Nettime mailing list archives

[Nettime-ro] FW: RHIZOME/Olaf Langmack/40 Years of Computer Art
Dana Catona on Tue, 30 Oct 2001 12:46:03 +0100 (CET)

[Date Prev] [Date Next] [Thread Prev] [Thread Next] [Date Index] [Thread Index]

[Nettime-ro] FW: RHIZOME/Olaf Langmack/40 Years of Computer Art

Date: 10.18.2001
From: Olaf Langmack (langmack {AT} transformal.com)
Subject: 40 Years of Computer Art
Keywords: programming, language, interact, computer art

My conception of computer art aims at the artistic analysis of the
computer as medium. But the originality of this art does not depend on
the use of computers, it can be carried out with any medium suitable for
artistic expression. I will detail this position with an interpretation
of concrete poetry ("Konkrete Poesie") as computer art and the
restoration of a poem as interactive system.


Eugen Gomringer, one of the originators of concrete poetry, stated more
than 40 years ago: "One must arrive at new scripts and codes" ([3], page
56). He asked for the "adaptation of writing to the necessity of faster
communication. Shortage of expression and simplicity do NOT mean,
however, the end of poetry. Even though poetry is disconnected from
society" ([3], page 56). The following is an example of such new code,
designed to accelerate communication ([2], page 75):

     ping pong
          ping pong ping
          pong ping pong
                    ping pong

While writing this, Gomringer takes the position of a director. He
provides a concept: "It's ... possible to combine them any way one
likes, there is just one handicap, the poet controls the game, he deals
out the cards" ([3], page 56), The poet invents the concept, carries it
out once himself, writes it down, so that it can be used by his readers
or co-poets. They may derive the poems implicit concept. They may vary
the concepts use then to yield another version, another constellation

They are invited to remotely interact with the poets ideas. Technically
this is eased be the fact that the poems "... are small enough that one
can have them in one's head and can deal with them in the head."
(Gomringer, [3], page 56).

This model suggests obvious analogies to computer systems - the poet
could be seen as programmer of an interactive system - so that the
question is raised, if computers can be used as medium for concrete


If the restoration of a poem as a program succeeds I classify the poem
as computer art. Gomringers ideogramm "lieb()leib" ([2], page 87) is an
example of such computer art, it has been first published in 1954:

                            lieb( )leib
                 lieb(lie((li(((i e)))eb))ieb)lieb
                    l(((li(lie(li eb)ieb))eb)))b
     lieb(((((lie((((li((((l((i() ()e))b)))eb))))ieb)))))lieb
           lieb((((lie(((li((l(i) (e)b))eb)))ieb))))lieb
((((((lieb(((((lie((((li(((l((i( )e))b)))eb))))ieb(((((lieb))))))
                 (((l//i()e))b))) (((l((e()i))b)))
                   l(le((lei(((le ib)))eib))ib)b
         (li)(le)(lb)(il)(el)(bl) (ie)(ib)(ei)(bi)(eb)(be)
                          (l)(ie) (ei)(b)

The poem - not the concept - plays with the meaning of "lieb" (love) and
"leib" (body). The words are split and combined to provoke reflections
on their interplay. Parentheses are used to symbolize an echo. An
intelligent echo, since it can be made responsible for splitting and
rearranging the words. The poem has a dramatical structure, it has plot
points. It's not just a formal variation of symbols.

At first sight most computer programmers would identify "lieb()leib" as
a LISP program. The LISP programming language requires balanced
parentheses to group syntactical entities. But a second look at
"lieb()leib" unveils their unbalanced use. Their appearance does not
conform to their role in programming. As a LISP program "lieb()leib" is
syntactically wrong. This becomes apparent if one restores the poem. As
method in this case it is appropriate to establish a set of regular
expressions and a context-free grammar - both types of formal languages -
as definition of the poems concept. The grammar does NOT treat opening
and closing parentheses as distinct symbols.

With some technical extensions the definition can be used as input to a
compiler construction system which then generates an interactive
program. This program allows to perform proper variations of
"lieb()leib" in real-time. It supports the user to act as Gomringers co-

If the results reach a similar dramatical intensity as the original
remains to be seen though: At the final plot point - where Gomringer
makes use of unbalanced parentheses - the poem becomes a robust form
("kerniges Gebilde") in two ways. "The system of the poem is broken by
the hommage to 'lieb'. Because "lieb" is now complete. The goal of the
echo parentheses is achieved" (Gomringer, from private communication
with the author). Both the hommage to lieb and the unbalanced use of
parentheses - a computer related hidden topic - are stated at this point
in the poem.

This restoration classifies "lieb()leib" as computer art, probably as
one of the earliest examples of computer art. First, since its concept
is effectively representable as computer program. The computer can
effectively be used to read and write its constellations. And second,
since it breaks with rules that are fundamental to programming. It
reflects the expressiveness of formal languages in an artistical manner.

Not all examples of concrete poetry (not to talk about the poetry that
is "disconnected from society") can be restored as programs. And to
avoid misunderstandings, it is my conviction that no sort of poetry can
be generated by programs, no programs exist to judge the quality of


A comparison of milestones in the use of formal language theory for
the implementation of programming languages with the advent of concrete
poetry shows that 40 years of technical progress were necessary, to allow
the use of a computer as its medium. This is an example for McLuhan's
observation that "artist's from different fields of art discover at the
beginning again and again how to use one medium to unfold the power of
another" ([1], page 71). It implies that the artistic investigation
of the computer does not require the use of computers.


+ + +


Thanks to Eugen Gomringer, Burghardt Groeber and Barbara Wien.
Retranslation of McLuhan and all translations of Gomringer by Virginia


[1] Herbert Marshall McLuhan, "Die magischen Kanäle - Understanding
Media"; Econ, 1992.

[2] Eugen Gomringer, "konstellationen, ideogramme, stundenbuch";
Reclam, 1977.

[3] Eugen Gomringer, "Konkrete Poesie - Von der ersten Stunde bis zur
weltweiten Entwicklung", in; Michael Glasmeier, "Nürnberger wörtliche
Tage"; Verlag für Moderne Kunst, 1990.

+ + +


Presented as extended abstract at the 13th IFIP congress, workshop on
"Computer, Media and Arts", Hamburg, 1994. Wolfinger (Ed.), Proceedings,
p. 487, Springer, Berlin, 1994, ISBN 0-387-58313-0. Reprint with


+ + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + +

Nettime-ro mailing list
Nettime-ro {AT} nettime.org
arhiva: http://amsterdam.nettime.org/