programmes   1 2 3
  4 5 6 7
Eugeni Bonet SP
... for several years now, I've been using the simplest system of all - the binary system - instead of the decimal one, in other words, progression two by two because I've found that it helps perfect the science of numbers. I only use zero and one as numeric signs and, on reaching two, I start again.
G.W. LEIBNIZ, 1703

From the very start, the computer or digital calculator was much more than just a mathematical machine. As soon as data or information could be translated by a binary system of zeros and ones, their ability to perform high speed, complex calculations went far beyond a mere arithmetical function. So, information could be verified, combined and processed through logical operations and in keeping with the principles of universal knowledge (stored and updated in the form of memory, programs, databases, etc.).

Computers are considered machines of certainty, reason and knowledge. This aspiration to mechanical knowledge was foretold by people like Llull and Leibniz in the idea of a combinatoria universalis whereby logic blends with the idea of mission, or theological inspiration, by way of the systematic diagramming of syllogisms, and through the binary code as a compilation of the entire system of culturally infused dualities: all/nothing, light/dark, day/night, life/death, body/soul, presence/absence, true/false, left/right, vertical/horizontal, masculine/feminine, thesis/antithesis, etc.

In mid 19th century, George Boole formulated his "laws of thought" which were translated into algebra and the operators that now bear his name. In the following century, Norbert Wiener laid the foundations of cybernetics (from Greek kybernetike: the art of steering) as a science of organic control and communication systems, irrespective of the physical nature of the integrating organs, whether they be of a biological or artificial nature; his disciple, Claude Shannon, quantified the arithmetical unit of information and called it a bit (a contraction of binary digit); John von Neuman studied the brain as a cybernetic model capable of being transferred to the artificial brain of electronic machines, and established several principles for programming logic and computer architecture.

Another aspect that had been foreseen by certain visionaries and pioneers dealt with the multiple functions and versatility of the machines they imagined. At the end of the 19th century, the philosopher Charles Babbage designed a machine called the Analytical Engine - his previous Difference Engine was designed rather more as an arithmetical assistant - and his dream was shared by Lady Ada Lovelace, who boasted the combined genes of poetic imagination and mathematical knowledge, inherited by her famous parents: Lord Byron and "the Princess of Parallelograms", as the latter called his wife, Annabella, (subsequently, in 1979 and as a sign of homage, Ada was the name chosen for a programming language developed by the US Department of Defence).

Babbage's mechanical design claimed to incorporate the element of "steering" and the memorisation of instructions via perforated cards similar to those used by Joseph Marie Jacquard in his automatic loom. "The Analytical Engine weaves algebraic designs like Jacquard's machine weaves flowers and leaves", recounted Lady Ada. Other testimonies that have reached us indicate that these romantic forerunners speculated about other uses that a hypothetical machine could have apart from arithmetic calculation. These included games of chance and intellect, and applications for musical composition and ornamental drawing.

Almost one century later, Alan Turing, who was later involved in the generation of the first "real" computers, described the principles of another hypothetical and unique machine whose only function was of a rather more philosophical nature. But, besides posing questions that are still valid regarding the intelligence of machines and the axiomatic fundamentalism of symbolic logic, Turing was also ahead of his time when he suggested one of the simplest theoretical models - based on yes and no, one and zero decisions - for a universal machine capable of emulating any other type of machine. What subsequently has become known as a metamedium: a medium (without being one in itself) which, according to instructions received, can simulate other existing media, even one that has no imaginable physical incarnation.

Electronic calculators were first used - several diverse and very peculiar devices appeared on the scene in the 40s - mainly in military and administrative areas to facilitate tasks such as decoding, labour censuses and statistics, and the mechanisation of office work in general. Nowadays, it is impossible for us to recognise in the cumbersome installations of those primitive machines, where the machine stopped and where the furniture started, or where stood the threshold between the automated functions and the populous personnel who entered instructions and extracted data. But that is where office automation began, the business machine, though the motives pertaining to military strategy, defence and national supremacy can also be clearly recognised in the drive behind many technologies (without looking any further, think about the most immediate origins of the Internet and the techniques of electronic simulation and virtual reality).

The incorporation of a display monitor or "graphic terminal" came about some time later - the Whirlwind system included one, which was developed in 1953 at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) - which employed the cathode ray tube commonly used in televisions, as well as radar and oscilloscopes. Thus, the electronic brains acquired a face (or an interface, since it was also a matter of establishing a friendly dialogue) and limbs (peripherals). And, even though the computer at that time was still a "monstrous" cabinet (or several joined together), that is, a complex, highly costly mainframe, its applications began to spread to civilian sectors through research laboratories, businesses, universities and academic institutions. (Although the prodigious chip came into being in 1958, the invasion of microelectronics did not affect information technology until twenty years later.)

In the 50s and more so in the 60s, the horizons for binary machinery opened up to art and design, education, scientific display, visual and audio-visual creation, music and literature, sculpture and architecture, choreography and... the inchoate world between the lines that is developing along with the growing trend towards shared media applications in art and technology. The advent of new apparatus or peripheral instruments, whether interface or output devices - optical pens, plotters, scanners, film recorders, etc., the development of programmes and systems (dedicated to specific applications) and the initial explorations of interactivity and hypertext - began to force the formation of a new frontline in art and aesthetics. People began to talk about Computer art or cybernetic art and information, or generative aesthetics.

The first exhibits were held in 1965 at the Studio Galerie of the Technische Hochschule in Stuttgart and the Howard Wise Gallery in New York, and were distinguished by a peculiar feature, quite unusual at that time: the authors of the works on show were mainly scientists, mathematicians or engineers, though some straddled the fence as technologist-artists (or vice versa). However, it was not so much a circumstance as a fact that would be repeated and asserted in subsequent exhibits, among which deserves special mention the show titled Cybernetic Serendipity: The Computer and the Arts (1968-69), curated by Jasia Reichardt, as does the book, Computer Graphics/Computer Art (1971), by Herbert W. Franke. (A fait accompli as valid today as ever, especially in view of the new 90's revival of "technological art". Yet there are still several suspicious and cautionary questions that remain unresolved; some of the vainest being those based upon the painful perception that this medium trespasses and dissipates artistic identity.)

In 1967, A. Michael Noll, one of the first to promote the convergence between the computer and art, spoke about the benefits provided by the technical/scientific community via the artistic exploration of new technologies ("what artists can learn by using these new computer techniques may be valuable for scientists and engineers") as well as the ways in which art circles themselves could profit by them. Consequently, this concern is reflected in Noll's work, and that of his peers, through hypotheses or models for automating the creation of optical, geometric, kinetic, dynamic, psychedelic and stereoscopic works of art. A primary benefit could be found, for example, in reducing the labour-intensive side of the process involved in such delicate maneuvering. It is therefore significant to find that some of Noll's initial explorations were spent recreating the emblematic works by Mondrian through computer techniques, of Op-art (Bridget Riley) and motion sculpture, among other trends that were fashionable at the time.

In other words, a sort of perfect accord was reached between the still very rudimentary aptitudes of computers for processing images and sound in binary mode - data whose use requires huge amounts of memory capacity and complex instructions - and a type of analytical reductionism towards which new avant-garde art tended: from an abstract geometrical posit whose greatest ascendants can be found in Cubism and Constructivism, through the new approaches oriented towards concept and procedure, to language codes and sign systems, and the "ABCs" of things like Minimalism and monomorphic structures (as per George Maciunas).

The language managed by the initial graphic and animation systems and programs was therefore a relatively simple one of abscissas and co-ordinates, dots and lines, curves and sinusoids, planes and isometrics, mosaics and symmetries, arabesques and geometrical forms, trajectories and displacements, permutations and stochastic factors, measurements and insertions, limited grey-scales or colours.... These were the Sketchpad (Ivan Sutherland, 1962), BEFLIX and EXPLOR (Kenneth C. Knowlton, 1963 and 1970), Model 5.3 (John Stehura, 1965), GRAF (John P. Citron, 1966), GRASS (Thomas De Fanti, 1971), MSGEN (Nestor Burtnyk and Marceli Wein, 1971), among other pioneering contributions by individuals, groups and research laboratories, universities and technology institutes, and of course large corporations and emerging industries. All of this was geographically and institutionally concentrated - as a new technology which reached its peak and greatest degree of development - in the most opulent nations.

From a technological perspective, failing to make any further references about the computer's evolution and its first manifestations during this period would be like getting stuck in prehistory. Thirty years hence, our culture is thoroughly impregnated by the subsequent advances of digital machinery and the sequellae that other early explorations have produced, which are equally remote in time, or even possibly more so. Take, for example, the hypertext systems for accessing related data in a non-linear way (from Memex described by Vannevar Bush, in 1945, to the Xanadu project by Theodor Nelson, in 1965), or the virtual reality and sensorial telepresence techniques (from the Sensorama Simulator patented by Morton Heilig, in 1962, to the first "immersion helmet" tested by Ivan Sutherland, in 1966). As a result, art and aesthetic theory today have to confront other challenges, horizons and dilemmas which, in part, cannot be inscribed in any one particular discipline.

In any event, here we are trying to consider the first point of confluence between machines, film-makers and computers, which constitute, in some ways, the two greatest poles of reference in 20th century cultural history. At the beginning and end of that same century, both poles have encouraged the idea that art, science and technology ought to converge, since they have several features in common: a meticulous (pre)history, an impact on society, and a variety of cultural uses and offshoots. And, although it may apparently seem as yet a limited episode of just over two decades (60s/70s), with relatively few authors and works displaying aesthetic consistency, the Calculated Cinema series intends to open a window of observation allowing a glance both backwards in time, as well as forwards. The subject will be examined through context-specific frameworks, fleeing from any type of linear sequencing, whose point of departure can be found mainly within the traditional areas of visual music and non-objective art. Eventually, the idea is to offer an antidote for the digital animation styles which are now hegemonic and omnipresent.

Every artist definitely has some type of dialogue with his tools and his means of expression; whether brushes, paint and paper, a video synthesiser, or a computer. My tools are mathematics and programming, and the computer is the medium I use. In this sense the computer adds a new dimension to this field of exploration started by Ginna and Corra in 1912, the Italian Futurists to whom the first abstract films are attributed. They spoke of 20th century dynamism. Today we talk about mathematics.

The concept of the calculated image has been used on occasion as a reference to the series of techniques in digital image generation, animation and processing, and in particular those "constructed" by means of arithmetical calculations and computer tools (starting from scratch, so to speak, or the combination of zeros and ones). To speak of calculated cinema is not, therefore, a stylistic figuring. Instead, the aim is to venture a concept that goes beyond the typical taxonomies used in the history of film-making theory, as a means of introducing other perspectives. On the one hand, it refers us back to the beginning, to the pioneers of images created and animated by the computer, and, in a wider sense, to other early explorations in the principles of automation or machine-assisted creation. These explorations mainly - though not exclusively - took place in the domains of non-objective animation. In other words, they were abstract images. Others, however, preferred to call them absolute or concrete images.

However, we can also go back to the beginnings of metric montage - also called arithmetical - theorised by Eisenstein and other Soviet film-makers, in which a frame was used a unit of calculation. In some ways, these methods transfer musical concepts of rhythm, tempo, harmony, measurement, interval, tone, etc. These ideas and syncretisms have fascinated numerous visual and audio-visual artists, and were particularly "hot" in the first third of the century alongside a certain exaltation of science and technology. These methods have subsequently been re-used in theory and practise for metric cinema by the Viennese Peter Kubelka - "the Webern of film", in Stan Brakhage's words - and subsequently by other moving picture experimentalists .

An artist, pedagogue and expert in these fields, Malcolm Le Grice - author of a major work of reference: Abstract Film and Beyond (1977) - pointed out, reiterated and asserted the links that can be established between the underlying proposals of abstract and experimental film in general, and today's practises and explorations with the new digital media. So, the non-linearity of a type of film that is described as a narrative or anti-narrative foresaw more than one aspect of the properties inherent to technologies based on the principal of direct or random access. The premonition of interactivity could be found, on the other hand, in rejecting passivity insofar as the work's reception and closure. And, in short, this anti-standardised, searching spirit explodes in the idea of expanded cinema, to take an expression employed by several film-makers and theoreticians, and used in the title of a book by Gene Youngblood, Expanded Cinema (1970), one of the first to discuss the new technologies, audio-visual practises and multimedia.

This programme series, therefore, revolves around the initial explorations of computer machinery (and programming), and the recycling and DIY use of electronic components in generating images. And above all, it attempts to establish the relationship between diverse works and aesthetics (and techniques), which are occasionally very distant when reduced to a chronological criteria. These links go beyond a recurring presence that can be found in some ethnic and ritual music, in a graphic universe full of mandalas and arabesques or in a certain reductionist essentialism. It is not by chance that many of these authors state that they owe their work to or are followers of the initial avant-garde explorations of aesthetic, syncretic and technical aspects such as absolute abstraction, the concept of visual music, the syntax of montage, real-time animation and technological invention.

This is the primary reason for including some of the following titles, interspersed throughout the series: works by Oskar Fischinger, László Moholy-Nagy, Kurt Schwerdtfeger, Alexandre Alexeieff / Claire Parker and Norman McLaren which, beyond their intercalation as diachronic references or techno-aesthetic counterpoints, serve as a reference point for several constants that can be found not only in the output of this particular generation, but also in some of the most recent works. Thus, the programme insinuates that neither technology nor the machine language of information is at the true heart of the matter... even though the growing intermarriage, and even competition, between digital technologies and art (and, of course, the film industry) gives good cause for raising several subjects that are all too often overlooked, even though their impact can be seen and appreciated in "cult" works.

The accelerated pace at which the computer's graphic potential is evolving, whereby digital animation systems are growing ever more sophisticated and several hegemonic styles are being adopted - between hyper-realism and 3-D cartoons - means that the series is doomed to adopting a virtually archaeological approach, although in no way does this render impertinent the languages and universes they seek to express; precisely because technology is just another element - though not merely accidental - among the considerations that have guided artistic research into the electronic and digital media. Just like in the field of music, where there is renewed interest and curiosity in old-fashioned electro-acoustic procedures, and instruments like the Theremin and other unique artefacts, many of these films reveal the extent to which technological imagination often foreran major brands and industrial launches.

Initial intuition about the potential for machine-generated graphics and animation dates back to the period between the 40s and 60s, by way of the cathode ray tube. Artists and film-makers like Karl Otto Götz, Ben F. Laposky, Norman McLaren, Hy Hirsh, Mary Ellen Bute, Jordan Belson, Nam June Paik and Alexandre Vitkine used radar screens, oscilloscopes and television sets to electrically model abstract forms, relatively simple motion, geometrical grids, and Lissajous curves (named as such in honour of the 19th century French scientist, Jules A. Lissajous). These people were precursors of subsequent explorations in video synthesis and digital creation
Baptised by some of these artists with terms like "electronic painting" (Götz), "electronic oscillations and abstractions" (Laposky), "abstronica" (Bute) or "chromophony" (Vitkine), these experiments must be understood in a context of expansive techno-aesthetic research, which, in a wider sense, concerned multiple and stereoscopic projections, optical printing techniques, sound synthesis, musical and visual creation by mechanical and electronic means, and often a sort of technological, empirical DIY, as a means to push beyond the conventional means available.

This backdrop is also valid for the principal pioneers of computer animation in the United States, among whom we could cite Charles Csuri, Stan Vanderbeek, Lillian Schwartz, John Stehura, Jules Engel, Ed Emshwiller and, above all, what we could call the "Whitney dynasty", formed by brothers James and John Whitney, the latter's wife - artist Jacqueline Helen Blum - the couple's three children - John Jr. (founder of companies like Digital Productions and Optomystic), Michael, and Mark - and a number of disciples and collaborators including Larry Cuba and Gary Demos; a dynasty that is divided between faithfulness to non-objective animations and visual music, and a good nose for business in commercial computer graphics.

Towards the end of the 50s, John Whitney built himself an animation machine from recycled military surplus components. It was his own mechanical analogue apparatus, and though still in a DIY stage, it was precise and full of opportunities, as can be seen in his film Catalog (1961) - conceived as a sort of "demo reel" - even more so in his brother James' extraordinary piece, entitled Lapis (1963-66). The series places greater emphasis on John Whitney's contribution, including all his distributed work: from the abstract film and synthetic sound experiments he did with his brother in the 40s, through to what would be his last film, Arabesque (1985). Until his death, in 1995, John Whitney devoted his time to creating an interactive system for real-time audio-visual composition.

The films created by Larry Cuba, nicknamed "the Bach of abstract animation" by Gene Youngblood, are no less brilliant for their scarcity. Recently, he has promoted The iota Center, an organisation devoted to the "art of light and movement". This wider concept is also reflected in the series through intercalated references towards other techniques and machines that have served to bridge the gap between luminous and electronic art, glimpsed at through the work of Moholy-Nagy, Fischinger, Thomas Wilfred and Nicolas Schöffer, among others - along with Farblichtspiele by Schwerdtfeger or the film by Hirsh entitled Gyromorphosis. The programming also includes the latest contributions to experimental animation and absolute cinema by Cuba and other film-makers like Paul Glabicki, Robert Darroll or Bart Vegter, who, in recent years, have also incorporated the computer into their working methods.

Finally, other approaches have been taken by Europeans like Marc Adrian, Malcolm Le Grice and Pierre Rovère, in some of their first cybernetic incursions. For example, the cinema of systems - structural, materialist, or material-based - which were initiated towards the end of the 50s and which, in a wider sense, allow the establishment of links with works by other film-makers like Peter Kubelka, Kurt Kren, Paul Sharits, Taka Iimura, Werner Nekes, Bill Brand, Christian Lebrat and Joost Rekveld, whose algebra operates with the frame rather than the bit, and with the impression of light rather than electronic particles. These cross references connect back once again with others that were mentioned in earlier programmes in the series, as a means to further enhance the subject matter with a dual significance. On one hand, formulating, revealing or suggesting the synchronic or diachronic relationships that give context to aesthetic rather than technological explorations; while at the same time, offering a variety and heterogeneity instead of the repetitiveness of a selection whose sole criteria is that of an archaeology of computer animation. The aim is to break with the trivialised perception of the early cybernetic aesthetic - formalist, decorative or psychedelic - still widely held today.