Interviewer: Ivy Ngeow
There has been no historical record until now, because it was not an academic exercise, it was out in the marketplace, unprotected, and there was no web at the time for archiving. I’ve been talking to Goldsmiths about their Computational Arts courses, so got interested again. I used a Spectrum emulator to rescue all the old software in the early 2000s, around the time of my Electronic Arts Masters degree at Middlesex University, but did not think of putting this material in the public domain until now.
What was your role at Micro Arts?
I thought it up, inspired by the social art vibe in London at the time, did three programs for the initial releases, and did most of the production. Many others were involved, with art, articles, and practical help.
The programs were (MA1) a collection of generated abstract art animations; (MA2) a set of conceptual challenges and examples; and (MA4) a story text generator.
I was writing a novel at the time and I thought Micro Arts might actually make a second income (the data cassettes were for sale, incredibly). This was typical writer’s displacement activity – do anything but write.
Then I moved on, since the Micro Arts material was elsewhere (on TV as Prestel Micronet teletext and telesoftware). I decided teaching computing was more rewarding than endless programming and worrying about what to do with it next.
Micro Arts came between my actual programming jobs, at the time COBOL and a bit of networking, and my next career as a 2D and 3D graphics teacher at Universities and commercial training companies. I did that until around 1995, when I started a web design and build company with an artist friend. When I taught him about the web, he said, is this going to last or will it disappear next year?
What were the initial aims and objectives of Micro Arts and how far do you think they have been achieved?
The aim was to have an active group, with more art from new people. The people involved all had interesting careers, so in some way it achieved the aims. An artist I know said his dad gave him a copy of the magazine, so it must have got to all sorts of places.
I used to paint as a teenager so I returned to a visual medium after years in amateur music with bands and all that, video shows, recording live bands. I also liked the idea of generating art from limited resources, at home.
At the time the focus for programmers on home micros was games. The coding scene is shown in the 2018 non-linear Black Mirror episode Bandersnatch. Making a platform or adventure game was exciting and paid real money.
But for me, it was the opposite of what I was doing professionally, which was mainframe coding. I thought games were for kids. Now, they’re for everyone. So it was great to code in BASIC on the micros, such fun in comparison, and I liked the generative art. So I made many different things using it, which appeared on the Micro Arts releases.
Once Micro Arts went onto Prestel the immediacy of it was lost for me. It was just out there somewhere. My programs covered many areas, and I suppose I felt I’d ‘done’ that. I also needed to get proper work again, and my limited spare energy went in other directions.
What people never mention is the amount of hard work that goes into computer programming, even now with vast libraries to help any possible activity. It’s quite solitary work and not for everyone. Because the code ‘generates’ art or music or whatever, people assume the hardware is doing all the work. Ascribing intention to the machine is what makes people believe in androids, resulting in Blade Runner, which is a category error.
What kind of Arts were you interested in at the time, and how have your interests changed in the last few years?
Before Micro Arts I was more interested in music and the usual painterly art, slapping oil on canvas as a teenager. In Sheffield while at University, I’d had a multimedia band with tape loops, video (on Umatic) and effects with live musicians, and in London I’d got involved in mainly film and video art. Performance art was quite a big thing on the scene, with the Neo Naturists and Leigh Bowery popping up here and there. I never tried that, although I appeared in a video with Leigh (for The Fall). I was working on a music video shoot, and I’d never met him before, and someone said, go and get Leigh from the taxi. I said, ‘how will I know it’s him?’.
But I’d also had fiction published by PEN, and fancied myself as an author, so I concentrated on writing rather than visual art. My story generator ‘Cow Boils Head’ was fun to make and even got shown, but I didn’t continue with generated texts. I might do another now – ‘Cow Central’ is a place in my new novel.
I was soon teaching graphics anyway (Psalter Lane, Sheffield), so I got to hang out with artists, which is one of the main reason people get involved in the arts in the first place. If you work in an art college your own production is bound to drop or stop altogether.
Now I’m still dong a few different things, the challenge is to combine or synchronise them all. But mainly I’m writing a novel, plus one new digital arts piece.
Who do you think this book will appeal to and why?
Practitioners of computer art and CGI graphics might find it interesting that all this was going on back in 1984, since ‘computer art’ is seen as new, cutting edge, even now. Visual artists must have heard of computer art, as there was a huge sale achieved at Christies recently of computer generated art from the Obvious collective. Libraries and so on might want a reference for the work as it was so anachronistic. If I did a memoir it might appeal to a more general public – ‘My Life in the crazy 80s’ or whatever. But I’d hardly thought about all this old art until I recently got interested again in computational arts via a talk by Dr Theodoros Papatheodorou at a 2018 conference at Goldsmiths University on psychology, creativity and neuroaesthetics.
Tell us briefly what you are working on now and what your next arts project will be.
I have a visual digital piece which is based on a game ‘Celebrity Shapes’ that I wrote a few years ago. Now that isn’t a very arty title. All the graphics are changing, and I’m adding text, and possibly a camera input for face recognition. Now it has a working title of ‘Fountain of Youth’. This will be out sometime this year. I haven’t done any music for twelve years [see Recotist on Soundcloud]. There’s a plan for a Micro Arts exhibition with the old art and this new piece. My new novel has been edited by someone from Penguin so that should eventually appear, maybe in installments, since I take ages to do anything.
What is your favourite food?