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  • Models of Code and the Digital Architecture of Time
  • Andrew R. Johnston (bio)

We are in open circuits

—Nam June Paik, 1966

Charles Csuri began creating still images with a digital computer in 1964, and the results, such as Sine Curve Man (1967), are still lauded as pioneering and captivating. Though successful with this new technology and mode of production, he quickly turned his attention to putting these rendered images in motion to explore how a computer could synthesize action and generate figurative gestalts. Hummingbird (1967), an eleven-minute computer animation produced using the FORTRAN programming language on an IBM 7094, was the first film during this early period of computer programming for Csuri, an already established visual artist and professor at Ohio State University. Making the film involved the mathematical computation of how different vector lines and abstract shapes would move in coordination with one another across the space of the screen, but in an incremental frame-by-frame progression while storing the calculations for the code of each frame on 7⅜ by 3¼-inch paper punch cards. In order to visualize these programmed movements, Csuri had to input the punch cards into a different computer, an IBM 1130, that was connected to a microfilm plotter, a graphics output device that could draw [End Page 221] computed vector lines directly onto film. These kinds of digital platform limitations and laborious work processes were common in the 1960s and not only proved to be time consuming but also introduced errors for many programmers at the time. While the bird at the opening of Hummingbird comes into being through the slow development of its outlines in a fashion reminiscent of the lightning sketches and early animations of filmmakers such as Winsor McCay, it then bursts apart into small pieces while twisting on the screen before finally reconstituting itself, requiring a precise mapping of how the abstract elements move in space. Planning these calculated actions without the simultaneous ability to monitor the progression of movement between frames on a computer screen necessitated an at times trying amount of patience.

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Figure 1.

Charles Csuri, Sine Curve Man (1967). Ink on paper, IBM 7049 and drum plotter, 41 × 41 in.

Courtesy Charles Csuri Archive.

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Figure 2.

Charles Csuri, Hummingbird II (1969).

Photo screen on Plexiglass, IBM 1130 and drum plotter, 18 × 30 in. Courtesy Charles Csuri Archive.

Csuri was not alone in his frustration. Artists in the 1960s and early 1970s, such as John Whitney Sr., Michael Noll, Ken Knowlton, [End Page 222] and Lillian Schwartz, were also exploring digital computer graphics and animation with different aesthetic goals, institutional support, computer languages, and platforms. A year before Csuri’s Hummingbird, Whitney was awarded a research grant by IBM to be an artist-in-residence and use one of the company’s IBM System/360 computers to develop digital animations such as Homage to Rameau (1967), Experiments in Motion Graphics (1968), and Permutations (1968). Previously using an analog computer borrowed from a World War II antiaircraft gun controller and attaching to it a drawing stylus and then an optical printer, Whitney was an astute mechanic and engineer who both produced independent abstract animations and worked with graphic designers such as Saul Bass on the opening title sequence of Vertigo (1958).1 Whitney focused solely on digital technology after encountering it, since he thought it was a better way to produce serial permutations of equilibriums in motion, a dynamic visual harmony generated from abstract lines and dots.2 Yet for all his emphasis on the power of digital motion created through differentials and articulated ratios of action, Whitney was constantly struggling to determine what he could actually create with his computer. The metamorphoses in Whitney’s IBM films have many digital sources, but they are also animated through more traditional means. Because of technological constraints, Whitney had to take photographs of his computer monitor that displayed the equivalent of one frame of film and then project and edit these on an optical printer to create fluid motion. The optical printer also allowed him to add color to the image, since his IBM...


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pp. 221-246
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