Japanese Computer Artist Makes “Digital Mondrians” in 1964: When Giant Mainframe Computers Were First Used to Create Art

In the 21st cen­tu­ry, most of us have tried our hand at mak­ing some kind of dig­i­tal art or anoth­er — even if only touch­ing up cell­phone pho­tos of our­selves — but imag­ine the task of pro­duc­ing it 50 years ago. To make dig­i­tal art before the world had bare­ly heard the term “dig­i­tal” required access to a main­frame com­put­er, those huge­ly expen­sive hulks that filled rooms and print­ed out reams and reams of paper data, and the con­sid­er­able tech­ni­cal know-how to oper­ate it.

But the achieve­ment also, to go by the very ear­ly exam­ple of Hiroshi Kawano, required a back­ground in phi­los­o­phy. A grad­u­ate of the Uni­ver­si­ty of Tokyo major­ing in aes­thet­ics and the phi­los­o­phy of sci­ence before becom­ing a research assis­tant at that school and then a lec­tur­er at the Tokyo Met­ro­pol­i­tan Col­lege of Air-Tech­nol­o­gy, Kawano mar­shaled his knowl­edge and expe­ri­ence to cre­ate these “dig­i­tal Mon­dri­ans,” so described because of their com­put­er-gen­er­at­ed resem­blance to that Dutch painter’s most rig­or­ous­ly angu­lar, solid­ly col­ored work.

Kawano had drawn inspi­ra­tion, accord­ing to a Deutsche Welle arti­cle on his dona­tion of his archives to Ger­many’s Cen­ter for Media Art, from “the writ­ings of the Ger­man philoso­pher Max Bense, who pro­posed (among oth­er things) the idea of mea­sur­ing beau­ty using sci­en­tif­ic rules. At the same time, Kawano heard that sci­en­tists were using com­put­ers to cre­ate music. Putting the two togeth­er, he decid­ed to explore the pos­si­bil­i­ty of using a com­put­er to pro­gram beau­ty.”

Doing so required “writ­ing pro­grams in com­plex com­put­er lan­guages, then labo­ri­ous­ly punch­ing these pro­grams into hun­dreds of cards before feed­ing them into the machine.” And “while the design of his works pro­duced dur­ing the 1960s might look sim­ple — they’re not. They are the result of com­plex math­e­mat­i­cal algo­rithms pro­grammed so that, although Kawano sets the rules for how the pic­ture could look, he can’t deter­mine exact­ly what will appear on the print­er.”

Just before Kawano passed away in 2012, the ZKM (or Cen­ter for Art and Media Karl­sruhe), cel­e­brat­ed his pio­neer­ing dig­i­tal art with the exhi­bi­tion “The Philoso­pher at the Com­put­er,” some of which you can see in this Ger­man-lan­guage video clip. “The ret­ro­spec­tive empha­sizes Kawano’s spe­cial role in the cir­cle of pio­neers in ‘com­put­er art,’ ” says its intro­duc­tion. “He was nei­ther artist, who dis­cov­ered the com­put­er as a new pro­duc­tion medi­um and theme, nor engi­neer who came to art via the new machine, but a philoso­pher, who left his desk for the com­put­er cen­ter to exper­i­ment with the­o­ret­i­cal mod­els.”

Can com­put­ers cre­ate art? Can they even be used to cre­ate art? These ques­tions now have prac­ti­cal­ly obvi­ous answers in the affir­ma­tive, but back in 1964 when Kawano pro­duced the first of these pieces, work­ing through tri­al and error with the advice of the curi­ous staff of his uni­ver­si­ty’s com­put­er cen­ter, the ques­tions must have sound­ed impos­si­bly philo­soph­i­cal. Today, writes Over­head Com­part­men­t’s Clau­dio Rivera, Kawano’s dig­i­tal Mon­dri­ans “sug­gest them­selves as an odd­ly ephemer­al tran­si­tion in the nexus of tech­nol­o­gy and art. The famil­iar col­ors and forms are flash-frozen in crys­talline pix­e­la­tion, almost as if seized up in the final, over­heat­ed throes of a sud­den­ly-too-old com­put­er.”

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Andy Warhol’s Lost Com­put­er Art Found on 30-Year-Old Flop­py Disks

Watch the Dutch Paint “the Largest Mon­dri­an Paint­ing in the World”

Arti­fi­cial Neur­al Net­work Reveals What It Would Look Like to Watch Bob Ross’ The Joy of Paint­ing on LSD

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities and cul­ture. 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.

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