Since more than 10 years the Croatian media artist Darko Fritz has been researching the archives of the Museum for Contemporary Arts Zagreb to gather material about the New Tendencies series of exhibitions and events in Zagreb, Ex-Yugoslavia, now Croatia, from 1961 to 1973 and the Bit International journal published by that same art movement. An exhibition in 2007 at Neue Galerie Graz and now at ZKM Karlsruhe shows the works of this important but almost lost art movement, were it not for the effort of Darko Fritz. For the Graz exhibition a little catalogue came out with contributions by Peter Weibel, Jesa Denegri and Margit Rosen. I have data mined those articles and present this material in the manner of a literature review for other researchers to study it and draw their own conclusions. All translations from German are my translations.
As we are now in an age of the writing and attempted canonisation of media art histories there is a tendency of closure, of a solidification of a certain discourse. In that discourse very often genealogies are generated in hindsight (cf. for instance Media Art Histories, edt. by Oliver Grau, 2007). I would like to keep things open and resist this tendency to point at the possibility of other readings. Immanent in this question of history writing is the struggle about the definition of media art, which is still an 'unstable' field. The New Tendencies exhibition and publications going with it -- in spring 2009 a large catalog will come out making available some of the original writings -- will present interesting material for scholars to investigate the rise and failure of an 'ultimate avant-garde' (regarding the understanding of this term see below).
Arguably, the New Tendencies series of events between 1961 and 1973 were too early and too decentralised to have had a significant impact on contemporary media art and that of the recent past. The last event in 1973 coincides with the 'implosion' of systems art as described by Charlie Gere in various texts (Gere 2004, ...). The end of the movement and the lack of a direct continuation - the direction that the New Tendencies pursued would only be picked up again in the 1980s by a broader movement of media artists -- may have been intensified by the reluctance of Western media to engage with those artforms and favour other new artforms instead, such as Pop Art and Op Art, which ignored the political ideology which informed the thinking of the group of people behind the New Tendencies.
This tendency to focus on the visual side and the surfaces may have been aggravated by the fact that there seems to have been an ideological power struggle within the art world which mirrored the ideological power struggle between Cold War superpowers and in which the New Tendencies - born on the relatively neutral soil of un-aligned Yugoslavia - found themselves squeezed. Albeit it needs to be immedeately added, as the Soviet Union was officially subscribed to Soviet Realism, it did not participate in this power struggle actively. Instead this was a struggle between leftwing artists from various countries who gathered in Yugoslavia and organs of the institutionalised art system intent on suppressing the influence of leftwing post- and neo-constructivism.
Yet despite the undeniable negative effect of such 'external' enemies the movement had also its own troubles. The reading of the materials and the visit of the exhibition exposes, as I will show in my summary, difficult and unresolved issues closely connected to the programmatic of New Tendencies, issues by which the field of media art is still plagued today. I suggest to read the material in this sense as it exposes the problems of media art in an early stage.
1. Kunst als K hoch 8, by Peter Weibel in Bit International. Exhibition Catalogue, Neue Galerie, Graz 2007.(Art as K by the magnitude of 8)
As Peter Weibel writes in his introduction to the exhibition, when contemporary art relaunched itself after 1945, and began to reference sources from before fascism and WWII, at first what was favoured were Abstract Expressionism, Informel and Tachism, 'the expressive and spiritual side of abstraction (Weibel 2007, p. 4). Then Weibel goes on to say that 'the rational branch of constructivism' which according to him had started with the Constructivist Manifesto of 1920 by Naum Gabo and Pevsner (Weibel also cites 'geometric abstraction' as represented by Abstraction-creation: art non-figuratic1932 - 1936) started to be rediscovered in the late 1950s. Important people were Max Bill (who had published the journal abstraktkonkret) and who became the director of the design arts college in Ulm in 1952 and among whose students were Almir Magnavier and where theorists such as Max Bense and Abraham Moles were teaching (Weibel 2007, p. 4)
Almir Magnivier and Matko Mestrovic were among the founders of the New Tendencies 'project'. A strong influence was exerted by groups such as Groupe de Recherche d'Art Visuell (GRAV, 1960 - 1968) who figure promenintly in a number of genealogies (cf. Giannetti 2004) of 'cybernetics' or 'systems art,' as well as 'Gruppo N, MID and T.' (Weibel, op.cit., p. 5)
NOTE: The formation of groups and, in some cases, hiding behind a very abstract group identity seems to have been an important characteristic of those art movements, something that would reappear and reappear in art & technology practices.
Weibel then quotes the Manifesto Stoppt die Kunst (GRAV 1965) (Stop the Art) where a consideration of the participant is demanded.
"We need to find a way out of the deadly end of modern art. If there is a social aspect in modern art it needs to involve the viewer. [...] We would like to attract the attention of the viewer, to make him free and more relaxed. [...] We desire his participation, we would like to bring him into a position which mobilisies him and makes him master of this movement, we want him to agree to play a game [...] we want him to be in mutual exchange with other viewers. We want him to show more perceptive capability and action [...] A viewer who becomes aware of his power and who is tired of so many errors and mystifications, willn be capable of carrying out his own revolution in the arts under the signs of action and collaboration." (GRAV 1965 quoted in Weibel 2007; my translation from German. The German text is not very clear and has grammatic weaknesses; this text originally appeared in connection with the exhibition Labyrinth 3 in New York 1965)
Weibel states that a 'critical rationality' was able to 'reflect art methodically' and therefore started to speak of 'visual research' instead of art. This tendency found expression in shows such as Bewogen Beweging (1961 Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam and that same year in Stockholm), Arte Programmata, Arte Kinetica, opera moltiplicata, opera aperta (1962, Milan) and The Responsive Eye (1965, Museum of Modern Art, New York).
'On the occasion of this exhibition the term Op Art was coined. Shows such as The Responsive Eye have had a suffocating rather than an enabling influence on the development of artistic discourse, as the reception which made it successful , ignored core interests of the movement which had gathered around the term New Tendencies.' (Weibel 2007, p. 6)
The concrete and abstract art of the 1950s joined forces, according to Weibel, with cybernetics and information theory (Ibid., p. 6). Naming Umberto Eco, Max Bense and Abraham Moles as important theorists, Weibel says that they
'integrated the semiotic approach of Charles S. Peirce in arts as well as the mathematical theories in information and communication theory developed by the American Claude Shannon and The Russian A.A. Markov based on which new forms of cybernetic art were created for instance by Nicolas Schöffer, and many other medial art forms.' (Ibid., 6)
In Weibel's genealogy what comes next are then the landmark exhibitions 'Information' at the MOMA New York (1970), and 'Software, Information Technology: Its Meaning for Art' (1970) at the Jewish Museum, New York. As he explains, many art works of the New Tendencies in the early 1960s were 'programmed', if not actually in practice then in the way they were conceived, as demonstrated by Karl Gerstner's early book Programme entwerfen (1963) (Ibid., pp. 6 -7). At The New Tendencies III in 1965 a split occured and many artists left the field. In the year 1968 computer scientists joined the New Tendencies IV event, which was reflected in the title 'Computers and Visual Research.' On the occasion of that event also the publication of the quarterly Bit International started which saw 7 editions. The summer of 1968 also saw the exhibition Cybernetic Serendipity in London, curated by Jasia Reichardt, which is also claimed in the genealogies of media art and receives sustained attention. The renewed focus on the 'bit' is given as ecidence by Weibel that
'in 1968 a new epoch has started which is not characterised through the advent of the machine in art, as it was practiced by Tatlin and the constructivists, but which was characterised by the advent of the intelligent, symbol processing machine in the field of art.' (op.cit., p. 7)
According to Weibel thanks to an exact, rational aesthetics whose development in the 1960s can be studied via the New Tendencies 'like under a microscope' eight art movements and their interdependencies become visible: concrete, constructive, kinetic, cybernetic, conceptual, Op Art, concrete poetry and computer art. (Ibid., p. 8) In all cases, Weibel summarises, this is a 'programmed art' in each instance, even if in 'concrete poetry' sometimes no computer is used (Ibid., p. 9)
NOTE: As we will see, the way Weibel constructs this genealogy out of the New Tendencies series of events, is tendentious. First of all, the genealogy is too general and too unifying. Despite the desire of the initiators to form an international art movement, New Tendencies is maybe more a pool where for a certain period in time several art forms came together who actually had internal divisions and different aims and origins. Secondly, Weibel uses this genealogy to construct a teleology: the ultimate destiny of the rational, abstract and exact arts is programmed computer art. Within that he locates already a subthread, the 'interactive' computer art work.
2. Die Bedingungen und Umstände, die den ersten beiden Ausstellungen der Nova Tendencije in Zagreb [1961 - 1963] vorausgingen. Jesa Denegri in Bit International. Exhibition Catalogue, Neue Galerie, Graz 2007. (The conditions and circumstances which existed prior to the first two New Tendencies Exhibitions in 1961 and 1963)
According to Jesa Denegri (2007) there is a continuity between Exat-51, an 'experimental atelier 51' which had existed in Zagreb since 1951 and the New Tendencies. Tito taking Yugoslavia away from the Soviet block also allowed ditching the 'Socialist Realism' dogma (Denegri 2007, 11) Exat-51 based their work on a neo-constructivist philosophy.
'Although they referred to the traditions of Bauhaus, Russian constructivism, and the achievements of the classics of European abstract art, the theoretic contributions of Richter and Rádic, and the works of the painters Picelj, Kristl, Srnec and Rasic represented a big intellectual step for Croatia and the whole Yugoslav artistic culture. At the same time they displayed similarities with parallel movements in Western European art of the 1950s.' (Denegri 2007, 11 - 12)
As some of those parallel developments Denegri names the groups Espace in France, Forma Uno and Movimento Arte Concreta in Italy, the exhibition Salon Realie tes Novelles 1952 in Paris in which Exat-51 took part.
In a lengthy quote from one of the initiators, Almir Mavignier, he describes the origin of the first Nova Tendencije as motivated by the conservative character of the Venice Biennale which did not allow to make new directions in art felt. According to the art historian Marina Viculin the first New Tendecies show is mainly a result of a meeting between Mavignier and the art critic Matko Mestrovic where they discussed the disappointing Venice Biennale. Metkovic then convinced the curator of the Museum for Contemporary Art Bozo Bek to help make it happen. The well travelled Mavignier compiled a long artist list and then through the 'tireless' correspondence of Metkovic, the first show came together.
After an international call, artists sent work to Zagreb. There were paintings but also strange types of 'objects which did not have traditional characteristics of a a sculpture.' Thus, the exhibition was structured as following this tendency 'from painting to the object.' (Ibid., Mavignier quoted by Denegri, p. 13) The title was inspired by a previous exhibition under the title stringenz - nuove tendence tedesche, which had happened in Milan in 1959 at Pagani Gallery. What Mavignier found particularly interesting was that works from artists from very different countries showed similar concerns with 'optical investigations into plane, structure, objecthood'. (Alvir Mavignier, 1970, neue tendenzen I - ein überraschender zufall. In: New Tendencies IV, Katalog. n.p.)
The initiators themselves seemed surprised of the width and depth of those new areas of work which they had discovered, and which to document and inform the public aout in future events they saw as their duty.
Quoting the publication Prospect - Retrospect Europa 1946 - 1976, published in 1976 by Konrad Fischer and Hans Strelow, Denegri sketches the context for this movement. This was constituted by the already mentioned Bewogen Beweging, exhibition at the Stedelijk, the exhibitions Le Noveau Realisme a Paris et a New York, and A 40° au-dessus de Dada, both in Paris, solo exhibitions by Rothko, Pollock, Rauschenberg, Arman, Christo and Tingeluy in a number of cities. Important artists also were the members of the group Zero, Heinz Mack, Otto Piene and Guenter Uecker, who together with Piero Manzoni and Enrico Castellani grouped around Azimuth&Azimut Gallery and magazine in Italy. All of them found themselves later on the list of participants that Mavignier had compiled for New Tendencies. Other artists for that first exhibition were Piero Dorazio, Gerhard von Graevenitz, Julio Le Parc, Joel Stein, Francois Morellet, Gruppo N from Padua and Gruppo T from Milan as well as the Croatian artists Ivan Picelj and Julije Knifer. Denegri summarises that as Informel art lost its momentum at the end of the 1950s, two new movements gathered strength, the new abstraction of the New Tendencies and the figurative trend of Pop Art, both born out of a new 'optimism of generations of younger generations of artists who could enjoy the solidifieing social circumstances in post war Europe.' (Denegri 2007, p. 15)
Participant Morellet expressed his belief that NT earmarked the 'beginning of a revolution in the arts which will be as big as the revolution in science. Therefore rationality and the spirit of systematic research must replace intuitionism and individual expression.' Denegri 2007, p. 16 quoting Morellet)
Another participant, Manfredo Massironi, highlighted the importance of the show for artists. Although of 'limited outreach' in terms of the critical attention it attracted, it was a great opportunity for artists from different countries to find out about the similarities about their work, and 'although it was not clear what it was that they shared it was a very enthusiastic moment.' (Ibid., p. 16 quoting Massironi)
The Parisian group GRAV published a position paper Propositiones Generales in 1961 in which they demanded that 'the audience should be liberated from the restrictions and deformations it had suffered regarding the judgement of art.' (Ibid., p. 17 quoting GRAV)
In another position paper under the title 'Apropos de art spectacle, spectateur actif, instabilite et programmation dans l'art visuel' a member of GRAV, Julio Le Parc, wrote:
'We are confronted with a new situation whose complexity stimulates reflection. Its evolution can also have unclear aspects. It is not about replacing one kind of habit with another one. The role of the work and the role of the viewer have changed. The active participation in the work is more important than contemplation. [...] To the cycle of conception-realisation-visualisation-perception is added modification. This idea leads us to the notion of instability.' (Ibid., Julio Le Parc quoted by Denegri p. 17)
In 1962 in a series of meetings it was tried to define a set of conceptual and ideological requirements which would define the participants list for the following instantiation of the event. The leading role in this was taken by individual members of GRAV and Grupo N as well as Mestrovic. This group tried to formulate stringent criteria for the selection of works to build the foundations of a large international movement. Ironically this led to the exclusion of many artists after New Tendencies II in 1963, many of whom would go on to become quite famous. Among those purged from the movement were Adrian, Boto, Dorazio, Mack, Piene (according to an essay by Valerie L. Hillings Concrete Territorry: Geometric Art, Group Formation and Self-Definition.)
Those splits between artists and the tense atmosphere at NT II resonates in a text of Mestrovic who writes that
'the historic necessity of art lies in its power to infiltrate social structures, to go through social barriers, intellectual habits, routines and all other forms of resistance which come from the unchanged, unreconstructed relationships of the forces of production and their superstructure. Art gets shattered at those obstacles or bounces back, its struggle us futile and it gets defeated if it only stays restricted to imagination and emotions.' (op.cit, p. 19 Denegri quoting Mestrovic)
This crisis would become fully visible at NT III in 1965. The attempt of establishing on an international level a completely new approach to artistic practice showed already signs of failure at NT II, Mestrovic would openly admit in 1965 (Ibid. p 20 Denegri quoting Mestrovic). In a style characterised by Denegri as 'dramatic' Mestrovic describes the reasons for the failure of the New Tendencies, that as a movement it displayed a certain naivity regarding the world political situation, and a 'contamination of practices' by the 'force field of capital'. The title was changed in 1965 from the plural to the singular, thereby admitting that it now as just one tendency among others, Denegri states . (Ibid, pp. 20 - 21) Thus, the New Tendencies had reached their climax already in 1963, the pinnacle of its theoretic formulation and activist and expansionist orientation, Denegri concludes, whose individual standpoints were sometimes extremely doctrinary.' (Ibid., p. 21)
At the Biennale of San Marino participants of New Tendencies received all the main prices, and Argan summarised this work as 'gestalt research' (Ricerca gestaltica - from German 'Gestalt' an expression which found increasing attention in Psychology since the early 1900 and formed the bases of Structuralims, cf. Piaget). In 1964 Nouvelle Tendance was shown at the Museum des Arts Decoratifs in Paris and at the same year NT artists were strongly present at the Biennale of Venice. 'Yet the feeling of triumpf and satisfaction,' Denegri writes, 'was disturbed by the powerful advent of American Neo-Dada and Pop Art [...] as well as a new abstract art (Morris Louis, Kenneth Noland, Frank Stella) whose support by the media and the market surpasses everything that had been known before.' (Ibid., p. 22)
The American market then turned its attention to the New Tendencies, and William C. Seitz organised the exhibition the Responsive Eye (1965) 'as a provocative confrontation with already established Op Art' (Ibid., p. 23). This was experienced by European participants as a 'Phyrric victory' or as 'burial ceremony of the first order' (Massironi). At that show, Denegri writes, the movement was robbed off the focus on investigation and research which had been inherited from Russian constructivism and became bar any ideological content, it was reduced to a 'retinal' and 'physiological' interpretation. (Ibid., p. 23 Denegri paraphrasing Massironi)
The New Tendencies in 1965 tried to counter this tendency by focusing on the research character of the works, but even the curator, the designer Enzo Mari, was dissatisfied with the result, admitting that a large part of the exhibited work 'was actually not research but rather the simulation of research or even its commercialisation.' (Ibid., p. 23 Denegri quoting Mari) As leading artists of the New tendencies such as Julio Le Parc received international attention and canonisation as artists, the movement lost its avant-garde character, according to Denegri (Ibid., 24).
Denegri highlights the importance of the theoretic writing of Matko Mestrovic 'written in the sharp tongue of critical and theoretical prose'. (Ibid., p. 27) In "The Ideology of New Tendencies" (Mestrovic 1963) he emphasises the movements recognition of the importance of scientific knowledge, the legacy of Bauhaus, the transformative power of technology and industrialisation and the 'shared and accepted teachings of Marx' which together created 'a constructive approach towards social change and societal problems.' (Ibid., p. 27) Mestrovic understood the New Tendencies as 'a first way of critique of and resistance to mechanisms of corruption and alienation'. He called for the 'demystification of artistic production' and a 'demasking of the influence of the art market' which 'treats art in a contradictory way both as myth and commodity'. The focus was not on individual expression but on 'research' which revealed the 'objective psycho-physical basis of sculptural phenomena' and which opened up the possibility of collective work. The movement also embraced the means of industrial production which should lead to a quicker social dissemination of the works. (Ibid., p. 28 quoting Mestrovic in Mestrovic 1965 n.p.)
The Italian critic Lea Vergine organised in 1983/84 an exhibition with the title "L'ultima avantgardia - Arte programmatica e cinetica 1953 - 1963" with 50 participants from different European countries. This was, according to Lea Vergine, the last concerted effort of a large international group of artists who, in collaboration with theorists, tried to achieve a fundamental change in the formulation of the goals of art, change which should also reach to the foundations of society. It was related to the historic avant-garde, especially that of a constructivist nature. Like that movement, it engaged with other disciplines such as design and architecture to gain influence on planning of the environment, and in its ultimate consequence it hoped to alleviate the condition of alienation of human labour as they took as their example the freedom of action and behavior, which characterises the position of politically conscious contemporary artists, Denegri writes. (Ibid., pp 29 - 30) Yet despite those principles, Denegri concludes, the New Tendencies could not stop from being absorbed by the market and the social circumstances which they had hoped to change. (Ibid., p. 30)
3. Die Maschinen sind angekommen: Die Neuen Tendenzen - visuelle Forschung und Computer, by Margit Rosen. In: Bit International. Exhibition Catalogue, Neue Galerie, Graz 2007. (The Machines have arrived: The New Tendencies, visual research and the computer)
In her contribution to the catalogue Rosen continues what Weibel has prepared for already: a teleology of New Tendencies finding their 'telos' in the computer.
While New tendencies I, II, and III talked about an 'arte programmata' and various objects were displayed which showed machine like behavior, it was the colloquium under the title The Computer and Visual Research in August 1968 in Zagreb which 'attempted to explore the artistic and social possibilities of a new medium, the symbol processing machine.' (Rosen 2007, p. 32)
The adaptation of the computer is embedded, according to Rosen, 'in the history of a movement which attempted to construct art rationally, to demystificate art and to use the knowledge and processes of the engineering sciences as well as industrial forms of production.' (Ibid., p. 33)
According to Rosen there are three reasons why NT adopted the computer: the crisis of NT which had come with the success 1965, the start of 'visual research' via the computer which manifested itself in two exhibitions, images by Georg Nees at TU Stuttgart and work by Bela Julesz and A Michael Noll in the Howard Wise gallery in NY, and, last not least, the development of an 'information aesthetics' by Max Bense who published 'Aesthetica' (Bense 1965) and the participation of Abraham A. Moles in a working meeting of NT artists in a castle in Croatia. The Yugoslavian curator and art critic Radoslav Putar saw the beginning of a 'new symbiosis with the machine' (Putar 1970, quoted in Rosen 2007). The integration of the computer into NT 4 allowed the organisers, so Rosen, to continuate the ambition to be avant-garde and to undertake 'a new effort of an organised exploration of the unknown' (Rosen 2007, p. 35, quoting Putar 1970). A rather large program committee consisting of old and new members started in 1967 to systematically aquire and analyse all publications about computer art. Then the committe started far reaching international correspondance 'overcoming the communication barriers of the cold war and writing to individuals, universities, companies and government agencies in Western and Southern Europe, the GDR, Polen, Czechoslovakia, Brazil the USA and Japan, inviting them to participate in the activities of the coming years.' (Rosen 2007, p. 36)
Artists presenting computer generated work included Marc Adrian, Kurd Alsleben, Vladimir Bonacic, Charles Csuri, Iroshi Kawano, Leslie Mezei, Peter Milojevic, Frieder Nake, Georg Nees, A. Michael Noll, as well as works by employees of the companies California Computer Products Inc. and Llyoyd Sumner (Ibid., p. 37)
In a symposium in 1969 participated, amongst others, artists and scientists interested in cybernetics such as Herbert W.Franke, Zdenko Sternberg, members of the Art Research Centre, Silvio Ceccato, Jonathan Benthal, Umberto Eco, engineers such as Alfred Grassl and Josef Hermann Stiegler and the Brasilian Valdemar Curdeiro (abbreviated list after Rosen, Ibid., pp 37 - 38)
With the symposium for the first time a new magazine, Bit International, was published.
As Rosen points out, with this new focus on the computer only a few persons from the first three NT events managed to stay on, the theorists Bozo Bek, Boris Kemelen, Matko Mestrovic, Abraham Moles and Radoslav Putar (Ibid p. 39) ... it seemed that artists had more problems keeping up than theorists, because from the original NT 1 exhibition in 1961 only Marc Adrian, Ivan Picelj and Zdenek Sykora remained. Picelj produced in collaboration with Vladimir Bonacic the random light object t4, but did not continue this line of work. The taking centre stage by mathematicians, phycisians, computer scientists was leading to critique by some artists as Alberto Biasi, who said that on one hand the artists did not know how to go further while scientists tried to get into art. (Ibid., p. 39, Biasi quoted by Rosen)
Rosen emphasises the focus of NT on research, on the intersubjective methodlogies of science, on an art as research which looks for solutions outside, not in the internal world. The works were results of an ongoing research which took the burden of creating 'masterpieces' from the shoulders of the young genre. (Ibid., pp 40 - 41)
Yet this created also problems. While the gesture of the individual artist genius was avoided the works mainly demonstrated 'the possibilities of the new medium' (Ibid., p. 41 my emphasis) The artists admitted in internal discussions that the lofty programmatic goals were not always met and that the artistic 'research' remained far behind the work of the specialists (Ibid., p. 41, Davide Boriani, Gruppo T, quoted by Rosen) However, in comparison to the much lauded exhibition Cybernetic Serendipity curated by Jasia Reichart at the ICA in London 1968, the program of NT was much more ambitious in terms of facilitating an international and organised research process, writes Rosen. (Ibid., p. 41)
On one hand NT4 saw itself as continuation of an 'arte programmata', a rules based art form which had been topic of pre-computer NT events. What was new was the focus on the artist as programmer and the program as an artwork. In this regard the organisers and theorists such as Vjenceslav Richter bordered on the doctrinal when he stated, as quoted by Rosen, that those artists incapable of formulating their ideas would be left behind in history (Ibid., p. 44). Yet two years later already, so Rosen, Abraham A. Moles criticised that 'through the computer artist a new kind of myth of the unintelligible had entered the discourse, which led to the remystification of the art. (Ibid., p. 44 Moles quoted by Rosen)'
As Rosen reflects, in some ways the 'arte programmata' of 1962, a special case of Eco's 'open' artwork, had been more advanced already than the programming art off 1969. Various types of open artworks, based on kinetic objects and probabilistic behaviour in rule based 'fields' of potentiality allowed perceptive types of viewer-participation. The visual research of the computer in 1969 was very much one based on production, not on perception. This was in contradiction with the original goals of the 'arte programmata' of the earlier NT events, Rosen concludes. (Ibid., p. 47)
Misunderstandings also occured between the goals of an information aesthetics as formulated by Bense and Moles, who focused on the role of the computer as a means of analysis and creation of art, and the intentions of the organisers who hoped to gain important information about perception and objective criteria for art critcism through the computer (Ibid., p. 47)
Yet this endeavor ran immedeately into problems. The exhibition in 1969 was based on a competition. The jury, consisting of Umberto Eco, Karl Gerstner, Vera Horvat-Pintaric, Boris Kemelen and Martin Krampen argued that because of the experimental nature and the still completely open field no general criteria of judgement could be formulated. The jury was against using judgements based on traditional parameters (Rosen paraphrasing PL 13 of NT 4)
This resulted in the jury giving special praise to works of employees of Boeing Computer Graphics, Bellevue, for their wireframe diagrams of machines and humans, as well as single frames of landing manouvres. Also participating were the scientists from Bell Labs, Leon D Harmon, Kenneth C Knowlton and Manfred Schroeder, who alse received special praise for technological excellency. The deepest impression on the jury, Rosen writes, made the work of the scientist Vladimir Bonacic. After making t4 in collaboration with Picelj, he realised a number of works on computers based on pseudo-random numbers as well as the dynamic light object DIN. GF 100 which implemented in electronic circuitry the mathematical functions which had first been tested on computers. (Ibid., pp 50 - 51)
As Rosen points out, the events of the year 1968, the student revolt in Paris and the Soviet tanks entering Prague to end the Prague Spring left no impression on NT (Ibid., p. 51)
Various points of critique were raised, as Rosen highlights. Biasi criticised computers as a continuation of technologies which were only means of exploitation of the workforce. His critique, so Rosen, also pointed at the fundamental critique of Herbert Marcuse on scientific and technical rationality. Even more radical was the critique of the London based German born artist Gustav Metzger who had played an important role in the art of the 1960s with his autodestructive art works. He emphasised the importance of the computer for military research, in particular the H-bomb and nuclear war. 'There is hardly any doubt that computer art is the avantgarde of the military,' said Metzger as quoted by Rosen. Yet Metzger as well as Frieder Nake did not plead for an end of computer based art. 'Only a deeper understanding of science and technology' could guarantee survival of humanity, Metzger is quoted as saying. Rosen's account ends with a quote of Molen who said that 'the computer would bring a revolution of deeper significance than the machine revolution, which had inspired Marx.' (Moles 1968, quoted by Rosen)
This last statement sits firmly at the relative beginnings of a narration which replaces Marx inspired critique with the un-Marxist ideology of the coming of the information age, as Richard Barbrook writes in Imaginary Futures (Barbrook 2007). New media technologies, not humans, become the sole agents of social change. This philosophy of a modified McLuhanism should become the ideology of media art. In this regard, as well as in many other ways, NT show the problems and aporias of media art, albeit in an early stage, yet, because of that, maybe increased clarity.
As I saw the show in 2007, what made itself felt soon was a wireframe fatigue, there were simply too many plotted computer graphics on the walls, yet those were of very different origins, which was not made that clear at all. There were the technically advanced but artistically naive works by the engineers of Boeing, IBM and Bell Labs and works by artists. In my view an art show should highlight the technical genesis of such exhibition objects. Yet at Ars Electronica, the worlds oldest and biggest media arts festival, till today works by scientists and by artists stand side by side. In 1999 Linus Torvalds even received the Golden Nica for his creation of the operating system Linux. There would be circumstances under which this could be welcomed but not if there is a general confusion of categories and also not considering the highly problematic status of media art in contemporary art theory and art history. As explained above, the works after 1968 shown in NT are often based on the demonstrations of the possibilities of the medium. As the medium is defined through technological progress, this is very problematic for media art because the progress of the art form would then be only a faculty of technical progress guided by capitalisms need to invent.
Another point is the foregrounding of the aspect of computer art as visual research. It appears that this is a rather surface oriented approach void of any depth which ignores many other issues relevant for art. Russian constructivism for instance, had many other concerns besides the 'visual' as such. The NT shows 1 to 3 continuated with research inspired by a constructivist ethos and its inquiry dealt with issues such as space and time as well as the role of the viewer and the artwork. The artwork as research is not just concerned with 'the visual' but also those other complex issues. (see on this also Thomas Crow, The unwritten histories of conceptual art. In: Art after Concept Art. Alberro and Buchloh, edts. 2005)
A closer and critical look at the exhibition also reveals that some artists seem to have used rather naively and opportunistically the chance to work with programmers and get computer time on machines which were then very difficult to get access to. This work is often very similar to but in reality categorically different from those works -- which are in a minority -- which dealt with real scientific problems of the time. I was lucky enough to visit the exhibition with a young computer scientist and biologist who could point out this difference: some works are merely 'visual' applications of systems art, reiterative and aleatory visual compositions; others which produce a similar visual output are based on actual issues in molecular biology and computer science. A similar gap affected also some of the text based works -- works by artists using language and the computer to either investigate similarities between code and language or to produce a 'deconstructed' neo-dadaist code literature. The deconstruction remains again on a superficial aesthetic level and lacks the philosophic wit and irony of, for instance Art & Language.
The whole institutional field surrounding computing in this early age, its embeddedness in a cold war logic, is not addressed by the art works, they do not reflect the conditions of their making. Thus, artists and scientists try to create a pure 'information asethetics' yet can hardly speak to each other and are separated from society. What we encounter here are the seeds of problems that art and technology practices would continue to have till today. A teleological discourse which puts all 'progressive' tendencies in modern art in the service of a teleology which will finally lead to interactive computer art glosses over those problems. Yet this is where media arts perceptive problems with critical art theorists start and where the field has not come to a self-perception which would allow to overcome those problems.
ZKM exhibition website: Bit International
An interesting and important account of the Bit International exhibition last year in Graz has been given by Lidija Merenik in Mute Magazine. Her article emphasises much more the political historic context of Yugoslaivias specific position as a socialist state but one which did not belong to the Soviet led Eastern Bloc from which distinct Yugoslavian cultural politics resulted. See Before the Art of New Media