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Computer Arts – establishing techno-culture collections

Researcher: Dr Nick Lambert and others

Funder: AHRC

Birkbeck has a longstanding research specialism in computer art and computer applications in art history, established by Prof Will Vaughan in the 1980s, and based in the Vasari Research Centre which plays an increasingly pivotal international role in integrating digital research and maintaining and digitizing important analogue material in the computer arts. Since 2002, initially under the leadership of Dr Charlie Gere and more recently led by Dr Nick Lambert, the research centre has played a pivotal role in establishing two new digital art collections in partnership with the Victoria and Albert Museum.

Computer art was one of the earliest manifestations of digital imagery and many pioneers were instrumental in developing modern computer graphics. As argued by artist, Brian Reffin Smith, who pioneered computer-based conceptual art in the 1960s, in Gere’s publication, White Heat, Cold Logic, ‘There is a mine, a treasure trove, a hoard – I cannot emphasize this too strongly – of art ideas that emerged in the early decades of computer that still have not remotely been explored. We know how this happens. The next big thing comes along and the Zeitgeist has its demands: things get left behind...’.

In the first stage of development, the AHRC funded project ‘Computer Arts, Histories, Context etc’ (CACHe) researched a collection of early computer art held by the Computer Arts Society (founded 1969)  which was subsequently acquired by the V&A as the nucleus of their new National Collection of Computer Art. The V&A then became Birkbeck’s partner on the AHRC funded Resource Enhancement project ‘Computer Art and Technocultures’ (CAT). Dr Nick Lambert, digital artist and formerly Research Fellow for CACHe, worked with the V&A on the archive of the American art historian Patric Prince, donated to the V&A 2006. Prince had collated a significant amount of unique material relating to computer art from 1975-2000 that was accessioned and digitised during this project.

To celebrate and publicise its new acquisitions the V&A mounted a free exhibition “Digital Pioneers”, running concurrently with ‘Decode’, an exhibition of contemporary digital art (01/12/2009 to 23/03/2010). The exhibitions were supported by two public symposia: “Ideas Before Their Time” at the British Computer Society, in partnership with the Computer Arts Society (03/02/10), attended by 90 practitioners, historians, theorists and technologists in digital arts; and V&A conference “Decoding The Digital” which featured artists from both Decode and Digital Pioneers. The exhibitions and supporting events were well-reviewed in publications such as Wired, Huffington Post, Art Review, GeekDad.

The international recognition of this work is reflected in the invitation to artist Jeremy Gardiner and Nick Lambert to represent the project in New York, including a successful art show “Imaginalis”, at the Chelsea Art Museum (owned by the arts charity, the Miotte Foundation, March / April 2009) and a symposium at the School of Visual Art, New York, reviewed in the New York Times.

Since then, the influence of the CACHe and CAT projects has been evident in the development of the digital arts. For example, the exhibition Intuition and Ingenuity, a celebration of the life of Alan Turing toured the UK in 2012. With contributions from contemporary digital artists and support from the Arts Council England (ACE) and CAS, the exhibition was seen by over 40,000 people, receiving extensive media coverage. Venues included Kinetica Art Fair, London (9-12 February), The Lighthouse in Brighton, (17-26 February); the Lovebytes digital festival in Sheffield (22-24 March); the AISB/IACAP World Congress in Birmingham (2-6 July); the V&A for the Digital Design Weekend (22-23 September) where the Digital Studio was attended by nearly 2000 people; and Phoenix Square in Leicester (7 October–10 November).

The UK Fulldome Festival in 2011 (Birmingham Thinktank Planetarium) and 2012 (the Leicester Space Centre): sponsored by CAS and attracting over 200 and 450 participants, respectively, from the UK, USA, Germany, Australia and East Asia, the festivals were established by a partnership between Birkbeck’s VASARI Centre, the University of Plymouth, the Fulldome UK (a not-for-profit association supporting artists and researchers working within Fulldome immersive environments), and the digital projections specialists Gaianova. They brought together practitioners and researchers in the emerging area of Fulldome (360 degree) digital projection, screening dome films to public audiences

The Null Object art project was developed through a partnership between VASARI and central London’s Work Gallery, November 2012 to February 2013 and supported by CAS and ACE.  Inspired by the work of veteran artist Gustav Metzger, one of the early members of CAS who was interviewed by Dr Lambert for CAT, Null Object was a collaborative work by London Fieldworks (digital artists Bruce Gilchrist and Jo Joelson), MIT medical roboticist and haptics researcher, Yaroslav Tenzer, and software designer, Jonny Bradley. Brain mapping software, using electroencephalogram (EEG) recordings of artist Gustav Metzger as he attempted to think about nothing, connected with industrial manufacturing technology to produce a sculptural form (Source 11). The project is described in the publication Null Object: Gustav Metzger Thinks About Nothing (Gilchrist and Joelson, Eds, Black Dog, London, 2012).

CACHe and CAT have been instrumental in the professional development of the digital arts sector, creating opportunities for networking and cross-sector ideas sharing. The Computer Arts Society (CAS), a Specialist Group within the Chartered Institute for IT, was re-established in 2004 by CACHe research staff, and has since played a significant role in developing digital arts in the UK and internationally. Supported by a £10,000 annual grant from the British Computer Society, CAS sponsors ongoing lectures, workshops and exhibitions at Birkbeck’s VASARI Centre on historical and contemporary digital art.

More recently, connectivity between researchers, professionals and practitioners in the creative industries, heritage and arts sectors has been further enhanced by the integration of the international Electronic Visualisation and the Arts (EVA) conference into CAS.