Historical Overview

The chronological overview of computer art that will follow is not intended as a history lesson. The main reason for presenting certain events and artworks generated in a particular timeline is to underline the shift in artistic thought and the change that occurred in the way artists, scientists and the public alike have come to view art and technology today. For this reason, while the chronology of the digital revolution is extensive and includes historical events that precede those that will be mentioned here, this overview will be kept as brief as possible with a focus on the art produced during this period and certain key events that played a significant part in its evolution. As a result, the order in which events are presented is not always linear. Also, while the examples given may appear rather primitive and not directly related to current digital art, their contribution to the evolution of this field has been invaluable, with their underlying principles remaining important to this day.

The birth of digital art can be said to have occurred shortly after the development of the first computer (Wands, 2006, p. 24). The Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer (ENIAC) which was created in 1946 and took up the space of an entire room, can be viewed as the herald of a new era (Wands, 2006, p. 24). Artistic interest in this new technology appeared soon afterwards. One of the first artists to explore its potential was Ben Laposky in the 1950’s. His work consisted of electronic images of wave forms that were generated by mathematical patterns, impossible to create using a human hand (Wands, 2006, p. 24).


Fig.1 Laposky, B. Oscillon 45. (n.d.). online image

The decades that followed witnessed a steady increase in artistic interest and interaction with the computer. Digital artist and art historian Margot Lovejoy (2004, p.175) divides the use of computers in the arts in two waves. In the first wave (1965-1975) artwork generated was mostly limited to universities and research centres and the field was dominated by scientists, engineers and programmers, including only a small number of artists who had access to the equipment.

Fig.2 Harmon, L. and Knowlton, K. Studies in Perception. (1967). online image

In the second wave however, artists became more and more interested as the means became more accessible. Exhibitions featuring computer art were also increasing in number. Several events occurred during these years. The discovery of fractal geometry by mathematician Benoit Andelbrot in 1975 (Wands, 2006, p.25) linked mathematics with the production of art works[3]. The development of ARPANET in 1969 (click here for a more insightful view), the first prototype of the Internet increased access and interaction (Paul, 2003, p.10) and the concept of “hypertext” was introduced by Theodor Nelson in 1961. Hypertext can be understood as a space where text, sound and image are interconnected and linked with each other, allowing readers dynamically ‘to choose their own path through the information’ (Paul, 2003, p.10). One example of such hypertext is this essay which, through the use of hyperlinks and hypermedia, encourages the viewer to explore aspects that are covered here dynamically to a greater or lesser extent, without having to adhere strictly to the linear form of the traditional essay. Concepts such as the hypertext have opened up a whole new world of possibilities for the development of new narratives.

In 1980, one of the first telecommunication events occurred. Artists Kit Galloway and Sherrie Rabinowitz organized the “Hole-In-Space” event, connecting the East and West coast in the United States through satellite technology. The reaction of the people engaged was noteworthy to say the least.

Lpress. (2008). The mother of all video chats: LA-NY, 1980, a Hole in Space. [online].

This event demonstrates the enthusiasm that surrounded the potential of the ‘new media arts’, as Paul (2003, p.7) describes them. Indeed, by the 1980’s, mass production allowed for significantly easier access to digital systems. In 1984, the Macintosh computer was released, soon followed by Adobe’s Photoshop software for digital imaging. By the end of the 1980’s books on digital art began to appear and artworks such as Jeffrey Shaw’s Legible City were realised, in which the user[4] was immersed in a world of “virtual reality”[5] (click here for a video documentation of Legible City).

The 1990’s were characterised by the rapid growth of the Internet and artists’ increasing interest in networking and the interactive potential of their work. By the late 1990s, digital art was finally claiming its place in the art world (Paul, 2003, p.23).

An example of art produced in the 1990’s, Osmose, developed by artist Char Davies was ‘the first virtual environment to employ breath as a means of interface and to use transparency in real-time’ (Wands, 2006, p. 28).

PalyLeto. (2010). Char Davies’ Osmose.[online].

By the start of the 21st century, exhibitions featuring digital art had increased dramatically. Currently we find ourselves in a period of transition. This new media art takes on a vast number of forms which transcend areas of practice and blend them all together. Below is a film of a project developed in 2011 (click here for more details):

Timoarnall. (2011). Immaterials: Light painting WiFi. [online].

The boundaries are blurred and there is much confusion and argument about the impact of the digital in art. Critics and artists alike find themselves divided into a plethora of schools of thought.



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