Review: Thinking Machines — Art and Design in the Computer Age
MoMA’s Thinking Machines show looks back to our recent past (1959–1989) to assess how the nascency of digital tools transformed artistic practice
Museum of Modern Art, New York
Until 8 April
Review by Aileen Kwun
As technology continues to influence how we consume and experience art — it’s increasingly hard to remember a time before the art selfie — a modest exhibition at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, Thinking Machines: Art and Design in the Computer Age, 1959–1989, presciently looks to our recent past, quietly reexamining how the emergence of computing and computational thinking significantly shaped our cultural approaches to art production then, as its massive pervasiveness does now.
While the exhibition was organised by Sean Anderson, an associate curator of MoMA’s architecture and design department, the rigorous selection notably features more than 100 works from all six of the museum’s departments, ranging from media and performance, to drawings and prints, and even film. Here, the computer is not merely presented as a design-tool artefact — though there are a few vintage machines on display too — but as an illuminating exercise in recontextualising its role as an unprecedented agent of change, one that prompted various modes of experimentation and thinking across the gamut of artistic practice.
The CM-2 Supercomputer, from 1987, is 1.5m tall. Photo Credit: The Museum Of Modern Art. Photography by Peter Butler
On view are an impressively diverse mix of analogue and digital works. Beryl Korot’s landmark 1976 installation, Text and Commentary, features a five-channel video of the artist weaving at a loom — a purposefully old-media technology she referred to as ‘the first computer on the face of the earth’ — alongside the four resulting weavings and the intricate mimeograph diagrams used to plan the geometry-driven designs.
Together, Korot’s analogue information systems create an uncanny formal dialogue with a set of pixilated bitmap drawings by artist and graphic designer Susan Kare, who designed the user interface and iconic visual language for MacPaint, the pioneering drawing tool released by Apple in 1984. Meanwhile, experimental films by Stan VanDerBeek and diagrammatic sheet music by the avant-garde composer John Cage show how computational logic was used as a canvas for visual experimentation across media. ‘I tend to think that not only do the machines and the processes mirror us, but we are also mirroring them,’ says Anderson. ‘We are creating the dialogue and the interface, in order to interface with them.’
Scattered throughout are three personal computers entering the consumer market in the Eighties, including the first Apple Macintosh, and a DIAB DS-101 Computer designed by British artist Richard Hamilton, a sort of retro Pop Art sculpture in its own right, in the form of a svelte but sizable ‘minicomputer’ (this is 1987, after all).
Another pop culture tie-in is a looping clip of the Eighties’ television personality Max Headroom — ‘the world’s first computer-generated TV host’, as played by comedian Matt Frewer, who is said to have endured hours of makeup to achieve the look of an AI contrivance, replete with glitch movements and a modulating synth voice. For Eighties’ kids, the awkward character skit was comedic parody of a not-too-distant (and perhaps, in retrospect, all too present) dystopic media landscape.
It’s not difficult to imagine the computer-generated plotter drawings by artists Alan Saret and Waldemar Cordeiro being dismissed in their time, yet the works of both reveal a trial-and-error spirit of experimentation of learning the machine’s capabilities while at the same time testing its boundaries.
Mario Bellini’s Programma 101 electronic desktop computer (1965). Photo Credit: 2017 Mario Bellini
‘Early criticism of this kind of work was that it wasn’t work,’ says Anderson, as he asks rhetorically: ‘What is work, and what is then, by extension, the work of art? One of the most intriguing lines through the whole exhibition is the notion of labour, so I call it the “work of the work”.’
The viewer is wont to recall the celebrated conceptual artist Sol LeWitt, whose iterative wall drawings presented a modular, almost algorithmic way of mapping images by way of graphic permutation, even as they were painstakingly executed by hand. Instead of readily drawing from that well-known canon, Anderson has refreshingly added to it by featuring drawings by lesser-known female contemporaries, including the Hungarian artist Vera Molnár, whose compelling drawings from the Sixties explore adjacent concepts to artmaking, and widen the viewer’s perspective of the field. While she would later work directly with computers, in these drawings produced by hand Molnár, a founder of the Paris-based Groupe de Recherche d’Art Visuel (Visual Art Research Group), worked with what she referred to as a ‘machine imaginaire’ — a series of self-imposed rules and procedures that were made to simulate the constraints of drawing computationally.
The exhibition also highlights how corporations and institutions, such as the Olivetti Corporation — which engaged with Italian kinetic artists of the influential Arte Programmata movement of the early Sixties — served as instrumental creative partners and sponsors, providing artists and designers access to new technologies and tools with which to experiment.
The five-channel video installation showing Beryl Korot weaving at a loom (Text and Commentary, 1967) is shown alongside the four resultant weavings. Photo Credit: The Museum Of Modern Art. Photography by Peter Butler
Anderson guessed that a pulsating sculpture by 0op, a sort of predecessor to a modern-day Arduino experiment, would be the most Instagrammed work in the exhibition, but it has turned out to be an unwieldy yet elegant quartet of black-box cubes with blinking red lights — the CM-2 Supercomputer, produced by artist and designer Tamiko Thiel for the Thinking Machines Corporation. Made of Plexiglass, steel, and sheer hardware, the massive processor physically and visually embodies computing power cubed.
The 1.5m-tall object, which boasted 512MB of RAM and a hard drive capacity of 25GB, was released some 30 years ago — a dramatic and physical reminder of how much has changed in a relatively short period of time.
Anderson chose to specifically bookend the scope of the exhibition to curtail the emergence of the internet, which has certainly enabled a wholly different rise of tools, contexts, and conditions to react and experiment with.
In Thinking Machines, the curator takes an unorthodox but insightful, anthropological approach to this nascent, three-decade survey, demonstrating how the rise of computing dovetailed with vanguard makers to reveal overarching questions of labour, originality, and the aura of art — themes that are especially relevant as the evolving role of technology continues to shape our cultural attitudes and ways of making today.