Chance and Control: Art in the Age of Computers

Charles Csuri, Random War (1968), lithograph, after a computer-generated plotter drawing. V&A Circ.775-1969. ©The Artist / Victoria and Albert Museum.

Opening at London’s Institute of Contemporary Arts ICA in 1968, “Cybernetic Serendipity” was one of the first international exhibitions devoted to the relationship between the computer and the arts. Artists, mathematicians, engineers, composers and poets all presented work in what is now seen as a landmark event in the history of digital art. The curator, Jasia Reichardt, wrote:

People who would never have put pencil to paper, or brush to canvas, have started making images… which approximate and often look identical to what we call art and put in public galleries. This is the single most important revelation of this exhibition.1

The Victoria and Albert Museum acquired some of its first examples of computer-generated imagery as a result of the show: a set of seven lithographs of works in the exhibition—two by the Computer Technique Group CTG from Japan, plus one each by Charles Csuri, William Fetter, Maughan S. Mason, Donald K. Robbins and Kerry Strand. The complete set was purchased in 1969 for just five pounds, though the Museum’s files demonstrate that some V&A curators were reluctant to accept the prints, including the then-head of the Prints and Drawings department.2 One commented, “I am far from convinced about their aesthetic validity—I would support [the] contention that they should be represented in the museum as characteristic aberrations.”3

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  1. Jasia Reichardt, introduction to Cybernetic Serendipity: The Computer and the Arts (London: Studio International, 1968), 5. []
  2. The Cybernetic Serendipity prints were ultimately acquired for the museum’s Circulation Department and they are now housed in the Prints, Drawings and Paintings collection. []
  3. V&A nominal file MA/1/M2971, 1969. []