Distraction Free Reading

Art, Algorithms, and the Physicality of the Virtual

Star Wars’ legion of fans were rewarded in rewarded in December 2019 with the long-awaited release of Star Wars, The Rise of Skywalker, filled with state-of-the-art computer graphics. 42 years earlier, George Lucas presented the first film in the series, Star Wars Episode IV—A New Hope. For the most part, Lucas’ 1977 work was a traditionally-produced film, which filmed painstakingly hand-crafted physical models of miniature spacecraft and terrain to create an alternate universe. But the film also featured several examples of the earliest computer graphics to appear in a feature-length production.(1) In the intervening 42 years, filmmakers embraced and evolved complex computer-generated visual effects into a sophisticated blend of art and technology which has transformed 21st century filmmaking and image culture more generally.

Early computer-generated images including those in the first Star Wars were produced by close collaborations between artists, scientists and programmers—a system which continues today in visual effects studios around the world.

The labor of crafting physics-based computer simulations, 3D modeling and art, intended to be blended invisibly into the final film, has become increasing visible, through the release of numerous “making of” videos and programs focusing on behind-the-scenes work of visual effects artists and computer scientists. However, the roots of the algorithms and imaging tools used to create modern visual effects originate in a less-known community of fine artists, who began finding their way into computer labs in the late 1950s. The early work of this international community, all drawn to the expressive potential of the computer for image making, has remained relatively unknown.(2) The Victoria and Albert Museum in London holds one of the largest collections of early computer art, assembled by the American collector and curator Patric Prince.

Seeing the work in person is a surprisingly physical, visceral experience. A number of the pieces have scratches and grooves where the ink pens mounted to pen-plotter printers bit into the rolls of paper, or smudges where the ink contacted a surface before drying. Other images—photographs made from computer screens seem to exist somewhere between the glowing, interactive experience onscreen and the shadowy record of it. The art in Prince’s collection reveals the difficulties of translating early computer-generated images from screens into the physical world.

Overlapping art/science communities

The digital art practices used to create cinematic visual effects originated in military-industrial laboratories and research spaces in which the field of computing developed. In the 1940s the first digital computer, the ENIAC (Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer), was introduced, along with “cybernetics,” a term coined by American mathematician Norbert Weiner, to describe communication and control systems. Early cyberneticists like Weiner were fascinated by parallels between these systems, computers and the human brain. For critics, the work of early computer artists was entangled with discussions of cybernetics and authorship, as artists and algorithms mingled with machines.

Digital art’s roots in earlier aesthetic movements including DaDa, Fluxus and conceptual art, also centered on investigations of rules, randomness and control. Computer art developed in parallel with computer graphics, and visual effects for film; practitioners of all of these formed overlapping art/science communities. But by the late 1990s, as computers became ubiquitous, the term “computer art” was increasingly being replaced by the terms “digital art” or “new media art.”

According to Douglas Dodds, Senior Curator at the Victoria and Albert Museum, computer art was largely ignored by the art establishment in the 1960s and ‘70s. Some early critics of computer-generated fine art decried the precise, cold, technical qualities of computer-generated images, and as noted, the authorship of machine-generated images. However, to view the art in person is to experience a sense of the failures of early computer visualization attempts, which gives the early computer art a bespoke, human character. Prince’s collection reveals a human response of artists wrestling with the new technologies. The images’ links to computation made the art problematic for many critics, as works created in partnerships between computer artists, scientists, and engineers challenged the traditional notions of artistic picture-making.

Computer art develops

As artists gained access to computers, and as computers gained visualization capabilities, computer art developed in the UK, West Germany, Japan and the United States,. In 1959 CalComp introduced their 565 drum plotter, one of the first pictorial output devices. This became a primary method of producing early computer art. A ball-point ink pen mounted on an arm was pressed against paper scrolling across the drum. The first plotters had an 11” wide drum, which held rolls of  paper up to 120 feet long. The finished drawings were torn off from the roll. Artists experimented with taping other types of paper to the drum, and attached higher quality ink pens or even brushes to create different types of marks. By the close of the 1960s, although no computer drawing software was available, programming theory was developing, and artists were learning to code or partnering with engineers and computer scientists, who were also experimenting with image-making.

Patric Prince Collection

Portrait of Patric Prince wearing a blue lanyard.

Patric Prince, photographed at SIGGRAPH, at an unknown date.

In the mid-1970s, Los Angeles was at the nexus of visual experimentation in computer graphics, scientific visualization, film and fine art. Introduced to computer art in 1980, Prince began studying art, organizing exhibitions in LA and internationally, connecting with computer  artists, and collecting their work. Her collection reveals the evolving networks of scientists, fine artists and computer graphics artists in Southern California. By collecting their work, she collected the algorithm—the meeting ground between engineers and artists mediated by the computer. Prince organized some of the key computer art exhibitions, including the SIGGRAPH retrospective in 1986.(4)

Computer art enters the galleries

In 1968, Jasia Richardt, a curator at the Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA) in London, organized Cybernetic Serendipity. The exhibition lit the fuse on a growing interest in computer art and computer graphics, or as artist/historian Herbert Franke terms it, “computer-aesthetic efforts.”(3) Richardt’s exhibit followed 9 Evenings: Theatre and Engineering, a series of events organized in 1966 by the U.S. group Experiments in Art and Technology, or E.A.T., connected to Bell Laboratories in New Jersey. These and a few other exhibits stirred public interest in the loosely connected community of artists, scientists and engineers who embraced experimental computer imaging technologies.In 1965 the Howard Wise gallery in New York City, organized one of the first public showings of computer art. The critics were not impressed by the exhibition, Computer-Generated Pictures, which presented work by two engineers from Bell Labs, Michael A. Noll and Bela Julesz. Noll and Julesz would go on to collaborate extensively with artists at Bell Labs and elsewhere.  Extensive media coverage of these events provoked wider discussions of computer art, technology and authorship in the popular press.

Computer artists enter the labs

Rendering of a blue texture resembling a mountaint with a broken shield stuck in it repeating into the distance.

David Em, Aku, 1977. Given by the American Friends of the V&A through the generosity of Patric Prince.

Many of the artists in Prince’s collections gained access to expensive computer systems by joining scientific laboratories or university research groups. Among the first works collected by Prince was an image by San Francisco artist David Em. In 1976 Em had been invited to become the first artist-in-residence at Pasadena’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, where he joined Prince’s husband Robert Holzman and a small group of computer programmers in founding a computer graphics group in the Lab. Em had also worked with Triple-I, a film technology company in Santa Monica, California. As Em describes it, the computer open new, 3D vistas for him. Instead of beginning with the idea of a frame and filling it with an image, working with computer-generated 3D spaces turned the artistic process into an interactive exploration. Em said his picture-making process was like building a world, stepping into the world, then looking around to see what was there.(5)

Prince also collected the works of artist Lillian Schwartz, who collaborated with engineer Kenneth Knowlton at Bell Telephone Laboratories in Murray Hill, New Jersey. Bell Labs, with  researchers working on image- and sound-processing projects, was a center for the production of early computer art. In 1963 Knowlton developed one of the earliest programming languages for producing computer animations, called BEFLIX (from Bell Flicks). Schwartz pioneered computer-asisted art analysis, using digital images superimposed on scanned artworks to show unexpected correlations. Her work Mona/Leo indicated that Leonardo da Vince had used his own face as a model for his portrait Mona Lisa.

Pixelated beige wall with a large cut out. Behind it is a red lattice made of triangles. A shadow is cast on the wall in the shape of the lattice.

Darcey Gerbarg, Raffles City (detail), 1984; Given by the American Friends of the V&A through the generosity of Patric Prince.

A third artist represented in the collection is Darcey Gerbarg. Gerbarg, a New York City artist, is also involved with SIGGRAPH and helped organize computer art shows. Gerbarg’s work Raffles City is one frame of a 3D animation created in 1984 for the architect I.M. Pei. Using computers at MAGI SynthaVision, an early computer animation company in New York, Gerbarg and the company’s computer programmers modelled the building, using the MAGI’s SynthaVision  solids modelling software (also used to create computer-generated objects and animated sequences for the film TRON).(6) Gerbarg’s animation is an early example of a 3D rendered architectural space with a fly-through animation into and around the building.


Collectors like Prince have played an enormous role in preserving and thus defining the history of computer art. Prince’s collection reveals the contours of the computer art community as well as their intersections with other visualization communities. Prince’s collection preserves important physical evidence of computer art as labor performed at the margins of disciplines. Partnerships between computer artists, scientists, and engineers bridged the scientific, artistic, and filmmaking communities, facilitating information exchanges that shaped these diverse fields. By the late 1990s, as computers had become easier to use and entwined in culture, the identity of the computer artist shifted and the term “computer art” became less meaningful. In Prince’s collections, we see the first computer artists’ struggles with materials and technologies, and can discern the evolving algorithms at the heart of the process. The physical computers, central to the production of the work, are not in her collection, but their presence is felt throughout. Prince’s collections preserve the visibility of the labor of the first computer artists. The sophisticated visual effects and complex simulations in Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker owe much to the artists in Prince’s collection—and the collection helps scholars understand how much we owe Prince for capturing the physicality of these pioneering digital art works.


(1) For the first Star Wars, computer artist Larry Cuba used rudimentary vector graphics techniques to create a computer representation of the Death Star, which appeared on a computer display in the film. http://www.pixartouchbook.com/blog/2009/11/20/the-making-of-computer-graphics-for-star-wars-episode-iv-197.html

(2) A recent history of digital art, Grant D. Taylor, When the Machine Made Art: The Troubled History of Computer Art, (Bloomsbury Academic, 2014), has helped trace this history, adding to works by artist/historians Paul Brown, Jasia Reichardt and Patric Prince.

(3) Herbert W. Franke. Computer Graphics – Computer Art, 2nd Ed. (Heidelberg: Springer-Verlag, 1985).

(4) The Association for Computing Machinery, Special Interest Group Graphics (ACM SIGGRAPH) is the oldest and most influential society for computer professionals. The annual SIGGRAPH conferences, and their associated art shows, are influential and high-profile events for the computer graphics community.

(5) Information International Inc., (Triple I) Triple I made digital scanners and image-processing equipment. In 1973, Westworld was the first film to use Triple I’s digital image processing to simulate an android’s vision, and in 1984 the company created effects for Disney’s TRON.

(6) MAGI, or Mathematical Applications Group Inc., began by creating physics simulations for the US Air Force. For their work on TRON, one of the first films to feature significant computer animation, they collaborated with West Coast firms Triple I and Robert Abel and Associates.


Em, David and David Ross (1988). The Art of David Em. New York: Harry N. Abrams.

Franke, Herbert W. (1985). Computer Graphics – Computer Art, 2nd Ed. Heidelberg: Springer-Verlag.

Taylor, Grant D. (2014). When the Machine Made Art: The Troubled History of Computer Art. Bloomsbury Academic.

1 Comment

  • Happy to see this article. It helped me find the date I created the Raffles City 3D animation at Magi SynthaVision (The company that did most of the animation for the original movie, Tron.)

    However, a bit more research might have resulted in a more well rounded view of this subject. I refer the author to: Digital Visions: Computers and Art, Dr. Cynthia Goodman

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