Frieder Nake

About Algorithmic Art

philosophical aspect

about chance operations

artistic decisions

Historical Aspect

Lines Fiction: Listening to your report about the origins of computer graphics, I get the impre­ssion that the early state around 1960 was an inspired time not yet defined between analog and digital, causing a whole world of experimental beginnings. Not yet categorized were the early images created by Herbert Franke, who was a physicist, trying out everything possible in the visual field. Around that time you became a computer scientist and an artist. Is it right that computer science came after the first computer graphics?

Frieder Nake The first answer is a plain “yes”: when the first graphic images emerged from the com­puter, computer science (“Informatik” in Germany) didn’t yet exist as a distinct academic discipline. But such a plain answer needs to be modified carefully by a supplementary expla­nation: In the beginnings of computer graphics, Informatik did not exist as an independent academic discipline. There was not yet a field of research and study, explicitly concentrating on compu­table processes. They were not an established university institution.

However, research on computers and computing took place within the scope of mathematics and electrical engineering, to some extent also in linguistics. There was numerical mathematics, using computers to approximate solutions to mathematical problems. And there was enginee­ring work on hardware. Concrete work always comes before the establishment of a new discipline. The same was true with computer graphics.

The Computing Center in Stuttgart, as elsewhere too, assumed computer tasks for the whole university.

Lines Fiction: What we have to consider – around 1960 there were hardly any digital but analog computers outputting curves, no digits. Was this aspect a reason for physicists and computer scientists to develop artistic images?

Frieder Nake No. But caution: this statement can only be made for me. I didn‘t develop a single digital image for the only reason that images came from analog computers.

Kurd Alsleben in Hamburg through a friend got access to an analog computer at DESY, and the two together generated a series of simple drawings. Others may have done the same, too.

Lines Fiction: Your artistic credo, expressed in Max Bense‘s “artificial art”, collided with the beliefs of artists and their audience that did not want to tolerate that a plotter would be the author of an art work. The first exhibition world wide of digital art took place in 1965 with drawings generated by programs and driven by punched tapes. That happened in the “Studiengalerie” in the Hahn building in Stuttgart. In “edition rot” the computer images are documented, and Max Bense added the manifesto for this: “Projects of generative aesthetics”.

Frieder Nake I can only confirm that. Yes, the first exhibition of computer graphics with an aes­the­tic impetus was opened on February 5, 1965, in the Hahn building, Stuttgart, with drawings by Georg Nees. This building didn‘t belong to the university. The university rented two levels of the building, the 7th and 8th floor to be used for philosophy and literary studies. Max Bense, Elisabeth Walther, Fritz Martini, Käthe Hamburger were working there.

For the opening, issue no. 19 of the series “rot” was published by Hansjörg Mayer. Whether it precisely recorded what could be seen in the exhibition, I don‘t remember. I assume, there was a bit more in the show..

Later on, I called the superb, but hard to read text by Bense, the “Manifesto of Algorithmic Art”. In rot 19, this term is not mentioned. But I think, the text deserves to be included in the collection of Manifestos of Art.

I want to mention that Nees‘ exhibition was not an official exhibition of the Studiengalerie. It is true, it took place in rooms of the gallery, and the Institute of Philosophy. And it was open to the public. But it happened without official blessings by the institutions.

Lines Fiction: The art works came from programmed sources, and interestingly no professional artists were among the first graphic designers, rather physicists and mathematicians. But feed­back came from a curator at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London. Jasia Reichardt curated an important and groundbreaking exhibition in 1968: Cybernetic Serendipidity. Was the manifesto of Bense’s, the “Projects of Generative Aesthetics” from 1965 the big kick-off that acknowledged these computer graphics as art?

Frieder Nake The “big kick-off”? Hui! I would be cautious … But Bense’s action had a great impact. Here is the story.

In 1965, Jasia Reichardt curated an exhibition of Concrete Poetry at the ICA (Institute of Contemporary Arts). Max Bense was an advisor. After the end of the exhibition, the two went for a walk through London (maybe together with Siegfried Maser and Hansjörg Mayer). Jasia asks Bense: And what should I do next? Bense says: Computer Art!

This happened around half a year after Nees‘ exhibition in Stuttgart. A daring move! For the ICA was a completely different dimension. Big and international. It took three years until, in August of 1968, “Cybernetic Serendipity” opened with Jasia Reichardt as curator and Max Bense as advisor.

The German magazine, DER SPIEGEL, became aware of computer art, even long before, and they wrote a slightly smug article about Bense, Nees, Nake. Two TV channels, Panorama and Aspekte, produced TV reports with me at the Computing Center of the university. So there was a reaction in Germany on the national level. I don‘t know of similar reactions in any other country.

Lines Fiction: So the first ones in Germany, who programmed and exhibited computer graphics were Georg Nees and Frieder Nake. Also in Croatia, in Zagreb existed an important scene for programmed art in the late 60s, and in 1970 the Venice Biennale presented a special show with computer generated work as experimental art. But even when there was a long-term exhibition entitled Impulse Computerkunst (managed by Goethe Institute) , the idea of artificial art didn‘t gain ground in the art world. Only in the 21st century, when everybody got his and her pocket computer, and through an everyday handling with digital imagery this art form seems to be fully accepted.

For a while, you too took a break for from making art, and completely concentrated on computer science?

Frieder Nake A. Michael Noll made similar art work in the USA that he also exhibited in 1965. His work is interesting and important. It has to be mentioned here.

The „Special Exhibition“ in Venice, 1970, was focused on computer-generated art in a wider sense. Dietrich Mahlow from the Kunsthalle Nuremberg organized an exhibition of constructive art in 1969, and then became curator of a special exhibition in the center fold of the Venice Biennale, entitled “Proposal for an Experimental Exhibition”. Russian Constructivism, Concrete Art, Op Art, and Algorithmic Art were presented.

During my year 1968/69 in Toronto – where I successfully developed a comprehensive program entitled “Gene­ra­tive Art I” – I had second thoughts. My doubts didn‘t leave me, until in Vancouver I wrote three short texts: “Statement” (page 8, 1970), “There should be no computer art” (page 18, 1971) and “Technocratic Dadaists” (page 21,1972). Thereafter, I withdrew from the art world until about 1984. During this time, I concentrated on computer science, and the scientific side of computer graphics as a mathematical discipline. And I was involved in politics on the side of the New Left.

Lines Fiction: Back to the pioneers in algorithmic art, where there no women?

Frieder Nake In retrospect, from a distance of over fifty years, and pretty much without any doubt, we can say that the first three exhibitions were by Georg Nees in February 1965 (Stuttgart), by A. Michael Noll in April 1965 (New York), and Frieder Nake in November 1965 (Stuttgart).

Towards the end of the 1960s, first experiments with computers began by Vera Molnar and Manfred Mohr, and then Harold Cohen‘s unique career with computer work started.

Putting aside the rat race of “who … when”, without a doubt Vera Molnar is a pioneer of algorithmic art. A Hungarian from Paris, she is the great old lady of Computer Art. Until this day, with the age of 95, she creates new works.

In 1968, Lillian Schwartz could place a kinetic sculpture in the famed exhibition, “The machine as seen at the end of the mechanical age” in the Museum of Modern Art, New York, curated by Pontus Hultén. In the same year, she started work at Bell Laboratories in Murray Hill, NJ, where she became a long-term Artist in Residence, and in this time created some of the earliest computer animations.

First works of Joan Truckenbrod are known from 1975, when she started with a great series of pieces. For sure we can say that in the seventies quite a number of women knew how to create programmed computer art. Joan emphasizes the term “Algorithmic Art”.

Philosophical Aspect

Lines Fiction: You once wrote that the aesthetics of digital images cannot be grasped in a single piece, but in a visual schema. This aspect might be incompatible with a concept of art focussing on the work of art as a unique piece, considering the replica worthless.

But Algorithm Art fits better these days, when in everyday life we get used to digitally generated images with all the new aspects, concerning the question of thruth or fake.

In recent decades, you had a fundamental interest in questions concerning art and replication.

You describe how artistic intuition and the concept of a drawing get influenced by the process of programming the computer. You describe that a doubling occurs.

Frieder Nake The algorithmic image, quite fundamentally, exists in form of a double. What does this mean? As every other image, the algorithmic image is a sign in the first place. That means that the image in itself becomes a signifier, if we assume that it bears a message. In other words, we interpret the image in one way or another. By the process of interpretation, the image becomes a sign. This applies to every image. The algorithmic image, however, is interpreted twice: by a human and by the computer (to be more precise: by some software running on the computer).

Thus, two interpretants exist as result of the interpretation, as Charles S. Peirce would put it in his semiotic theory. We have an intentional interpretant on the side of the human interpreter, and a determined interpretant on the side of the machinic interpreter (these words are my add-on to Peirce’s theory. “Interpretant” is the result of a process of interpretation). The algorithmicly generated image becomes an algorithmic sign (as I call it).

The clue here is this: the determined interpretant on the side of the computer only formally exists as the result of an act of interpretation. For the computer is totally incapable of interpreta­tion. Its act of “interpreting” shrinks to an act of determining. The computer software is always only determining the one and only one “meaning” a sign may have for the computer. As a ma­chine, it is supposed to perform exactly one action, and never anything else. People nowadays talk about this situation as “digitization”, which is quite off. But that is another area of discussion.

I describe the algorithmic sign as a semiotic entity possessing a surface and a subface. The surface is perceptible by our senses, it is for us; the subface is computable, it exists for the computer software.

Generating images by computer, I also like to say: Think the image, donˋt make it. Why? Because the process of actual making is assigned to the computer. Therefore thinking can unfold its full potential. It results in an algorithm. The algorithm confronts us with the possible entirety of all images possibly computed by it.

To think an image then means to think the infinity of all images that can be generated by the algorithm under consideration. The single image is only a representative or an instance of the class of images it belongs to. We can see the whole (the class) only in its part (the single image). The visible image is our comfort, facing the unsettling wasteland that the infinite stream of images means for us. But a static image will probably be even more obsolete in the near future — the public sphere will be shaped by streaming moving images. Their single represen­tatives then can be witnessed in quiet places of withdrawal, in far-off areas of the world.

Nice side effect (if the withdrawal occured comprehensively): the Art Market would disappear. That wouldn’t be too bad.

With the emerging algorithmic image, a new kind of exhibition is possible, where the subfaces play a role. For we would soon want to see them. We would want to examine them, see them in action.

Lines Fiction: In your opinion the term Digital Art is to vague, you prefer the term Algorithmic Art —  why? And what defines Algorithmic Art?

Frieder Nake If people with their own ideas want to create images, and they decide to use the computer as their instrument, they need to program. They must write a program. If the pro­gram runs on a computer, and a drawing, an image emerges, the computer with the program is the processing medium. Computer and program together can only become a processing medi­um if the artist created the program. The program is the operational description of the work. The work of the artist. If he or she hasn‘t made any mistakes, the description will generate a lot of simi­lar, visible pieces of work. The program is the description of a whole class of work pieces! That was unheard of before. The crucial point in making art with a computer is the presence of a program with an abundance of parameters (variables): the operational description of an infinite number of images. That was a revolution.

Basically, programs are „algorithms“. If we call this art „digital“, we emphasize what is not essen­tial, namely the methods of coding and saving. But that‘s only a minor matter.

Chance Operations

Lines Fiction: if a pictorial scheme produces many similar results, it‘s only natural to ask who or what in the end makes a choice. Selection of the first computer images was given to chance operations? How did you do that?

Frieder Nake No, no! The selection was not given to chance operations. Heaven forbid! If it would be, the wish-wash of the computer as an artist would suddenly make sense. But this is nonsense, for „sense“ is not a computable category. Let me put it this way:

In generating, calculating, and computing an image by program, random number generators play a significant role. These are programs that appear as if producing chance results, but that is not the case. The results of their calculations show seemingly chaotic dynamics, which means, we have problems understanding and predicting them. Such pseudo-random processes on the computer stand for the intuition of the traditional creative artist. The results of the processes are only predictable within the boundaries of probabilities.

Okay. Let‘s assume a program has done a small number of work pieces, say five, or ten, or 39. Now it‘s my job to decide, which of these I want to sort out and destroy. First, the work pieces are only stored on the computer, I want to materialize them only after my selection is done. That’s, of course, a matter of taste only. I could try to do it in a rational way. But I act like any other artists in selecting their work. Well, I could act out this selection process. Which may be funny, once or twice.

Lines Fiction: Meanwhile, Informatik and algorithmic art are well put on the track, and generative aesthetics are accepted. In times of Artificial Intelligence taking over control elements in every­day life, computer generated drawings are part of the canon. Interestingly some art work that deals with chance operations as regards content, causes discomfort, and is open to accusations of caprice.

A digital program that pragmatically renders some design products is okay, but if the composi­tion is left to chance, and the result no longer based on purposeful creation, some people decline it. Did this happen to you?

Frieder Nake   People In the art world, who might even only be bystanders that never created any visual art work, if they have second thoughts when it comes to working with chance opera­tions — these people are not to be taken seriously. Not at all. Art history, at least in the XXth century, is full of serious experiments with chance operations, and of talk about the role of coincidence in art. These people are okay, but I don‘t talk with them. Period.

I consider this attitude ridiculous, and childish in it’s naivety.

But let me add the following (so as not to appear too arrogant):

A computer leaves nothing to chance. Never ever. For the computer is the machine of computa­bility. Period. (Here I don‘t explain, what it is — computability, it is exactly defined in mathema­tics.) Everything on the computer is computed, even what we call „chance“. To talk about chance on the computer is pretty much nonsense! (But I do it also.) In fact we should talk about „pseudo-chance“. That is some kind of chance pretending to be chance. With it a few words could be said, but I wonˋt do it here, in order for you not to get a lengthy answer. Just a footnote added:

About art in relation to computers, a lot of nonsense is uttered. In particular, people who don’t have a clue of technology, mathematics, computers, programs, or the strictly rationaled talk a lot of nonsense, because they think (and they are right) that everybody may interpret everything anew, at any time. That’s allowed, but it often ends up in nonsense.

Artistic Decisions

Lines Fiction: Your drawing series Homage à Paul Klee from 1965 was completed after a certain time — there is no unlimited number of prints but a series of 100, an edition of 40, and of course the image 13/9/65 Nr. 2. Was it a predetermined limit?

Frieder Nake No, never. I write a program. I decide on it’s completion. I let it run, once or many times. I choose the images that I like, and of which I keep one copy.

People were fond of the image 13/9/65 Nr. 2, they wanted to have it. I let it redraw from the punched tape as a doubling of the original (for it wasn‘t printed). The drawing process, in this case, took three hours. I sold the images rather cheap. Today it‘s a bit more, around fifty-fold. I have gone through this procedure perhaps twenty or thirty times, before I decided to make a silkscreen edition of 40. The prints are spread all over the world.

Today, I make some series from time to time, small ones, with 20 or 40 copies. They all are original drawings, no reproductions of one and the same. If I want to have 40, I generate 100 or 200 in a tearing pace, and then I choose. That takes a long time. After the selection I have a digital printing studio print the copies on paper.

Lines Fiction: if the computer implements a visual schema for prints that is not focused on a single copy, the schema also applies very well to the moving image. If the computed images are manifold, they may result in moving images. When did moving images gain importance for you?

Frieder Nake  In 2004, I had a solo show at Kunsthalle Bremen. I was proud of the invitation. I said, I’m pleased, but I only make it, if I may present some interactive installations in the exhibition. Together with students, we created four installations. On top of it we made one dynamic installation, in which the results of the actually running program appeared on four screens parallel to each other. But with different images on each screen.

By now, I was convinced that the moving image is the genuine computer image, which means, the image generated at this very moment. So why did I actually consider this aspect being the really novel in the algorithmic image?

The reason is that the computer is a great performer for all locally determined procedures. More accurately, computers are machines that in absolute certainty perform simple calculations in large numbers, and in permanent iteration. Computers stand out by processing big quantities absolutely reliable. Humans are the direct opposite. When we focus on this quality of the com­pu­ter’s performance, only then we reach the genuine and novel mediality of that machine. Mediality means what I talked about before, when I mentioned the stream of moving images..

There are two types of moving image that profit by this: the interactive and the animated moving image. A film repeats a limited sequence. But the dynamically calculated image is the actual computer image, for it never recurs. The interactive image in addition requests an opening towards the user; there it has its strengths and limits. Aestetically, the interactive image is problematic (and by now, it somehow has lost much of its attraction).

The short answer to your question: in 2004 I began creating moving images.

Lines Fiction: In the interactive procedure, the viewer contributes to the drawing process, and shapes the outcome. How do you consider these results in your art?

Frieder Nake  As mentioned above, in my work the first dynamic installations emerged together with the interactive installations. They were presented at the Bremen exhibition in 2004. And afterwards, this exhibition opened at ZKM in Karlsruhe; one of the interactive installations was also shown in Ingolstadt, in the Museum for Concrete Art. The four installations that I developed together with a wonderful group of students gave me a lot of pleasure. The students were great. While being different in their interactive behaviors, the installations were following some com­mon patterns. For each installation I chose a different drawing from my early works, from 1965 and 1969. We then discussed, how we could transform the old static images into interesting interactive forms. Therefore we decided that two people at once may manipulate the piece “Hommage à Paul Klee”. They could “catch” elements of the image independent of each other, and change the elements’ positions. We interpreted the lines of the drawing as if they were of elastic material. If dragged to some other location, the whole drawing followed elastically, and every element found its new position, until the user let go. Then the image snapped back and swung until it rested in its original form.

I had much fun with these four experiments. However, I believe that the opportunities for inter­active installations are rather limited. You must reflect on them very carefully, in order not to be corny or arbitrary.

Top