhibited in “Cybernetic Serendipity” – he does not feature in key histories of digital art.

On that note, “Cybernetic Serendipity: The Computer and the Arts” framed computer art in relation to the then-emerging field of cybernetics and was the first exhibition to receive international attention. Beyond this show, what would you consider to be the most historically significant computer art exhibitions?

The 1970 Venice Biennale was historic. It was the first time computer art was featured at the Biennale. Computer art had made it to the world stage. Some of the biggest names in European computer art at the time, such as Auro Lecci, Frieder Nake, Georg Nees and Herbert Franke were all shown. In addition, the highly experimental Japanese computer art group CTG (Computer Technique Group) were also represented. Adding to the sense of legitimacy, computer art was shown next to the constructivist artworks of Josef Albers and Max Bill. The Venice Biennale continues to showcase the most important new media artists today.

American-Algorist2↑ “The American Algorists: Linear Sublime” (2013) at NYC’s SVA Flatiron Gallery, curated by Grant D. Taylor

In recent years we’ve seen a range of strategies for displaying electronic art in larger shows. The Barbican’s “Digital Revolution” (2014) was a major survey that presented interactive installations alongside an almost media-archaeological framing of the growth of technology – and even partnered with Google to present some of the more ambitious installations. Alternatively, we have curators working like Paola Antonelli at the MoMA taking a more interdisciplinary perspective where code-driven works might be presented alongside synthetic biology or speculative design projects. Do you have any thoughts on contemporary curating strategies and how the presentation of computer art (for more general audiences) has evolved?

I believe the role of the curator has evolved over the past decade. The creative aspect of curation is becoming more important. The curator as an ambitious innovator is often sought. As your example of Antonelli illustrates, the curator is able to shape the audience’s experience through various participatory modes and organic and non-organic material all the while exposing us to the outer edges of art and design. The experience is exhilarating. In the Barbican’s case, the ability to tell a compelling narrative about our technological past while not feeling like a dry historical exhibit has been groundbreaking. In “Digital Revolution,” the artworks of the 20th century felt just as fresh as those of the 21st century. My strategy as a curator (say in “The American Algorists: Linear Sublime”) has been to mix historical artworks with the contemporary. I have avoided chronological presentations or technological phases, which has been a common way to present computer art. History is important, however. But there are other ways to situate an audience’s historical radar. I like the way how digital artworks across time talk to each other and I believe when they sit side-by-side they are in constant conversation and are able to give a sense of historical development.

↑ While ‘experiences’ like Job Simulator (left) are being used to promote the HTC Vive, artists like NYC’s Sarah Rothberg have a more idiosyncratic vision for virtual reality. In MEMORY/PLACE, she turned her childhood home into the basis of a VR installation.

Your book wraps up with an epilogue considering the “general ambivalence” towards computer art in the 1990s and that period was of course imbued with a brief mania towards virtual reality. Given we’re finally seeing the first release of consumer-grade VR in 2016, can you weigh in on the long-promised ‘arrival’ of the medium?

Yes, virtual reality seemed a sure bet in the early 1990s. A good majority of new media artists and theorists put great emphasis on its revolutionary possibilities. Practically, every new media conference was themed around virtuality; but then the world wide web started to dominate digital culture, followed by the social media revolution in the next decade. It all seemed to subsume virtual reality discourse. But the dreams never died, and you are right, consumer-grade VR technology is making it more accessible to artistic experimentation. But virtual reality’s success, ironically, is linked to how effectively it can infuse the network and social media platforms in the experience. Today, the desire for a complete alternative reality seems old-fashioned. We seem to want a mix of realities, one in which the real and virtual are constantly interacting.

When the Machine Made Art | Grant Taylor | Get it on Amazon UK / Amazon US