Mainframe Experimentalism: Early Computing and the Foundation of the Digital Arts

edited by Hannah B. Higgins and Douglas Kahn. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2012. 362pp. $34.95 (paperback). ISBN 978-0-520-26838-8

Before the dawn of MAGIX, MakeMusic, IOGraphica, and AI poem (software that creates music, art and poetry) there existed a group of explorers, essentially mavericks, who stormed the bastille of art and computer technology. This small motley group of artists and their fellow conspirators took risks not fully known and appreciated until now. By changing the actual ontological aspects of their respective genres in art, music, poetry, and film, they not only stormed the citadel but ate the forbidden fruit as well. This volume delves into some of the persons and groups that were associated with this movement and how they came to influence the fusion of technology and art forever.

This compilation is arranged in several sections: a table of contents, list of illustrations, acknowledgements, introduction, the actual essays and the index. The introduction gives the reader a broad understanding of the entirety of the work with an excellent synopsis of each chapter and background provenance of the movement and persons.  Even though this is a varied compilation of essays (segregated into six parts: discourses, centers, music, art and intermedia, poetry, film and animation) one gets an understanding from the acknowledgements and introduction that James Tenney, to whom the work is dedicated, is definitely the main protagonist. 

The inspiration for this collection came from what is now popularly known as the FORTRAN workshop, held in 1967. This workshop focused primarily on Tenney’s work with the FORTRAN computer language and his research in digital synthesized sound conducted at Bell Laboratory. This workshop brought together the leading minds in the experimental arts scene in New York. The scene for this cybernetic Kabbalah was the home of publishers Allison Knowles and Dick Higgins, who were able to attract not only James Tenney, but also Nam June Paik and Jackson Mac Low, both of whom have essays in this treatise. However, the reader should not be led to believe that this meeting was an isolated event, but rather an epistemological rebellion that stretched from New York to Stuttgart, Zagreb and other cities. The authors make quite clear that this movement was part of a larger paradigm shift that was occurring in other institutions.

The editors also expound on the irony of this movement by pointing out the role of the military-industrial complex. They correctly posit that without the considerable military budgetary outlays, along with the concentration of intellectual capital acquired from the military buildup during WWII and the Cold War, this movement would not have been possible. This point is best elaborated in the essay “From the Gun Controller to the Mandala: The Cybernetic Cinema of John and James Whitney,” where we are given a glimpse of this dialectic: without the indirect aid of Douglas Aircraft and their investment in missile and antiaircraft guns (which also led to the development of Wiener’s cybernetics), we could not have arrived at the Whitney brothers’ animated creations.

All the other essays provide a backdrop for the reader to understand the anthropological evolution of this movement.   The essays cover some of the major centers and central figures of the movement. But these central figures are what the editors considered artists by the narrow definition of that time. What they themselves did not take into consideration was the possibility that the ontological essence of the artist was changing with the introduction of computer technology. Persons who did not start out as traditional artists but who used computer technology to create art, such as Artificial Intelligence scientists, were “artists” in their own way. These artificial intelligence scientists could use a computer to create with minimal human intervention, bringing to reality the myth of the Maharal of Prague.

The editors unfortunately excluded the work done by AI scientists, even when that work indirectly led to the further evolution of the cybernetic revolution in art. These “non-artists” who played a decisive role are not acknowledged, even with a simple footnote or passing reference in the introduction. The editors did mention AI scientists John Von Newman and Norbert Wiener but they miss an opportunity to document some outstanding work done with computers in the actual creation of music and eventually in other forms of art.

There are several noteworthy exceptions that could have been included in the introduction or as one of the essays, including the work conducted by artificial intelligence gurus, Allen Newell and Herbert Simon of RAND Corporation and Carnegie Mellon University.  Newell’s work on the computer program called RADSONG (1950’s) would have made a wonderful addition. Even though the RADSONG project was not intended as a study of music, it was one of the first computer programs that could create music. Another important ground breaking area was the work done by Herbert Simon on music and its relationship to structure and form. His labor in music, information processing, and cognition not only led to groundbreaking work in neuroscience and decision making but also as a tool for music theory.

Regardless of the missing connection to AI, the volume provides a unique and fine introduction to a point in time that defined the shift from the computer merely as an object used solely for military purposes to a being with the powers of artistic creation. Students and scholars of technology and philosophy of science will greatly benefit from this fine compilation.


Salvador P. Barragan, Washington D.C.