Abstract- Stephen Jones

The Confluence of Computing and Fine Arts at the University of Sydney, 1968-1975

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.