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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 images and kinetic installations. While the group’s blocky pixels and blinking walls of light look charmingly retro today, their ideas about the potential of computer technology seem even more 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 lived experience.
During their brief but euphoric existence, the New Tendencies movement turned socialist Yugoslavia into an international hub for computer scientists, artists and theorists interested in exploring the intersection of art and computer technology.
Their efforts received significant attention in the art world, and during the early 1970s the movement was invited to exhibit its works at the Louvre and the MoMA in New York. As a result of this exposure, the mainstream press took notice: from a scanned nude photo of postmodern dancer Deborah Hay, two NT artists made a grayscale mosaic of typographic symbols chosen for their brightness. The image was likely the first computer-generated nude, and it was published in the New York Times.
Today largely forgotten by the public and ignored by art historians, the group was 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 and the public should have access to such technology was itself revolutionary. And because NT was founded the same year as the Non-Aligned Movement, the group undoubtedly benefited from the unique cultural space that was 1960s Yugoslavia: in Zagreb, artists and scientists from both the Eastern and Western 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.
With their exhibitions and conferences on the theme of computers and visual research and the launch of the multilingual, groundbreaking magazine Bit International in 1968, the New Tendencies transformed Zagreb, already one of the most vibrant artistic centers in Yugoslavia, into an international meeting place where artists, engineers, and scientists from both sides of the Iron Curtain gathered around the then-new technology. For a brief moment in time, Zagreb was the epicenter for exploring the aesthetic, scientific, and political potential of the computer.
What remains most interesting 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.”
"The reason why the editors of Bit have started this magazine is to present the theory of information, exact aesthetics, design, communication mass media, visual and related subjects; and to be an instrument of international cooperation in a field that is becoming daily less divisible into strict compartments. Individual and isolated activity is also becoming less efficient, and the results of efforts based on an organized division of work on all levels are becoming more important. The editors of Bit are convinced that the strengthening and deepening of the channels of information and the creation of universal platforms for progressively orientated action are an indispensable need.
The pages of Bit are open equally to research and to reports on current experience and newly developed methods that are being worked out in workrooms, laboratories, factories and institutes; individual and particularly collective works are also hoped for. News of finished and classified results and of exploratory action begun are equally welcome. Bit is not a medium for showing off and the capitalization of intellectual gains, it is first and foremost a vehicle for continuous effort to develop the theory and practice of communication. Bit will publish both unpublished and previously published articles which the editors think worth reprinting.
Bit will present various opinions and approaches. Controversy will not be tolerated if the editors are of the opinion that personal prestige is in question, but on the other hand divergent views may be given space alongside either each other or successively if together they tend to give some new result or a result of a higher order. There will also be no conventional limits to expression in the pages of Bit. The interests of the motive of research and the function of reporting will be given priority over the technique of writing.
Finally, the editors of Bit are persuaded that it will promote the exchange of experience, knowledge and information and as such help towards solving the contradictions of the contemporary world."
True to New Tendencies’ internationalism, Bit International was a polyglot journal published in Croatian, with many articles in French, German, English, and Italian, all of these accompanied by its corresponding Croatian translation; the journal's contents focused on “information aesthetics” and cybernetic theories applied to art, and it was also bent on developing a theoretical framework for the use of computers in art in which artists and scientists could collaborate; examples of scientific and “artistic” research were featured extensively, conveying an arid feeling for those not used to the intricacies of software programming and its mathematical basis. This visual austerity is too reflected in the magazine’s layout, an austere publication resembling a scientific journal in its design tropes, perhaps due to the fact that a few of its issues were dedicated to publishing academic papers presented at the conferences organized by Galerija Suvremene Umjetnosti.
The title, Bit International (or only Bit) refers to the basic unit of information storage and communication (as introduced by Claude E. Shannon). It is short for “binary digit,” a term that has been used in the field of computing and telecommunications since the late 1940s.
Bit signified a second phase of New Tendencies. The reconfigured New Tendencies embraced “information aesthetics,” as developed in the late 1950s and 1960s by the French sociologist and electrical engineer Abraham A. Moles and German philosopher Max Bense, and to their influential work the first issue of Bit international was dedicated. The “logical” step for the movement and magazine was to embrace a further “scientific” approach to aesthetics, a more rigorous “artistic research,” in which the machine, a computer, would be an indispensable tool, and scientists would be co-creators with the artists, all of this mediated by an “aesthetic expert.”
Each issue though had a monographic theme:
Issue 1: The theory of informations and the new aesthetics
Issue 2: Computers and visual research
Issue 3: International colloquy: Computers and visual research, Zagreb, August 3-4, 1968
Issue 4: Design
Issue 5-6: The word image / Poésie concrète
Issue 7: Dialogue with the machine
Issue 8-9: Television today
As the “Computers and Visual Research” theme was being developed through publications, exhibitions, and symposiums, and Bit International’s issues published its findings, it appears that a need for historical antecedents was needed; in 1969, an issue dedicated to design focusing on the Bauhaus and the Ulm’s Hochschule für Gestaltung was published, both schools known for trying to mesh art and design with industrial research and production, as well as for their related investigations on visual form, or Gestaltung, theoretical concerns germane to those of New Tendencies. In addition, and given that computer-generated typography was an important research element, an issue was dedicated to it, alongside with artistic experiments with visual poetry, known, in its typographical exuberance, as Poésie concrète. This particular issue of Bit International might be the most visually rewarding for those interested in aesthetics, although the complete set of the journal continues too to be a treasure trove for those looking to trace the historical development of computer graphics and computer art, as a multitude of early experiments, scientific and artistic, are reproduced in its pages.
Given than both Moles and Bense were insistent on getting rid of any remnant of “philosophical speculation” embodied in art by the figures of the artist and the art critic, and were aiming at transforming “the metaphysical discipline into a technological one,” Claus Pias has asserted that “from the late 1950s to the early 1970s, we deal with a theory that self-consciously considers the aesthetics calculable.” To prove their point, Moles and Bense even provide mathematical equations to show how to reconceptualize aesthetics in terms of information theory, as for them, “even sensual effects are described mathematically.” Here it is worth highlighting that Moles' vision meant that “the aesthetic expert advances to the equivalent rank as the artist he used to only talk about;” the role of this new “aesthetic expert” is to “offer the elements of programs for the repertory of machines, he determines the hierarchy of levels… so that each analytic machine may serve as a synthetic machine, which is to say as the origin of works of art for which he is the responsible manager.”
A responsible manager in lieu of artists, that’s an interesting concept; unsurprisingly enough, there was pushback from artists, accusing both theorists of scientific determinism and a lack of social engagement, specially as these ideas were being discussed in the context of the revolutionary late 1960s; as Armin Medosch describes in his sweeping analysis of New Tendencies, “it is quite an irony that although artists of the first phase of New Tendencies helped to revolutionize how people saw the world through art, and despite their personal support during the events of 1968, the art of 1968 did not become the art of the revolution.”
Nonetheless, Bit International tried to assuage these societal and conceptual shifts, featuring articles on other artistic practices that refused Moles’ and Bense’s scientific determinism; conceptual art was deemed of interest, with its dematerializing and democratizing leanings, as well as with its emphasis on ideas, instructions, and processes; a younger Yugoslavian generation of artist not embracing the tenets of New Tendencies were also featured in its pages; for example, an exhibition of the OHO Group's work at the Galerija Suvremene Umjetnosti was presented as “an alternative to the ‘elite culture of social modernism,’ whereby New Tendencies would be the ‘elite culture.’” Appropriately, Bit International’s last issue was dedicated to television broadcasting, marrying all the journal’s conceptual strands: from Moles’ analysis of the medium from his information theory and semiotic perspective, to artists using television and video from a conceptual or performative approach.
From hindsight, Bit International is an indispensable document to trace the history of computers and the initial development of their application to society and art; its interest lies not only in its theoretical and scientific rigor, its documentation of an important chapter of applied cybernetic thought to the humanities, and the historical development of art and science in conjunction with computers; besides all this, we believe that Bit International provides a fascinating glimpse to the international collaborative socio-political context in which these developments were taking place; going through all the journal’s issues, one can observe how Cold War technological disparities prompted the later unequal development of computer research under different geopolitical and socioeconomic systems, a development that landed us in our current predicament of computer ubiquity under corporate and governmental control.
From liberating utopia to surveilled dystopia then, or, from early computer graphics and quaint vector graphics experiments to deepfake disinformation operations, all of it, bit by bit.