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A Little-Known Story About a Movement, a Magazine, and the Com-puter’s Arrival in Art: New Tendencies and Bit International, 19

A Little-Known Story About a Movement, a Magazine, and the Computer’s Arrival in Art: New Tendencies and Bit International, 1961-1973

by Margit Rosen, Editor
The MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 2011
576 pp., illus. 350 b/w, 310 col. Trade, $49.95/£34.95
ISBN: 978-0-262-51581-8.

Reviewed by Brian Reffin Smith
Regent, Collège de ’Pataphysique, Paris

Berlin, Germany

This book is so hefty that it arrived in its own Royal Mail sack, large enough for a person to climb in and have him or herself posted to Siggraph. Reading it in bed is like having a medium-sized Labradoodle on one’s chest. But every page is worth reading, and indeed I wished for perhaps one more than the 573 pages provided, then another, to see at what point it may implode under its own gravitational attraction.

Editor Margit Rosen states in her opening article (there are also useful ‘Editorials’ from Jerko Denegri, Darko Fritz, and Peter Weibel) “For the past fifty years [the computer] has been condemned to remain the new medium.” Its use in art, indeed, lacked both history and a language of critical discourse. In recent years this has begun to change with respect to discourse, but this itself has sometimes has sometimes seemed to be abducted from what we see now, today, quite often from very specific instances (which have sometimes been created as artworks to embody the critical theory therein to be discerned). The histories, until a few years ago, were often breathless, excitable, and sometimes meretricious at the expense of rigour or even basic art-historical methodologies (there were a few notable exceptions, but not many).

In the last few years, though, we have been treated to some excellent slices of the history - or histories - of computer-based arts. But we still lacked, for this area, someone to do what, for example, the late Charles Harrison and Paul Wood did for art in general with “Art in Theory”.

This book might herald the beginning of the end of that lack. In relating how ideas of ‘research’ in (and even as) art developed in the New Tendencies movement based in Zagreb, and how democratic ideas of participation in programmed, open, demystified art led to the adoption of the computer as a tool of artistic research, it records in every respect one may hope for, the development of a new art. It includes just about all the important material in the form of articles, manifestoes, catalogue essays and many extracts from ‘Bit International’, to which we’ll come later. It goes to much Western computer-based art, and is necessary for understanding how we got where we are today.

I was not present in the ex-Yugoslavian city then (now the capital of Croatia), but I did meet a number of artists who used early computers and ideas of computation in other East-European countries such as Poland. They were often innovating art ideas using relatively simple technology. Yet originality, as it seems to me also in Zagreb, didn’t appear to be the spur. It was mostly ‘playing’, and none the worse for that. But what they played with were, on various levels, some less than others and with varying degrees of danger, the building blocks of their own societies and political systems, or metaphors for them.

It should not be forgotten that applications of cybernetics and systems thinking to cultures of making and designing, as well as of information control, were being generated in countries of the Eastern Bloc. What happened in Zagreb was not, I would argue, some sort of cultural accident or outlying anomaly. It was squarely of its time.

The magazine a group within New Tendencies founded in 1968, Bit International, might be notable for the computing term in its title; but for this reviewer the word ‘International’ is more revealing. Works from the West were shown alongside those from the Communist bloc. The cultural hegemony of the USSR was, quite simply, by-passed. Yet the air was redolent of the Zeitgeist of ways of looking at the world that had their origins in the 1960s rehabilitation of cybernetics in Russia as a movement for radical reform of the Stalinist system of science.

Do not think, however, that this book addresses only questions of history, nor consists only of time-lines and anecdote. It is far more. If you want (and we do) theory, opinion, analysis, harangue, cutting-edge discourse and innovative, critical insights into, for example, art as politics, information as art, or correlations between constructed, programmed, systems, cybernetic, participative art and computers, and what it means, in the best sense, to make art and to compute, then this is the book.

In a tome so large, covering so much, of use to everyone from art student to critical theorist to art historian, there will inevitably be things with which one disagrees. But apart from the rather inadequate index, nothing up to now (I cannot yet claim to have finished reading it from cover to cover) caused me to splutter. It is to be hoped that someone is presently working along similarly massive lines to inform us of possibly-neglected histories of computer based art associated with, for instance, Canada.

The history in Margit Rosen’s excellent and well-illustrated book is fascinating and useful. Every artist, computer or not, should read it. It will become a seminal work, I’m sure. It jumps out of what might have been seen as its niche to embrace all computer art and beyond. And the questions and thoughts the volume provokes make it worth its not inconsiderable weight in gold.

Last Updated 4 November 2011

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