Desperately seeking computer art at the Venice Biennale

by Francesca Franco

Joseph Nechvatal. vOluptuary drOid décOlletage. Computer-robotic assisted acrylic on canvas, 2002.

Looking for computer art at the Venice Biennale is always a fascinating and exciting adventure. As art critic Adrian Searle rightly noted at the opening of this year’s event, “The Venice Biennale is always too big, too diffuse, too sprawling and too filled with divergent objects, images and ideas to make any coherent sense.”[i] Looking for computer art there is an even more challenging task, owing to its hybrid, fluid nature, and by the fact that this art, using the computer as a tool or medium, although around from the 1950s, has not been fully accepted by the traditional art institutions and has been overlooked for many years.

Personally, I have been involved in this search since I started my post-graduate studies in London more than a decade ago. This search became the focus of my PhD thesis[ii] and, since finishing my doctorate, it still remains a constant interest of mine as an art historian researching the connections between art and technology. There is also a more personal reason why I find this search fascinating. I was born in Venice and studied art history there. The Giardini – the first historical site of the Biennale – has always been a familiar place to me since an early age. When I was a child, my mother used to take me there during the Biennale. I loved those surreal walks around the pavilions, stimulated by the unexpected discovery of a sculpture hidden on a tree, or a colourful kinetic installation hanging from the ceiling. In a similar way, looking for computer art at the Venice Biennale today gives me the same excitement I felt back then.

There are other, more objective reasons for why the Venice Biennale is worth investigating. Firstly, the Biennale is the oldest international festival of contemporary art in the world and has been fully documented since its very beginning in 1895. It therefore represents an invaluable historical document and source of information for any art historian interested in understanding the development of contemporary art from an array of diverse perspectives. More importantly, by documenting such a wide historical period, the Biennale has encompassed and witnessed the introduction of computer art into the art world. Secondly, by being international in scope, the Biennale embodies a range of aesthetic visions that may reflect both the diversities or the common taste of an era in the art historical domain. It is therefore fundamental, and extremely illuminating, when analysing an interdisciplinary subject such as computer art and its multi-faceted origins. Thirdly, the intrinsic nature of the Biennale of being a recurring festival, as opposed to the notion of the fixed, “stable” role of the traditional art museum, has allowed the institution to adjust itself to historical and political circumstances, both national and international. Owing to the Biennale’s ever-changing nature, its curatorial projects have offered the audience a miniature reflection of the broader changes that have happened in the world at large.

As English art historian and curator Lawrence Alloway extensively demonstrated in his seminal book “The Venice Biennale, 1895-1968; from Salon to Goldfish Bowl” (1969), the first Biennales, particularly between 1895 and 1914, were devoted to the celebration of the official academic style, or “Salon art.” Far from being innovative and open to the new European tendencies, the first Biennales demonstrated a conservative and reassuring attitude towards art. The breaking of the original Venice Biennale’s curatorial model happened owing to political circumstances in 1968, the year of European radical revolts for social and economic change. From a curatorial point of view, the 1968 Venice Biennale represented an “anomaly” compared to its previous renditions. Not only the political instances brought forward by the student revolt, but also the introduction of new technologies in art from the mid 1960s contributed and allowed the Venice Biennale to distance itself from its original nineteenth century Salon art model. Owing to innovative and cross-disciplinary projects such as those presented by Argentinean artist David Lamelas and French cybernetic artist Nicolas Schöffer at the 1968 Biennale, the institution started, slowly, to open up towards new media and to accept them as a new form of art.[iii]

Simon Denny. Analogue Broadcasting Hardware Compression. Mixed media installation, 2013.

The 1970 Biennale represented a fundamental step for the art institution in the long journey toward the acceptance of computer art. The Biennale’s major show, exhibited at the Giardini, was titled “Ricerca e Progettazione. Proposte per una Esposizione Sperimentale” (Research and Planning—Proposals for an Experimental Exhibition) and curated by Umbro Apollonio and Dietrich Mahlow. It was an exhibition entirely devoted to “experimental art” and included a large selection of early computer art arranged historically and thematically. The artworks using computer-generated programs included “Return to a Square” by the Computer Technique Group; “Electronic Graphics” by Herbert W. Franke, using a Siemens System 4004; works by Auro Lecci, using an IBM 7090 machine and a plotter Calcomp 563; “Matrix Multiplication” by Frieder Nake; “Computer Graphics” by Georg Nees; and a computer-generated sculpture by Richard C. Raymond. The 1970 show was experimental. It was an anomaly, not a tradition, and it demonstrated—for the first time in Venice—that computer art could be seen as a way to find a vital function, or a purpose, of art in society.

The mid 1980s witnessed the first genuine attempt of historicisation of computer art. A seminal example is given by the major retrospective of computer art organised by American art historian Patric Prince for SIGGRAPH in 1986.[iv] The historisation of computer art in the mid 1980s can be seen as an essential factor that helped make computer art ‘safe’. It allowed the acceptance of computational art material in conservative art institutions worldwide, particularly the Venice Biennale. The aperture of the Biennale towards art and technology in the 1980s –anticipated by the 1970’s “Proposte per una Mostra Sperimentale” – started very timidly in 1980 with a peripheral show, “Cronografie”, curated by historian Gianfranco Bettettini for the 1980 Venice Biennale’s side event “Il Tempo dell’Uomo nella Societá della Tecnica.”[v] The show was exclusively dedicated to the role of memory and time in contemporary society with a focus on new technologies.

Studio Azzurro. In Principle (and beyond). Interactive video installation, 2013.

The openness of the Biennale towards art and technology unfolded more rapidly in the mid 1980s, particularly with the 1986 thematic edition on “Art and Science” directed by art historian Maurizio Calvesi. “Technology and Informatics” was the most cutting-edge project presented there and it took place in the restored Corderie dell’Arsenale. One of the most inspiring projects exhibited there was “Networking,” a show curated by Roy Ascott, Don Foresta, Tom Sherman, and Tommaso Trini.[vi] “Networking” included interactive installations by Waltraut Cooper, Brian Eno, Piero Fogliati, Liliane Lijn, Maurizio Mochetti, David Rokeby and Bill Viola; a “laboratory-workshop” that presented videotext artworks selected by Red Burns from New York University; a small section on laser disc creations; a “computer imaging” section including computer generated artworks by Adriano Abbado, Olivier Agid, Roberto Sebastian Matta and Anne Marie Pecheur; and a personal contribution by Ascott, “Planetary Network,” a project co-authored with Robert Adrian that explored the notion of telematic interactivity.

In the 1990s, art and technology – particularly video art – became openly accepted, exhibited, and eventually awarded. In 1990, for instance, American artist Jenny Holzer received the Biennale’s Best Pavilion Award and in 1993, Korean-born American video artist Nam June Paik was awarded the same prestigious award, ex-aequo with Hans Haacke, for his video installation “the Sistine Chapel.” In 1999, Doug Aitken won the Golden Lion with his video installation “Electric Earth.”

Studio Azzurro. In Principle (and beyond). Interactive video installation, 2013

Except for the rare case represented by the 1970 Biennale’s experimental show, computer art at the Biennale has since been exhibited only peripherally. And it seems that even today, most of the cutting-edge projects are exhibited outside the official site of the Giardini.

The 2013 exhibition is no exception. It is a very “tactile” Biennale whose main exhibition, “Il Palazzo Enciclopedico” curated by Massimiliano Gioni, explores the idea of “an imaginary museum that was meant to house all worldly knowledge, bringing together the greatest discoveries of the human race, from the wheel to the satellite.”

The materiality and tactility of “Il Palazzo Enciclopedico” seem to recall the past Biennale’s experience of “Aperto 80” (Open 80) curated by Achille Bonito Oliva and Harald Szeeman in 1980 at the former Salt Depots in Zattere. The concept behind Aperto 80 was to promote contemporary and experimental art, and to express a rupture with the past. The very same name given to the show prefigured an experimental and innovative show “without boundaries.”[vii] Despite being an exhibition projected to the “future,” none of the artworks presented there included technological media, the works being produced mainly used traditional media, particularly painting on canvas.[viii]

The 2013 Biennale seemed to have concentrated on this tendency. In this Biennale, computer art is almost non-existent in the main Giardini site, and it is interesting to see that one of the rare appearances of technology in the Palazzo Enciclopedico’s show is in the form of cardboard cut-outs in “Analogue Broadcasting Compression” by New Zealand-born artist Simon Denny (b.1982). Denny’s work incorporates a collection of obsolete analogue equipment, mainly compressed television monitors, covered by tromp l’oeil inkjet printed canvases depicting realistic imagery of old machines, tangled wires and TV monitors.

Studio Azzurro. In Principle (and beyond). Interactive video installation, 2013.

Two rare and remarkable examples that fully explore the connections between information technology and art fascinated me this year at the Biennale. They are exhibited – not surprisingly – outside the official Giardini. One was the inspiring work created by the Milan-based collective Studio Azzurro for the Vatican pavilion at the Arsenale. Here, curator Antonio Paolucci explore the biblical theme of the origin of man and the universe dividing the exhibition in three sections: “Creation,” “Un-creation,” and “Re-creation.” The first section, “In Principle (and beyond)” by Studio Azzurro is large-scale interactive video installation where videos are projected on each wall of a dark room. Images of deaf-mutes and women prison inmates share their family stories there. The images move in response to the viewer’s active participation, for instance by touching the projected image of a human form. Interactivity is enhanced in a way that all movements recorded on the four walls are processed in one single interactive projection that is cast from the ceiling to the floor in a central rotating image that fluctuates in slow movements among the viewers.

The other is the exhibition “Noise,” a Biennale side event curated by Bruno Barsanti and Alessandro Carrer at the Magazzini di San Cassian in Santa Croce. On the centenary of the publication of “The Art of Noise” by Futurist artist Luigi Russolo, whose publication appears at the entrance of “Noise” as a visual and literal quotation, the exhibition reflects on noise as a medium of artistic practice and communication. The concept of “Noise” has been inspired by the book “Immersion to Noise” (2011) by American artist Joseph Nechvatal, that maps out a broad-spectrum of aesthetic activity he calls the “art of noise” as an experience of excess. As Barsanti and Carrer explain in the exhibition catalogue, “The artists participating in the exhibition engage with this line of thought, assuming a modus operandi based on listening, or immersion, placing processuality in a privileged position with regard to the demands for representation.”

Art and technology are fully interlinked in the works on display. These include “Telefunken anti” by Carsten Nicolai, where an audio signal produced from a cd player is connected to the video input of two monitors turned towards the wall, translating sound into an irregular sequence of light impulses only visible in the space between the monitor and the wall; “Aritmetiche Architetture Sonore” by Roberto Pubgliese, where speakers of various dimensions and power are suspended in the middle of a room and translate into sound the architectural measurement of the exhibiting space; Nechvatal’s computer-robotic assisted painting “vOluptuary drOid décOlletage” and his video projection “Viral Venture”.

The 55th International Art Exhibition la Biennale di Venezia features national pavilions from 88 countries and runs until 24 November 2013. The exhibition”Noise” runs until 20th October 2013 at the Ex Magazzini di San Cassian, 2254 Calle della Regina Santa Croce (free admission).

Biographical Note:

Francesca Franco is a researcher specialising in the history of art and technology. She is Research Fellow at the Institute of Creative Technologies, De Montfort University, Leicester, where she is studying the Ernest Edmonds Archive of computational art material held at the Victoria & Albert Museum. In 2009–10 she was Research Fellow on the AHRC funded project Computer Art and Technocultures (CAT) at Birkbeck, University of London, and the Victoria & Albert Museum. She holds a PhD in the History of Art from Birkbeck (thesis title: Ars Ex Machina – The Missing History of New Media Art at the Venice Biennale, 1966–86). Her most recent publications include “The First Computer Art Show at the 1970 Venice Biennale. An Experiment or Product of the Bourgeois Culture?”, Relive: Media Art Histories, Cubitt and Thomas, eds., MIT Press (2013); “Exploring Intersections: Ernest Edmonds and his time-based generative art,” Digital Creativity, Vol. 24, No. 3, (2013);“Documenting Art as Art: the case of Notes (2000-ongoing) by British artist Ernest Edmonds,” Visual Resources: An International Journal of Documentation, Vol. 29, No. 4 (2013); “Shifts in the Curatorial Model of the Venice Biennale, 1895–1974,” Manifesta Journal, Vol.11, (2011). She has been on the editorial board of Computers and the History of Art (CHArt) since 2005.



[i] Adrian Searle,, Friday 31 May 2013, online at, accessed on 20 August 2013.

[ii] Francesca Franco, “Ars Ex Machina – The Missing History of New Media Art at the Venice Biennale, 1966-1986.” Birkbeck, University of London, 2012.

[iii] I have analysed this issue in my article “Shifts in the Curatorial Model of the Venice Biennale, 1895-1974,” Manifesta Journal 11, 2011.

[iv] The ACM/SIGGRAPH ’86 was a travelling art show connected to the SIGGRAPH Conference that took place at the Convention Centre in Dallas. Patric Prince, chair of the 1986 SIGGRAPH exhibition, chose that year as a historical turning point to celebrate the 25th anniversary of computer art. To mark this anniversary Prince invited most computer art pioneers to present their works. The exhibition featured a total of 450 works and included 6 hours of animations, two projected installations and 18 interactive and online works.  Among the artists participating to the show were Manuel Barbadillo, Paul Brown, Charles Csuri, Billy Culver, Jeremy Gardiner, Kenneth Knowlton, Masao Komura, Ben Laposky, Manfred Mohr, Vera Molnar, and Frieder Nake. A lecture presented at the Dallas Art Museum titled “Computer Art in the Mainstream” was presented by Patric Prince and artists Tony Longston and Barbara Nessim.

[v] Bettettini, Gianfranco, (ed.), Cronografie: il Tempo e la Memoria nella Societá Contemporanea, ex cat., Venezia: La Biennale di Venezia, 1980.

[vi] Ascott, Roy, “Art, Technology and Computer Science,” in 42. Esposizione internazionale d’arte La Biennale di Venezia: catalogo generale 1986, ex. cat., edited by Biennale di Venezia, Milano: Electa, 1986, 187-8.

[vii] Szeemann, Harald, “Aperto 80 / Open 80 / Ouvert 80 / Offen 80,” in Biennale di Venezia, 39. Esposizione biennale internazionale d’arte.Catalogo della 39. Esposizione Biennale internazionale d’arte, Venezia, ex. cat., Venezia: La Biennale di Venezia, 1980, 45.

[viii] In Aperto 80 art critic and curator Achille Bonito Oliva presented his new concept “Transavanguardia.” The movement, mainly an Italian phenomenon, rejected conceptual, symbolic and geometric art to focus on a return to emotions and craft. Main representatives of this tendency were Sandro Chia, Enzo Cucchi, Francesco Clemente, Nicola de Maria and Mimmo Paladino.


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