Firstsite in Colchester brings the V&A's Chance & Control: Art in the Age of Computers exhibition to Essex

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Firstsite in Colchester brings the V&A's Chance & Control: Art in the Age of Computers exhibition to Essex
From the 1960s onwards, artists and programmers have used computers to create prints, drawings, paintings, photographs and digital artworks that explore aspects of chance and control. This exhibition celebrates 50 years and more of computer-generated art. It takes as its starting point a landmark exhibition in 1968, Cybernetic Serendipity at the ICA, and the creation of the Computer Arts Society soon afterwards.

COLCHESTER.- Chance & Control draws on the V&A’s rich international collection of computer-generated art. The exhibition includes more than 40 works by pioneering artists of the 1960s and 70s such as Frieder Nake and Georg Nees – who produced some of the earliest computer art – through to the younger generation of artists practising today, such as Esther Rolinson, best known for her digitally programmed light installations, based on drawings exploring structure, movement and sensation, and Casey Reas, one of the founders of Processing, a computer programming language used by many digital artists.

Digital technologies have transformed our cultural experiences dramatically in the last half-century. Chance & Control offers visitors the opportunity to trace the chronological development of digital art, exploring how aspects of chance and control shaped the creative process and produced vivid and original artworks. It is the latest event in Firstsite’s ‘Year of Digital’, exploring the impact of technology on society and culture through a wide range of exhibitions and projects across 12 months.

The exhibition begins with Ben Laposky’s photograph Oscillon 40 (1952). Laposky created his pioneering artworks by displaying electrical signals on an oscilloscope* screen, then photographing the results. He was able to adjust the electronic inputs to the device, creating a huge variety of similar designs. In the 1960s Desmond Paul Henry constructed drawing machines from the components of analogue bombsight computers (devices used by military aircraft to drop bombs accurately) as he was fascinated by the internal motion of the machines and adapted them to accommodate pen and paper, producing works such as Untitled (1964).

The exhibition continues with works from leading British, European, American and Japanese innovators. On display is the influential work of Vera Molnar, one of the first artists to create art with computers. In 1968, Molnar successfully persuaded the data center director at the University of Paris to grant her access to their expensive new research computer to experiment with algorithmic drawings. Molnar’s systematic approach to making art explores the relationship between order and chaos.

Chance & Control takes as its starting point a 1968 exhibition called Cybernetic Serendipity - one of the first international exhibitions devoted to the relationship between the arts and new technologies. It opened at London’s Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA) in 1968, then toured to other venues. Artists, mathematicians, engineers, composers and poets all presented their work in the exhibition. The curator, Jasia Reichardt, wrote that “people who would never have put pencil to paper, or brush to canvas, have started making images… which approximate and often look identical to what we call art and put in public galleries.”

During the formative years - using equipment such as flatbed plotters (a printer designed for printing vector graphics) with instructions written in special computer programming languages such as Fortran - computer-generated art was considered extraordinary, especially as the hardware and software had not been intended for artistic purposes. Consequently, many of these pioneers struggled to gain acceptance and critical recognition in the mainstream art world.

Some artists used software to distance themselves from the artistic process, while others used it to generate works in series. Programmers have also attempted to analyse and capture the essence of creativity. Their algorithms often incorporate random (or seemingly random) elements that can have unexpected – and serendipitous – results.

Sally Shaw, Director of Firstsite said: “We are privileged to be able to share these remarkable works from the V&A in Colchester. The V&A has a global reputation for the quality of their collections and it is no surprise that they were so foresighted to collect works of this nature so early on. This is a fabulous exhibition that illustrates the extraordinary speed at which creative processes have changed over the last half century.”

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