The artists of the 1960s, Zagreb-based New Tendencies movement were the first to experiment with the computer as a medium. They thought the new machines would free us from commercial oppression and the tyranny of our bland, everyday existence. Too bad they were wrong.
Beginning in 1961, a group of artists in Zagreb began experimenting with using the computer to make art. Fascinated by the aesthetics of science and the computer’s potential as a tool for liberation, the New Tendencies movement went on to produce a diverse body of computer-generated visual geometry and kinetic sculptures.
The group’s blocky pixels and blinking walls of light may look charmingly retro today, but it’s their ideas about the possibilities of computer technology that seem the most displaced from the 21st century. In much the same way that their 1960s contemporaries touted the transformative power of psychedelic drugs, the New Tendencies approached this new machine as something mystical and wondrous, a tool to escape rather than simulate mundane, lived experience.
During their brief but prolific existence, New Tendencies turned socialist Yugoslavia into an international hub for computer scientists, artists, and theorists interested in exploring the intersection of art and computer technology. Operating with the support of the Gallery of Contemporary Art (today the Museum of Contemporary Art Zagreb), New Tendencies hosted a series of successful exhibitions and published nine issues of a multilingual magazine called Bit International.
Their efforts received significant attention in the art world, and during the early 1970s they were invited to exhibit their works at the Louvre and New York City’s MoMA. One image in particular stood out: From a scanned nude photo of postmodern dancer Deborah Hay, two New Tendencies artists made a grayscale mosaic of typographic symbols chosen for their brightness. It was probably the first-ever computer-generated nude, and it was published in the New York Times.
Coinciding with this year’s fiftieth anniversary of the founding of the New Tendencies movement in Zagreb, the MIT Press released a book, A Little-Known Story About a Movement, a Magazine and the Computer’s Arrival in Art, New Tendencies and the Bit International 1961-1973.
The new book reminds us why the movement — which has been largely forgotten by the public and ignored by art historians — was so remarkable: While the notion of computer-generated art as revolutionary may seem naïve today, during the 1960s, computers filled the space of several large rooms and were rarely accessible outside of corporate, research, or military environments. The notion that artists or the public should have access to such technology was itself revolutionary. New Tendencies was also founded the same year as the Non-Aligned Movement, and the group undoubtedly benefited from the unique cultural space that was 1960s Yugoslavia: In Zagreb, artists and scientists from both blocs could meet in a socialist country during the height of the Cold War to create works relatively unconstrained by the aesthetic dictates of socialist realism.
Yet what remains most intriguing about New Tendencies is that they envisioned a technological future altogether different from that which exists today. As Vladimir Bonacic, one member of the group, cautioned all the way back in 1969, “The computer must not remain simply as a tool for the simulation of what exists in a new form… The computer gives us a new substance, it uncovers a new world before our eyes.”
A version of this article appeared in Bturn on October 9, 2011.