Conceptual Art

Many years ago, I sent a thank-you note to our company physician who had done me a favor. It was a small note in the upper corner of the large computer printer paper that was used back then. It read:

At 10:34 PM on September 22, 1984, the ICI computer repeatedly wrote “Thank you, Kathy” into memory, erased it, and counted each action. Final confirmed count: 1,000,000. At the completion, it printed this note as proof of the event.

I had programmed this so I could insert any message I wanted. The exact time and date were taken from the computer itself when the program ran. The count was the actual count done by the computer as it repeatedly wrote and erased the message.

It was a hit and I used it several other times. People in those days were boggled by a computer doing something a million times. As I recall, the run time was about ten minutes. On my desktop computer today, it would run almost instantaneously.

It was a good piece of conceptual art, if I do say so myself.

I had never heard of conceptual art until stumbling upon a museum exhibit back in the early 1970s on the work of Douglas Heubler, considered to be the founder.

Creating any piece of art is a two-step process. The first and most important is developing the theme and concept of the piece. The second step is the straight-forward application of skills to realize that concept. Since the artistic creativity is all in the first step, physically producing the art in the conventional manner is unnecessary. Huebler is famous for saying “The world is full of objects, more or less interesting; I do not wish to add any more.”

Something, however, has to be produced to explain and document the concept, as was the printout of my thank-you note. The first panel of Huebler’s exhibit was a simple photo of a dripping icicle. Beside it was an explanation that the water from the melting icicle was collected and used to develop the photo.

Another example: A huge rectangle was marked on the streets of Manhattan, but only by three-inch paper disks pasted at each corner. The documentation was photos of each disk—one on a mailbox, one on a lamppost, one on a building, and one on a newspaper kiosk—and a map of Manhattan showing the location of each. Sure enough, it was a huge square. The art was in the concept.  There was no need to actually paint the square on the streets.

Another expleam: Heubler asked all of the female students in his class to write their deepest secret on a slip of paper. He collected them together, then burned them and placed the ashes in a small plastic box as documentation of the event. It was surprisingly moving to see the ashes just by knowing their origin. The idea was later copied by others.

Another example: A small poster with a dot at the bottom. The poster read, “The dot below is one end of a line that extends back through the wall, instantly circumnavigating the earth to end exactly on the front side of the same dot.” If you saw this as some sort of laser exhibit at the Franklin Institute you would think it was amazing. But the concept alone is amazing because we can imagine a geometric line doing just what it says.  Another poster had a six-inch line and said, “This line is a cylinder rotating at the incredible speed of over one billion revolutions per second.”

I made up one that I think was even better. I had a printer friend prepare a small poster that hung on my wall for about a year (this was well before home computers could easily print any sign). It said:

The famous “Big Bang” that created the entire universe over 14 billion years ago occurred  in the space now occupied by R. Walck’s cubicle at a spot exactly one meter out from the dot printed below.  Donations will preserve this historically important location for future generations.

And this was correct, although the same could be said of everywhere since space itself expanded from a point.


About Roger Walck

My reasons for writing this blog are spelled out in the posting of 10/1/2012, Montaigne's Essays. They are probably not what you think.
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