Rediscovering the inherent possibilities arising from the limitations encountered in early computer generated and aided graphics, inspired by the motion graphics approaches of John Whitney Snr. A computational arts research and theory project.

Project Proposal
February 22, 2021
Proposal for Individual Research Project, in Computational Arts-Based Research and Theory (2020-21)

What is the overarching area of research?

Starting with the works of John and James Whitney, early pioneers of computer aided graphics and animation, I want to look at how the limitations they found in exploring these new frontiers shaped their work, and how they shaped the artifacts they produced - such as the films Lapis (James & John), Yantra (James) and Permutations (John). What is striking about these - is not just the effects they were able to create with emerging non specific technology, such as the World War II M-5 anti-aircraft gun director (an analog computer), but how they exhibit unique and striking aesthetics which are very much products of that technology (and of course the artists intention).

As a computational artist in the early 21st Century, working with highly developed graphical pipelines, processes and raw computing power - it can seem that the opportunity to create art which is a product of it's limitations is at best much diminished, and at worst non-existent…

What are the key questions or issues you will address?

There are two key areas I want to explore as part of this project - from these I have generated an initial set of questions / short essay titles for me to explore during the research phase of the project.

  • Human perception imposes a temporal limit on how we produce moving images though the use of a computer - that is, an image must be drawable in at least 417ms (24 frames per second), and ideally in 167ms (60 fps). This limitation drives approaches to computer (aided) graphics acting as a barrier between realtime, and pre-rendered experiences, where the decisions made result in unique, and potentially pleasing artefacts of their own. I intend to explore artefacts created in both sides of the temporal limit, and look at how we might invoke their spirit in modern computational arts practices.

  • Computer (aided) Graphics has evolved from a contentious feature in early computing - to an industry led, pipeline driven world, in which everyday devices now command graphics powers unimaginable 20-30 years ago. Whilst this delivers huge power to the computational artist today, having been primarily driven by the film and games industries, it has ploughed a furrow of delivering ever increasing realism - creating new, and perhaps unhelpful constraints and artefacts in art generated by it. I want to look at how we can step out of these constraints in our own practices, and try to find new and interesting limitations to explore aesthetics not driven by this realism pipeline.

The current list of topics I intend to explore can be found on my website in this post and are listed below, as of 22nd February 2021 - not this is a working list, and it is likely I will focus on a few specific areas in this list.

  • The Work of John Sr. and James Whitney
  • Stop motion animation, opportunities and limitations, it's use in early computer generated / aided graphics
  • Usage of film and video cameras in computer graphics generation
  • The impacts of using mechanical processes in producing computer generated / aided graphics
  • Modelling the physical, emulation, simulation, approximation and inspiration - virtually achieving the real, or almost realtime
  • Military surplus hardware, especially that from World War II and the Cold War, and it's impact on the arts (also, the impact of military projects on computer graphics)
  • Computer graphics of the Micro Computer revolution of the 70's and 80's, and their limitations, especially those of the BBC Micro, and Commodore CBM8032 as used by Robert Henke for the CBM 8032 AV project. Evolution of the Demoscene and it's impacts
  • Fake computer graphics - using physical processes to create an illusion of computer generated graphics - an inverse of John's work?
  • The computer as assistant - computer aided graphics, as opposed to generated
  • Effects achieved through manipulation of polar / cartesian coordinates - the Whitney-Reed RDTD (Radius-Differential, Theta-Differential) AV composition program
  • The interactive displays of NASA Mission Control Houston during the Apollo era - mechanoptical generated graphics (inspired by this video)

Why are you motivated to undertake this project?

There are a number of motivational reasons for this project - some of which are listed below

  • An interest in the history of computer graphics, and especially early computer graphics, and it's pioneers who sought to create art, as opposed to just functional graphics and images for human interaction
  • A desire to explore some of the concepts in explored in the Whitney's work - particularly ideas of geometry, harmonic relationships, especially in the fusing of music and image
  • The opportunity to rediscover, and explore existing works, by taking on board the physical practices of analog computers, film cameras, and moving objects and placing them into a virtual world.

What theoretical frameworks will you use in your work to guide you?

I plan to use the following theoretical frameworks, to help me research and evaluate the pertinent questions I am asking - to help understand why early computational artworks may have been created in specific ways, due to limitations of technology at the time, as well as the technical practices needed to make them happen

  • Media Archaeology
  • Software Studies
  • Retro futurism

There are also elements of things like queer use of objects - as explored in Sara Ahmed's Whats the Use? - where technologies are used in unintended ways.

What theoretical frameworks will help you articulating the analysis of your project?

Ultimately the outcome of this research, will need to be judged on it's aesthetic quality. It also could be articulated though the lens of Haraway's the Cyborg Manifesto - especially in light of examining our physiological constraints for perception, but also in how we can create works which challenge orthodox practices, and change how we might see the world round us.

How will you document your project?

I have created a website, which can be found at where the project will be documented, primarily through the following

  • Short essays / blog posts on topics of interest to this project - acting as mini pieces of research into a specific concept, or exploration of that concept in execution via
  • Prototype code - most likely mainly in OpenFrameworks and C++, although I hope to create some P5.js based code, which can also run in the browser alongside the essays
  • Images and Videos from the prototype code, and any finally constructed artefact
  • Bibliography and references

Timeline for project milestones

The website was created by the end of January in preparation for actual project work to be carried out.

In my approach, detailed above - and here - I will split the project into two phases. Firstly a research phase in which I look at a number of questions of interest to the subject matter, writing short essays / blog posts reporting the results of my research, and any prototyping work carried out. This will be followed by a second phase, where I create the artefact, bringing in the results of what I have learned in phase 1.

Phase 1 will run from 22nd February to approximately the end of March, then I shall use April to carry out Phase 2. I do expect there to be some blurring of dates during this - with artefact work carrying out before phase 2, and I may return to any topics of interest, to reinvestigate anything I have discovered during build of my artefact.

Budget (if any)

For this project, I intend to keep the work within a virtual environment - it would be interesting to carry some of this into the physical world, and build an artefact, which I hope is something I will look at in the future.

Therefore no budget is required.

Annotated Bibliography of 3-4 sources

Vector Synthesis: A Media Archaeological Investigation into Sound Modulated Light, Derek Holzer, Publisher Derek Holzer ISBN: 978-952-94-2221-8

An inspiration for this project, in his thesis for an MA in Sound in New Media at Aalto University Helsinki, Holzer explores a number of historical elements in the usage of CRT displays used in a vector fashion (where the electron beam is deflected to draw outline images - as opposed to the raster approach used in TV, and most computer monitors prior to the introduction of flatscreen displays). He then uses this history, to explain how it informs his current art - where software such as Pure data can be used to drive an external vector display, creating transformative works that would not necessarily have been possible in the Permutations

Mainframe Experimentalism: Early Computing and the foundations of the digital arts, ed. Hannah B Higgins and Douglas Kahn, University of California Press, ISBN: 978-0-520-26838-8

Specifically the essay "From the Gun Controller to the Mandala: The Cybernetic Cinema of John and James Whitney" which examines the films "Lapis" and "Permutations", and where they fit in the artists work, looking at how they evolved from their earlier work in abstract film and motion control / animation into early computational art practitioners, making use of junked technology to achieve their work, eventually for John moving into the use of IBM computers to create the film Permutations.

How Pac-Man Eats, Noah Wardrip-Fruin, MIT Press, 2020 ISBN: 9780262044653

"How the tools and concepts for making games are connected to what games can and do mean; with examples ranging from Papers, Please to Dys4ia." - explores the tangential topic of what we can do with technology, and how it informs the games we can create (and vice-a-versa). I've yet to dive more fully into this, but it looks like it expresses some of the concepts I'm interested in - and certainly within games, we now see the ability to tell quite different stories as the power available to us, allows, when not aggressively pursuing an ever more beige reality, us to create much more varied and interesting worlds, where artefacts of the past can be deployed to great effect.

Reference list of 8-10 sources

  • Creative Computer Graphics, Annabel Jankel, Rocky Morton - Cambridge University Press - 1984 - ISBN: 0-521-26251-8
  • The Computer Animator's Technical Handbook, Lynn Pocock, Judson Rosebush - Morgan Kaufmann Publishers - 2002 - ISBN: 0-12-558821-6
  • What's the Use, Sara Ahmed - Duke University Press - 2019 - ISBN: 978-1-4780-0650-3
  • Evolutionary Art and Computers, Stephen Todd and William Latham - Academic Press - 1992 - ISBN: 0-120437185-X
  • The Dream Machine, M. Mitchell Waldrop - Stripe Press - 2018 - ISBN: 978-1-7322651-1-0
  • Islamic Patterns, An analytical and cosmological approach - Keith Critchlow - Thames & Hudson - ISBN 978-0-500-27071-4
  • Robert Henke: CBM 8032 AV - Programme Notes by Arwa Haider, Barbican Performance 23/1/2020
  • Robert Henke: CBM 8032 AV - Inside the CBM 8032 AV project - webpage
  • Digital Harmony of Sound and Light, Bill Alves - Computer Music Journal (full citation needed)
  • Motion Control: An Overview, John Whitney - American Cinematographer, December 1981: 62, 12, Arts Premium Collection, pg 1220
  • Anti-Aircraft Fire Control and the Development of Integrated Systems at Sperry, 1925-1940 - David A. Mindell - IEEE Control Systems, April 1995
  • The Advanced User Guide for the BBC Microcomputer - Bray, Dickens and Holmes, 1984? Acorn Computer?