Despite her status as an unpaid “resident visitor” for most of her nearly two-decade tenure there, Lillian Schwartz created some of the most important works of early computer art at Bell Labs. This essay unravels the conceptual frameworks of “vision” as they manifest in Schwartz’s early computer films made between 1970 and 1972, with a specific emphasis on vision as “information” and “data.” It argues that these specific films in Schwartz’s oeuvre explored a newly emerging model of vision based on the rendering practices of computers and scientific instruments, while navigating the fraught question of the role of the embodied viewer. Resisting this rationalized order of vision, which would ultimately result in the emergence of information as both a commodity and an asset class, Schwartz’s films instead explore the contingencies of rendering information with the newly developing medium of the computer.
In 1966, Ken Knowlton and Leon Harmon, both computer engineers at AT&T’s Bell Labs, reenvisioned a nude photograph of avant-garde dancer and choreographer Deborah Hay as a bitmap mosaic. Studies in Perception I, or Computer Nude (fig. 1), as it was later nicknamed, began as a joke. As art historian Zabet Patterson points out, it was originally planned as a surprise for Bell Labs executive Ed David. Upon seeing the piece hung in his offices, however, administrators took offense to its visual effects and relegated it to the basement.1 What had offended them enough to banish the work was the piece’s playful rendering of a nude female body. Knowlton and Harmon had reconfigured a negative of an original photograph of Hay into analog and then digital signals and printed the final image as a series of graphical notations arranged in grid form. Upon close inspection, all that was visible in the five-by-twelve-foot print were these algorithmic notations in varying proximity. It was only upon viewing the work from a distance that the notations coalesced back into an image of Hay’s nude body.
As Patterson remarks, Computer Nude was essentially “a punchline without a joke.”2 While the piece was originally part of a larger series collectively titled Studies in Perception, Computer Nude went on to have a distinct exhibition history. In October 1967 the piece was hung in Robert Rauschenberg’s studio during a press conference announcing the formation of Experiments in Art and Technology (EAT). Headed by Rauschenberg and Bell Labs engineer Billy Klüver, EAT aimed to create collaborative working relationships between artists and scientists while providing artists access to new technologies. Computer Nude was photographed during the press conference and prominently featured in the New York Times’s write-up of the event, “Art and Science Proclaim Alliance in Avant-Garde Loft” (fig. 2).3 As if to quell any potential backlash, the article included an enlargement of Computer Nude’s graphical notations alongside a reproduction of the work (fig. 3). The editorial decision to juxtapose these two images required a discursive sleight of hand common to modernist art histories. By masking the work’s pornographic subtext with discussions of Knowlton and Harmon’s innovative artistic approach to new media, the editors implicitly reaffirmed Computer Nude’s place in histories of the avant-garde.4 It was no longer a joke, but rather a work of fine art.
Nevertheless, the piece’s libidinal effect is difficult to suppress; the discernibility of Hay’s exposed breasts and pubis maintain a playful invitation to look, a perceptual “trick” resulting from Harmon’s research in optics and neural processing.5 While neither Knowlton nor Harmon had any particular interest in the politics of representation, Computer Nude unwittingly registered the ensuing discursive collision between questions concerning representation, embodiment, and the emerging informational paradigm.6 Its emphasis on the viewer’s situated and embodied capacity to recognize patterns—a model neutralized in the New York Times’s juxtaposed depictions—would emerge as one of the most pressing questions in cybernetics during the 1970s. Computer Nude hinted at, but never led to a full exploration of, these questions. It would not be until Knowlton began to collaborate with Lillian Schwartz two years later that he would revisit this issue.
In her historical analysis of data visualization, Orit Halpern forcefully argues that during the postwar period, scientists, engineers, and designers propagated a discourse of a “‘new’ vision emerging from informational abundance.” “Prominent designers,” Halpern writes, “such as Gyorgy Kepes of MIT, for example, would claim that the ‘essential vision of reality presents us not with fugitive appearances but with felt patterns of order…and a beauty produced out of patterns rather than essence and forms.”7 This new scientific vision had radical epistemological effects. A fundamental understanding of reality could no longer be gleaned by excavating nature’s intrinsic properties—a mode of neo-Platonic idealism that appeared grossly inadequate for a world increasingly dominated by interconnectivity and informational abundance produced by new technologies. New systems-oriented and pattern-analysis models, replete with data and produced in tandem with imaging technologies such as CT scans, electronic radar, and computers, were offered in its stead.
Moreover, in accordance with this new world of informational abundance, scientists were no longer conceived of as archivists or documentarians recording the natural phenomena of the world, a conceptual holdover from nineteenth-century naturalism, but rather as network analysts, mapping and analyzing patterns in the world. This model was echoed within second-wave cybernetic discourses, but with the caveat that the researcher’s status as an embodied being played a critical role in the specific patterns and interactions to be analyzed and emphasized. First theorized in Heinz von Foerster’s essays on the Macy Conferences, which were later republished in his influential book Observing Systems (1981), this new reflexive model broke with traditional scientific protocols and repositioned the scientist-observer as part of the system being observed, rather than outside of it.8 Biologists Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela took this notion further, insisting that “each living system constructs its environment through the ‘domain of interactions’ made possible by its autopoetic organization.”9 Whatever lay outside this domain, Maturana suggested, did not exist for that living system. As N. Katherine Hayles argues, the radical implications of Maturana’s experiments threatened to undermine objectivist scientific epistemologies, particularly those based on pattern analysis. While never fully resolved, the advent of third-wave cybernetics and its discussions of an evolving system in the form of AI sidelined the threat of Maturana’s arguments (at least for the time being).10
This essay argues that Schwartz’s early computer films brought the fraught question of the embodied observer to the foreground at the very moment when visualization began to shift from a “description of human psychological processes to the larger terrain of rendering practices by machines, scientific instrumentation, and numeric measures.”11 Between 1968 and the end of 1972, Schwartz produced ten films that merge these two distinct yet interrelated registers of vision—vision as an individuated, sensorial experience, and vision as a technique and a strategy, a process of explicating the natural world by specifically visualizing data. In her early films, which are characterized by a deluge of juxtaposed and overlapping scientific imagery, from the playfully anachronistic motion studies in Olympiad (1971) to the mathematical curves illustrated by diode lasers in Mutations (1972) and the reformulated positron emission tomography (PET) scans in Apotheosis (1972), Schwartz utilized the coding process to toy with the tension between an excess of sensorial effects and an excess of data, or in other words, between human and technological vision. She repeatedly transformed images obtained by scientific instruments into code only to retransform them back into aestheticized imagery, generating a slippage between data and data visualization along the way, but also manipulated the encoded data to produce in the viewer’s mind visual effects not visible on-screen.12
Pixelated Data: Lillian Schwartz’s Computer Films
Lillian Schwartz made her artistic debut in Pontus Hultén’s ambitious yet prescient exhibition The Machine, as Seen at the End of the Mechanical Age. Held at the Museum of Modern Art in New York and organized as a “collection of comments on technology by artists of the Western world,” Hultén’s broad approach assembled a diverse array of artists and works, ranging from Leonardo da Vinci’s mid-fifteenth-century schematic drawings of flying machines to Nam June Paik’s 1967 TV manipulations.13 It was here that Schwartz first met Knowlton and Harmon and saw Computer Nude. Hultén had invited all three to participate in a specially curated section of the exhibition featuring joint projects between artists and engineers. In collaboration with EAT, he solicited work through a public announcement in the Sunday edition of the New York Times. Of the approximately two hundred submissions, nine were chosen for inclusion by a special jury composed of important members of the science community. While Computer Nude was included in this section, it was the only work expressly interested in two-dimensionality and figuration. The bulk of the projects were instead sculptural and nonfigurative, and utilized electronic machinery to reimagine the relationship between human, machine, and environment as a system. Projects like Jean Dupuy and Ralph Martel’s Heart Beats Dust (1968) and Wen-Yng Tsai and Frank Turner’s Cybernetic Sculpture (1968) transformed bodily processes into electronic signals that activated the works. The palpitations of a heartbeat and the tonal intonations and cadence of the viewer’s voice were the “on switch,” triggering a call and response between human and electronic machine. Hultén emphasized this notion of connectivity in his exhibition catalogue essay, equating the machine with the human body. Electronic devices, however, retained an important distinction. With a direct nod to Marshall McLuhan (fig. 4) and an echo of the mind-body debates that dominated early cybernetics, Hultén characterized electronic devices as specifically analogous to the brain and nervous system, foreshadowing the emergence of a technologically rendered perceptual field.14
Schwartz’s project for the exhibition fit perfectly with the underlying theme of this specially curated section and hinted at her growing interest in the confluence between sensorial and machinic registers of vision. In collaboration with engineer Per Biorn, Schwartz created a kinetic sculptural piece titled Proxima Centauri (fig. 5). Named after a small, low-mass star located more than four light years away from the Sun, Proxima Centauri represented an outgrowth of Schwartz’s earlier experiments with color and plastics and anticipated her later computer films.15 Formally, the piece levels a Postminimalist critique through the conceptual framing of the screen. Composed of a large, black metallic box approximately the height of an adult’s shoulders, on top of which sits a large translucent dome, Proxima Centauri directly responds to the viewer’s presence. A person approaching the piece steps on a pressure-sensitive pad, which triggers motors inside of the box (fig. 6). Once triggered, the rippling blue waves of the dome are replaced by a glowing sulfurous red, a clear reference to the piece’s namesake star, and the dome begins to slowly lower itself into the box. In a seductive game of hide and seek, the sinking dome summons the viewer to come closer and peer inside, rewarding these actions with a slide show of Schwartz’s abstract paintings projected across the dome’s interior.16
In a foreshadowing of Schwartz’s computer films, Proxima Centauri not only responds to the viewer’s presence, but also explores emerging paradigms of visualizing information. Schwartz reimagines the translucent dome as a screen, a reference to the computer formally reified by the black box in which it sits, but also evokes the microscope in the process of looking. In doing so, the abstract paintings inside are transformed into a biomorphic cosmology wherein the patterns of life at the macro and microscopic scale, both manifested in abstraction, are integrated into a holistic, networked model of the universe that was increasingly popular with media theorists and artists at the time. More importantly, Proxima Centauri hints at the role of the screen itself in Schwartz’s enduring exploration of this model. Even as the screen exhibits Schwartz’s abstract paintings, it is much more than just an illuminated display window or a high-tech canvas. What begins to emerge as the viewer is integrated into the system of the work is the notion of the screen as interface, as a point of relationality where informational data is transformed and visualized. Like the star, whose brightness increases as a response to magnetic activity, the dome is only active when the viewer is nearby. Once the viewer leaves, the dome resurfaces and returns to a placid, languorous blue, remaining still until it is activated again by the next viewer.
Proxima Centauri proved a success in the exhibition, garnering Schwartz an invitation to Bell Labs. She arrived in 1968 and remained an unpaid “resident visitor” for nearly two decades; it wasn’t until 1986 that her work garnered enough public attention that the executives would grant her an employment contract and salary.17 Schwartz was nevertheless prolific throughout, creating important and seminal works of early computer art. Following almost two years of training and experimentation, she completed her first film. Exactly four minutes in length, Pixillation serves as a powerful testament to her emerging artistic voice and radical approach to epistemologies of vision. Utilizing Kenneth Knowlton’s then still-unfinished programming language EXPLOR (Explicit Patterns, Local Operations, and Randomness), it is a hybrid work; Zabet Patterson refers to it as a “fascinating example of making do.”18 Combining eighty-five black and white coded frames with microphotographs of crystal growth and hand-painted film animations of color effusions, it operates at several important conceptual thresholds, including the organic and the computational, the digital and the analog, and finally the handmade versus the machine-made.19 The result is a tempestuous entwinement between the observer and encoded data images, revolving around an informational model of “vision.”
Schwartz calls immediate attention to this model of vision through the work’s title, Pixillation, which clearly references her process of making the film with pixels, the smallest encoded units of a digital image visible on-screen. Geometric and ordered, the pixel also acts like a grid-like webbing, providing a sense of structure for the image. Like the field of painted dots in a Pointillist painting, the digital image only emerges for the observer from the patterns formed by individual pixels. In Schwartz’s film, however, the pixel emerges as the subject of the work, making it both figure and ground. Pixillation shifts between frames of oozing drabs of deep, corpuscular red paints seeping and reverberating across the screen and jittery, strobing geometric square patterns (fig. 7). While these juxtapositions intensify the dialectic tension between the sensorial and the machinic, Schwartz undercuts their oppositions with a series of electric currents that flash across the amorphous, painterly mass (fig. 8). At first, the current appears as a nearly indiscernible flash, but as it begins to repeatedly pulse across the screen, it morphs into an organizational code, generating form from formlessness and giving shape to the amorphous. The electric current ultimately materializes as a series of pixels in a grid-like pattern across the screen, before quickly vanishing again. It is the electric shock of the current that transforms the amorphous matter, allowing geometric pattern as data flow to emerge from within the painterly ground.
The electricity in Pixillation’s painted and coded frames is reinforced by its rhythms and sounds, which pulse at a quickened and aroused pace like the electronic vibrations of a heartbeat monitor. Despite the electric shock that maps, measures, and organizes information about the painterly mess on-screen, Pixillation is hardly about a sense of order or objectivity. As much as the electric shock organizes the images, it pulls them apart as well, tugging at the edges of geometric squares until they are transformed back into fluttering biomorphic skeins of paint (fig. 9). It is this dissolution, signaling Schwartz’s resistance toward a rationalized order of vision, that integrates the viewer within the work. The rapid, almost frantic shifts between these oppositional poles result in the emergence of a series of afterimages only visible as a physiological effect between the eye and mind of the viewer, and not on the screen itself.
EXPLOR, which was designed for the manipulation of two-dimensional geometric patterns in black, gray, and white, also allowed for randomness to emerge during sequential operations executed between frames. As Patterson argues, by no longer limiting randomness to the boundaries of a single frame, EXPLOR functioned generatively in a way that Knowlton’s previous programs had not.20 Schwartz embraced this unique characteristic to create a series of optical effects. As the patterns strobe in and out, shift and reverse across frames, faint resonances remain, and outlines and colors emerge in the viewer’s eye as afterimages. By saturating Knowlton’s code with color, Schwartz transformed the movement between frames into a relational space between work and viewer. Her affirmation of the viewer’s role as an active agent within the system of the work echoed analogous shifts about the role of the observer in cybernetics. As N. Katherine Hayles has argued, the second wave of cybernetics had moved away from the closed system of homeostasis and toward the open and flexible notion of “reflexivity.” The concept of homeostasis had “traditionally been understood as the ability of living organisms to maintain steady states when they are buffeted by fickle environments.”21 Reflexivity, on the other hand, redefined the borders between the subject and its environment as permeable. Entering cybernetics primarily through discussions about the observer, reflexivity confused and entangled boundaries, making the observer part of the system being observed. Within Pixillation, reflexivity does not emerge as an explicit integration of the viewer back into the system. Instead, the non-diegetic optical effects point to an alternative definition of “pixillation”—a definition that explicitly takes the viewer into account. Even as Pixillation undoubtedly references the pixel, it also conjures the stop-motion technique known by the same name. Available since the beginning of the twentieth century, this technique integrates live actors into an animated film by minutely changing the actor’s pose from one frame to the next. Like a flipbook, the movement in pixilated films does not exist within a frame, but instead relies on the viewer’s vision, as a sensorial, cognitive interface, to fill in the gaps between frames.
Pixillation illustrates the basic strategy that would emerge in Schwartz’s films over the next several years as she continued to explore the tensions between a rationalized, technologically rendered vision and the viewer’s embodied observations. A clear sign of her increasing familiarity and comfort with the computer, Schwartz’s pace of production greatly accelerated after Pixillation. While that work had taken nearly two years to complete, partly an effect of its laborious, hand-coded process, in the next two years Schwartz produced an astounding nine more computer films. Picking up where Pixillation left off, they manifest a dialectic between technological versus embodied vision. The poles of this dialectic, however, are more extreme. Scientific and mathematical imagery often gleaned from imaging technologies converges with optical effects so extreme that they reportedly induced epileptic seizures in some viewers.22 Schwartz’s pursuit of these extremes speaks to the blurred disciplinary boundaries of her own artistic career. As an artist working within a scientific research facility, she remained dedicated to developments in both fields and particularly interested in their convergences. The year 1970 would prove pivotal for just that. As the art world embraced systems, networks, and a concept of “information” resulting in a dematerialized art object, Schwartz’s colleagues at Bell Labs, including Leon Harmon, ramped up their neural processing experiments in vision and optics.
Less than two years after Hultén’s MoMA exhibition, where Schwartz had made her artistic debut, the same museum opened Kynaston McShine’s groundbreaking exhibition Information. An international survey of more than one hundred artists, Information not only introduced the public to the tangled strains of conceptual practices, but also declared the beginnings of a new era defined by a structuralist worldview. McShine’s approach, as Eve Meltzer has argued, was totalizing. Information not only accepted a dematerialized notion of “information,” but also conceptualized social and political systems as well as the subject itself as networks. “The exhibition,” she writes, “pictured a world predicated on informational saturation and binary codification and, more radically, on the total foreclosure of the real and the bracketing of the human subject. In the structuralist view, the object and the subject are blocked out, and what is left hanging ‘in the air between them,’ as Terry Eagleton explains, is a system of rules.”23
Echoes of McShine’s coup reemerged later that year farther uptown at the Jewish Museum. Like Information, most of Jack Burnham’s exhibition Software - Information Technology: Its New Meaning for Art was dedicated to conceptual, process, and systems-oriented artworks, with the caveat that they engage with cybernetics, and emphasized the system in lieu of a work’s material form.24 Software built on many of the initial premises articulated in Burnham’s groundbreaking 1968 essay “Systems Esthetics” originally published in Artforum. Evoking biological concepts, Burnham attempted to articulate an approach to new artistic tendencies that defied the dominant formalist trends: “The specific function of modern didactic art has been to show that art does not reside in the material entities, but in relations between people and the components of their environment.”25 Shifting away from formalist conceptions of art, which argued that the object should be constrained by its own materiality, resulting in its ontological collapse into itself, Burnham instead articulated a notion of the artwork as profoundly relational. Open and dynamic, yet specific and situated, art at the beginning of the information age, according to Burnham, must foreground the interactions between subject, object, and world. Software envisioned how cybernetic art might realize this promise. In order to do so, however, Burnham had to first articulate what exactly was relational about computer art. Picking up where Hultén had left off, he pushed the comparisons between the body and machine even further, differentiating not just mechanical machines from electrical ones, but also between the parts of the electrical machine itself. “Our bodies,” he wrote, “are hardware, our behavior software.”26
With this distinction, Burnham positioned Software as both a resolution to and a critique of cyberneticians’ historic comparisons between computational machines and the philosophical mind-body paradox. The mind was too generic as a point of comparison; for Burnham, it was instead behavior, actions, that conjoined the body with the mind and both with the external world. Astutely aware that the dematerialized and “administrative” look of software often obscured the affective shimmer of the relational engagements being conceptualized, Burnham emphasized a sensorial and phenomenological approach to the works. Linda Berris’s Tactile Film (1968, fig. 10), for instance, was designed to be felt rather than seen. With the help of the Vision Substitution System designed by the Smith-Kettlewell Institute of Visual Science, the simple, abstract shapes in Berris’s film were translated into small vibrations on the viewer’s back, transforming the skin into a receiving channel for visualizing information.27 Burnham’s sensorial approach aligned technological organization with a model of vision tied to informational abundance. Vision was no longer solely concerned with optics, but rather a “landscape of sense” produced through technologies like the computer.28
As “information” came into vogue in the art world, Schwartz delved further into exploring an informational model of vision in her work. Her nine films following Pixillation vacillate between aesthetically manipulated scientific “data-images” and optical effects not visible on-screen. In Olympiad (fig. 11), for instance, made in 1971, Schwartz reinvented Eadweard Muybridge’s pioneering motion studies in the form of computer graphics. Like Pixillation, the work pays homage to the use of technology in representing movement. Moreover, Schwartz appears to hint at a possible lineage for her own work in Muybridge, whose experiments captured what the human eye could not, altering fundamental understandings of reality while marrying art and science. Less than four minutes in length, Olympiad depicts a convulsive marathon of numerous male figures running back and forth across the screen. In a playful convergence of Futurism and computer animation, their jittering, boldly outlined movement is reinforced through overlapping imagery; as in Giacomo Balla’s Dynamism of a Dog on a Leash (1912), time appears to collapse in the form of repetition. This anachronistic feature of the work, highlighted by the fact that the figures are shown moving across the screen, emphasizes the historic shift between Muybridge’s model of visualizing data and Schwartz’s. Whereas Muybridge captured reality with the camera, Schwartz rendered it with the computer. The pixel again appears as both figure and ground, with a specific emphasis on its role as a building block within the work. It is accentuated in the figures’ bodies, whose otherwise curvilinear shapes are interrupted by blocky, angular lines as well as transitional moments when larger geometric shapes emerge to depict the figures’ movements. Lastly, the pixel appears as the very ground of the on-screen image as the schematically rendered figures appear to both emerge out of and dissolve back into a pulsating field of pixels.
While continuing to work with scientific data-images, by 1972 Schwartz began to focus more specifically on depictions of measurement, often manipulating images taken by scientific instruments. The works from this period are diverse, from abstract mathematical models to images of the physical body rendered through biomedical visualization technologies, and often include experimental practices. In Mutations, for instance, Schwartz builds on the work of her colleague Don White, who was in the process of refining diode lasers for use in telecommunications technologies.29 Utilizing microphotography and computer graphics, she edited films of the lasers against a white wall and paired them with sped-up crystallography rays, resulting in a balletic performance of data visualization. In Apotheosis she similarly manipulated images rendered by visualizing technologies. Taking a PET scan of a child’s cancer radiation treatments, borrowed from her husband, who was a pediatrician at Saint Barnabas hospital at the time, she applied a frame-by-frame conversion of the images.30 The work’s striated structure follows a rhythm similar to Olympiad, teetering between legibility as visualized data in the form of the images of cancerous growth (fig. 12) and an abstracted, indecipherable field of pixels (fig. 13). It is in Apotheosis, which the New York Times critic Roger Greenspun described as “the most beautiful and subtly textured work of computer animation” he had ever seen, that the true eloquence of Schwartz’s resistance to a hyper-rationalized field of vision, a resistance closely tied to the presence of the observer, emerges.31 With images of the child’s cancerous growths fluctuating between legibility and illegibility, the true cost of distinguishing between signal and noise and remaining mindful of information’s body, its material substrate, is foregrounded.
While working on films comprised of scientific images, Schwartz also made more abstract works centered on optical effects not visible on-screen. These works closely relate to concurrent experiments in perception at Bell Labs, particularly those conducted by Leon Harmon. Harmon, an engineer by training, while working at Bell had become interested in human perception as it related to computer graphics. These interests had most famously resulted in his collaborative series with Knowlton, Studies in Perception, through which he first met Schwartz. By the time Schwartz arrived at Bell Labs, Harmon was studying perception via neural networks utilizing imaging technologies like electroencephalogram (EEG) machines.32 Connecting his subject to an EEG machine, Harmon could study perceptual triggers, mapping the specific precipices of legibility. In these experiments, he reconceptualized the viewer’s vision as a cognitive, sensorial interface, just like a computer screen.33 Harmon attempted to apply the results of many of his experiments to computer graphics, reconfiguring the specific pixel arrangements necessary for a viewer to discern randomness from a legible pattern.34 While deeply invested in questions of the observer, Harmon’s experiments, like Burnham’s Software exhibition, explored vision beyond the issue of pure optics. Here the viewer’s vision emerged only through its underlying rhythms and patterns. For Harmon, when sensorial vision was organized and codified, it could serve as a model to re-create this felt pattern of order within the computer interface.
Initially inspired by Pointillism and experiments in color theory, and further animated by Harmon’s work, Schwartz’s similar interests in optical and sensorial effects materialized in several films during this period, including UFOs, ENIGMA, and Googolplex. As Patterson points out in her insightful reading of these works, by creating afterimages and optical illusions, Schwartz aimed to generate sensorial effects for the viewer not visible on-screen.35 UFOs, made in 1971, takes the optical experiments of Pixillation to new heights. Its stroboscopic effects, which heightened the color saturation of the work, were so powerful that when it was screened at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, people reported experiencing hallucinations.36 ENIGMA and Googolplex, created the following year, take a slightly different approach. Inspired by Edwin H. Land’s experiments in color perception, both push the viewer into seeing color even though it does not appear on-screen, fashioning an embodied visual response into an integral component of the work.
By 1973, Schwartz began shifting away from these questions, replacing informational abundance with mathematical theories of communication and retooling the computer for analytic modeling. This shift was already evident in her last film of 1972, Mathoms, which unlike her earlier work is invested in images of scientific equipment rather than the information gleaned from such equipment. This change also coincided with the beginning of Schwartz’s participation in the International Computer Art Festival. Originally organized by Dimitri Devyatkin and held at The Kitchen, the festivals were where Schwartz was first introduced to avant-garde video practices and video artists working with biofeedback. It was perhaps pieces like Louise and Bill Etra’s Heartbeat Tape (1973, fig. 14), a work toying with video feedback through an electrocardiographic monitoring display, that prompted her to rethink her own model.37 Regardless, her flirtatious interest in Pointillism eventually morphed into an obsessive drive to excavate hidden orders.
By the early 1980s, the discursive tensions between the embodied spectator and a technologically rendered vision would dissipate. As data was increasingly materialized into an object of capital accumulation during the 1970s, a process visible in the corporatization of Bell Labs, the spectator’s vision was reimagined as yet another series of data points. Recordings made by various imaging technologies, including EEGs, electrocardiograms (ECGs), and PET scans, mapped the spectator’s physiological responses, disciplining vision’s sensorial excess into a rationalized and ordered series of patterns. Schwartz’s work during this period echoed these changes, culminating in her 1984 art analysis of Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa (fig. 15). Described as a “computer detective,” the seven-and-a-half-minute-long film couples picture-processing techniques with a cornucopia of scientific imaging tools, including “morphing algorithms, reflectography, ultrasonic imaging, holography, digital radiography and traditional X-ray” to reveal a self-portrait of Leonardo da Vinci hidden beneath the Mona Lisa.38 Abandoning the sensorial playfulness that had characterized her early computer films, Schwartz instead utilized the computer to excavate hidden visual patterns. In doing so, she realigned her own work with the larger corporate visions of Bell Labs and finally garnered some long-overdue recognition by executives.
As a technologically rendered science of form that valorizes pattern analysis and communicative objectivity, Schwartz’s early computer films remain a testament to the imaginative possibilities of computational sensation and affect during the 1970s. Situated at a historical precipice when informational abundance would engender the desire for a rationalized model of vision and organized standard of perception, Schwartz’s early films hint at moments of discord and incompatibility with this new order. They illustrate a sense of discomfort with the implications of this new model, one that has resulted in the transformation of information into a tangible asset class and a monetizable commodity, while simultaneously disregarding the material substrate of information. Schwartz’s unease with the promises of “information” are manifested in the viewer, whose sensorial responses to the optical illusions haunt any sense of rationalized order in her films and appear to solicit an ontological inquiry, asking where exactly the material ground of being emerges in this new age of informational abundance. Ultimately, however, Schwartz’s early films are just as much about her own role as the artist and the embodied spectator, in the process of visualizing informational patterns. Computers have generally been accepted as a tool, a concept Schwartz has often repeated, and the monitor as a space of order and rationalized vision, a Euclidean site of visual mastery. But the computer also shapes how we read and attend to information; it allows its user to isolate images and to create borders around data.39 It is this sense of contingency, manifest in her own role as an artist working in a scientific lab, but also in her use of the computer as a specific tool in aesthetically crafting information, that emerges as a site of inquiry in Schwartz’s early work.
Zabet Patterson, Peripheral Vision: Bell Labs, the S-C 4020, and the Origins of Computer Art (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2015), 45–46.
Patterson, Peripheral Vision, 46.
Henry R. Lieberman, “Art and Science Proclaim Alliance in Avant-Garde Loft,” New York Times, October 11, 1967, 49. Harmon and Knowlton’s Computer Nude became one of the most widely reproduced and exhibited examples of early computer art. In 1968 it was shown at two seminal exhibitions: in Jasia Reichardt’s exhibition of computer art, Cybernetic Serendipity, Institute of Contemporary Art, London; and in Pontus Hultén’s exhibition The Machine, as Seen at the End of the Mechanical Age, Museum of Modern Art, New York.
Of course, this historic lineage also highlights the ways in which Computer Nude, like innumerable works before it, stages artistic experimentation on the female body. For a more general discussion of this see Carol Duncan, “Virility and Domination in Early Twentieth-Century Vanguard Painting,” Artforum, December 1973, 30–39.
Harmon was part of Bell Labs’ Sensory and Perceptual Processes department, where he experimented with depth perception and visual pattern recognition. In 1973 he left to pursue a PhD at Case Western Reserve University on neural processing utilizing EEG measurements.
Hay’s career as an avant-garde choreographer and dancer also brings up the question of why Knowlton and Harmon approached the representation of her body in such a static way.
Orit Halpern, Beautiful Data: A History of Vision and Reason since 1945 (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2014), 13–14.
N. Katherine Hayles, How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999), 8.
Hayles, How We Became Posthuman, 137.
Hayles, How We Became Posthuman, 134, 136–37, 132.
Halpern, Beautiful Data, 21.
The visual effects in Schwartz’s films suggest interesting parallels with some of the scientific experiments associated with second-wave cybernetics, particularly those described in Humberto Maturana’s seminal paper “What the Frog’s Eye Tells the Frog’s Brain,” Proceedings of the Institute for Radio Engineers 47, no. 11 (November 1959): 1940–51. Maturana’s experiment, like Schwartz’s films, demonstrates that visual information is processed in a biologically embodiment-specific way. This leads Maturana to suggest that a viewer does not merely register reality, but rather constructs it. For a more in-depth discussion of the relationship between Maturana’s experiments and theories of embodiment and cybernetics see Hayles, How We Became Posthuman, 132–48.
K. G. Pontus Hultén, ed., The Machine, as Seen at the End of the Mechanical Age (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1968), 15–197. Paik’s McLuhan Caged and Rondo Electronique were both included in the exhibition, making them some of the earliest video works shown in MoMA’s galleries.
Hultén, The Machine, as Seen at the End of the Mechanical Age, 3.
Lillian Schwartz and Laurens R. Schwartz, The Computer Artist’s Handbook: Concepts, Techniques, and Applications (New York: W. W. Norton, 1992), 7–12.
In The Computer Artist’s Handbook Schwartz elaborates on the internal mechanics of Proxima Centauri and provides comical anecdotes about the first time it was shown: “The mechanics themselves caused some difficulties. In fact, during the selection process, the museum officials were not even watching a mechanically operated sculpture. The system had broken down the night before, and I had spent the morning fitting my sixteen-year-old son (Laurens) into the box. He raised and lowered the globe, depending on whether I coughed or sneezed.” She also mentions that the piece was featured in a Star Trek episode to imprison Spock’s brain. Schwartz, The Computer Artist’s Handbook, 10.
It was Schwartz’s computer-aided visual analysis of Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa that led to this employment change. For an additional discussion of this see Rebekah Rutkoff, “Painting by Numbers,” Artforum, October 2016, 238–45.
Patterson, Peripheral Vision, 94–95. Patterson additionally describes the labor-intensive and time-delayed process of utilizing EXPLOR to create the coded image sequences in the film.
Carolyn L. Kane, “Digital Art and Experimental Color Systems at Bell Laboratories, 1965–1984: Restoring Interdisciplinary Innovations to Media History,” Leonardo 43, no. 1 (2010): 53–58.
Patterson, Peripheral Vision, 93.
Hayles, How We Became Posthuman, 8.
Patterson, Peripheral Vision, 99.
Eve Meltzer, “The Dream of the Information World,” in Systems We Have Loved: Conceptual Art, Affect, and the Antihumanist Turn (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013), 27–70.
Jack Burnham, ed., Software - Information Technology: Its New Meaning for Art (New York: Jewish Museum, 1970), 12.
Jack Burnham, “Systems Esthetics,” Artforum, September, 1968, 31. Quoting the biologist Ludwig von Bertalanffy, Burnham defines a system as “‘a complex of components in interaction,’ comprised of material, energy, and information in various degrees of interaction” (32).
Burnham, Software, 12.
The prototype of the Vision Substitution System exhibited at the Software show consisted of a wheelchair with a camera attached to the front and four hundred tiny vibrators mounted on its back. When sitting in the chair, a viewer would experience visual images as tactile sensations on their back. While the designers were working on improving the technological facility of the prototype, the Vision Substitution System shown at the Software exhibition was limited to translating three-dimensional objects and letters of the alphabet into tactile sensations. Berris’s film was made specifically for the prototype, with its limitations in mind. Utilizing simple, geometric shapes, Berris attempted to communicate a poetic concept of touch to viewers.
I am borrowing the term “landscape of sense” from Halpern, who discusses it in relationship to rendering technologies. Halpern, Beautiful Data, 13–14.
Laurens R. Schwartz, email to the author, July 3, 2020.
Laurens R. Schwartz, email to the author, July 3, 2020.
Roger Greenspun, “The Screen: 15 Animated Shorts are at Film Forum,” New York Times, June 9, 1973, 22.
Leon Harmon, “Picture Processing by Computer,” Science 164, no. 3875 (April 4, 1969): 19–29.
Leon Harmon and Bela Julesz, “Masking in Visual Recognition: Effects of Two-Dimensional Filtered Noise,” Science 180, no. 4091 (June 15, 1973): 1195.
Harmon and Julesz, “Masking in Visual Recognition,” 1196.
Patterson, Peripheral Vision, 98–103. A similar reading of these films, although more focused on depth perception, can be found in Maureen Nappi, “Lillian F. Schwartz Redux: In Movement, Color and 3D Chromostereoscopy,” Leonardo 48, no. 1 (2015): 55–59.
Schwartz, The Computer Artist’s Handbook, 115.
Schwartz’s works are inconsistently labeled during the festivals. For instance, Mutations is labeled as a “film” in the program for the 2nd International Computer Art Festival, but as “video” in the program for the 3rd.
See Lillian Schwartz’s website: http://lillian.com/art-analysis/.
Catherine Waldy, “The Body and the Digital Archive: The Visible Human Project and the Computerization of Medicine,” Health 1, no. 2 (October 1997): 227–30.