F E A T U R E S    Issue 2.05 - May 1996

Retro Techno

By James Flint

The computer has never been just another artistic tool. To Peter and Bernard Gudynas, it was a voice from the future. In the mid-1980s, as the first wave of graphics machines arrived in the UK, the Gudynas brothers founded Zap Art International, a digital art collective dedicated to building an avant-garde art movement around the new digital technology. Like Dada and Pop Art before them, they strove not just to use new technology and new ideas to create new art, but also to explain how that art made a nonsense of all that had gone before. The world, they pro-claimed, is changing forever. The collected images say a lot about the changing aesthetic of the computer revolution. But they speak if anything more eloquently about change itself. Zap Art tried to peer through the lens of technology to see the future. Today, we can peer back through that lens, and even the late 1980s take on the rosy and sentimental hues of a world whose concerns no longer quite connect with our own.

To the Gudynas brothers, the very act of using computers to try to create the future showed instead the inevitable transience and obsolescence of all technology, and the Zap Art style was not just to recognise this but to revel in it. As Peter wrote at the time, "Yesterday's visions of the future say more about the present within which they were conceived than the future they appar-ently alluded to."

The present began for Zap Art in the mid-'80s when Peter Gudynas was a young but accomplished artist from Birmingham. His work included airbrush and photomontage cover art for science fiction novels by such luminaries as J. G. Ballard, Phillip K. Dick, Rudy Rucker and Stanislaw Lem. But Gudynas was being forced to give up airbrush work because the constant breathing of paint fumes was causing him respiratory problems. He became interested in using computers - not surprisingly, given his science-fiction background - and he began to experiment with them to develop the techno aesthetic already in his work. With a price tag of around £8,000 even for such low-end graphics machines as the Pluto and the Artron 2000, Peter had to join a computer-graphics course which had just been set up at Coventry University in order to gain access to them.

Two years later, when Central St. Martins College of Art began a similar computer-art course in London, Peter's brother Bernard enrolled. Bernard recalls that "it was on these courses that Pete and I came into contact with all sorts of wild and weird people. They all shared a common interest in working in this new, revolutionary digital medium." Peter continues, "But a seemingly self-appointed art élite maintained that 'art' could not be created on computers. That inspired us. We formed alliances with like-minded people, and things just developed to the point where we said: why don't we do something deconstructive?"

The brothers formed Zap Art International along with fellow artist Jurgis Lugas. From its inception, the collective was a conscious attempt to place the output from the digital media in the same lineage as Dada and Pop Art. As Peter remarks, "The anti-art aesthetic was actually developed at the beginning of the century by the Dadaists. And here we were, a group of artists at the end of the century, working in a new medium attempting to develop that same aesthetic in a new direction, to present a commentary on our present and future reality." The idea was not to try to adapt new technology to the demands of traditional aesthetics, but to create a new aesthetic in the image of the machine: "videoesque, focused on electronics, pixellated." The idea struck a chord, and the Gudynas brothers quickly found themselves dealing with material from a surprisingly large and diverse range of contributors. Work was sent in from as far afield as Japan and Italy, and the collective quickly grew to encompass around 40 artists, illustrators and designers, using not only computers but also photomontage, collage, photocopiers, fax machines and video.

All of these contributors celebrated diversity and heterogeneity. Yet they produced a surprisingly coherent body of work. For the artists of Zap Art International, technology provided both means and motivation to borrow the images of traditional art and subvert them into the pixellated new reality those very machines were creating - or at least seemed to be at the time.

"There was something tremendously exciting about pixels and bitmapped images back in 1988," recalls Bernard Gudynas. "There was this realisation that the imagination could be used in ways that we had not dreamt were possible." In those days, of course, the very idea that PCs could be tools for the imagination was itself pretty imaginative. Technophobia still abounded. Computers were widely regarded as business machines, cold objects that fitted into the corridors of corporate power but not really anywhere else. And art was where people sought refuge from the machine. To have Zap Art come along and plug a parallel port into art, linking it with a new technological universe, was more than mildly shocking.

For the Zap Arters, the new technology was about much more than bright colours and new-style, funky magazine layouts and "surreal" photo-montages for advertisements. It was going to undermine the conceptual foundations of the art market - the idea of an artwork as an original and unique artefact, the expression of an authentic and individual genius. Accord-ing to Italian contributor Bruno Stucchi, "The computer became the way of speaking a type of hybrid visual/conceptual rap, hectic and ironic, absurd and sparkling as the world in which it is born and which we are surrounded by."

Just as Andy Warhol's silk screen junked the notion that the art object has to be original and unreproducible, so the use of the computer to create works which not only sample other artworks but which are instantly and infinitely reproducible ate away at both the economics of the traditional art world and its guiding myth of individual genius.

Not surprisingly, the collective had a strong association with punk. Contributor Malcolm Garrett had worked with The Buzzcocks, and Jamie Reid established his reputation working with Malcolm McLaren on designs for The Sex Pistols. "If art came to dinner, how would it dress?" asked Reid at the time. "Mutton dressed as lamb? Or in a Technicolour dreamcoat designed by computers, cultured from ancient wisdom and baked for the future?"

Zap Art held its final exhibition, "Technovision", at the F-Stop Photography Gallery in Bath early in 1993. Its pro-nouncements about digital art undermining the economics of the art market had proved pro-phetically accurate, at least for Zap Art's own work. Nobody has found a satisfactory way of selling digital art. Not only are its aesthetics challenging for many people, but even determined collectors are leery of paying too much for an image which is so easily reproduced. The Gudynas brothers simply could no longer afford the time, energy and money needed to keep the collective active. Besides, they realised that the time to look upon Zap Art as a window into the future had passed - for the future was already speeding by.

As Peter wrote in the catalogue for the "Technophobia" exhibition in 1993, "In today's visions of the future, the old notion that new innovative technologies are just beyond our reach has been replaced by the idea that we embrace them already. The popular science journals look to already avail-able knowledge, extrapolated to make the unimaginable real: virtual reality, nanotechnology, information consumed as a sort of cybernetic drug. The most fascinating visions are those which simply take off from the stranger realms of post-modernist cyberpunk fiction, the wildest ideas and inventions of which are already adapted for government-funded research programs. This is not the science fiction of anticipation or prediction - it is already true."

This December, the Gudynas brothers will bring a Zap Art retrospective to London's Coningsby Gallery, a look back at the future as seen from the past. Already, the images look intriguingly dated; digital art has come a long way from the clunky, low-tech but high-energy Zap Art outputs. While the collective's members devoted hours of late-night, computer-room hacking to achieve ragged washes of electronic colour, today any kid with a Macintosh and Photoshop - which appeared on the scene in 1990 - can create far more technically polished images with ease. Thanks to Kai's Power Tools, perfectly rendered images have become the new cliché of computer art. Zap Art's two-dimensional pastiches, which originally oozed high-tech, now seem quaintly craft-like. Through the work of artists like William Latham, the computer is increasingly seen not as a window on to the future of our physical world, but as a window into an alternative virtual universe where can be glimpsed - in all the beautifully rendered detail of an old master - the virtual shape of mathematical abstractions and even of thought itself.

To be avant garde is by definition to be at one remove from conventional wisdom, to be a step in advance. But at today's pace of change, no sooner does the avant garde take a step towards the future than it is either proved irrelevant or caught up by the mainstream. A successful avant garde helps create a future in the very image that it hoped would set them apart. Perhaps William Gibson, an author whose work was popular with many members of Zap Art, put it best. "Anyone who thinks science fiction is about the future is being naive," he wrote. "Science fiction doesn't predict the future; it determines it, colonises it, preprograms it in the image of the present." This is Zap Art, harbinger of the future; gaze on its works and reminisce.

James Flint (jflint@wired.co.uk) is a section editor at Wired.