Today I went to a seminar in the Computer Science dept. at Manchester University to hear Elaine O’Hanrahan talking about her father Desmond Henry, “British pioneer of computer art”. Henry grew up in Huddersfield and went on to teach Philosophy at The University of Manchester. Following his experiences as a young man during WW2, he started making drawing machines using the machinery from bombsight computers (the machines that helped calculate where bombs should be dropped from planes such as Lancaster bombers). Elaine told the wonderful story of how her father entered a Salford art competition started by Lowry; he didn’t enter his machine drawings, but some of his experimental photography, which won the prize: a solo exhibition at the Reid gallery in London. When Lowry visited the family home to see Henry’s body of work, he was apparently so impressed by his machine drawings and the machines themselves that he encouraged Henry to include this work in the exhibition too. I find this story fascinating; it gives us a great insight into the relationship between two completely different artists who were contemporaries, perhaps challenging established views of Lowry as well. Henry had no formal art training, and seems to fit the classic definition of an “outsider artist”, but went on to show his work in the Cybernetic Serendipity exhibition at the ICA in 1968. His drawings themselves are created using machines but then embellished by hand, emphasising certain lines or creating forms reminiscent of landscape or architecture. Despite knowing Alan Turing and his colleagues in Computer Science in Manchester, Henry refused to use digital technology, prefering to stick with analogue machines. As Elaine O’Hanrahan argues, Henry’s work can be seen as a link between the mechanical age and the digital.
I went to this exhibition about Alan Turing a few weeks ago at the Science Museum, London. http://www.sciencemuseum.org.uk/visitmuseum/plan_your_visit/exhibitions/turing.aspx
Although I left with an overwhelming feeling of sadness about Turing’s premature death and the appalling way his body was violated in an attempt to “cure” him of homosexuality, it was a very interesting insight into elements of his life and work. And there are some nice references to his time at Manchester University from 1948 when he led on software development for pioneering early computers developed there.
To quote one of the text panels: In 1950, Alan Turing published a scientific paper which began “Can machines think?” In it he described what has since become known as the “Turing test”, in which a machine is said to be intelligent if it can successfully imitate the intellectual capacities of a human in a guessing game.
One of the highlights of the exhibition is a cybernetic tortoise by William Grey Walter, c.1950!! It was created as an “artificial animal” to investigate brain function. It was attracted to light and avoided obstacles.
I worked with Korean artist Choe U-ram in 2007-8 when Manchester Art Gallery took part in the first ever Asia Triennial Manchester. I was lucky enough to visit U-ram in Seoul and then we showed two of his machine organisms: Urbanus Female and Urbanus Male. These robotic sculptures faced each other in the gallery’s glass atrium and as the female opened and closed like a huge flower, the male gently rippled his scales. U-ram creates a fictional narrative around each work, describing the nocturnal activities of his machine creatures. The works were hugely popular with visitors and impressed me by moving flawlessly for six months while they were on display - an impressive feat for robotic work! I’d love to work with U-ram again and will be posting some updates on his new work…