Serendiptichord instrument

Cybernetic Serendipity: did ’60s art shape technology’s future?

Image credit: Tim Murray-Browne

We look back to the ICA’s 1968 exhibition, which quietly revolutionised technology and became our common reality.

In 1968, the Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA) in London held a trailblazing exhibition of electronic and algorithmic art called ‘Cybernetic Serendipity: The Computer and the Arts’ that went on to wow audiences in Washington and San Francisco.

Under the curatorship of the ICA’s then associate director Jasia Reichardt, the usually hushed, white-walled galleries were filled with a “din of bleeping and hooting” from interactive sculptures, robots and computer-generated music.

There had been exhibitions of machines before, but this was the first gallery show of its kind. Some 50 years on, threads from the event can be followed through to contemporary music, film graphics, computer games, art, and technology.

The 1960s was a time of huge cultural shifts. A decade before, John Cage had struck a blow to the formal concert by performing an entirely silent piano recital, with all the ritual apparatus of evening dress, a Steinway and a music page-turner. At Cybernetics Serendipity, computer scientists and electronics engineers were storming the art barricades.

‘Serendipity’ (coined by Horace Walpole in 1754) means happy chance. ‘Cybernetics’, a term introduced by Norbert Wiener in his 1948 book ‘Cybernetics – communication and control in animal and machine’, refers to systems that work in a feedback loop where a stimulus (such as a sound) causes a response (such as a movement), which in turn triggers another change.

Reichardt’s exhibits included cybernetic devices themselves and those made with a cybernetic device (computer). Most of them were created by what might be termed scientist-engineers. Alongside these were works by ‘proper’ artists such as Bruce Lacey, Wen Ying Tsai, James Seawright, Nam June Paik and Jean Tinguely.

A contingent of avant-garde composers including Herbert Brün, John Cage, Iannis Xenakis and Peter Zinovieff contributed tapes of experimental electronic music, which are still available to listen to online.

The Evening Standard described the exhibition at the time as one to which you might “take a hippy, a computer programmer, a 10-year-old schoolboy and guarantee that each would be totally happy for an hour”.

Visitors could use huge magnets to stretch and distort the images on Nam June Paik’s installation of 11 TV sets. They could whistle into a microphone and hear a variation of their tune played back by Zinovieff’s computerised recording studio exhibit.

Many were charmed by the flower-like sculpture SAM (Sound Activated Mobile), which would rotate towards you when you spoke to it. SAM’s flexible ‘neck’ twisted from side to side and bent forwards and backwards with the help of hydraulic pistons. These were controlled by an analogue circuit that responded to microphones mounted in the sculpture’s flower-like glass-fibre parabolic reflectors.

SAM’s creator, the sculptor Edward Ihnatowicz (1926-88), went on to create the Senster, a 4m-long dinosaur-like robot with an articulated neck that would turn and look at anyone who clapped their hands or moved. Philips commissioned it for its Evoluon museum in Eindhoven, where it remained from 1970 until 1974.

CYSP 1, an excitable cubist metal tree-like sculpture (built by Nicolas Schoffer in 1956), trundled around the ICA on four rollers, responding to variations in colour, light and sound. It sensed these with photoelectric cells and a microphone. Red light calmed it down, blue light caused it to move on its rollers and turn its metal ‘leaves’. Silence and darkness set it off. Noise and intense light quietened it.

Colloquy of Mobiles appears in many of the archive photographs. Created by Gordon Pask, the sculpture represents two males and three females ‘conversing’ using rays of light and mirrors. “They rotated within particular radiuses so when set in motion they seemed to dance around each other,” recalls George Mallen, who helped assemble the sculpture. “The circuitry was based on Post Office relays and uni-selectors [used in telephone exchanges], which Gordon used in much of his work.” He was working with Pask at the time on early simulators for crime detection for the Home Office.


Gordon Pask: scientist who never slept

Cyberneticist Gordon Pask (1928-96) liked to dress as an Edwardian dandy complete with bowtie and cape, and was noted in the 1960s as “the Cambridge scientist who never sleeps” because if a problem caught his interest he would work on it non-stop.

His research spanned biological computing, artificial intelligence, cognitive science, logic, linguistics, psychology and artificial life. He foresaw many of today’s developments including the world wide web, looking to when all human knowledge would be located in self-organising, interactive, multimedia archives, with intelligent agents to support learning and access.

His major work was Conversation Theory, in which he conceived human-​machine interaction as a form of conversation, a process in which the participants learn about each other.

He built several special-purpose machines. Musicolour (1953) drove an array of lights that adapted to a musician’s performance. Saki (1956) was a “self-adaptive keyboard instructor”.

Mallen was one of a loosely connected group of scientist-engineers including Pask, Zinovieff, Alan Sutcliffe and John Lansdown who went on to make their mark on computer theory, electronic music, film animation and advertising over the following decades.

Sutcliffe was then a director of Zinovieff’s synthesiser company EMS (they had been introduced by mutual friend Delia Derbyshire, of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop). Lansdown was an architect and pioneered the use of computers as an aid to planning and making perspective drawings.

Surprisingly, there were only two computers in the show, most exhibits being controlled by analogue circuitry. Brent MacGregor of the Edinburgh College of Art notes in his essay ‘Cybernetic Serendipity Revisited’ that one of these, an airline reservation system provided by IBM, “had nothing to do with creative work”. The second, used by Peter Zinovieff to compose music, “was removed by the composer for his continued use”.


Peter Zinovieff: the VCS3 synthesiser

Peter Zinovieff (born 1933) is a British composer and engineer who worked on electronic music collaborations with composers such as Harrison Birtwistle and Hans Werner Henze, among others.

In 1969, his company Electronic Music Studios (EMS) in Putney made the VCS3 analogue synthesiser, famously used by bands such as Pink Floyd, The Who, Yes and many others.

Unlike large machines from American manufacturers such as Moog Music, ARP and Buchla, the VCS3 was relatively cheap and portable. Zinovieff was nonplussed about the success of his “pathetic little synthesisers”, which he’d developed to fund his studio’s pioneering work using computers to compose music by sampling sounds and linking them together.

Looking back, Reichardt says that the experience for some of the 50,000 visitors was occasionally life-changing.

For Clive Coen, then a music student, it ultimately led to a career as a professor of neuroscience at King’s College London, via a meeting with John Cage.

Coen had been studying the violin at the Royal Academy of Music and had just won a music scholarship to Oxford for the following year. “I’d been performing with the avant-garde composer Cornelius Cardew and felt at home visiting the exhibition several times. At an associated seminar I met one of the featured composers, Herbert Brün. He was pioneering Fortran programming for music and graphics and teaching cybernetics with Heinz von Foerster at the University of Illinois,” says Coen.

“At the end of the seminar, I mentioned to Brün that I was going to be free until the following autumn and asked if I could visit his department. I was astonished when he said yes. Within a few weeks I was spending my nights in their electronic music studio.”

John Cage, a guest composer at the university, had started to use computers for his compositions. “Twenty years earlier at the Bauhaus-influenced Black Mountain College, Cage had been part of a trailblazing arts/science group that left a legacy comparable to that of Cybernetic Serendipity,” Coen points out.

Among those luminaries were artist Willem de Kooning, choreographer Merce Cunningham, director Arthur Penn and visionary architect Buckminster Fuller. “That’s when Fuller was working on his first geodesic dome. Meanwhile, Cage was tinkering with pianos to create new tones and using complex numerical proportions for compositional structure.”

In 1969 in Illinois the major Cage piece on which Coen assisted was called ‘HPSCHD’. It premiered inside the vast assembly dome and involved 6,400 slides, 40 film projections, enormous translucent plastic screens, seven harpsichords, and an army of tape decks and speakers. The event ran for nearly five hours, and almost 7,000 people attended. Like the music, the images (many borrowed from Nasa) were subject to random processes.

Cybernetic Serendipity turned out to be a happy happenstance for Coen. The interests originally sparked by the exhibition were intensified after Cage gave him a letter of introduction to Buckminster Fuller and encouraged him to read ‘The Coming of the Golden Age’ by another friend, the molecular biologist Gunther Stent. “I was beginning to realise the exhilarating lure of music can be matched by that of science – and that this sort of crude partitioning of human inventiveness would have seemed facile to the key figures of the Renaissance and Enlightenment. Yet when I got to Oxford I had to make a decision: I didn’t study music.”

Shortly after the exhibition in 1968, Mallen, Sutcliffe and Landsdown formed the Computer Arts Society (with funding from the British Computer Society) to encourage the creative use of computers. The artist Gustav Metzger, who developed the concept of Auto-Destructive Art, edited its magazine Page, establishing CAS’s early association with the avant-garde.

CAS held its first major public activity, ‘Event One’, in 1969 at the Royal College of Art, London with participants from fine art, architecture, computer programming and film-making. It marked a collaborative, cross-disciplinary way of working.

A year later, CAS developed Ecogame, a simulation model of an economic system and one of the first multimedia interactive computer games. It was commissioned by the British Equipment Trade Association for the Computer 70 exhibition at Olympia, London and went on to feature at the World Economic Forum at Davos in 1971. “We had computer screens in a darkened geodesic dome with slide projection screens above them and a tower in the middle holding the projectors,” explains Mallen. “We used a time-sharing computer model, which we could hook up to via a modem, rented from the Post Office. I used that to develop and create and run the economic model. At the Computer 70 exhibition, the modem was hooked into the time-sharing computer in Portland Street. In Davos, it was hooked into a computer in Zurich. Cloud computing, 1970s style!”

“We had computer screens in a darkened geodesic dome with slide projection screens above them and a tower in the middle holding the projectors.”

George Mallen, scientist-engineer

From the mid-1970s Mallen, Sutcliffe and Lansdown worked together at Mallen’s software company, System Simulation Ltd (SSL), which applied computer graphics techniques in TV and film. The company was involved in pioneering animation projects, contributing to Ridley Scott’s film ‘Alien’ (1979), many advertising sequences, and producing the wireframe drawings from which Martin Lambie-Nairn’s original Channel 4 logo was rendered.

“Ridley Scott called us the ‘read out’ guys because we did the graphics for the computer screens on the Nostromo spaceship flight deck in ‘Alien’. Alan Sutcliffe also digitised the planet surface, seen in the hectic first 10 minutes of the film while the spaceship is landing, using a polystyrene block we made to look like the terrain,” says Mallen.

Not everyone was positive about the exhibition. Metzger, who died in March 2017, famously said that artists were being led into “a technological kindergarten” with “no end of information on computers composing haiku – no hint that computers dominate modern war; that they are becoming the most totalitarian tools ever used on society.”

What is striking now is how many ‘cybernetic’ concepts such as control by feedback, adaptation, learning and self-organisation are re-emerging with the rise of commercial machine learning-based artificial intelligence systems. What was a technological revolution in the 1960s has quietly become our common reality.


A Different Kind of Paintbrush

“The wheel extends the foot. Brush, chisel, hammer and saw extend the hand. But electric circuitry extends the brain itself... and will therefore perform wonders of art which have not heretofore been seen.”

This extract from the 1960s essay ‘Art with a Capital A’, written by philosopher Alan Watts is one of many influences of Tim Murray-Browne, an award-winning London artist who has a background in mathematics, computer science and digital music.

Murray-Browne works through collaboration to create interactive installations of musical instruments and immersive audiovisual dance performances. He looks for contexts that challenge our assumptions of who we are and what we do.

His approach seems imbued with the spirit of Cybernetic Serendipity.

Serendiptichord, a wearable musical instrument built with the artist Di Mainstone for 2009 Creativity & Cognition (Berkeley Art Museum, California), is a particularly striking piece, designed to explore sound through movement.

The instrument combines two handheld pods with a curvaceous headpiece that rests on the dancer’s shoulders and extends over their head like a trunk. Accelerometers are embedded within each pod, behind the neck and in the ‘trunk’.

“It’s very simple in terms of technology, but complex in terms of what you can create. I was interested in the idea of sound moving in space, and the experience of imagining creating space through sound,” he says.

As the dancer moves, different orientations in the left pod and the neck wirelessly trigger sounds from a bank of ‘virtual instruments’ on a laptop. Shaking the right pod intensifies these sounds while the sensor in the ‘trunk’ is tied to a frequency shifter to give a vibrato effect. “The way the trunk moves with the dancer is quite a physical property. You end up with quite a personalised sound,” says Murray-Browne.

Movement Alphabet is a more recent work, developed with the artist Jan Lee. A guide helps visitors to explore personal ‘movement memories’ through a series of interactions that encourage the person to move expressively. The essence of physical ‘memories’ is captured with a Microsoft Kinect camera and rendered into a personal Movement Portrait.

“We track the endpoints of the silhouette, which produces an effect of brush strokes. Our algorithm adds enough ‘glitchiness’ into the image that you can project your own interpretation on it,” he says. “Combine that with the story you have about these images and there is an exciting space in which you create a world of possibilities.”

Jasia Reichardt and TV coverage of the Exhibition in 1968

Jasia Reichardt, curator in 2014

Gordon Pask BBC 1974

Peter Zinovieff and EMS

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