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April 14, 2022

Herbert W. Franke on Art After the NFT

As the Francisco Carolinum hosts a new exhibition of the artist’s work, Georg Bak talks to the father of computer art about how his theories became reality
Credit: Herbert W. Franke, Z-Galaxy, 2008. art meets science — Foundation Herbert W. Franke
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Herbert W. Franke on Art After the NFT
This interview was first published just a few months before Herbert W. Franke (1927-2022) sadly passed away. Right Click Save pays tribute to his life and work, which will always be a guiding inspiration.

In June, 2022, the Francisco Carolinum in Linz, Austria, hosted a special solo show, “Herbert W. Franke: Visionary.” Coinciding with Franke’s 95th birthday, the show included work from across seventy years of the artist’s creative activity, which always oscillated between art and science. In collaboration with the museum, Franke made available his photo archive alongside a new English translation of his early publication, Art and Construction (1957), in which all the fundamental insights of this pioneer and mastermind of digital art can now be re-examined.

Installation View, “Herbert W. Franke: Visionary”, 2022. Courtesy Francisco Carolinum Linz

Georg Bak: How did you get into art and under what conditions did you create your first works?

Herbert W. Franke: When I studied physics in Vienna after the war, I photographed landscapes and caves, but also drew and wrote stories. But even then, I wasn’t thinking of becoming an artist. However, I was interested in aesthetics and art theory, so I asked myself why it was that we often find images from science beautiful. I saw myself, above all, as a scientist who wanted to get to the bottom of this phenomenon of art — to understand it fully — through the experimental methods and mechanical means that I had learned as a physicist. 

After accepting a position at Siemens in 1953, I was able to conduct all kinds of photographic experiments in the photo lab, outside of working hours, in order to create visual worlds with light, that is, with electrons. Within a year, I already had my own analog computer, which my fellow student Franz Raimann had assembled for me. With it, I was able to calculate light oscillations for the first time. Under the guidance of art historian Franz Roh (1890-1965), I decided as early as the 1950s to declare my work as art, even though no one was particularly interested in it at the time, of course.

“Herbert W. Franke: Visionary”, 2022. Courtesy Francisco Carolinum Linz

GB: When was your first exhibition and what were you showing at that point?

HWF: The exhibition “Experimental Aesthetic” at the Museum of Applied Arts in Vienna took place in 1959, at which all of my work from the period was shown. This included my light forms, the oscillograms with the analog computer, and my X-ray works.

GB: How was computer art received by the art world at the time, and how did the theory of computer art relate to postmodern art theory?

HWF: The reception of the exhibition was, of course, close to zero. I did distribute a text through a press agency which was at least printed by a few small daily newspapers in a slightly edited form. In general, however, it was better to be met with disinterest, because as soon as any established critics entered the scene, one could expect negative coverage. 

But computer art did radically change aesthetic experience, in the same way that digital technology catalyzed a new approach to rational aesthetics. As a consequence, philosophical and historical elements were no longer the focus, whilst it became possible to turn art into an experimental field of exact science according to information psychology. That was, of course, a field made for me.

Installation view, “Experimental Aesthetic”, 1959. Courtesy Herbert W. Franke

GB: Looking at postmodernism from the perspective of digital art, which theories and “isms” of the past 70 years do you see as significant to art history, and which artists and institutions have shaped them?

HWF: On the theoretical side, the work of Max Bense (1910-1990) in Stuttgart and Abraham Moles (1920-1992), who taught in Ulm and Strasbourg, were certainly groundbreaking. While that of Bense’s student, Helmar Frank (1933-2013), who uncoupled himself from some of his teacher’s views, is also significant for its discussion of psychology, without which, from my point of view, one cannot formalize art properly at all. Of course, at the same time, this is the weak point of any rational aesthetics, since we still know far too little about the brain’s internal processes. We are still at the very beginning. 

What information aesthetics revealed was that it is in principle possible to arrive at a quantification of art through the simplest of structures. This is precisely what I investigated with my series, “Quadrate” and “Drakula.” This opened the door to an analytical exploration of art on a scientific basis. I would also like to stress the importance, here, of my mentor Karl Steinbuch’s work on rational aesthetics. He was a well-known communications engineer, cybernetician, and co-founder of AI. 

Herbert W. Franke, Oscillogram from “Experimental Aesthetic”, 1959. Courtesy Herbert W. Franke

As for the artists, there were different factions that should be identified here, including all algorithmic artists. Digital art did not arise in the 1960s as a phoenix from the ashes. It embedded itself in the avant-garde trends of the ’50s and ’60s — for example, the generative photography of Gottfried Jäger or Hein Gravenhorst. While the Constructivists and Op Artists like Ludwig Wilding (1927-2010) should also be mentioned here. It was at the “New Tendencies” exhibitions in Zagreb (1961-73) in which all of these contemporary trends could be seen together, including the early genesis of computer art. 

As for digital art, of course, one cannot ignore names like Frieder Nake and Vera Molnar, but I would also like to mention Charles Csuri (1922-2022) and John Whitney (1917-1995) as other examples. They have all achieved immense things and built the foundations for NFT art in the first place. The exhibitions “Cybernetic Serendipity” (1968) in London and “Wege zur Computerkunst” (“Paths of Computer Art,” 1976) at the Goethe-Institut were especially important for this art movement, with the latter exhibited in nearly 200 cities worldwide at the beginning of the 1970s.

Installation View, “Herbert W. Franke: Visionary”, 2022. Courtesy Francisco Carolinum Linz

GB: Looking back at your oeuvre, one sees how the evolution of technology has produced stylistic breaks in your work. This is in contrast to other artists, such as Vera Molnar or Manfred Mohr, who have largely remained consistent in their style over the decades. How did you gain access to the latest technologies? Did you also work with programmers or did you write the code yourself?

HWF: Yes, breaks in style is perhaps the right phrasing because they were bound to emerge. I have worked with very different machines, computer systems, and programs over the course of my artistic career. I was always on the lookout for new technologies and wanted to explore them for their aesthetic potential — what one might call, somewhat exaggeratedly, the “essence of the machine or program.” 

If you look at the machine as a partner, as I did from the beginning, then you have to explore what the machine is particularly good at: Processing images into colors — as in the “Einstein” series of 1974, for example — or even generating moving images, as in the computer film “Projections/Rotations,” developed in the same year. Every machine brings with it the know-how of its developer, and, as an artist I did not want to ignore this but rather to make it “resonate.” As for the codes: In the 1960s and ’70s, I could only write flowcharts on paper, which were then implemented as code by programmers, mostly in Fortran. But with the advent of home computers, that changed. Since 1980, with access to my first PC, which was an Apple II, I program everything myself.

Installation View, “Herbert W. Franke: Visionary”, 2022. Courtesy Francisco Carolinum Linz

GB: As a science-fiction author, you were always a futurologist. While you made your future hypotheses as an art theorist. In your book Computer Graphics — Computer Art (1971), you outlined how “Computer art — although or just because it is only at the beginning — is certainly more than a passing phenomenon. It may even be decisive for the art of the next millennium.” You also made the claim “that in the future it will no longer be possible to do art without being influenced by the existence of computer-generated art.” It took 50 years, until the invention of blockchain technology and NFTs, for digital art to be noticed by the art market and traditional institutions. Nevertheless, a major paradigm shift seems to be taking place at the moment. Will digital art completely replace traditional media such as painting and sculpture, thereby proving your hypothesis to be true?

HWF: I don’t think I ever spoke of cut-throat competition. My hypothesis was and is that the artist of the future will be influenced by it. This is something different. Every artist has the right to use the methods or tools of their choice. Blacksmiths continue their work today, though perhaps not to the same extent as in the past. However, I was convinced from the beginning that digital art would one day become the mainstream of art. When that might happen, of course, I didn’t know. 

With the NFT world, computer art has now entered the traditional art world along with a lot of money and therefore a mighty roar. However, this does not mean that it is mainstream yet. Artists working with code today are still struggling for recognition in the same way that we did back in the 1960s. The only difference is that there are now many more artists and they are capable of publicizing their ideas through social media. This was not possible for our small group of artists in the 1960s and ’70s.

“Herbert W. Franke: Visionary”, 2022. Courtesy Francisco Carolinum Linz

GB: You actually exhibited a number of pavilions on the first metaverse platform, Active Worlds (2005-2008), similar to others today on Decentraland or The Sandbox. Indeed, your virtual exhibition can still be visited today. What does your world represent and which artists did you invite to your exhibition? Are there references to your science-fiction literature and what inspired its architecture?

HWF: Yes, I have preserved the Z-Galaxy to this day as a historical document on the net. It still calls to mind 2008, insofar as it is a relic from the early days of 3D worlds. The people from Active Worlds wanted to spice up the site with the new possibilities. But I didn’t want to do that. At that time, I constructed architectures using Mathematica that were derived from pure mathematics, which I then integrated into Z-Galaxy as RFX files. Even the plants are mathematically calculated structures. I didn’t want to simply assemble objects in my world according to the Lego principle. Unlike Second Life, Z-Galaxy also offered the possibility to construct a world in its entirety. I found that very appealing. 

I also exhibited works by my friends in the pavilions, such as Eugen Roth (1895-1976), a constructivist friend of mine, whom I got to use the computer as a tool with a lot of effort in the early 1990s. He was later very grateful to me for this. I also included work by Andreas Nottebohm, a space artist from Germany who now lives in Hawaii, after we had previously developed the book project Astropoeticon back in 1979. I even wrote space poems for a selection of his pictures.

Herbert W. Franke, Z-Galaxy, 2008. Courtesy art meets science — Foundation Herbert W. Franke

GB: How do you see the future of the metaverse? What challenges and dangers will we face as we move increasingly into a virtual world?

HWF: I don’t think you have to be a prophet to recognize that man is moving deeper and deeper into a second (perhaps in the end permanent) level of reality. Because Homo sapiens has the capacity for linguistic expression, it has created parallel worlds for themself and for others. They are not simply an invention of Mark Zuckerberg, even if it seems that way today. All religions are parallel worlds, and artists have used such parallel worlds throughout history to tell fictional stories. As it does across all areas of human development, technology also helps us to perfect these alternate dream worlds — from film to the metaverse — in ways that seem ever more real to us. But what is real? Ultimately, it is that which is created in our minds. 

Herbert W. Franke in front of his analog computer with output device oscillograph. Photography by Andreas Huebner. Courtesy art meets science — Foundation Herbert W. Franke

I don’t think it’s our place to talk about dangers or challenges in longer-term developments like the metaverse, underpinned by 21st-century ethics. If we could ask a person from the Middle Ages to explain airplanes or video games, they probably wouldn’t have anything remotely relevant to say. That’s how it will be when people look back at us from the future. Of course, this does not mean we should simply let such developments happen. We have to deal with them intellectually, question their individual and wider societal meaning — whether we really want them to exist at this moment in time and, above all, what collateral damage they might trigger that we must try to prevent. In the end, however, they really only reflect to us the image of man and the world as we see it in the 21st century.

GB: The media theorist Vilém Flusser wrote in the 1980s: “Changing the world is the business of machines: They do it much better than humans. Man’s business (for the time being) is to program machines to change the world. So it is not up to man to work, but to give meaning to work (to prescribe it). Prescriptions are codified orders.” What is ultimately decisive in a work of art: The program — perhaps the NFT’s smart contract — or the visualized end product?

HWF: Well, my opinion is clear on that, of course it is the program! Because it is only in the abstract code that the aesthetic will of an analytical artist opens up, not in a single realized picture alone.

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Herbert W. Franke was a scientist, artist, and philosopher who studied physics and philosophy at university in Vienna. He began as a scientist searching for an art theory based on experiment, seeking out mathematical principles of aesthetics through information psychology. As an artist, he started working with generative photography in 1953, subsequently working with an analog computer between 1954 and 1962, and pioneered digital art in the ’60s. Franke wrote many books and articles on computer art, also developing a cybernetic art theory. One of his books, Computer Graphics — Computer Art (1971), remains the earliest comprehensive text on the subject. He co-founded the Ars Electronica festival in Linz, Austria, and was Honorary Editor of Leonardo and ISEA since 1972. Franke is also famous as a science-fiction writer and cave explorer. In his lifetime, he published over 50 books and more than 20 novels and anthologies.

Georg Bak is an art advisor and curator who specializes in digital art, NFTs, and generative photography. Bak has worked in senior positions at Hauser & Wirth and as a fine art specialist at LGT Bank (Switzerland) Fine Art Services. He currently advises institutions and art collectors at the intersection of blockchain technology and art. He has advised MoCDA (Museum of Contemporary Digital Art), CADAF (Contemporary and Digital Art Fair), and Rare Digital Art Festival #2. He is also on the curatorial board of SNGLR Art Collection, CRYPTO OASIS Art Collection, and GENAP Collection. As an independent curator he has worked with Sotheby’s, Phillips, and The Vancouver Biennale.

This article has been republished with a revised introduction.