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Early computer art

June 18, 2010

Japanese artist Hiroshi Kawano, one of the first in the world to use the giant mainframe computers of the 1960s to create art, has donated his unique archives to a museum in southern Germany.

"Artificial Mondrian" by Hiroshi Kawano, around 1966
Kawano partnered with computer experts for his art projectsImage: ZKM Karlsruhe

These days, it's virtually a no-brainer to produce a picture using a computer, thanks to easy-to-use graphics software and speedy color printers.

Back in the early 1960s, however, the scientists and artists who first started using the enormous mainframe computers of the day to create images faced a notoriously difficult task. So when one of these computer art pioneers, Hiroshi Kawano of Japan, offered to donate his entire archives to Germany's Center for Media Art, the institution leaped at the chance.

Hiroshi Kawano
Kawano was a philosophy lecturer when he started creating computer artImage: ZKM Karlsruhe

It is "enormously significant" for the history of early computer art, said Margit Rosen, a curator at the center. More usually know by its German acronym, ZKM, the institution in the south-western German town of Karlsruhe took symbolic possession of the archive this week.

Artistic treasure trove

Kawano, who was born in 1925, had saved all the material relating to the creation of his computer art - meticulously organized and filed in his tiny apartment outside of Tokyo.

"When I visited Mr Kawano in Japan last year, he guided me to his office, which was packed with books, magazines, programs, tapes, all kinds of documents - only in the living room could I spread out his paintings on the tatami-covered floor," said Rosen.

The archive includes more than 80 of Kawano's works as well as the programs used to create them, computer printouts, instruction manuals, and computer language handbooks, plus prodigious amounts of correspondence with other computer art pioneers around the world.

"To make a comparison, it is as if you got the complete works of a painter, plus the formula of how he mixed his colors, which paper he used, and which paintbrush he used," said Rosen.

Math + philosophy = art

Hiroshi Kawano, untitled, around 1964
This work, from 1964, is among Kawano's firstImage: ZKM Karlsruhe

In the early 1960s, Hiroshi Kawano was a lecturer in philosophy in Tokyo when he discovered the writings of the German philosopher Max Bense, who proposed (among other things) the idea of measuring beauty using scientific rules. At the same time, Kawano heard that scientists were using computers to create music.

Putting the two together, he decided to explore the possibility of using a computer to program beauty.

"I wasn't a science professor, but rather a philosophy professor but I wanted to combine the two," explained Kawano at ZKM where he gave a talk in honor of his donation.

Putting his ideas into practice, however, was a difficult endeavor.

Novel cooperation

Unlike personal computers of today, the horrendously expensive mainframe computers of the time were only owned by research institutions or large corporations - and access was limited. Using them involved writing programs in complex computer languages, then laboriously punching these programs into hundreds of cards before feeding them into the machine.

Hiroshi Kawano, untitled, around 1964
The work of German philosopher Max Bense inspired KawanoImage: ZKM Karlsruhe

In search of help, Kawano went knocking on the door of his university's computer center.

"They said, 'you are the first man who wants to do this,' so even for them, the implementation of the idea was new," said Kawano. "That's why they were eager to help me."

Kawano produced his first computer artwork in 1964 - one of the first in the world to do so. And while the design of his works produced during the 1960s might look simple - they're not. They are the result of complex mathematical algorithms programmed so that, although Kawano sets the rules for how the picture could look, he can't determine exactly what will appear on the printer.

For Yoshiyuki Abe, a Japanese artist who has researched extensively into computer-generated art, the power of Kawano's work is that he started off a philosopher who created art to explore new theories.

"Most philosophers just say something, but they don't create anything," said Abe. "Kawano created something; I think that is very unique."

Author: Kate Hairsine

Editor: Kate Bowen