Art In Conversation
Herbert W. Franke with Charlotte Kent
Linz, AustriaFrancisco Carolinum Linz
Herbert W. Franke Visionary
March 30 – June 12, 2022
Charlotte Kent (Rail): As an artist, I understand you started with photography. How did you first come to work with a camera and what about its functions turned you towards generative photography?
Herbert Franke: When I was nine or ten years old, I shot my first images using a “Box” that my father had given to me as a birthday present.
Rail: A box camera? It was a bit cumbersome and had limited controls. No focus. Only an instant or timed shutter. It must have pushed you to think about how you could experiment with light.
Franke: Even then, I was exploring the aesthetic potential of machines with analytical methods. My father was an electrical engineer who eventually was dean of the Faculty of Mechanical Engineering at Vienna’s Technical University, and assumed I would pursue a career as an electrical engineer as well. I did not, but light has always been my research discipline, so to speak. The camera is a technical device. And working with machines was a matter of course for me. Those were the tools I would use as a theoretical physicist. My approach was about the aesthetic potential of machines, even in their imperfection. It’s about making the best out of what’s possible.
In 1954, for example, I began to use different X-ray machines to generate images that could be used to see the world in a different light. At that time, the idea developed in my mind that the camera could be used not only to depict reality, but light could be used to freely create aesthetic forms. And that’s exactly what generative photography is for me: creating images using nature’s mathematically describable wealth of forms. When my student friend Franz Raimann in Vienna offered me the opportunity to build an analog computer, I jumped at the chance. To be able to calculate light waves mathematically with the help of a machine was simply optimum.
My idea of art was and still is: to venture into unknown new territory. Perfection or purist ideas could not be in the foreground, I was always driven by curiosity. I wanted to fathom what and why a machine can do this or that particularly well.
Rail: And that is what led you into the sciences…
Franke: Well, I started doing chemistry experiments very early on, when I was ten or eleven years old. My father was very supportive of that, by the way. He allowed me to experiment once a week at the kitchen table. When I came back from the war, I wanted to study chemistry in order to understand the fundamentals of matter; at that time I did not think of pursuing any artistic activity. I wanted to become a scientist who would understand the structures of the world’s development. However, I realized that chemical research in the forties could not answer this question properly at all. So, I switched relatively quickly to physics.
Rail: You got your PhD in Physics from the University of Vienna in 1950. The Vienna Circle was an early twentieth-century group in which physicists, mathematicians and philosophers worked together. Was their influence still felt there?
Franke: This Wiener Kreis [Vienna Circle] had a major impact on the study of physics at the University of Vienna. At that time, physics did not belong to the natural sciences, but was a discipline of philosophy. For a doctorate in physics, one had to take a viva in philosophy—whether one wanted to or not. Friends had recommended the lecture of a leading philosopher of the time, and when I slipped in there, a little late, words about the soul of the atom welled up at me. Just as quietly as I had come in, I made off. Thus, rather by chance, I came upon a lecture by Professor Victor Kraft on Wertelehre [value theory]. As I then found out, he was one of the last members of the famous Wiener Kreis at the Vienna University, and with him I learned some things which reconciled me somewhat with philosophy in general.
Incidentally, I studied physics with Paul Feyerabend, who is now regarded in Europe as one of the great philosophers of the postwar period. He also sat in the lecture with me at Kraft. At that time, he was already a fellow student who was very conspicuous. For example, he often stood up and delivered rebuttals to Kraft’s philosophical thoughts. My philosophical world was made up of authors like Ernst Mach, Ludwig Wittgenstein, but also researchers like Kurt Gödel or, later, Karl Popper. But, as I said, philosophy was not a personal hobbyhorse of mine, but a must for physicists in Vienna. It was above all the natural scientists and analytical mathematicians whose philosophical ideas particularly interested me. In other words, researchers who tried to fathom philosophy with analytical methods. However, I may say that this exposure to philosophical thoughts did not harm me…
Rail: In what way do their ideas influence your creative practice? Do you ever experience conflict between the purity of the concept and the reality of making something?
Franke: So, that’s a question that I think is strongly rooted in traditional fine art, but is not a question that arises when you work with technologies. Machines are always being developed further, i.e. made “better.”
Rail: Iteration is pervasive.
Franke: Yes, if it were mainly about the purity of an idea, then the artist should not work with machines at all.
Rail: One of your first teaching jobs was as Lecturer in “Cybernetical Aesthetics” at Munich University. Cybernetics was an interdisciplinary approach that has expanded into systems thinking and every area of our lives, from artificial intelligence to political theory. But when you were teaching, what did a cybernetic aesthetics mean? How did you describe what you taught and researched in that context?
Franke: Cybernetic aesthetics was for me first of all a rational theory of art, in which there was no place for the myth of the artist. I wanted to base the analysis of art on exact science. In physics, one seeks universal knowledge about a field of research. To do this, one must approach art neither philosophically nor historically. One must first clarify what is common to all kinds of art, whether literature, music, visual art, and even dance or songs. The answer: These products, as heterogeneous as they may be, are all opportunities for reception via the sensory organs of potential recipients. The study of perceptual processes is a field of psychology that has now passed into neurological brain research. However, its quantification was not possible until the advent of digital data processing in the 1960s. With information theory, psychology was able to quantify information processes in the brain for the first time.
Naturally, I first had looked into classical art theory, which quickly disappointed me. In the cybernetic approaches of an Abraham Moles or Karl Steinbuch as well as the information-theoretical thoughts of Max Bense and his student Helmar Frank, who with his information-psychological orientation soon turned a bit away from the views of his teacher, I found something better. In short, I have combined information psychology on the one hand and the cybernetic approach with insights from information theory on the other, and on this basis I developed a rationally based aesthetic for the entire process of creating and perceiving art.
Rail: So, your rational aesthetic comes from reception theory?
Franke: The reception of art is only one side of my consideration. For the reception happens in the moment. With works of art, however, an effect takes place that extends beyond the moment of first perception. That can only be ensured from the creation side, which I have described with a multi-level model. The question is, how can the artist achieve, from an information-aesthetic point of view, an effect beyond the moment of reception? Until now, the artist mainly used intuitive, unconscious methods for this. But information cybernetics offers a rational grammar as a guideline. It is based on the fact that humans are able to selectively concentrate on different levels of meaning. If each level is now configured according to the conditions for optimal perception, the work, when presented again, offers the extraction of other, previously unperceived data. With the help of this multi-level model, it is possible for the artist to serve different levels of effect.
Incidentally, from the considerations described above, an insight into the social benefits of art can be derived: In today’s civilizations, successful perceptual processes no longer have the same significance as a means of survival as they once did for humans in the wild. Nevertheless, even members of modern communities often find themselves in situations that require the ability to perceive contexts in order to cope with them. The perception of works of art, which psychologically represents nothing other than a learning process, contributes a great deal to ensuring that these perceptual abilities are preserved for mankind in the future.
Rail: This is far more theoretical that your 1971 book, Computer Graphics, Computer Art, which largely focuses on the impact of the processes and tools available. Given the level of precision now in computer graphics, would it be possible to still unite them as you did then?
Franke: I would write the book differently today, of course, but I maintain that today’s new computer technologies influence not only research but also art. However, then as now, it’s the avant-garde who deal with it: think of AI or 3D worlds. And sometimes artists can intervene in that development. Take the development of computer animation in the 1980s as an example. Animation artists in the film industry were a strong trigger for the development of animation technologies in medicine and other disciplines.
Ultimately, the point is not to leave new technologies, which are value-neutral to begin with, to technocrats, commerce and the military complex alone. Art is also part of our society, and it should deal with the tools of today’s society.
Rail: Why do you say that technologies are value-neutral? Today, there is so much that suggests otherwise.
Franke: But not because of technology! It’s humans that abuse it.
Rail: At the time, you encouraged scientists and technologists to contribute to the discussion as they had the requisite understanding of the machine to explain and appreciate what it was making. What was important about bringing those voices into it?
Franke: I tried to bring back something that had been lost. Think of Leonardo da Vinci as an icon of this. Science/technology and art are not separate parts of humans, they belong together. Not everyone can be a Leonardo, of course, and produce something significant on both sides. But the “two cultures” of C. P. Snow do not actually exist separately.
Rail: Snow was a chemist and novelist who despaired of the increasing separation between the humanities and sciences. His book, The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution (1959), was profoundly influential in reinforcing the divide even though he thought society needed them to be bridged.
Franke: They are just two sides of the same coin. Both currents are present in everyone. I am always pleased, for example, when scientists try not only to present results in formulas that are as theoretically detached as possible, but when they try to visualize these findings in such a way that more people understand what they are doing. Because the image is a powerful communication medium.
And the fact that mathematical formulas can also be presented in a visually appealing way is something I have shown extensively in my Math Art project that has lasted fifteen years. Many people were and still are amazed at the fascinating visual world that I produced by mathematics. I believe, however, that organization of research by disciplines does not at all support such interdisciplinary tendencies. This could be encouraged much more. I think that, especially when it comes to the comprehensibility of research results at the edge of our knowledge, artistically trained people could make much more important contributions.
This brings us to questions of modern teaching, which in my opinion also makes far too little use of the new visual possibilities. Today, there is only some collaboration between scientists and artists. In astrophysics, all the beautiful animations from black holes to the formation of the universe help broaden understanding of the elementary processes of our world. In other natural sciences, however, collaboration is nowhere near as common.
Rail: Your book Computer Graphics, Computer Art doesn’t only address visual art, but addresses music and animation and poetry! What prompted you to gather those threads?
Franke: Of course, this is directly related to my rational aesthetics. I mean, art must be seen as an overarching phenomenon. And the computer is the first machine in human history that can be used universally for all art forms. I had to and wanted to express that clearly in this book.
Rail: Yes, we’ll have to come back to your own literary accomplishments, but was that general application of the computer why you preferred the term computer art instead of electronic art that some used?
Franke: Electronic art is simply more vague for me as a term. The important thing is to define terms cleanly, as we do in science. What do they mean? That’s the important question, not how you label that meaning downstream.
Rail: And for you computer art means…?
Franke: Making art with the help of algorithmic programs.
Rail: Movements like ZERO in Düsseldorf or the global New Tendencies had other contexts and meanings they were trying to address with their use of computers. What did you think of their approaches?
Franke: Of course, I knew about these tendencies. The world of innovative artists experimenting with media or machines was not that big. People knew each other and met for symposia or exhibitions. And of course there were always artists who appealed to me more than others. Vera Molnár, for example, I’ve known and appreciated since the sixties. ZERO, on the other hand, I found interesting, but it didn’t correspond to my idea, because this art lacked the rational-analytical basis.
There was the first Nove Tendencije exhibition in Zagreb in 1961. There, computer art was shown embedded with other avant-garde currents of constructive art, generative photography, and op art. This seemed particularly exciting to me, because I was convinced that computer art was not an isolated incident that suddenly appeared, but was embedded in a trend that used rational analysis and the insights of perceptual psychology for the production of art.
Rail: Yes, you framed computer art through the lens of Constructivist tendencies. Why was that?
Franke: I see two reasons. One was the limitation of the machines themselves. It would have made no sense to try to construct a three-dimensional representational image with computers at that time. However, that wasn’t the goal for me either, so you’re right, of course. I come from the constructive direction, in the sense of abstract art.
From the beginning, I worked with electrons, that is, with light, and I wanted to design it in such a way that art would emerge from it. This was the fifties and generative art. Once I had digital computers at my disposal, I also had the desire to produce art that could be quantified in terms of information theory. Because that was the time when I was intensively concerned with the foundations of my rational aesthetics. My earliest digital work series—Quadrate (Squares) (1969–70) and DRAKULA (1971–72)—were also used for information psychology studies.
To think of creating representational images was simply beyond anything imaginable. I don’t know what would have been if I had been born into today. It could easily be that I would have constructed fantastic, alternative 3D worlds that work with different laws of nature than ours. I don’t mean being able to fly— that’s nice, but a bit banal! I mean a world with different laws of nature, which lead to other structures. Or I would have constructed the fantastic micro worlds as 3D structures, through which one can actually wander. The landscapes of the microcosm are really fantastic!
Rail: We no longer have the graphics limitations that were present then. Since so much is now available, are there other frames you think relevant?
Franke: You know, of course we’ve achieved a lot graphically. But ultimately, in art, we are still hanging pictures on the wall. As early as 1957, in my first book Kunst und Konstruktion, which means “Art and Construction,” I didn’t see that as the future. It was and is about art that activates people, takes them along. In the 1980s, I was already writing interactive programs with my first PC, the Apple II. At that time, possibilities of interaction were quite simple. You could interact in dynamic programs by pressing a key. You could change colors or stroke lengths and experiment with the program. Today, much more is possible. I’ve also always dreamed that literature could be designed in such a way that the artist conceives the story with a code, but the reader can interact with it and influence the plot himself.
Rail: This is happening now within the world of art and animation, where NFTs offer audiences access to the creative process. I’m thinking of the Jonas Lund Token and various creative DAOs (decentralized autonomous organizations). The Gimmicks is a short animation series that allows community members to decide what will happen in the next episode. There are also generative artists today who engage their collectors and community. Today we see so many variations of what generative art can do particularly as they adopt smart contract technologies in blockchain.
Franke: These new crypto artists following ideas of mine that I had thought lost in time is wonderful so see! But I have to admit that I have almost no knowledge about this new NFT art world. So I want to come back to the Wiener Kreis and the famous sentence of philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein: What one cannot speak of, one must remain silent about!
Rail: That seems fair. But you have seen a rise of interest in generative art created by NFTs.
Franke: I find it amazing what is happening right now. However, I also find it regrettable that this art is really only debated in public about its enormous commercial value. I think it’s a shame that publicly we don’t talk more about quality. There have always and everywhere been artists who could do something, and artists who are not relevant but were expensive. The price tag doesn’t say anything about that. In my time, we didn’t have this problem. There was no talk about our art at all—and that was perhaps just as well, because when art scholars or critics got involved, there was usually a “beating.” Today, as then, people only talk about the artists who make a lot of money. But quality becomes a factor of consideration only fifty years later!
Rail: That leads me to your retrospective Herbert W. Franke: VISIONARY at the Francisco Carolinum in Linz, Austria. Seventy years of works produced with the latest machines are on display. Has seeing it laid out like that revealed anything to you?
Franke: I spent my whole life trying to fathom the special features of machines, tried to see them as a partner, not only a tool of the artist. For example, in 1973, I developed “Digital Einstein,” a portrait series using a Siemens digital image processing system developed as a healthcare technology. In the same year, I designed an early computer film Rotations/Projections. The system originally was developed for engineers developing microchip technology. This system gave them the ability to interactively design chip layers. These are different techniques, different artistic concepts—traditionally oriented artists didn’t appreciate something like that back then. They said that my works did not show enough of my own hand. But for me, every machine has a creative potential on its own.
I was never concerned with self-realization or my own style in the production of art, but rather with analytical discoveries of art. I think in that idea, however, is my own signature, and it is there in all my works. It may, perhaps, remain hidden in classical dimensions of observation, not revealed superficially, but it is hidden in the underlying analytical code and the interrelationship of science and art. To come back to your question finally: I think this is what can be seen in the exhibition VISIONARY. I see it. I hope others do.
Rail: Given the span of works using so many programs, are there some that you still like to use or others you are happy to have been replaced?
Franke: I see there my work with a photo apparatus, X-ray machines, analog computer, digital computer with plotter, digital computer with interaction capabilities, home computers with language BASIC, then QuickBASIC, Bryce… I took what was available. Once I understood what could be done with it on the aesthetic side, then I looked for something new. But, nothing was not worthwhile. Each period has had its methods and tools. Starting in the 1990s, I adopted a special and unique language developed for science and technology: Mathematica from Stephen Wolfram. It offered huge implications on artistic work, especially for someone like me searching for mathematically driven aesthetics.
Rail: Given your interest in building and generating art with mathematics, what led you to write science fiction?
Franke: In the German-speaking world, when I was younger, we called them future novels. They were in the tradition of Jules Verne and were characterized by the depiction of new technologies. It was my father who, after reading Karl May, gave me a future novel set on Mars that appeared in installments in an astronomical magazine to which he subscribed. After that, I borrowed everything that was available from the library with my mother. However, because my hunger for reading was great, this reading material exhausted itself after a certain time. I pressed the librarian hard, and he opened for me the access to a form of literature which was forbidden at that time in the thirties of the Nazi regime: the writers of the Prague Circle, who are to be classified as Phantasts. He had to get them out of a secret camp: Franz Kafka, Gustav Meyrink, Leo Perutz.
What fascinated me about the Phantasts as a youngster was what in American science fiction is called the sense of wonder. But even though the Phantasts inspired me at the time, I was disturbed from the beginning by the fact that the stories offered no logical explanation of the events and left me somehow perplexed. I wanted fantastic phenomena to also be explained scientifically; the combination of both worlds corresponded entirely to my own way of thinking. At that time, I was not yet familiar with American science fiction.
Rail: Do you still read science fiction?
Franke: If you have a productive life, as I do, there is little time for reading for pleasure. I also worked as an editor of major Science Fiction series in Germany throughout the sixties and seventies. I read a lot then, but afterwards there was simply no more time. Authors like Alfred Bester, Robert Heinlein, or even John Brunner from Great Britain appealed to me. I felt especially close to the works of a Stanislaw Lem. Incidentally, as an editor, I very much promoted authors from the East in particular, from Poland, Czech Republic or Romania.
Rail: You have been honored for your science fiction writing, most recently in 2016 with the European Science Fiction Society’s "European Grand Master of Science Fiction”!
Franke: Yes, this was a great honor for me. My first attempts at writing date back to the age of about fifteen when I started a novel. It was not yet science fiction, but rather adventure literature with a mysterious lake of strange matter, if I remember correctly. During my studies, I started to write my first real science fiction stories. They were printed in a Viennese cultural magazine, Neue Wege [New Ways] in the early 1950s. In 1960, Der grüne Komet [The Green Comet] was published, with sixty-four super short stories. It was the first German-language science fiction after the World War II. Scholars say it founded postwar science fiction, and gave it a formative style. From then on, I published more than twenty novels and anthologies.
Rail: What was the style you introduced?
Franke: My rational aesthetics includes not only images, but also literature. I work as a writer according to the same principles. This includes, for example, my design of a “multi-level model.” We spoke about this before. For literature, it refers to the fact that as a writer you can offer several levels of interpretation of a reading material: there is the level of suspense and adventure, but there is also the level of language and a level of intellectual debate about future technologies, their significance for society and the individual. Behind the plot, I always show concrete dangers of our current society, which are presented in my stories in an exaggerated way—as if in a model of the future. In the best case, the models of the future wrapped up in exciting plots are also meant to inspire us to think about our possible future—to actively shape it instead of just letting it happen. That’s why I’m also pleased that I repeatedly meet readers who tell me that my stories have inspired them to study science or technology. Even my first novel, The Orchid Cage (1961) dealt with artificial intelligence. That was probably a bit early! Other plots of my novels were the use of computer technologies for manipulation, for maintaining power, as a perfected tool of surveillance or the consequences of virtual realities.
Rail: Speaking of other worlds, how did you get involved with the virtual reality space Active Worlds, in the mid-nineties?
Franke: I came into contact with Active Worlds through Derrick Woodham, an art professor at the University of Cincinnati, who was setting up a sculpture park on the platform with his art students, and asked me if I would also like to contribute a virtual sculpture. I was immediately fascinated by the fact that Active Worlds offered the possibility of embedding your own objects in the world via an RWX file. With Second Life, you were limited to the prefabricated set of objects, which you could only assemble like Lego bricks. Together with my wife Susanne, we started a project in 2005 and then purchased a piece of virtual land from Active Worlds. We named it Z-Galaxy, in honor of Konrad Zuse, who had constructed a calculating machine in parallel with John von Neumann, the “German inventor” of the computer. I knew Zuse personally. Using the programming language Mathematica, I built structures as well as synthetic plants. I embedded these objects in Z-Galaxy and showed my works and sculptures on the open-air grounds and in the exhibition halls. The underlying formulas mean even these objects are a kind of Math Art. In 2008, Z-Galaxy opened in the form that you can still see on the web today; I no longer only showed my own pictures, videos and sculptures in this metaspace, but also works by artist friends.
Rail: You mentioned being interested in 3D worlds and have produced work in virtual spaces over the years. What attracts you to these environments?
Franke: It offers me as an artist-researcher the possibility to create new worlds! What more can you hope for...
Rail: Are there current developments in virtual reality that excite you, or artists and designers who interest you?
Franke: So, I don’t want to go into works by individual artists here. I just want to say that I myself find developments particularly exiting that use artificial intelligence for the production of art. However, I would not be interested in using AI to copy or mix the style of old masters, but to use this creative potential to see how far AI can be taken to generate new art. As early as 1959, I said in a newspaper interview that we are “only at the beginning of new graphic methods that will be dominated by automata and machines.” The big question here: Can a machine become an artist? I say: yes.
Rail: Are there developments in virtual reality that worry you or bore you?
Franke: Like any technology, virtual reality is ambivalent. It offers opportunities and dangers. And then, of course, it has a special quality. Because it perfects an ability that distinguishes humans from all other biological existences on this earth: the possibility of imagining something that is not real. In the worst case, these dangers can lead to perfected manipulation or complete loss of reality. That’s why I think we need a mature society that can deal with these developments.
Rail: An alternate world is the dark realm of caves. You enjoy cave exploration, the field of speleology. Do you find the darkness an escape from the requirements of coding, or do the two have similar traits of searching for what you can’t yet see?
Franke: It’s definitely not an escape from anything at all, I’ve been caving longer than I’ve been programming, since I was a student. After the war, I went into the Austrian caverns as a student, at a period when traveling to foreign countries was difficult, and I began to shoot serious photography in the caves. It wasn’t an escape, but a quest - a quest to explore new territory.
Rail: You have spent days inside a cave. What is that like?
Franke: My longest expedition underground lasted fourteen days. We penetrated several kilometers into the enormous cave system of the Dachstein massif—that’s pure adventure at first, the feeling of stepping into another world. I remember well that trip, which occurred at the time of the first moon landing. We felt that even though we were "only" a little bit below the surface of the Earth, we were much further away from civilization than the Apollo astronauts, who had permanent contact with the control center and were constantly observed by the world public. We were really "outside" the world. If a nuclear war had broken out above us, we would not have known about it!
Rail: Has that experience of being so removed from the world shaped your approach to art making or curation?
Franke: Cave exploration—like looking into a microscope or a telescope, by the way—opens up an alien reality for us; it shows that the world is not only as it appears to us on the surface of the earth. It gives an unusual view of what we perceive as reality. And it also shows us how arduous life is without technical achievements that we take so much for granted. Even a few hundred meters deep in the cave, the world is a very different place. It makes you more humble. And you realize how dependent humans are on other humans. You can only survive down there if you’re part of a functioning team.
How does caving fit into my other professions? I see that the cave research like the art or the future literature were an expression of my large curiosity to find new things, to arrive there, where no humans had been so far. But this question will have to be answered by art historians in the end!
Rail: What would you have other artists know about working with a computer?
Franke: I say to all artists, no matter what discipline and whether they work with or without computers: Use the technologies that interest you, explore their aesthetic potential—making art must be a joy. Do not submit to the constraints of the market. If you can’t make money with your art, then get a job for living. But stay on your own path in art, stay authentic. And don’t fret too much if it takes a long time for this to lead to public recognition! Look at me: I had to wait till I am 94!