Credit: Gustav Metzger, Liquid Crystal Environment, 1965, remade 2005, collection of Tate, exhibition view.
Image courtesy of Kettles Yard, University of Cambridge. Photo: Paul Allitt. Reproduced with permission.
Gustav Metzger is an artist with a socially-engaged conscience who has become famous for his concepts of auto-destructive and auto-creative art. Always cognisant of the latest technological developments, he has had an association with the Computer Arts Society from the early days.
At his exhibition Lift Off! on view last month in Cambridge we learned his ‘processes of transformation [...] offer powerful metaphors for revolution and transcendence.’ (From the accompanying catalogue).
A Polish Jew who fled Nuremberg with the Kindertransport arriving in the UK in 1939, perhaps in part because of his childhood experiences this artist has a particular awareness of the militaristic origins of much digital technology and the potential for abuse.
Throughout more than six decades of artistic endeavour Metzger has made pertinent observations on the societal role of the artist though his writings, exhibitions and conferences. In 1968 he wrote, ‘[computers] are becoming the most totalitarian tools ever used on society.’ He called for artists not to bury their head in the sand.
During the early years of computer arts activity in Britain, his position countered those advocates of the utopian possibilities of the coming digital age. The paper ‘Notes on the Crisis in Technological Art’ described his argument for what he called ‘the most critical topic in technological art - the responsibility of the artist for his material and to society’ by delivering a plea for CAS to make a policy statement on the role of computers in war and the control of individual freedom.
He was the first editor of PAGE, CAS’s bulletin, published from April 1969 (and still going today.) The name PAGE was chosen by Gustav as initially there was only one page available for printing (due to costs) and it was a pun on the concept of paging (the use of disk memory as a virtual store which had been introduced on the Ferranti Atlas Computer). The position of Metzger as first editor established from the beginning an association of CAS with the avant-garde.
His manifestos (from 1959) contain some of the first references in Britain to the use of computers as possible materials and techniques in art. In 1961 he wrote ‘Auto-Destructive and Auto-Creative art aim at the integration of art with the advances of science and technology. The immediate objective is the creation with the aid of computers, of works of art whose movements are programmed and include “self-regulation”.’ His plan for such a work - the computer-controlled public artwork Five Screens with Computer, was never realised due to scale and cost, however a drawing for it featured in the Cybernetic Serendipity catalogue and a model was exhibited in 1969 at the CAS show Event One.
For Metzger creation and destruction have a symbiotic relationship and are in dialogue with one another: ‘At the centre of auto-destructive art is auto-creative art.’ They share many of the same techniques and materials. Auto-creative is perhaps softer, the yin to auto- destructive’s yang.
At his Acid Action Painting event in 1961 on the South Bank London, he attacked a seven by 12 foot sheet of nylon with an acid-filled spray gun; the resulting almost instant corrosion being a visceral demonstration of the power of his auto-destructive concepts. A year later a lecture on auto-destructive art at Ealing College of Art influenced Pete Townsend of The Who to invent auto-destructive pop. Metzger’s Destruction in Art symposium of 1966 drew famous artists including Yoko Ono (who performed her seminal work Cut Piece, where the audience is invited to cut her clothing.)
Auto-creative works on show at Kettles Yard included a variety of materials and methods demonstrative of his long interest in kinetic art, particularly movement and random activity. Ink dispersing through glycerine, the use of fibre-optic light to draw, water dripping onto a hot plate and, in the image pictured here, liquid crystals moving between physical states to create endlessly shifting and unrepeatable colours and patterns. His 1964 statement, ‘At a certain point the work takes over, is in activity beyond the detailed control of the artist, reaches a power, grace, momentum, transcendence…’ is apt for an installation which has both a hypnotic visual and a psychedelic delivery.
Throughout the 1960s and 70s he collaborated with physicists, biologists and computer scientists and became an active member of the British Society for Social Responsibility in Science.
Metzger’s ideas had an impact on those of his peers. Co-founder of the CAS, Alan Sutcliffe said that Metzger’s interests in ‘Generative procedures, self-regulation and interaction became key concerns in the early years of the CAS and remain so today.’
The questions Metzger posed about technological responsibility in the 1960s seem as pertinent, perhaps even more so, today. Although we still may not have any satisfactory answers, art can remind us to keep asking and challenging the status quo.
Catherine Mason is the author of A Computer in the Art Room: the origins of British computer arts 1950-80, published in 2008.