Earliest examples of Internet- and computer-based art?
April 21, 2012 4:57 AM   Subscribe

What are the earliest examples of Internet-based art? Are they still online? Do they date all the way back to the 1960s when the Internet was founded? Are there earlier examples of computer-based art from before the advent of the Internet?
posted by mortaddams to Media & Arts (11 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
This Wikipedia article on ASCII Art makes the point that people used to make character-based art using typewriters before computers were invented. It cites Kenneth Knowlton as producing computer "art" in 1966. However, the article cannot be considered in any way comprehensive as it is not illustrated with a picture of Snoopy -- preferably with a football (a big meme of the early seventies).

Early ARPANET documents probably included diagrams drawn in ASCII characters and almost certainly had neatly-formatted text headings (and this proto-Internet handled data messages which could be graphic data), but for most users the earliest on-line art was the header graphics on bulletin board sites. When you contacted one you received back a text message from them that was often formatted attractively, or at least eye-catchingly, with small ASCII/ANSI graphics. And we used the bulletin boards to swap pictures, amongst other things.

Personal computers were spreading in the 70s, putting graphics programs into the hands of people in their leisure time, so computer art flourished with both pixel-based and vector-based graphics. New techniques were developed and shared, and a lot of fun was had. Games for the home computers often sold themselves on their graphics, squeezing amazing effects out of limited capabilities.

I don't know that consolidation into the Internet made "Internet art" something different from its immediate predecessors. What exactly are you expecting?
posted by Idcoytco at 6:03 AM on April 21, 2012 [1 favorite]

Back in the late 1970s, someone got the clever idea of scanning images into a computer. Unfortunately, there was only so much that could be done with a dot-matrix printer and black printer tape.
posted by three blind mice at 6:06 AM on April 21, 2012

When I was about 8, a friend of mine had a picture of his dad printed on green-bar paper. His dad had brought it home from work and it was made up of assorted graphics characters. You had to stand way back to see it. Standard issue ASCII art, but I thought it was probably the coolest thing ever, and it was 1978, after all.

As far as pure-art website, one of the earliest I can remember (around 1996) was jodi.org, which was a sort of random freakshow of recursive links, ascii art and other wierdness. It looks like it's still up (warning - lots of javascript, possible redirects and whatnot).

You probably also want to check out the demoscene, which started (I think) in the early 80s. There was a magisterial FPP on the subject here a week or so ago.
posted by jquinby at 6:18 AM on April 21, 2012

Not the earliest, but certainly early (and some of the first widespread art) would be ANSI art. There's a whole episode about the scene and ANSI art in the computer history documentary by MeFi's own jscott's (unfortunately, I'm not sure which episode it is...but you can watch the whole thing for free). (It's been mentioned a couple of times on MeFi, too, with even more background information, like this.)
posted by anaelith at 6:30 AM on April 21, 2012

sito.org is younger than the Internet, but older than the World Wide Web. (It started out on ftp and irc.)
posted by moonmilk at 6:49 AM on April 21, 2012

For websites specifically, there was a bunch of self-consciously-described "Art" even back in the NCSA Mosaic days (circa 1993). I am somewhat embarrassed to have written my masters thesis on "Narrative and Interactivity in Hypertext" or some such nonsense at the time. The "new media" theorists were going on about this sort of stuff even earlier -- I'm seeing references as far as the mid 80s, though that's getting before my time so I can't really speak to it.

This was more or less coincident with "multimedia" art (Voyager Company's artsy CD-ROMs in the 80s and 90s for example). The biggest difference in the internet-based art was greatly reduced graphical capabilities -- it all had to fit through a 14.4k pipe, and there were only like five HTML tags anyway -- so a lot of it was primarily text-based.

I would be surprised if any of that shit is still online; it predates the internet archive, and would hardly be recognized as web design these days (this was way before javascript or CSS; hell, you couldn't even change the background color of a page or control the positioning of an image.) Also it mostly wasn't very good; picture a lot of bad poets failing to be Borges and you'll not be too far off.
posted by ook at 6:53 AM on April 21, 2012

The advent of the plasma panel display on the PLATO IV computer system in 1972, with its vector-based graphics capabilities, allowed for some fairly sophisticated artwork capabilities at an early point in the networked computing age.

Now, I'm not sure how much these capabilities were used for anything resembling "high art" or how many people were using PLATO in the 1970s and 80s as a visual art medium where the art was the primary focus, and not created secondarily for use in instructional lessons and games. As an interesting aside, beloved-of-Metafilter cartoonist/arty type person Nina Paley was a PLATO user/ programmer in high school and college and there were some fantastic pieces of paleo-Paley artwork on the chalkboards of the CERL building in the mid-1980s, but I don't know if she did much graphics work on the system itself.
posted by drlith at 7:10 AM on April 21, 2012

The wikipedia article on computer art has a pretty good rundown, particularly the history portion (though it strikes me as more of a haphazard then comprehensive survey). Early examples are the Henry Drawing Machine from 1960, Dr. Michael Noll's 'visual patterns in 1962 (simulating Mondrian and Riley paintings, among other things), and the first exhibitions of computer-generated art in 1965.

Also notable is the Zanelle, which dates back to about the mid 1970s and uses computer control to create actual paintings (ie, brushes, regular artist-grade paint, etc).
posted by flug at 8:34 AM on April 21, 2012

If you're more interested in the interaction of the Internet and art/computer art, you might find it productive to do some searching in the early usenet archives. (Search with google here.)

For example, here is an interesting discussion of a computer-generated artwork from 1983 or so, some of the 1983-ish discussions from net.graphics might be interesting, alt.ascii-art seems to go back to about 1993, and the earliest example of ascii art I can find posted there is this pair of ascii nudes--and so on.

SIGGRAPH conferences go back to 1974 and seem to have always included some computer-generated art.
posted by flug at 8:48 AM on April 21, 2012

As mentioned above, TTY and RTTY art predate CRT ASCII art and typewriter art preceeded that. The wikipedia article on ASCII Art has a decent summary and examples.

If you're interested in the internet/folk art connection, probably the most common place to see art on the early forms of the internet was as ASCII art in people's signature blocks: One example (ASCII nude), and another famous example (Kibo's sig block, reputed to be the longest in the world).
posted by flug at 9:22 AM on April 21, 2012

Hey there. I made the BBS Documentary and have done way too much research into this sort of thing.

I try to discourage thinking "when is the first" and "what is the first" when going into this sort of history, because there's a ton of precedents and a bunch of sort-ofs that make it all very fuzzy. Also, I do believe strongly that people don't want "the first" - they want "when it really blossoms and becomes a rich mosaic of contributors", and then to enjoy the fruits of that labor.

Let's start with a conversation I had with John Sheetz (Ham Radio KA2GI) back in the early 2000s for my documentary. He'd co-run a RTTY Art Contest (Remote Teletype) in the 1960s and 1970s, run by a fellow named Don who'd died some years earlier.

The full one hour interview I conducted with John is here: http://archive.org/details/20030322-bbs-sheetz. It is absolutely packed with relevant contextual information.

Here's some photos from that interview. Please note this photo, which is some art that John was very sure was transcribed to teletype from a typewritten original from the 1930s.

When John Sheetz died, his stuff scattered to the winds, so I'm not sure what happened to it, but luckily some people had long ago transferred all the RTTY art contest material. I have 1,700 different artworks from these people here:

In there are notable gems. For example, here is some text art from 1947.



Here's the question you want to ask yourself: are you seeking out the roots of artwork on the internet? Because a lot of it is stuff ported up from bulletin board systems or from timeshare computer systems, and this RTTY art is absolutely the predecessor for a lot of it, and was carefully dragged or ported up from those tapes or printouts into what forms artwork in the later machines.

If you're NOT, and you're trying to find specific pockets of artwork as you define it, realize that there's ANSI Art, Vector Art, Character Graphics (ATASCII, C-64), Drawn graphics, music, and small movies, and those are all present in the 1980s in various degrees, and many of them transferred, after a fashion, in Usenet. I wouldn't journey past 1989 to find the "firsts" depending on how you go about "firsts".

But doing this, naturally, will cut you out of whole ranges of artwork types for whom, even though there are precedent and direct ancestors, are definitely their own thing. For example (off the top of my head), the cinemagraph medium is definitely built on top of a ton of technologies ranging back decades, but I would argue they're kind of their own thing.

So ask yourself what you want to do next in this understanding, while paying proper respect to this century of technological art I just pointed you at.
posted by jscott at 10:42 AM on May 11, 2012 [2 favorites]

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