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?