This website contains descriptions and photos of all art works produced, and a full copy of the first magazine. The programmers were Geoff Davis (MA1, MA2 and MA4) and Martin Rootes (MA3).
Micro Arts was founded in 1984 by Geoff Davis along with an international group of young artists and programmers. It released computer generated art, conceptual pieces and story generators on data cassettes and teletext, and provided a forum for computer artists and musicians.
The computer art was programmed for consumer micro computers, the ZX Spectrum and BBC Micro. Commodore, Apple and IBM PC versions were not released. The programmers moved on to work on high end systems such as Apollo Aegis workstations (later absorbed by HP) and other professional systems. There was also a wide-ranging print magazine.
This is a full list of releases:
MA5: History of Micro Arts 1984-85 (this website is for the MA5 book, a retrospective summary of activities with reviews and comments). The book will be out early 2019. The print magazine was not in the MA series.
Micro Arts used only readily available home microcomputers such as the Sinclair Spectrum and the BBC Micro. This was to promote computer art in the nascent domestic computer market of the 1980s. There were other small computers made by Commodore, Atari, Apple, Amstrad, Dragon, Oric, the Acorn Electron (a smaller BBC Micro), and others in the DIY format such as Elektor and Heathkit. Some of these had been around since the late 70s. The IBM Personal Computer (PC) defined a standard open architecture for any manufacturer in 1981, which led to a big reduction in prices, but these were too expensive at the time for general home use.
The later home micros were marketed like other ‘hi tech’ consumer items. The 8-bit ZX Spectrum in particular was very cheap and had what seemed like full colour (16 colours), following on from the black and white of the earlier ZX81. It was easy to program and kick started a new wave of young programmers and computer enthusiasts. The ZX Spectrum and BBC Micro were used for the releases as the two programmers (Geoff and Martin) had purchased them for home use. Kraftwerk’s Computer World album had been a major hit, and the band had featured on the BBC Tomorrow’s World TV science show. Music had become digitised with samplers and techno equipment appearing in the mainstream. The ZX Spectrum SpecDrum was a popular audio sampler, at the start of the electronic computer music scene. This positive vibe was the inspiration for the spoof ‘Clive Sinclair’ inspiring editorial in Micro Arts Magazine, reprinted later.
The Spectrum programs were run on emulators on a PC. Speccy is the one most recently used. The old Spectrum programs are only saved as snapshot files (.sna).
Computer Art Background
Geoff Davis had been communicating (by letter) with American computer artist Harold Cohen who produced computer art using small floor robots, called turtles. He was approached to write something about his work and computer art for the Magazine. This never happened. His comment was that everything depended on marketing, rather than content.
He wrote the AARON software from 1973, to generate art using rules derived from his own abstract painting. The program controlled the turtles’ movement and paint actions. It drew lines flat on a horizontal sheet, and then filled in the shapes. These were quite large, sometimes metres along the sides. Over the years he made AARON more sophisticated, trying to get it to better mimic his creative methods. Later it was programmed to create a field and foreground for the art, with a simple sort of depth, which changed the appearance of the generated art. Cohen coded AARON to produce individual works in his own style, a kind of immortality. Later he moved away from physical art creation and used tablets to make and modify generated work.
The use of a unique machine to create computer art persists in the work of Mario Klingemann with Memories of Passersby I (2018), which has a computer running custom machine learning systems inside a vintage cabinet, making so-called ‘AI art’, mutated reproductions of existing paintings, on two monitors in real time.
The other main type of historical computer art used mass produced machines, and a personal input. Text printer ‘ASCII art’, was coded (or rather, typed in) by programmers using dot matrix printers to create images of Marylyn Monroe, Star Wars, etc. ‘Studies in Perception I’ by Ken Knowlton and Leon Harmon (1966) is the first popular appearance of computer art. ASCII comics also existed. This art form relied on fixed width fonts, and soon became obsolete as newer printers used variable width fonts. At the time it was called computer art but was really a form of typewriter art.
Text and story generation has progressed from simulated chat systems and the Turing Test (such as ELIZA, 1964), to James Ryan’s Sheldon County (2018), a procedurally generated fiction that is converted using a speech generator into a unique podcast for each listener. His program Hennepin uses the ‘world’s biggest spreadsheet’ to generate the fictional worlds. Micro Arts MA4: Cow Boils Head story generator program (Geoff Davis, 1985) also used a dataset (actually, many lists linked to each word in a seed story) to generate stories. This was a simple method to suit the small memory of the micro computer.
The aim of Micro Arts was to take some of these varied computer art ideas and distribute them to the new generation of computer developers and artists, and the general public.
Micro Arts created generative graphics and art, figurative animations, and text story generation. The menu options provided colour selection, and encouraged using the art generators in a loop, to provide visual ambiance. More detail on each release follows.
There was also Micro Arts Magazine on computer art and music, and theory (or at least some ideas). Articles included popular topics of the day, such as ‘Language as a Virus’ (influenced by William Burroughs), ‘Electronic Beowulf’, synthesiser and computer music etc. All pages from the magazine are included later.
Micro Arts was aimed at artists and the general market. Some of the work, including a continuous story text generator Cow Boils Head, was shown in art exhibitions in London. NetWork 21, the London pirate TV station, later contacted Micro Arts for titles and idents.
Formats and Prestel teletext
Micro Arts software was initially released on data cassettes. Some micro computers used cartridges for software, but these needed special manufacture. By 1985 all of the material, including the art and story generation software, was on TV as teletext in the national Prestel Micronet 800 service. Teletext ran on normal TVs and provided instant news, sports and hobbies, etc., controlled by the remote. Teletext contrasted with the strictly programmed TV schedules. It was the start of the change of television consumption from broadcast only to an interactive service. See later for more on Prestel and teletext.
Sinclair ZX Spectrum
This had a, for the time, ‘generous’ 48K of RAM. A standard laptop today might have 4GB RAM. The hardware structure was very simple, and coding was intricate but very flexible.
That’s about a thousandth of one per cent (0.0012%) of current working memory.
“The Spectrum had nothing. Architecturally, it was a really simple machine for a programmer – it was just a load of ram [random access memory] and a processor; and the screen itself was just dealt with as part of the ram. You had to do everything the hard way, but it meant that if you managed to get a sprite moving around on the screen, you’d done a lot of really clever stuff.
“Years later, when that generation of coders grew up, Britain was really punching above its weight in the PlayStation era, when you had the start of games like Grand Theft Auto. The Spectrum bred a generation of really smart programmers.” Ste Pickford, artist and programmer with The Pickford Brothers, quoted in the Guardian 23 April 2012.
Acorn BBC Micro
This was a bigger and more complicated machine that the Spectrum but not as small and ubiquitous as it was over twice the price (a big factor in the 1980s, explaining why the Spectrum became such a hot bed for games programming). The BBC Micro existed for years after in college and school computer labs, as a huge amount of educational software was produced for it. The chip makers went on to produce RISC chips and eventually become ARM, to be bought by the Chinese. Clive Sinclair was knighted.
See the People page for more details.