Art as Feedback

Charlie Gere


‘Feedback’ refers to the process by which all or some of a system’s output is passed or ‘fed’ back as input. Feedback can be ‘negative’, which reduces output, or ‘positive’, which increases output.

Feedback is both a principle that is exploited in areas such as electronic and mechanical engineering, management, and economics, and a phenomenon that can be observed in biological and natural systems.

The term itself originated in and is central to cybernetics, the post-war ‘science of communication and control in the animal and machine’, as the subtitle of pioneer cybernetician Norbert Wiener’s book has it.

An illustration of negative feedback (long before the term itself was coined) can be found with the ‘Governor’, the device invented by James Watt in the 1780s to make steam power more efficient, which works by being rotated centrifugally by steam pressure.

The more pressure, the faster it rotates, leading it to rise, and in doing so eventually opening a valve that releases the pressure, thus both regulating the pressure and slowing the device.

Invented at almost exactly the same moment as Adam Smith published The Wealth of Nations (1776), the Governor can be considered a prescient symbol for the emerging system of self-regulating capitalism discussed by Smith.

According to Wikipedia, a classic example of positive feedback is what is known as the ‘network effect’, in which the larger a network grows the more useful it becomes, the more individuals are encouraged to join it and thus the more useful it becomes, and so on, such as with the telephone system. (Wikipedia, which I normally do not use as a reference, is worth quoting, as it is itself a good example of exactly this sort of positive feedback).

The term ‘feedback’ is perhaps less widely used than it was in the decades after the Second World War, when cybernetics was more influential than it is today (though, as an interesting example of how a technical term enters into colloquial usage long after its technical meaning is largely forgotten, it is still widely employed to denote the means by which individuals or organisations are able to discover what those with whom they interact think of what they do and to respond by adjusting their actions appropriately, through ‘feedbackforms’ or other such means).

One of the reasons that the term’s technical meaning may be somewhat forgotten is that we tend, perhaps, to take the concept of feedback for granted nowadays.

‘Global warming’ makes it vividly clear that systems of all sorts respond and change in relation to input from their environment, and that these responses and changes in turn change that environment. This is paralleled by the complex workings of late capitalism in which finance, consumerism, and the market are all bound together in complex systems of feedback loops.

Though it may not be obvious, at least to begin with, what the idea of feedback has to do with art, I suggest that it is an excellent concept through which to think through what seems to me to be one of the most important developments in art in the last 70 or 80 years, the move away from the artwork as a static object to some process that reacts to and is changed by some aspect of its environment or context and in turn may change that context. I further suggest that this idea can be seen as a thread running through art as it has developed over the last 70 or 80 years—a thread that finds a number of different manifestations, all of which share this basic principle, even if they use very different means to realise their intentions.

One of the useful aspects of the idea offeedback in this context is that it circumvents the problematic question of medium specificity, particularly in relation to newer media such as video or computers.

Even though many of the works that could be characterised as involving feedbackuse new media and new technologies, to talk of ‘computer art’, ‘digital art’, or ‘new media art’ becomes less useful when one considers that a work such as Marie Sester’s (2006), or indeed almost any of the exhibits, is far closer toAllan Kaprow’s Happenings that he started to put together from the 1950s onwards, than, for example, to Andreas Gursky’s digitally-manipulated photographs or Sam Taylor-Wood’s video installations, even though both the last two involve the use of digital technology, while Kaprow’s Happeningsdid not.

For all the technical sophistication of the digital materials used to make Gursky’s photographs or Taylor-Wood’s videos, the results remain objects designed to be looked at (though not touched or otherwise interacted with) in the context of the white cube or black box of the exemplary contemporary art space.

In particular, the presence of the viewer does not materially effect the art work. By contrast Kaprow’s work and Sester’s are both concerned with critiquing or breaking away from the presumptions and limitations of such practices and spaces, partly by being designed to be altered by interactions from viewers and participants.

This essay will trace the early history of the feedback paradigm in art, from its beginnings between the two World Wars to the 1980s, when it seemed to disappear from the mainstream art world, before reappearing in guises such as ‘’.

The beginnings of this paradigm can perhaps be traced back to the avant-garde of the early 20th century (before the advent of cybernetics), and some of the work of those involved with the Dada movement, such as Max Ernst’s provocative gesture, in the second Dada exhibition in Cologne in 1920, of placing an axe next to one of his paintings, implying an invitation to the viewer to chop the painting up in some manner.

At the same exhibition visitors were invited to fill up the space left on the paper of one of the exhibited drawings. In 1928 the Hungarian artist and designer László Moholy-Nagy started to plan and build his own moving sculpture, Light-Space Modulator, which allowed light and movement to be projected on the walls. He eventually realised Ligh-Space Modulator in 1930.

In the mid-1930s Dada associate Marcel Duchamp was making the first of his Rotoreliefs, sculptures made of patterned discs that rotated, thus emphatically acknowledging the role played by the viewer as embodied and by the context in which the sculpture was viewed.

In the 1938 Exposition Internationale du Surrealisme, Duchamp, in his role as Generateur-Arbitre for the exhibition, tried to set up a system whereby the light would only come on as a visitor approached a work of art, and thus set off a sensor.

In the end this did not work, and visitors were lent torches instead, with the show otherwise being left in the dark. (In an example of how avant-garde gestures are eventually domesticated, the systemDuchamp envisaged is exactly like that in operation in the library at the university where I work, in which lights only come on in the stacks if movement is detected.)

Duchamp’s Rotoreliefs and Moholy-Nagy’s Light-Space Modulator may be considered among the first works of what would later be known as ‘kinetic art’, along with Naum Gabo’s Standing Wave (1919–1920), Alexander Calder’s mobiles and the work of Swiss sculptor Jean Tinguely, who continued to produce spectacular moving and sometimes selfdestructing works after the Second World War.

Moholy-Nagy also arguably produced the first work of ‘telematic’ art when he reputedly designed a number of paintings on graph paper, then ordered the finished products by telephone from an enamel factory.

One of the intentions of such work was to indicate both the corporeality of vision and to show that the spectator completes the work of art. The latter point would become one of the principle themes in the post-war avant-garde, which included works such asJohn Cage’s 4′ 33′ (1952)—his so-called’Silent Piece’, in which the sounds of the environment, as perceived by the audience, are the work—as well as his early performances at Black Mountain College, organised in collaboration with Robert Rauschenberg and others.

Cage was an important influence on the beginnings of Performance Art, in particular the Happenings of Allan Kaprow and the performances mounted by members of theFluxus group. Among the better known members of Fluxus was Korean composer and artist Nam June Paik, who was a pioneer in the use of new media such as audio, video, and television as well as deeply interested in the artistic and cultural implications of ideas such as cybernetics and new technologies such as computers.

Cage and those he influenced were also working in a context structured, in part at least, by the emergence of discourses such as cybernetics, Information Theory, and General Systems Theory. Though emerging out of differing concerns and needs, these discourses offered a powerful collective way of thinking about the world as interconnected and self-regulating.

Cybernetics, in particular—named, defined and most famously developed by the mathematician Norbert Wiener —was highly influential in a number of non-technical spheres, including the visual arts.

Perhaps the first attempt to apply informational and cybernetic ideas to art was made by Max Bense, the German theorist of aesthetics and semiotics. From the 1930s onwards Bense had been concerned with the relation between art and mathematics and wrote a number of books on the subject.

Bense is little known, at least in the Anglophone world, and hardly translated. But he was a great influence in the German art world in the 1950s and 1960s, not least because of his work at the Stuttgart University Gallery, which he founded and ran from 1958 to 1978 and where he was able to put into practice many of his ideas.

It was certainly because of his presence that Stuttgart became one of the early centres of computer art practice (with his students as the first proponents), and the location of the first shows of such art..

Among the pioneers of computer art who were greatly influenced by Bense wereFrieder Nake, George Nees (who curated shows with Bense in Stuttgart) andManfred Mohr.

Other important German contributions to this kind of work include the founding in 1957 of the Zero group by Otto Piene andHeinz Mack (who were later joined byGünther Uecker), which made work involving light and movement.

Also in Germany in the 1960s, the artistHans Haacke, better known for his later political artworks, began to make his name with works involving various kinds of physical and biological systems, such asCondensation Cube (1963), featured in the exhibition, which involves a Perspex cube in which liquid condenses and evaporates in a cybernetic feedback cycle.

Bense’s work in Germany was closely mirrored by that of Abraham Moles in France, who published Information Theory and Esthetic Perception in 1958. Though he may not have had the same direct influence that Bense enjoyed in Germany,Moles’ work was important in presenting its ideas in an approachable form while being grounded in unimpeachable scientific research.

In some sense practitioners in France did not need encouragement to move in the direction of information, systems, and cybernetics since France, before the War, had been one of the centres of kinetic art, which prefigured many concerns of cybernetics.

In the postwar era of the 1950s artists such as Nicolas Schöffer and those involved with the Groupe de Recherche d’Art Visuel (GRAV) and the New Tendency group started producing cybernetic artworks, while those involved with theOuvroir de Littérature Potentielle (OULIPO), founded in 1960, used mathematical and informational techniques.

Schöffer in particular was one of the first artists explicitly to invoke and try to put into practice Cybernetic ideas includingfeedback in his work, for example in theSpatiodynamic Sculpture series, which he made from the 1950s onwards, his cybernetic sculptures, CYSP 0 (1956) andCYSP 1 (1956), as well as his architectural’cybernetic light towers’.

Schöffer, who was born in Hungary, was one of a considerable number of artists from various countries who made Paris their home in the 1950s and 1960s, not least because of the city’s continuing, though diminishing, reputation as the centre of the art world.

Possibly because of the prewar developments in kinetic art, as well as the presence of Duchamp and others, these artists included many who were interested in art using new technologies and related ideas.

Among them were Vera Molnar who likeSchöffer, is from Hungary but has been a resident in Paris since the late 1960s, about the same time she also started using computers to produce highly systematic abstract images.

Vassilakis Takis, known as Takis, born in Greece, also started showing his work made using magnets and other such devices in Paris in the 1960s (though Takisis more peripatetic, as befits a self-proclaimed ‘citizen of the world’).

In Britain the main route for the introduction of Cybernetic ideas into art was through the Independent Group (IG), a loose collection of artists, architects, designers and theorists who, in the early 1950s, coalesced around the recently founded Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA) in London, and are now best known as the so called ‘fathers of pop’, although they had a far broader range of interests, including science, non-aristotelian logic, cybernetics, sociology, and new technologies.

These interests found expression in the various exhibitions, talks and seminars they arranged at the ICA, as well as their sections in the famous Whitechapel Art Gallery exhibition of 1957, This is Tomorrow.

Though the members of the IG did not in general experiment with the use of new media in their practices, their embrace of technology, science, and popular culture and their repudiation of the hierarchical understanding of art and culture represented by establishment figures such as Herbert Read made ‘new media’experimentation possible and fostered an understanding of art strongly influenced by technology and science.

It is surely far from coincidental that the first outsider to write about the IG wasJasia Reichardt, who, as deputy director of the ICA, was to organise one of the most famous shows of computer art, Cybernetic Serendipity in 1968, which was a high water mark of new media art in its early heroic period.

The IG also influenced the future progress of cybernetic and systems art in Britain in a more roundabout way.

At the time of This is Tomorrow, IG member Hamilton was teaching in Newcastle at Kings College, along withVictor Pasmore. It was there that they created the ‘basic design course’—based partly on the ideas of D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson on ‘growth and form’—which would become influential on the future course of art education in Britain.

Among the first students in the course wasRoy Ascott, who had recently finished his national service as a radar operator. After completing his studies, Ascott was employed as a studio demonstrator at Kings and then went to Ealing College of Art, at the behest of Pasmore, to run the foundation course there.

At the same time he discovered the work ofWiener and other cyberneticians, which greatly influenced his understanding of art and art education. Ascott went on to become (and indeed continues to be) one of the most influential advocates of the use of cybernetics, and more latterly, telematics in art practice and pedagogy. One of Ascott’s pupils and, later, colleagues, Stephen Willats, was also strongly influenced by cybernetics and, since the 1960s, has made a number of important works involving both new computing technologies, but also complex interactions and forms of feedback, often in social and public contexts.

Like Paris, though perhaps for different reasons, London also attracted artists from all over the world to live and work, possibly through the reputation of being ‘swinging’ that it accrued in the 1960s.

Liliane Lijn, born in New York, came to London in the mid- 1960s (having been married to Takis) where she continued to make kinetic and light works for which she had already developed a reputation.

David Medalla, born in the Phillipines, came to London at about the same time, and was instrumental in promoting innovative new work through his SIGNALS journal and the Exploding Galaxy, an ‘international confluence of multi-media artists’ making work that often incorporated cybernetic concepts and mechanisms.

Working in England in the 1960s outside the art school context, the sculptor and photographer Edward Ihnatowiczproduced two of the most important (and unjustly neglected) works of cybernetic sculpture of the period, Sound-Activated Mobile (SAM) (1968), which was features at Cybernetic Serendipity, the exhibition curated by Jasia Reichardt at the ICA in London in 1968, and Senster (1972), commissioned by the Philips Corporation and displayed in their Evoluon Pavilion in Holland in 1972.

Both were extraordinary pieces of work, which moved in response to sounds made by viewers in elegant and life-like ways.Senster was removed from the pavilion by Philips as it supposedly distracted viewers from other exhibits.

Reichardt’s Cybernetic Serendipity was one of the key events of the period in terms of art and cybernetics, and featured an extraordinary array of work by artists, poets, and cyberneticians, includingGordon Pask, Bridget Riley, Edward Ihnatowicz, Charles Csuri and Wen Ying Tsai, a young artist from Shanghai who, like Ihnatowicz, made cybernetics-inspired work that responded to external stimuli such as sound. The exhibition inspired a generation of artists in Britain and elsewhere and led to the formation of the Computer Arts Society in 1969, which held a number of exhibitions and events that involved the use of computers in what were then highly innovative and creative ways.

The influence of Cybernetic Serendipity and CAS together enabled a culture in which art made by using new technologies and related ideas flourished in England, especially in the art schools. In the mid-1970s, for example, the Slade School of Art, part of University College London, started their short-lived but highly influential Experimental and Computing Art Department, otherwise known as the Experimental Department or EX-P for short, under the leadership of Malcolm Hughes. The department produced a generation of artists dedicated to making experimental work with new technologies, includingChris Briscoe, Daryl Viner and Paul Brown.

Hughes was best known as a member of the Systems group of artists, which used formal ‘constructivist’ strategies to make work.

Despite being resolutely non-technical and traditional in terms of output, the formal strategies and mathematical elements of the Systems artists’ practice had clear resonances with what was possible with computers. This would explain why a painter was responsible for founding a department responsible for producing work greatly different from painting, at least as traditionally understood. It also explained the frequent presence in the department of Harold Cohen, then best known as a painter who had represented Britain at the 1966 Venice Biennale, along with his brother and fellow painter Bernard.

In the late 1960s Cohen had gone to work at the University of California San Diego (UCSD), where he had been introduced to the possibilities of computing.

By the early to mid- 1970s Cohen had started to devote his time to the building of an artificial intelligence system for producing art, called AARON.

Ironically, given that cybernetics had more or less originated there, the United States was slower in embracing its possibilities for art, though some of the earliest experiments in electronic imagery, such asBen Laposky’s Oscillons, and computer music by Max Mathews at MIT, took place there.

The United States was also where much, if not most, of the technical developments in new technology were carried out, including real-time computing, time sharing, interactivity, hypertext, and digital networking. By the mid-1960s artists such as Charles Csuri, as well as computer scientists such as A. Michael Noll had started to experiment with the possibilities of computers for producing images, and, in 1965, the first exhibition of computer art in the United States was held in the Howard Wise Gallery in New York (the first exhibition in the world of computer art being the one organised earlier that year in Stuttgart by George Nees, Frieder Nake, along with Michael Noll).

Howard Wise was one of the most important pioneers in the area of art and technology and his gallery later held important exhibitions of kinetic art and ofTV as a Creative Medium, the name of a show held in 1969.

It was around this time that Roman Verostko, already a practising artist of many years standing, started to experiment with using step-by-step programming procedures, otherwise known as algorithms or, sometimes, algorisms, on computers to produce work. (In the 1990s Verostko was one of a number of artists who started to call themselves and others using similar methods ‘algorists’).

Also in the late 1960s artists such asJames Seawright took advantage of the increasing availability of electronic equipment to make complex, mechanised kinetic sculptures, while Lillian Schwartzstarted to use computers to make work both kinetic and static.

This led to a number of appointments, such as research fellow for AT&T and other technology-oriented companies. Woodyand Steina Vasulka, from Czechoslovakia and Iceland respectively, came to New York in the mid-1960s, where they undertook pioneering work in video art and digital image processing and founded The Kitchen, a media arts theatre, in 1971.

In 1966 engineer Billy Klüver (who had worked with Tinguely) and artist Robert Rauschenberg were among those who helped put together 9 Evenings, at the Armory in Brooklyn, a series of performances running over the eponymous nine evenings, involving new technologies. The following year they founded Experiments in Art and Technology (E.A.T.) to facilitate collaboration between artists and engineers.

Maurice Tuchman’s Art and Technology programme at the Los Angeles County Museum, in which artists were invited to work with engineers to produce works involving technology, was started in 1967, the same year that the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York put on its famous show The Machine as seen at the End of the Mechanical Age, which was accompanied by Some More Beginnings, an exhibition of art and technology by E.A.T. at the Brooklyn Museum.

In 1969 the Chicago Museum of Contemporary Art put on an exhibition entitled Art by Telephone for which artists were invited to telephone the museum with instructions for making an artwork.

In 1970 Karl Katz, Director of the Jewish Museum in New York, invited the criticJack Burnham to curate a show that would embody his ideas. This resulted inSoftware, Information Technology: its new meaning for art, which opened in 1970.

Burnham, who worked closely withHaacke, among others, was one of the most trenchant advocates of the role to be played by ideas such as cybernetics in art, particularly in relation to real-time computing technologies and robotics.

Parallel with developments in art and technology, other strands of artistic practice emerged in the late 1960s, including Minimalism and Conceptualism, both of which have close connections to the concerns of artists working within the cybernetic paradigm.

Minimalism was the target of criticMichael Fried’s famous polemic Art and Objecthood, in which he suggested that minimalist works were ‘theatrical’ or ‘literal’ in that they set up a particular relation between the beholder as subject and the work as object, which necessarily takes place in time and which therefore has duration. Intended as a criticism, Fried’s analysis could be taken as a positive description not just of minimalist work, but also of much of the work involving performance and new technologies that took place in the 1960s, including that ofDan Graham, which brilliantly exploited the possibilities of closed-circuit television to involve the viewer in the work.

Perhaps the most direct example of a Minimalist artist’s attempt to engage the viewer was Robert Morris’ famously controversial retrospective at The Tate Gallery (as it was then called) in 1971.

Morris intended the show to be interactive in that visitors could actually play with the exhibited works, an intention to which The Tate reluctantly agreed. Unfortunately safety concerns had the effect that the show was closed down after only a few days, and reopened as a more traditional type of exhibition.

Despite this apparent failure, the show remains a key moment in the history of rethinking the relation between the object and the viewer in the gallery space.

Conceptualism was also concerned with questions of communication and discourse and, at some points in its earlier history, was closely allied with art and technology initiatives, particularly with the work of the Art and Language group (though it must be said that much of Art and Language’s engagement with technology was either critical or parodic).

The work of Sol LeWitt sits between Minimalism and Conceptualism and also has resonances with Constructivism, especially in his use of sets of instructions that could be followed in different circumstances.

In the 1970s the increasing availability of and access to telecommunications technologies and systems, such as video cameras, computers, satellite communications, television, including CCTV and slow scan technologies, encouraged artists to experiment not just with video but also with live, real-time ‘telematic’ works and performances.

These works included Sharon Grace,Carl Loeffler, Liza Bear, andWilloughby Sharp’s Send Receive of 1977, as well as the work of Douglas Davis, Roy Ascott, Robert Adrian X, theRaindance Corporation (Frank Gillette,Paul Ryan and journalist Michael Shamberg) and Bill Bartlett and Hank Bull, who organised a number of festivals of telecommunications and art, involving large-scale networked projects.

Though much of the early work in the area covered by this essay took place in Western Europe and the United States, there was considerable activity elsewhere. In South America for example, Brazilian artists Hélio Oiticica and Lygia Clark, who were influenced by Brazilian Constructivism, and were also part of the Tropicália movement, now better known for its contributions to popular music, made work in the 1960s and 1970s that involved interactivity and prefigured contemporary digital art practice.

In Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union there was a long and, as yet, under-documented history of the application of cybernetic art to, and use of technology in, art. In August 1968, at the same time asCybernetic Serendipity, the city of Zagreb, then in Yugoslavia and now capital of Croatia, held a conference on Computers and Visual Research, which, unlikeCybernetic Serendipity, examined the social and cultural aspects of computer art.

Though many of the artists cited above (and others not mentioned for want of space) continued and indeed in many cases continue to make work, much of the kind of practice they were engaged in largely disappeared from the mainstream art world. This practice is found instead at specialist events such as the annual SIGGRAPH meeting (run by Association for Computing Machinery’s Special Interest Group on Graphics and Interactive Techniques since 1974) or at Ars Electronica, a festival of art using computers and electronic technology held in Linz, Austria, since 1979.

Since the 1990s, with the increasing ubiquity of computers and the development of the World Wide Web, there has been a resurgence of mainstream interest, not just in the use of new technologies to make art, but in the ideas and concepts that animated those pioneers working in this area in the earlier period.

Interestingly, when the new generation of artists started to work in this area there was little sense of its longer history. By now there have been a welcome number of projects, conferences, and publications recovering this past.

What is noticeable is the degree to which the more recent work seems to respond to the earlier work as a kind of positivefeedback loop, amplifying its original effects. The result of such positivefeedback is that small perturbations can have large and even explosive results. To shift metaphors, if feedback is a paradigm in art, then perhaps it represents an important ‘paradigm shift’ in the very concept of art itself. (Of course the term ‘paradigm shift’, originally coined by the philosopher and historian of scienceThomas Kuhn itself denotes a kind offeedback loop, and clearly owes something to the cybernetic zeitgeist in which it emerged).

As I suggested at the beginning of this essay, the concept of feedback offers an alternative and even a challenge to the static artwork in the white or even black cube.

Perhaps we areseeing the emergence of art practices and forms that are more appropriate to our increasingly participatory culture, especially in relation to developments such as Web 2:0 (the term for the new uses of the Web that involve active participation on behalf of the user, such as peer-to-peer and social networks).

Art as feedback is just one way to describe such practices. Others might include Nicolas Bourriaud’s Relational Aesthetics or Clare Bishop’s analysis of participation in art.

If this is so, then it is important to acknowledge the contribution of the pioneering artists whose work was not just prescient in how it prefigured the way new technologies would come to be used and understood, but actually helped to bring into existence a world with far greater opportunities for meaningful participation and feedback.

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