conversations – Interview by Anika Meier – 26.07.2023
GEOFF DAVIS: "THINGS MOVE FAST IN THE COMPUTER WORLD"
MICRO ARTS AND EARLY COMPUTER ART
Generative artist Geoff Davis was inspired to create art at a young age. Instead of art in traditional forms, he found the computer to be the medium that excited him the most. The advent of personal computers and software, specifically in color, allowed him to marry his passion for creative writing and digital art. In 1984, he established the Micro Arts Group with the intention of enabling young artists who previously felt ostracized from the academic slant of digital art. Now, his innovative and community-minded vision remains through blockchain technology, NFTs, and Web3.
In conversation with Anika Meier, Davis discusses the London art scene in the 1980s, how being a writer inspired him to make art with code, and the importance of not being a perfectionist when creating.
Anika Meier: When did you know you wanted to be an artist?
Geoff Davis: As a teenager, I was interested in 20th-century art: Cubism, Dada, Surrealism. These art movements had a mixture of rationality and madness, which was attractive to me. I also liked photographs published in scientific magazines showing incredible views of the unseen from microscopes and telescopes. My school didn’t really have an art department, as it was focused on things like math and science. My grandfather painted naturalistic scenes of boats and harbors. The art world seemed interesting, but it was far away and long ago.
I made some abstract paintings and a few other styles, some of which I still have. As an innocent 17-year-old, I went to Sheffield University to study biochemistry and later Psychology. I soon discovered the local music scene, which included the unsigned bands Cabaret Voltaire and The Human League. They both had amazing visual shows as well as thrilling music, so I soon got involved, putting on concerts for local bands with friends in the Now Society. I formed an art band in 1979 that used audio tape loops, video art playback, and live recording using Umatic tape decks borrowed from the local art college. So I guess that was a form of public mixed-media art rather than a rarefied gallery scene.
AM: Was there also a time when you created physical artwork before you moved to computers?
GD: I had an exploratory view of art; I was not particularly obsessed with anything, although others might disagree. In the early 1970s, while at school, I painted and drew in many different styles and exhibited them on my wall at home. I was also playing around with audio art, using tape loops, found sound, and treated instruments. In fact, I first prepared a guitar John Cage-style (although I had never heard of him) as a child in the 1960s. I jammed my toy Beatles plastic guitar with sticks and metal parts to make strange sounds. I even got in big trouble for playing loud, random music on my grandparents piano. They also had a reel-to-reel deck, which I found fascinating. I still have some of these early paintings and tapes of sound experiments.
I never really had a moment when I was an artist. It just came about naturally, as I’d always been creative, which can be applied to many domains.
Contemporary art in the 1970s was not very relevant to the general public or kids. There was no popular modern art in the media like there is now. The media derided conceptual art and even Pop Art. Artists were in radical mode, with feminist, performance, land art, agitprop, etc., in the 1970s due to the political situation (liberation movements, Vietnam, Paris, etc.). So modern art was deemed problematic and given a bad press. Unlike now, where art is a part of the entertainment and tourist industries, except for the alternative digital scenes. Digital art is still controversial, like old-school computer art, with the same old debates about value.
AM: You started working with computers very early on as an artist. When did you first get in touch with computers?
GD: In university, we used computers for statistics (there’s a lot in experimental Psychology), but I never actually saw one; they were in the Engineering Department.
Arriving in London in 1980, the futuristic appeal of computers and my lack of desire to work in marketing or human resources led me to a job as a programmer on mainframes and minicomputers. But even then, computers had an almost retro appeal, with Kraftwerk and Gary Numan re-presenting computer vibes from the previous decades as art. Their robotic computer obsession is straight out of classic science fiction, like Asimov. That music was part of computing’s integration into society. ‘Computing’ is always a struggle, a dialogue, as the computer is a semantic as well as a processing machine. Now people worry about embedded AI in their pockets or at work; then it was walking and talking robots.
I had ambitions to be a fiction writer, and that started well, with my first story published in the PEN New Fiction anthology edited by Peter Akroyd with Ben Okri, Deborah Levy, Iain Sinclair, and others. I’m still a member of PEN, which is now an international charity for oppressed writers. This is what led to my interest in text generation as well as generative art. This was just before I founded MicroArts.
I started Micro Arts in 1984 during my time off work while I was writing a novel after the success of the short story. Art coding started in December 1983. Things were more relaxed in those days, apart from the Cold War with Russia, endless strikes, recession, etc. That all sounds familiar. Anyway, there was a big alternative arts scene in London.
So in the early 1980s, I got involved with experimental film and video. I spent a lot of time at the London Film-Makers Co-operative in Camden, London. I wrote and appeared in a short movie, helped out on films, had a lot of fun, and even appeared in a music video for iconic Manchester band The Fall. I wanted to write fiction, and this was also a focus.
AM: How did writing lead you to be interested in generative art? Do you see a connection between writing and generative art?
GD: They are related, as I could write fiction and had worked as a programmer writing code (with pencils in the old days of 1980, but that’s another story). Writing fiction is quite hard work, so it was a pleasure to relax and code these small ‘micro’ computers and see the results appear on screen. To me, it was two sides of a coin. Even now, I still write fiction and code art. In 1985, I coded and released MA4 Story Generator, based on a short story about mad cow disease. This was exhibited in 1985 and also published nationally on the Prestel teletext network. The stories are very lurid and got quite strong reactions when shown publicly; one older viewer got so angry he had a nosebleed. Recently, curator and historian Georg Bak described it as "an early precursor to ChatGPT." It was original, generative, and networked art.
AM: What were some of your early influences?
GD: I was in the video and film art scene, so that was much more of an influence. I was not into games; although I had played Pong when it came out, Space Invaders, Pacman, and so on, these appeared as arcade machines. Pong was a revelation when it appeared in the local pub. Microcomputers were small computers that were called Personal computers, or PCs, by IBM. Microcomputer software was nearly all games; this was the big driver of everything, plus some utilities like simple word processors. But I didn’t want to sit around playing Jet Set Willy (a popular title) all day.
Micro Arts was conceived in 1983 as proper experimental digital art, which is why there were different types of releases: generative art, conceptual art, and text generators. One program ran for two years to fill the screen with pixels as a riposte to the go faster mentality. Pixel art often gets mentioned; this is a modern retro scene. To quote Mark J. Ferrari, a famous artist at Lucasfilm Games:
"When I was first hired by Lucasfilm Games in 1987 to do artwork for their computer games, pixel graphics were not thought of by anyone as an 'art form'. The use of pixels was not an aesthetic choice, as it certainly is now. If anything, pixels were an unavoidable and very irksome obstacle to the creation of any 'real art' for use in the exciting but bewildering new realm of computer entertainment. There were no pixel artists then, at all! There were only traditional artists."
This was the opinion three years after I founded Micro Arts. Even the fact that I called it art was controversial, which is why "ABSTRACT ORIGINALS" was titled in quotation marks. How different now veryone is an artist and has free access to unlimited art tools to produce their digital efforts and immediately place them on a global stage.
We didn’t really do anything with teletext until Prestel asked us to go on their network in 1985. Micro Arts had good reviews in the computer press, so Prestel contacted us. Teletext data is transferred via a telephone line modem into a suitable television and shows as blocky text in simple colors, with menus and navigation, like an early version of the web. It wasn’t very popular in the UK, unlike France (where they had Minitel), as it needed a modem, which was expensive in those days, and had a subscription plus a time cost, which put people off actually using it. It was mainly used by travel agents and news providers, as well as for sport and train timetables and that sort of thing. There was a section for computer enthusiasts, which is why they asked us to join. Me and Professor Simon Holland (he wasn’t a professor then) went along to meet them, and it was all very friendly, although of course there was no payment. The editor of Prestel had just broken his leg doing a charity parachute jump, which put me off parachuting, which was also popular in the 1980s. The only influence on Micro Arts is that we stopped doing physical releases, which, looking back, was a bad thing. We had a defined black and white graphic style, and the cassette tapes have lasted, but not the Prestel data. This is part of the problem of archiving old computers and digital work: the formats disappear.
I did net art later in 1988, along with Hypercard stacks from 1987. This was interesting to make, but a little dull. If net art is too simple, it becomes boring, and if it is too complex, it becomes baffling. I researched this and non-linear narrative at Middlesex University Lansdowne Centre in the early 2000s, which led to the CALM AS A DEAD CLAM 3D text art.
AM: When you started creating art with computers it wasn’t a common artistic tool. What inspired you to work with computers as an artist?
GD: The new microcomputers with color had just arrived, and I got one to see what I could do with them. It was great to have a small machine with everything in one place, and the results were amazing. Anyone who does algorithmic art will know the pleasure of seeing the patterns first emerge on screen. I could program, so it was fun to push the boundaries on this teeny little computer, or micro, as they were known. The ones I worked on professionally were huge, hulking monsters kept in special rooms; even the mini-computers were wardrobe-sized.
It was incredible that a tiny micro had the power to create color-moving images. They cost from only £100 (£400 now) and were plugged into a normal TV set. Experimental moving images, film and video, were what I was involved in, but that involved large expensive analogue equipment. Digital anything hardly existed. A Quantel Paintbox for layering and colorising TV images was $250,000, or $850,000 now, and was only for TV stations, although Quantel gave many to art colleges.
My first foray into programming a microcomputer was to make generative art. I had no idea of the history of the subject; there was practically no information except in rarefied academic circles.
My generative art was mostly abstract time-based progressions, but not all. I also programmed animations of hot topics like Warhol’s assassin Valerie Solanas’s SCUM Manifesto and conceptual pieces, like Minimal, which took two years to fill the screen with white pixels. If this programme were run on a modern 4K monitor, it would take over 315 years to finish. This is the first 'slow art', which arrived in the media two years later with Carlo Petrini’s protest against McDonald’s restaurant in Rome, starting a 'slow food' movement that slowly spread into other areas like art. The animated (drawn by code) SCUM Manifesto piece was about Universal Basic Income (UBI). Solanas described the (male) Money Work System, which underpins sexist exploitation and most other exploits too. UBI is coming of age now as things collide: climate change, overpopulation, and AI.
There wasn’t any other computer art in the public arena aimed at young people; it was all in academia, and there were few if any exhibitions. Certainly not in any grass-roots scene. I decided to channel my experimental computer art through an organisation like the ones I was involved with. I didn’t realize the London video and film art centres had huge grants to keep going. Micro Arts was set up by me and a group of friends, all using new technology in some way. I just set it up and ran with it.
AM: Is that why you founded the Micro Arts Group?
GD: Yes. A mix of my revelatory experimental art and a desire to communicate.
My personal mission was to take experimental moving image art to people in the computer market and show other media artists that computer art was a new and exciting development. Our only exhibition in those days was at the London Film-Makers Collective in 1985.
This London arts scene was exciting after Sheffield, which had a great music and student art scene. There were several new galleries focused on young artists, such as B2 in Wapping in the east and the Diorama in central London. Live events might include the Neo-Naturist performance artists naked and daubing each other in paint. Everything was more like a party than anything else. The Neo-Naturalists included Grayson Perry, now a famous ceramicist and TV personality. But all of London was partying, perhaps not in the same way; it was the 1980s financial industry boom.
There were many young people exploring new art and making things happen. So using my art to found a serious-sounding art group was normal. Record labels had names like Factory; bands were called Public Image Limited; and the idea of making a commercial system to release art was in vogue. Everyone was supportive, and there was no social media, so things happened face-to-face. It was easier in a lot of ways than now, where no one can tell the real from the hype. So the computer press took Micro Arts very seriously, which was great. The traditional art world was not interested in computer-based work, and that has only recently started to change.
The Computer Art Society (CAS) was started and inspired by the CYBERNETIC SERENDIPITY computer arts exhibition in London in 1968. At this time, I was still sticking bits into my Beatles guitar to make it sound more exciting. CAS was ‘dormant’, to quote Paul Brown, during the mid-1980s and didn’t really start up again until 2000. So I had no experienced group of artists to contact, apart from Harold Cohen, who was in the USA. I wanted him to write an article for the second edition of the print magazine, which never appeared, he commented (by letter) "Art is all about marketing." How true.
A lot of my friends from the art and club scene were involved; it was a group effort. You will see the range of activities by reading the Micro Arts Magazine that I produced in 1985. Micro Arts was not an academic scene but more of an ex-art college group of media experimenters. Such independent activities were common in the music scene, which I knew a lot about, and also in fashion, perhaps less so in the arts, which were more academic and kind of serious in those days. This was well before the Young British Artists explosion in the early 1990s.
AM: What were the challenges in the early days?
GD: There was a small government business grant available, so I applied and got that. In the training, the young ‘business expert’ said, "Imagine your mansion with a Rolls Royce in front of it; this is the start". That seemed hilarious to me, given my artsy background, but it was encouraging, I guess. This small grant was also received by the artist Tracey Emin, Creation Records (Oasis) head Alan McGee, and many others.
Spreading the word was hard. There was no internet, so after a while I started a print magazine to get the word out, using personal delivery and also Arts Express to get it out to galleries, museums, etc. I published the first ever Paintbox image in the Micro Arts Magazine by a French artist, Michèle Gauthier Carr-Brown, who’d worked with Sonia Sheridan and Greg Gunglach and was shown in the Exposition Electra, Paris, 1983. I lived in Paris in 1983. This was not coded generative art, so we didn’t have it in the Micro Arts ‘MA’ numbered series of art releases. Paintbox was a generic term for Quantel and other digital paint systems which predated Photoshop and Corel Paint. It’s hard to understand that art software didn’t always exist, even word processors. I used to write fiction using a typewriter, which I hated. Now, using analogue or simple digital systems is an aesthetic choice.
There was a lot of interest in my Micro Arts art software from the computer press, such as Computer News, and fashion magazines like Blitz (this was the time of the New Romantics). The Micro Arts releases looked like normal microcomputer data cassettes, as sold in their millions, but instead of games they had generative art, the SCUM Manifesto, two-year long minimal programs, and endless story generators. Actually, they didn’t look like games, as I designed punk black and white covers. I was selling curated sets of computer art directly to the public with no gallery intermediaries, a bit like NFTs now. But this meant expensive advertising.
In terms of communicating, there was no email or web. John Romero, the games genius and owner of id Software (Doom, etc.), said of that period "As a game developer, particularly in the 1980s and early 1990s, it was rare to have any kind of fan interaction, and so I was grateful that people played my games and liked them enough to write me. Behind the barricades at Softdisk, mail was exceedingly rare." This means mail as in letters. So even popular games people had no social presence, it just wasn’t a thing until recently.
AM: When it comes to your own art, what was important to you when creating computer art? Has that changed?
GD: I was making something that I wanted to see. This seems obvious, but people don't mention it in relation to code. It’s always code this, code that. Perhaps now people do everything with snippets from code libraries, so they forget what is actually going on. The output might be randomised but it is not completely unexpected. For instance, with Micro Arts "ABSTRACT ORIGINALS" I wanted a series of artworks that were different from each other rather than versions of the same thing. There are a range of methods in that collection. Because of the limitations of computer graphics, they naturally have a similar style. This was 8-bit colour with low-resolution screens; that was state-of-the art for small ‘micro’ computers. The concept of Pixel Art arrived in the late 1980s as a retro style. But my second release, VARIOUS UNUSUAL EVENTS, had more variety.
The construction of the artwork has to keep me stimulated both when making it and viewing it. There is an iterative process: idea first, coding, viewing, and editing. The social context of the art is also important. All of this combines as you work with the art; it is hard to tease out the parts. It’s very absorbing. This learning as you go along can be applied to other projects, not only art. Creativity exists in all other areas. This is why having classes in schools to physically make things is a good idea. At my secondary school, they taught metalwork, woodwork, and technical drawing, as well as the usual subjects. Perhaps that’s why I can’t remember any art classes. Art depends a lot on the teacher; they need to enthuse the students. Now people enthuse themselves in online art communities, which no one outside understands.
AM: How do you approach working on a new project? Is it important for you to be innovative?
GD: For any new project, there is an overall goal. This might come from thinking about an area, which is why reading and researching a subject is important. On the other hand, with art or music, you can just mess around, experiment, do anything, and see what happens. Then the new techniques become part of your approach to any new project.
Yes, I find innovation rewarding. I don’t think this is being a futurist, as you can only work with what is around you, as Claudia Hart said. Unless you are actually a futurist, of course, it is a job after all (or before all). I tend to gather ideas from various sources and learn about a particular field. A few years after Micro Arts, I researched 3D zooming computer interfaces for general use and specifically non-linear narratives. This was before the arrival of the iPad, but 3D modeling had been around a long time. There was some work in zooming interfaces—Pad by Ben Bederson, for instance—but not a lot. What I mean is that ideas don’t appear out of nowhere; they can always be traced back.
For instance, I worked in property for a while and soon gravitated towards innovative green technologies. I even built some eco houses with wooden frames, recycled materials, solar panels, a green roof, etc.—the full kit. I was a founding member of the Sustainable Development Commission in the UK, which unfortunately didn’t last very long so was not very sustainable, but my forthcoming generative art project, Pattern City, is inspired by utopian urban planning. I also worked at Nesta, the UK’s innovation charity, which was a lot of fun as we did public events at exhibitions and shows promoting ourselves. When Nesta started, they used to award grants for new product ideas, and they were worried that crowds of mad inventors would appear outside, banging on the door for money. Sadly, that never happened.
It’s worth noting that now, creativity is promoted all the time, but the number of actual new things appears at about the same rate. Perhaps demanding creativity from everyone is a cause of stress because of high expectations. So don’t be a perfectionist. Craft might be more important, as just making things is rewarding in itself. Coding is an example of making things that appear virtually or visually (unless you're doing robotics, of course). A lot of new generative art is similar to old generative art, and that’s great as it's a sign of community and respect. You don’t always have to innovate; the simulation of innovation is sufficient for personal satisfaction and pleasing your community.
AM: How did you try to sell computer art? Today there is the blockchain to mint and transfer artworks, that’s the innovation: digital ownership and scarcity.
GD: Yes, we sold art cassettes via advertisements in the press and posted cassettes with code on them, not music. The code was converted to sound files, which were converted back to code when loaded into the computer. I was modeling Micro Arts on an indie record label. But the market was not there; even games were new then. The audience wanted more games, not abstract art and concepts.
The Micro Arts generative releases looked like normal microcomputer data cassettes, as sold in their millions, but instead of games they had generative art, the SCUM Manifesto, two-year long minimal programs, and endless story generators. Actually, they didn’t look like games, as I designed punk black and white covers. I was selling curated sets of computer art directly to the public with no gallery intermediaries, a bit like NFTs now. But this meant expensive advertising.
I mean, no one at London Video Arts or the London Film Makers Cooperative sold anything, ever, so I think my commercial instincts got the better of me. I saw the overall Micro Arts setup as total art, with all parts related. Like Warhol’s Factory or Factory Records, but operating in the new home computing area with almost no startup capital. This was probably a category error.
There was a lot of interest from the computer press, like Computer News, and fashion magazines like Blitz (this was the time of the New Romantics, it was quite an extrovert period). We had some great reviews.
"The display [of “Abstract Originals”] mixes color, shape, and timing, and it’s different each time you run it. Definitely to ‘enhance your next dinner or cocktail party, union meeting or conference!'
Pass the Pina Colada, comrade."
Review of MA1: Geoff Davis ABSTRACT ORIGINALS, Computer News 1985
"Things move fast in the computer world, don’t they? The most successful [Micro Arts programs] are the animated designs, hypnotic and colourful collages that offer mobile abstracts… All colour schemes can be adapted, and the program itself can be interfered with (that’s the interactive part)."
Review, Blitz Magazine 1985 (fashion and clubs)
"The alternative society is still throbbing at Micro Arts."
Sinclair User February 1985.
Last decade, there was debate along the lines of ‘there are no use cases for blockchain’ then people discovered the use case was using it as money or a store of value. This is because all sorts of distributed databases, which are much less costly to run, have existed for ages. But blockchain currency is in a social setting where people speculate fiat currencies into it, so it is not a stable situation. It does not exist on its own. This makes it part of a bigger whole generally called Web3 and is good for the technology. This is where legislation comes in. It is still early, so the future is exciting. As CrashBlossom and KarateKid said at the Crypto Art Salon in London, co-hosted by EXPANDED.ART, VerticalCrypto Art, and Annka Kultys in July 2023, "this is just the beginning." Let’s hope it’s not the beginning of the end!
AM: Were you thinking about scarcity as well in the early days?
GD: I wanted to communicate and get everyone interested in computer art. It became scarce by accident. The aim was to communicate and educate (the Micro Arts Magazine was full of helpful articles). No one was interested in scarce, high-end art. Video and film artists saw themselves as part of society, aiming for change, even if only aesthetic, not as aloof artists producing rare art objects. Nowadays, even costly digital art can be seen and enjoyed by everyone, but actual ownership is a special status for collectors and investors.
AM: I assume this wasn’t a sustainable financial model.
GD: It was successful as the whole of Micro Arts was an art project, not just the individual pieces. It didn’t make enough money, and there was a lot of work due to all the changes in technology at that time, and soon enough I was back working, now in PC networking in City dealing rooms, which was a big thing in the late 1980s. I even got interviewed about networking (the problems were not with the PCs but with the miles of cabling). All of the generative work went onto the Prestel teletext service in 1985 (like Minitel in France and elsewhere, Telidon, etc.). This was a national download service, which meant the works were available, but it was all a bit distant after the fun of running a little arts organization with friends, making data cassettes, the print magazine, and all that. Micro Arts was like a submarine from the future that surfaced in the early 1980s and was next spotted when the modern digital art market appeared. Sean Clark of the Computer Arts Archive called the 1980s a "lost era" for digital art because so much happened so quickly that it passed art historical analysis until now.
I did other art things, like graphics for the famous London pirate TV station Network 21. My art and articles stayed on Prestel until it closed in 1994. After Micro Arts and the networking jobs, I lived in Africa for a year and then got a job teaching computer graphics at an art college. They’d just bought 12 high-end graphic workstations, which were similar to what we have now. Incidentally, they had an A0 plotter, which absolutely no one ever used. I tried to put on a computer art exhibition at the college around 1990, but they stopped it because they didn’t want too many people using the equipment.
For instance, there is a big Quantel Paintbox retrospective in Leicester, UK, right now. This device was used for most 1980s TV graphics for MTV, the weather, etc., but it was also used by artists like Keith Haring, Adrian Wilson, Kim Mannes-Abbott, April Greiman, David Hockney, and others. This show is by the Computer Arts Society, which previously featured my work with Micro Arts in 2021 and 2022. The "lost era" of the 1980s is slowly being uncovered due to the new, wider interest in the history of digital art outside of academia and the very few books on the subject, which usually stop in 1980 and start again in the 1990s with net art and Hypercard. There was an academic paper recently about revisiting microcomputer art.
Just to clarify, 'micro' is a mixed term now, as in the UK 'micro' is known as a small computer (the BBC Micro, etc.), but to the general public 'micro art' is tiny models or sculptures that fit in the eye of a needle or on the end of a matchstick. Perhaps we could rename it the Microcomputer Arts Group. Or branch out into tiny models of computers. Incidentally, Quantel’s parent company was called Micro Consultants.
I did other art projects from 1985 on, like ident graphics for the famous London pirate TV station Network 21, which has also had a revival of interest recently. My art and articles stayed on Prestel until it closed in 1994. After Micro Arts and the networking jobs, I lived in Africa for a year and then got a job teaching computer graphics at an art college. They’d just bought 12 high-end graphic workstations, which were similar to what we have now. Incidentally, they had an A0 plotter, which no one ever used. One of the fine art students did a lot of wire-frame 3D models on the workstations, then made them all in large scale with actual wire. So artists will always try new approaches. I tried to put on a computer art exhibition at the art college around 1990, but the college authorities stopped it because they didn’t want too many people using the new computer studio.
After a few years teaching, I got involved with web publishing when it started, then apps, via a series of startups and corporates like Omnicom. Currently, I’m researching AI texts. I just did some talks for the Computer Arts Society and the EVA Conference, which are on my website. I’m exploring something I’ve dubbed MOOD BIAS, which is the positive emotional tone that AI chatbots soothe us with. I invented the Robot Rorschach test for AIs, testing them as if they had personalities. This is related to the Happy Ending Syndrome, a suitable way to finish this interview. Thank you for this opportunity. It has been an honour and a privilege to talk about my art.
AM: Thank you, dear Geoff! I am excited to see your new body of work.