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Construction and Intuition: Creativity in Early Computer Art

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This chapter takes some facets from the early history of computer art (or what would be better called “algorithmic art”), as the background for a discussion of the question: how does the invention and use of algorithms influence creativity? Marcel Duchamp’s position is positively referred to, according to which the spectator and society play an important role in the creative process. If creativity is the process of surmounting the resistance of some material, it is the algorithm that takes on the role of the material in algorithmic art. Thus, creativity has become relative to semiotic situations and processes more than to material situations and processes. A small selection of works from the history of algorithmic art are used for case studies.


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  1. 1.

    We are so much accustomed to thinking of creativity as an individual’s very special condition and achievement that we react against a more communal and cooperative concept. It would, of course, be foolish to assume individuals were not capable of creative acts. It would likewise be foolish to assume they can do so without the work of others.

  2. 2.

    There actually exists a group of artists who call themselves, “the algorists”. The group is only loosely connected, they don’t build a group in the typical sense of artists’ groups that have existed in the history of art. The term algorist may have been coined by Roman Verostko, or by Jean-Pierre Hébert, or both. Manfred Mohr, Vera Molnar, Hans Dehlinger, Charles Csuri are some other algorists.

  3. 3.

    The art we are talking about, in the mid-1960s, was usually called computer art. This was certainly an unfortunate choice. It used a machine, i.e. the instrument of the art, to define it. This had not happened before in art history. Algorithmic art came much closer to essential features of the aesthetic endeavour. It does so up to this day. Today, the generally accepted term is digital art. But the digital principle of coding software is far less important than the algorithmic thinking in this art, at least when we talk about creativity. The way of thinking is the revolutionary and creative change. Algorithmic art is drawing and painting from far away.

  4. 4.

    The booklet, rot 19, contains the short essay, Projekte generativer Ästhetik, by Max Bense. I consider it to be the manifesto of algorithmic art, although it was not expressly called so. It has been translated into English and published several times. The term generative aesthetics was coined here, directly referring to Chomsky’s generative grammar. The brochure contains reproductions of some of Nees’ graphics, along with his explanations of the code.

  5. 5.

    Bense’s introductory text, in German, was not published. It is now available on the compArt Digital Art database at Concerning the three locations of these 1965 exhibitions, Howard Wise was a well-established New York gallery, dedicated to avant-garde art. Wendelin Niedlich was a bookstore and gallery with a strong influence in the Southwest of Germany. The Studiengalerie was an academic (not commercial) institution dedicated to experimental and concrete art.

  6. 6.

    Paul Brown recently (2009) discovered that Joan Shogren appears to have displayed computer-generated drawings for the first time on 6 May 1963 at San Jose State University.

  7. 7.

    Only a few steps must be added to complete the algorithm: a first point must be chosen, the total number of points for the polygon must be selected, the size of the drawing area is required, and the drawing instrument must be defined (colour, stroke weight).

  8. 8.

    The digital image, in my view, exists as a double. I call them the subface and the surface. They always come together, you cannot have one without the other. The subface is the computer’s view, and since the computer cannot see, it is invisible, but computable. The surface is the observer’s view. It is visible to us.

  9. 9.

    Friedrich Kittler quotes Nietzsche thus: “Unser Schreibzeug arbeitet mit an unseren Gedanken.” (Our writing tools participate in the writing of our thoughts.) (Kittler 1985), cf. Sundin (1980).

  10. 10.

    Cf. Sundin (1980).

  11. 11.

    This should read “mathematicians or engineers”, but I will stick to the shorter version.

  12. 12.

    Marcel Duchamp was the first to talk and write about this: “All in all, the creative act is not performed by the artist alone; the spectator brings the work in contact with the external world by deciphering and interpreting its inner qualification and thus adds his contribution to the creative act. This becomes even more obvious when posterity gives a final verdict and sometimes rehabilitates forgotten artists.” (Duchamp 1959). This position implies that a work may be considered a work of art for some while, but disappear from this stage some time later, a process that has often happened in history. It also implies that a person may be considered a great artist only after his or her death. That has happened, too.

  13. 13.

    It is a simplification to concentrate the argument on conceptual vs. algorithmic artists. There have been other directions for artistic experiments, in particular during the 1960s. They needed a lot of technical skill and constructive intelligence or creativity. Recall op art, kinetic art, and more. Everything that humans eventually transfer to a machine has a number of precursors.

  14. 14.

    The catalogue (Herzogenrath and Nierhoff 2006) contains a list of the hardware Vera Molnar has used since 1968. It also presents a thorough analysis of her artistic development. The catalogue appeared when Molnar became the first recipient of the d.velop digital art award. A great source for Molnar’s earlier work is Hollinger (1999).

  15. 15.

    This figure consists of two parts: a very early work, and a much later one by the same artist. The latter one is given without any comment to show an aspect of the artist’s development.

  16. 16.

    The hypercube is analogous to a three-dimensional cube in four or more dimensions. It is recursively defined as an intricate structure of cubes.

  17. 17.

    A book is in preparation that takes a fundamental approach to this topic: P.B. Andersen & F. Nake, Computers and signs. Prolegomena to a semiotic foundation of computing.

  18. 18.

    I only have a German edition. The text can easily be found in libraries.

  19. 19.

    (Klee 1928) Another translation into English is: “We construct and construct, but intuition is still a good thing.”


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My thanks go to the people who have worked with me on the compArt project on early digital art and to the Rudolf Augstein Stiftung who have supported this work generously. I have never had such wonderful and careful editors as Jon McCormack and Mark d’Inverno. They have turned my sort of English into a form that permits reading. I also received comments and suggestions of top quality by the anonymous reviewers. All this has made work on this chapter a great and enjoyable experience.

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Nake, F. (2012). Construction and Intuition: Creativity in Early Computer Art. In: McCormack, J., d’Inverno, M. (eds) Computers and Creativity. Springer, Berlin, Heidelberg.

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