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Herbert Franke: Expert in Computer Art, Cybernetic Aesthetics, Speleology ...

QUESTIONS by OLIVER FROMMEL

OF: Your biography is quite colorful. How did this come about?

HF: There are reasons for this. In fact I wanted to work in science. But I studied just after the war, and when I graduated there was no chance of doing anything in this profession. Since I had already been writing and had started experimenting with photography as a student, I had additional possibilities, and I saw that people who are sitting there in the hierarchy, in some bureaucracy, are really poor people. At first I thought this applied only to civil servants, but then I found out that the same applies to industry officials, and my last discovery in this context was that even university officials are no better. Even if you only consider what I have done on the side in terms of scientific work, I've done more than many a professor who gets paid for his research, because he has to deal with organizing seminars or raising funds. I didn't have to do all that.

OF: What is the background of your artistic work?

HF: I am trained to be a physicist, and therefore I was not restricted by this art context, in which you had to go by some rules imposed by that context. Anyway, one did not get invited into any gallery, and there were no prizes. That meant one could do what one pleases. There, completely independently of the contemporary fashion at that, in which the artist is still quite trapped in tradition, one could really work freely. That went on for ten years, until the historians, the art theorists began to show an interest. I remember how, at the Ars Electronica, we worked undisturbed for about ten years, and no one from the academies showed any interest. Then suddenly it became famous, it became a success, and everybody came and said things like "I don't understand, I'm an arts professor in Linz, why am I not invited?" As things go in Austria, the guy then got an invitation, and that meant a step backwards. We then had such people on the jury, and I remember how one of the most famous Austrian artists, who had to be on the jury because he had demanded it, said to the others: "What nonsense it is, this electronic art, that stuff they do." And then at the award ceremony he was holding great speeches again. In my own works and in those of the people I was in close contact with (these were Frieder Nake and Georg Nees and later also Manfred Mohr and a few others), we were faced with the problem that people did not really understand us. In a way it was clear to us from the very beginning that the real strength of the computer does not lie in creating still pictures, that it hides incredibly interesting possibilities and one really has to follow that way. People then did not understand in what way our thinking differs from that of others, and even today there are only few who do.

OF: And what is your purpose?

HF: Even today, when I am invited somewhere, they keep asking me for pictures. Now an exhibition is planned in the German Museum, and what they wanted from me are examples of picture processing on portraits. And one of the earliest examples of picture processing ever, I have made with the help of a setup developed by the department of electro-medicine of Siemens at Erlangen, with which I did a series of pictures. I scanned a b/w photo of Einstein, which I then gradually processed and so gradually alienated. The idea was that with an optical setup for dissolving, one could create a small series in which Einstein could first be seen as real and then become ever more abstract, until nothing but a vague smear remained. Then I produced slides by holding the camera in front of the screen, at the time there was no other way to do it. And of course some art critic then said: "What's that now again? Some game? It doesn't make sense." Then I said: "You apparently just have not understood the sense." Then he: "But why, why?" And I: "Well you surely know what Einstein has done. When he started working, our world was still concrete, and at the end of his work, the world had become abstract. All this I express with the example of Einstein's picture. And if you want things more concrete, then you can say that the head is visible at first as a face, and what then happens with my series of alienations is that you end up seeing only the outline of the brain." This was only an example showing that there was a transition to the movement there. We always thought that the way of working the computer gives us the possibility, if we describe the images through mathematical formulae, to vary the parameters, and that in arbitrarily small steps. And if you do that, you have the raw material for an animation series. In principle this was possible even then, however costly, and the realization as a film was even more expensive. At the time there was no money in that. People nowadays do not understand this, they'll ask you: "Why did you not have a large image made?" To which I say: "Well, don't you know what an Ektachrome of that size costs?" We took a cheap copier in order to have a picture for documentation purposes, but in reality what mattered to us was not the picture, but the series of movements, and in this respect the slides are much closer to the original than the enlargements we are making, which they now want to hang there at all costs. And that's how they do it at the German Museum as well. They were not even prepared to install a dissolving setup, they just hang two pictures on the wall, and that's it.

OF: What was the development in the technical equipment you have been working with? Are there differences between analog and digital systems?

HF: The final aim in our work was of course always to get soft transitions, at first in the colors, later in the movement. Remarkably these wishes could be fulfilled by the cathode ray oscillographs. It was all soft and completely smooth and with no jerks in the movement. It's just that with the cathode ray oscillograph of course you cannot, and by far, do as much as with a digital system. That's why we were convinced that a point would be reached, sooner or later, in the development of computers, at which this wish would be fulfilled. Of course this was not possible with the plotter, when you have to transfer each picture in a 20 minute ceremony on cardboard - you need to be able to generate images on the monitor lightning fast. Then, with the electronic method, it worked. After all, the plotter is an archaic system in comparison with the electronic systems we compute the images with.

OF: Besides your artistic work you have always also worked on a theoretical level on art, and have written a number of books about this. What is the relation between your practical and theoretical work?

HF: In a way I've always been more interested in abstract images than in alienated real pictures, because they raise a problem with art theory. It is understandable that people are interested in depiction. But at the time, the question of why people are interested in completely abstract images was unsolved in my eyes. The art theorists at the time were saying that there was no such thing, that each abstract image contains something concrete hidden in it, and that this is what makes an impression. I did not believe this, and indeed it isn't so. For me the experiments with these things were also activities of an experimental aesthetics. My idea was that one should not tackle art from a historical point of view, but rather analyze it scientifically and ask oneself what concrete statements can be made. Of course you will hit a limit at some point, but I thought there must be some way. It's only somewhat later that it became clear how this could be done, namely through information theory, in which one can clearly see that art is a communication process. The relevant theory is thus communication theory, and as a mathematical instrument information theory. This in turn is linked to perception, since our brain, which perceives, is a data treatment system, an analytic system, a system for interpreting. This leads you directly in the full range of problems of neurology and brain research, but there's no way around it if you want an explanation for the phenomenon "art".

OF: And where does technology come into play?

HF: Creativity can be expressed in technology, why is it expressed also in art? Is it the same, or a different creativity? We are here at a really deep point at which both have their root, if we say that the man is a tool maker. If man at a given stage has recognized these skills as useful and has developed them through a process of selection, there are reasons for this. Then again, he has not made these tools for the fun of it, they had to be useful to him. Then we reach the point where he starts developing art machines as well. Suddenly we have both. The one who develops the art machine, perhaps a program, I'd include that into the concept of the machine, at once also wants to work with it. And it's extremely interesting to see that in the first five years there were no artists involved, because they simply did not know how to program, did not know math and simply did not have access to computers. There were, incredibly, many programmers and mathematicians who had felt the challenge of these systems and had started to make more or less interesting things, without there being any reason for it, without having been told to do it. In the US there was a magazine called Computers & Automation, and that's when the stroke of luck hit. The editor-inchief's girl-friend was an art professor, and they put out a contest in 1963. They wanted to award prizes for the most beautiful computer graphics and thought the odd image would be sent in. They ended up receiving buckets full of contributions, from all over the world.

OF: To what extent has technology influenced your way of working?

HF: Nowadays, when you program graphics, you usually don't have control over the sequence in which you apply the elements. At the time this was not necessary, you could use a completely different method, which I've used again and again. When you have applied the elements, and an element called up later comes to lie on an element called up earlier, the latter was hidden behind the former. I could thus apply a loop of arbitrarily many elements, and the image would continuously change. If I built in a random generator that would define the image parameters, I would get perpetual sequences of moving images. I've done this quite often, with all sorts of thoughts on the back of my mind...

OF: Has the interaction with the viewer played an important role for you?

HF: The idea of taking art down from its high pedestal and making it tangible and susceptible to manipulation was there from the beginning. And if I may allow myself to hyperbolize, in this way the vision or wish that every one of us may be an artist is a bit easier to attain. Because one spares oneself practicing manual skills and can thus concentrate much more on the conception process. I think this is a good thing. In the plastic arts this may not be quite so obvious, but when I observe the poor music students, it was not about music at all, the aim is exclusively to be able to move one's fingers a bit faster. I really ask myself, where is there art in all this? And when you can spare yourself that, then you reach realms in which people do not have a clue, simply because they have not learned it. I, for instance, am very fond of jazz, and am interested also in harmonic sequences that differ from those of our music. When I try to speak with such a person about it, they have no clue. But that is the interesting and essential thing, all that concerns composition, the structure of this music. This means that with our technological resources we make the way free for dealing only with the actual, creative process. So that one is not excluded because one's hands are too slow, or because one is clumsy with the paintbrush. The intellectual faculty is not tied by the inabilities that we, unfortunately, have here and there.

OF: Has the further development of technology changed also art itself, or the approach to it?

HF: This has changed to the extent that now also from among artists there is a rather great interest for the media. In the transition period in which the first artists came and said: "What do I have to do if I want to use this instrument?" One would then say: "Well, my dear, you need to learn how to program." "Oh, my God." So there was this wish coming from artists to be able to use these systems as easily as possible, and the consequence of this were the pen systems. This means that today we have, besides the method of describing the image with a formula, a second method, which is to simulate the classic art process with a pen system. On the other hand, a completely new method of description - namely programs - provide a kind of notation, a partition for images. This notation however by far surpasses the musical notation, because the generative principle is contained in the programs - which is not the case of musical notation. This means one can see the structuring principle in this program, which carries in itself this concrete art work that has been programmed. Naturally this allows changing things at the root and also making something entirely new. While the person writing something with an inductive pen on a tablet will likely produce no more than someone would have produced with a graphite pen in earlier times.

OF: Do you consider the development of technology is progress?

I need to relativize this a bit. Today one can use pen systems. Quite refined tools are available on the market for reproduction, for fanning out, for modifications of the image structure, all this can, nowadays, be called up and inserted even without knowing math. Today there is such a broad range of pen systems and programs available that offer such effects, that even I don't sit down and invent a new structure there, except if I have an idea I want to realize and don't find anywhere. Then I need to sit down, but I can do it. Nowadays one can find many very interesting possibilities. I must say that today one can really work creatively with pen systems. But I nevertheless think that if you work on a deeper level where you really have to think about the structure you are initiating and introducing into the image, then you go a bit below the surface. If you work with a pen system, on the other hand, you remain on the surface. These are the fundamental possibilities acquired through the stimulation that comes from this way of working with programs or on a mathematical basis.

OF: Do you see an end to this technological development? In what direction are things likely to go?

HF: I could imagine that with the appearance of three dimensional screens, i.e., output devices in which you really see in three dimensions and also create in three dimensions, one will need completely different pen systems. And they are not appropriate for these devices anyway, those are then architectural systems if we deal with buildings. One could also use genetic programs to grow graceful things. I think that we have great possibilities ahead of us. But here we have already drifted off somewhat into tangential topics. We do not need to worry about specific fundamental mathematical things, but have to get to know principles of growth, possibilities for structuring, for instance in the organic world. Think of Prusinkiewicz who was probably the first to try to simulate processes of growth. Carls Sims then took this up, this is still avant-garde, I would say, but in a few years it will be available to all, of course, and if you imagine in addition three dimensional creation, then you can imagine all sorts of things. I imagine for instance myself sitting in a small planetarium, just the size of an igloo, but if good use is made of the means of representation I don't see the border and see arbitrarily far into space, I'm surrounded by the screen, just like in the CAVE system, but without the edges, I can walk through it, and I can, at the same time, intervene creatively, like a gardener who says: "Here I want to plant," or like an architect who says: "Here I want to build a building." You could create entire planetary systems, there are still enormous possibilities there, but this is just one sector. The other will probably melt together with such things. Because these are not entirely unproblematic any longer. Even when you work with such a simple system as Bryce, you will realize that you are given choices in terms of optical devices to the extent that they do not know any longer what they are actually doing, if they haven't worked with quantum physics.

OF: Which two types of artistic activity you described above do you see as the most valuable?

HF: I think that one has to respect both nowadays, also as a creative activity. Someone can make use of the work done by his or her predecessors, and nowadays one cannot do without it. If you use a programming language there are many ideas included in it, which you just draw on. But of course also in a more concrete sense, when you use pen systems the possibilities integrated in them are of such a great variety that nobody has been able to oversee them completely. This means that you are faced with a set of instruments that allows you to create innovation, something completely new that nobody before you has made. This is a very nice system and in every way acceptable. But after all, the interesting thing about computer and media art has not reached its maturity yet. There are enormous possibilities that one will be able to tackle only when the systems reach that stage of development. This is the unique chance we have, to be living in these times. Someone who has carved stone with a chisel may not have this chance any more. In the domain of stones there will not be much to be found that would open new possibilities from the side of the raw material, these are exhausted. But we work with immature systems. This often annoys us, because we'd like to do something and know that in principle it can be done, but we don't have the instrument yet, we cannot pay for it, or even if we could pay for it, it does not exist yet, because we would need a quantum computer and so on. This is a wonderful, but also frustrating thing. It is in this interstice that we are active.

OF: Are you an expert?

HF: Everyone is an expert, on what they are interested in and what concerns them. In this sense I am also an expert. But of course I am especially an expert on the things I have explored intensively, perhaps more than others. That is for instance this development over the first years. It is unlikely that there are many who have followed this as I have. After all at the time I was already freelancing and was able to do more or less what I found interesting. Almost all my colleagues, Hacke, Nees or Noll and all the others had a permanent job of some kind and could not do what I did, which is to remain systematically up to date about what is going on. And of course I could participate in many discussions, I wrote a few books, which again led to new contacts. This has allowed me to get to know many people, to travel, so that in this domain I am of course an expert. In this domain there are many questions that have been explored very intensively, but often these are tiny details. For instance, over the past two years I have worked on making animations with the programming system Mathematica. Then I simply compiled a book from my own experience, and so I could say that I am an expert in animations with the Mathematica system. But if someone comes along and asks me how to solve differential equations with the system, I have to say, for God's sake, don't ask me, I have no idea. Although the system is quite useable, Mathematica is strangely structured, and you have to be something like a Chinese calligrapher, of which they say there are only five who really know all the signs, and all the others just use a few of them and make do with those. Those, however, who know them all, don't get anything else done, because they continuously have to be up front to keep themselves up to date or to complement. So I am no expert for Mathematica, but just for a tiny subspace of it. And in many other domains it is the same, one can say there is a strange lack of knowledge in the vicinity of expert knowledge.

OF: You are in a sense an expert in familiarizing yourself with the greatest variety of domains?

HF: I could also say that I am an expert on the overarching relations between different branches of science, on the overview that arises. I have noticed this in many discussions. When you discuss art, then you enter many different domains, after all I don't know in advance what I will be asked in such a discussion. One person wants to know about the color structure of a given image, created with a given computer program, the other asks me whether there is something divine to be found in oil paintings. I have noticed with many people who are indeed experts in arts or cybernetics, that they are splendid in their domain and know everything. But it's not enough to take into account only one thing. Another also has its influence, and then suddenly they have reached their limits. And I am in the comfortable position to be able to link many things with each other. I have been forced to work quite intensively with information theory, which is mathematically quite demanding, with the theory of automata, cellular automata, then of course programming, what is behind it, what are their fundamental possibilities. But in the first few years I have also worked on building computers out of the smallest electronic parts. In my work I have also been a writer and have worked on science fiction, or have come across physical problems of speleology. Before starting to write science fiction I had to collect precise information and see whether I can present things this way and I think I have made few mistakes. This overview is there, but of course you cannot demand the detail from me.