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Contents © 2020 Golan Levin and Collaborators

Golan Levin and Collaborators

Essays and Statements

Brown and Son: Making Self-Making Art since 1968

Written to accompany the exhibition Brown & Son: Art That Makes Itself at Waterman's, London, March 2015.

Half a century of computer art. It may seem difficult to imagine that this spring is the Golden Anniversary of software-based artmaking, but fifty years after the first exhibitions of computationally generated drawings (by Georg Nees, Michael Noll, and Frieder Nake, in early 1965), the field of digital art is now mature enough that, for one unusual father-and-son pair, it’s even an intergenerational family business. I’m speaking, of course, about Paul and Danny Brown: pioneering creators of artisanal software art since 1968.

Paul, born 1947, stands among the first generation of British computer artists. Influenced by the legendary Cybernetic Serendipity exhibition at the London ICA, in 1968, Paul had by the early 1970s developed a completely digital art practice. His work—part and parcel of the era’s response to the perceived romanticism of abstract expressionism—explored the removal of the artist’s hand through logic, computation and combinatorial design.

The 1960s and 1970s were not an easy time to commit to the computer as an artistic medium. Materially speaking, it was enormously challenging: artists were obliged to master difficult computer languages, conduct their work in government and industrial laboratories, collaborate closely with professionals in very different disciplines, and even build their own machines. It was an easy recipe for being misunderstood by both the arts community (for which the computer was anathema) and the computer science community (which had little patience for such obviously non-utilitarian applications). If the removal of the artists’ hand was celebrated in the minimalist and conceptual art of the time, it was reviled in computer art, where the machine was seen as a military-industrial force degrading to the human condition. Paul, writing in 1996 of his early experiences communicating his work to arts audiences, described his dawning awareness that the computer was a “forbidden medium”, and his decision to use it, a “kiss of death”. Critics at the time judged Paul’s art to be “cold and clinical” (an evaluation leveraged at much early computer art). Years later, in 2009, Paul would reclaim these reactionary terms in the volume he co-edited, “White Heat Cold Logic: British Computer Art 1960-1980”—but not before, one suspected, they had become a personal signifier for that uncomprehending era.

In the creative careers of both Danny and Paul, we see extensive movement between pure and applied arts. I believe this is a natural consequence of the economic conditions that bound computer arts, and the kinds of institutions or entities that are interested in funding new work and experimental practices. Since its inception, and in part owing to its highly interdisciplinary nature, the field of computer graphics has touched on applications in industry, architecture, advertising, medical research, and the military. In the 1970s, access to computing power was still rarefied—one graphics system on which Paul worked, for example, the Aesthedes, cost as much as “30 middleclass cars”—and in many circumstances one worked wherever the hardware could be found, whether this was a software company, commercial animation studio, fine art school, or polytechnic. Paul made a major move in 1981, however when he co-founded Digital Pictures Ltd., the UK’s first company wholly dedicated to CGI and special effects. Based within the Slade School of Art at University College London, he wrote modeling and animation software for Digital Pictures, and contributed to the development of pioneering computer graphics primarily for television titles. Paul re-established his art career in the late 1990s, when he was awarded an Australia Council for the Arts New Media Arts Fellowship. Since that time, he has maintained a long-standing relationship as artist-in-residence and honorary visiting professor of art & technology in the Informatics Department at Sussex University.

Paul’s son Daniel Brown erupted on the scene in 1997. The World Wide Web, barely three years old, was stiff, awkward, painfully unbecoming – and yet bursting, we all sensed, with the potential of a new expressive medium. Danny was among the first to probe these possibilities through the engaging creations on his Noodlebox website: experiments that were playful, innovative, moving, fresh, and quite simply, arrestingly beautiful. At that time, the budding cohort of people exploring the nature of online interactive art – just as with the computer artists of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s – was tiny and widely scattered. Unlike computer art in the early ‘70s, however, this “new, new medium” was instantaneously shareable. Danny’s online work spread quickly and was consumed by a global audience hungry for innovative visual culture. Followers of experimental media in the late ‘90s and early 2000s began to speak of Danny Brown in the same breath as a small handful of highly innovative peers such as Marius Watz (Norway), Joshua Davis (USA), John Maeda (USA), Lia (Austria), Yugo Nakamura (Japan), and British artist-designers like Ed Burton, James Tindall, and Andy Cameron. These influential practitioners brought together a knack for computational thinking, a sophisticated visual aesthetic, a sensitivity to ludic and delightful interactions, a research interest in the expressive potential of real-time imagery, and a street-smart savvy about the use of the browser as a tool for reaching people. Like them, Danny showed the way.

As Danny explored new contexts and concepts for online interactivity and generative art, an eager audience followed his evolution through projects like Bits and Pieces, Play/Create, and the works he created for Nick Knight's SHOWstudio. Taken together, the works Danny created for these showcases anticipated, predicted or outright invented many of the idioms of responsive online design that we see everywhere on the web today. Over the past fifteen years, Danny and his pioneering work in defining the visual language of web design have been recognized with a remarkable array of awards and accolades: he was named London Design Museum's Designer of the Year in 2004; selected for Design Week's Hottest 50 Designers; chosen by Internet Business Magazine as “one of the top 10 Internet designers”; designated one of Creative Review's Stars of the New Millennium; and more recently, his work was selected to represent the best of British design in international exhibitions organized by the Design Council and the British Council. Danny, like his father, is a genuine pioneer and innovator at the intersection of art and technology.

It’s a curious and little-known fact that more than a few of the leading figures in Danny’s generation of new-media artists—including some of those mentioned earlier—never completed university. Nowadays, of course, there’s a proliferation of undergraduate and graduate programs in “new media art”, “interaction design”, and related fields. Yet, when Danny was of college-going age, these weren’t yet considered fields. At the close of the 20th century, such programs were exceedingly rare; indeed, while Danny was seeking to pursue such studies, Paul was simultaneously working to establish viable university programs in computer arts and design. Despite the interdisciplinary groundwork laid decades before by the computer artists of Paul’s generation, and despite the obvious changes to culture wrought by computation, few institutions were configured to educate artist-engineers and other native hybrids. (Applying to colleges in the early 1990s, for example, I was told by one leading American university that I could study art or computer science, but not art and computer science.) In the face of this double-ended orthodoxy, computer art remained, in the words of Grant Taylor, “the unwanted child of unloving parents”, and there was little institutional accommodation for students who straddled the two cultures. Students wanting to get access to the latest in technological innovation sometimes had to forge their own paths in the commercial sector than to wait a decade for financially strapped universities to provide it. It’s a testament to Danny’s profound strengths as an autodidact that he has achieved as all he has, without the typical ‘advantages’ of a university degree and its attendant social capital. I can only imagine that having a living, hybrid role model like Paul Brown helped Danny find the courage to forge his own path.

In early April 2003 Danny was nearly killed in an accident. When he awoke from coma, he was paralyzed from the neck down. Although he has gradually regained a limited ability to move his arms, he has remained legally quadriplegic since that day. Yet over the past twelve years Danny has created more works—let alone works of surpassing beauty—than most artists will create in a lifetime. For Danny, his condition is a personal matter, not a public or professional one; there is no indication of it on his web site, and such is his productivity that many of his collectors, clients and Internet contacts are often surprised to learn that he is disabled at all. How Danny has managed to construct a creative new life in the face of such an existential challenge and profound constraint is utterly beyond my comprehension. To be honest I completely lack words to express my awed admiration for him, for his indomitable will, and for the loving family that has supported him through this trial.

No doubt there are many factors that have made it possible for Danny to construct such a productive life as an artist, designer and researcher. But I have to wonder if perhaps the quintessentially intellectual nature of his chosen medium—code—is one? Computational art may be the only plastic art that can be conducted almost entirely through mentation. Daniel Brown is living proof that one needs no more (and yet, no less) than a sharp mind and a great eye to create some of the most lovely, lively and important digital art in the world.

Observing Danny’s precocious talent at age 19, Paul observed, in his essay “An Emergent Paradigm” (1996) that “forty years is precisely the time it takes for a technology to mature and, more importantly, for a new generation of artists to develop who haven’t been influenced by the previous paradigm.” This may indeed be true, but ironically, it won’t be Danny and Paul—a pioneering computer artist inextricably influenced by a pioneering computer artist—who permit us to evaluate this claim. What we see instead is the passing of a torch, and a dialogue in both shared and divergent visual languages.

As a digital artist, Danny’s artistic concerns both dovetail with and differ from his father’s. Of course, some of the most obvious differences in their work arise from the inherent limits of the physical media that contain their ideas: printed plots and computed film animations, for example, versus interactive, networked, real-time displays. But common to both men is a concern with formal generativity: the capacity of a computer program to operate as a “meta-artwork”, producing an infinite variety of inner forms. In other respects, their work is truly complementary. Paul’s work focuses on logic and simplicity, combinatorics, geometry, and the elegance of ideal forms. Danny’s, by contrast, has for some years explored themes of nature, complexity, and outrageous ocular beauty: through investigations into emergent behaviors, organic morphosynthesis, and the ways in which mathematics (in the manner demonstrated by D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson) underpin the deep structure of the natural world. One might potentially note an Apollonian/Dionysian dichotomy in their bodies of work as well—though, whether this is more a result of the arcs of art history to which their work belongs, or the qualia of the particular media in which they have developed their best-known projects, or simply the particular proclivities of this father-son pair, it is impossible to say. Perhaps you will discover yet other ways in which their work communicates across time.