“The exhibition presents pioneers from different generations, early 1950s until today, working in the field of generative art. On view will be, among others, plotter drawings, generative photography, sculptures, and NFTs from 25 international artists.”
Thanks to Anika Meier, Georg Bak, Margaret Murphy and everyone else who helped put on this AMAZING exhibition.
Anika Meier with me; Margaret Murphy next to Micro Arts MA1 Lines artwork; Margaret Murphy with me; Art sign by Joachim Bosse, WWWISDOM, 1; “kryptonite” sculpture by Claudia Hart.
Artists: Ai-Da Robot, Victor Acevedo, Vladimir Bonačić, Analivia Cordeiro, Pierre Cordier, Geoff Davis, Hans Dehlinger, Primavera de Filippi, Herbert W. Franke, Hein Gravenhorst, Ira Greenberg, Samia Halaby, Heinrich Heidersberger, Karl Martin Holzhäuser, Roger Humbert, Gottfried Jäger, Mario Klingemann, Zach Lieberman, LoVid, Kevin and Jennifer McCoy, Lee Mullican, Frieder Nake, Aaron Penne, Manuel Rossner, Marcel Schwittlick, Travess Smalley, Marina Zurkow.
Adrian Wilson is a famous photographer and artist, and also a popular graffiti artist. We initially discussed his Quantel Paintbox work, which is recently revived. He gave me the artist’s statement below, and I followed up with some questions. There are some links through the text. In our Timeline – Early computer art – 1975 – “Quantel (British company) – created a digital framestore, which for the first time enabled TV broadcasters to combine two live videos into one digital moving image.”
This statement- November 2021
More photos at bottom of page and in the interview.
Quantel was selling their revolutionary $250,000 Paintbox like hot cakes since its launch in 1981 but the tiny number of creatives who could get access to learn how to operate this rarified piece of broadcast TV equipment was a problem, which is why they donated two to share between 6 art colleges in 1986. I was in my final year as a photography student [Adrian Wilson studied HND Design (photography) from 19845-1986 at Blackpool and The Fylde College] when the Paintbox arrived with much fanfare but it was quickly and rightly dismissed for its low resolution. Students who were shooting on 10″ x 8″ film were never going to be interested in a machine which output at less than 500 lines TV screen resolution
I had no idea at the time that I was likely the first photographer in the world who was trained on and specialized in creative photographic manipulation using a digital paint system – what we now generically refer to as ‘Photoshop’. I was simply drawn to the Paintbox because I had visual ideas that I didn’t have the skill to draw as illustrations, or create in a camera or darkroom. In 1986, most photographic retouching was still done by hand and though digital companies such as Scitex were starting to emerge, their operators were retouching for print clients, not creating original pieces as artists.
There were definitely many artists who used the Paintbox and some of them (such as Sidney Nolan on the BBC Painting With Light programme) used photographs as elements of their digital artwork but all I did was computer manipulated still photography – from taking the photograph, to digitally altering it to get the final result.
Photographer Glen Wexler described how he “was quick to embrace digital image editing starting in 1987, with access to the first Quantel Paintbox in North America…very high-end stuff.” but I think he was referring to Quantel’s new high resolution Graphic Paintbox, which used one of my images on the brochure cover.
I was always in awe of people like William Latham and probably yourself [Geoff Davis], who were more purists, and I think that age old conflict between the techies looking down on artists who didn’t understand the inner workings and the artists looking down on techies for not being creative was in full effect. It still is a rare thing for a human brain to be able to be both ordered and disordered, a creative tech, such as Alvy Ray Smith. I just enjoyed that I finally had an easy to use tool that could make my ideas a reality and I hoped that if the idea was good enough, the low resolution wouldn’t even be noticed. Someone once pointed out that nobody notices the frame around a Picasso painting, the cracks in the varnish of a Rembrandt, or the misalignment on a Warhol screen print for one good reason: The art is amazing.
I do understand that many people who commissioned or bought my work only did so because it was a new gimmick and being the first was a blessing for that but also a curse because I spent 4 years explaining the Paintbox’s features to hundreds of potential clients. Between the Paintbox at Blackpool and being offered free use of Quantel’s machines at Newbury, I was unique in having the luxury of free time to explore ideas on a machine that cost 300 pounds an hour to rent.
My work was more creatively than commercially driven, which is why I sometimes used a 24 bit true colour computer to make a black and white image if it was the right thing to do. In fact one of the pieces I had in the 1988 Art & Computers Show at Cleveland Gallery [see 1988 on Timeline] was B&W and the other was a combination of Paintbox and colour copier. I did try and be part of the Computer Arts community but it wasn’t easy before the internet and being based in Manchester.
I remember giving a talk at Camberwell art college [now part of UAL, and home of the Creative Computing Institute CCI] with other digital artists but I can find nothing about the event online. By 1990, cheaper tech meant that the Paintbox was becoming obsolete and I didn’t want to learn a new system after 4 years of struggle to make money as a digital photographer. I coincidentally gave up pretty much exactly when Photoshop 1.0 was launched, Adobe playing a big part in Quantel’s downfall with their new desktop software and legal victories breaking their lucrative monopoly. I moved into photography full time and my work sat in a box in my mum’s attic for the next 30 years but fortunately for me, it wasn’t as degrading VHS tapes, but stable Kodachrome slides and Cibachrome prints.
With the explosion of NFTs at the beginning of the year, a friend mentioned that people are looking for early digital work and that has set off a crazy 6 months in which I not only was told that I was probably the first to do what I did but I have been lucky enough to buy one of only 13 working Paintboxes left in the world – sold on eBay, 30 minutes from where I live!
I was invited to go on the last original Paintbox known to exist, which is being restored by Mark Nias. Amazingly, I was the first creative (Mark says he is just a tech!) to use it since it was decommissioned in 1995 but it was amazing how quickly it all came back.
As it is the 40th anniversary of the Quantel Paintbox launch, I have been trying to spread the word about this game changing but largely unknown piece of art history. From weather maps to pop videos, the Paintbox look was on everyone’s TV every day but like Google’s search engine, it was a big part of our lives but nobody actually physically saw it. I helped my friend, design guru Steve Heller, write this article and am doing others, such as this interview, to give the Paintbox the recognition it deserves.
What was cool was how a former Paintbox operator for MTV explained that American Paintbox graphics were so bad for the first few years because the US broadcast unions would only allow technicians to use them, not designers!
As my own Paintbox is working again, I have an open free invitation for any former Paintbox operator to visit my studio in NY and spend some time on it. I have also teamed up with Mark in Manchester and Matthias Paeper, who owns a Paintbox in Germany to offer the machines to post production houses who want to create that authentic retro look on the machine that actually created it.
There is an increase in VR art galleries, and online exhibitions, over lockdown. In the Metaverse, Omniverse, see below.
Here’s my VR gallery (with coder Christian) from my design and build web studio Twin Media (London) back in 1995. VRML was a web based 3D renderer with a simple mark-up language, superseded by X3D.
The new 3D cube videos from Micro Arts MA1 will be located in one of these, I will update when selected.
Search for Metaverse, Cryptovoxels, etc. Second Life is still around. These sites have always had usability issues and are just a bit clunky. There are lots of 3D world-building games such as Minecraft, Fortnite and Roblox, and of course Sim City. Nvidia has an Omniverse. Facebook are really into this via VR.
There’s a really useful source for historical digital art information. This is run by Terrance Masson who has 25 years of production experience. His work includes Star Wars movie CGI, interactive SimCity4, and award-winning short animated films such as Bunkie & Booboo. He also made the computer graphics pipeline for SouthPark.
Audio cassette tape inventor Lou Ottens dies aged 94.
Micro Arts distributed computer art via data cassettes, which were ordinary audio tapes with data bits recorded on them as sound (familiar amongst older readers as the screechy sound made by old modems). These were professionally copied on short (5 minute) tapes, then printed inserts added, with information about the contents.
The cassette was developed by Lou Ottens at Philips and released in 1963. It was a huge popular success compared to high-end reel tape, although at a lower quality, a bit like MP3 encoding of audio files. Huge increase in portability and much lower costs.
Led to proliferation of cassette decks of all qualities from small portables (Walkman etc.) to hifi separates with excellent sound. Music fans often bought a vinyl LP, recorded to cassette, then stored the LP and used the tape for play. Could also be used in the car.
100 billion cassettes made since the 1960s. Not very sustainable!
They are having a revival in the indie music scene (eg Bandcamp, SoundCloud) as a physical format to go with a download, as much cheaper than a vinyl LP, and easier to make in small, even hand made, runs.
There was a big cassette bootleg culture, as well as friends copying LPs, and mix tapes, which led to the music industry’s promotion of the Home Taping is Killing Music campaign – of course the opposite was true.
Micro Arts – produced a range of computer art for popular micros, and a paper magazine. Programmed, curated by Geoff, with contributions from friends, male, female, UK, US, France.
Aim was to start a new computer arts group, educate and perhaps sell a few art data cassettes. Later it all went onto Prestel national teletext.
Modelled on art groups London Video Arts and London Film-Makers Co-op; and indie record labels. This was my social background at the time.
Was intended to be a community, inclusive, diverse, populist, grass roots political. No ‘authority’. Not academic, I left University in 1980 and wasn’t thinking of it. No CAS at the time.
Was well reviewed by mainstream computer press, see Reviews.
No internet so hard to market.
algorithmic art and animations, MA1 by Geoff Davis and MA3 by Martin Rootes)
conceptual (long form 2 years, math/code art, Dada word generator etc.), MA2 by Geoff Davis
graphic feminist/political animations, Money Work System from SCUM Manifesto, MA2
text generation from a story about the 1980s epidemic of prion mad cow disease BSE, MA4 by Geoff Davis (exhibited at LFMC show, and later distributed on Prestel teletext).
I had a few stories published, this is one of my competing activities. See my section in People.
The print Magazine was free. Full of informative articles, not reviews. (Magazine is on this site.)
Prestel was on invitation from EMAP but that took some of the momentum out of it, then I started working commercially again. See Prestel page.
Also got involved in so-called ‘pirate TV’ NetWork 21. (No pirates, but lots of art, fashion.)
For more from the various contributors see People page.
CAS was not around at this point. Only contact I had was Harold Cohen (art machines) by letter in US, who was famously uninterested in ‘computer art’ as a scene. He told me all art was about marketing. He was in academia, which operates as a huge marketing funnel (as well as providing work for artists).
Before Micro Arts I was working in commercial COBOL programming (using pencils) on a Univac 1100 mainframe, and also Vax minis.
After Micro Arts, networking (at Prudential, first use of networked ‘personal computers’ IBM PC ATs in dealing room, no-one there had experience of micros, it was large IBM mainframe site).
Later, worked in new computer graphics lab at Sheffield Hallam University, Psalter Lane art college (12 x Unix Apollo workstations, 2D and 3D modelling and animation, CGAL (Peter Comninos) etc.).
Later still, London Institute teaching, then web industry, apps.
Now computers and text researcher at UAL CCI, Camberwell art college. Still in early stages.
Huge change in tech from 1980 (mainframes, coding with pencils) to 1990 (workstations). Micros appeared and improved over decade.
Warhol used Amiga, etc. – computers becoming unavoidable in art, design, music, film, smaller businesses.
Early artists moved into commercial work.
What is use now?
Educational examples – what can be done with relatively simple computers – hands on – Raspberry Pi
Artworks and merchandise on sale here soon – archival prints, reprint of Magazine, MA1, MA2, MA3, MA4 Data Cassettes, Magazine 2, previously unpublished.
I’m now a researcher at University of the Arts London, Creative Computing Institute at Camberwell Art College. I’ll let you know more as this develops. Topic is AI and text generation, with various outputs. This follows my 1985 text generation program Cow Boils Head, and the work in my Middlesex Uni MA on zooming and multi-layered texts, Calm As A Dead Clam.
The ebook is about to arrive, and this has a short page on historical influences. So I’ve reproduced it here.
Repetitive tasks were first mechanised using the loom, an early success in the Industrial Revolution. The loom then inspired early calculation machine inventors.
Linear repetitions have also been used in line-generated Micro Arts pieces such as ‘Piano Bar’ on MA2.
Above: hard at work computing (a ‘computer’ was a person until recently).
Weaving experiments and art from the Bauhaus head have a similarity to some of the Micro Art pieces. This is due to mechanical and algorithmic outputs from a limited but variable input, so the limited colours come out in a grid.
Annie Albers (Bauhas)
The Piano Bar red (Micro Arts Group Geoff Davis MA2 Various Unusual Events)