Book Review: White Heat Cold Logic

White Heat Cold Logic: British Computer Art 1960-1980 –

Ongoing Modernism and the Rise of the Heroic

Edited by Paul Brown, Charlie Gere, Nicholas Lambert, and Catherine Mason

Published by The Leonardo Book Series /MIT Press

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Between 1960 to c. 1980, is a set of decades most often portrayed as a period of endless creativity and technological optimism. Back then, artists designed and built their own machines, were invited to collaborate with computer scientists in a multitude of higher, social processes (including the development of interactivity) and were wholly influenced by cybernetics and techno mathematics. (1)

Between the United States and Great Britain, a vibrant, futuro-logical landscape, revolving around the end of the Cold War, the development of global television, and the Space Race, afforded powerful, consensual experiences and the mediation of a rapidly rising “western” world. Expanding global television networks helped foster interpretations of the era as rife with enormous possibility. The international Space Race, for example, was popularly understood as a metaphor for all things good and modern, capturing the imagination with outstanding computer-enabled stunts, complete technological cooperation and healthy competition between nations. No longer would the car and nuclear weapons industries hasten the human race towards destruction. That was the hope.

The envisioned links between heroic deed, spectacular technology, and modernist progress ushered in a western expansionist global future as never before. Harold Wilson, (then prime minister of the UK)  promised to be a springboard for the ‘new nation…forged in the white heat of (the scientific and technological) revolution,’ while John Kennedy predicted that American ingenuity would be first to put a man on the moon. Within this optimism, not surprisingly, a new international avant-garde formed which included the birth of computer art across borders, as documented in White Heat: Cold Logic: British Computer Art 1960-1980. Central to the book is the work of several pioneers, who offer a compelling look at how artistic and research areas developed in the era of the 1960s and 70s. This British perspective is much needed as a parallel doctrine to any emphasis upon the invention of the personal computer in California and the scientific research and art institutions of the West Coast. This book is essential to understanding creative relations within the UK during their rise as a companion nation to American post war developments. The British contribution is distinguished by a nation-wide transformation in arts funding ( A Computer in the Art Room, 2007) and the development of arts education alongside polytechnics.  Structural adjustments took place throughout British public sector agencies, influencing the employment of artists, dissolution of art-only departments, and substantial governmental rethink of conventional splits between fine art and skills training. (2) The transformation suggests some similarities to the development of computer education in the States and that fact that now multimedia is widely taught as a vocational skill. At the same time, international research networks of all kinds, social, academic, and industrial, were developing and influencing computer art. It is here that strong links were forged between the US, (companies such as IBM and Apple, ) and the British and European avant-garde. (3) Exhibitions such as Cybernetic Serendipity (1968) helped fuel interest in the new art. Projects such as Ihnatowicz’s SAM (Sound Activated Mobile) combined artificial intelligence, robotic engineering, and sculpture into crowd-pleasing, interactive performance art. Motion was of particular, continuing interest to many of the artists throughout this period. Kenneth Martin’s Screw Mobile (1967) involved the study of systems of logic and counter logic, emphasizing the kinetic. (4, 126) These and other works investigated relationships between ‘action’ and system, often, through mathematical ‘objects, ideas, and sensations.’ Group collaborations from The Systems Group, ‘made a serious effort to compile their discoveries into a….body of research.’ (5,128) ‘The systems artists were the last programmers before the digital computer…made [programming] synonyomous with its own functioning.’ (6,126) This ‘systematic art’ apprehended a cultural shift during the ‘90s to the point in the ‘90s where the ubiquitous presence of computer systems meant ‘everyone has to use software to work, to communicate, to spend their leisure time…’ (7,135) A strong conceptual research strain emanated in these decades, in the development of process as central to art-making. Planning, programming, diagramming, data, interactivity, systems thinking, and endless –or time-based– functions to the works themselves were a few theoretical concerns. Roy Ascott, painter and theorist, drove many substantial ideas about teaching. Steve Willats produced collaborative, community-based surveys, mapping and data-driven projects with computational emphasis upon analysis. These works stand today as some of the most highly distinct in terms of their conceptualization of data, its relation to community and the inclusion of ordinary people. British computer art was supported by a close-knit group of institutions as well. The Institute for Contemporary Art, The British Arts Council, The Slade School’s Experimental and Electronic Art Department, Chelsea School of Art, Middlesex Polytechnic, and others promoted various means of support for the new art. NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena, which generated images of space and ACM SIGGRAPH, with its annual conferences of computer scientists and artists, had widesprad influence in shaping perception and research. Projects such as the ‘no live images’ exhibition, Frame Buffer Show, were developed across networks conceptually with artists in the United States. ‘We collated and displayed cyclically on a Ramtec Frame Buffer driven by a PDP 11/75’ images sent on 1/2” magnetic tape.’(8, 160-1) These and many other experiments placed important emphasis on the difference between the electronic and the live, the human and the machine, but also acted as a kind of ‘ready made’ or generative art.

Other contributions from this period have been more renowned. Lawrence Alloway and the Independent Group curated, investigated and wrote about the British love affair with American abundance. Househould appliances, popular TV imagery, and images of popular consumption, were subject matter of much of their outstanding body of work.

White Heat: Cold Logic is thus a record;‘far from just an account…it is a story of a pioneering community, drawn together by a shared vision of how technologies can change the way things are done…,’ Charles Gere writes in his introduction. (9) Indeed, editors of the collection and many of the writers were part of the scene at the time it was forming. They have continued to contribute to new media. Editor Paul Brown’s FineArtForum, for example, was a first online publication, regularly reviewing and featuring new media artists. But, beyond historic facts and the essential community of White Heat: Cold Logic, the book presents a theoretical proposition that the ‘utopianism’ of that era is an integral part of the heroic and modernist stance in art-making, and, moreover, the failures that incurred when ‘the advent of the personal computer and the graphical user interface signalled the end of an era.’ [c. 1980] (10, Ibid) This statement demands some consideration. How for example did this supposed end come about?  What did  the personal computer do to heroics? How was ‘utopia’ reframed to incorporate consumer empowerment and how did this change art?  Are these not cultural ideas? The overlap between art and technology persists through much work in the 1960s and 70s both here and abroad. For example, in Space, Land and Time: Underground Adventures with Ant Farm (2010), a documentary on the Northern California art group, notions of the ‘hero’ and of modernism, especially in relation to media, are decidedly American in tone. Ant Farm’s parodic media performances and sculpture, Media Burn and Cadillac Ranch, possess relationships to land, scale and freedom which, as Mad Max films are to the Australian desert, render the effects of technological life in the American west as ‘heroic.’ (11) Additonally the artists discuss the fact that they were pre-Internet and personal computer. White Heat: Cold Logic, then, offers powerful British perspectives on global artistic exchange, specifically, the techno artistic developments within and without their own national framework, and which were realized by some of their most creative practioners. An interesting addition to American-centric notions of the same utopian, experimental era.

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(1) Brown et al, White Heat, Cold Logic, Introduction

(2) Mason, C. A Computer in the Art Room.

(3) Ibid.

(4) Brown et al, White Heat, Cold Logic

(5) Ibid.

(6) Ibid.

(7) Ibid.

(8) Ibid.

(9) Ibid. Introduction.

(10) Ibid, Introduction

(11) Space, Land and Time: Underground Adventures with Ant Farm, (dir

Harrison/Federici, 2010)