Cherished icon Jasia Reichardt met with Peter Bauman (Monk Antony) before the Foundation Herbert W. Franke's Generative Art Summit Berlin. The Cybernetic Serendipity curator wrote this text as one of the few people who anticipated our digital future along with Franke in the 1960s. This piece extends the earliest thought on art and AI to the present, as only a singular voice like Reichardt's could.
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Background from Eduardo Paolozzi's film The History of Nothing (Still), 1962


A noticeable aspect of computer graphics in the 1960s was that once the image started appearing on the screen, the artist could, and often did, go away. The drawing on the screen continued.

This was an early sign that the idea, the program, belonged to the artist but its execution did not.

Of course, this was not always the case, but it was something one was very much aware of. To emphasise this new collaboration, whereby the artist initiates a process which then functions by itself, Cybernetic Serendipity also included painting machines, one by Tinguely, for instance, as well as harmonographs, which produced abstract patterns once they were filled with paint. The artist, or the gallery’s technician, started the procedure, which continued for an unspecified length of time and then stopped.

The result inevitably incorporated a random element, often leading to something surprising since it was often visually interesting. The artist, if he or she were there, was either pleased with the result, ignored it, deleted it from the screen or threw out the artwork on paper. At the time, most of the results were kept, they represented a new, a different type of art. Meanwhile, programming, the manipulation of the information processes, was becoming a creative activity, and the term computer art, became today’s generative art. As the pioneer of artificial intelligence, Marvin Minsky commented some ten years ago that all forms of art are within the reach of computerised thinking and added that “Anything you hear about computers or AI should be ignored because we are in the Dark Ages. We are in the thousand years between no technology and all technology.” This sort of prediction did not seem as inevitable in 1968 as it is today.

With some exceptions, artists and scientists who were included in Cybernetic Serendipity didn’t know each other and didn’t know about each other. This is not the case today because we live in a world bursting with visual images with information about them as well as their creators. We see the process by which the images are made, kept, protected and sold. Perhaps we are close to being overwhelmed by the growth of patterns, shapes and colours.

Jasia Reichardt's Fluorescent Chrysanthemum catalogue (Detail). Courtesy of Jasia Reichardt

For the time being, the conventions of looking at and absorbing art are still with us. The familiar methods of displaying and holding exhibitions in galleries and museums continue. It was in this context that I started thinking about an exhibition that could reveal something about our time and its possibilities. It would consist of two parts. 

The first part would include artists working with AI and making their own art. We already know something about the artists that could participate. We know that they start with code, that they will need a lot of space, and that the old categories of figurative, abstract, expressionist, constructivist art, are no longer the currency we can even think about in this context.

The second part would include what AI itself might produce or suggest doing. At the moment, we don’t know what it could be. It could just be a small box that we would not know how to open, an exclamation mark, an empty frame. Furthermore, AI could refuse to participate. 

Jasia Reichardt's Nearly Human exhibition image (Detail), 2015. Courtesy of Jasia Reichardt

As for today’s new human art, we already know a few things about it. We know that it depends on negotiations we engage in, that it requires a co-operative basis since new technology, and new ideas, are based on an exchange—a conversation that reaches continually beyond the recognisable categories of art.

Even the term avant-garde cannot be applied because the code-based art is like a wave—a progressive and continuous experiment, with possibilities extending in all directions.

It represents an evolutionary progress without a rest, a bus stop, a bench, where we can pause. New art grows with an undeclared agenda. Generative art may be a temporary title and NFTs might gradually acquire a new narrative reaching for the latest system of identifying authenticity and the right of possession.

As our descriptions of new developments undergo inevitable change, I’d like to reach into the past and recall the term used by Herbert W. Franke in the 1960s when he started thinking about, and making what was then called computer graphics, and slightly later computer art. He talked about Experimental Aesthetics – an exceptionally good name, that we can continue to apply to what is happening today.


Jasia Reichardt is an art critic, editor, curator and gallery director with an interest in art's intersection with fields such as technology. In 1968 she curated the landmark Cybernetic Serendipity at the ICA in London, while her latest exhibition, Nearly Human (2015), looked at the history of artificial life.