On the Death of Frank Popper

Frank Popper photographed by the author in 2006

By JOSEPH NECHVATAL, July 2020 

The acclaimed art historian Frank Popper passed away on Sunday July 12, 2020 in Lugano, Switzerland at the age of 102. As made clear in my 2003 interview of Frank Popper, anyone interested in the historical record of the juncture of art and technology finds Frank nearly unaccompanied when it comes to documenting the historical record between the years of the late-1960’s up to the early 1990s. Basically there is Jack Burnham’s book Beyond Modem Sculpture (1968), Gene Youngblood’s reference work Expanded Cinema (1970) and Frank’s books Origins and Development of Kinetic Art (1968), Art, Action and Participation (1975) and Art of the Electronic Age (1993). All are indispensable research tools in tracking how art has become, in Frank’s term, virtualized. 

Frank’s techno-humanist attitude for art was originally informed by the thought of philosophers like Nietzsche, Hegel, and Adorno and the literature of Franz Kafka, Jaroslav Hasek, Elias Canetti, Vladimir Nabokoff and Primo Levi. These authors anticipated or described, each one in their own manner, the basic events that made up 20th century tragedy - a tragedy that combined bureaucratic obsession, widespread persecution and outright murder with the misuse of technology. For Popper, technological and virtual tools provided the substructure from which important art emerged.

In his books Origins and Development of Kinetic Art and Art, Action and Participation, Frank showed how Kinetic Art played an important part in pioneering the unambiguous use of optical movement and in fashioning links between science, technology and art relating to the notion of the environment. This expanded approach led Frank into showing how technology is – or can be – humanized through art in his last book: From Technological to Virtual Art, published by MIT Press. I was fortunate to have worked with Frank closely on it. This was his long awaited update of the art and technology component in art – an increasingly important factor in that technological-informational change is consistently cited as the splintering element which instigated mainstream modernism mutating into what has been called, for lack of a better term, postmodernism. So, it is illuminating to study Frank’s intellectual evolution and how he saw the technological influence in art arriving at what he called the virtual situation. 

Key to Frank’s initial thinking and activities as an aesthetician, art theorist, art exhibition organizer, teacher, and art critic was his encounter in the early 1950s with the kinetic artist (and author of the book Constructivism), George Rickey. Specifically, Frank’s discovery of the subtle technical movements in Rickey’s mobile sculptures. Subsequently Frank encountered the artists Nicholas Schöffer and Frank Malina, whose works were based on some first or second hand scientific knowledge. Also Op Art in the early-1960s had a powerful effect on him. Indeed, Op proved to be a strong predecessor to what he calls Virtual Art in that Op Art called attention to the spectator’s individual, constructive, and changing perceptions. And thus called upon the attitude of the spectator to transfer the creative act increasingly upon him or herself. Op beckons forth a consideration of the enlargement of the audience’s normal participation; both in regard to the spectator’s ocular aptitude to instigate variations in the perceived optic, as well as his or her capability to produce kinetic and aggregate exchanges on or within the work of art itself. Frank’s personal encounters in Paris with the GRAV group, Carlos Cruz-Diez, Yaacov Agam, Jesus-Rafael Soto and Victor Vasarely proved to have had a substantial impact on his view of art and art history.

Following this inclination, Frank took interest in the works of Piotr Kowalski, Roy Ascott and many others working with the early concept of networking. These artists confirmed his interest in spectator participation, which brought him to the late 1980s and the 1990s when virtual art began to establish itself. To explain and illustrate the globalization of virtuality and the emergence of a techno-aesthetic, Frank in his last book stressed the panoramic and multi-generational aspects of virtual art by tracking its present condition and historical roots. As regards virtual art, openness is stressed both from the point of view of the artists and their creativity and from that of the follow-up users in their reciprocating thoughts and actions. The point Frank made in From Technological to Virtual Art is that this openness implies a certain amount of liberty and freedom for action and creation but not at all a radical destruction of what came before. This commitment to the teeming openness found in virtual art can be traced to the theories of Umberto Eco and other aestheticians as regards the openness of the work of art. 

Technically speaking, virtual art, according to Frank, includes all the art made with the technical media developed at the end of the 1980s (or a bit before, in some cases). One of its aspects, at the time, was that interfaces through which exchanges passed between human and computer - for example: visualization casks, stereoscopic spectacles and screens, generators of three-dimensional sound, data gloves, data clothes, position sensors, tactile and power feed-back systems - allowed us to immerse ourselves completely into the image and interact with it. The impression of reality under these conditions was not only provided by vision and hearing, but also by the other bodily senses. This multiple sensing was so intensely experienced by Frank that he spoke of it as a form of virtual reality. Thus his use of the word “virtual” (for art) signified that he was in the presence not only of reality, but also of the simulation of reality in the communications landscape. Yet his analysis differed radically from the then typical French apocalyptic-chic negativisms of Paul Virilio and Jean Baudrillard.

Aesthetically speaking, virtual art, as Frank saw it, is the artistic interpretation of the contemporary issues of communications, not only with the aid of the above mentioned technological developments but through their integration with them. Such an integration - or combination - allows for an aesthetic-technological logic of creation that forms the essential part of the specificity of virtual art. He was here close to Edmond Couchot’s interpretation of virtuality as a power opposed to the actual, but whose function, technologically speaking, is a way of being (un mode d’être) connected to a digital simulation which can lead towards a certain expression of the subjectivity of the operator. This ontological tendency of virtual art can be clearly observed in the works of a good number of artists described in Frank’s MIT book (full disclosure, that includes his thoughts on my Computer Virus Project). As Frank saw it, virtual art can play an ethical role in the present development of a better globalization by stressing more than any other previous art form post-human factors.  

The virtual model for art that Frank observed and proposed has epistemological, ontological and ethical connotations that allowed him to better understand the multiple existential changes that our society underwent during the first wave of globalization. He did not believe, as many technophiles did and do, that digital technology was making him (or us) less human (and more machine-like), but rather he adhered to a trans-human attitude based on artistic psychological strategies contrived to break through old humanist perceptions. Frank’s notion of the human was not linked to the classical heroic ideas stemming from the Greeks and Romans. Rather, his techno-humanist notion symbolized for him basic human needs and achievements in the digital world. This did not preclude, for him, the idea of wider - even universal – issues, as he took into consideration the artistic needs for human survival. WM 

 

Joseph Nechvatal

Joseph Nechvatal is an artist whose computer-robotic assisted paintings and computer software animations are shown regularly in galleries and museums throughout the world. In 2011 his book Immersion Into Noise was published by the University of Michigan Library's Scholarly Publishing Office in conjunction with the Open Humanities Press. He exhibited in Noise, a show based on his book, as part of the Venice Biennale 55, and is artistic director of the Minóy Punctum Book/CD project.

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