The Fifties was a decade when the huge investments made in WW2 – RADAR, anti-aircraft alert networks, the jet engine, the atomic bomb, rocket technology, and above all in computing (and mostly in digital computing) – began to pay-off. And in this decade, television – a technology partially stalled by the War – became the dominant medium for home entertainment and news, threatening the Movie business as a vehicle for delivering motion-picture entertainment to much wider audiences than the cinema could offer, and much more conveniently and cheaply than the local cinema or drive-in. It was the decade also, when a commercial synergy was reached between electronic instrumentation and broadcasting (the transistor radio, the electric guitar and PA system), the Blues, Country, Rock-a-Billy, and church inspired Gospel music, between white and black performers, local radio stations in the USA, (Radio Luxembourg and AFM here in the UK) to create Rock’n’Roll – a world-changing new genre of popular music drawing from all these influences – that effectively brought the raw, sexual energies of the black music that had emerged over the previous 30 years – to a much larger white audience, and became the dominant music-form of the decade, priming us for the R&B, Folk-Rock and Rock Music revelations of the 1960s. In Cinema, the movie business experimented with new technologies of wide-screen, immersive projection formats (like Cinerama, Cinemascope and Panavision), stereo-sound and 3d anaglyphic stereo to carry blockbuster, big budget films far beyond the budgets of emerging television producers. From the mid 1940s we had seen the beginnings of schools of film-making antithetical to the dominant Hollywood style – in Italy Neo-Realism; in the USA, avant garde, experimental films that we soon identified with the counter-culture – which by the late 1960s were to completely remodel Hollywood movies in both form and content.
In the Defence sector, the development through the 1950s of valve and transistorised high-speed computers in the USA (like the Whirlwind, and TX2), new core-memory, and the linking of computers, RADAR, telephone networks and air-defence resources was the basis of new nation-wide integrated early warning air-defence systems like SAGE (Semi-Automatic Ground Environment). Sadly, Britain’s undoubted lead in the digital computing sector at the end of WW2 was completely strangled by the over-officious imposition of Official Secrets laws, and we lost our chance of developing a world-class computer industry. And by the end of the decade the launch of the USSR Sputnik satellite changed the rules, triggered the formation of the Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA, later ARPA), and sowed the seeds of the revolution in networking and computing that was to give us the Internet. It was in Britain that the seeds of the computer-science sector that became known as Artificial Intelligence (but at this time was christened ‘machine intelligence’ by Turing and others) were sown, first with Turing’s paper in the journal Mind in 1950 – later with the growing sector of cybernetics and robotics (kick-started by Norbert Weiner and Gray Walter in the 1940s), and within the circle of international scholars and mathematicians growing around this brand new ‘inter-discipline’, following the coining of the term ‘artificial intelligence’ by John McCarthy in 1955, and the writing of Lisp and other specialised AI programming languages. As a discipline AI was to promise much but deliver rather slowly through the early years, recovering enormously in the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s…
The counter culture and popular culture had an unlikely convergence in Rock’n’Roll, and in the literature of the Beats – Kerouac’s On the Road, and Ginsberg’s Howl prefacing William Burroughs’ revolutionary novels of the late 50’s and early 1960s, and in the fine arts, as Hamilton, Paolozzi and the Independent Group invented Pop Art. In the other arts, Electronic Music got serious with Stockhausen, Varese, and RCA’s Electronic Music Synthesiser and the electronic arts emerged in a wide variety of computer-art and computer-poetry experiments, including John Whitney’s computer animations, Laposky’s Oscillons and Schoffer’s Spatiodynamique Tower. These developments were summarised in the late Sixties in the ICA show Cybernetic Serendipity (1968), and in Gene Youngblood’s Expanded Cinema (1970).
Isaac Asimov: I, Robot 1950
The core canon of sci-fi for youngsters like me, discovering science-fiction as an exciting new genre to explore in 1960 (when I was 15), had Isaac Asimov at its centre – It was essential to read Foundation – Asimov’s trilogy (1951-53) which provides a breath-taking overview of the evolution of a faraway galactic society, following the development of ‘psycho-history’ – a statistical method of determining likely historical developments. Asimov’s Robot stories – collected together and published in 1950 as I, Robot was another essential read. From Asimov you explored into Arthur C. Clark, Theodore Sturgeon, Ray Bradbury, Frederick Pohl, Robert Heinlein, EE Doc Smith, AE van Vogt, (etc) then gravitated towards the more experimental writers – Kurt Vonnegut, Alfred Bester, Philip K. Dick – and into the 1960s with John Brunner, Brian Aldiss, J.G. Ballard – and other experimental sci-fi writers collected together in Micheal Moorcock’s New Worlds magazine. Also later, I discovered the joys of Philip Jose Farmer and Larry Niven with their marvellous creations of Riverworld and Ringworld. (And still later Ian M. Banks genius, zeitgeist books about a future anarchistic utopia – The Culture. And of course we read the Eagle comic’s Adventures of Dan Dare, Pilot of the Future, with the wonderful illustrations of Frank Hampson and Frank Bellamy – printed in gravure no less!
In the 1950s, Robots were appearing everywhere – in mathematics (John von Neumann’s kinematic, self-replicating machines 1948-49); in cybernetic research (Grey Walter’s Turtle robots – 1949); in art exhibitions – Bryan Robertson’s This is Tomorrow at the Whitechapel (1956) featured Robbie the Robot, in feature films – Forbidden Planet 1956. It was Asimov who invented the Three Laws of Robotics in his I, Robot collection.
Why were art students so fascinated with sci-fi? For my part, these authors were inventing a wide range of possible futures, while at the same time critiquing our muddled present, and we needed all the speculative help we could get – science facts in the form of thermonuclear weapons, inter-continental ballistic missiles, nerve gas and biological weapons had already begun to write our agenda for us.
Arthur Fellig (WeeGee): Elizabeth Taylor 1950
Beginning with sophisticated photo-montage mandallas like this, Weegee continued to explore the ‘media distortions’ of celebrity photography through the next two decades, latterly experimenting with plastic malleable lense to produce the kind of distortions that eventually became a hallmark of early digital image-processing. This example is Liz Taylor again – from 1961:
WeeGee: Liz Taylor (distortion) 1961 ©Getty Images
Frank Hampson + Frank Bellamy: Dan Dare Pilot of the Future in the Eagle (from 1950 – 1969)
My old mate John Ford had meticulously clipped and saved every Dan Dare strip from 1950 to 1969, and shared them with me in the 1970s – there was something about reading and poring over these gravure-printed comics in retrospect as it were, compared with the first-hand viewings from the mid-1950s on (which were mostly of second-hand comics picked up at jumble sales, or loaned by more middle-class chums). In the 1970s I had been through art school and was looking with (I prided myself!) a more sophisticated eye at art that didn’t appear in the fine-art canon taught in art schools. It was ironic that Hampson ended up as a technician working in a small suburban art school, but fairly typical of the way ‘craft’ or freelance popular artists – like Hampson and Leo Baxendale (The Bash Street Kids) – were treated – even a decade or so after Paolozzi, Hamilton and Blake (and Warhol etc) had drawn our attention to the riches of popular culture.
Fred Waller and Mike Todd: Cinerama 1950
The quest for immersive theatrical experience is millenia-old: Greek theatre-in-the-round; Shakespeare’s Globe; Philipdor’s Phantasmagoria; Wagner’s Gesamptkunstwerk Opera; Reynaud’s Theatre Optique, Lumiere’s Photorama, Moholy Nagy’s Theatre of Totality; Artaud’s Theatre of Cruelty; Beck and Molina’s Living Theatre; Heilig’s Sensorama; Hansen’s Happenings… In the 1950s Cinema was facing a big threat from televised home entertainment, and the wrap-around, immersive technology of Cinerama was seen as one response, while later this decade we have anaglyphic (red/green) stereo, and in the 1970s Sensurround Sound.
Harry Everett Smith: Study for Film #9: Prelude and Fugue c1950 + frames from Mirror Animations Film #11 1957
Alan Turing: Computing Machinery and Intelligence (inc) The Turing Test 1950
Turing gets prime slot in Mind – Gilbert Ryle’s prestigious journal of psychology and philosophy – and for the best of reasons. With this paper, Turing launches the modern field of investigation (then called Machine Intelligence) that became known as ‘artificial intelligence’ (a phrase coined in 1955 by John McCarthy). Turing had been studying the issues of computer intelligence/machine intelligence since the early 1940s and wrote a detailed report on Intelligent Machinery in 1948 (though not published until 1968). But this was the first paper by Turing to exclusively focus on machine intelligence – and in it he introduces the ‘imitation game’ – a party game in which a man and a woman go into separate rooms and the guests try to tell which is which by the answers they make on type-written paper. – then Turing asks what would happen if a computer replaced one of them. This became known as the Turing Test.
Norbert Weiner: The Human Use of Human Beings – Cybernetics and Society 1950
Jack Kerouac: Scroll manuscript for On the Road 1951
There are a few artists whose life and work punctuates, represents and influences an entire generation – in this period Jack Kerouac is perhaps the writer to put alongside Elvis Presley, and artist Jackson Pollock as icons of the 1950s. His writing style – characterized as ‘spontaneous bop prosody’ in reference to Charlie Parker – that other culture-changing influence, the inventor of Be Bop – the first ‘modern’ jazz genre. Kerouac’s On the Road wasn’t published until 1957 and it was inspired principally by his friend Neal Cassady – characterised as Dean Moriarty in the book, which made the ‘beats’ – including Cassady – world famous.
I was lucky to be at the Chelsea Arts Club a few years ago when Carolyn Cassady was talking about growing up with Neal and Jack Kerouac in the 1950s:
” Neal monopolised the jukebox, and bounded about the room, charming other customers who might have had a different choice to his. One or another selection would bring him leaping back to Jack to discuss, or they would lose themselves in an excited contrapuntal dialogue about music and musicians. They were as much fun to watch as to hear. Both mimics, they matched words with facial contortions, vocal gymnastics, wild gestures, and every now and then they broke up in laughter at each others antics. Both had infectious laughs, a combination chuckle-giggle with a rumble of deep merriment that traveled from heart to heart.” (Carolyn Cassady: Off the Road 1990)
And Kerouac’s writing in On the Road – affects the reader in this gushing, infectious, enthusiasm for life, for new philosophies, for new experiences, new life-styles that echoed and crystallized what the baby-boomer generation of teenagers were feeling. The 120 foot scroll of continuous typescript – written in just three weeks – is the mode of production that best reflects this celebration of opportunity and potential.
see also: Neal Cassady: The First Third 1971
Ann Charters (ed): The Portable Beat Reader 1992
Ann Charters: Kerouac – a biography 1973
Joyce Johnson: Minor Characters 1993
Mike Evans: The Beats – From Kerouac to Kesey 2007
Seymour Krim (ed): The Beats 1960
Akira Kurasawa: Rashomon 1951
Garret Chiffon-Quiray in 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die (2003 edition):
“Plotted with competing points of view in flashback style, framed with a fluid moving camera, and shot under a canopy of dappled light, Rashomon details unreliable perspectives. The veracity of on-screen characters and depicted actions are therefore rendered falseand misleading. Facts are submitted into evidence but immediately questioned. Disagreement among the overlapping stories of husband, wife and bandits complicate straightforward reportage. In short, every narrator is untrustworthy, along with the overall film.”
“Nothing less than an epistemological nightmare, Akira Kurasawa’s Oscar-winner still concludes with an infusion of moral goodness. Although Rashomon implicitly explores the lost possibility of renewal and redemption, its central theme about discovering truth as a distinction between good and evil is upheld through simple acts of kindness and sacrifice.”
Martin Ritt made an English-language version of Kurasawa’s story in his 1964 feature The Outrage – starring Paul Newman, Laurence Harvey and Claire Bloom, and set in New Mexico. This works well, even with Paul Newman playing a Mexican bandido.
Jackie Brenston + Ike Turner/Kings of Rhythm: Rocket 88 1951
Well, as we point out (above), the Oldsmobile Rocket 88 was the definitive cruising car, – relatively affordable, the car that teenagers, musicians, street-savvy stylists, hustlers and hipsters would choose to go cruisin’ on Saturdays along the public spaces of American cities – popping pills, taking a drink, flirting with girls and boys, airing the zoot-suit or latest blue-suede shoes – in short, the Rocket 88 was the vehicle for staging self-esteem in the coolest, hippest, street-savvy way. And Brenston’s Rocket 88 is a celebration of this new car and the life-style that it epitomises. Its Rock’n’Roll – on wheels!
Oldsmobile Rocket 88 advert, 1950.
You women have heard of jalopies
You’ve heard the noise they make
Let me introduce my new Rocket 88
Yeah, she’s straight, just won’t wait
Everybody likes my Rocket 88
Babe we’ll ride in style movin’ all along
A V8 motor baby, it’s modern design
Black convertible top and the girls don’t mind
Sportin’ with me riding all around town with joy
Step in my Rocket, don’t be late
‘Cause we’re pulling out about half past eight
Go around the corner gonna get a fill
Everybody in my car’s gonna take a little nip
Move on out, movin’ and cruisin’ along
Here we go, here we go
A V8 motor baby, it’s modern design
Black convertible top and the girls don’t mind
Sportin’ with me riding all around town with joy
Step in my Rocket, don’t be late
‘Cause we’re pulling out about half past eight
Go around the corner gonna get a fill
Everybody in my car’s gonna take a little nip
Move on out, movin’ and cruisin’ along
We gone y’all, we gone
John McHale + Lawrence Alloway + Richard Hamilton: Growth and Form (exhibition) ICA, London 1951
Ben Laposky: Oscillons 1952
John Cage: 4’33” (Four minutes, 33 seconds) 1952
Harry Everett Smith: Complete Anthology of American Folk Music 1952
The polymathic Harry Everett Smith is an under-appreciated icon of the American post-war counter-culture. A very talented experimental film-maker, Smith was many other things, but his early love and inquiries were into the then still living oral tradition of Blues and other American folk music. A contemporary of the Beatnik writers and poets, and part of the first wave of counter culture film-makers, Everett Smith made a huge impact on the avant garde of San Francisco and New York. This anthology of songs included early recordings of the Carter Family, Mississippi John Hurt, Rev Gary Davis, Robert Johnson, Jimmie Rodgers, Uncle Dave Macon, Big Bill Broonzy, Furry Lewis, Blind Willie Johnson, Dock Boggs – and many others. Smith’s Anthology brought this century-old tradition to a new generation growing up in the 1950s. Preserving the songs of immigrants from all over Europe, as well as the American tradition Afro-American Gospel, Blues, and Folk-Blues, and the American pastoral-tradition , Everett Smith brought these classics of the folk repertoire to the generation that invented the folk/protest revolution of the early 1960s.
Grace Hopper: A-Compiler (1952) + Flow-Matic compiler-language (1955)
Isadore Isou: Lettrism works 1952-1964
Gordon Speedie Pask: Musicolour (1953)
Pask’s seminal role in devising both the theory and practice of creating interactive, synaesthetic, immersive responsive environments is under-reckonized – as early as 1953 the remarkable Musicolour was defining this territory, as A/V designer-researcher Russell Richards has pointed out in a recent paper (unpublished):
“The example is the Musicolour Machine, developed in from 1953 by Gordon Pask, using valves and analogue signals. This was a device designed for use in performance that responded to a musician’s notes to produce a range of colour effects but that also contained feedback loops (from Pask’s interests in cybernetics) that could respond to the playing by the musician in complex and conversational ways. The Musicolour Machine appeared in a number of venues, including a music hall, a theatre as part of a performance and a dance hall to varying degrees of success documented by Pask, and Pask and Susan Curran (Pask 1968, Pask and Curran 1982). The complexity of feedback and real-time responsiveness of the machine is, to this day, exceptional:
“Performers became addicted to Musicolour. By adjusting the filters it looked for variations on the status quo, that is any original tune, rhythm, key and so on, The status quo was established by adjusting complex oscillators so that they resonated with the performers. (Pask and Curran 1982, p. 144)” from Russell Richards: Responsive Environments (draft) 2016.
see also Gordon Speedie Pask & Susan Curran: Microman- Living and Growing with Computers (1982)
Samuel Beckett: Waiting for Godot A Tragicomedy in Two Acts 1953
Lawrence Ferlinghetti: City Lights Bookstore (1953) + Pictures from the Gone World (1955)
Dylan Thomas: Under Milk Wood (BBC radio recording by Richard Burton) 1954
Milton Glaser: Push Pin Studios (innovations in graphic design from 1954)
Charles and Ray Eames: Viewmaster Stereo Photographs 1955
Chuck Berry: Maybelline 1955
The legendary Chuck Berry has been with me all teenage-to-adult life – I must have heard Maybelline on Radio Luxembourg or AFN when I first listened to pop music in the late 1950s (I was ten when Maybelline was released) – by 1959, Chuck Berry, along with Fats Domino (Blueberry Hill), Buddy Holly (Maybe Baby), the Everly Brothers (Dream), Eddie Cochran (C’mon Everybody), Little Richard (Tutti Frutti) and of course Elvis (All Shook Up) and Carl Perkins (Honey Don’t) – had become part of the pantheon of Rock’n’Roll – part of the fabulous mix of tracks you listened to every night on your (bought from Woolworths) battery-powered trannie. Chuck Berry was one of the first of his generation to make his guitar-playing as central as his singing – and to integrate both into a staged performance.
Karlheinz Stockhausen: Gesang der Junglinge (Song of Youth) 1955
Erwin Blumenfeld: De Soto Fireflite 2-door Coupe 1955
Richard Hamilton + Independent Group: Man, Machine and Motion (exhibition) ICA London 1955
Aah – the essential Modernist cool of it! Hamilton is one of my favourite artists of the 1950s – 1960s decades, and this show, set in its three-dimensional space-frame grid shows why. He combines a very personal, very visual collection of materials relating to his topic with a very media-hip and stylish awareness of presentation and marketing, of media-processing and display, drawn from his intense interest and study of the latest advertising, fashion photography, graphic design and cinematographic media. Hamilton applied the same ‘design-science’ research approach to his paintings and sculpture – and to his collage, his prints and exhibitions throughout this period, later experimenting with image-processing, the Quantel paintbox, and other new media technologies…
(These images are from the 2014 memorial show at the ICA )
Nicholas Ray + James Dean: Rebel Without a Cause 1955
This movie crystallised James Dean’s image as a teen rebel. According to David Hajdu (in Positively 4th Street – the Lives and Times of Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Mimi Baez Farina and Richard Farina -2001 p47) Bob Dylan – the rebel icon of the 1960s – “He (Bob Dylan) went to Lybba Theatre (in Hibbing Minnesota) to watch Rebel Without A Cause at least four times, according to one of his high school friends, Bill Marinac. He cut out magazine pictures of its tortured young star, James Dean, and framed them in his bedroom, and he bought a red vinyl motorcycle jacket like the one Dean wears in the movie…”
And remember that this movie was made in the context of McCarthyism and after the Hollywood Ten blacklist and the general persecution of anyone espousing Un-American ideas. For example, Wikipedia: “In January 1954, a Gallup poll found that 50% of the American public supported McCarthy, while 29% had an unfavorable opinion of the senator.”
Little Richard: Tutti Frutti 1956
OK this is personal – my own discovery of the raw beauty and visceral stomping power of rock‘n’roll. You only get an inkling of the sexual energy of Little Richard in this rather stilted film clip from Don’t Knock the Rock (Fred Sears 1956) – performing to an all-white, WASP middle-class audience. Forget Bill Haley (though he appears briefly in this film) – a huckster who lucked into Rock and Roll from a showbiz dance band, and captured the headlines when the kids started getting interactive to his earlier film Rock Around the Clock (Fred Sears 1956). This was real rock’n’roll. Little Richard Penniman – alongside Jackie Brenston, Ike Turner, Fats Domino, Chuck Berry, and the young Elvis Presley – these were the progenitors and catalysers of Rock. Take a look at this:
Michael Anderson: 1984 1956
Richard Hamilton: Just what is it that makes Today’s Homes so Different, So Appealing? 1956
I bumped into Richard Hamilton at the Alexander Rodchenko show at Tate Modern a few years back – still as cool at 70+ as he was in the 1950s. And in many ways this collage is his definitive piece – it embraced his diverse interests in popular culture – American comics and pulp magazines, branding, advertisements, movies, television commercials, Las Vegas, California-style interior design – all viewed through his cool intellectual, media-savvy, omni-perspective.
Norman Mingo + Harvey Kurtzman: Alfred E. Neumann and MAD Magazine 1956
My knowledge of Gaine’s brilliant magazine comes not from the originals (I was too young to have discovered them when they were first published), but from the Ballantine, Signet, and Warner Paperback reprints that appeared from the late 1950s through the 1970s. You found these in second-hand book-stores, charity shops, specialist comic stores, jumble sales, car-boot sales. It was the style of drawing, the scatalogical content, visual spoofing, schoolboy low humour, satire and scurrilous fun of them that fascinated – especially the iterations of Norman Mingo’s iconic Alfred E. Neumann. For example, this is one of my favourites – the 1960 Signet Book Like MAD:
This was an early satire of the Beat movement as hilarious as George Canler and Walter Palamarchuk’s song I’m Hip (especially as recorded by Blossom Dearie):
I’m hip, I’m no square
I’m alert, I’m awake, I’m aware
I am always on the scene
Makin’ the rounds, diggin’ the sounds
I read Playboy magazine ’cause I’m hip
I dig, I’m in step
When it was hip to be hep, I was hep
I don’t blow but I’m a fan
Look at me swing, ring a ding ding
I even call my girlfriend ‘Man’, I’m so hip
Every Saturday night
With my suit buttoned tight and my suedes on
I’m gettin’ my kicks
Watchin’ Arty French flicks with my shades on
I’m too much I’m a gas
I am anything but middle class
When I hang around the band
Poppin’ my thumbs, diggin’ the drums
Squares don’t seem to understand
Why I flip, they’re not hip like I’m hip
I’m hip, I’m alive
I enjoy any joint where there’s jive
I’m on top of every trend
Look at me go vo dee o do
Bobby Darin knows my friend
I’m so hip
I’m hip but not weird
Like you notice, I don’t wear a beard
Beards were in but now they’re out
They had their day now they’re passe
Just ask me if you’re in doubt, ’cause I’m hip
(I’m Hip lyrics © Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC, THE BICYCLE MUSIC COMPANY)
John McHale + The Independent Group: This is Tomorrow page by John McHale (1956)
The Independent Group (the team that invented Pop Art) comprised a group of artists, theorists, and architects including Reyner Banham, Richard Hamilton, Nigel Henderson, Eduardo Paolozzi, Alison and Peter Smithson, William Turnbull, James Stirling, Colin StJohn Wilson, Lawrence Alloway and John McHale. I discovered Richard Hamilton and Eduardo Paolozzi first as an art student (Hamilton gave his detailed lecture on Duchamp’s Large Glass at Portsmouth College of Art in the mid-1960s). In the 1970s I discovered the books, essays and articles of Reyner Banham (he had a regular article in New Society and his Theory and Design in the Second Machine Age (1960) is a brilliantly concise account of modernist architecture), and later I discovered John McHale’s The Future of the Future (1969) and Nigel Henderson’s wonderful machine-age collages (such as Head of a Man 1956). David Robbins account The Independent Group – Post War Britain and the Aesthetics of Plenty (MIT 1990) is comprehensive, and Anne Morrisey‘s The Independent Group: Modernism and Mass Culture in Britain, 1945-1959 covers the seminal years.
see alo – John McHale: The Future of the Future (1969)
Frank Joseph Malina: Lumidyne kinetic artworks 1956
Nicholas Schoffer: CYSP-1 (CYbernetic SPatio-dynamique) + Lumino-Dynamique Tower 1956-57
Kees Boeke: Cosmic View – The Universe in 40 Jumps (1957)
I came to this book from a reference in Charles and Ray Eames book Powers of Ten (edited by Philip Morrison), derived from their film of the same name. And a bit later I found the book by Kees Boeke – a hand-drawn slender volume with simple graphics exploring Boeke’s idea of travelling through the universe in 40 jumps. Cosmic View – The Universe in 40 Jumps – clearly demonstrated that a book can be much more than (just) a vehicle for ideas expressed in words: – it can be a powerful visual conceptual tool for physically visualising a process – here giving us the dizzying experience of mentally jumping through space-time, and helping us to grasp the immensity of our universe. And Boeke does this largely with drawings!
USAF + Curtis LeMay: Strategic Air Command (SAC) Big Board display 1957
In the early 1960s the SAC big-board was greatly enhanced by the addition of realtime television coverage of updates and content-changes. SAC Big Board ‘where television facilities send up to the minute information to help commands.’ (c Feb 1961 – National Security Archive, George Washington University www.nsarchive.org
‘Underground Command Post II – “A new visual display system, designed to expedite command and control of [SAC’s] far-flung retaliatory force, is in operation …. Large screens [present] information on weather conditions, force deployment, aircraft and missiles, plus a multitude of other operational data, can be projected on the screens as desired to aid the commander in chief and his battle staffing making vital decisions promptly and accurately. Incoming data from a nearby battery of computers that link SAC’s global network of bases can be processed and projected for viewing within 30 seconds.” Circa February 1961″ (c Feb 1961 – National Security Archive, George Washington University www.nsarchive.org)
Stan Vanderbeek: Breath Death (1963) and Photo-Collage from 1957
Breath Death is a cinematographic essay in filmic adventure that merges live-action, montage, stills-collage, realtime manipulation, drawing on film, memento mori, politics, Hollywood stars and silent clips, mirrors, reflections, negative and positive prints, movie, stills and expressionist drawing, solarisation, cut-outs, and much else in a feast of avant garde technique, strung together in an allusive film-poem by Vanderbeek.
Jack Kerouac: On the Road 1957
When I was 15 (in 1960), me and my mates thought: OK, we knew something was happening. We know it was something to do with beats, with ‘modern’ jazz, folk-music, blues and rock’n’roll; the secret listening identification with Radio Luxemburg and AFN; something to do with the buzz of the Aldermaston Marches and protest movements like the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND); something to do with rebellious fashion and hair; something to do with the existentialists like Camus and Sartre; a lot to do with the excitement of being 15, and gasping at the potential of life – and a lot to do with girls, friends and social-life too. And it was Kerouac and the Beat poets and writers (Ferlinghetti, Corso, Ginsberg, Burroughs) who were our spiritual and lifestyle mentors (we wore ‘beat’ charity-store clothes, grew our hair long, hitch-hiked everywhere) and our exemplars for the new culture…
Morton Heilig: Sensorama 1957
From the very beginning of the Movies there were two strands of audience engagement – the projected large-screen, cinema mode for multiple viewers; and the Kinetoscope and Mutoscope devices for a personal viewer experience. By its very nature the latter lends itself to personal interactive experiences, total immersion and engagement in the movie experience, and – what Heilig demonstrates here so well – a synaesthetic, immersive, and interactive experience.
This is what make Sensorama an important stepping-stone in the expanded cinema – a pointer to future, augmented-realities and virtual reality experiences – and Heilig was producing this some two decades or so before arcade videogame designers began to explore this territory. We have Howard Rheingold’s brilliant Virtual Reality (1991) to thank for first-hand information about Heilig – including an extensive interview.
Kevin Kelly explores the potential of mass-audience interaction (interaction for cinema audiences) in the section Hive Minds in his book Out of Control (1994), where he covers the work of Loren Carpenter. Carpenter designed a simple audience-interaction system that he calls Cinematrix (1994) – that is sophisticated enough to allow several hundred people to control a projected flight simulation – without any centralised control! (Kelly Out of Control – The New Biology of Machines 1994 (pps 8-11)
Loren Carpenter: Cinematrix cinema-audience interaction 1994
Allen Ginsberg: Howl 1957
As the failures of the military-industrial status quo (Eisenhower’s description) rocket out of control into a global cold-war nuclear stand-off, America is riven by virulent anti-communism and even a strong strand of WASP repulsion of Judaism – a repulsion that included homo-sexuals, counter-culture artists, the Beat writers – anyone with a beard – in fact anyone who wasn’t 100% white-anglo-saxon protestant and totally all-American, the schism between the new generation, critical of the terrible geo-political mess we had got into – from war-time allies to cold-war enemies inside a decade, the horrors of mutually assured destruction (appropriately, the acronym was MAD) – and the status quo was punctuated by public trials or vendettas – of Ginsberg, of Lenny Bruce, of Dalton Trumbo, of Joseph Losey, of Sacco and Vanzetti, – of left-wingers and proto-communists in the House Un-American Activities trials – Orson Welles, and many others were forced out of Hollywood at this time – blacklisted by ultra-right wingers like Ronald Reagan.
Vance Packard: The Hidden Persuaders 1957
US and Canada Air Defence (NORAD): DEWLIne early warning system 1957
Harry Everett Smith: Mirror Animations 1957
Take a look at the range and diversity of the techniques used by Everett Smith in this Mirror Animations (below). He paints on film, uses cel-animated drawing, shoots stop-motion, orchestrates coloured paper, paper cut-outs, painted back-grounds, animated still photographs, pre-Stan Vanderbeek-style animated collage, – and much more, integrating Smith’s interests in occult religious symbolism and spirituality, American Indian folklore, jazz, folk music, divination – the spectrum of interests that was to come to characterise the counter-culture a decade later.
Chuck Jones: What’s Opera Doc? 1957
Stan Vanderbeek: Science Friction 1957
Buddy Holly: That’ll Be The Day 1956-7
Leonard Bernstein + Stephen Sondheim: West Side Story 1957
Of course, the image I’ve included above is from the 1960 film-musical version of the West Side Story, directed by Robert Wise – showing Richard Beymer and Natalie Wood in the lead roles. This is well worth seeing again – the cine-choreography, narrative story and individual set pieces for the various components of the story.
This, unfortunately rather clunky collection of clips from the original stage production of West Side Story, Broadway, New York. See the 1984 ‘Making of’ documentary:
Lejaren Hiller + Leonard Issacson + ILLIAC mainframe computer: The Illiac Suite 1957
For sound samples and detailed analysis of The Illiac Suite, see http://www.musicainformatica.org/topics/illiac-suite.php
Ray Johnson: Mail Art (from 1958)
Jules Feiffer: Sick Sick Sick 1958
Samuel B. Charters: The Country Blues 1959 + Huddie Ledbetter (Leadbelly)
Victor Vasarely: Vega III 1959 + Composition Cinétique 1997
I discovered Vasarely at the Tate’s 54-64 Painting and Sculpture of a Decade exhibition in 1964 – a first-year art-student, this was the first show where I bought the catalogue, and discovered the immediate background to my Diploma in Art and Design (Dip AD) course at Portsmouth Art College. Vasarely’s work had the most visceral cognitive impact, warping the vision and creating all kinds of perceptual artefacts (black and white spaces appeared where they weren’t painted). I had already delved into Gombrich’s famous Art and Illusion book (1960) in the college library, and developed a taste for this kind of experimental, psycho-kinetic art (becoming fascinated by Duchamp’s Rotary Demisphere too). Later, in the mid-1960s, Vasarely and Riley’s op art imagery was co-opted by couture designers like Kenzo, Rudi Gernreich and Nina Ricci.
Allan Kaprow:18 Happenings in Six Parts 1959 + How to Make A Happening (1966)
Happenings were happening (as it were) in the 1960s, and by 1967, writing a degree thesis on the Gesamptkunstwerk, I discovered Al Hansen’s A Primer of Happenings & Time/Space Art (1965), corresponded with Kaprow’s close contemporary Stan Vanderbeek (who invented the Movie-Drome/Dome and held multimedia immersive events there), and a little later (1974) discovered that Adrian Henri (he of the Mersey Sound poets) had compiled his history of this intermedia art in his book ‘Environments and Happenings’. Later in life, the fascination for me of the Happening came to be the realisation that it was strangely an example of a pre-digital methodology – an algorithmic (scripted structure), the use of mixed media (multimedia), immersive intent, interactive participation, using chance – in other words, Happenings, following the scripted events and musical performances of John Cage, Dick Higgins and Nam June Paik, and the events organised by Billy Kluver and Robert Rauschenberg in their EAT (Experiments in Art and Technology) developments, were a direct analog precedent of the digital interactive art installations and performances that were to follow the 1980s… Kaprow was developing this art form precisely during the period when the theories, and the hardware and software of the future was being developed (Licklider’s Man-Computer Symbiosis, Jay Wright Forrester’s Systems Dynamics, computers, packet-switching and computer networks, etc) – there is this strange coincidence of a what Arthur Koestler called a ‘synchronicity’ in art and in science…
Arthur Samuel: machine learning algorithms 1959
Annie Ross: Loguerhythms – Songs from the Establishment LP 1963 + A Gasser! (with Zoot Sims) 1959