Casey Reas on the History of Generative Art - Part 1

In Part 1 of this two-part conversation, the Le Random team speaks with Casey Reas: artist, UCLA professor and co-founder of Processing and Feral File. We discuss the history of generative art: the overlooked importance of experimental video art, unexpected catalysts of the movement and more.
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Casey Reas, RGB-3-170°-166°-130°, 2020. Courtesy of the artist
Casey Reas, RGB-3-170°-166°-130°, 2020. Courtesy of the artist

In Part 1 of this two-part conversation, the Le Random team speaks with Casey Reas: artist, UCLA professor and co-founder of Processing and Feral File. We discuss the history of generative art: the overlooked importance of experimental video art, unexpected catalysts of the movement and more.

Peter Bauman: Le Random is making a detailed Generative Art Timeline. What three events would be the most important to include? And what are three events that have been overlooked?

Casey Reas
: I could probably make a list of many more than three [laughs], but the first thing I came up with was the Software exhibition at the Jewish Museum in New York in 1970. In contrast to that was the Information show at the Museum of Modern Art also in 1970. Comparing those two was really interesting. Information was completely focused on conceptual art, working with language, systems and rules. Software was, of course, artists working with code directly. They were working with the material of software. The way that the critics and public received technology-centered shows such as Software, 9 Evenings at the New York Armory in 1966 and Art and Technology at Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) in 1971 was a thread that was halted or killed for a while.

’s focus away from technology and on Conceptual Art was really the driving way forward. A lot of the development around these ideas that many generative artists care about moved away from software again and didn't really come back until a later moment.

Peter Bauman: What would you say is the second major event? 

Casey Reas:
 I think the second major event is the publication of Expanded Cinema in 1970 by Gene Youngblood. That book talks a lot about artists working with code to make films. It's an extraordinary primary document written at the moment and with direct contact and interviews with those artists. Then, another important moment is when Lillian Schwartz and Stan VanDerBeek were both invited into Bell labs to work with Ken Knowlton. VanDerBeek and Knowlton’s Poem Field videos and those early films that Lillian made are just extraordinary works of generative art.

Stan VanDerBeek, Poem Field No. 1, 1967. Courtesy of the artist
Stan VanDerBeek, Poem Field No. 1, 1967. Courtesy of the artist

Today, we're really fixated on the early plotter drawings and not putting enough energy on the early, early films.

Conrad House
: You've always had an affinity towards filmmaking and its attachment to your generative process. What other early video artists should we be putting this energy into?

Casey Reas:
Another artist who I don’t know is on many’s radar is John Whitney. John Whitney made a lot of extraordinary analog films. Some of the early plotter drawings were made with analog computers, like bomb site hardware and pendulum machines. John Whitney and his brother James Whitney were making a lot of films with similar machines. At one point, John Whitney started using software and working with computers. He had a collaboration with Jack Citron at IBM here in Los Angeles and started making computer films. And that's something that's talked about a lot in Expanded Cinema.

We talk a lot about Manfred Mohr and Vera Molnár as pioneers, but I don't think we talk about Lillian Schwartz and John Whitney in the same breath as pioneers because they work in the medium of film. 

Film is far more difficult to, I guess, have experiences with beyond low resolution YouTube videos.

Peter Bauman: It's pretty astonishing how impactful the role of corporations like Bell Labs, IBM and Boeing were in that early period. What was your next major moment?

Casey Reas:
Yeah, for sure. My next major event is Cybernetic Serendipity in 1968 at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, London. What I find so amazing about that show is the way that it's anti-disciplinary. 

It charts out that “Oh! Generative art is actually about language. It's about poetry; it's about music; it's about visual art.” And, “Oh! It's being made by scientists, by artists and by composers.”

I still think there hasn't been a show with that breadth, even since. The vision there was so strong.

Peter Bauman: We have asked a few people this question about their three most significant events, including
Anne Spalter, Georg Bak and Jason Bailey (Artnome). It’s now unanimous that Cybernetic Serendipity was included. It’s pretty clear how consequential some of the biggest thought leaders in this space think it has been.

Casey Reas:
Well, maybe I can pick a different one then. The Responsive Eye in 1965 at the Museum of Modern Art played an important role in showcasing Op and Kinetic Art. A really unique contributor to me is the history of Kinetic Art, artists working with motion, movement and systems.

Peter Bauman: And what did you think were some under the radar events?

Casey Reas:
So this first one isn’t an event; it's a person. I think Sonya Rapoport is an extraordinary artist, and I feel she hasn't received the recognition that she deserves for her work. The catalog for the new LACMA show, Coded: Art Enters the Computer Age, 1952-1982, has a good focus on her work.

Detail of: Sonya Rapoport, Charles Simmonds (Yarn Drawing No. 16), 1976. Courtesy Estate of Sonya Rapoport.
Detail of: Sonya Rapoport, Charles Simmonds (Yarn Drawing No. 16), 1976. Courtesy Estate of Sonya Rapoport.

Another one is Harold Cohen and AARON. We always talk about the fact that institutions have never supported generative art. And I think that they haven't at all in a really awful way, but there are exceptions. Harold Cohen had AARON making drawings at San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) and the Tate Gallery in London. Those are really big events that we should promote more. Harold was an extraordinary pioneer in the field.

This next one will be less expected: the release of the Apple software Kid Pix in 1989. So Kid Pix is a drawing program written for children. It was made as a direct response to MacPaint. Kid Pix includes a lot of generative drawing tools. You can drag your mouse across the screen and things drip down or all of these concentric circles emerge from that point. The huge disappointment in MacPaint, although it's an extraordinary piece of software, is that it emulates existing tools. This is the airbrush tool. This is the Eraser tool. This is the Pen tool. And Kid Pix branches out from there.

Kid Pix makes drawing tools that are unique, that can only be made with code. I think it really encouraged a generation of children to play with drawing in software. 

Later versions of Kid Pix included sound as well. When I show it to my students, oftentimes their faces light up and they are like, “Oh, I had such a good time with that when I was young.” I think that it's a generational thing. Another one is the release of Logo and the Logo software’s institutionalization in public schools. A lot of generative artists of my generation grew up in public schools learning Logo and making generative art in class.

Logo inspired many people to think that “Oh, computers actually are a way of making art.”

Software and computers are gaining energy and being taught in public schools, but it's always in service of learning to code, learning math or learning science. They just haven't found their way into art classrooms. I think Logo was an early seed of, “Yeah, we're learning procedural thinking, we're learning logic, but we're also making visual art at the same time.”                                                     

Peter Bauman: In your previous talks, you’ve stressed that generative art didn’t begin with computers. Can you talk about the importance of pre-digital or pre-computer generative art?

Casey Reas:
For me, it's essential. 

I think it's way more interesting to contextualize generative art within the history of art going back decades and centuries than it is to isolate it and think that it's something that came from nowhere or had this origin point when mainframe computers were attached to a plotter. 

We can, of course, go back a lot longer in music and language, but I think the twentieth century was all about the origins of generative art. It goes back to Marcel Duchamp. I think it goes back to the randomness of Jean Arp. There's also a strong component to Surrealism in the automatism of things. Other important advancements in pre-digital generative art include the early abstract film work of Man Ray, Viking Eggeling and Oskar Fischinger. For me that kind of work is my own personal history in art.

I also think that the history of abstraction with Malevich, Mondrian and Hilma af Klint remains so present in generative art right now. Actually, I feel like we're almost in danger of being too tied to the history of early twentieth-century abstraction. It's become so present in the last few years.

Hilma af Klint, The Ten Largest No. 7 - Adulthood, 1907
Hilma af Klint, The Ten Largest No. 7 - Adulthood, 1907

That history is really important, but also I think the history of experimental video is essential. Along with Kinetic Art and Conceptual Art, all these movements are required to retell what artists are working with now. Finally, I think John Cage has been a pivotal figure in this history too. He was so experimental with sound, treating silence, in a way, as the medium.

Everything is tied to randomization: the way that we have fun code on-chain with the hashes and the seeds. I don't think you can talk about chance operations without talking about that legacy of Duchamp to Cage.

Read Part 2 of the interview where we talk to Casey Reas about generative art’s continued progression in the ‘80s and ‘90s, the genealogy of generative tools and more.


Casey Reas is a software artist and Professor of Design Media Arts at UCLA. In 2001, alongside Ben Fry, he co-founded Processing, a free, open-source programming language and environment for artists. He is also the co-creator of Feral File, an online platform for exhibiting, selling, and collecting digital art. He holds an MA in Media Arts and Sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a BA from the College of Design, Architecture, Art, and Planning at the University of Cincinnati. Reas’s software, prints, and installations have featured in numerous solo and group exhibitions at museums and galleries in the United States, Europe, and Asia. His work ranges from small works on paper to urban-scale installations, and he balances solo work in the studio with collaborations with architects and musicians. His work is included in a number of private and public collections, including the Centre Pompidou, Paris and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

Peter Bauman (Monk Antony) is Le Random's Editor-in-Chief.

Conrad House is Le Random's Collection Lead, collaborating closely with thefunnyguys to build Le Random’s iconic, cross-generational generative art collection.