Vladimir Bonacic - the early works, Zagreb 1968-1971

Darko Fritz


Vladimir Bonacic worked in the Croatian National Research Institute Ruder Boskovic in Zagreb from 1964, where he headed the Laboratory of Cybernetics from 1969 to 1973. He earned his PhD in 1967 in the field of pattern recognition and hidden data structures. In 1968 he began his artistic career under the auspices of the international movement New Tendencies (NT), at the Gallery for Contemporary Art of Zagreb, which had pushed for his inclusion. [1] From 1961 on the movement had been presenting different aspects of lumino-kinetic and neo-constructivist art. [2] The statement of the Brazilian artist Waldemar Cordeiro that computer art had replaced constructivist art [3] found its proof in work by Bonacic. Looking back at the crisis of neo-constructivist art that NT faced in 1965, one of the curators, Radoslav Putar, wrote in 1970, "many followers of the NT have tried to give their work the habits of the machine or else they have based their procedures on the use of mechanical or electric devices; they have all dreamt of the machines - and now the machines have arrived. And they have arrived from a direction which was somewhat unexpected, and accompanied by people who were neither painters nor sculptors." [4] From the start Bonacic had a critical view on the use of the computer in art for the simulation of reality. He also criticized Michael Noll's experiment with a Mondrian-like drawing that he had generated by a computer simulation. He said: "The computer must not remain simply as a tool for the simulation of what exists in a new form. It should not be used to paint in the way Mondrian did or to compose music as Beethoven did. The computer gives us a new substance, it uncovers a new world before our eyes. In that world after so long a time scientists and artists will meet again on common ground stimulated by their common desire for knowledge." [5]

In contradicting Bonacic's wishes from 1969, computer art pursued a different way. Computer graphics explored the possibilities of computer-generated figurative visuals and entered - with animation and special effects for the mainstream film industry - the commercial world as well as the military sector, advancing the virtual-reality techniques that mimic "real life". This development led to computer art's exclusion from the contemporary art scene around the mid 1970's. [6] Yet Bonacic was one of the artists who found a way to use computers and cybernetic art for humanistic purposes [7].   It took about 20 years before computer-based art found its place again in the contemporary art scene within a new geo-political situation and cultural climate.

Vladimir Bonacic began his artistic career through a collaboration with the artist Ivan Picelj in 1968. It resulted in the electronic object T4 , which was presented in 1969. The title T4 referred to the Tendencies 4 event series. The upper part of the front panel made of small lamps is static and displays the signs "t4t4t". The rest of the panel lights up following a pseudo-random program. [8] During Tendencies 4 Bonacic was not only showing T4 but a total of 17 works [9] and was awarded one of the prizes for   "computer and visual research". [10] The jury appreciated "the harmony between the mathematical consequences within the programming and the visualizing of the process resulting from the programming. We praise especially Bonacic's new approach entailing the solving of problems by including a picture and not a number as a parameter, rendering possible thereby a solution of much more complicated problems." [11] The "Galois field," named for mathematician Evariste Galois, was an overall inspiration to Bonacic. In 1974 he wrote, "One of the most interesting aspects of this work [in Galois fields] is the demonstration of the different visual appearance of the patterns resulting from the polynomials that had not been noted before by mathematicians who have studied Galois fields." [12]

GF.E 16/4
(1969 - 1970)

Bonacic used custom-made hardware for all his "dynamic objects". They were embodied statements of what he later   elaborated on in his critique of the influence on the computer-based arts of commercially available display equipment. [13] The dynamic Object G.F.E 32-S (1969 - 1970) [14] generates four consecutive symmetrical patterns. The screen consists of 1,024 white light pixels. The field generator is part of a special-purpose computer located inside the object. The unit is self-contained and performs the generation of the Galois fields. The clock that controls the rhythm of the appearance of the visual patterns is variable and can be adjusted by the observer between 0.1 seconds and 5 seconds. At a frequency range of 2 seconds the same pattern will repeat itself in approximately 274 years. On the rear of the object the observer finds "manual controls to start, stop and control for the selecting or reading out of any patterns. With binary notation, 32 light indicators and 32 push buttons enable any pattern from the sequence to be read or set." [15] From our contemporary perspective we see in this work an example of a pioneering use of interactivity in computer-based artworks. From 1969 to 1971 Bonacic developed a higher level of interactivityin the work GF.E (16,4), [16] The field of the interaction extends from the sole object, as was the case with the object G.F.E 32-S [17]. The dynamic object GF.E (16,4) is 178 x 178 x 20 cm in size and half a ton in weight. The front panel shows a relief structure made of 1,024 light fields in 16 colors. Three Galois field generators are in operation to light the grid in different patterns. Those generators interact with other generators controlling the sound played out through four loudspeakers. The viewer can influence both sound and image either manually or by remote control. Sound can be manipulated by the exclusion of some tones. The speed of the visual can be adjusted as well, by looping the selected sequences. The observer cannot change the logic. The entire "composition" of this audio-visual spectacle, which consists of 1,048,576 different visual patterns and 64 sound oscillators, can be played within 6 seconds, or with a duration of 24 days [18].

DIN. PR 18, 1969, Kvaternik Square, Zagreb DIN. PR 18, detail DIN. PR 10, 1971, Ilica, Zagreb DIN. PR 18, 1971, Kvaternik Square, Zagreb

Vladimir Bonacic explored interactivity on a social level, too, installing computer-based works in public spaces. In 1969 the large-scale public installation DIN. PR18 was set up on the facade of the NAMA department store on Kvaternik square in Zagreb.   At that time the square was rather dark with little lighting, so the installation acted also as an additional illumination[19]. Other public installations were set up in 1971 on the NAMA store on Ilica street in the very center of Zagreb and in Belgrade on the façade of the Museum of Contemporary Art [20].

Bonacic criticized the use of randomness in computer-based art, as he considers humans to be simply better in "making the 'aesthetic program' relevant for human beings". Referring to the dictum of Abraham Moles that redundancy makes structure at the expense of originality, Bonacic wrote: "Observing the qualitative relation for the aesthetic measure, we come to conclude that the maximal originality (namely, disorder created by random selection of symbols) brings immense aesthetic values. Let us suppose we have created the program in some other way but still it is the program that will result in an aesthetic object. Using the random generator we shall carry on with random distribution of the existent information. While consistent in use of the random generator, we speak of 'maximal originality,' no matter what the results of the program might be. The random generator creates the accidental and unique presentation, which has neither value nor importance for human beings. Such information can evoke various associations in the observer. But a computer used in such a way lags far behind the human being. Even if the expressive potentialities of the computer were equal to those of a human being, the essence of Pollock's world and creation would not be surpassed, regardless of the complexity of future computers or peripheral units. That, of course, does not mean that a man (or a monkey or other animal) aided by a computer could not create an aesthetically relevant object if they consciously or unconsciously act obeying the law of accident." [21]

This critique inspired the creation of the object Random 63 in 1969   making use of 63 independent true random generators based on the performances of electronic bulbs. This is the only piece by VladimirBonacic that makes use of   true randomness and can lead us to a mere aesthetic enjoyment. All other "dynamic objects" by Bonacic utilize pseudo-randomness, which in principle allows observation of   mathematical laws.

Bonacic was skeptical about the applicability of information theory to aesthetics, since it takes so little account of semantics. But he approached visual phenomena in a mathematical and systematic way. [22] The "scientification of art" theoretically elaborated on by Matko Mestrovic within the frame of NT [23] finds its mirror image in Bonacic's working process as the "aesthetization of science". It seems that Bonacic's work fulfills Mestrovic's idea from 1963, that "in order to enrich that which is human, art must start to penetrate the extra-poetic and the extra-human". [24]



[1] Letter by Boris Kelemen to Jasia Reichardt, September 22, 1968, archives of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Zagreb.

[2] On New Tendency movement see Jerko Denegri, Umjetnost konstruktivnog pristupa , Horetzky, Zagreb, 2000. For Information on Bonacic see p. 490 - 497. English edition Constructive approach art: Exat 51 and new tendencies , Horetzky, Zagreb, 2004.

[3] "The constructive art belongs to the past, its contents corresponding to the Paleocibernetic Period being those of the Computer Art." Waldemar Cordeiro, "Analogical and/or Digital Art, symposium t - 5, The rational and irrational in visual research today , Match of ideas, June 2, 1973", archives of the Museum of Contemporary Art.

[4] Radoslav Putar, no title, tendencies 4 , 1968 - 1969, exhib. cat., Gallery of Contemporary Art, Zagreb, 1970, n.p.

[5] Vladimir Bonacic , "Possibilities for computer applications in visual research", paper read at the colloquium "Computers and visual research', August 4-5 th , 1968, Zagreb, published in: Bit international no. 3 , Gallery of Contemporary Art, Zagreb, 1971, p 45 - 58.

[6] Another reason was the negative impact of the use of science and technology by the military-academic-corporate complex in the Vietnam War.   Described by Richard Barbrook: "MIT modernization theory would prove its (USA) superiority over the Maoist peasant revolution. [...] Since the information society was the next stage in human development, the convergence of media, telecommunications and computing must be able to provide the technological fix for anti-imperialist nationalism in Vietnam. During the late-1960s and early-1970s, the US military made strenuous efforts to construct an electronic barrier blocking the supply routes between the liberated north and the occupied south. Within minutes of enemy forces being detected by its ADSID sensors, IBM System/360 mainframes calculated their location and dispatched B-52 bombers to destroy them.' See Richard Barbrook, Imaginary Futures , in: www.imaginaryfutures.net 2005, p. 177 and 182.

Gustav Metzger wrote in March 1969 that 'The waves of protest in the States against manufacturers of war materials should lead E.A.T. to refuse to collaborate with firms producing napalm and bombs for Vietnam' and continues 'Forty-five professors at the M.I.T. have announced a one-day 'research stoppage' for March 4 in protest against government misuse of science and technology." See G. Metzger, "Automata in history", in: Studio International , London 1969, p. 107 - 109.

In the mid 1970's main protagonists of computer art as Gustav Metzger and Jack Burnham turned their back to it. Also the Zagreb movement drew back: "Tendencies 6" started with a conference in 1978, but the planned exhibition never took place. As the focus had shifted to conceptual and non-object art, a different exhibition took place.

[7] In 1972 Bonacic founded the "Art and Science Program" at the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design in Jerusalem, where his team accomplished several projects, i. e.   the first functional digitization of the Arabic alphabet (see Impact of Science on Society , Vol. 25, No. 1, January - Mach 1975, p. 90- 94) . In 1977 he initiated the collective resignation of the international board of the "Art and Science Program" as a form of public protest against Israel politics in Palestine. He continued to make political statements. His group, the bcd - cybernetic art team , printed 35 posters (1977 - 1979) including images of 385 destroyed Palestinian villages.

[8] In addition to this emblematic object, one static picture delivered form the program was used in the T4 exhibition poster design by Picelj.

[9] Bonacic showed the relief sculpture R. GF100 - 13. , photographs PLNOO74 - 2 , IR. PLNS. 0044. 7714. 7554. 7744 - 3 , RS. PLMS. 0374. 0124. 0064 - 4 ; PLN - 5 , PLN - 6 , PLN - 7 , PLN - 8 , PLN - 9 and PLNO434 - 10 ; color slides GF0000 - 11 and GF1110 - 12 ; and dynamic objects GF100- 14 and PR 18 - 15 , all programmed on PDP-8 and SDS-930 computers.

10] Together with Marc Adrian and the group Compos 68. The jury consisted of Umberto Eco, Karl Gerstner, Vera Horvat-Pintaric, Boris Kelemen and Martin Krampen.

[11] "'Computers and Visual Research', decision of the Competition Jury", exhibition catalogue tendencies 4 , 1968 - 1969, Gallery of Contemporary Art, Zagreb 1970, n. p.

[12] Vladimir Bonacic, Kinetic art: Application of abstract algebra to objects with computer-controlled flashing lights and sound combinations , in: Leonardo , Vol. 7, Oxford / New York: Pergamon Press 1974, pp 193.

[13] ibid.

[ 14] All "dynamic objects" made in Zagreb between 1969 and1971 making use of pseudo-random algebra of Galois field (signed "GF" in the title) were created using the computer SDS-930. The software programmer was Miro Cimerman. In 1971 "bcd - cybernetic art team" is founded, consisting of Bonacic himself, Cimerman and the architect Dunja Donassy. They will work together until Bonacic's death in 1999.

[ 15 ] Vladimir Bonacic, "Kinetic art: Application of abstract algebra to objects with computer-controlled flashing lights and sound combinations " , in: L eonardo , Vol. 7, Oxford / New York: Pergamon Press 1974, pp 193.

[16] This computer sculpture was first exhibited at the Paris Biennale 1971 and later in UNESCO, Paris on the occasion of the 25 th anniversary of this organization.

[ 17] In the article "Kinetic art: Application of abstract algebra to objects with computer-controlled flashing lights and sound" Bonacic elaborates those different kinds of interaction from a practical and theoretical point of view and also considers the use of the brain waves in artistic practice. Published in Leonardo, Vol. 7 , Oxford / New York: Pergamon Press 1974, pp 195 and 196.

[ 18] ibid and Herbert W. Franke and Gottfried Jäger , Apparative Kuns t, Köln: M.DuMont 1973, p. 214 - 217; IBM, Computerkunst , IBM France 1975 (German edition 1978), p. 54

[ 19] Zelimir Koscevic, "Svjetlost nove urbane kulture" ("The Light of the New Urban Culture"), in: Telegram , no. 479, July 4, 1969, p. 17. The article appreciates that this public light system is used for an aesthetic purpose instead of a commercial one as regular light-signs and praises its contribution to the democratization of art within the context of the New Tendency movement .

[20] 4 th Triennial of Yugoslavian Art, Belgrade 1970

[21] Vladimir Bonacic , "Arts as function of subject, cognition, and time", paper read at the symposium "Computers and visual research', May 5.-6., 1969, Zagreb, published in Bit international no. 7, Dialogue with the machine , Gallery of Contemporary Art, Zagreb 1971, pp 129 - 142.

[22] Jonathan Benthall, Science and Technology in Art Today , London: Thames and Hudson 1972, p 59 - 63

[23] See the book by Matko Mestrovic, Od pojedinacnog opcem , Zagreb: Mladost, 1967

[24] Matko Mestrovic, no title, 1963, in: tendencies 4 , 1968 - 1969, exhib. cat., Gallery of Contemporary Art, Zagreb, 1970, n.p .