From the Archives: Experimental Filmmaker Stan VanDerBeek on the Computer’s Emergence as a Creative Tool 

When Art in America asked Stan VanDerBeek to nominate a new talent for the January-February issue of the magazine, he interpreted the prompt loosely and wrote an essay on “The Computer.” With his work now on view in “Signals: How Video Transformed the World” at the Museum of Modern Art—and as AI has come to post both exciting and existential challenges to artists—we’re republishing VanDerBeek’s article below.

The computer (as a graphic tool) is relatively new in the current rush of technology. In America, widespread use of the computer dates approximately from 1955, when a line of commercial units first became available.

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In 1963 computers began to develop possibilities for making graphics. An electric microfilm recorder was introduced; it can plot points and draw lines a million times faster than a human draftsman. This machine and the electronic computer which controls it thus make feasible various kinds of graphic movies which heretofore would have been prohibitively intricate, time-consuming and expensive.

The microfilm recorder consists essentially of a display tube and a camera. It understands only simple instructions such as those for advancing the film, displaying a spot or alphabetic character at specified coordinates or drawing a straight line from one point to another. Though this repertoire is simple, the machine can compose complicated pictures—or series of pictures—from a large number of basic elements: it can draw ten thousand to one hundred thousand points, lines or characters per second.

This film-exposing device is therefore fast enough to tum out, in a matte r of seconds , a television-quality image consisting of a fine mosaic of closely spaced spots, or to produce simple line drawings at rates of several frames per second.

As a technically oriented film-artist , I realized the possibilities of the computer as a new graphic tool for film-making in 1964 and began my exploration of this medium. I have since made nine computer-generated films. To produce these films the following procedure was used: an IBM 7094 computer was loaded with a set of sub-routines (instructions) which perform the operations for computizing the movie system called “Beflix” devised by Ken Knowlton of Bell Telephone Laboratories. The movie computer program is then written, in this special language, and put on punched cards; the punched cards are then fed into the computer; the computer tabulates and accepts the instructions on the cards calculating the explicit details of each implied picture of the movie and putting the results of this calculation on tape. To visualize this: imagine a mosaic-like screen with 252 x 184 points of light each point of light can be turned on or off from instructions on the program. Pictures can be thought of as an array of spots of different shades of gray. The computer keeps a complete “map” of the picture as the spots are turned on and off. The programmer instructs the system to “draw” lines, arcs, lettering. He can also invoke operations on entire areas with instructions for copying, shifting, transliterating, zooming, and dissolving and filling areas. The coded tape is then put into another machine that reads the tape and instructs a graphic display device (a Stromberg-Carlson 4020), which is a sophisticated cathode-tube system similar to a TV picture tube. Each point of light turns on/off according to the computerized instructions on the tape. A camera over the tube, also instructed when to take a picture by information from the computer, then records on film that particular movie frame. After much trial and error—during which time the computer informs you that you have not written your instructions properly—you have a black-and-white movie. This is edited in traditional movie techniques, and color is added by a special color-printing process developed by artists Bob Brown and Frank Olvey.

spread from an archival article showing a black and white photo of a man drawing on a computer screen on the left and colorful film strips on the right
The opening spread of Stan VanDerBeek’s article “New Talent: The Computer,” published in the January-February 1970 issue of Art in America.

Movie-making was for long the most revolutionary art form of our time. Now television touches the nerve-ends of all the world; the visual revolution sits in just about every living room across America. The image revolution that movies represented has now been overhauled by the television evolution, and is approaching the next visual stage-to computer graphics to computer controls of environment to a new cybernetic “movie art.”

For the artist the new media of movies, TV, computers, cybernetics, are tools that have curved the perspectives of vision, curving both outward and inward. The revolution of ideas and the ecology of the senses began in 1900 (movies were “invented” about the same time as psychoanalysis). Trace the path of ideas of painting over the past sixty years: the breakup of nineteenth-century ideals, step by step; the obj et d’art to nonobjective art; cubism-simultaneous perception; futurism—motion and man machine metaphysics; dadaism-anti-art, pro-life; surrealism—the dream as the center of the mental universe; action painting—synthetic time-motion; happenings—two-dimensional painting comes off the wall; op art-illusion as retinal “reality”; pop art” reality” as reminder of reality; minimal art-illusion of reduction; conceptual art-the elements of illusion.

In other words, we have been moving closer to a “mental” state of art/life. Now we move into the area of computers, an extension of the mind with a tool technically as responsive as ourselves. In the developing mental art/life, to “think” about the work is the process of doing the work.

An abstract notation system for making movies and image storage and retrieval systems opens a door for a kind of mental attitude of movie-making: the artist is no longer restricted to the exact execution of the form; so long as he is clear in his mind as to what he wants, eventually he can realize his movie or work on some computer, somewhere.

What shall this black box, this memory system of the world, this meta-physical printing press do for us? Compare the computer to driving a fast sports car; it is difficult to control; although the irony is that at higher speeds less effort is needed to alter and change directions. However, more skill—a complex man/machine understanding—is required.

The future of computers in art will be fantastic, as amplifiers of human imagination and responses, of kinetic environments programmed to each of our interests; in short, computers will shape the overall ecology of America.

It’s not very far from the Gutenberg press of movable bits of type to the logic “bits” of the computer. No doubt computers will be as common as telephones in our lives; art schools in the near future will teach programming as one of the new psycho-skills of the new technician-artist-citizen.


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