Cover of the Cybernetic Serendipity catalogue
The catalogue of the Cybernetic Serendipity exhibition was a special issue of Studio International magazine. In October 2020 it could be downloaded from monskop.org at this link.
Detail map of London, England, United Kingdom,Washington, District of Columbia, United States

A: London, England, United Kingdom, B: Washington, District of Columbia, United States

"Cybernetic Serendipity": The First Widely-Attended International Exhibition of Computer Art

8/2/1968 to 10/20/1968
Cybernetic Serendipity poster

Poster for the Cybernetic Serendipity exhibition.

From August 2  to October 20, 1968 Cybernetic Serendipity: The Computer and the Arts was exhibited at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London, curated by British art critic, editor, and Assistant Director of the Institute of Contemporary Arts Jasia Reichardt, at the suggestion of Max Bense. This was the first widely attended international exhibition of computer art, and the first exhibition to attempt to demonstrate all aspects of computer-aided creative activity: art, music, poetry, dance, sculpture, animation.

In the video below Jasia Reichardt introduced the exhibition:

"It drew together 325 participants from many countries; attendance figures reached somewhere between 45,000 and 60,000 (accounts differ) and it received wide and generally positive press coverage ranging from the Daily Mirror newspaper to the fashion magazine Vogue. A scaled-down version toured to the Corcoran Gallery in Washington DC and then the Exploratorium, the museum of science, art and human perception in San Francisco. It took Reichardt three years of fundraising, travelling and planning" (Mason, a computer in the art room. the origins of british computer arts 1950-80 [2008] 101-102)

For the catalogue of the show Reichardt edited a special issue of Studio International magazine, consisting of 100 pages with 300 images, publication of which coincided with the exhibition in 1968. The color frontispiece reproduced a color computer graphic by the American John C. Mott-Smith "made by time-lapse photography successively exposed through coloured filters, of an oscilloscope connected to a computer." The cover of the special issue was designed by the Polish-British painter, illustrator, film-maker, and stage designer Franciszka Themerson, incorporating computer graphics from the exhibition. Laid into copies of the special issue were 4 leaves entitled "Cybernetic Serendipity Music," each page providing a program for one of eight tapes of music played during the show. This information presumably was not available in time to be printed in the issue of Studio International.

Reichardt's Introduction  (p. 5) included the following:

"The exhibition is divided into three sections, and these sections are represented in the catalogue in a different order:

"1. Computer-generated graphics, computer-animated films, computer-composed and -played music, and computer poems and texts.

"2. Cybernetic devices as works of art, cybernetic enironments, remoted-control robots and painting machines.

"3. Machines demonstrating the uses of computers and an environment dealing with the history of cybernetics.

"Cybernetic Sernedipity deals with possibilites rather than achievements, and in this sense it is prematurely optimistic. There are no heroic claims to be made because computers have so far neither revolutionized music, nor art, nor poetry, the same way that they have revolutionized science.

"There are two main points which make this exhibition and this catalogue unusual in the contexts in which art exhibitions and catalogues are normally seen. The first is that no visitor to the exhibition, unless he reads all the notes relating to all the works, will know whether he is looking at something made by an artist, engineer, mathematician, or architect. Nor is it particularly important to know the background of all the makers of the various robots, machines and graphics- it will not alter their impact, although it might make us see them differently.

"The other point is more significant.

"New media, such as plastics, or new systems such as visual music notation and the parameters of concrete poetry, inevitably alter the shape of art, the characteristics of music, and content of poetry. New possibilities extend the range of expression of those creative poeple whom we identify as painters, film makers, composers and poets. It is very rare, however, that new media and new systems should bring in their wake new people to become involved in creative activity, be it composiing music drawing, constructing or writing.

"This has happened with the advent of computers. The engineers for whom the graphic plotter driven by a computer represented nothing more than a means of solving certain problems visually, have occasionally become so interested in the possibilities of this visual output, that they have started to make drawings which bear no practical application, and for which the only real motives are the desire to explore, and the sheer pelasure of seeing a drawing materialize. Thus people who would never have put pencil to paper, or brush to canvas, have started making images, both still and animated, which approximate and often look identical to what we call 'art' and put in public galleries.

"This is the most important single revelation of this exhibition." 

Some copies of the special issue were purchased by Motif Editions of London.  Those copies do not include the ICA logo on the upper cover and do not print the price of 25s. They also substitute two blanks for the two leaves of ads printed in the back of the regular issue. They do not include the separate 4 leaves of programs of computer music.  These special copies were sold by Motif Editions with a large  (75 x 52 cm) portfolio containing seven 30 x 20 inch color lithographs with a descriptive table of contents. The artists included Masao Komura/Makoto Ohtake/Koji Fujino (Computer Technique Group); Masao Komura/Kunio Yamanaka (Computer Technique Group); Maugham S. Mason, Boeing Computer Graphics; Kerry Starnd, Charles "Chuck" Csuri/James Shaffer & Donald K. Robbins/ The art works were titled respectively 'Running Cola is Africa', 'Return to Square', 'Maughanogram', 'Human Figure', 'The Snail', 'Random War' & '3D Checkerboard Pattern'.  Copies of the regular edition contained a full-page ad for the Motif Editions portfolio for sale at £5 plus postage or £1 plus postage for individual prints.

In 1969 Frederick A. Praeger Publishers of New York and Washington, DC issued a cloth-bound second edition of the Cybernetic Serendipity catalogue with a dust jacket design adapted from the original Studio International cover. It was priced $8.95. The American edition probably coincided with the exhibition of the material at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington. The Praeger edition included an index on p. 101, and no ads. Comparison of the text of the 1968 and 1969 editions shows that the 1969 edition contains numerous revisions and changes.

In 2005 Jasia Reichardt looked back on the exhibition with these comments:

"One of the journals dealing with the Computer and the Arts in the mid-sixties, was Computers and the Humanities. In September 1967, Leslie Mezei of the University of Toronto, opened his article on 'Computers and the Visual Arts' in the September issue, as follows: 'Although there is much interest in applying the computer to various areas of the visual arts, few real accomplishments have been recorded so far. Two of the causes for this lack of progress are technical difficulty of processing two-dimensional images and the complexity and expense of the equipment and the software. Still the current explosive growth in computer graphics and automatic picture processing technology are likely to have dramatic effects in this area in the next few years.' The development of picture processing technology took longer than Mezei had anticipated, partly because both the hardware and the software continued to be expensive. He also pointed out that most of the pictures in existence in 1967 were produced mainly as a hobby and he discussed the work of Michael Noll, Charles Csuri, Jack Citron, Frieder Nake, Georg Nees, and H.P. Paterson. All these names are familiar to us today as the pioneers of computer art history. Mezei himself too was a computer artist and produced series of images using maple leaf design and other national Canadian themes. Most of the computer art in 1967 was made with mechanical computer plotters, on CRT displays with a light pen or from scanned photographs. Mathematical equations that produced curves, lines or dots, and techniques to introduce randomness, all played their part in those early pictures. Art made with these techniques was instantaneously recognisable as having been produced either by mechanical means or with a program. It didn't actually look as if it had been done by hand. Then, and even now, most art made with the computer carries an indelible computer signature. The possibility of computer poetry and art was first mentioned in 1949. By the beginning of the 1950s it was a topic of conversation at universities and scientific establishments, and by the time computer graphics arrived on the scene, the artists were scientists, engineers, architects. Computer graphics were exhibited for the first time in 1965 in Germany and in America. 1965 was also the year when plans were laid for a show that later came to be called 'Cybernetic Serendipity' and presented at the ICA in London in 1968. It was the first exhibition to attempt to demonstrate all aspects of computer-aided creative activity: art, music, poetry, dance, sculpture, animation. The principal idea was to examine the role of cybernetics in contemporary arts. The exhibition included robots, poetry, music and painting machines, as well as all sorts of works where chance was an important ingredient. It was an intellectual exercise that became a spectacular exhibition in the summer of 1968" (http://www.medienkunstnetz.de/exhibitions/serendipity/images/1/, accessed 06-16-2012). This website reproduces photographs of the actual exhibition and a poster printed for the show.

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