A New Show at MOMA Explores the Ghosts in Our Machines


As we bumble down the street, staring at our phones like an Observer from Mystery Science Theater 3000 holding his blue brain in front of him, it’s becoming harder not to believe we are evolving into computer-flesh hybrids.

The Museum of Modern Art’s “Thinking Machines” exhibit delves into the mid-20th-century matrix of stylish hardware design and primitive computer graphics that presaged the smartphone in your pocket — which has exponentially more processing power than the computers that controlled the Apollo 11 moon mission.

Begin with a trio of white, salmon, and yellow IBM punch cards from 1956, each with its own grid of numbers and an esoteric pattern of rectangular punch-outs — secret messages from the payroll or inventory departments. Nearby, an “IBM 305 RAMAC” control panel bursts with snarls of brightly contrasting wires. Like its futuristic name (an acronym for “Random Access Memory Accounting Machine”), this artifact from the antediluvian era of business computing has gained an aesthetic gloss that was not a consideration for engineers in the 1950s, who were employing the multi-colored wires simply for manufacturing expediency.

In the 1960s, however, as thinking machines shrank from back-office mainframes to desktop necessities, corporations started to take design aesthetics into consideration. The Italian typewriter company Olivetti, long known for its stylish hardware and advertisements, began designing elegant calculating machines — their Programma 101 Electronic Desktop Computer (1965) has the gliding curves and subtle hue of a sand shark. Artists took note, creating graphics by hand that expressed the evolving mechanics of the computer age. A 1964 poster promoting “Arte Programmata,” a traveling exhibition of kinetic art sponsored by Olivetti, brilliantly uses simple black and white squares to imply hard-edged perspective and create a right-angled spiral, imbuing one of nature’s most compelling shapes with mathematical rigor. In the poster for his exhibit “Universal Electronic Vacuum 1967,” the Scottish pop pioneer Eduardo Paolozzi imagined Mickey and Minnie Mouse under colorfully undulating waves — in hindsight, his vision looks at least as influenced by the Lite-Brite illuminated-peg drawing set (released that same year) as by the era’s computers graphics.

While these artists were inspired by the idea of this new technology, the seminal media artist Stan VanDerBeek (1927–1984) teamed up with programmers to actually use it, creating computer graphics with remarkable aesthetic and conceptual expansiveness, visualizing the screen as a spatial realm in which text could mutate into abstract forms. VanDerBeek started out in the 1950s as an animator on the interactive children’s television show Winky Dink and You, which instructed kids to adhere a plastic sheet to their television screens and use special erasable crayons to trace various images during the broadcast. Soon after this gig, VanDerBeek started making experimental films combining collage, text, and surreal imagery, sometimes in immersive environments.

In his “Poemfield” series of short movies (1967-71), VanDerBeek worked with Ken Knowlton, of Bell Labs, to animate the words of his own poems. Knowlton wrote a program called BEFLIX (for “Bell flicks”), which VanDerBeek described as using a “mosaic-like screen with 252 x 184 points of light; each point of light can be turned on or off” as instructed by the program. Hence, in Poemfield No. 1 (1967), the word “GESTURES” blinks on and off in black-and-white before disappearing into a ground of beige dots that suddenly coalesce into “DO NOT,” followed by swirls of orange spelling out “MISTAKE.” These agitated fields continue morphing from flashing chaos to text, completing the phrase “Gestures / do not / mistake / place / yet / finger pointing / takes / a word / to complete.” The poem continues in vibrant surges of color, encouraging us to oscillate between thoughts the words trigger in our own minds and their sheer presence as exuberant patterns — concrete poetry for the burgeoning digital age. (Viewers can also study a computer printout of the “Poemfield” codes, along with VanDerBeek’s scrawled annotations.)

In a 1972 interview, while he was an artist fellow at the Center for Advanced Visual Studies at MIT, VanDerBeek described using telephones to transmit electronic artwork around the globe, a concept that would see fruition with the creation of the World Wide Web, in the early 1990s. He explained, “I’m not locked in my studio with a paintbrush. I’m now confronting an entire electronic matrix, and generally this matrix involves lots of cooperation with machines and with other people. And I think that’s one of the important breakthroughs about the idea of computer communication.”  

Like VanDerBeek, Agnes Denes (born 1931) has joined with specialists from MIT and Bell Labs to keep abreast of technology. Over the years she has applied this technical knowledge to hand-drawn works that look as if they were plotted on a computer. The astonishingly precise Snail Pyramid — Study for Self-Contained, Self-Supporting City Dwelling — A Future Habitat (1988) was drawn with ink on plastic and is nearly five feet wide. This vision of a grid curved like a snail shell conveys a classical sense of volume and is so enticing you might almost fall into its vortexes, like the computer-hacker character sucked into the wire-frame world of Tron, a movie released in 1982. That Hollywood fantasy may have been thrilling, but the actual 1980s saw desktop computing becoming banal, entrenched in the workplace. The ennui engendered by staring at a screen for eight hours a day was documented in a 1985–6 series of black-and-white photographs by Lee Friedlander. Sometimes shooting from the point of view of the screen itself, Friedlander (born 1934) captured slack-faced men and women trapped between their unseen keyboards (most of the photos are cropped at the elbows) and overhead fluorescent lights plunging in perspective.

Excitement about computers in the ’80s arrived when they spread from the workplace to living rooms, bedrooms, and dens across the nation. Today we may feel that the only thing PCs accomplished was to shift the boss’s demands from business hours to 24-7 email, but there was an undeniable romance to exploring the expanding universes of communications, gaming, graphics, and desktop publishing that were becoming available in the privacy of one’s own home. (Even as that same hardware and software immediately began eroding the norms of privacy as Americans had long understood them.) Glass cases in the exhibition hold various early machines designed for personal use, including a “Macintosh 128K Home Computer,” from 1983. Although Steve Jobs included some smartly integrated curves and angles in his design, this drab beige box was mainly enlivened by the rainbow-striped Apple logo, a design flourish drilled into the public consciousness by a startling commercial aired during the third quarter of the otherwise boring 1984 Super Bowl.  

As computers have advanced, their industrial design has become increasingly spare — think of the streamlined “Space Gray” aluminum shell of a Macbook. But this belies the fact that artificial intelligence is encroaching ever more into the realm of humanity. Perhaps the anthropomorphic qualities of some earlier computers more accurately captured the way the consequences of technology — both good and bad — continually sneak up on us. One particularly compelling artifact on display was created in 1966 by the Olivetti company. Along with red, green, and purple buttons, the “TCV 250 Video Display Terminal” features a screen encased in a circular plastic bubble that “bulges from the taut skin like a Cyclops eye,” as a MoMA curator has described it. One might wonder if that peripatetic design maven David Bowie ever happened upon one of these slightly menacing devices before he wrote “TVC 15,” in 1976:

“I brought my baby home, she — she sat around forlorn
She saw my T V C one-five, baby’s gone — she —
She crawled right in, my my
She crawled right in my
So hologramic, oh my T V C one-five
Oh, so demonic, oh my T V C one-five”


Thinking Machines: Art and Design in the Computer Age, 1959–1989
The Museum of Modern Art
11 West 53 Street, New York, NY 10019
Through April 8, 2018

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