Turns Out 1960s Yugoslavia Was a Hotbed for Computer Art

Unfolding the story of New Tendencies, the avant-garde movement you've never heard of that championed the arrival of the computer in art.

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Aug 23 2015, 12:20pm

Vladimir Bonačić, DIN GF100,1969. All images courtesy of Museum of Contemporary Art, Zagreb.

In May 1969, a motley crew of artists, architects, engineers, scientists and historians converged in Zagreb, Croatia for a conference entitled Computers and Visual Research. An accompanying exhibition was held at the Gallery of Contemporary Art Zagreb (today the Museum of Contemporary Art Zagreb), staging computer-generated drawings and paintings alongside an interactive, computer-controlled installation. This was the fourth major meeting of the international art movement New Tendencies (NT), which had been active since 1961, and its participants embraced the new "thinking machines" with open arms. The computer provided them with new methods they'd been seeking in their artistic production. As art critic Radoslav Putar wrote of NT in 1970, "They have all dreamt of the machines—and now the machines have arrived."

Frieder Nake, Rectangular Random Polygon 25/2/6 Nr. 2, 1965.

Margit Rosen, curator at ZKM | Center for Art and Media Karlsruhe, explains this further in her article for the book Mainframe Experimentalism: "Consistent with the New Tendencies’ vision of 'art as research,' the computer was added not to establish a new style, but to introduce a new research tool."

To add some context to this, it's worth going back to the start: in the fall of 1960, New Tendencies is born of discontent. Brazilian artist Almir Malvignier is introduced to an emerging art critic, Matko Meštrović, in Zagreb. The two find common ground over their disappointment in the 1960 Venice Biennale, and decide to hold an exhibition to present new tendencies overlooked by the establishment. The following year, Nove tendencije opens in Zagreb, presenting works that blurred the lines between painting and sculpture. Between 1961 and 1965, around 130 artists, loosely working within the constructs of Op art, kinetic art and concrete art, participated in the subsequent group exhibitions that took place in other European cities. The initiative revealed that artists from across Europe and North and South America were "following similar lines of inquiry independently," writes Rosen.

Hiroshi Kawano, Work no.7. Artificial Mondrian, May 26, 1966.

They were, she adds, "unified in taking a self-consciously 'rational' contraposition versus expressive art forms such as tachisme, art informel, and abstract expressionism, which still dominated the art scene in the early 1960s." They searched for ways to approach artistic production as scientific research, and to make art easy to understand and reproduce. They deplored the notion of the artistic genius and the art world's constant focus on marketable stars. Computer programming, and namely its ability to make decisions for the artist based on a set of controlled elements, carried great promise in achieving their goals.

The Computers and Visual Research exhibition of 1969 brought in new blood. Vladimir Bonačić was granted first prize for his computer-controlled light panel, DIN GF100, which allowed the viewer to start and stop two programmed light patterns at will. Other artists, such as Hiroshi Kawano, obtained their compositions through automated processes, and then produced the final piece manually. Leon Harmon and A. Michael Noll, scientists from Bell Research Laboratories in New Jersey, contributed visualizations of mathematical functions and computer-processed photographs (including, not too surprisingly, one of a female  nude—old tropes die hard).

Yet only a few of the artists included had taken part in NT's previous exhibitions. In fact, 15 minutes away, the organizers installed a concurrent Tendencije 4 show at Zagreb's Museum for Arts and Crafts, which mainly held works of constructive and kinetic art by the movement's usual suspects. In addition to this division, members grappled with ideological questions both old and new: Was the concept of "art as research" viable as a way to transcend traditional artistic creation? Is the computer program the artwork, or is the resulting object?

A. Michael Noll, Gaussian Quadratic, 1963.

From today’s perspective, considering many contemporary artists' continued exploration of computer technology, the questions posed by New Tendencies still seem relevant—and yet it's hard to trace an actual legacy. According to Rosen, after a final symposium in 1978, they "vanished quietly after 17 years,"—quietly being the operative word. The movement quickly fell into oblivion. As Rosen remarks to The Creators Project, “it is difficult to say why NT vanished from the attention and memory of art critics and historians.” In the end, we’re left with another unsolved mystery, and a reminder of how narrow our historical lens can be.

Leon D. Harmon, Kenneth C. Knowlton, Mural, 1966.

Today, a number of New Tendencies works are in the collections of MSU in Zagreb and of ZKM in Germany—the latter holds all of Hiroshi Kawano’s works and archive. The computer-generated works created by scientists were never collected as legitimate art pieces, and disappeared. To learn more, pick up a copy of Margit Rosen’s book, A Little-Known Story about a Movement, a Magazine, and the Computer’s Arrival in Art.

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