"Program" System of Digital Art:
"BOOM! Fast and Frozen Permutation" – Taiwan-Australia New Media Art Exhibition


Yu-Chuan Tseng



Since the 1990s when digital technology became a part of everyday life, digital media have gradually been taken seriously by artists. Artists employ technology as tools and media to explore visual aesthetic experiences and new perceptions or use technology as a means to criticize technology itself and discuss its impact on and problems for human life, experience and existence. From Ars Electornica, Linz, ACM Multimedia Interactive Art Program, International Symposium of Electronic Arts (ISEA), and other important international activities, it can be observed that the world pays much attention to digital art. These activities have brought together scholars, artists and art critics from all over the world. Also, exhibitions, researches and publications have been forthcoming. Since the end of the twentieth century, the position of digital art in the history of art has been gradually established.

For a long time, digital art's position in art history has been ambiguous. In reading contemporary books about art history and books, magazines' articles and exhibitions' catalogues which introduce various art schools, I find that art critics and historians rarely mention or discuss digital art works. For example, Lucy Lippard wrote a book, Six Years: The Dematerialization of the Art Object from 1966 to 1972, which regarded Roy Ascott as a conceptual artist. Robert Rauschenberg's creative "Combine Painting" made him a famous Pop Art figure in the 1960s. However, the "9 Evenings: Theatre and Engineering" that he and Billy Klüver produced has hardly been discussed in fine art history. Even Edward Lucie-Smith, in one chapter, "kinetic art," of a 1977 book ART NOW misunderstood the exhibition of "9 Evenings: Theatre and Engineering" as "Evenings in Art and Technology"(Lucie-Smith, 1977). The reason is that art critics leading art history can neither understand such kind of art form nor accept it as they don't have theories to inform any comment or analysis. Being thus unable to offer suitable comments can be understandable (Bijvoet , 1997).

Contemporary digital art has such a kind of awkward situation. In analyzing digital art using modern art theory, a focus on visual symbols, story narratives and colour structure is often employed. The characteristics of digital technology are brilliant visual expression and interactive participation. Although digital artists desire to grasp important work expressions, these brilliant visual images and interface interactive techniques lead people to ignore the importance of "program" in the creation of digital art. Not only is "program" a kind of computer's technology language, but also it constructs a logical program and carries out computing process through the software language's instruction and description. An important element of digital computer technology actually has digital art features of aesthetic concepts and behavioral structure.


"Program" of Computer Art

According to records, the first computer art exhibition took place in February, 1965, in Studiengalerie der Technischen Hochschule Stuttgart, Germany. Georg Nees had conceived of, programmed and realized the works. (Nake, 2005). In May of the same year, Frieder Nake and Georg Nees held another computer art exhibition in the same place. In April of the same year, in New York, the Howard Wise Gallery organized A. Michael Noll's and Bela Julesz's computer-generated image work exhibition – which became America's first computer art exhibition (Noll , 1994). Their works were made using random demands, random numbers and random order as well as the computing process to create simple images and structures. From a visual aspect, their works seemed like those of constructivism. This similarity is one of reasons why computer art has been criticized and art critics hardly accept this art.

However, computer art's visual images are not the main focus of aesthetic meaning. The generative nature created through random processes of the program is crucial. This is "generative aesthetics" that Max Bense emphasizes is also the most important aesthetic contribution in the creation of computer-generated images in this period. For example, Frieder Nake's works were all made using random mathematical rules, such as Uniform, Exponential, Gaussian, and Poisson. In an arrangement of arbitrarily destroying randomly distributed types and adding a self-developed random number generator, at the start of implementation, random demands leads to the start values of the random program. For this reason, no one can repeat the same drawing order (Nake, 2005).

Nake thinks that Bense, in No.19 of Rot 1), published Projects of Generative Aesthetics which is regarded as a manifesto of "computer art" (Nake, 2005). Bense emphasized that the aesthetic principle of using mathematics as foundation includes not only material nature and sensory nature but also the reappearance of the mathematics of semantics and syntax. Generative aesthetics is said to be a synthesis of control, rules and definitions and so helps effectively to advance description of aesthetic types and categorizations. Thus, aesthetic statements can be narrated in a systematic way, formula steps can be analyzed and the system's syntactic structure can be constructed as a generative mathematic description in order to complete aesthetic structure. Although the simple images and structures that a computer generates are not appealing to everyone, in drawing methods through program's syntax, art can be modularized and structured as well as depicted using syntax. Artists' tasks are transferred into one of the elements. This changes traditional art's aesthetic structure and representation of meaning. This change is crucial to the generative images in this period. The principle of "program" nature for this whole construction is based on processes of the computer's mathematic and scientific operation.

In the above-mentioned conception, aesthetic meaning of computer art is not related to visual representation of traditional images, but the program of creators' ideas is represented by using a program system and mathematic logics as well as the culture and vigour of the human, technology and art through computers. However, this program meaning, under Jack Burnham's system aesthetics, surpasses the program concept of mathematic logic and syntax.

Jack Burnham's System Aesthetics and "Program"

Inspired by Norbert Wiener's "cybernetics" and Ross Ashby's mathematic logics, Jack Burnham proposed that artists' thinking processes were based on a logical mathematic approach – a control system process of searching for rules and possibilities and continuously correcting and resolving problems. Burnham explored the "program" principle of art in art history (Shanken , 1998). In Burnham's Beyond Modern Sculpture published in 1968, he adopted a historical view to explore traces of technology and sculpture and the influence of technological development on contemporary sculptures. He also proposed that material disappears but system becomes the subject of sculpture, emphasized system conception constructed through automatic control system, and announced that artificial intelligence was becoming an aesthetic form. According to Burnham, Cyborg art would become a sculptural form of the future. Meantime, he also predicted that technology would greatly influence art and become an art form itself by the end of the century (Burnham , 1968).

Although Burnham's ideas still focused on sculptures as the main subject of art creation, interestingly, his analysis on automatic system development in a historical angle, his prediction of contemporary digital art development, his announcement of art material, and his emphasis on the importance of "program" and "system" actually corresponded with Bense's idea concerning generative aesthetics. Burnham's System Aesthetics in 1968 more clearly defined "system" as a logical thinking procedure of art creativity and proposed a conception of software and hardware in art work. He thought that art's focus should be transferred from form, colours and style into art program and system, and that system is composed of "program." Through detailed plans, every component (this component does not refer to software, but includes every kind of artificial and natural material, human and environmental) has its planned construction for mutual relations and further generates the general overall meaning.

In System Aesthetics, Burnham took examples from Moholy-Nagy, who instructed workers of exhibited scenes how to put enamel and metal works together through telephone, and of Jan van der Marck, who exhibited records of dialogues between artists and companies, to explain what form of program can become a kind of fulfilled aesthetical motivation. Burnham also used Robert Morris' work plan for the Chicago Art Gallery (local carpenters' engaging in making and reorganizing work) as an example to explain that detailed program message depiction of material processing and plan narration is also a part of the aesthetics of work. He also praised Robert Morris' use of underground train's steam as an element of art creation because this artist surpassed the limitations of objects and transferred energy to the subject of creation through his arrangement of the program and implementation (Burnham, 1968).

In September 16, 1970, "SOFTWARE" was exhibited in the Jewish Museum, New York. Burmham took an example of this exhibition to prove the concept of "system aesthetics" and proposed the influence of the age of the message on artists' concepts of creation in structural change. Not only is the "program" concept applied in program system, but also it includes "program" organization in creative thinking processes and the viewers' participation in the "program" process. Thus, in the exhibition, three types of art creation were represented.

The first type was behavioral performing art engaged by conceptual artists, including Joseph Kosuth, Vito Acconci, John Baldessari, Les Levine, Douglas Huebler, etc. For example, in the art gallery, Vito Acconci followed instructions of scripts to interfere with other people's private space. In the exhibition venue, he followed viewers and tried to be close to them. He wouldn't stop until they were aware that their own private space had been interfered and then left the gallery. His behaviour forced viewers to feel conscious of existence of their private area although they are situated in a public place full of people and then to decide when or how to define personal private space (Paulsen , 2005). Another example is Douglas Huebler's Variable Piece 4 New York City: Secrets which invited the viewer to exchange information in the gallery. Needing to follow instructions, the viewer used an anonymous approach to write down his own secret on paper and put it into the box supplied at the exhibition and also picked up a piece of paper with another person's secret. In order to guarantee an entire anonymous approach, every secret should have been kept in the box for 24 hours. When the exhibition was closed, there were around 1,800 secrets altogether which had completed this exchange behaviour. These secrets were compiled into a book, published in 1973 (Huebler, 1973).

The second type is conceptual art work: through cooperation between artists and technology experts cooperate together and viewers' participate. Such artists include Ted Victoria, Carl Fernbach-Flarsheim, Ted Victoria and Hans Haacke. For example, In Hans Haacke's Visitor's of profiles, under the technical assistance of Scott Bradner (Art & Technology, Inc., Boston) and Digital Equipment Corporation, at the exhibition, an approach by questionnaire survey was made – the viewer was invited to fill in a questionnaire. At the exhibition site, the information was input into a computer, then processed, then tabularized to generate statistical information, and then printed from the computer (Bijvoet, 1997). Adopting research of population statistics being demonstrated in an art form, this work incited wide discussion and got much concern and attention from some cultural organizations and sponsors because of its implication of political, economic and cultural criticism (Bonin, 2004).

The third type is the work made by technology engineers which used art to fulfill technological conceptions. Such artists include Theodor H. Nelson fulfilling hypertext and Nicholas Negroponte leading Architecture Machine Group (AMG), MIT. AMG's work Seek was an ecological environment composed of an inductance installation, a robot's arm, and living gerbil models controlled by computer. In a transparent box made of plexiglass which had architectural space full of piled-up aluminum objects, the gerbil would knock down these aluminum objects, destroy structure and jump up to the top to cause environmental collapses. Also, the system would sense this situation and the robot's arm would be used to re-pile up these destroyed objects, re-arranging them in order and re-construct the gerbil's living environment (Wardrip-Fruin, Montfort (ed.), 2003). In addition to the exhibited work, Burnham also invited artists such as Allan Kaprow, Nam June Paik, etc. to display unfinished plans on the exhibited image record (Shanken, 2001).

These above-mentioned pieces of work in fact demonstrated four kinds of "program" meanings: "logic program of constructing thinking," "program of the viewer's participation," "program of computer's logic processing," and "program of artificial and natural environment." Through construction of the "behaviour program," "computer program," and "environment program," aesthetic meaning can be generated in the "program" concept. The meaning of this "program" can be brought into full play in contemporary digital art creation.

BOOM: "Program" Meaning of Contemporary Digital Art

Fig.1 (above): Rachel Peachey and Paul Mosig, Lake Hart, Digital Video, 2007, (©artist)

Fig.2 (below): Alexandra Gillespie's Measures, Short Film, 6 min, 2007, (©artist)


In "BOOM! Fast and Frozen Permutation – Taiwan-Australia New Media Art Exhibition," among all the exhibited work, several artists' work demonstrated the importance of "program" and experience of keeping away from visual and bodily response. Art is a result of combining all elements, not of fragmented pieces during the process (Burnham , 1968). So, "program" is an important factor in constructing the work. If the "program" is taken away, the work will loose its core meaning. For example, in Rachel Peachey's and Paul Mosig's Lake Hart (Fig.1), the artists used Lake Hart (a large salt pan in the middle of the South Australian desert and also a part of the Woomera Prohibited Area - a space used by the Australian and the United States military to test weapons capability) as a filming scene. An approach of improvisational behavioral performance was employed to explore stories and imagination, constructed from an interaction between ancient appearance and external invasion. This work represents an incident of a continuously processing program. When Peachey and Mosig were the residence artists of Department of Archaeology & Natural History, ANU, Canberra, they adopted methods of archaeology and natural history to proceed with field-study collection and used different kinds of objects, collected samples, oral history, documents, academic research and technology approach to explore the interaction between humans and environment. In Alexandra Gillespie's Measures (Fig.2), speed signs from around Australia were collected, photographed and reconfigured with composite footage of a drive through the Brindabella mountain ranges from Namadgi National Park (which was formerly a satellite tracking station site and formed part of the space communication network used to support the Apollo mission to the Moon). This environmental meaning becomes a crucial element. Through investigation, photographing, and re-organization, a special imagination and expectation towards environment can be constructed as well as a metaphor for a reaction to pressure that society offers and human hearts have being implied to hope to maintain possibility of "specific state."


In Guang-ming Yuan's City Disqualified (Fig.3), its program meaning originated from photographing, observation, and computer photo-retouching techniques. Through computer technology, different images filmed at different times can appear on the screen at the same time. When this program advances its implementing process, a sense of delusion in space occurs and meantime the viewer's reflection in his mind and re-thinking towards urban context can be demonstrated. In U-Sheng Lin's Trace (Fig.4), continuous repetitive behaviours of filming, basketball shooting, and editing are shown: the "behaviour program" is used to imitate the computer's "repetition program;" in a post-demonstration process, employment of computer collage technique is a behaviour program with a paradoxical sense. These construct the program meaning of the work. In Bo-jhih Huang's Beautiful Dream (Fig.5), the artist used a scanner to scan every part of his body. Here, scanning was employed to reconstruct a repetition program of the artist's body; the body was transferred into an object; and, in the post-making process, appearance and messages existing in the artist himself were re-constructed.



Fig.3 (above): Guang-ming Yuan, City Disqualified, 320cm*240cm, Digital Print, 2002, (©artist)

Fig.4 (below) U-Sheng Lin's Trace, Video, 2006, (©artist)


Fig.5 (left): Bo-jhih Huang's Beautiful Dream, Moving Image, 2006 (©artist) Fig.6 (middle): Pey Chwen Lin's Created Virtual Reality, Interactive Installation, 2006, (©artist) Fig.7 (right): Yu-Chuan Tseng & Chia-Hsiang Lee, Flow, Interactive Installation, 2007, (©artist)

Pey Chwen Lin's Created Virtual Reality (fig.6), Yu-Chuan Tseng's & Chia-Hsiang Lee's Flow (fig.7), Jien-junYeh's myBirthday=myPhilipGlass (fig.8), Jason Nelson's Between Treacherous Objects (fig.9)and Joanne Jakovich's Sonic Tai Chi (fig.10)– these four pieces of works all invite the viewer's participation to generate an interactive relationship. Through the viewer's individual behaviour, interface input, or the body's mutual reaction, computer logic processing is incited; through generative mathematical and scientific operation, different interactive results are generated and the viewer's personal work program and creative results are constructed. This involves a "logic program of constructing thinking," a "program of the viewer participation," and a "program of computer logic processing." In Lin's Created Virtual Reality, "operation program" is employed to imply the human being's control desire to nature: through virtual reality, the program behaviour of nature is transformed and the program rule of nature is re-constructed. In Tseng's & Lee's Flow, the artists, using hackers' invading behaviour, collected internet messages such as pictures and texts from news websites and then transferred texts into inflexible computer speech – which enabled the viewer to encounter the message once more and to re-construct his own reading program and perceptual capacity while making choices. In Yeh's myBirthday=myPhilipGlass, using programming music to schedule behaviour, the artist invites the viewer to key in his birthday, transfers it into a musical message, and proceeds with computer's creativity program and message transformation and recreation program. In Nelson's Between Treacherous Objects, the viewer can break a traditional text-reading attitude during images and texts, moving around and re-constructing a reading program through his choice-making behaviour. In Joanne Jakovich's Sonic Tai Chi, a new bodily perceptual experience is established. The viewer can establish his own listening-to-sound program through his own body's control. Here, the body becomes a control factor and also incites the system's program logic control.


Fig.8 (left): Jien-junYeh's myBirthday=myPhilipGlass, Interactive Installation, 2006, (©artist) Fig.9 (middle): Jason Nelson, Between Treacherous Objects, Interactive Flash artwork, 2006, (©artist)Fig.10 (right): Joanne Jakovich, Sonic Tai Chi, Interactive Installation, 2005, (©artist)


The "program" concept that the work shows is the general overall representation of results through precise setting and control in the process of art creation and the viewer's interaction. When Marcel Duchamp exhibited his Fountain, an art form employing "program" as logic foundation was established.2) Uniqueness about digital art should not be limited to an approach of thinking in pictorial images. When computers are easily operated, artists should regard a computer as a tool or medium for creation. This has its own nature of different meanings. Roger Malina thought that since the 1960s, computer art had inherited from mathematical and scientific operation, generative aesthetics and constructivism and had a long-term relationship between art and mathematics. But as software and hardware techniques become more and more mature, artists regard the computer as a tool which can reduce labour work and speed up creation of imitating traditional art to help present both more realistic and more dream-like landscapes. This makes a computer lack interesting features. Therefore, he thought that in an excellent computer art work, the artist should consider whether this work could be completed without any computer or not and whether he could make good use of the new technology's uniqueness in this work. Not only is a computer a kind of tool, but it is also a kind of meta-tool which can introduce new art (Malina, 1998).

Burnham used a constructivist way of analyzing art – erasing the superior nature of Western art history and questioning the core problem of using computer to do creation. He thought that artists should employ technology to explore problems, not limit themselves to the beautiful visual appearances generated by computer. The aesthetics of art and technology lies in structure, organization and the process of delivering messages through the use of system, software and hardware conceptions to analyze and look at art. Bijvoet thought that Burnham's system view would be suitable for artists and technology artists pursuing new art because of their close relation to procedures, incidents, time and space and technological applications. Artists need to join in research crossing different fields and have a capacity for analyzing knowledge systematically (Bijvoet, 1997). Through the "program" conception of Max Bense's "generative aesthetics" and Burnham's "system aesthetics," one can re-think the value of digital art, and thus meaning and logical views can be provided for the new age of digital art.



All images are provided by "BOOM! Fast and Frozen Permutation"– Taiwan-Australia New Media Art Exhibition




1) Since the 1960s, Max Bense has employed computer music and literary poems as basic constructive and creative elements of "computer art." Meantime, he also used Rot magazine as a platform of promoting information aesthetics. Dietrich, Frank. (1986). 'Visual Intelligence: The First Decade of Computer Art (1965-1975).' "Leonardo, Vol.19, No.2, pp159.

2) Burnham had the greatest esteem for Marcel Duchamp's work and thought his work as a result of logic thinking and regarded him as an "excellent mathematist, great technology expert, and thorough destroyer... using construction to destroy construction." Please refer to Lutz Dammbeck film production . 'Jack Burnham Interview (excerpt)'. http://www.t-h-e-n-e-t.com/html/_film/pers/_pers_burnham_R.htm. Accessed:2007.4.5



Burnham, Jack (1968). Beyond Modern Sculpture. NY: George Braziller

Burnham, Jack (1968). 'Systems Esthetics' . Artforum vol. 7 no. 1 (September 1968). NY: Artforum International Magazine

Bijvoet, Marga. (1997). Art as Inquiry. NY: Peter Lang Publishing

Bonin, Vincent. (2004). 'Software: information technology: its new meaning for art'. http://www.fondation-langlois.org/html/e/page.php?NumPage=541 Accessed:2007.3.3

Dietrich, Frank. (1986). 'Visual Intelligence: The First Decade of Computer Art(1965-1975)'. "Leonardo, Vol.19, No.2. Mass: MIT press

Edward Lucie-Smith (1977). Art Now -From Abstract Expressionism to Superrealism (English edition). NY: William Morrow and Company

Huebler, Douglas. (1969) 'Variable Piece 4 New York City: Secrets'. Originally published 1973. ubu editions (2002). http://www.ubu.com/historical/huebler/index.html
Accessed: 2007.4.20

Nake, Freider. (2005). 'Computer Art. A Personal Recollection' .Proceedings of the 5th conference on Creativity & cognition. UK: London

Lutz Dammbeck film production . 'Jack Burnham Interview (excerpt)'. http://www.t-h-e-n-e-t.com/html/_film/pers/_pers_burnham_R.htm"

Malina, R. F. (1989). 'Computer Art in the Context of the Journal Leonardo'. Mark Resch(ed.). Computer Art in Context: SIGGRAPH '89 Art Show Catalog. Leonardo, Supplemental Issue". Mass: MIT press

Noll, A. Michael. (1994) 'The beginnings of computer art in the United States: A memoir'. Comput. & Graphics, Vol. 19, No. 4, pp. 495-503. UK: London

Paulsen, Kris. (2005) 'Following Vito Acconci: Demonstrate's Public Art Precedents' http://demonstrate.berkeley.edu/reflections_paulsen01.htm
Accessed: 2007.4.7

Shanken, Edward A. (1998) 'The House That Jack Built: Jack Burnham's Concept of "Software" as a Metaphor for Art' http://mitpress.mit.edu/e-journals/LEA/ARTICLES/jack.html
Accessed: 2007.4.6

Shanken, Edward. A. Doctoral dissertation. (2001) 'Art in the Information Age: Cybernetics, Software, Telematics, and the Conceptual Contributions of art and technology to Art History and Theory'. Duke University

'Synapse art and science residencies 2006'. http://www.anat.org.au/pages/schools/Synapse2006.htm

Wardrip-Fruin, Noah and Nick Montfort .(ed) (2003). The New Media Reader. Cambridge and London: The MIT Press



Yu-Chuan Tseng is a Ph.D. candidate in Institute of Applied Arts, National Chiao-Tung University, Taiwan. Her research interests have been in interactive art and interactive design theories. Currently, she is an instructor at Shih Hsin University, Department of Public Relations and Advertising, Taiwan. Yu- Chuan Tseng has an extensive record of art exhibitions and lectures. In 2002, she began to collaborate with Lee Chia-hsiang in creating interactive art and started Soiizen Art Lab in pursuing the experiment of Art & Technology. They have shown their works at the Taipei Fine Art Museum, National Taiwan Museum of Fine Arts, ACM MM 2006, as many more. Their net art practices have been included in established online exhibition such as Digital Vision 2005, Java Museum and Mobile Image Capture in The New Century.












- © 2009 all rights reserved -