In the 1970s and 80s, a certain vivid, complex, and slightly frightening computer-graphics aesthetic rose in the zeitgeist. Though it has long passed into the realm of the retro, it remains imprinted on our minds, and we owe much of its look and feel to an artist named Lillian F. Schwartz. Trained in the art of Japanese calligraphy as a way of recovering from polio and later brought into the high technological ferment of late-1960s Bell Labs, Schwartz found herself well-placed to define what humanity would think of when they thought of the imagery generated by these promising new machines called computers.
Schwartz started creating a series of abstract films in the early 1970s, using not just computers but computers in combination with lasers, photographs, oil paints, and the full range of traditional film photography and editing gear. You can watch 30 of her films on her web site, and at the top of this post you’ll find 1972’s Mutations. Schwartz’s site quotes the New York Times‘ A.H. Weiler as describing its “changing dots, ectoplasmic shapes and electronic music” as “an eye-catching view of the potentials of the new techniques.” Just above, we have 1974’s Mayan, seven minutes that combine “live images filmed in the Yucatan with output from the Paik video-synthesizer ribboned with computer-generated images.”
Video-art fans will know the Paik video-synthesizer, or at least they’ll know Paik: Nam June Paik, that is, the Korean video artist who did plenty of artistic-technological pioneering of his own. Both he and Schwartz gave a great deal of thought to — and put a great deal of practice into — pushing the boundaries of technologies whose conventional uses the rest of us hadn’t quite learned yet. You can see Schwartz doing exactly that in The Artist and the Computer (part one, part two), the 1976 short documentary on her work, originally produced for AT&T, just above.
You can read more about Schwartz, back at Bell Labs and today, in the article “Art at the Edge of Tomorrow” by Jer Thorp. “I find it’s still an awesome experience to use a machine that — one can’t even fathom the speed,” she says in The Artist and the Computer as we watch her passing rows and rows of hulking mainframes with their racks of obscure peripherals and spinning reels of tape. “When you speak of nanoseconds, you can’t even grasp how fast these machines can work.” They work much faster now, of course, and we’ve grown used to it, even jaded about it — but Schwartz’s films capture our imaginations, in their inventive and eerie way, more than ever.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and style. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer, the video series The City in Cinema, the crowdfunded journalism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Angeles Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.