Rachel Price on Waldemar Cordeiro’s Computer Art

On March 15, 2018, Rachel Price, Associate Professor, Department of Spanish and Portuguese, Princeton University, visited MoMA to discuss the work of Waldemar Cordeiro, whose computer output drawing Gente Ampli*2 (1972) was then on view in the exhibition Thinking Machines: Art and Design in the Computer Age, 1959-1989. Price has extensively researched and written on Cordeiro’s work, exploring the material and cultural transformations of his aesthetic production, which shifts from his involvement with Concrete Art in São Paulo (of which he was one of the central artists, critics, and curators), to landscape design, a unique take on Pop Art through his “Popcretos,” and his final 1970s experiments with computer art. Cordeiro’s 1970s works were produced while Brazil was ruled by a military dictatorship that was skilled and innovative in its manipulation of mass media to control society and manage dissent. Within this context, Cordeiro—collaborating with the University of São Paulo physicist Giorgio Moscati—created a new art form that approached both images from contemporary news events and art historical icons through algorithmic computation. As Price makes clear, Cordeiro’s shifting modes and techniques of production were fueled by the political circumstances of his time, and accompanied by his prescient awareness of the changes in art and society that would be wrought by computational tools.

Waldemar Cordeiro. Gente Ampli*2. 1972. Computer output on paper. 52 15/16 x 28 9/16″ (134.5 x 72.5 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Latin American and Caribbean Fund, 2016. © 2018 Waldemar Cordeiro

Giampaolo Bianconi: Before we start this conversation, I just want to give a brief introduction to this exhibition, which is called Thinking Machines: Art and Design in the Computer Age, 1959–1989. This show is drawn almost exclusively from the Museum’s collection, and traces the relationship between art, computers, and computational thinking from the late 1950s to the late 1980s—before the Internet. One of the threads in the exhibition is how artists used computation to reconsider artistic production, and when my colleague Sean Anderson, Associate Curator in the Department of Architecture and Design, and I were putting together the exhibition, one of the first works we knew we wanted to include was this computer output drawing by Waldemar Cordeiro. That is, of course, in part because of Rachel’s scholarship around Cordeiro’s work, so it’s great that she’s here today to talk about this piece. Cordeiro is a really interesting figure because he approaches computation as an artist who really has no background in it, having a very different aesthetic origin. I’m wondering, Rachel, if maybe just to kick things off, you could tell us a little bit about where Cordeiro came from as an artist, and how he came to work with a computer in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Rachel Price: First of all, thanks for inviting me and thank you all for being here. Waldemar Cordeiro was born in Rome to an Italian mother and a Brazilian father. He studied in Rome in his early twenties, and he had a traditional art training. He moved to Brazil in 1946 and began doing quite typical figurative painting. Then, in the 1950s, he joined a group of avant-garde Brazilian artists called Grupo Ruptura. These artists cast aside their training and instead embraced geometric abstraction and concrete painting—or painting based on form, line, and color, rather than depictions of the natural world.

He moved through concretism and had a long and pretty distinguished career in Brazil as a concrete and then neo-concrete artist. It was only toward the end of his career—he died in 1973—that he started turning to proto-digital art as an extension of what he saw as concrete principles. Even though it was early computer art, he imagined it to be the natural progression from working with geometric forms.

Installation view of Thinking Machines: Art and Design in the Computer Age, 1959-1989. The Museum of Modern Art, New York, November 13, 2017–April 8, 2018. © 2017 The Museum of Modern Art. Photo: Peter Butler
Installation view of Thinking Machines: Art and Design in the Computer Age, 1959-1989. The Museum of Modern Art, New York, November 13, 2017–April 8, 2018. © 2017 The Museum of Modern Art. Photo: Peter Butler
Installation view of Thinking Machines: Art and Design in the Computer Age, 1959-1989. The Museum of Modern Art, New York, November 13, 2017–April 8, 2018. © 2017 The Museum of Modern Art. Photo: Peter Butler

GB: The relationship between his earlier work in concrete art and his later computational works, like this one, is really important. This drawing, which is called Gente Ampli*2 (Amplified People 2), is one of a large series of computer output drawings that Cordeiro made at this time. He made them all, as I understand it, based on images circulating in the media, in magazines and newspapers, which he translated into art. I’m wondering if you can talk a little bit about the process that he used to make these works.

RP: I think there are two important components to consider when thinking about these images. One is his choice of photography. The second is the process that he and Giorgio Moscati, a scientist at the University of São Paulo, used to produce the images.

In a way, photography was a surprising choice for Cordeiro because he was so opposed to representation. He wanted art to be its own thing. In the late ’60s, he became interested in the role of mass media, politically and aesthetically, to shape the way we see the world. He started appropriating photographs from advertisements and from the news in the moment after 1964, when Brazil was experiencing a military dictatorship and authoritarian regime, which made the manipulation of mass media even more important. At that point, Cordeiro began using newspaper images, and then manipulating them—not yet digitally, but rather using materials such as water or objects such as magnifying glasses to shape the images and distort them. But it was this interest in distorting images that Cordeiro brought to the first digital images that he made with Moscati. Rather than approach their collaboration as a scientist helping an artist to realize his vision, Cordeiro and Moscati were both determined to learn each other’s field. Cordeiro would have Moscati go to all the art openings that he was going to and help him to understand what was happening in visual arts, while he, in turn, was trying to learn the processes for digitizing.

It was an early period in computer science. They had to use a computer in the physics department at the University of São Paulo, which Moscati was using to process information for his own physics research, and they used punch cards to program it. In this exhibition, there’s another piece that you can look at that connects punch cards with textile production [Beryl Korot’s Text and Commentary (1976—77)]. Punch cards were used in the nineteenth century to operate industrial looms, and they were still used in the 20th century with large computers. It was a very laborious process because Cordeiro had to hand-input every dot making up the layers of figures in the final output. He had to decide how dark each spot would be, and then input that information by hand.

GB: Cordeiro used a numbering system of one to six to determine the lighter and darker areas on the image, correct? Then those were represented as characters. You’ve discussed this work as an early example of what today is called ASCII art, where images are represented by keyboard characters.

RP: Yes. If you come up closer to look at these, you can see the different letters he layered to create the image. As you can see, he used the letter H a lot. 

GB: From farther away, you can see that this image represents a crowd of people—according to the artist’s daughter—at a protest at the University of São Paulo in the early 1970s. Rachel, I want to ask you about the relationship, as it were, in this work between the pixel and the character.

Is there a relationship between the form that Cordeiro invented, for all intents and purposes, to create this work and his earlier understanding of concrete aesthetics, and especially of concrete poetry, where text is used in an abstracted manner?

RP: It’s interesting because he was very much a part of the world of the concrete poets in Brazil in the 1950s and ’60s. The concrete painters and sculptors were very much in collaboration with concrete poets. He was in contact with them. Cordeiro’s first computer piece with Moscati, called Beabá, is in fact a generation of plausible but not actual Portuguese words based on the frequency of certain syllables or sounds in Portuguese. It reminds me of Alison Knowles’s computerized poem The House of Dust, which is also in this exhibition. But Beabá is a kind of concrete poem or digital poem where the computer generated its own combination of phonemes or sounds.

Cordeiro’s interest in language, I think, came much more from an information-theory perspective. He read a lot of information theory, cybernetic theory that was being produced at MIT at the time. He came to play with language more from questions about information processing than from a history in lyric poetry, although the concrete poets were also interested in cybernetics and information theory.

GB: The relationship to information theory is quite interesting. Earlier you said that Cordeiro conceived of these works as interfering with the image, or adding noise to the image. He saw these as retinal games or exercises in a way, much like how he saw the concrete art that he had been engaged with before.

RP: He was really interested in what you could do to an image, what could be done to an image. It’s interesting that he uses the word algorithmic already in that period to describe the algorithmic logic of images. For example, he attempted to digitize—he mainly used photographs of crowds and people, but he also used images of famous art and historical icons, like a Goya, for example. He thought that if he processed the Goya, he would arrive at its algorithmic logic. There was some truth in the image that could be decoded and recoded. That was something that I think he tried to do with these. He tried to preserve something of the image, but also to push it to its limits in terms of legibility.

Conversation between Giampaolo Bianconi and Rachel Price on March 15, 2018 in Thinking Machines: Art and Design in the Computer Age, 1959-1989. The Museum of Modern Art, New York, November 13, 2017–April 8, 2018. © 2017 The Museum of Modern Art
Conversation between Giampaolo Bianconi and Rachel Price on March 15, 2018 in Thinking Machines: Art and Design in the Computer Age, 1959-1989. The Museum of Modern Art, New York, November 13, 2017–April 8, 2018. © 2017 The Museum of Modern Art
Conversation between Giampaolo Bianconi and Rachel Price on March 15, 2018 in Thinking Machines: Art and Design in the Computer Age, 1959-1989. The Museum of Modern Art, New York, November 13, 2017–April 8, 2018. © 2017 The Museum of Modern Art
Conversation between Giampaolo Bianconi and Rachel Price on March 15, 2018 in Thinking Machines: Art and Design in the Computer Age, 1959-1989. The Museum of Modern Art, New York, November 13, 2017–April 8, 2018. © 2017 The Museum of Modern Art
Conversation between Giampaolo Bianconi and Rachel Price on March 15, 2018 in Thinking Machines: Art and Design in the Computer Age, 1959-1989. The Museum of Modern Art, New York, November 13, 2017–April 8, 2018. © 2017 The Museum of Modern Art

GB: At the same time, Cordeiro had a very advanced read on the information era in which he was living.

RP: One reason that Cordeiro has recently become of such interest is because he was so prescient about contemporary society. He died in 1973, but he was writing before he died about the world being in a post-Fordist era in which electronic transmission is more important than industrialism. This is surprising especially because he was looking at São Paulo, which was experiencing an industrial boom at that time. But he was already seeing beyond this. And he was interested in the way in which information was being processed collectively through distributed computers. Each individual computer was too small to handle the information, and so computers would be scattered throughout the world, and the information would be partially processed in each of the different locales. You can also see this as proto–Internet information sharing.

He was attentive to this phenomenon. He was trying to put his own work in conversation with it. Then he wrote some essays extending his idea to a vision of how we should understand society today. He also mentioned that the way in which the United States and Europe are structured has created a global society of consumption. This was the ’70s. There was an environmental consciousness beginning, one that the world couldn’t keep up with. That it was incumbent upon Latin America, Asia, and Africa to develop another form of production and consumption.

GB: His interest in networks was something that he enacted as part of his career as an artist. In part, he was related to the New Tendencies group, which, operating in Yugoslavia, was focused on the potential for the relationship between computation and art. What was the extent of his relationship with New Tendencies?

RP: Cordeiro’s relationship to New Tendencies was more minimal than that of his peer, the Brazilian artist Almir Mavignier, who moved to Germany, studied at the Ulm School of Design, and stayed there. Mavignier was also involved in the New Tendencies group. He was much more consistently involved. As far as I know, Cordeiro went to Germany and exhibited there, but I don’t think he had an ongoing conversation with the New Tendencies group. Though I could be wrong about that.

GB: One other question I wanted to ask you—you mentioned his relationship to environmentalism and ecological crisis. Cordeiro, before he made these works, had worked as a landscape architect. How do you see the relationship between not just his career as a concrete artist, but also his later interest in the information economy and computational forms of production, dovetailing with his work as a designer of urban space?

RP: His work as a landscape artist and architect was interesting, because in some ways it was a way of making a living, and in other ways, it was also very much a part of the conversation of concrete art in the period. The most famous landscape architect is, of course, Roberto Burle Marx. He had made landscape architecture part of the conversation of concrete poetry and neo-concrete aesthetics in general. It was not strange that an artist should be working in this field.

What was interesting about Cordeiro’s approach was that he was not interested in making his landscapes organic, as was another tendency at the time. Instead, he was really adamant about keeping it different than nature. He said landscape architecture should not imitate nature. It should do its own thing, which is very much what he wanted his concrete art to do. There’s another interesting flip side of that, which is that he was interested in nature as being a part of this question of the digital. For example, he was interested in the geometry of leaves. He was also interested, in terms of his digital art, in the ways in which the body transmits or processes electronic signals like computers do. He actually saw the body as being much more aligned with computation than divorced from it. Both are a rejection of one version of romantic nature, but an acceptance of the digital nature of nature.

Conversation between Giampaolo Bianconi and Rachel Price on March 15, 2018 in Thinking Machines: Art and Design in the Computer Age, 1959-1989. The Museum of Modern Art, New York, November 13, 2017–April 8, 2018. © 2017 The Museum of Modern Art

GB: That embodied relationship to information is something that you see not just in his labor to produce these works—which is very physical and involved, and somehow contrary to the way in which we interface with the descendants of these machines today—but also in the reception or perception of these works by the viewer.

RP: Because of the dictatorship, which has historically been associated with shrewd manipulation of the mass media, he was very interested in intervening with mass media, but he wanted to do something different than the authoritarian news was doing. He was appealing to people’s relationship to the image, and especially to the image of the human form. Although he had rejected human representation in his earlier career, he embraced it in his computer art. When I spoke with Moscati, he said computer art was so incipient in 1969, in 1970, that in a way Cordeiro had to embrace it, and this is Moscati’s interpretation. It may not have been Cordeiro’s. Moscati said that, in a way, it was necessary to bring something from the realm of human representation to the table so that it would be recognized as art.

GB: In a different direction, I’m wondering if there’s anything you can tell us about the reception of these works at the time. I know that you’ve written about the exhibitions of electronic art that Cordeiro organized in São Paulo while he was working on these. How were these works received? Did they influence artists who worked at the time or later on? I know that Eduardo Kac has written very appreciatively to you about this.

RP: I don’t know much about the reception in Brazil. I’ve read international reviews, which are appreciative of this play with legibility and illegibility. That was something that seemed to distinguish the work of Cordeiro and Moscati from that of other people. I think it was recognized that they were playing with the question of what the eye can perceive and process. This came out of interest that Moscati had as a physicist. In a way, it began with Cordeiro, and Eduardo Kac is probably the most famous person working today to recognize him as a forebear.

GB: Finally, I want to ask you a little bit more about this relationship between Cordeiro and Moscati. I think something you see in a number of the works in this exhibition—when artists are working with computers—is that there are a few different approaches to interfacing with the machine. One is that you yourself are a computer programmer who uses those skills to make art. Someone like Charles Csuri is an an example of that. Or another is that you are an artist who works with these machines through a human interface, meaning another person who knows how to work the machine and can help you to accomplish your art using it.

By all accounts, Cordeiro and Moscati had a very different relationship with intermediaries than a lot of other artists. I’m wondering if you can tell us a little bit more about that and how, if at all, it went on to influence Moscati’s own work?

RP: As I said before, they tried to think of their collaboration not as one of them assisting the other, but rather both of them creating the ideas together. For instance, the question of legibility and how much they were going to distort an image, or a derivative, as they called it, which refers to the process they used. They have a series called Derivatives of an Image. They would make their decisions together and then discuss the implications of them together. I spoke with Moscati a few years ago about some of the motivations—and you can speak to him today about them. He’s very conversant about what was going on in Brazil at the time and about what was going on in concrete poetry, about what was new in concrete art. He really came to understand Cordeiro’s motivations in a larger landscape of thought.

GB: Today when we think about the legibility of an image made by a machine, we might think about a machine that can itself read an image, such as facial recognition software, or the equipment employed by a surveillance state. These, too, were among the ideas that Cordeiro was grappling with at the time he made these.

RP: They were interested in how the brain processes an image and how long it takes to process an image. Some of that same thinking has been behind research on, for example, the human ability to detect something amiss in the field of vision. The brain bypasses conscious recognition and instead perceives something more subliminal. That notion of bypassing what we consciously perceive in order to get at some automatic reception is something they were interested in. Maybe they were interested in the technology that’s now being used for certain kinds of surveillance.

Waldemar Cordeiro. The Woman Who is Not B.B. (A mulher que não é B.B.). 1971, printed 1973. Offset lithograph. 18 x 11 15/16″ (45.7 x 30.4 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of Luiz Paulo Montenegro and Analivia Cordeiro, São Paulo

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