Cybernetic Serendipity was the first large international exhibition of electronic, cybernetic, and computer art. It took place at the Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA) in London, UK, from August 2nd to October 20th, 1968. There are reports saying that between 44,000 and 60,000 people visited the show during its more than two months duration. However, ICA did not take real counts.
The idea for the show had emerged when Max Bense visited the 1965 exhibition of concrete poetry at the ICA and responded to a question posed by British art critic, editor, curator, and ICA assistant director Jasia Reichardt: “What should I do next?”. His suggestion: that she should look into computers. (It should be noted that only shortly before, on February 5th, 1965, Bense had opened the first ever show of computer generated art in his Studiengalerie at the Technische Hochschule (later: University) Stuttgart.
Cybernetic Serendipity was the first exhibition to attempt to demonstrate all aspects of computer-aided creative activity: art, music, poetry, dance, sculpture, animation. The principal idea was to examine the role of cybernetics in contemporary arts. The exhibition included robots, poetry, music and painting machines, as well as all sorts of works where chance was an important ingredient.
The exhibition’s poster and catalogue cover was designed by the Polish-born, London-based painter, illustrator, film-maker and stage designer Franciszka Themerson. Together with her poet, novelist, film-maker, composer and philosopher husband, Stefan Themerson, they made short films, publish books through their own Gaberbocchus Press, many of them with Franciszka's illustrations, including works by Guillaume Apollinaire and Kurt Schwitters, the first English translation of Alfred Jarry's Ubu Roi, Raymond Queneau’s Exercises in Style, and The Good Citizen’s Alphabet by Bertrand Russell
Cybernetic Serendipity was organized in three sections: • computer generated work • cybernetic devices-robots and painting machines • machines demonstrating the use of computers and the history of cybernetics.
The exhibition dealt with an exploratory field, it aimed at insights and foresight. One statement claimed, “One can foresee the day when computers will replace railway trains and airliners as the cult symbols of the under twelve’s”. Possibilities rather than achievements were its domain, and in this sense it was prematurely optimistic.
Parts of the show were shipped to the USA in 1969 to be displayed at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C. Some of the exhibits were damaged during transport. After repair, they were on display in Washington and the Exploratorium in San Francisco.
Estimates are that, in one way or another, 350 people contributed to the exhibition, among them 43 artists, composers and poets, and 87 engineers, computer scientists and philosophers.
From the exhibition press release, ICA London, 1968:
“Cybernetics – derives from the Greek «kybernetes» meaning «steersman»; our word «governor» comes from the Latin version of the same word. The term cybernetics was first used by Norbert Wiener around 1948. In 1948 his book «Cybernetics» was subtitled «communication and control in animal and machine.» The term today refers to systems of communication and control in complex electronic devices like computers, which have very definite similarities with the processes of communication and control in the human nervous system.
A cybernetic device responds to stimulus from outside and in turn affects external environment, like a thermostat which responds to the coldness of a room by switching on the heating and thereby altering the temperature. This process is called feedback. Exhibits in the show are either produced with a cybernetic device (computer) or are cybernetic devices in themselves. They react to something in the environment, either human or machine, and in response produce either sound, light or movement. Serendipity – was coined by Horace Walpole in 1754. There was a legend about three princes of Serendipity (old name for Ceylon) who used to travel throughout the world and whatever was their aim or whatever they looked for, they always found something very much better.
Walpole used the term serendipity to describe the faculty of making happy chance discoveries. Through the use of cybernetic devices to make graphics, film and poems, as well as other randomising machines which interact with the spectator, many happy discoveries were made. Hence the title of this show.”
In 1961 the Fun Palace Project was conceived by visionary architect Cedric Price and renowned theater director and producer Joan Littlewood, who has been called "The Mother of Modern Theatre”. Their so-called “laboratory of fun” concept was not only inspired by eighteenth-century English pleasure grounds for strolling, amusement, and gossip, but also conceived as a “university of the streets,” to address important social and political issues.
They imagined a building linked through technology to other spaces, accessible to those who wouldn’t normally go to arts venues or great centres of learning. Joan said, “I do really believe in the community. I really do believe in the genius in every person. And I’ve heard that greatness come out of them, that great thing which is in people.”
The original design said:
“Choose what you want to do – or watch someone else doing it. Learn how to handle tools, paint, babies, machinery, or just listen to your favourite tune. Dance, talk or be lifted up to where you can see how other people make things work. Sit out over space with a drink and tune in to what’s happening elsewhere in the city. Try starting a riot or beginning a painting – or just lie back and stare at the sky.”
Joan is best known for her work in developing the Theatre Workshop, an experimental touring theatre group. In 1953, with her partner Gerry Raffles, she risked everything by taking a lease on a permanent base at the Theatre Royal Stratford East, London. The theatre was derelict, no funds were available for renovation, and the actors cleaned and painted the auditorium between rehearsals. To save money the cast and crew slept in the dressing rooms. The company renovated the building and Joan’s great causes – community and political theatre, improvisation, the working class language, the inclusion of children – helped change the face of British theatre.
Price was an influential architect and architectural writer. He believed in the idea of using architecture and education as a way to drive economic redevelopment. Among many other projects, Price worked on the design of the aviary at London Zoo and proposed the redevelopment of the Thames South Bank. The original Fun Palace design is cited by many as an inspiration for Richard Rogers and Renzo Piano’s Pompidou Centre.
Joan and Price invited prominent educational theorist, psychologist, and cybernetician Gordon Pask to participate in the project in around 1963, and he organized the Fun Palace Cybernetics Committee. His work in cybernetics, concerned with machine behavior, feedback, information and learning was in tune with the idea of the Fun Palace as open-ended and responsive to its audiences.
Despite a Fun Palace Trust that included such luminaries as Yehudi Menuhin and Richard Buckminster Fuller, the Fun Palace never eventuated as a venue, but there were two early versions. In 1968, Joan and colleagues created Bubble City near Paternoster Square in central London, and in 1975 they took over the derelict building site in front of the Theatre Royal Stratford East, to create the Stratford Fair.
Cybernetics of Cybernetics
The 1974 publication The Cybernetics of Cybernetics is a collection of key papers in understanding how everything in our world connects to everything else, edited by the German-born composer and electronic and computer music pioneer Herbert Brün with the Austrian American scientist Heinz von Förster. Together they taught courses on cybernetics, heuristics, composition, cognition, and social change at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s Biological Computer Lab, and The Cybernetics of Cybernetics was produced with students of those classes. During the 1950s, Brün had worked as composer and conductor of music for the theater, gave lectures, and seminars emphasizing the function of music in society.
In the late 1960s he began programming in FORTRAN, resulting in such works as Infraudibles (1968) and mutatis mutandis (1968). The latter was a series of computer graphics for interpretation by composer/performers. Von Förster’s work combined physics and philosophy, and he is widely attributed as the originator of Second-order cybernetics, also known as “the cybernetics of cybernetics,” the recursive application of cybernetics to itself. He worked on cognition based on neurophysiology, mathematics, and philosophy and has been lauded as “one of the most consequential thinkers in the history of cybernetics.”