Zabet Patterson – Peripheral Vision: Bell Labs, the S-C 4020, and the Origins of Computer Art

Peripheral Vision

The MIT Press, ISBN: 978-0262029520, English, 152 pages, 2015, USA

The archaeology of computer art has been investigated only recently. Maybe one of the reasons for this is because, the higher the technological distance, the deeper our understanding of the actions and the experiments accomplished in a particular moment in time. In this volume, Patterson investigates computer art produced since the late fifties, centred on the Stromberg-Carlson 4020 machine used at the Bell Labs in New Jersey (defined as a “Microfilm Plotter”), one of the earliest devices that allowed mainframe computers to create visual output. Her account of this production is fluid and focuses on a few seminal artworks produced there, involving different media such as poetry, photography, design, drawing, etc. Patterson tries to reconstruct the whole context around these works, instead of just focusing on daring technical details, letting several remarkable aspects emerge. Among these is the attitude of coping and making-do with technological limitations that we would probably consider unacceptable today and devising innovative solutions (here the border between the technical and the artistic is quite blurry). The dynamics and the personal stories are obtained through a research process that appears to not have relied on a lot of official documents, discovering instead the value in strange and personal trajectories. The reader gains a full understanding of the struggles involved in defining and realising these new artworks, and a general overview of the technical and cultural context of that time, including the specific attitudes of major museums and of the industry, in the end learning much and in gaining a lot of perspective.