In the 1960s, artists in Britain and Yugoslavia imagined that the art of socialism might be made with — or even by — computers.

A visitor at the Cybernetic Serendipity exhibition looking at the Honeywell-Emmet computer ‘Forget-me-not.’ (Fox Photos / Getty Images)

In 1968, the year in which audiences first witnessed HAL 9000’s rebellion in 2001: A Space Odyssey, the Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA) in London hosted an exhibition entitled Cybernetic Serendipity. Curated by Jasia Reichardt, Cybernetic Serendipity was a project of an experimental nature, focusing on the relation between art and new technologies.

Visitors to the ICA were invited to explore different facets of “computer art”: anthropomorphic robots and automated mechanisms stood among geometric sculptures and technical drawings. At times, it must have been hard to understand what you were looking at. The exhibition was a complex assemblage of artistic techniques and electronic machinery, as attested by the long list of acknowledgements: Reichardt thanked representatives of IBM, various art schools, Imperial College, the classical music publisher Boosey & Hawkes, Bell Telephone Laboratories, the National Physical Laboratory, and one “Rt. Hon. Anthony Wedgwood Benn. Minister of Technology, London,” who spoke at the opening.

System 1 by Wen-Ying Tsai as presented at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in 1968. (Wikimedia Commons)

The show was reviewed in the first issue of Zagreb-based bit International, a magazine positioned at the intersection of aesthetics and information theory. “A number of enthusiasts, after negotiating a financial Scylla and Charybdis,” explained critic Radoslav Putar, “presented an exhibition concerned with that field of activity where scientists are making themselves felt in art, and artists in science.” Though appreciative of the endeavor’s radical potential, Putar lamented its lack of a rigorous structure or clear message. Cybernetic Serendipity had failed, he argued, to articulate the very possibilities of computing.

In the pages of bit International, Putar’s review was immediately followed by the announcement of “an international collaboration program in the field of visual research by means of computers.” This initiative evolved from a broader movement that had been active since 1961: Nove tendencije. Inaugurated in Croatia’s capital city, New Tendencies — a series of group exhibitions showcasing the broadly defined postgestural neo-avant-garde — had been ideologically internationalist from the outset, connecting practitioners working in a number of European countries. The shows evolved from neat displays of abstract geometric works in two and three dimensions to increasingly complex interactive environments, accompanied by theoretical manifestos on art and information technology.

Viewed as contributors to Op(tical) art, many of the artists aligned with New Tendencies also participated in the 1965 Museum of Modern Art exhibition The Responsive Eye: a painting-centered show whose simple, clean installation was the polar opposite of Cybernetic Serendipity’s hustle and bustle. Its catalogue noted that in the practices associated with New Tendencies, “personal fabrication is extended to anonymity of authorship and almost to socialism. Yet these artists are not revolutionaries; they aspire to full cooperation with the modern world and are open to almost any application of their creativity.” This false opposition between socialism and “cooperation with the modern world” — betraying a desire for autonomous abstraction, art as pure perception — disregarded the historical origin of New Tendencies.

The term “socialist art” might suggest the figurative, “anti-modernist” principles of Socialist Realism, but this was not the path followed in Yugoslavia. After the 1948 Tito-Stalin split, a group of artists recognized the possibility for another kind of aesthetic engagement. EXAT 51 — short for “Experimental Atelier” and the year of the collective’s founding — published a manifesto criticizing Socialist Realism’s denunciation of earlier Constructivist art. Returning to its speculative “laboratory” phase, the group wanted to resurrect the historical avant-garde’s utopian ideals: the synthesis of the arts (EXAT 51 brought together artists, architects, and designers), the removal of any distinction between fine and applied art, and abstraction as universality, though not the kind of depoliticized universality that the Museum of Modern Art would subsequently embrace. In 1953, the painters’ wing of EXAT 51 made its commitments clear: “to those who claim that this painting is non-socialist, our question is: do they already possess the formula of socialist painting?”

Sound Activated Mobile (SAM) by Edward Ihnatowicz, an installation artwork capable of locating and responding toward ambient sound, first displayed at Cybernetic Serendipity. (Wikimedia Commons)

The fact that members of EXAT 51, along with Putar’s own collective, the absurdist Gorgona, would come to form New Tendencies — and, subsequently, sit on the editorial board of bit International — reflects the development of twentieth-century art alongside machinery. Early cybernetic artworks, including those presented in Reichardt’s exhibition, can be traced to the tradition of kinetic sculpture: the mobile. Entries on the chronological “list of influences” published in the 1963 catalogue for New Tendencies 2 included three-dimensional constructions by the Soviet Constructivist Vladimir Tatlin (whose unrealized design for the Monument to the Third International of 1919 was intended to be in constant motion) as well as the Bauhaus artist-designer László Moholy-Nagy’s Light Space Modulator: a rotating metal structure producing complex optical effects.

In 1964, Marshall McLuhan drew a direct parallel between abstraction and data processing, proclaiming that “an abstract painting represents direct manifestation of creative thought processes as they might appear in computer designs.” “Graphics” was both something machine-made and something a machine could possess. In fact, the questions put forward about art’s relationship to the computer were not dissimilar from those once posed about its relation to photography. Is the computer a threat to the artist, or even an artist in the making? Reflecting such anxieties, what unified the works shown at Cybernetic Serendipity was a preoccupation with how — by whom or what, and where — sounds, images, and experiences are generated. The music section included different kinds of computer music: scores composed by computers and compositions played by them. Graphics ranged from those produced by “drawing machines,” both automated draftsmen and electronic virtuosos, to images programed by human artists using computational methods.

Cybernetics is a science of circular systems, just as the history of the avant-garde is a history of returns. Putar might have been disappointed with the open-ended nature of Reichardt’s show — but the contemporary Croatian curatorial collective WHW (What, How & for Whom) reads EXAT 51’s early postulates as a reminder of what “could have been.” We can bemoan the fact that the objective of socially engaged art is continuously deferred, always in the future — but its constant reinvention is its political power. Not a ghost but a cyborg, it refuses to perish.

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