“Computers and the Arts”, Dick Higgins (1968)

from “Computers for the Arts,” by Dick Higgins

About a year ago, I was working on the third chapter of Reading Writing Interfaces – “Typewriter Concrete Poetry as Activist Media Poetics” – during which I discovered, among other things, the mutual influence of concrete poetry and Marshall McLuhan. One figure I promised myself I needed to research further once I’d finished my book was Dick Higgins – self-proclaimed ‘intermedia poet’ and publisher of Something Else Press. Higgins, I found, was one of the most obviously influenced by McLuhan, no doubt in large part because Higgins published McLuhan’s Verbi-Voco-Visual Explorations the same year as his press published the first major anthology of concrete poetry, Emmett Williams’ An Anthology of Concrete Poetry. Invested as he was in poetry that situates itself between two or more inseparable media, Higgins’ notion of intermedia is obviously saturated with McLuhan’s notions of the new electric age and the global village; as he wrote in his “Statement on Intermedia” in 1966, the year before publishing the two volumes by McLuhan and Emmett:

Could it be that the central problem of the next ten years or so, for all artists in all possible forms, is going to be less the still further discovery of new media and intermedia, but of the new discovery of ways to use what we care about both appropriately and explicitly?

Higgins also published his own pamphlet, “Computers for the Arts,” in 1970 (written in 1968, pdf available here) which I’ve just now had a chance to track down and scan. What interests me most about this little pamphlet is how it anticipates so much of the digital art/writing and network art/writing to come in the next forty+ years–experiments in using computers against themselves, or against what Higgins describes in 1970 as their economic uses in science and business. “However,” he writes, “their uses are sufficiently versatile to justify looking into a number of the special techniques for the solution of creative problems.” In “Computers for the Arts,” he goes on to explore how FORTRAN in particular can be used to generate poems, scenarios, what he calls “propositions” that can work through these creative problems in, for example, “1.64 minutes, as opposed to the 16 hours needed to make the original typewritten version.” But the larger point is about understanding tools as processes, just as Alan Kay, Ted Nelson and others advocated for throughout the 1970s and 1980s:

When the artist is able to eliminate his irrational attitudes (if any) about the mythology of computers, and becomes willing not simply to dump his fantasies in the lap of some startled engineer, but to supply the engineer with:

  1. the rudiments of his program in such a language as FORTRAN or one of the other very common ones;
  2. a diagram of the logic of his program, such as I just used to illustrate…
  3. a page or so of how he would like the printout to look

then he will be in a position to use the speed and accuracy of computers. There will be few of the present disappointments, which are due usually more often to the artist’s naivete than to the engineer’s lack of information or good will. The onus is on the artist, not his tools, to do good work.

Here, then, is a pdf of “Computers for the Arts.” Enjoy!

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Artist Residency at the Media Archaeology Lab

At the invitation of MAL curator Mél Hogan, on Monday February 11th conceptual artist Joel Swanson gave a talk about the art project he’s working on in and for the lab on the history of computer keyboards and what symbolic or cultural meaning there might be in the presence or absence of certain keys. (In fact, Joel has already done some work with keyboards by way of his ultra-minimal, conceptual piece called “Spacebar” from 2012.) Here is the video of Joel’s artist talk in the lab:

I’m very keen to see what Joel comes up with as I am fascinated with some of the keyboards in the lab, including an original keyboard for the Apple Macintosh from 1984 which famously has no arrow keys so that users were forced to use the mouse.

apple_macintosh_plus_keyboa

As I’ve written elsewhere on this blog, the lab also has Commodore 64 computers which for example, came with both a ‘Commodore’ key that gave the user access to an alternate character set as well as four programmable function keys that, with the shift button, could each be programmed for two different functions.

Commodore64

By contrast, Apple II computers came with two programmable function keys and Apple III, IIc and IIe computers came with open-Apple and closed-Apple keys that provided the user with shortcuts to applications such as cut-and-paste or copy.

apple-IIe

I hope this is the first of many more artist residencies in the lab!