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Lillian Schwartz
Lillian Schwartz



A Beautiful Virus in the Machine
Gregory Kurcewicz

I originally showed Lillian Schwartz's work as a complimentary programme to a historical programme of "Cybernetic and electronic pioneers" including the work of the Whitney brothers, John Stehura and others in an attempt to introduce a historical perspective to what seemed to me a very "ground zero" approach that was prevalent in New Media or Digital Arts area. I was amazed by the approach to abstraction the films presented, and their equally fascinating soundtracks. I had obtained the films from Jean Claude Risset who was working at Marseilles University in France. These were the only copies I could find, and at that, some were quite faded and deteriorated. From this tantalising prelude, I researched more into Bell laboratories and into the work of other people who had worked there at the time. On mentioning the project to a colleague they replied to the idea with interest, but said something to the effect of that the graphics that were done then could be done now on a mobile phone... and it might come back , "It might be of interest in the same way that Norman Architecture was interesting from a historical point of view".

As I dug deeper into researching Schwartz's work I discovered the wider context it was created in. In a research week in New York and New Jersey, I met a whole panoply of people who were involved in working (sometimes covertly ) at Bell Laboratories in New Jersey, an institution that was seemingly both as municipal as the General Post Office in the "white heat" of England of the 1960's, and as creative and cross-pollinating as the Weimar Bauhaus. Research and development was conducted with an open-ended game-plan, encouraged and shaped by Max Mathews, an innovative thinker and artist in his own right.

Lillian Schwartz's career evolved from the traditional study of Chinese brushwork in Japan to self-taught computer programming. When she connected her artistic concepts with the scientific ideas of Kenneth Knowlton at Bell Laboratories, innovators at the Thomas J. Watson Research Laboratory and Bell Labs Innovations, her interest in science and art blossomed. From video animation to electronic art analysis to preservation, Schwartz's pioneering work created the basis for the expansion of computer art.

Her computer-generated artwork became the first of its kind to be purchased by MOMA. In 1986, Schwartz used computer analysis, pattern recognition and superimposed images to investigate paintings by da Vinci. She concluded that da Vinci himself was the model for the Mona Lisa, and his Last Supper was painted to be viewed from specific positions, within the Refectory at Santa Maria Grazie. By electronically subtracting paint from della Francesca's The Resurrection of Christ, she determined that the original work was quite different in color than the final piece.

Bell laboratories - a primer
Bell laboratories, Murray Hill, New Jersey in the 1960's was a very exciting place to work. Bell is known as the birthplace of the transistor, the laser, and Unix, but it was also rich in multimedia art and electronic music. Formed in in 1925, and named after the inventor of the telephone, Alexander Graham Bell, the laboratories had reached a praxis of artistic development in the late sixties.

At this point in time, artists of all kinds especially from the highly fertile nearby New York, with its volatile and multimedia, expanded arts scene had been introduced, sometimes under the cover of darkness or through the back door Bell Labs in Murray Hill, NJ was a leading research contributor in computer graphics, computer animation and computer music from its beginnings in the early 1960s.

Initially, researchers were interested in what the computer could be made to do, but the results of the visual work produced by the computer during this period have established people like Michael Noll and Ken Knowlton as pioneering computer artists.

Edward Zajac produced one of the first computer generated films at Bell Labs in 1961, which demonstrated that a satellite could be stabilized to always have a side facing the earth as it orbited. This film was titled A two gyro gravity gradient altitude control system. Ruth Weiss created in 1964 (published in 1966) some of the first algorithms for converting equations of surfaces to orthographic views on an output device.

The artistic/scientific/educational image making efforts at Bell Labs were some of the first to show that electronic digital processing (using the IBM 7094 computer) could be coupled with electronic film recording (using the Stromberg-Carlson 4020 microfilm recorder) could be used to make exciting, high resolution images. With the dozen or so films made between 1963 and 1967, and the many more films after that, they showed that computer animation was a viable activity. Zajac's work, Sinden's films (eg, Force, Mass and Motion) and studies by Noll in the area of stereo pairs (eg, Simulated basilar membrane motion) were some of the earliest contributions to what is now known as scientific visualization.

The films
The films that you will see in this programme were made in conjunction with the programmer Kenneth Knowlton. Ken Knowlton and Leon Harmon experimented with human pattern perception and art by perfecting a technique that scanned, fragmented and reconstructed a picture using patterns of dots (such as symbols or printer characters.) Ken Knowlton developed the Beflix (Bell Flicks) animation system in 1963, which was used to produce dozens of artistic films by artists Stan VanDerBeek, Noll, Knowlton and Lillian Schwartz.

Mathoms, 1970, 2 minutes 18 seconds, Music by F. Richard Moore.
A playful concoction of computer produced images, a few hand-animated scenes and shots of lab equipment. Made largely from left-overs from scientific research.

Olympiad, 1971, 2 minutes, 35 seconds, Music by Max Mathews
A study in motion based on Muybridge's photographs of man-running. "Figures of computer stylized athletes are seen in brilliant hues chasing each other across the screen. Images are then reversed and run across the screen in the other direction; then images are flopped until athletes are running in countless ways...not unlike a pack of humanity on a football field." Bob Lehmann, Today's Film-maker magazine.

UFO's, 1971, 3 minutes 2 seconds, Music by Emmanuel Ghent.
"After a process of experimentation and elimination with the frames of U.F.O's , I hit upon a way of editing in completely black frames between the specially filtered colour-image frames. Our perception of a comfortable, complete moving image is associated with the alpha rhythm of our brains. The standard film speed of 24 frames per second minimizes any perception of flickering as the frames are shifted before the projector's bulb. The black frames I inserted were not noticed by observers of the film, since the duration of each insert was extremely brief. But the duration was long enough to permit the cones of the eye to refresh themselves, so that they maintained their optimal ability to recognize a dominant colour. I previewed the the film at the Whitney Museum of American Art, in New York City. The reactions were surprising. The film caused headaches and hallucinations and, in one instance, uncrossed a case of chronically crossed eyes. I had achieved a major breakthrough in colour saturation by seducing the eyes to continue watching what they would otherwise avoid. By accurately assessing the amount of time it took for the photopigments to refresh themselves, I never gave the brain enough time to consider not watching the film." - Lillian Schwartz

"UFO's proves that computer animation — once a rickety and gimmicky device — is now progressing to the state of an art. The complexity of design and movement, the speed and rhythm, the richness of form and motion, coupled with stroboscopic effects is unsettling. Even more ominously, while design and action are programmed by humans, the 'result' in any particular sequence is neither entirely predictable ... being created at a rate faster and in concatenations more complex than eye and mind can follow or initiate." - Amos Vogel, Village Voice.

Pixillation, 1971, 4 minutes 8 seconds, Music by Gershon Kingsley
Ken Knowlton recognized that programmers were "constricted…cold and inscrutable", while artists were "intuitive…sensitive and vulnerable." The question of how this dichotomy could be used to push the computer into realms beneficial to each side could not be explored because of economic constraints. During the 1960's, programming still took up 50 percent of the time for each project. Therefore, what programmers did had to have a potential corporate benefit to it. Working with Lillian, Ken realized that his language was "scientifically orientated…and that…it is necessary to develop special facilities for the artists."

"With computer-produced images and Moog-synthesized sound Pixillation is in a sense an introduction to the electronics lab. But its forms are always handsome, its colors bright and appealing, its rhythms complex and inventive." - Roger Greenspun, N. Y. Times.

Apotheosis, 1972, 4 minutes 21 seconds, Music by F. Richard Moore
"Apotheosis, which is developed from images made in the radiation treatment of human cancer, is the most beautiful and the most subtly textured work in computer animation I have seen." - Roger Greenspun, N. Y. Times Award Foothills -1973.

Enigma, 1972, 4 minutes 26 seconds, Music by F Richard Moore
"Lines and rectangles are the geometric shapes basic to ENIGMA, a computer graphics film full of subliminal and persistent image effects. In a staccato rhythm, the film builds to a climax by instantly replacing one set of shapes with another, each set either changing in composition and color or remaining for a moment to vibrate stroboscopically and then change." - The Booklist

Googolplex, 1972, 5 minutes 26 seconds
With its synchronised tribal ryhthms and flickering visual white-noise, Googolplex is a hypnotic film that is effective for its minimalism. Extended editing techniques based on Land's experiments affect the viewer's sensory perceptions.

Papillons, 1973, 4 minutes 6 seconds, Music by Max Mathews
A slow elegantly flowing film with a liquid like soundtrack from Max Mathews. Mathematical functions are the basis for a science film on contour plots and an art film. Both are shown simultaneously at a two screen production for an IEEE conference in NYC. Beauty in Science & Art.

Metamorphosis, 1974, 8 minutes 28 seconds, Music Symphony in D Major by Salieri
"Schwartz's Metamorphosis is a complex study of evolving lines, planes, and circles, all moving at different speeds, and resulting in subtle color changes. The only computer-generated work on the program, it transcends what many of us have come to expect of such film with its subtle variations and significant use of color." - Catherine Egan, Sight Lines, Vol. 8, No. 4, Summer 1975.

Mutations, 1974, 6 minutes 51 seconds, Music by Jean-Claude Risset
"The changing dots, ectoplasmic shapes and electronic music of L. Schwartz's 'Mutations' which has been shot with the aid of computers and lasers, makes for an eye-catching view of the potentials of the new techniques." - A. H. Weiler, N. Y. Times

Alae, 1975, 3 minutes 51 seconds, Music by F. Richard Moore
"Beginning with footage of sea birds in flight, the film image is then optically scanned and transformed by the computer. The geometric overlay on live random motion has the effect of creating new depth, a third dimension. Our perception of the birds' forms and movements is heightened by the abstract pattern outlining them. Even if you suffer from the delusion that if you've seen one computer film, you've seen them all, give this stunning, original film a chance. Should you remain unconvinced, ALAE is a good example of the fact that computer technology seems destined to play an important role in animation." - Jana Varlejs, Cine-Opsis, March 1976.

Newtonian II, 1978, 5 minutes 30 seconds, Music by Jean-Claude Risset
This film is strongly rooted in its underlying mathematical structure which forms the basis for the images. The music by Jean Claude Risset is integral to the creation of this concert of space and time.

Lillian Schwartz's film series A Beautiful Virus Inside The Machine will be shown at the Kiasma Theatre on Sunday 23rd November at 16.00. Gregory Kurcewicz and Will Rose will present the films.

Lillian Schwartz


site by valotalo Avanto Helsinki Media Art Festival 20-23.11.2003