August 8, 2022

An Interview with Frieder Nake

The mathematician and pioneer of computer art speaks to Mark Amerika about the early movement and the differences between machines and humans
Credit: Frieder Nake, 13/9/65 Nr. 2 (“Homage to Paul Klee”)(detail), 1965. Courtesy of the artist
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An Interview with Frieder Nake

I’ve known Frieder Nake, one of the pioneers of computer art, for 25 years. Our friendship began at the University of Colorado, where I serve as Founding Director of the Doctoral Program in Intermedia Art, Writing and Performance. Nake’s arrival at CU Boulder in the 1990s as a Visiting Professor of Computer Science prompted a decades-long dialog between us about art, algorithms, information aesthetics, semiotics, artificial intelligence, remix culture, and the political toxicity of neoliberal capitalism.

Nake, who celebrates his 84th birthday later this year, is an historical figure who, in 1965, exhibited in one of the first shows of computer art in Stuttgart alongside fellow Algorist Georg Nees. In 1968, his works were included in the exhibition, “Cybernetic Serendipity,” at the ICA in London and in “Tendencies 4” in Zagreb. As part of the first generation of computer artists, including Vera Molnar, Manfred Mohr, and A. Michael Noll, Nake pioneered a radical break from traditional artistic media, building a platform for computer-based generative art to gain a foothold in contemporary art. Nake’s radicalism can be summed up in a statement he made in the 1960s: 

Each painter is a restricted picture generator. So is each picture generating computer program.¹

Given the recent explosion of interest in generative art, I asked the artist how he feels about current developments and his own place in art history.

Frieder Nake, Random Polygon, 1963. Courtesy of the artist

MA: Even as generative art becomes de rigueur not just in the digital art space but in the larger contemporary art world, including recent auctions at Sotheby’s and Phillips, there was a time in the early 1960s when you, as a young man studying mathematics, were given an opportunity to develop a software program for a newly constructed automatic flatbed drawing machine — the Zuse Graphomat Z64. Can you describe what it was like to suddenly find yourself in this position and what you discovered?

FN: The factual story part to this is simple. We are in the year 1963. I am still a student, as you mention, but I am approaching the end of my studies. Our situation as students in West Germany is extremely liberal (compared to the US). As students of mathematics, it is even more liberal. I am working in the Computing Center at the University of Stuttgart. My position is something like a teaching assistant or software developer. My position is, indeed, marvelous: I am helping the person who is in charge of the “program library.”

One morning, the director of the Center, Walter Knödel, approaches me, and in his beautiful Viennese accent, the following dialog happens:

WK: Herr Nake, we are going to buy a drawing machine.
FN: Aha. (I have no idea what that may be concretely...) 
WK: But we don’t get the proper software for our computer.
FN: Aha.
WK: Would you do it? 
FN: Yes.

[...] Fantastic. Later, when things had almost reached a successful end, and I was thinking about this brief scene, I admired Knödel. He trusted that young student who, most likely, had no idea of what he was getting himself into. He could not possibly know anything about what was involved. But the professor, a mathematician, trusted this student would be capable of doing something that he knew nothing about, because flatbed plotters were really not around, and [while] some institute may have had one, they got the necessary software from the producer. (The Stuttgart machine was the ninth to be sold by the Zuse company.)

I am also proud of myself, dear Mark. Why? Because I did not hesitate to give an immediate answer, a positive one. I should have asked for a book or other material, etc.

Frieder Nake, 13/9/65 #7 Random Traverse, 1965. Courtesy of the artist

MA: These experiments you began running in 1963 and your subsequent investigations into art and algorithms are what make you one of the original Algorists along with Vera Molnar, Georg Nees, A. Michael Noll, and Manfred Mohr. This is another way of saying that you are part of art history. But there is always a tendency to group people together as a way to ghettoize them. Just because a core group of artists are known for their experimental use of computational processes to make art doesn’t mean that they are all doing the same thing or have the same aesthetic interests. As you look back at the history of computer art and its most prominent figures, yourself included, can you talk a little bit about the different methods, strategies, or even aesthetic interests of the Algorists that you found interesting? Did you know you were making art history?

FN: Incredible, dear Mark, your friendly summary remarks. Are you on your way [to] becoming a wise man? Did we, those people you mention, think of contributing to art history? Not really (and I can, of course, now write only of myself). But a tiny bit, perhaps? I believe a bit of this was creeping up. Some flattering thoughts (hopes?) may have touched my secret innermost pride.

One aspect is certain — the sheer factual data of the exhibitions, together with their acknowledged order. So, the idea, the effort, and also a bit of the first success of using computers in this way [...] was original. Personally, I am almost certain that I became the first who actually sold a few pieces. [...] A tiny place [in] the art market became aware [of my work]

Frieder Nake, 13/9/65 Nr. 2 (“Homage to Paul Klee”), 1965. Courtesy of the artist

[...] During the first few years of these events, [...] one journalist after the other raised the question of “Is it really art?” [This was] a bit of an indication of the world of art criticism starting to do their job. Myself, I was convinced of what I was doing, [that it] was not bad. Michael Noll just did a few pieces to demonstrate a new possibility. It is funny that he did not jump onto this bandwagon more rigorously because, as he once told me, his parents took him to MoMA! Think of it! Georg Nees probably, during the rest of his life, produced the largest number of works (not thinking of Vera or Manfred). But they became kind of kitsch.

But to the main part of your question! [...] Of those five names you mention, Vera never really became a programmer. She knows about those fancy creatures called programs. But she always had somebody to write her programs. I even got to know one of them who lives in Bremen. Manfred managed to self-teach himself. But he always had his wife, Estarose [née Wolfson], to help. The other three [...] mathematicians or engineers were independent in this respect. I am proud of never [having] had a single line of code given to me.

[...] With the exception of points, lines and immediately with them, polygons are the visual objects that come with the drawing machine, now controlled by computer.

I firmly believe that the following statement characterizes fully and clearly what the attitude is that somebody has to take [...] when she wants to get a computer [to] do a drawing, [or] a piece of art: “THINK THE IMAGE, DON’T MAKE IT!”

Frieder Nake, Boxes with rectangular hatchings Nr. 6 (02/09/1965), 1965. Courtesy of the artist

MA: I was just rereading your 2005 essay, “Computer Art. A Personal Recollection,” where you tell the story of how, sixty years ago, you began exploring what would become a lifelong practice of experimenting with algorithms to invent new forms of art. We have since come to call these art forms computer or generative art. In the essay, you wrote that your intention was “to call to attention some aspects of the early history of computer art that may turn out to be more important than is commonly known or assumed.”² It seems that this is finally starting to happen. Why do you think that this is the case?

FN: The paper you refer to was published in 2005. That’s forty years after the first three exhibitions of algorithmic art (in 1965). [...] In the year 2005, we [were] way into [...] the algorithmic revolution. [...] Early algorithmic art was still relying on the traditional practices of exhibiting and reviewing: the gallery or museum, the daily newspaper or art magazine. [This] new kind of art, totally different from traditional fine art in all aspects of its conception and generation, when it hit the public, was presented and conceived in as traditional a way as it could be. But its content was not, and, with only a bit of exaggeration, the public was puzzled. In particular, critics didn’t understand a thing. Perhaps, they did not want to understand.

The first appearances of algorithmic art at places where traditional art appeared were, thus, bewildering and disturbing. The enormous impact of the algorithmic revolution in art went by almost unnoticed. Few open minds only sensed what was happening. Nowadays, the majority of all images are (to some extent, at least) influenced by the algorithmic and digital principle.

Frieder Nake, Sets of straight lines Nr. 2 (12/7/65), 1965. Courtesy of the artist

MA: I think the last two times we met were in Paris, when you were meeting with and interviewing Vera Molnar, and in London at the British Computer Society for the 20th anniversary symposium and exhibition built around my GRAMMATRON (1997) project, which you were generous enough to participate in. During the afternoon session, someone nonchalantly referred to the brain as a computer. This triggered a vigorous response from you. Do you remember what got your goat?

FN: [...] Whenever a person is connecting the brain to the computer, I personally feel insulted. Even though the person [is] not address[ing] me, and has no interest in me at all, I get mad and aggressive, and I will never stop this kind of reaction.

The computer is a machine. It is [a] thing. It has no life, just nothing of life. The brain is an important organic feature of animals, of humans in particular. It is immediately and totally related to life. 

[...] If the body dies, the brain also vanishes. If the brain dies, the body will very soon die also. The machine: no life; the brain: only life. How can anyone, in their good mind, draw any connection between those two? 

Frieder Nake, Walk-Through-Raster Series 7.1-6, 1966. Courtesy of the artist

MA: You recently emailed me that [...] “Artificial Intelligence is a specific case of computability; but intelligence is more than computability.” Can you please elaborate on what you mean?

FN: The human race was capable of constructing the computer. The computer is the machine to “mechanize” (to put onto a machine) certain mental operations. To say the same in [...] more general terms: The computer is the machine to mechanize mental labor. (As mechanical machines are machines to mechanize manual labor.)

[...] Amongst all machines, computers are those that take up the mental operations of computing. Only that [which] in human life [...] is characterized as being computable can be put onto a computing machine. To compute is a specific mental (and, therefore, intelligent) operation. But the entire range of computable functions is only part of intelligent functions. Only computable functions may become functions a computer can carry out. Humans can carry out more.

Frieder Nake, Generative Aesthetics I, Experiment 6.22, 1969. Courtesy of the artist

MA: I remember you once telling me about your trip to Southern California to visit Harold Cohen when he was already toward the end of his life. I sensed that you were close to him in spirit. One of the things I always found interesting about his lifelong interaction with [his program] AARON, was his interdependence with the AI to fulfill his own artistic vision. Apparently, he once programmed what we might think of as creative autonomy into AARON but then switched it back to a more hybridized relationship. What are your thoughts on the difference between using AI or any software system as a creative collaborator versus programming an autonomous form of computational creativity where the software system no longer needs its human collaborator?

FN: Beautiful to be reminded of Harold and his work, AARON. [...] Computers do nothing unless there is a program (a computable function), and the computer is made to execute that program. In most cases, some data are needed as input, either just once at the start, or repeatedly, as the program runs. [...] The static way of using a computer is to provide all input data ahead of time and make them then available. The dynamic way of using a computer is to provide the input data step by step and, perhaps, depending on the output so far. The source of those input data may even be the environment without interference by a human.

These two modes of human-computer relation may be called “passive” (data provided ahead of run-time) and “interactive” (data provided at run-time). The difference between the two modes of using a computer is that, in the passive mode, the human must plan everything ahead of run-time, whereas, in the interactive mode, she can take into account what has already happened up to now. That’s all.

By the way, [there is] no creativity on the part of the computer. All of that is always only in the interpreting mind of the human.

Frieder Nake, Matrix Multiplication Series #34, 1968. Courtesy of the artist

MA: Over the years, we have had great conversations and I have learned a lot about your own history as a computer artist and Professor of Informatics at the University of Bremen where you have directed the “Art and Algorithm” research group. I’d like to end our short dialog by digging a little bit deeper into the theory of information aesthetics. You refer to this theory as both radical and powerful and there are two things that I’d love you to discuss in greater detail. Is the computer a semiotic machine and can it exude its own creative aesthetic?

FN: I still like [...] to characterize the computer (with its software) as a “semiotic machine.” Why? The stuff computers deal with are data and programs. Both are entities of a very low material existence. Their way of existence is much more that of “signs,” i.e. of entities that stand for other entities. The sign represents, and thus presents, some other. It is a relation, not a thing.

But the computer can manipulate signs, of course, only in a limited way. It can operate on the syntactics of the sign only, not on its semantics, let alone its pragmatics. So, to speak of the computer as a “semiotic engine,” is nice but false. A computer, in order to start a sign process (a transformation of a collection of signs), must first reduce the signs to their syntactics. None of the signs’ semantics or pragmatics is touched by the computer. This is so because the computer has no capability of interpreting. Just zero.

Therefore, yes, the computer takes up signs to transform them. But they exist for the computer in their greatly reduced form only, in their syntactics (as data). The miracle is that this is so, i.e. that the computer is operating on the lowest levels of semiotic processes only, but its operations are helping us, nevertheless. The fact that, in the computer, humankind since the end of WWII has a machine to deal with semiotic processes, even though in an extremely reduced mode only, is marvelous, but dangerous at the same time. 

The danger is that the computer’s operations — because of [its] semiotic character — permanently invite humans’ great desire to speculate. 

[...] Our destiny has become that we, the semiotic animal, are now permanently in [the] company of the semiotic machine. In this relation, we tend to develop fantasies that have no rational foundation whatsoever.

Frieder Nake, Abteiberg Walk through Raster, 2005. Courtesy of the artist

MA: One of the most intense moments of surprise during the height of my international tour as both a net artist and VJ was when you picked me up at the airport during one of my many visits to Bremen, and we immediately rushed off to the Kunsthalle for the European memorial for Nam June Paik.

We were running late and it was exhilarating to speed through the city with you, the OG Algorist, en route to the Fluxus memorial for Paik, the OG video artist. Meanwhile, a heavily jet-lagged version of “me,” at the time an OG net artist, was totally surprised to see, upon our entering the Kunsthalle and walking toward the auditorium where the Paik memorial was just starting, an historical re-enactment of Paik’s original 1963 Wuppertal show — the first show to ever feature video art (or what Paik then termed “experimental television”). I was surprised to find myself teleported to this otherworldly environment but I was also under the spell of everything that was happening with the memorial. You woke me up from it all by calling out my name and waving me into the auditorium where the memorial was now beginning.

FN: Thank you, dear Mark, for ending this long virtual exchange between the two of us by reminding me of that beautiful situation when we two (of the different backgrounds we come from) rush to honor Paik who, by this time, had just left us. It was definitely a situation that the two of us should and must and will keep in our minds — one of those rare moments in our lives when something happens to us, and we make it happen, and let it happen that tells us and makes us feel how art lives in us and gently reminds us that we are different when we live in art, when we dedicate our lives to art, slowly and quietly and alone together.

🎴🎴🎴

Frieder Nake was one of the first artists to use algorithms in the creation of digital art. He produced his earliest artworks in 1963, influenced by the philosopher Max Bense. He had his first exhibition of computer-generated art, “Computer-Grafik,” at the Galerie Wendelin Niedlich, Stuttgart in November 1965. Currently on show at Phillips, London as part of “Ex Machina: A History of Generative Art,” his work is included in many international collections including Kunsthalle Bremen, the Victoria and Albert Museum, and Tate. 

Mark Amerika’s digital artwork has been exhibited internationally, including at the Whitney Museum of American Art, Denver Art Museum, Institute of Contemporary Arts, and Walker Art Center. In 2009-10, The National Museum of Contemporary Art Athens hosted the artist’s comprehensive retrospective, “UNREALTIME.” His digital artwork, GRAMMATRON (1997), remains one of the pioneering works of Internet art and electronic literature. His latest book, My Life as an Artificial Creative Intelligence (2022), is the inaugural title in the “Sensing Media” series published by Stanford University Press.

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¹ F Nake, “On the Inversion of Information Aesthetics,” Bit International 7, 1969, 61.

² F Nake, “Computer Art. A Personal Recollection,” Proceedings of the 5th Conference on Creativity & Cognition, London, UK, April 2005, 62.