ON SWEDISH COMPUTER ART:
REGARDING 2001 - AHEAD OF TIME?
The Tema Institute-Department of Communication Studies
Linköping University, Sweden
From a physical scene to an electronic screen
My study on Swedish computer art concerns the artefacts, artists and technicians, from 1966 to 1986. These entries have been treated in a cultural context.
By means of interviews and other methods, relationships between art prevalence and society’s tolerance have been covered.
A number of researchers are investigating "new media" in Sweden but few have become interested in a historical analysis. With a gateway from 1994 and the high-speed development of electronic communication all over the world from "virtual reality" to "Cyberspace", I introduce some time-lines from an era 30 years earlier, raised in another "revolution".
The movement that we have termed the "consciousness" or "mentality"-revolution, described by Ian MacDonald in Revolution in the Head: the Beatles’ records and the sixties (1994), still has an intimate relationship with digital vision in the 1990s. Both may be regarded as universal problem-solvers and a sort of cultural mix between hi-tech society and magic, oriental myths, New Age, etc. Even if the ideas of an expanded mind have become ideas of an expanded memory and a fast Ethernet connection into a "post-modem world", to quote one of the interviewed artists, Ture Sjölander.
Ian MacDonald focused on culture as a popular expression of mainstream society and a fusion of several forms of articulation. In this matter he saw a change of mentality in the 1960s, a change also perceptible in Swedish culture. American rock music and poets inspired many Swedish underground and radical artists. Themes from Tuli Kupferberg or Bob Dylan were used, for example, by the Swedish artist Sture Johannesson in his liberal posters in the 1960s.
The hippie and flower power movement was, in Johannesson’s view, a sort of religion and, in a way, purely moral in the adjustment to drugs—an alternative way of living with an alternative use of chemicals or herbs, mostly using a psychedelic approach.
Times were changing in the middle of this decade. The new Age of Aquarius formed new views of the whole society: a new sexual liberation, a new interest in environmental and sociological studies, politics and more.
West, as well as east, had failed in building social structures on earth, nevertheless had man begun to explore the moon. Many religious metaphors were used.
Sweden did not have the same social turbulence as Germany, France or Italy, but even Swedish society went through some sort of revolution from the middle of the 1960s. It has been given many names as if there were many small revolutions.
After a few years of blossoming this era came to be a rigid left-winged political period, subsequently condemned by many liberal voices, although at the time most cultural workers supported even the most radical acts if they had been subject to censure or disapproval.
Some cases in Sweden are wellknown due to government censure: actions against the Swedish flag, against military service or, of special interest to us here, Sture Johannesson’s underground poster for an art exhibition in Lund, printed in 1968.
The art arena was expanding during this period. Artists began to work with other materials, and also with other audiences in view.
In some cases their works addressed "ordinary people" and became more assimilated with popular culture. Many political artists encouraged colleagues to approach folkculture, to discard the canvas in preference for the political posters.
But there were other escalating movements, seldom mentioned in the 1960s, that took advantage of the new technique during this period – pioneers who turned towards electronic screens, holograms and the like, and were often distrusted by more "politically radical" members of the art society.
Most of the artists that I have interviewed for this discourse testified to this conclusion and the sceptical proportion can be explained on the grounds of the anxiety for the expected world war (III) or the conflict in Vietnam.
On the other hand, this does not explain why computers were non-contested in their use by musicians of the same period. Perhaps electro-acoustic music possessed a stronger tradition, way back to the "theremin" at beginning of the century.
However, it can be hard to grasp this phenomenon viewed from a later period, which rests on the idea that computers are essential for knowledge and for a democratic standard. Nevertheless it shows the variance in social order.
One could think that computer artists came from a similar environment, or at least a similar tradition. In order to bring light to this matter, I briefly describe some fundamental biographical figures in chapter two. I did not have the intention of selecting some of the artists to represent the whole group; instead, I wanted to meet as many as possible in person for a number of interviews.
Not surprisingly, I failed in my ambition of meeting everyone; some artists left this life before I had a chance to meet them or to complete the dialogue.
In one case I had to use modern technology like electronic post, telephones and chat-channels to get in touch with the artist. After hundreds of letters, I considered that this material was comparable with the interviews.
However, I succeeded in reaching most of the early Swedish pioneers in this new field of computer-supported art and screen art. Most of the material that I present in this form is a result of these meetings. For nearly five years I checked and re-checked announcements and statements in my material. Exhibition catalogues, more interviews, reports and archives helped my understanding.
My study deals with computer art mostly before the screen interface became standard equipment. However, some early computer art from the end of the 1970s is also represented among the other early experiments. So, what is computer art?
In this text computer art refers to an artist’s work that essentially uses, or needs, a computer to complete the composition.
It may be a concrete piece of art, in which the artist uses a computer to obtain some essential co-ordinates, or codes, to intentionally depersonalise the artefact.
It could be a part of a design in which the artist uses random curves to style essential forms or colours, or it might be a full-scale project that includes programming and uses calculated shapes.
In an article (1982) the architect Wolfgang Huebner drew a comparison between punch cards used by the computers and Joseph Jacquard’s early system for weaving-mills. Both use a routing process of perforated cards in some sort of "memory".
I do not maintain the concept of "art" itself but rather the artefacts, which by the artist or the viewers, have been described as art-works.
I gained a "preconception" from the literature of Frank Dietrich (1986), Herbert W. Franke (1971), Margot Lovejoy (1997), Erwin Steller (1992), Frank Popper (1993) and from a lecture by the Swedish artist Torsten Ridell, published in 1983.
References from various works of fiction (Clarke, Higgins, Huxley, et al.) were also imported sources for understanding some of the fundamental issues raised by the artists and in building a new comprehension of their art.
The importance of a special event in 1968 should be noted, the exhibition Cybernetic Serendipity at the Institute of Contemporary Art, London, with special credits to Jasia Reichardt.
It was then that computer art became an issue for artists instead of being a purely a matter for technicians.
In The Computer in Art (1971) she described how art history over the centuries forms a small number of masterpieces and masters (artists). Exceptions to this are wider movements that failed to produce works of "great quality": (1960s) psychedelic art in USA or (1950s) Social Realism in Britain. Then, she mentions, some "unique significance both socially and artistically" in some modern movements, concrete poetry and computer art.
She was right about computer art, it was to become unique, both socially and artistically.
Eight years later Ruth Leavitt brought together the works of a number of computer artists in a book called Artist and Computer. It had become obvious to the widespread population that computer art was something that artists could deal with.
A few years later (1979), in an exhibition in Paris, Torsten Ridell put together the works of every Swedish computer artist that he could find.
Subsequently, an exhibition in Lund, Sweden followed in 1981. The artist were: Holger Bäckström, Lars-Gunnar Bodin, Mikael Jern, Wolfgang Huebner, Ann-Charlotte and Sture Johannesson, Sten Kallin, Bo Ljungberg, Sven Inge de Monér, Jan W Morthenson, Torsten Ridell, Ture Sjölander and finally Göran Sundqvist.
By aims of presenting those artist I propose a distinction by sorting them in two different groups: one group belonging to the concrete tradition and the other to an articulated expressionism aimed more toward some kind of screen art.
The "concrete" group is recognised by its analogies with mathematical formulas in a permutational constructive tradition.
By contrast, the expressionistically formed group follows a more figurative and transforming practice.
The distinction is a result of my studies and has no categorical reference in established taxonomy.
The first cluster that is described above includes Beck & Jung’s "picture alphabet" and my example is an outdoor embossment located at Huddinge sjukhus, one of Sweden’s and Northern Europe’s largest hospital complex at that time. The close proximity to calculated art is obvious.
Another example is Sture Johannesson’s and Sten Kallin’s project – Exploring Picture Space, (Epics). As shown in the text, they used a special program for composing pictures (Fields).
In a quotation they say that the application is not "a demonstration program for education in Physics – it is a vehicle for exploring another space created by us." In this matter Epics is a good depiction of the computed construction, the convention by which the first group is labelled. Instead of the well-established concept of "What you see is what you get", Epics incorporated the law of "Get what you can not see".
There are more examples of projects that are close to this "genre": Torsten Ridell’s permutations of lines and a number of works by Lars-Gunnar Bodin. Both of them are artists who work in a concrete tradition, with various materials.
Bodin is a well-known Swedish composer but extended his artistically encounters in the spirit of Dick Higgins’ Intermedia-concept. Bodin and Ridell worked during this time using similar concepts that come from random or stochastically assembled elements.
For a number of composers in this tradition computers were just a new way of working with concepts, for instance "Music concrete", replacing the tape recorder in order to create different attacks or decays.
But in the case of Bodin and Ridell, the computer was needed to compose pictures in a precise and rigorous way – strictly depersonalised.
My second "cluster", the figurative, transforming and expressionistically produced work of art, contains other kinds of artefacts.
My first example in this class is The Digital Theatre in Malmö. In this project Ann-Charlotte and Sture Johannesson put up a network of several Apple II computers in the late 1970s.
The first distinction from the first category is that much of the work contains animations and the second distinction is that this category often produced images for some kind of screen, a monitor, oscilloscope or television.
The Digital Theatre is an example of both these distinctions. Ann-Charlotte changed her name to Charlot (analogous with Chaplin) and they used theatrical language in the same spirit. Supported by, for instance, Steve Wozniak and the Swedish Foundation for Technical Development (STU), they drew up the course for a complete digital studio with music and pictures incorporated.
It took several years before they were able to get some "output" from the studio and with the pen plotter it took 3 x 8 hours to print a snapshot from one single screen. Even if this is the best example of an initial Swedish digital studio, it never came to be acclaimed as the pioneering project it was.
The studio was closed in 1986 when new technology brought improved standards. But ideas from this studio were realised by other means when the Internet was introduced at the beginning of the 1990s and computers began to incorporate the possibility of recording sound and displaying animations – what we now call multimedia. In 1980 Sture Johannesson, in a project description, named it Micro-performances. It was, in Johannesson’s own words, "Real Time Music & Real Time Pictures, Real Time Art".
In this study I have shown how these concepts were closely connected with ideas from Marshall McLuhan as Charlot and Sture Johannesson interpreted a number of his ideas.
In the 1970s it became possible to obtain a computer with a monitor as a "unit". Nevertheless the development of personal computers improved a lot during the 1980s and soon the model of a computer included a monitor as well as floppy, CD-ROM, fixed disk and sound.
One may think that screen art originated during this period, and this is almost true if we think about screen art as a result of computing. Otherwise we have to go back several years, into the pre-video-art era. Even if we do consider screen art to be the outcome of a computer composition, we can trace this phenomenon back in time another 20 years.
These are my next, and final, examples in this "monitor" category starting with a sub-group named Television experiments and holograms.
Several artists made experimental films in the 1960s. This was a result of what I described above as an expanded art arena. My example is Jan W. Morthenson’s film Supersonics. It was a film made in 1968 for a West German television company.
A young engineer named Göran Sundqvist digitised Morthenson’s paper sketches using an oscilloscope connected to the D/A switch of a SAAB D21 and captured it on film with a 16-mm camera.
Sundqvist later worked with Lars-Gunnar Bodin (above) in other projects, but these were not the primary examples.
In 1961 Sundqvist himself composed abstractions on a SAAB D2 using a regular camera to take snapshots.
In several other projects and during the 1960s we can follow the intentional creation of screen art: electronic paintings using television analogue monitors.
After a multi-art exhibition in 1965, a small group of Swedish artists gathered to discuss electronic paintings.
Ture Sjölander did not get the opportunity to finish his first project for the Swedish Television Company but was promised the opportunity to make another film.
Sjölander and Bror Wikström completed this in the film called Time (1966).
Additionally another film, called Monument (Sjölander and Lars Weck) was made in 1968 with similar concepts. Those two films and a third in colour in 1969, Space in the Brain (Höglund, Sjölander, Swanberg and Wickström) are some good examples of screen art and, even approach, early video art.
A number of prints, soundtracks and sequences from these films were shown at exhibitions all over the world.
These are a digression from the main, digital theme in this dissertation, but nevertheless they are examples of ideas that later computer art, as well as video art, abound in.
One scene from Space in the Brain was cut out of the film and renamed 30 minuter lång rörlig målning (30 minute motion painting).
All three of these films are related to the same concepts as computer art—to produce art directly for the media, in the media and on the premises of the media—a sort of multimedia show.
Some of this material has never been shown, for instance, Ann-Charlotte (Charlot) Johannesson’s artworks during the time of The Digital Theatre.
In my research I compare previously non-digitised work with later works in different artists’ production.
I have analysed how we can distinguish computer art from similar "genres" and point out similarities with other works of art and movements during the same period.
I have also indicated centres, or studios, where the artefacts were made and which hardware or standard was used.
From this some common characteristics are shown–from the progression of Neo-dada in the 1950s, via the avant-garde in the 1960s towards a period named postmodernism.
A particular centre of attention is on work resulting from partnerships between artists and engineers, for example, Poème Électronique, 1958, by Edgar Varese and Charles Edouard Jeanneret (Le Courbusier), assisted by Iannis Xenakis.
There were several Swedish artists who experimented with new media in the 1950s and 1960s but only a few of them achieved international recognition, such as Carl Fredrik Reuterswärd or Öyvind Fahlström.
Certainly the avant-garde filmmaker Viking Eggeling was a name in Europe in the 1920s, but he had almost no influence on Swedish culture until the 1950s.
Then, in just a few years, he became an important source of inspiration for several young artists.
As shown above, changes in Swedish cultural life in the early 1960s was not only due to sexual liberation, the drugdebate or the new interest in religion, sociology, politics or environmental issues.
Sweden also had a growing economy based on non-alliance and an increasingly articulated reform politics.
The population saw a continuously growing GNP. Moreover, the media landscape grew just as fast.
Television was widespread through the governmental public service policy and had an educational ambition, even though it was not always open-minded.
Several scandals shocked Swedish audiences in the 1960s.
Television was a beneficial medium for distribution, and its potential as a mass medium was soon realised by the radicals.
It was a logical move for some artists to seek alternative channels for their art.
Television became one of these new arenas in addition to album-covers, artistic books, situationist manifestations or posters.
Certainly, the people in charge of broadcasting stopped some of the most provocative projects.
Printing a poster was still more reliable if one wanted to be sure of reaching an audience with a radical message or work on independent films.
It did happen that authorities censored these kinds of materials, but not until the end of 1960s.
Some films were censored earlier if they contained material deemed offensive, while some films were totally banned.
One can easily see that sexuality and drugs were the two most annoying items during this period, even if many of the symbolic means came from religious themes.
Pornography was legalised, but the new "mind-expanding" drugs were in turn forbidden. Not until the end of the 1990s did Sweden sharpen the penalties for the distribution and possession of certain pornographic material, and censure is, needless to say, still a matter of discussion.
However, the government has still not given up this control of the film media.
Questions about sexuality and drugs had psychological, spiritual and political dimensions, and a number of persons were involved in the debate.
Many of them were concerned with the effects that liberal tendencies in these areas would result in.
An accelerated political polarisation was to come, which included these two issues among others.
Obviously, there were other issues in art, which did not include the liberal topics described above: art that stands on aesthetic formulas that, no matter which ideology, answer to public expectations and art that in a more theoretical approach includes spheres that obviously bear very few relationships to contemporary political subjects, even though it expresses general ideas in a specific cultural context.
The artists presented here were, as regards ideology, far removed from one other, but nevertheless they developed terms and concepts concerning art for approaching computer art.
The "orbital age" and the construction of
(the myth of) a communication revolution
Computer art was not the first but the last step in what I have described as "the break with established surface’s formal authority". During his lecture at Linköping University in 1983 the artist Torsten Ridell presented an outline of Swedish and international actors in the computer arts arena.
At the same time Ridell presented an early analysis concerning the genre status, mostly from a national view.
He showed that computers were still (1983) infrequently used in cultural endeavours, whereas the technique had not spread to the general public.
Difficulties of a technical or economic nature were mixed with scepticism among colleagues.
This was Ridell’s experience from the late 1970s, but this scepticism would soon be transformed into optimism.
The opposition to the formal authority of the established "surface", started through the displacement of terms and artefacts.
Moreover, an intense new order of cultural exhibits was to come.
One example of a starting point in this subject is the world-expo at the Philips pavilion in Brussels in 1958 and several artists burgeoning interest in new media, mass media and communication in collaboration between artists and technicians.
A definitive turning point came with IBM’s developments in Boca Raton, Florida and the advance of new graphical standards.
It became possible to work directly in the medium instead of indirectly with computed assistance from the machine.
Therefore computer art approached electronic art in its various forms. One could no longer see a natural categorisation of holograms, cybernetic sculptures or laser and other forms into a division of electronic art, computer art or something else.
However, the image could now move to the outer surface.
The opposition to the authority of the "surface" was a fact and brought with it a new focus on the image’s essence, divorced from the dimension of time—a focus originally established by the conceptual artist, defeating the more literal tradition in 19th century art.
Leavitt’s book, Artist and Computer, was an early example of computer artists building a framework into a new genre.
This was a time of searching, and in comparison with other alternative arenas could be likened to an expansion and a signpost to the technology and humanities field – just like artistic books, films and posters were. But this new opening strove against hi-tech areas.
We can easily compare this striving with earlier examples.
As far as Sweden and Swedish artists are concerned, there are a number of persons and movements who should be mentioned:
Åke Hodell and his publishing-house, Kerberos, for instance.
Internationally, we find Fluxus and many other endeavours.
These alternative arenas and the expansion of arts in the integrated endeavours between technology and humanities brought hope and optimism to many participants.
Some kind of art revolution seemed to be in the air.
Computer art was to be regarded as an expression of the ultimate progress in this direction.
Leavitt’s book also delivered an early view of artists and technicians in co-operation.
She did not claim the artist’s role or authorship by any means, but she did illuminate this problem through letting the persons involved write about themselves open-mindedly.
The pictures, the works of art, had several "authors" in the same natural way as musical records had over a long period of time.
It would not have been a major issue during the Renaissance but could pose a problem in late modernity with its mythological descriptions of cultural workers.
In my study, this became noticeable in the experiments with television I described above, although not as a general extensive topic specific for the period.
It is true that computer art has been controversial during the period. But did the artist also have the intention of provoking the use of the computer as a medium?
It is possible but not likely.
However, there was surely more than one vision that urged them to use this kind of technology.
The benefits for the mass media were obvious, and furthermore it involved breaking new ground and building utopias.
Then again, there were no ordinary donation trusts that supported these kinds of experiments.
This could be an explanation for the several forms of co-operation and the fact that the early computer artists came from various disciplines: Lars-Gunnar Bodin who combined images, poetry and music; Sture Johannesson, initially an underground biased artist; Bo Ljungberg, originally a mathematician; and Torsten Ridell, a construction engineer and university graduate.
On the other hand, there were certain elements they had in common. Several had a background as photographers: Sven Inge de Monér, Sture Johannesson and Ture Sjölander.
Another aspect is the striving to find hybrids between images and sounds, as in the Digital Theatre, the television experiments and Lars-Gunnar Bodin’s exhibitions.
In all these endeavours in the art arena, computer art appeared in an already existing dilemma in which material and ideology were two main issues.
Nevertheless the artists were not strictly articulated, political radicals; they saw artistic performances more as guidelines for new concepts.
For instance ideas about cyberspace or virtual reality provided technicians with arguments and mental tools for further development.
Otherwise, if it had not been coached in cultural terms, we would not have had progress in these areas.
Obviously one can see connections between society, culture and individuals in this progress. Artistic ideas, however, do not necessarily derive from artists.
The predicament of computer art has become part of a discourse with reference to post-modernism.
Rosalind Krauss’ investigations from the 1970s to the present have inspired many art theorists to observe the uncontrolled classifications of the medium.
In these terms, computer art is an excellent example of a post-modern artefact.
However, if this phenomenon is placed in its historical context and observed from another point of view, we can clearly see its close relationship with other shapes depending on which object we observe.
It is hardly fair to describe early computer art works as "post-modern". In that case, "post-modern" would be indistinguishable from "post-war".
Moreover, post-modern theories often demand some sort of contrast to modernism.
In these terms, early computer art was totally modernistic when it emerged on the scene.
When Krauss notes that the artefacts of postmodernism can no longer be defined as works of art with physical forms and solid materials, we can without doubt find analogies with the later computer art: screen art, electronic art, etc.
However, this expansion was an issue during the whole post-war period.
Gene Youngblood, for instance, showed in his book Expanded Cinema (1970), that the 1960s was full of experiments and transgressions of traditions.
Typical of the time were John Cage, Marshall McLuhan and Lewis Carroll, whom he presents in outlines of contemporary films and art projects.
In one of the chapters in Youngblood’s book, "Cybernetic Cinema and Computer Films", Youngblood portrays Video Monument in Sweden (see Monument above).
He describes the pattern as a process similar to Nam June Paik’s methods.
However the fact is that Ture Sjölander and Lars Weck applied the techniques at an earlier point in the video process—before signal or tape sequences existed.
Gene Youngblood later continued to examine human communication in many other ways. Still the focus was on the construction of a global village in an orbital age.
The communications revolution is discussed with themes that could be brought in from 1968, which is another way of examining a society in holistic terms.
The interest in human communication is today categorised as part of information and communication technology.
The social backlash that became clear when Apollo 11 went on the ultimate trip in 1969 was expressed in various ways.
Indeed, criticism of society was not something new.
From the 1950s onward artist and musicians have rendered broad criticism and raised de-constructional issues of rational language.
In the 1970s these issues became more politically coloured.
Computers were using another kind of "terminology", obviously not coloured by sagacious rhetoric.
In Sweden the poet Åke Hodell, a former pilot, criticised society in many ways for its language. He used computers in his critical text-sound composition for Swedish radio, Mr Smith in Rhodesia in 1969.
It was banned and destroyed by the broadcasting company.
The broadcast of the new version, recorded in England in 1970, was not allowed in Sweden until 1985.
This was the first experiment with "synthetic speech" that was recorded in Sweden.
Similarities between the 1960s "consciousness and counter culture revolution" and the 1990s digital and communication revolution do not stop with the fact that both were described as ubiquitous problem solvers in the building of new civilisations.
Those free brotherhoods, in the hippie-culture as well as in the Internet-culture, appear to be liberal concepts without doctrines showing how things must be done.
Instead, it seemed that most things could be realised.
It is relevant that travel metaphors were used in both cases.
The outer or inner spaces explored by tales like Alice (Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass) or poems by William Blake were often symbolic with hallucinogens, using drugs was to take trips.
Travel metaphors appear just as frequently in the context of information technology: electronic highways, Infobahn, surfing on the Internet.
Surfing finds greater significance in that movement takes place on a surface.
More metaphors can be found in free liberal communities on the Internet analogous with Be-ins, Love-ins, Teach-ins, Sit-ins, Smoke-ins or other youth group structures of, for instance, the Woodstock Aquarian Exposition in August, 1969, which had many roots from the civil-rights movements.
Here we can also see the merging of oriental philosophy and hi-tech in electronic musical instruments and strobes, just like the mixture found in Twin Peaks, X-files or Matrix of the culture of the 1990’s.
In this brave new world the Doors of Perception are transformed into Windows in virtual contact with cyberspace.
COPYRIGHT © 2001 BY GARY SVENSSON.
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.
THIS TEXT MAY BE QUOTED WITH PROPER ACKNOWLEDGMENT.