Peripheral Technology: Art as Research

Patterson examines innovation at the intersection of art, science and technology through a detailed unpacking of the S-C 4020 at Bell Labs during the early years of computation art. As an approach to history is differs significantly from other authors we have read so far. Patterson picks not just a single kind of technology, she focuses on a specific piece of equipment, at a specific time, at a specific research lab. There is an attempt to frame the historical account in a way that is material and contextualized, a social-materialists model as she calls it. Another important component of the approach is that the S-C 4020 was a peripheral for visualization developed by Stromberg-Carlson for the IBM mainframes that were the norm of the time. Like Rankin, Patterson tells a counter-history of computing, one that focuses on overlooked contributions. Additionally, it focuses on an evolution that does not map on a path toward interaction and real-time engagement. Instead it is one that is focused on the development of computer graphics and visualization. Through this examination of the evolution of computer graphics, as they developed through the use of the S-C 4020, Patterson surfaces a conversation about the relationship between art and research, particularly when technology is introduced. Something that was of concern to Bell Labs at the very beginning when Noll and Julesz present their work in a gallery show in 1965. What becomes clear is that in some ways what begins as engineers producing “art”, over time becomes artists leveraging the effort of engineers. Questions of “ownership” and creation come into play – who is the artist? the programmer or the machine? – very early. The makers of these works, use the S-C 4020 in very particular ways to examine larger research questions and curiosities. Some are experimenting with the capabilities of the technology, others are testing visual perception, while others are exploring visual and linguistic communication. These are not artistic explorations that service self-indulgences alone. They are instead modes of making that contribute to our understanding of images and representations, the technical development of the machine/technology itself, and the fundamental framework for visualization and computer graphics.

Having read this detailed recount of the S-C 4020 and its impact, I wonder — what are other peripheral technologies that have made such an impact as well?

A Throw of the Dice will Never Abolish Chance

In ‘Peripheral Vision: Bell Labs, the S-C 4020, and the Origin of Computer Art’, Zabet Patterson attempts to describe the origins and evolution of early computational art and aesthetics through the lens of one location and method of production where creativity and technology were allowed to collaborate.  Patterson focuses on the use of the S-C 4020 microfilm recorder used at Bell Labs in the 1960s. She goes into some detail explaining the origin of the technology behind this peripheral, specifically the Charactron CRT screens developed for the SAGE program in 1954. Patterson does a good job focusing on the material differences between the original CRT and  the S-C 4020, the multi-character mask, the additional magnetic tape storage which served as a buffer for the core memory and the film and paper cameras used for recording the image. She deftly illustrates the development of graphics from its original information focused output as in the orbital animation created by E. E. Zajac, the sound graphs which became random geometric Op-Art by Michael Noll or the random dot stereograms of Bela Julesz.  Each creation is used to illustrate an early step in the evolution from computer graphics to computer art. She then goes through the second ‘phase’ describing the history of ‘Studies in Perception I’ as a sort of joke which evolved into a collaboration between its creators Knowlton and Harmon with Billy Kluver artist Robert Rauschenberg and Experiments in Art and Technology (E.A.T.). This seems to be the jump off point where engineers like Knowlton, Harmon and Kluver begin to collaborate with artists like Raushenberg, Stan VanDerBeek and Lillian Schwartz.

Patterson does a thorough job examining examples of the work produced by each artist, particularly VanDerBeek and Schwartz.  In discussing the Poemfields work of VanDerBeek she goes into great detail about the form and materiality of the work as it relates to the S-C 4020’s charactron template, Knowlton’s software BEFLIX (Bell Flicks) and Concrete Poetry.  As I read through her analysis I was struck by the similarity of ‘Poemfields’ and Stephane Mallarme’s work, particularly ‘Un coup de dés jamais n’abolira le hasard’ (A Throw of the Dice will Never Abolish Chance). Mallarme’s work from 1897 has a very similar structure to the ‘Poemfields’ in that it confounds interpretation with multiple readings and structures.  One read of the work using only the words in all caps would read (translated to English)… 

Patterson uses BEFLIX and Poemfields to talk about the origins of pixelation comparing the grid like structure imposed by the character screen in the S-C 4020 to a grid like structure before pixelmaps existed.  Mallarme’s poem has its own pixel like structure in that he composed it on a very specific grid and intended for it to read in multiple directions relative to grid alignments. Knowing that VanDerBeek studied at Black Mountain College and lived at the Gate Hill Coop, it’s hard to imagine he would not be aware of Mallarme or influenced by him through the works of other poets in his orbit.  Speculation aside, the resemblance to Mallarme’s work seems like a better fit than concrete poetry. In addition, Patterson refers to McLuhan’s rhetoric on sensory expansion when she quotes VanDerBeek’s 1959 essay, saying he is interested in, “abandoning the logics of aesthetics” and “springing full-blown into a juxtaposed and simultaneous world that ignores the one-point-perspective mind, the one-point-perspective lens.” This is exactly what ‘Un coup de dés’ tries to do with its structure.  She also refers to VanDerBeek’s aesthetic when describing Poemfield No. 2, saying “It animates language- combining and recombining words. Like other examples of concrete poetry, Poemfield No. 2 forms constellations, drawing words together like stars.”  Patterson uses this word in referring to Eugene Gromringer’s call for Universal poetry, where the poem is memorable as it imprints itself on the mind as a picture, the picture, for which a basic unit is a word, is a “constellation” of words.  Yes I went down the rabbit hole looking at this, in my opinion, oversight. I find it indicative of Patterson’s method as a hole that she relates the computational art to certain movements and artists but not others, which might help to illustrate her argument in more insightful ways.

In the end I found the work interesting from the perspective of exploring computer peripherals and their affordances as fertile topics of history.  Personally I believe this same history probably occurred without prior knowledge of a precursor in other computer software and peripherals like the use of Hypercard and laser printers as an animation tool in the late 80s and early 90s.  It is true that the affordances of software on a PC would be different from mainframe computers and film recorders but it would be an interesting project to relate similar histories that evolved with different hardware, software and artistic inputs.

The questions I’m interested in talking about are:

Do you feel like Patterson’s focus on one location and peripheral helps her argument or hinders it?
Does she do a good job relating this work to the gallery receptions of the time?
Is there more to consider with how she has connected to the work to the culture and movements of the time?

Peripheral Vision and Computational Art

Zabet Patterson’s book Peripheral Vision explores the use of the computer to create one of the first computer graphics or art. The main argument or theme of the texts is to provide an historical account of how the hardware of the S-C 400 used at Bell laboratories not only was significant in the research conducted during that period, but played a significant role in the military and sciences but also helped with driving the force behind the exploration of computational art. Patterson takes on a methodology that has a small similarity, but also a distinct difference in its approach. Like the other authors we’ve engaged with so far Patterson incorporates examples from culture to show the influence it had on communities and the field of computing. She also makes a case for the cutting edge research that was being done at Bell Labs and how it was influential to society. In addition, to understanding the lab and the devices role in developing new technology. One main difference in Patterson’s approach to studying the history of the S-C 400 is that it integrates the personal stories of the technologist with the artist. This exploration of how the creation of computer art was combined effort between both was the most effective and open. The section on Studies in Perception demonstrates how the computer became a tool to create and was allowing researchers in the lab to form and develop a context for creating computational art. Patterson states, “the micropatterns of Studies in Perception do not merely highlight the importance of diagrams for early computer graphics as a language… but around tiny squares and grids and toward a world where the photographic and computational would be intimately linked” (63). The statement shows that computational art was going beyond just the concept of lines or vectors, but was also considering elements that are found in everyday life to create. Patterson is effective in connecting elements found in culture like photography or works by artists to show how this was being used in the Bell Labs to activate ones creative side.

Some questions that I had from the book were:

  1. Does Patterson’s historical methodology work better than the other books read?
  2. How could her approach be altered to apply to creating your own historical approach?
  3. Is she missing anything by only focusing on the S-C 400 computer at Bell labs?

Pulling in Peripherals

Patterson is interested in the relationships between computing systems, culture, and creativity. In studying these relationships, she opposes the historically false binary that places both of artists and engineers on different sides of the process in the creation of new media art. Patterson’s method for approaching history examines the S-C 4020 microfilm recorder within the setting of Bell Labs, focusing on the particular works created with the technology to reveal the ways in which artistic practice influences science and technology as well as the reverse. Part of this method digs deep into the inner-workings of both hardware and software and the research that contributed to components of the computing system.

Overall, Patterson’s argument is for the pulling of “peripherals” back into the histories of computing and technology as central objects. I’m thinking of similarities and differences between how Rankin and Patterson approach bringing lesser told stories to the forefront of histories that privilege certain technologies and innovators over others. Both methods examine a technology that is situated within specific environments, however I think what makes Patterson’s approach less problematic is her attention to the work produced through use of the object (and the works relation to a broader system) rather than the importance of the object itself. By looking into the interdisciplinary works created with the S-C 4020 and how those works were situated within cultural and social contexts, Patterson attempts to provide a history while acknowledging things happening in the surrounding community as they relate. I appreciate that she includes the technical composition of the work, and then pulls the work away from Bell Labs and the technology, and into society in the form of art exhibitions, conferences, and other places where the work of artists and scientists began to fuse into new concepts.

Art With Machines

In Zabet Patterson’s Peripheral Vision: Bell Labs, the S-C 4020, and the Origin of Computer Art, she explored artwork and creation such as film, computer-generated images, computer animation surrounded by her central artifacts, the Stromberg-Carlson S-C 4020, one of the earliest devices to visualize computer results as a peripheral device to IBM 7090. The title of the book echoed the position of the S-C 4020 that main selling revenue went to the IBM 7000 series, but the author argued, through various examples, that the previously ignored computer system could create digital media and graphics with richness and depth.

From my personal perspective, giving the computers and machines the right to authorize uncontrolled work such as the Nude from Harmon and Knowlton, the computer-generated images, and even our deep learning/ neural networks is dangerous because we shall not yield the judgment to machines before we could understand the nature of these machines and how they could function without people. However, It has also come to my attention that one of the significant contributions of the Bell Labs in the 1960s was the work done by Knolton, the BELFIX language and other collaborated projects such as computer-generated images. Such creation in so-called peripheral innovations paved the road for the upcoming computer-related invention at the Bell Labs. I also enjoyed learning about Lillian Schwartz’s work and the storytelling Patterson used with a rich description of how artists start to adopt the machines and how artists began doing artwork back then. However, something strikes me after reading the book that does computer-generated images excite us because of human’s inability to create things anymore? Alternatively, even, do we lose the sense of aesthetics as computer generated artwork step into the template of MoMA? I hoped the answer is no as we were testing our capacities, but I wished I could have a more definite answer.

I also liked how Patterson discussed her focus in the early introduction and followed that throughout her book. The targeted audience of the book, the digital media historians and the contemporary algorithm culture researchers, would enjoy the narrative of the book as it elaborately disclosed the book with examples that vividly described the S-C 4020 history, and I equally enjoy the SAGE example. However, I was also looking for some key people’s inner activity beyond the materiality from people like Howard Wise and Zajac, which can surely enrich the book. Although most of the events were centered around the Bell Lab,
other similar labs across the country.

Towards the ending, I was partially confused by the author’s motivation of revealing this creation in the 1960s, and wondering if the author has underlined the political and militarily significance of the Bell Labs itself. If some work were to be created under the surveillance of a non-allied country political lab, the work would be discussed extensively with its background and the lab itself. However, such discussion is missing here.

Patterson’s Platform

The “Series Forward” of Platform Studies by MIT Press, included in the first pages of Peripheral Vision by Zabet Patterson, outlines its overall aim “to promote the investigation of underlying computing systems and the ways that they enable, constrain, shape, and support the creative work that is done on them” (ix). Certainly Patterson’s work fulfills this ambition. Hers is a book defined by its relationship to underlying computation—at times to the narrowing of the what appear to be concerns of a larger scale.

Patterson winds her historical narrative through the use of the Stromberg-Carlson 4020 microfilm plotter, a graphics peripheral intended for use on IBM 7094 mainframe computer system. Due to the high degree of modification present in the days of mainframe, batch processed computing, Patterson chooses to isolate her study to the S-C 4020 put to use at Bell Labs beginning in 1961 (1). This machine ends up being manipulated in a variety of different creative and artistic pursuits under the direction of different artists and researchers. In particular, Patterson identifies as case studies the orbital simulation of E. E. Zajac (Chapter One), the gallery exhibition of Bela Julesz and A. Michael Noll (Chapter Two), the “computer picture processing” of Kenneth Knowlton and Leon Harmon’s Studies in Perception project (Chapter Three), Stan VanDerBeek’s concrete-psychedelic Poemfields (Chapter Four), and Lillian Schwartz’s films: Pixillation, ENIGMA, UFO’s, and Googolplex (Chapter Five).

The materials of Patterson’s histories are obscure and often difficult to conceptualize. In contrast to, say, the full-page spread photographs featured in something like Elcott’s Artificial Darkness, the works of Patterson’s interest are more difficult to represent in black-and-white stills. In my experience, this led to some less than lucid understandings of what was being described: for instance, when Patterson explains a monochrome, pointillistic EXPLOR function written by Kenneth Knowlton as something that “‘agitates’ one-sixth of the white spots above, below, right, or left of the black ones by turning them black and simultaneously turns white one-sixth of the black spots next to the white ones” (93). Nevertheless, I think the book does a remarkable job overall in its handling of such unfamiliar historical material. If anything, the moments during which I was most confused simply led me to imagine the possibilities of something of a more multimedia experience.

The broader concerns to which I referred earlier were, in my opinion, the most compelling sections of the book. Patterson’s argument for the validity of the study of such an unknown peripheral technology crystallize in her analyses of the Barthesian “shift from a concern with the perceptual qualities of the object to a concern with its undergirding conceptual relationships” (22); of the bizarre, 19th century notion of the “cyclopean eye” (35); or of the nascent “language—of signals, noise, and information” (57) which characterized, in a broader, semiotic sense, the disruptive power of computational imagination. These more experimental engagements with culture at large draw some of the book’s most fascinating connections. Patterson gestures frequently to these externalities; but, much as she describes Lillian Schwartz’s artistic employment with the machine they share, Patterson’s own work “remains quite profoundly invested in the specificity of the platform she is utilizing, even as it is no longer clear what the ‘specificity’ of such a complex and hybrid ‘medium’ as the S-C 4020 must necessarily entail” (105).