Upcoming Events

Liquid Crystal Concrete:
British Cybernetic Art

Research Seminar – Catherine Mason, Ernest Edmonds

  • 25 May 2022
  • 6:00 – 7:30 pm
  • Paul Mellon Centre and Online

The first in a series of summer research seminars on The Arts of Postwar Britain 1945–1965 with Catherine Mason and Ernest Edmonds.

Catherine Mason: British Cybernetic Art: The Origins of Digital Art

There is more than a fifty-year history behind contemporary digital art and an important part of that history is British; it originates in the somewhat forgotten science of cybernetics and is intimately connected with art schools. The field of cybernetics came to prominence postwar, and the study of how machine, social and biological systems behave offered a means of constructing a framework for art production in which artists could consider new technologies and their impact on life. Concepts of behaviour and process, media dexterity, interdependence and co-operation began to enter art. Pioneers include Roy Ascott, Gustav Metzger, Stephen Willats and others who saw art as a system involving feedback between creator and audience. Their ideas were largely promulgated through experiments in art schools, adapting Basic Design pedagogy for a new technological age.

A direct link can be traced from tutor to student through art schools from postwar artists, (including Richard Hamilton), who, inspired by science and what might be termed a “man machine interface”, began considering the use of computing but did not yet have access to it, through to artists in the early 1970s, who were able to access the technology (predominantly in polytechnics). The proposed session will elucidate the crucial role of cybernetics in art schools, including Ealing College of Art and the work of Ascott, in incubating cross-disciplinary collaborations which contributed much to Britain’s later leading role in the education and production of digital arts.

Catherine Mason in Conversation with Ernest Edmonds

Ernest Edmonds is a pioneer in the field of computer and computational arts. He saw the invention of computing as a conceptual leap forward for humankind and set about asking what this could mean for art. His work is rooted within the constructivist tradition and often incorporates interaction where the viewer becomes an active participant and colour, structure, time and interaction influence each other.

It is precisely because of the work done by pioneers such as Edmonds and his peers from the late 1960s that the artistic possibilities of computers were even realised. Thinking about computation in this way opened a whole new creative world, the repercussions of which can still be seen today in many aspects of culture, from Hollywood special effects to computer games to contemporary digital art.

Professor Edmonds has exhibited internationally, and this discussion will centre on the role of cybernetics as a catalyst to the early field of computer arts in Britain and its legacy for art today, whilst allowing us insights into his artistic process.

About the speakers

  • Headshot of Catherine Mason

    Catherine Mason is an independent art historian. Over a thirty-five-year career she has worked in both commercial galleries and public-sector arts organisations, spent ten years teaching adult education in the 1990s and, from 2002 to 2005, joined an AHRC-funded research group – the CACHe Project (Computer Arts, Contexts, Histories, etc) at Birkbeck, investigating the history of digital art in Britain. Outcomes from this project include two books and Bits in Motion, a screening of early British computer animation at the National Film Theatre, London in 2006, as well as an archival donation to the Victoria & Albert Museum. She writes for various publications about historic and contemporary digital art including Studio International. She has just finished writing a chapter about Art Schools and the History of Computer Arts for the Encyclopaedia of New Media Arts, to be published by Bloomsbury next year.

  • Headshot of Ernest Edmonds

    Ernest Edmonds was born in London in 1942 and currently lives and works between the Peak District in England and Sydney, Australia. He is an artist who pioneered the field of computational art from the 1960s, when he taught at Leicester Polytechnic. In recognising the potential of interactive art, he saw that much research was needed to properly understand human-computer interaction, so he became an artist-researcher: advancing the new medium as well as using it in his art. In 2017 he received the ACM SIGGRAPH Distinguished Artist Award for Lifetime Achievement in Digital Art. Edmonds’ research skills were also recognised in 2017, when he won the SIGCHI Lifetime Achievement Award for the Practice of Computer Human Interaction. He has exhibited throughout the world, from Moscow to Rio de Janeiro and Los Angeles. In 2017, he exhibited with Vera Molnar, Frieder Nake, Manfred Mohr and Roman Verotsko, in Algorithmic Signs at the Fondazione Bevilacqua La Masa, San Marco, Venice. Other exhibitions include one-man shows at Microsoft Research Asia Gallery, Beijing; The Gallery De Montfort University, Leicester; and Expo 2020, Dubai. His next retrospective will be in Sydney in a major exhibition The Colour of Code. A history of his artwork is described in Generative Systems Art: The Work of Ernest Edmonds, (Routledge, 2017) by Francesca Franco. His books include The Art of Interaction (Morgan Claypool, 2018) and From Fingers to Digits: An Artificial Aesthetic (MIT Press, 2019) with Margaret Boden. Ernest is Emeritus Professor of Computational Art at De Montfort University and Chair of the Board of ISEA International.