Letter to the Editor: Experimenting with Computers and Art in the ’70s

It was with personal bemused interest and irony that I read the article Embracing Unpredictability in your latest issue. Because this was not the first time that someone at Wesleyan endeavored to apply computer code to explore creative ways to stage chance operations. Indeed, it was way back in 1973 that an intrepid undergraduate undertook to contemplate the melding of computers and artistic creativity. That audacious student was me. I was a bit of an anomaly at that time—an art student who was also on the staff of the computer center. And 1973 was a time when Wesleyan had not a single computer course. But due to Wesleyan’s commendable liberal policy of accommodating innovation and non-conformity, I was able to fashion a unique learning program to experiment with the applicability of computers to certain artistic concepts in particular “embracing unpredictability” and serendipity akin to certain strains of surrealism.

No art-focused computer tools existed at that time. The daunting undertaking required grappling with a DEC mainframe computer, a drum plotter, and the venerable FORTRAN computing language. At least the technology had advanced past the punch card era. The resultant application was not just custom but unique.

It produced some very intriguing, aesthetically pleasing and thought-provoking images. They were displayed in a show at the Davison Art Center and accompanied by a conceptual manifesto. The poster for the show whimsically highlighted the ambiguous nature of creative “ownership.” Due to a disaster that struck my home, all the originals were lost.

I did go on to a fun and rewarding career in the computer industry. This included the distinction of being the first “professor” of computer art at Massachusetts College of Art in Brookline where I valiantly encouraged long suffering art students to overcome their fear of technology and prepare for the bold new field of truly creative computing.

I salute Chris Chenier in his current endeavor. His is another commendable chapter in Wesleyan’s inspiring history of innovative exploration.

Jeffrey Graber ’73
Silver Spring, Maryland