interview – Text by Anika Meier – 19.11.2023
BEHIND THE CODE: ZENTRUM BY HERBERT W. FRANKE
INTERVIEW WITH AARON PENNE
EXPANDED.ART, PROOF, and Foundation Herbert W. Franke are proud to present ZENTRUM, a historical work created in 1982 by computer art pioneer, scientist, and science fiction writer Herbert W. Franke. ZENTRUM is a dynamic, endlessly running abstract animation made of structural elements and random codes. The random generator ensures that each endless loop is unique, and is made with Franke’s original code from 1982. Prior to his passing in 2022, Franke was actively working to bring this code on-chain.
Susanne Päch, Franke's wife and managing director of the Foundation Herbert W. Franke, worked with Art Blocks' Director of Engineering and artist Aaron Penne to translate the original ZENTRUM code for the 2023 release powered by Art Blocks Engine. She supported Franke with feedback when he coded ZENTRUM.
In conversation with Anika Meier, Penne discusses his approach to working on the code, his contribution to the TRIBUTE TO HERBERT W. FRANKE in 2022, and the influence of yesterday's pioneers on today's avant-garde.
Anika Meier: Aaron, when I contacted you about ZENTRUM, a program Herbert W. Franke wrote in 1982 on an Apple II, you immediately replied that you yourself would like to translate the code. What motivated you to work on the code?
Aaron Penne: When Susanne and you presented me with the opportunity to translate Herbert's infinite Apple II code to the modern Art Blocks-style browser-based software, it felt too perfect of a fit. I am an artist creating infinite software works, have recently been researching the Apple II, and lead the engineering team at Art Blocks. How could I say no?
AM: I remember that you also said that you could finally turn procrastinating on an Apple II into a project with a release date. What were you working on when I called you?
AP: When you reached out about the project, I had already spent several months experimenting with Apple II emulators. For the past year or so, I've been a bit obsessed with terminal art, something I played with 15 years ago with the Cowsay program on my first Linux box. Over the past year, I've been spending more time programming from my phone connected to my Raspberry Pi using a terminal app, which of course lends itself nicely to creating terminal artwork. By that, I mean using text characters to create patterns. I enjoy working with these kinds of constraints as they force different creative avenues to open.
Getting deeper into that sort of terminal art led me back to the Commodore and Apple II machines. I have a few emulators on my laptop that I've been creating simple generative artworks with.
AM: How did you first learn about the work of Herbert W. Franke?
AP: I first learned about Herbert's work in my early research into generative artwork after moving from data visualization into tools like Processing several years ago. Research is important to my process, and I want to deepen my relationship with artists who have already lived in the worlds that I'm interested in.
I feel you can explore further and deeper if you have familiarity with the world around you and with what has come before you. Frieder Nake's quote about artists having "wonderfully silent conversations" across generations is an idea that I treasure, and in fact, it inspired the name of the artwork that I donated to the TRIBUTE TO HERBERT W. FRANKE after he passed.
AM: Thank you for participating in the TRIBUTE TO HERBERT W. FRANKE. Herbert, a pioneer of computer art who anticipated the metaverse, passed away on July 16 in 2022 at the age of 95. About 80 of the most renowned generative artists, photographers, poets, and virtual world builders working today were invited by art meets science – Foundation Herbert W. Franke, by Susanne and myself, to honor his life and work.
Why is Herbert such an inspiration for artists working today?
AP: Artists like Herbert have dealt with many of the topics that me and my peers deal with: the dual identity of an artist and engineer/scientist, creativity, the importance of randomness, and the value of the digital screen versus paper artwork.
Many things that we debate today have been articulated clearly so long ago. It is important to learn these ideas from our predecessors in order to push ourselves further down the contemporary path.
AM: You translated Herbert’s code. What does this mean exactly?
AP: The first thing I wanted to do was get an understanding of Herbert's mindset and perspective at the time that he created this artwork. His code was written in AppleSoft Basic in 1982 for the then-cutting-edge Apple II with high-resolution graphics. A whopping 280 by 192 pixels with six colors.
In order to correctly translate his work with aesthetic integrity, I wanted to understand the type of decision-making Herbert would have made. I asked Susanne for any of Herbert's texts from that time period, and she provided several translated essays. In these writings, Herbert discussed the importance of randomness as the key to human creativity and the power of the computer to display infinite artwork as a continuous performance rather than a static image. These are topics that resonate deeply with my practice and are relevant in contemporary software art discussions.
Anika Meier: Susanne has emphasized the importance of the colors for Herbert.
AP: Steve Wozniak created very clever memory techniques to get more colors out of the Apple II. I did not want to just use an Apple II emulator for this project, so I studied and recreated the various visual artefacts that ZENTRUM produced. I used multiple Apple II emulators to run the original code and flew to Phoenix to use my father-in-law's Apple IIe machine for a week to further understand the artwork.
AM: Thank you!
ZENTRUM by Herbert W. Franke will be minted as an exponential Dutch Auction with rebate powered by Art Blocks Engine. The auction is open to the public, meaning a PROOF account is not required. The Dutch Auction will begin at 5 ETH and the resting price will be 0.5 ETH. Collectors will be rebated on the final settlement price, meaning all collectors will pay the same price to mint. The first ten collectors may claim a fine art physical print of their ZENTRUM output with EXPANDED.ART.
There are a total of 200 NFTs available in the public sale. 22 NFTs will be minted to EXPANDED.ART, the PROOF treasury, and Foundation Herbert W. Franke. The Foundation will donate NFTs to museums and cultural institutions.
Proceeds from ZENTRUM will be used by the Foundation Herbert W. Franke to organize and host an international symposium on the history of generative art in Berlin in May 2024, as well as to support publishing the science fiction writing of Franke in English, which is also planned for 2024.
21 November 2023 | 6 PM CET | proof.xyz.