Playing against the Machine
Curated by Georg Bak
Since the invention of
photography in the mid-19th century, by Nicéphore Niépce, Louis Jacques
Mandé Daguerre and William Henry Fox Talbot, the medium has mainly been
used to reproduce reality in, for example, depictions of landscapes,
portraiture and nudes. The first attempts at abstract photography were
made at around the turn of the 20th century with Etienne-Jules Marey’s
hydrodynamic experiments and August Strindberg’s celestograms. The
development towards abstraction was mainly driven by science and new
technologies as progressive photographers such as Alvin Langdon Coburn,
Christian Schad, Man Ray and Laszlo Moholy-Nagy experimented with new
techniques and invented such things as photograms and vortographs
(kaleidoscopic images). This happened partly as a reaction to the
avantgarde movements in painting (cubism, vorticism, dadaism, etc.).
While, in the theory of painting, the term Concrete Art was introduced as early as 1930, by Theo van Doesburg, the notion of Concrete Photography first appeared in 1967 at galerie actuellein
Berne (Switzerland) on the occasion of a group exhibition with Swiss
artists René Mächler, Roger Humbert, Rolf Schroeter and Jean-Frédéric
Schnyder. At the same time, a related movement in photography began in
Germany and would later find its way into art history as Generative Photography.
One practitioner in this field was Herbert W. Franke, a pioneer of
computer art, who combined rational physics and mathematics with
photographic experiments. His vintage oscillograms from the 1950s and
‘60s are pioneering examples of computer art aesthetics. In them,
graphic vibrations - similar to Lissajous figures - were programmed on
an analogue computer system and then photographed from the screen of a
cathode ray oscillograph.
The philosophical background of the movement was laid out by the German philosopher Max Bense who defined the goal of Generative aesthetics as, “the analysis of art-generating processes into a finite number of constructive steps. Thus, Generative aesthetics concerns definite aesthetics. In the ideal case, it leads to the development of programs that serve to produce aesthetic states with the help of program controlled computers”.
Based on this philosophy, Kunsthaus Bielefeld opened the pivotal show
Generative Fotografie in 1968 with works by Gottfried Jäger, Hein
Gravenhorst, Kilian Breier and Pierre Cordier. Generative photography articulates the idea of artistic constructivism joined with the numerical programming of apparative systems and can be classified as a form of concrete art.
Jäger’s tireless efforts as an artist, curator and theorist led to the establishment of a class for photography at the Werkkunstschule in Bielefeld in 1966 and since then, he and Karl Martin Holzhäuser have continuously taught the theory of Generative photography,
their yearly symposiums in Bielefeld now legendary. Importantly, in
1975, they published the manifesto-like compendium Generative Fotografie
with a foreword by Herbert W. Franke.
“to play against the apparatus” by theorist and philosopher Villém
Flusser set the tone for this particular style of photography and the
movement itself transmitted influential ideas that have radiated onto
the art of successive generations of international artists. It can be
seen as paving the way for the fields of computer aesthetics and
cybernetic art and later leading to the discourse on data images and
digital photography which is ongoing in the 21st century with the most
recent examples of GAN’s (generative adversarial networks) by artists
such as David Young.