Art advances inexorably […] life develops with new forms; a new art, medium and experience are necessary for every epoch […] Not seeing the modern world and its achievements means not participating in the triumph of modern transformations.1
Kazimir Malevich, 1919
The work of Tyler Hobbs comes from a rich tradition of art and technology in the 20th Century. Although this aspect of Modernism is over fifty years old, it is only recently that it has gained wider visibility in the mainstream artworld. In the past several years hugely successful exhibitions like Thinking Machines: Art and Design in the Computer Age, 1959–1989 at MoMA, New York in 2018, AI: More than Human at the Barbican, London in 2019, and the highly-anticipated Coded: Art Enters the Computer Art 1952-1982 in early 2023 at Los Angeles County Museum of Art, have recorded the interaction of art, design and technology and interposed it as part of a larger history of modern culture. Audience fascination with understanding the history of our now pervasive digital world continues to grow as society grapples with the fact that nearly all aspects of life are now dominated by technology. The early 21st Century has been marked by rapid digital evolution; this has had an impact on all subsets of digital art by bringing it even greater attention, as artists embrace Web3 and NFTs. As the rate of technological change continues to accelerate, we can look to history to give context and perspective to our current digitised life.
Artists throughout time have found inspiration in the ‘new’: From Joshua Reynolds’ camera obscura, to Nam June Paik’s use of the television, Andy Warhol’s photocopier and polaroid works, to David Hockney’s iPhone paintings. By applying technology to art processes, artists have sought to extend their range of materials, abilities and methodologies and become creatively empowered in new and exciting ways.
Generative art, including Tyler Hobbs’ work, is especially exciting because it combines two of perhaps the greatest innovations of the 20th Century: In art – the invention of abstraction, and in science – information and communication technologies.
Although elements of abstraction occur before, it is generally agreed that non-narrative artworks emerged from multiple first steps and multiple rationales in several different European cities simultaneously around 1910-12. Vassily Kandinsky, Fernard Léger, Piet Mondrian, Kazimir Malevich and others now form a roll call of the most famous names in art history. To make art with no recognisable subject matter was a revolutionary idea, one that spread rapidly through modernism, embraced by many across the world, and seen in varying media including atonal music.
Tyler’s work, which is wholly abstract, sits within this tradition. The artist specifies a set of preferences within a system – the output of the system created either by custom algorithm written by the artist (from his mind to code and plotter), or by his hand (from his mind to hand in paint). Whether by hand or natively digital, in many of the artworks Tyler’s unique underlying ‘flow field’ aesthetic can be seen, providing a structure to the image. This results in a very distinctive and recognisable style, with clear bright colours swirling and playing across the surfaces. Other pieces in the show are more contemplative in nature and show a love of texture and fine details, their minimalism repaying a closer look. The beauty of his system behind each work is striking and whatever the output, results in a delicacy of character. This exhibition is about comparing the human, handmade approach to a mechanical process – the artist exploring the tension between the analogue and the digital and his thoughts about the gap between the two.
The first computer artists may have been outliers in their choice of tools, but far from being totally separate from an art historical trajectory, they were the latest in a long tradition of experiments with computational and systematic thinking. The love of accidents, the role of chance and the concept of an art based on rules have been key components of modernism since the time of Dadaism, Surrealism and Constructivism.
Malevich’s ground-breaking essay “On New Systems in Art”, introduced the concept for a system of creation within abstract art: “[…] in constructing painterly forms it is essential to have a system for their construction, a law for the constructional inter-relationships of forms. As soon as such a construction is built up it will express a new physical conclusion…”2 Constructivism celebrated technology and aimed to create a non-representational aesthetic incorporating the interaction of human and machine. Suprematism, Malevich’s own brand of abstraction, was rooted in his desire to move beyond traditional representation towards an art of pure colour and geometric form, rejecting any thematic origin.
The writing of an algorithm – constructing a set of predetermined instructions to produce art, was influenced by Surrealism’s ‘automatic’ drawing practices. However, this was not new even then – for example musical dice games (musikalisches würfelspiel) were popular in the 18th Century, with Mozart purportedly using the roll of dice to randomly generate music. Dada techniques included the ‘exquisite corpse’ game (c. 1925) and various ‘cut-up’ (découpé) procedures to introduce the element of chance into creative writing and drawing. Working with code gives the capability to produce random events within constrained parameters. Randomness can be introduced into the program and controlled to produce unexpected elements within a planned structure. Tyler has explained, “In some ways the artist is merely setting up a perfect environment to discover great works of chance.”3 Computing also allows the possibility of producing sequences through iteration, the repetition of sets of instructions in the code that can be adjusted so that each version is slightly different. The pioneering generative computer artist Manfred Mohr has said about coding, “that a non-visual logic will create a visual entity is what is so exciting about this process.”4
In the post-war period a number of different strands come together more or less simultaneously informed by the new science of cybernetics. Popularised by American author Nobert Wiener in the late 1940s, cybernetics, put simply, is, “the set of problems centred about communication, control and statistical mechanics, whether in the machine or in living tissue.”5 This includes the communication within an observer and between the observer and their environment. Wiener’s notions of control, feedback and communication were to have great influence upon almost all areas of intellectual life. This study of how machine, social, and biological systems behave offered artists a means of constructing a framework for art production in which new technologies and their impact on humanity could be considered.
Thus began a fascination with the ‘Human-Machine-Interrelationship’ in art, including the ambiguous or problematic position the machine could occupy. In Europe in the 1950s, Nicholas Schöffer celebrated all things mechanical by collaborating with engineers from Philips Electronics to create kinetic sculptures powered by ‘electronic brains’, connected to sensors enabling the sculptures to respond to changes in sound, light intensity, colour, and movement in the environment. Whereas Jean Tinguely continued in the nonsensical, irrationality of the Dada tradition by creating purposeless mechanical sculptures with arbitrary, loud clanging noises that satirised automation and technology’s role in the production of a seemingly endless supply of material goods.
The 1960s were a time of major revolution in the arts and many traditional critical frameworks were being questioned, undermined and replaced. This was an acknowledgment that the role of art in an industrialised society was changing. What can you do when you think of art as a system? Sol LeWitt’s work was about generating visual forms through rules that someone else carried out. He famously stated, “The idea becomes a machine that makes the art”.6 Although LeWitt’s ‘machine’ was metaphorical rather than literal, nevertheless this radical concept raised questions about art process and creative behaviour and challenged the notion of what art was or could be. Pioneer computer artist Frieder Nake has said that an algorithm is at once a text and a machine because it is an operational and executable description.7
Around this time, the idea that ‘art and technology’ could be a potentially definable art movement was gaining ground. In New York, the Experiments in Art and Technology (or E.A.T) group was established to mobilise the arts, industry and science around interdisciplinary collaborative projects between artists and engineers. Led by engineers Billy Klüver and Fred Waldauer from Bell Telephone Labs, the group included artists Robert Rauchenberg, John Cage and others who believed that the interrelationship of industry, technology and the arts was inevitable and would, “lead to new possibilities which will benefit society as a whole.”8 Notwithstanding the technical challenges that sometimes beset E.A.T.’s projects, events such as 9 Evenings: Theatre and Engineering (1966) were important precursors and their ideas influential.
By partnering with research laboratories or universities, artists were able to access the rare, expensive and large-scale mainframe computers and began to experiment with computer-generated imagery. This was a challenging task, involving long hours and dedication learning to use equipment that was not originally designed for artistic applications.
An early example is Manfred Mohr who, in 1970, established a relationship with the Meteorological Institute in Paris, after he discovered that they had ‘automatic drawing machines’ – in fact, a high resolution flat-bed plotter. They allowed him access to the equipment after hours when everyone had gone home for the night. Mohr was inspired by Philosopher Max Bense’s idea of a rational art, that a clear and logical form of art making was possible and indeed desirable. He learned about algorithmic procedures from the composer Pierre Barbaud, a pioneer of computer music. Mohr began to develop his ‘programmed aesthetic’, asking, “how to get a rational content? It’s not the form I have to invent, it’s a rule which invents the form – so that’s a programme, I have to write a programme.”9
Tyler, a great admirer of Mohr, acknowledges his influence and the following plotter drawings are among Tyler’s collection. These works from 1973 are quite spare in style, elegantly executed, reflecting Mohr’s ongoing interest in the structure of the cube. In this sense, the cube becomes the artist’s instrument: Manipulating, fracturing, breaking it down – Mohr asks what can you do with it, what happens if you add or subtract or slice it in two? Depending on the rotation of the cube, it changes the form and the content of the work. These three drawings form a trilogy. The first one (A) is the sum of the two others (B+C), which are randomly divided but are complementary to each other. In other words, all missing lines in (B) are drawn in drawing (C).
‘Computer art’ was a term in wide use during this period to describe practitioners with a similar approach and the writing of algorithms as a means of art creation. In 1969 the founders of the Computer Arts Society (a UK-based, but internationally focused group of like-minded individuals) deliberately used ‘Arts’ in the plural to indicate their inclusive nature and the great diversity of processes, styles, methodologies and outputs that this art could have.
Frieder Nake organized the first public computer art exhibition in 1965 in Stuttgart. Later that same year the Howard Wise Gallery, New York showed computer graphics by Béla Julesz and A. Michael Noll, both research engineers from Bell Telephone Labs. Thereafter several important exhibitions showcasing the computer and art took place internationally, including the germinal Cybernetic Serendipity in London (1968).
This was generally a techno-optimistic era and artists revelled in the new tools and methods available, whilst remaining aware of a social responsibility tied to the use of this technology, much of which developed out of military research during the Second World War. Gustav Mezger, inventor of Auto-Destructive Art, addressed how the artist could counter the dehumanising effects of the machine age by employing the computer in the service of art, a means to optimise this technology for the good of humanity.
Additionally, the use of computers in art could be an attempt to directly challenge the hierarchical, top-down view prevailing in the artworld. This viewpoint posited the artist as a special, god-like person who knew everything about art, dictated what was good and handed it down to the public to get something from it. Artists such as Ernest Edmonds and Stephen Willats, for example, were against this political position and believed that the good side of the computer offered a way out of that stance. Their work, inspired by cybernetics, involved interactive computing models often with input from local communities. This idea proposed that the quality of the interaction, the handing over of some of the creative experience even, to the public, from the artist, should be an enabling act and one that encourages creativity in others.
This philosophy continues with Tyler’s QQL series of artworks, where people from the community have the chance to creatively experiment with the artist’s algorithm, using it to generate new works for themselves. By allowing collectors to participate in the process of creation, the artist transfers some of his agency and the algorithm takes on a life of its own – going in new and exciting directions. This is enabled by the latest NFT and blockchain technology, which has recently revolutionised the artworld and is something that the pioneers of the 1960s could only have dreamed of.
It is clear that computer art pioneers were able to accomplish highly innovative things within the very limited palette that early technology allowed. They helped lay the groundwork for subsequent generations. Historically, many of these artists struggled for years to gain the recognition they deserved. This is now changing as society continues to grapple with the challenges and demands of life in the Anthropocene, and looks to the unique ability of artists to investigate, illuminate and possibly even transform our interpretation of the world. Tyler’s art shows us that by using digital tools and getting art out into the wider world, artists are helping to distribute some of this technology around in a positive way, so that it is no longer the sole preserve of large corporations or the military. As Tyler has said, “Art is part of how we establish healthy relationships with new technology and programming is the ultimate technology.”10
Catherine Mason is an independent art historian and author of A Computer in the Art Room: The Origins of British Computer Arts 1950-1980, (JJG Norfolk: 2008), recently been re-issued as an ebook. She is on the board of the Computer Arts Society.
1. Kazimir S Malevich, “On New Systems in Art”, 1919 in Essays on Art 1915-1933 Vol.1, Troels Andersen (ed) (London: Rapp & Whiting, Chester Springs, PA: Dufour Editions Inc. 1969) p.89
2. Kazimir S Malevich, as above, pp.100-101
3. Zachary Small, “I Could Go Full Throttle for Decades: How Generative Art Sensation Tyler Hobbs is Defying a Shrinking NFT Market”, ArtNet News, December 7, 2022: https://news.artnet.com/market/tyler-hobbs-profile-fidenza-qql-generative-art-2222939
4. Rhiannon McGregor, “Algorithmic art: Manfred Mohr talks remix, revolution and fixing radios”, Wallpaper*, August 19 2022: https://www.wallpaper.com/art/algorithmic-art-manfred-mohr-talks-remix-revolution-and-fixing-radios
5. Norbert Wiener, Cybernetics: or Control and Communication in The Animal and The Machine (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press 1948)
6. Sol Le Witt, “Paragraphs on Conceptual Art”, Artforum, #5, Summer 1967, p.80
7. Frieder Nake, “Paragraphs on Computer Art, Past and Present”, CAT 2010: Ideas before their time: Connecting the past and present in computer art, Computer Art and Technocultures AHRC Project, 3 February 2010, London, pp. 55-63
8. Experiments in Art and Technology (E.A.T.), E.A.T. News, vol.1, no.2, June 1, 1967
9. Manfred Mohr speaking at Carroll/Fletcher Gallery, 20 November 2012
10. Alex Estorick, “Tyler Hobbs on QQL and the Future of Generative Art”, Right Click Save, October 24, 2022: https://www.rightclicksave.com/article/tyler-hobbs-on-qql-and-the-future-of-generative-art