- Simple Thoughts by Peter Beyls
by Peter Beyls. MER Paper Kunsthalle, Ghent, Belgium, 2014. 240pp. ISBN: 978-9-491-77560-4.
There are all sorts of interesting things one can do to generate, manipulate, translate, randomize, make interactive or constrain objects or processes using software. The questions facing computer-based arts across the six decades of their existence have always been: What objects or processes, and why? And then, what forms do these manipulations or generations take—simply, what do they look like? Or do they generate, demand, even incorporate, a new way of seeing and thinking? Or, one might add, a new way of criticizing and curating, new discourses and new histories. These have catastrophically been in short supply, hence computer art’s massive failure to be where it belongs—at the cutting edge of contemporary art. Computer art has been overcelebrated for the wrong— usually technical—reasons, terribly short term, ephemeral, overly prone to technological determinism, over-romanticized and over there in the corner of the gallery in any exhibition not specifically about such art. Or in the vaults. Remember all the fractals, the 3D objects reflecting other 3D objects? Where are they now? There was a time—the 1980s—when you couldn’t pick up a glossy art magazine without seeing on the cover the Mandelbrot set or a person with long, streaming hair looking at the future through a virtual reality headset or manipulating some meretricious nonsense via a data-glove. Why are they almost never part of displays of other artworks contemporaneous with them? Whose fault is it? The artists’? The curators’? The public’s? The critics’ (what critics)? Such phenomena were at best controlled explosions in the provincial airports of the mind.
And yet . . . what some of the artists were doing, across the decades, embodied ideas that are still vivid for art. Concepts utterly important today; potentials screaming to be realized. Some computer art was not like conceptual art; it was conceptual art. Some of it—more than we might think (more than some may have wanted?)—was implicitly or explicitly political. There was no RND function in the Soviet equivalent of BASIC. Zagreb, figuratively, changed this.
But, the casual art observer might ask, although I shiver with delight at the idea of “taking a line for a walk,” when confronted with a random or stochastic line exploring, as it were, its own space on paper or screen, when it’s this literal, what should I think? The answer depends on what year it is. In the 1960s, a typical reaction would have been to observe the phenomenon as one might consider an aircraft’s vapor trail or a slug’s slime or Doctor Johnson’s dancing Fennec Fox or whatever it was. And a small subheading in an alternative magazine would ask, “But is it art?”
In the 1970s, after the odd piece in a literary magazine touching upon computer intelligence (perhaps glossing Joseph Weizenbaum’s doomed attempt to show that you couldn’t fool people with a computer simulation of a mad Rogerian psychotherapist as a glimpse into a white-hot technological future), the idea that the line might in some sense have a destiny, might be trying to tell us something, or that we might in some small but salacious way be responsible for it, would have been possible. Especially if it was in some way constrained, such that we could set up an internal dialogue about freedom (hurrah!) and limits (boo!). There may have been the start of an Atlantic divide here, in that, to generalize unfairly, Americans sought to extend freedom within, of course, limits, whereas Europeans misunderstood this, thinking they meant there were no longer any limits at all. Is it stretching things too far to suggest that American computer (only computer) art became pictorial, and British, for example, more conceptual? There is of course an argument about who started conceptual art in general, but while Sol Lewitt was making rules and procedures to produce not-quite-systematic spectacles, the British members of Art & Language were pirouetting atop the circus ring raining tracts about rigorously fucking up everything in artistically and...