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Codes From The Past

Codes From The Past
A look back at Hollis Frampton's Digital Arts Lab

The seriously heady project that preoccupied Hollis Frampton in his last years was called the Digital Arts Lab, a small and ad hoc group within the Center for Media Studies at UB. The scene is hard for us these days to imagine. Now everything is digital. Everybody owns and uses a computer—or more likely array of computer devices—with software that makes it all happen usually without the least reflection or effort on the part of the user. Then only a few geek types had computer devices. And to work them—this is how and why they were geek types—they had to talk the computer’s language. Had to code it all in. There was no software.

We think of polymath and multi-artist Hollis Frampton first off as an avant-garde filmmaker, then photographer, then theoretician. But actually first and foremost he was a linguist. His persistent and abiding interest—obsession might be the better word—in a word—was language. What he had studied—in school, then college—was language. Languages. Latin, Greek, German, French, Russian, Sanskrit, Chinese, and mathematics. What he was doing in and with the DAL was learning and using computer language. But at the same time—so to speak—teaching computers to understand and use human language. Inventing software.

The current exhibit at Big Orbit—in conjunction with the main event Hollis Frampton exhibit at CEPA and elsewhere—consists of remnants and fragments of the Digital Arts Lab and lab product, assembled by former Digitial Arts Lab student Robert Franki, curated by Big Orbit overseer David Mitchell.

Artifacts include some primitive computer equipment—keyboards and electronic connection boards—some video of lab activities, including one of Robert Franki assembling hardware, one of Hollis thinking—scratching his head, scratching his beard—and a wall projection of bits and snatches of video made in the lab, some Hollis’s work, some the work of lab students. Much abstract imagery, but some representational. An image of a pigeon. And computer voiceover—not a human voice, but digital facsimile—intoning in human language, in English, “I love you.”

The Digital Arts Lab existed from 1979 to 1984. The year Frampton died. “It was Hollis’s baby,” Mitchell said. “He created it, he kept it running. Basically, there was no funding. The first program in any U.S. university—probably any university anywhere—devoted to the digital arts. Before digital arts was a thing. His goal with the project was to create affordable digital work tools, hardware and software.”

Mitchell said other artifacts of the Digital Arts Lab include several hundred pages of software that is at present unreadable because the code it is written is has long since gone obsolete. Negotiations are underway to undertake to decipher it.

Other items in the exhibit include a desultory video interview with avant-garde filmmaker Paul Sharits—snippets of interview interspersed with snippets of possible Sharits poduction film—and a possible group effort of the lab students consisting of juxtapositions and overlays of imagery and musical and quasi-musical soundtrack.

Another is a computer-generated printout on punch-hole-track sheets such as used to be requisite in computer printers—you had to tear off the punch-hole strips on either side and then separate the individual sheets to wind up with standard 8-1/2-inch by 11-inch pages—of Islamic art type swirls on swirls patterns.

A portion of an essay Frampton once wrote about the Digital Arts Lab seems to reveal something key to his artistic genius. “What was most important in attempting to use this new tool [of the comupter and concomitant digital language],” he wrote, “is that it rigorously enforces a precise understanding of the fundamental nature of the symbol and systems to be operated on. To state very roughly a fundamental theorem in computer science, the generation of an algorithm that performs a process requires a rigorous and detailed understanding of that process...”

The Digital Arts Lab exhibit continues until September 13.

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