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Credit: Ernest Edmonds, Shaping Space, 2012
Copyright the artist, reproduced with permission.
This winter in the UK we have been presented with a marvellous opportunity to see two of the great pioneers of the use of computation in art, allowing a rare chance to evaluate this type of work and consider its relevance for us today.
Last month in this column we focused on Manfred Mohr and this month we have an image from Ernest Edmonds, currently on view at the Site Gallery Sheffield (to 2 February). For over forty years Ernest has had an interest in interactivity and the exhibition demonstrates a career-long conversation between drawing, painting and computer-based work.
It is precisely because of the work done by pioneers like Manfred Mohr, Ernest Edmonds and their peers that the artistic possibilities of computers were even realised. It is worth remembering that their thinking about computation in this way opened a whole new creative world, the repercussions of which can be seen today in many aspects of culture from Hollywood special effects to computer games to contemporary digital art.
To make a link between early scientific programming languages, like FORTRAN or ALGOL (which were not designed with any creative use in mind) and art production required a great leap of faith. Of course access to early hardware was not easy either.
In the 1960s Ernest was located in one of the newly-formed polytechnics - the City of Leicester, one of only a handful of centres around the UK at that time who had people interested in pursuing such things. This meant he was able to access the computer belonging to the maths department, where he taught himself first to use a Honeywell. It helped that he came from a mathematical background and studied logic.
Indeed in the UK, the creation of the polytechnics greatly assisted the burgeoning computer arts field, as for the first time, people from the art and science departments were located together in one building (or at least under the banner of one institution). This helped foster cross-disciplinary collaboration, one of the main characteristics of the work of this pioneering period. Thus this genre of art truly revokes C. P. Snow’s ‘two cultures’ (1959) of the humanities and sciences on opposing sides with the two never meeting.
As the years progressed, Ernest developed his educational activities involving creativity and computers and found he was able to conduct his art under the guise of computer graphics research. This led him in 1974 to instigate a Science Research Council grant enabling Stephen Scrivener to be the first fine artist in the UK to commence study for a practice-based PhD in computing and art. Today these interests continue with several projects including Creativity and Cognition Studios & conferences and the Institute of Creative Technologies at DMU in Leicester.
The art of Ernest Edmonds is rooted within the constructivist tradition of art history. Post-WWI, constructivism celebrated new technology and aimed to create a non-representational aesthetic incorporating the interaction of man and machine (a revolutionary concept). Precedents can also be found in the work of the Bauhaus, where the use of new materials given a functional approach was encouraged and the actual process of creation was given paramount consideration.
Ernest also cites the work of Paul Cézanne as a great influence, ‘particularly his research on structure conducted through direct observation of nature and the unique way he represented volumes and space through colour’ (Francesca Franco). Ernest was inspired by the invention of computation itself as a conceptual leap forward for mankind and set about asking what this could mean for art. He discovered that the process of computation can be an ordering process for art.
This he has in common with artists such as Manfred Mohr and others who could be called Algorists, a term first coined by Roman Verosko. This description differentiates artists who work with algorithms (writing step-by-step procedures and their own code) from those who use proprietary, off-the-shelf software packages. The results are works of art that cannot be produced any other way or with any means other than the computer. However for these artists the mathematics is only a means to an end, it is the ensuing art and the overall aesthetic which stands alone.
In some of Ernest’s work the idea of process is taken a step further to incorporate interaction, with the viewer becoming an active participant and as such a crucial part of the work itself. In Shaping Space, our image this month, we see that colour, structure, time and interaction influence each other. This new work is installed in a darkened room with data from a digital video camera directed into the space in front of screens analysing the movement of visitors.
Abstract images are projected onto hanging panels of perspex so it appears that the images and bright colours float in space. The system collects information about activity within the room which is used to modify a set of rules that are continuously updating the colours and images on the screens and this will affect the work’s appearance over the life time of the exhibition. As a viewer you have the impression of being drenched in glorious, vivid, saturated colour, part of a system which makes you aware of the gallery space itself and your role within it.
Also on view in the show are the artist’s working drawings, notes and ephemera, influences and inspirations which allow insights into his artistic process.
That a major public gallery - Site Sheffield has staged this exhibition with funding from the Henry Moore Foundation and Arts Council England is greatly encouraging. This is particularly important when we consider how art with a technological bias has historically been overlooked by the inter-related network of dealer/gallery/auction-house that comprises the commercial art world.
There is a lesson to be learnt from the work of Ernest Edmonds and other Algorist pioneers today. It would be good for those engaging in current debates about how to educate our children to take note of the importance of learning to program. Let’s give our young people the means to truly create by teaching them the process of writing code as well as to become fluent with commercial software.
Ernest Edmonds Light Logic, at the site gallery, Sheffield continues until 2 Feb 2013. Accompanying the show is a beautifully-designed catalogue incorporating a timeline with useful dates and milestones. The timeline reminds us that history wraps around the contemporary work and vice versa.
A Happy New Year to all readers.
Catherine Mason is the author of A Computer in the Art Room: the origins of British computer arts 1950-80, published in 2008.