In the history of computational art in Canada, a group of forward-thinking artists and technicians at Western played a starring role.
The results of their collaborations and musings are currently on display at Western’s McIntosh Gallery, as part of the exhibit, Computational Art in Canada, 1967-1974.
The show’s specific time period speaks to an age when the applications of information technology lived not in our pockets, but in the minds of the few who had access to large mainframe computers.
“This is the chapter before people ordinarily think of computer or computational art, with Western being one of a handful of universities across Canada to house a mainframe computer during that time,” said Adam Lauder, guest curator of the exhibit.
Lauder, a sessional instructor at OCAD University, recently finished a postdoctoral fellowship at York University focused on the origins of computational art in Canada. His cocurator, Mark Hayward, is an associate professor in the department of communications studies and associate dean of graduate studies at York University who studies culture and technology.
Their exhibit is the first to chronicle Canada’s contributions to first-generation computer art through a vast array of animated films, plotter drawings, digital paintings and computer-generated silk-screen prints. It also includes language-based experiments by London artist Greg Curnoe and the work of experimental filmmaker (and Western emeritus professor) Alexander Keewatin (“Kee”) Dewdney. Both highlight the interdisciplinary collaborations between artists and researchers, facilitated by John Hart, the first chair of Western’s department of computer science.
“Hart was an absolute visionary and instrumental in bringing a number of important artists to Western, where they then experimented with what was very rare, and possible at that time with mainframe computers,” Lauder said.
“This art often required the assistance and support of technicians and engineers who would do some of the programming, before the time of graphical user interface or anything that was user-friendly.”
It was also a time when the field of computer science was dominated by “white, straight men,” Lauder said, “making the inclusion of Montreal artist Suzanne Duquet’s work even more interesting.”
Duquet was a painting professor at the L’Université du Québec à Montréal whom Hart met at a conference at York University in 1971. He invited her to come to Western, where she spent two summers as an artist-in-residence.
“She is such an exceptional figure,” Lauder said. “Because the technology was so complex, computer artists needed the help of engineers. She is one of the few artists that learned to code. Her paintings are based on programs she wrote herself.”
Other pieces in the show extend beyond those created by computer.
“There are works by artists thinking about computing in a larger sense ─ how it affects society and our thinking and behavior,” Lauder said, referencing Vera Frenkel’s pioneering series of teleconferencing performances which foreshadow the internet and social media.
“That really connects to the present day, whether you’re a computer scientist or someone who just works in front of a laptop, it touches us all,” Lauder said.
The exhibit runs until December 12. Due to COVID-19 safety protocols, guests must book their visit in advance. Lauder and Hayward’s lecture on the exhibit was recently recorded as part of Western’s department of visual art’s Art Now! speakers series.