CHArt Newsletter Spring 2010

Edited by Anna Bentkowska and Hazel Gardiner

ISSN 1742-3376

We would like these pages to become an information point for CHArt activities, reviews of outside projects of interest to CHArt members, and general and practical issues in arts computing.

The CHArt Newsletter has taken the form of a chronological noticeboard. As new material accumulates, older articles will be indexed and archived as appropriate. Please send your contributions and comments to anna.bentkowska@kcl.ac.uk.

CHArt logo
Computers and the History of Art

CHArt is hosted by the Centre for Computing in the Humanities (CCH), King’s College, London, UK.


Communication technologies - instant and global - are a dominating factor in today's liquid economies and politics, societies and cultures. We live in a time when our identities are increasingly fractured, networked, virtualised and distributed. The same appears to be true of our things. Objects are becoming more contingent, reconfigurable, distributable and immaterial.

The 2009 CHArt conference engaged with these questions in relation to art practice, production, consumption, representation and display. We also looked at new notions of the identity of the artist, including those involving collaboration and anonymity; new conceptions and ontologies of the art object, as processual, virtual, or hybrid; new means of consumption and reception, whether in galleries and museums, in public spaces, or over networks of broadcast and narrowcast; and the challenges these transformations bring to the display of art and to its curation and access. This issue includes two reviews of the 2009 conference, which was held on 12th and 13th November 2009 at Birkbeck, University of London. They are by the recipients of the Helene Roberts Bursary. Gabriel Menotti Gonring discusses a number of perspectives on the art object while Frédérik Lesage looks specifically at the artist’s identity in a digital age.

The 2009 conference was CHArt's twenty-fifth. CHArt was established in 1985. We look at the group's original goals and reassess our mission. We invite your comments and suggestions of possible future directions. We remind you that CHArt's membership is open to all who share an interest in arts computing, established experts and students alike.

As always, we include details of CHArt publications. Three issues of the CHArt Yearbook are available to order. Another, ninth volume of CHArt conference proceedings is available online. CHArt volunteer editors are doing their best to speed up the publication of further volumes. We always need reviewers. We would like to hear from colleagues with interest and expertise in arts computing, who are independent of CHArt, and able to peer review CHArt papers prior to publication. Please do contact us if you are interested in reviewing for CHArt (anna.bentkowska@kcl.ac.uk).


Cartoon CHArt 1986Detail of an illustration by an unknown member of CHArt,
CHArt Newsletter, No. 2, Spring 1986.

The twenty-fifth annual conference of CHArt was titled Object & Identity in the Digital Age. It was held at Birkbeck, University of London on 12th and 13th November 2009. The conference (see programme - PDF) is reviewed here by two recipients of the Helen Roberts bursary 2009, Gabriel Menotti Gonring and Frédérik Lesage. Abstracts of papers presented in the conference are available online.

Object & Identity in the Digital Age

In the face of more fashionable, vague expressions such as new media and art-technology, the terms computers and history of art take on an almost solemn aura – especially when backed up by the quarter-century tradition of the CHArt Conference. Coming from a media arts background, I was expecting the conference to be a place of highly pragmatic debates. Maybe this is why I thought that object and identity in the conference theme reinforced one and the same meaning – that is, the classification of things, however virtual and systemic they might be nowadays.

The opening keynote knocked this narrow impression down. In a light-hearted presentation informed by his own personal history, Frieder Nake called into question the identity of the practitioner itself. He discussed the interplay between professional and personal identities and warned against the stratification of the roles of artists, programmers and critics. Had engineers and mathematicians never entered the aesthetic field, computer art would never been born. It is always necessary to challenge the concepts and metaphors that limit practice – even the idea of the transdisciplinary artist-programmer, as broad as it might seem, has to be questioned.

The rest of the sessions also explored how the definition of object depends on that of the practice as well, since they are both being redefined together in the digital age. In that sense, the papers of Alex McLean and Ernest Edmonds, presented right after the keynote, referred to two emerging techniques for the creation of artworks: live coding and generative processes. The former involves the performance of programming in front of an audience, producing musical or visual results; while the latter consists of the computer-based generation of audiovisual works based on a series of pre-programmed rules. These are cases where it seems impossible to appreciate the object isolated from its mode of production.

Above and beyond the process of production, the dynamics of use also play an important role in the definition of an object. As it was said in the presentation of Helena Tomlin and Irit Narkiss, objects have no authority; people have authority – and it is precisely this exterior judgment that defines the authenticity of an artwork, among other things. Their paper was a case study about ‘The Museum of Me’, a project by the Manchester Museum to engage local school children with its artefacts. Getting to approach these objects like museum staff, the kids attained a deeper understanding of them and of the institutional system in which they were presented.

The museum has always been a device to classify and order the world; the authority deposited in a museum collection radiates towards history and society – and this is particularly delicate in the case of ethnographic studies. In this context, the emergent questions raised by Devorah Romanek concerned the digitisation of such archives. A digitised image refers not only to the object it depicts, but also to its original, analogue version. Hence, it refers directly to the institution’s political and technological methods, allowing people to situate themselves in different time and space regimes.

The tension between different instances of the same object creates some of the biggest anxieties in the transition from an ‘analogue’ to a digital age. Sooner or later, we might return to the apocalyptic fear that the real world be substituted by its virtual double. One way to cope with this concern is by exercising the most literal notion of materiality. In her presentation, Dew Harrison considered some artists that might be doing so, by embodying assets from Second Life in physical sculptures. Could we see in these works a kind of response to conceptual art practices, as the name of her paper suggests? Or are they the supplementary sign of a new institutional closure that binds together the art system and digital networks?

After all, these networks have always been subject to strong regimes of authority. This was exemplified by Andrew Sempere, who analysed content creation in Second Life. The software’s default settings prevent users from copying and modifying in-game goods created by each other, resulting in an artificial scarcity that allows for the exploitation of virtual assets as if they were physical products. This generates heated debate amongst users – some being for, others against the market regime promoted by Linden Lab (the game’s developer). In any case, it illustrates very well how a digital object’s identity depends on and cannot be easily separated from the system in which it is included. In that sense, digital objects show a striking similarity to works of art and historical artifacts.

From this perspective, maybe critical practice and reflection should be entirely displaced from text to context, just like Paul Sermon demonstrated. Like some previous presenters, Paul showed some of his own projects, which involve the creation of telematic, hybrid spaces that the public can inhabit. He started in the 1980s using techniques such as chroma-keying and close-circuit video, and now also explores entirely virtual environments. In the Liberate Your Avatar installation, for example, Second Life characters are transported to a real life location, where they coexist with the passers-by in a video screen and demand their civil rights. These images are feed back into Second Life, suggesting that both contexts cannot be really separated.

Nevertheless, it is possible to make different systems inform each other in a positive way. For instance, Colin Price showed how he is employing game design to teach art and vice-versa. Assuming that computer games are defining the mode of thinking of the young generation (the ‘digital natives’), he asked his students to create some Unreal Tournament levels based on the work of ‘traditional’ artists. By doing so, the students had to simultaneously analyse these pieces and reconstruct them under a different logic. This allowed a deeper understanding of both the artworks and especially of game design techniques.

The role of the artist as a formal innovator was referred to by Frédérik Lesage, who brought back the question of collaboration between experts representing different discipline. Just like Frieder Nake had previously argued for the influence of the programmer over the field of aesthetics, Frédérik suggested that artists can have a meaningful effect on the development of technology, often contesting conventions and standards with their practices. Therefore, the usual opposition between users and designers should be dropped. One should stress the importance of organisaions able to accommodate such work.

After all, critical insight can come from where it is least expected. This was proven in Ernesto Priego’s paper, which commented on the complex materiality of comic books. This very traditional art has always assumed many different forms: from newspaper strips to European albums and Japanese tankoubons. Digitised versions abound. There is so much more to a comic book that its inscription. Its identity encompasses the relation between image, text, space, the human body, the physical interface, etc. Who could say that such an inconspicuous subject would have so much to tell us about the condition of object in a digital age?

Gabriel Menotti Gonring, MPhil/PhD candidate,
Media and Communications, Goldsmiths, University of London, UK

NY Journal 1896

AM Radio in Second Life

The Yellow Kid and His New Phonograph, New York Journal, Sunday October 25 1896, San Francisco Academy of Comic Art Collection, The Ohio State University Cartoon Research Library. From Ernesto Priego's presentation.

'Oil painting' by AM Radio, Second Life. From a presentation
by Andrew Sempere. Images courtesy of AM Radio.

Working Towards Identity - An overview of the approaches to the study of the artist’s identity in a digital age

I would like to briefly address a particular theme of the 2009 CHArt conference - Object and Identity in a Digital Age: how did presenters deal with the artist’s identity? One of the objectives of the conference was to invite papers on the topic of new notions of the identity of the artist ‘including those involving collaboration and anonymity’. Truly, one of the promises of this digital age is for a new kind of artist and a concomitant new kind of art. It was therefore particularly fitting for CHArt to examine what constituted the identity of artists who work with computers as part of its twenty-fifth annual conference. Many changes have taken place since the organisation’s creation in 1985, by a number of ‘art and design historians who happened also to be computer enthusiasts’. A field of professional artists whose working practice is principally supported, and/or centrally preoccupied with, digital information and communication technologies, is ever growing. The following is an attempt to broadly cover how the 2009 conference dealt with issues concerning the artist’s identity by examining how the invited speakers addressed, either explicitly or implicitly, the past, present or future iterations of the artist’s identity in the digital age.

From the start of the conference, Frieder Nake’s keynote address tackled the issue of the artist’s identity head-on. Nake set the bar high for all subsequent presenters, warning that we should avoid oversimplifying identity categories when examining the historical developments in early computer art. According to his argument, the institutional blinders of critics from that era limited their interpretations of early works to a number of pioneers in the field. I would argue that Nake’s conclusion - that the new kind of works that are now possible with computers open up ‘infinite interpretations’ - points to a different kind of challenge to the artist’s identity than the one he alluded to in his conclusion. Could one instead argue that our current definition of the artist’s role represented more of an impediment than an advantage for working with digital information and communication technologies? Why did we need to find a ‘third culture’ to explain such a crisis when we already had ‘user-generated content’ and other similar, everyday contemporary concepts that arguably represented far more potent challenges to the artist’s privileged position?

Nor was this crisis of the artist’s role anything new. Academic disciplines such as cultural studies and the sociology of art were challenging the notion of the artist as the independent and unique source of cultural value at least since the 1970s (this is without even mentioning the panoply of artistic practices that have done just the same over the course of the twentieth century). These challenges attempted to make room for consumers, users, fans and audiences as cultural stakeholders and as key actors in the process of generating meaning. Questions surrounding digital information and communication technologies were but the latest iteration of this longstanding debate. Nake’s work led me to wonder, while I listened to the subsequent presenters, whether such deeply, historically embedded terms as ‘Art’ and the ‘artist’, were still relevant in the digital age? Were these terms useful for working with computers or did they simply represent a burden to contemporary digital cultural production. Were they relics of a past age? We are all familiar with the well-worn debates concerning Art (with a capital ‘A’): from the distinction between 'High Art' and 'low art', to the merits of 'Art for Art’s sake', compared to those of a more functionalist understanding of artistic practice. Who gets to determine who is, and who is not, an artist? All these issues ran through my head throughout the course of the 2009 CHArt conference. I could not help wonder whether it was worth focusing on an identity with so much baggage to describe the works that were being discussed (with much despair, I assure you!).

Following Nake’s presentation, I was able to identify two overarching approaches to the artist’s identity in the subsequent presentations. I will try to make a case for the distinction by presenting two general categories. The first was a traditional artist’s role based on civic humanist or romantic principles applied directly to contemporary digital practice. In this case, works by artists recognised in the canon of the High Arts in painting, sculpture, or otherwise, were presented as standards for contemporary digital artistic practice. Artistic identity was unquestionably presented as a source of value that could not and should not be questioned or contained. The second approach was less tangible and ran through many of the presentations. Implicitly at least, these presentations suggested that the artist’s identity stemmed from the value or significance of artistic work more so than in a tangible artistic identity per-se. What mattered in this second approach was not so much who was or was not an artist in the works presented, but rather that there were specific qualities in the work of individuals or groups of individuals who engaged in what I would call a process of meaningful aesthetic investigation, production and appreciation.

This second approach arguably represented a far more promising start towards addressing the artist’s identity in the digital age. That is not to say that the latter approach could not fall in the same kind of normative essentialising that I believe to be present in the former. Both were susceptible to epistemological assumptions about the inherent value of Art that would lead to elitist expectations of individual artistic genius. Nevertheless, it seemed to me that those who discussed artistic work were arguably better placed to make a convincing and critically informed case for the relevance and importance of artistic engagement with digital information and communication technologies.

For me, therefore, what came through in this year’s conference was that the best way to address questions surrounding the artist’s identity in the digital age was to turn to an examination of the different kinds of artistic work that are taking place with computers. Rather than forcing the static identity category of an ‘artist’ to our understanding of contemporary practices in digital media, a more fruitful direction may be to look for the kinds of practices involving digital media that are consistent with previous forms of artistic engagement.

Frédérik Lesage, PhD candidate,
Department of Media and Communications
London School of Economics and Political Science, UK

clay activity

Colour relationships

Liberate Your Avatar

The clay artist’s table. Children exploring active touch in ‘The Museum of Me’ project. From a CHArt 2009 presentation by Helena Tomlin and Irit Narkiss © Manchester Museum

Visualisation of 1000 V&A Museum images based on color relationships. From a CHArt 2009 presentation by Annette A. Ward, Annsley Merelle Ward and colleagues.
Paul Sermon, Liberate Your Avatar. A documentation website of an interactive public video art installation incorporating Second Life users in a real life environment.

CHArt has established this bursary in memory of its long-standing member, Helene Roberts (1931- 2008). She was a scholar with special interest in nineteenth-century art, Head of Visual Collections of the Fine Arts Library, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts and Senior Editor of Visual Resources: An International Journal of Documentation. The aim of the Helene Roberts bursary is to enable up to three students to participate in the CHArt annual conference free of charge. In 2010 each award holder will receive an annual subscription to Visual Resources curtesy of the publisher Routledge, Taylor & Francis. For further information please contact: anna.bentkowska@kcl.ac.uk

The 2009 recipients of this bursary were: Gabriel Menotti Gonring, a MPhil/PhD candidate in Media and Communications, and Alex McLean, studying towards a MPhil/PhD in Arts and Computational Technology, both from Goldsmiths, University of London; and Frédérik Lesage, a PhD candidate at the Department of Media and Communications, London School of Economics and Political Science. Alex presented a paper titled 'Patterns of Movement in Live Languages'. Frédérik considered 'The Artist as Designer, the Artist as User: Developing a Collaborative Framework for Artistic Engagement in ICT Design'. Gabriel Menotti talked about 'Exhibition Design as High-Level Programming'. Their papers will be published by CHArt in due course.

Anyone wishing to contribute to the Helene Roberts bursary to enable more students to benefit from this scheme, is requested to get in touch with the CHArt Committee.


CHArt is 25 years old. Since its foundation in 1985, CHArt - Computers and the History of Art - has closely followed developments in all areas of digital media and technology in the visual arts. CHArt remains faithful to its original mission and continues to provide a focus for people interested in these interactions. The CHArt's community consists of art historians, artists, architects and architectural theorists and historians, curators, conservators, scientists, cultural and media theorists, archivists, technologists, educationalists and philosophers.

The Formation of CHArt (1985)

CHArt was formally constituted at the second meeting of the Computers and Art History Group, which was held at the University College London on 26th October 1985. The group adopted the name Computers and the History of Art (CHArt). The second issue of CHArt Newsletter (Spring, 1986) published the following statement:

CHArt has been formed to co-ordinate and develop the use of computer systems for recording art historical information and for research in the history of art.

The group is open to all those individuals and institutions involved in the history of art who are using computers, or who wish to explore the relevance of computers to their work. CHArt will be concerned with technical computer issues; with encouragement of the creation of art historical databases and with research projects; and with the successful marrying of modern technology to the traditional field of art history. CHArt will promote and organise a variety of initiatives - including the publication of a newsletter and the holding of conferences.

The group is directed by a committee, elected annually, consisting of nine members drawn from a wide range of interests. It is the intention that the following groups should always be represented on the committee:

a) Teachers and writers of History of art, and others engaged in research
b) Librarians, archivists and other resource managers
c) Museum staff
d) Computer personnel with interest in the history of art
e) Those with special interest in image storage and analysis.

The CHArt Statement (2010)

CHArt’s mission is to examine and raise awareness of innovative digital techniques that support the study, administration, curation and display of all forms of art and design.

CHArt acts as a forum for new discussion. It brings together people and organisations with relevant common interests. Membership of CHArt is open to anyone but CHArt particularly welcomes those who devise, use, support, research or teach relevant digital processes. The scope of CHArt is necessarily broad to encompass all aspects of the history of art and design but is also constrained by a focus on how technology supports engagement with this field.

CHArt’s objectives are :

  • To organise and run an annual conference
  • To coordinate and produce relevant publications (e.g. academic papers, yearbook, newsletter)
  • To facilitate and maintain online resources which inform and support the group (e.g. mailing list, website)
  • To maintain an effective committee that acts in the interests of all members of the group and for the benefit of the broader community

The CHArt Committee

The CHArt Committee is responsible for the overall management and direction of the group and will be elected annually at the Annual General Meeting. Nominations to the committee must be seconded by a CHArt member and where more than one nomination is received for a single committee position, a vote of CHArt members will decide the selection.  A subset of the committee is designated with particular roles and these committee members assume practical responsibility for carrying out the tasks involved with achieving the objectives.  The full committee supports CHArt’s objectives and helps the designated members to ensure that the group remains relevant, informed, effective, well-connected and credible. The committee meets at least three times a year in addition to the AGM that will normally take place in conjunction with the annual conference.

If possible, the committee should try and ensure that the following groups are represented:

  • Teachers and writers of the history of art and design, and others engaged in research
  • Librarians and archivists and other resource managers
  • Museum, gallery and cultural heritage professionals
  • Information and information systems experts specialising in cultural heritage applications.

As the committee is to be elected annually at the AGM/November Conference, you can change it if you turn up! This statement was published by CHArt in 1986 and it remains true in 2010.



CHArt Newsletter 2 1986

A cover of the second issue of the CHArt Newsletter, Spring 1986.

Covers of CHArt Yearbooks vols. 1-3

Special rates for CHArt members!

Currently available online:

83 papers from 1999-2006 are available at www.chart.ac.uk. The authors include:

Lanfranco Aceti, Pierre R. Auboiron, David Austin, Susan Augustine, Chris Bailey, Colin Beardon, Tim Benton, Anna Bentkowska, Melina Berkenwald, Katrien Berte, Luciana Bordoni, Stephen Boyd Davis, Gareth Bradshaw, Joanne Bushnell, John Calvelli, Mac Campeanu, Karen Cham, Maria Chatzichristodoulou, Nicholas Cipolla, Stephen Clancy, Gina Cavallo Collins, Wayne Clements, Attilio Colagrossi, Alicia Cornwell, Irina Costache, Elizabeth Coulter-Smith, Graham Coulter-Smith, Antonio Criminisi, Veronica Davis Perkins, Alan Day, John P. Eakins, Polly Elkin, Ida Engholm, Gary Ennis, Sian Everitt, James Faure Walker, Iris Flechtner, Francesca Franco, Nicolai Freiwald, David Furnham, Charlie Gere, Emilie Gordenker, Thom Gorst, Margaret Graham, Michael Grant , Michael Greenhalgh, Francis Halsall, Michael Hammel, Dew Harrison, Andrew E. Hershberger, Colum Hourihane, Marja-Leena Ikkala, Shauna Isaac, A. Jean E. Brown, Debbie Kent, Martin Kemp, Karen Kensek, Jean Kerrigan, Stefanie Kollmann, Hamid van Koten, Kalliope Koundouri, Harald Kraemer, Dunja Kukovec, Katja Kwastek, Anne Laforet, Sylvia Lahav, Matt Landrus, Mike Leggett, Ann-Sophie Lehmann, Patrick McNaughton, Giovanna Martellotti, Catherine Mason, Peter Mechant, Tessa Meijer, Judy Mills, Jules Moloney, Rachel Moss, Richard Mulholland, Ralf Nuhn, Vickie O’Riordan, Daniel Palmer, Stephen Partridge, Mary Pearce, Ian Pickering, John Pollini, Mike Pringle, K. Jonathan Riley, Melanie Rowntree, Claudio Seccaroni, Rupert Shepherd, Tim Sharpe, Nic Sheen, Elaine Shemilt, Daniela Sirbu, Lynn Swartz Dodd, Melissa M Terras, Oliver Vicars-Harris, Fidele Vlavo, Bernhard Vogel, Karen Wallis, Annette A. Ward, Reinhold Weinmann, Matthias Weiss, Wlodek Witek, Suzette Worden, Martin Wright, John Wyver, Andrew Zisserman.

Currently available in book format:

CHArt Yearbook, I (2005) Digital Art History. A Subject in Transition: Exploring Practice in a Network Society, published by Intellect. See www.chart.ac.uk/yearbook1.html for the table of contents and order form.

CHArt Yearbook, II (2006) Futures Past. Thirty Years of Arts Computing, published by Intellect. See www.chart.ac.uk/yearbook2.html for the table of contents and order form.

CHArt Yearbook, III (2007), Digital Visual Culture. Theory and Practice, published by Intellect. See www.chart.ac.uk/yearbook3.html for the table of contents and order form.

Computing and Visual Culture: Representation and Interpretation, a selection of papers presented at the 1998 CHArt Conference at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London. See www.chart.ac.uk/98.html for the table of contents and order form.

We also have back issues of CHArt journals from 1990-1998, published by Harwood Academic Publishers. See www.chart.ac.uk/backissues.html.

Selected links included in this issue