- Peripheral Vision: Bell Labs, the S-C 4020, and the Origins of Computer Art by Zabet Patterson
The Stromberg-Carlson S-C 4020 microfilm plotter, one of the earliest devices to visualize computational data, is the central actor in Zabet Patterson’s succinct and well-written book. Art writers rarely place these peripherals center-stage, preferring a hastily labeled model number to a comprehensive treatment. Top billing typically goes to IBM’s famed 7000 series of mainframes. By resisting such a well-worn path, Patterson sheds new light on how one unnoticed computational system has contributed to the rich history of digital art and graphics production. The author explains how these peripherals, like the colossal mainframes to which they were connected, have their own complex material and cultural history. But what makes Patterson’s story even more gratifying is the choice of Bell Telephone Laboratories in Murray Hill, New Jersey, as the locale for her tale. Set during the 1960s, widely considered the halcyon days of Bell Labs’ creative phase, the author draws a connective thread through a collection of canonical computer artworks all produced using the S-C 4020 microfilm plotter.
The book examines the role the S-C 4020 played in the creation of film and graphic works completed at Bell Labs between 1961 and 1972. The structure of Peripheral Vision is therefore episodic. While Bell Labs and the S-C 4020 are constants in the narrative sequence, the other characters are varied. Engineers such as E. E. Zajac, Béla Julesz, A. Michael Noll, Kenneth Knowlton, and Leon Harmon figure prominently, as do the artists Stan [End Page 296] VanDerBeek and Lillian Schwartz. Indeed, Patterson is adept at showing how this diverse set of practitioners explored the varied affordances allowed by the S-C 4020. This is where an in-depth study and full technical explanation of Stromberg-Carlson’s platform, covered in the first chapter, is so beneficial. Here, Patterson recounts how the special-purposes cathode ray tube was developed for the U.S. Air Force during a period when real-time surveillance systems began to define cold war operations. By providing the reader with the military context, the author is able to bring into clear relief the achievements of engineers and artists in repur-posing this technology toward aesthetic ends.
While Patterson captures the mixture of earnest research and whimsical play that had come to define Bell Labs, she also ventures beyond its walls to consider the larger cultural impact. As the author demonstrates, Bell Labs’ improbable artistic legacy can be traced across the Hudson River to the swirl of 1960s Manhattan avant-gardism, especially in the intersection of art and technology movements surrounding optical and kinetic art and the formation of E.A.T. (Experiments in Art and Technology). It is here that the author draws connections between the artworks from Bell Labs and highly influential exhibitions at the Museum of Modern Art. For example, she connects, with great effect, the converging worlds of perceptual science, technology, and aesthetics in the concurrent 1965 exhibitions The Responsive Eye and Computer-Generated Pictures. The Responsive Eye became a landmark op-art exhibition curated at MoMA and Computer-Generated Pictures became the first computer art exhibition held in the United States.
The book’s biggest inaccuracy, though this does not detract from the author’s overall project, is that from 1968 onward Bell Labs was not using the S-C 4020 model. Instead, Bell had upgraded to the Stromberg Data-graphiX SD-4360, which had different hardware yet the same Charactron cathode ray tube. It is difficult to fault Patterson. After all, the author has, through this book, brought a technical rigor that is uncommon to art history discourse. Even A. Michael Noll, an ever-studious pioneer and historian of Bell Labs’ celebrated decade, was recently “flabbergasted” to discover that it was not the S-C 4020 but the SD-4360 that loomed impressively in the background of a 1968 BBC documentary.
Perhaps most importantly, Patterson...