The Confluence of Computing and Fine Arts at the University of Sydney,
This paper discusses a unique series of collaborations between students
and staff from five departments of the University of Sydney between 1968
and 1975. The initial impetus came from the Basser Department of Computing
within the School of Physics of the University. The Senior Numerical Analyst
(and subsequently Professor of Computer Science) John Bennett had a uniquely
open and inclusive interest in the potential of computing within the academic
world and within society in general and initiated many new approaches
to the use of computers. The School of Physics first computer, SILLIAC,
and the later KDF9 were employed in a wide variety of work from high-end
physics to scientific visualisation and statistical analysis. In 1967
the Computing Department, purchased a PDP-8 to explore computer graphics
and in 1968 the followed this up with a major simulation project assisting
in US Airforce experiments on the proposed Space Plane, producing several
animations of the behaviour of the very low-density gases at the edge
of space. Doug Richardson who had written the software to implement this
animation was also producing complex mathematical plots which a senior
lecturer in the Fine Arts Department saw and encouraged. Bennett had visited
Cybernetic Serendipity, the first ever show of computer art in the world,
in London after he had delivered a paper at the IFIP 68 conference in
Edinburgh. On his return to Sydney he gave several lectures to computing
and fine arts students on the new computer arts.
Meanwhile an arts workshop (which became known as the Tin Sheds) at which
Fine Arts and Architecture students could experience the processes of
making their own art was established. Bennett and Richardson offered the
students and the artists tutoring in the Fine Arts Workshop an introduction
to the computer after which conversations between Richardson and the artists
led to the design of a graphics package that would allow artists to work
with the PDP-8 with the kind of real-time feedback that an artist needs.
A number of interesting animations and images were produced on the system.
At the same time a couple of electrical engineering students experimenting
with theremins to produce sound and Lissajous figures on a modified TV
set made an installation that responded to the audience’s movements
in the space. This was seen by Philippa Cullen, a dancer and Fine Arts
student, who recognised that the theremin could help her make her music
directly from the dance as she moved around the theremin antenna. She
got together with Greg Schiemer, a composition student in the Music Department,
Phil Connor, another electrical engineering student, and Manuel Nobleza,
an architecture student, to develop a system that would extend the range
of sound that the theremin could be used to control. This then led to
several ballets. In 1972 Cullen asked Bennett if it was possible that
the Department’s computer could animate notated ballets and this
led to Don Herbison-Evans being asked to investigate the possibility which
in turn led to the development of his ellipsoid based dance animation
package (NUDES) and the establishment of courses in computer graphics
at the University.
This is how computer graphics and interactive art began in Australia.
It culminated in Computers and Electronics in the Arts, a major exhibition
held in Canberra in 1975.