Generative Art on Data Cassettes to 3D VR and new format art – 1984 to 2022
Micro Arts Group 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 pre-internet Prestel (like Minitel) teletext, and provided a forum for computer artists and musicians.
Low cost readily available microcomputers were used to create generative, text and conceptual art for distribution to the public. This was the first time computer art appeared outside of academia or research labs.
It was well reviewed in the mainstream computer press such as Computer News, Personal Computer World, Blitz fashion magazine, A&B Computing, Sinclair User and Acorn User. The microcomputers used were the Sinclair Spectrum and the BBC Micro, iconic machines from the early 1980s, plus other art using the Quantel Paintbox, the first computer graphics machine.
There was also an educational print magazine which published the first Quantel art ever created in 1984. We also did idents for the London pirate TV broadcaster Network21.
We are featured in the Computer Arts Archive
Geoff’s AI research and fiction news on the Geoff Davis website
Read academic paper on Micro Arts by Professor Sean Clark: Revisiting and Re-presenting 1980s Micro Computer Art
There is a detailed book History of Micro Arts 1984-85
There were many art history firsts:
- generative art and text story generators, from 1984 with art production from 1983, in releases MA1 “Abstract Originals”, MA3, MA4. Public community distributed by data cassettes at first
- digital art distributed via Prestel teletext pre-internet, from 1985 onwards
- the first Quantel art published in 1984, in the Magazine
- print Magazine with educational articles and art
- conceptual digital art in MA2 Various Unusual Events
- code art, math art and code onscreen with sound (MA2)
- slow art, a 2 year art program (MA2)
- Solanas / Warhol animation about Universal Basic Income UBI (MA2)
- Dada text generator (MA2)
- woven / scrolling art, Anni Albers art, piano player sequencer, Jacquard loom machine (MA2)
- combined figurative and generative computer art with sound (MA2)
- and more – please research via this website.
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 revived in 2019 by Prof. Sean Clark. He has organised several exhibitions with the Computer Arts Archive (part of CAS). The British Computer Society, Moorgate, London, is exhibiting works until October 2022. Previous shows include LCB Depot Leicester (2021) and the London Film-Makers Co-op (1985).
Above: Geoff Davis at the LCB Depot exhibition, Leicester 2020. Still images display. Live generative art was also shown, and micro hardware, the data cassettes, the Magazine, etc.
Micro Arts was well reviewed in the computer press at the time. Geoff Davis went on to teach and research computer graphics and generated text at Sheffield art college, Middlesex University (Cat Hill), and the London Institute (now UAL).
For news of AI research, the forthcoming AI fiction anthology, and a new novel Circular River, please visit the Geoff Davis website. (Not to be confused with Jeff Davis USA.)
Micro Arts Group
The 1980s were a time of great change in computer technology, reflected in art production. Micro Arts was not academic or involved in the private gallery commercial art system. There was no interest from galleries at the time unlike now. It was exhibited at the London Film-Makers Co-operative in 1985, where Geoff occasionally worked.
The computer art was programmed for consumer micro computers, the ZX Spectrum and BBC Micro. Commodore, Apple and IBM PC versions were not released. There was also a wide-ranging print magazine. Prestel release was via Micronet 800, editor David Babsky.
Computer Arts Archive: Micro Arts Group is featured in the UK’s Computer Arts Archive.
New work using the generative art with 3D videos and music, with Patryk Jaworski of Etalon, has been released at NFTs on KnownOrigin – 3D Cube NFT Collection. This is ahead of a music and VR Metaverse release for 2023 under the working title UNOME.
This is a full list of public releases:
Free distribution by Arts Express. Page scans are here.
There is a detailed book History of Micro Arts 1984-85
Micro Arts Group – Computer Arts Archive CAA exhibition at BCS Moorgate July 2022 – just launched the Micro Arts Group exhibition curated and launched by Sean Clark during the Electronic Visualisation and the Arts EVA London conference.
Above: Geoff Davis at exhibition with live running 1980s generative art and print displays
Above: Professor Sean Clark introducing the Micro Arts exhibition, Computer Arts Archive, at BCS Moorgate London July to end September 2022
Read academic paper by Professor Sean Clark: Revisiting and Re-presenting 1980s Micro Computer Art
Micro Arts Group exhibition London 2022 at BCS
This is our second recent exhibition, the last was at LCB Depot, Leicester – see photos below, Geoff Davis and documentary maker and 3D videographer Patryk Jaworsky at a later music event (left).
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). We have used various palettes for different purposes. Now we have p5.js versions which are different to the originals. These will be on our new genartists.com website.
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. How true!
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 (many lists of words 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.
Micro Arts and Micro Arts Group are owned by Story Software Ltd UK.