interview – Text by Anika Meier – 11.11.2023
HERBERT W. FRANKE'S ART 2.0: A LIFE IN SEARCH OF NEW TECHNOLOGIES FOR ART
INTERVIEW WITH SUSANNE PÄCH
EXPANDED.ART, PROOF, and Foundation Herbert W. Franke are proud to present ZENTRUM, an auction and physical exhibition at EXPANDED.ART in Berlin (October 2023) and at the Foundry in Los Angeles (November 2023), in celebration of the impactful work of artist, scientist, and science fiction writer Herbert W. Franke.
Susanne Päch, Franke's wife, worked with Art Blocks' Director of Engineering and artist Aaron Penne to translate the original ZENTRUM code for the 2023 release. Aaron then simulated the aesthetics of the surface of a CRT monitor similar to the Apple II that Franke used. With the help of Art Blocks Engine, Frankes code will be transformed into a 200-piece series of generative works. In conversation with Anika Meier, Päch discusses Franke's thoughts about art and technology, his early computer programs such as ZENTRUM and MONDRIAN, and the work of the Foundation Herbert W. Franke.
Franke purchased an Apple II when it had just come onto the German market. He was immediately fascinated by the possibilities offered by this personal programming machine. This marked a turning point in his creative work. In 1982, Franke developed the code ZENTRUM for his first home computer. It is one of the first programs that he wrote himself using the programming language Basic. ZENTRUM is a dynamic, endlessly running abstract animation made of structural elements and random codes. The random generator ensures that each endless loop is unique, and is made with Franke’s original code from 1982. 200 ZENTRUM artworks will be released through a public exponential Dutch Auction with a rebate. PROOF Collective holders who participate in the auction will receive an additional 5% discount on successful bids. The auction begins 21 November 2023 at 9AM PST.
Herbert W. Franke (1927–2022) was a pivotal figure in bridging the gap between art and science. He was a scientist, author of science fiction, curator, mathematician, physicist, speleologist, and co-founder of Ars Electronica. Franke has been called "the most prominent German science fiction writer" by Die Zeit.
Anika Meier: Susanne, you spent 40 years of your life with Herbert. How did you meet?
Susanne Päch: We met in 1979 at the Goldmann summer festival, which was very popular at the time. I don't know if that still exists today. Probably not.
Several hundred people, including many authors, journalists, and friends of the house, met there. I was still a student, and I was still writing my doctorate at the time. My professor of the history of astronomy took me to this festival. At that time, he had translated some historical novels and stories by scientists from Russian for Goldmann and Heyne, e.g., the novel by the rocket pioneer Konstantin Tsiolkovsky. We sat down at a table where, among others, the then editor of the Heyne series, Wolfgang Jeschke, and the BR radio drama director Dieter Hasselblatt were sitting, all of Herbert's good acquaintances. But then Herbert was only interested in me at that table, and that was mutual.
AM: Today, Herbert is called a pioneer. He is one of the most important pioneers in the history of digital art, alongside Vera Molnár, Frieder Nake, and Manfred Mohr. What do you consider to be Herbert's most important achievement?
SP: Herbert consciously did not seek self-realization as an artist. He was looking for the creative potential of technology. He looked at art from the other side—from the side of science.
In my opinion, this is exactly what led, for a long time, even in those art circles that deal with media or computers, to a great deal of incomprehension about the meaning of his works. He was seen as a scientist, but not so much as an artist. What is true is that he listened to what the technologies and machines told him. But isn't it also art when you combine these findings symbiotically with your own creativity? In this respect, there is no recognizable artistic signature of Herbert W. Franke; that was not the aim of his work at all. That was always Art 2.0: The artist is no longer in charge alone; innovative methods and machines are actively involved.
AM: What was the reaction at the time to Herbert's works that he created with technology?
SP: I still like to say: The best thing that could have happened to Herbert was disinterested disregard, because when there was public interest from the art scene, it was usually a "beating". Herbert has occasionally told the story of how his mentor, the art historian Franz Roh, at the art school in Ulm enabled him to give a lecture at the famous Ottl Aicher Institute. The goal was to get a job. That went completely wrong. The entire auditorium with all professors attended the talk, but no one dared to say anything at the end of the talk. Everyone was waiting for the master. After long seconds of silence, which must have seemed like an eternity to Herbert, Aicher stood up and said something like, "What you are doing with electrons is certainly interesting, but it is not art. Art needs something to touch."
Later, Herbert always waved his hands a little wildly in the air when he told the story and came to Aicher's statement: "Art needs something you can touch." He imitated Aicher, who probably wanted to imply that electrons are simply not tangible and therefore cannot be understood artistically. With that, the verdict was reached.
In passing, I would like to mention the topic of reactions: After all, while gradually working through the extensive archive, I have now found a few old newspaper clippings, including a review of Herbert's then-largely ignored book ART AND CONSTRUCTION from 1957. It appeared in Die Welt, and I find it really remarkable. The author, who is obviously well versed in art history, feels quite surprised that someone wants to make art with machines, but he gives a positive conclusion in his final sentence: "Franke's ART AND CONSTRUCTION is a remarkable confrontation of abstract art with exact mathematical thinking and with discoveries of the lens." He meant the camera, of course.
AM: As you say, Herbert’s book ART AND CONSTRUCTION was published in 1957. You are currently working on publishing the English translation. The artist and blockchain pioneer Kevin Abosch writes the foreword. When I read the book again in 2022 after visiting Herbert and you in the spring, I thought the book could also be from 2022. What has changed since 1957?
SP: Abstract art has developed further since then, and so has mechanical art, of course. Some of what was new back then has long since become convention. In fact, the digital world with its machines has become the heart of our civilization. The fact that you can make art with electrons is no longer worth discussing. The debate has now shifted to the next generation, where blockchain has emerged as a new technological development. The public today does not understand technology with its cryptocurrencies, and so the artists who use them are also judged critically. Innovators in art are never duly respected in their time.
AM: Herbert and you began to be interested in blockchain and NFTs a few years ago. You have thought about which projects can be published. You chose MATH ART first. What interests you about blockchain and NFTs?
SP: Well, first of all, of course, the technology. Herbert spent his entire life searching for innovative methods and machines whose aesthetic potential he wanted to explore experimentally. The blockchain was something like that. There is a quote that I also published on the Foundation Herbert W. Franke's website. I asked Herbert several years ago to write something like this as a summary of his life for the biographical page. It actually says it all.
"I started with programmed and mechanical visual art in the 1950s and have moved from analog to digital computers, from mechanical plotters to high-resolution screens, from black and white to extensive color palettes, from two to three dimensions, and also from static images to animation and interactivity—because the advancement of technology allowed me to use such methods."
AM: The release of MATH ART was a huge success. You were there then, as you were with all the works that have been created since the 1980s. Herbert went to the Institute for Communications Engineering at the German Aerospace Center in Oberpfaffenhofen every other Saturday to use the computer there. What motivated him to work on the project for fifteen years?
SP: It all started when Herbert went to the then head of the institute, Dr. Triendl, who definitely had an artistic streak and, together with Herbert, visually implemented the first Fourier transformations.
Fourier transformations are an important mathematical tool for image optimization for satellite image analysis, and this was an important area of the institute. Herbert was hooked and wanted to do more. However, Herbert's great commitment went too far for Triendl. He didn't want to spend so much time on artistic activities. He made contact with one of his employees, Horst Helbig.
Herbert and Horst were a wonderful team that worked intensively on evaluating the aesthetic dimension of mathematical landscapes. They always opened up new areas of mathematics that Herbert had previously tried out on his own PC. Then they transferred it to the large computer and into the software. For Horst, this leisure activity wasn't just fun; he was able to use a number of routines as output for the DLR's image evaluation program. For Herbert, it was proof that science and art are not opposites but rather two sides of what we call reality.
AM: Parallel to the activities at DLR, Herbert was no longer dependent on having access to computers. You had an Apple II at home. He started coding himself. ZENTRUM was created at this time. You were an important contact person for Herbert during the creation. Can you tell us what moved him back then and what you discussed?
SP: In 1979, Herbert developed the MONDRIAN program as a flowchart for Texas Instruments, one of the first home computers. The TI boss for the D-A-CH countries, Dr. Helmut Falser, who had hired Herbert for this, shortly afterwards moved to Apple as head of Europe for D-A-CH. We were able to purchase one of the first commercial Apples through him in 1980. From the beginning of his own programming work, three aspects were important to Herbert, which are already laid out in his book ART AND CONSTRUCTION.
First: the move away from the picture on the wall towards the dynamic process on a screen.
Second: the ability to link moving images and music via a MIDI interface.
Third: interactive programs with which the addressee can not only passively experience art but also help shape it.
AM: What was it like when the Apple II arrived at your home?
SP: I can still remember when the Apple was delivered to our house, and we carefully removed it from the packaging like a raw egg. I think we paid around 2,000 German marks for the computer and the two drives. That was a little more money back then than it is today.
In any case, we were very proud to now own such a freely programmable PC ourselves. It looked more like a somewhat strangely shaped typewriter, not particularly spectacular, and in what I thought was a pretty hideous shade of light beige. But you could open the lid, and then you could see that all sorts of electronics were packed there.
The two floppy disc drives were quickly connected; you had to boot the computer from one of them first. A system floppy was included for this purpose. Of course, the computer was immediately connected to the television. We didn't buy a monitor for it. That was simply too expensive for us. And we knew that you could also use the Apple with a television.
We were already familiar with the procedure from the TI 99/4, which we received as a gift from Texas Instruments in 1979 and which we also only used on television. Back then, this was done via a TV antenna cable, and the Apple’s "first light" was a lasting experience for us. Beeps and flashes started—simply fantastic! We were in!
Herbert immediately started typing the first characters on the computer using the two-finger system. This was extremely unusual for him, as he had previously hated typewriters. He said, "I can't write as fast as I can speak." That only changed in the 2000s, when he could no longer find anyone who could transcribe his recordings from tape reasonably affordably. In addition, he had become so familiar with programming on the keyboard that he increasingly started writing articles on the computer himself.
Back to our brand new Apple: Herbert couldn't type, and of course he had no idea about BASIC, but he would have done anything for the digital machine. It was learning by doing—actually, the way we always did it. We were not very interested in operating instructions. It's better to go on your own journey of discovery through machines than to follow dry instructions on how to use them. We sat at the Apple every evening for the first few days and soon understood the basics of BASIC programming. Herbert quickly began writing his first very small programs. Because I have to admit that Herbert was even more enthusiastic than I was. If he hadn't had a lot of commissions for articles at the time and had also written the novel SCHULE FÜR ÜBERMENSCHEN, he wouldn't have let go of his new toy.
AM: When the Apple II came into Herbert's life, he put the subject of plotters aside. Why this?
SP: Herbert's progress was enormous because, through his previous work on various systems, he already had a very precise idea of the programming principles of the Fortran programming language, which is much more complex than BASIC. The computers that were used to create QUADRATE in 1967, KAES in 1969, and then DRAKULA in 1970/71 and whose flow charts Herbert designed were machines that were programmed with Fortran. I also had training in Fortran in one semester, but I have to say that I learned less about coding in the dry seminar lessons than in the time with Herbert on our Apple. That was just fun.
Herbert soon started writing small graphics programs because, ultimately, that was what Apple was all about. He was particularly interested in those aspects that he considered to be radical innovations in the field of fine art through the use of computers. Even though it was completely clear to him that such systems were still in their infancy and that their great potential would only be revealed in the future.
Unlike other artists who continued to like to plot pictures to hang on the wall, which also corresponded to the conventional idea of art, Herbert saw other dimensions in computers, which he had already envisioned in his 1957 book ART AND CONSTRUCTION.
Herbert, therefore, consistently said goodbye to plotters when he entered the PC world. He saw the glowing screen as the goal of the presentation—the work was not static but dynamic. As early as 1979, when he designed the proprietary program MONDRIAN as a detailed flow chart for the TI 99/4 from Texas Instruments, he followed the three central principles of his ideas. In different variations of the numerous BASIC programs for Apple II, Apple GS, then DOS, and finally Mathematica, the focus for him was on the possibility of programming images dynamically and thus breaking up the static image. The monitor with its bright colors was the output device that fascinated Herbert, who considered it to be the new framework for art. Then there was the direct connection between moving images and sound made possible via a program, which is also already available at MONDRIAN. The first experiments with a MIDI interface began in 1981. Herbert used it primarily to control program parameters through a live keyboard or during public performances by a live musician. It was also important to him that the PC now enabled interactive use and that the viewer could be drawn from his passive role into active participation if he wanted to. In addition to the automatic run, MONDRIAN already had a version in which the user could determine different parameters, such as colors, bar density, and bar length, by pressing a button and combining an image according to their own ideas.
However, all of this also brought a big problem: of course there was no such thing as screenshots, and of course there was no printer either. The dot matrix printers in black and white that were only gradually coming onto the market at the time would not have been suitable for this anyway. So what to do? If you wanted to document images from the program, the only option was to place a photo camera in front of the monitor for still images or a VHS video camera for moving sequences. That's exactly what we did. There are a number of 35mm photo series and a few short video clips of the earliest Apple programs from 1980 to 1982. The camera lens on a tripod was set up and aligned in parallel to the television. The light in the room was turned off so that only the screen was lit—and then we started the program and watched the programs running in fascination. A photo was then taken every three to five seconds.
AM: Herbert has occasionally asked you for advice at work; you told me recently on the phone. How were you able to support him?
SP: In the first few years of learning BASIC, Herbert always liked to ask me for feedback about his progress. We often sat together at the computer; he introduced me to new parts of the program and wanted to hear my opinion. Occasionally, I was even able to help with one or two suggestions.
However, I remember three specific cases most deeply: Herbert was sitting at the computer, and I was at the desk next to him. When I saw him sitting there so frustrated, I asked what the problem was. He said he had a mistake in the program: "It just doesn't work properly. But I can do whatever I want; I just can't find the error." It's interesting to know: Herbert's programs were usually not particularly long because he worked a lot with random generators and recursive loops—not because he found the concept philosophically interesting (and that too), but simply because he was able to save computing time and thus set the images in motion in the first place. If he had defined complex programs algorithmically, he would not have been able to create dynamic sequences at all.
The programs were short, at most 50 or 60 lines. So now to my big entrance: I went over to him, looked over his shoulder, and asked, "What is the structure of the program?" Then he briefly explained to me what the program was basically supposed to do. I said, "Look, couldn’t that be this line? It doesn’t fit properly into the connection up there." The first time I managed to do that, Herbert was very impressed. "Incredible, you come here and immediately find the problem. You can program much better than me!" Well, that was, of course, completely exaggerated, and both Herbert and I knew that, but somehow the praise was still good. And who knows how long it would have taken Herbert, given his own operational blindness, to find the error himself?
AM: Herbert's wish was that his programs would be published. You started working on it together. Why was publishing the programs so important to him?
SP: This is directly related to Herbert's thoughts about the social task of the artist. A manuscript from 1978, which is now digitized in the Herbert W. Franke archive at the ZKM, says:
"Making the invisible visible, expressing the unimaginable, recognizing the unknown... At this point, natural science merges with philosophy and with art."
Herbert was convinced that, in addition to all the joy and pleasure it brings, art can, as a side effect, make a contribution to understanding our world. It always offers an unconscious learning process that helps to sharpen our perception, to better recognize structures, and thus to understand more deeply the model of the reality in which we live.
In this respect, he had no problems at all with someone adapting his works, changing them interactively, and making something different out of them. For him, the most important task and social value of art has always been to take place in public space and thus bring about change.
AM: With the proceeds from the sale of the MATH ART NFTs, you were able to found the art meets science – Foundation Herbert W. Franke. Herbert and you had planned this together, now you are implementing your joint plans in his spirit. You continue what he is valued for in the community and what was your shared driving force.
Herbert was always about more than himself; he was a curator and author. He curated exhibitions and wrote books about computer art. He had excellent connections and supported other artists. You travelled a lot together, to conferences and exhibitions, and you had close contact with other artists. How did you experience the community back then?
SP: Well, it was a much smaller community back then than it is today, but fundamentally not that different. With very few exceptions, computer art was simply not understood in established art circles. The artists therefore saw themselves as underdogs in the art scene, whose works were of no interest to buyers on the art market. People were among themselves at such events and found it simply positive to be able to exchange ideas with like-minded people.
AM: How do you experience the community today?
SP: The community today is much larger in number, but at the same time it has a much greater public presence. And a few representatives have even managed to make a lot of money from their art. In this respect, the community has come a little further, but those who don't benefit from it have now become significantly more numerous.
AM: In Herbert's first solo exhibition at EXPANDED.ART in spring 2023, we showed ZENTRUM on an old Apple II.
SP: From the earliest programs, all created between 1980 and 1982 on this Apple II, ZENTRUM has always been the most beautiful for me. Of course, that's why I chose it for transformation into the 21st century web. However, it was important to not only stick to the original code but also to translate the visual appearance of the CRT monitor. Herbert and I liked its aesthetics. And that's why I wanted to preserve the tube monitor look of the output in addition to the less saturated colors with which the programs ran on our television. I am very happy with how Aaron solved everything. My big thanks go to him for bringing ZENTRUM to life beyond running on an old Apple II.
The program consists of only twenty lines, which we will also publish. I find it so incredibly striking that you can create an endless, never-repeating dynamic process with such great aesthetics. Surprising color and texture combinations keep cropping up. Of course, I know that the mathematician is contradicting me now because he can statistically calculate the probability with which a run of 100 years would repeat itself in exactly the same way if you restarted it. It definitely wouldn't be zero. Whether it's zero or not quite zero—thank God that's not really relevant in this context—at least that's what I think.
AM: Proceeds from sales of Herbert's art go to the Foundation you oversee. You use it to realize projects. When we talk about plans, you sometimes say, "That was Herbert’s dream." And you are happy that you can make his dreams come true today. What are you working on at the moment?
SP: I don't even know where to start... Apart from the fact that the Foundation is working intensively with the ZKM on the work database of digitized manuscripts, which, after a delay, will now go into public trial operation as a soft launch in the next few days, I had a number of texts translated into English. Herbert always saw not being able to write English as his greatest shortcoming. I will publish some of the texts on the now bilingual foundation website, where there is now a non-fiction texts section. Maybe I'll be able to make an eBook with some of the English texts next year.
In any case, the Foundation will begin next year to publish the over thirty volumes of science fiction works, which will be completed with the remaining 10 volumes in print in 2024, as an eBook. For this purpose, the Foundation itself will become a publisher. We are also currently working on a new translation of the 1961 novel THE ORCHID CAGE, which may even be published by a major publisher. In addition to a selection of other SF works, the foundation would also like to bring non-fiction books such as Rational Aesthetics into English in the next few years in order to bring them together in one or another project with current research, for example neuroaesthetics.
With the ZKM, I am also building an image database. Around 2,000 works that have already been digitized this year are scheduled to be published in spring 2024, covering the first ten years of Herbert's work in the field of generative photography. These are series like the LICHTFORME, but they also have around 1000 oscillograms. The Foundation will continue to work on building the Franke & Friends collection. To do this, we will then look for partners with whom we can set up a virtual museum—also one of those dreams of Herbert and me that began with the Z-Galaxy in 2008.
Last but not least, there will be events in which we bring the respective communities of art or science together to exchange ideas. Herbert, who had communicated with artists from all over the world since the 1950s, first by letters and telephone and then by email, always found it particularly nice to meet people in person. For him, it was not only a pleasure to get to know people directly, but sometimes it was also a new kind of experience. Some great minds turned out to be much smaller in personal direct contact, but some small ones also became much more important. Reality still has qualities that virtuality cannot offer today.
Since the 1950s, Herbert has been firmly convinced that things will not stay that way and that the boundaries between reality and virtuality will completely dissolve. But I think he was personally content to still be living in prehistoric times.
AM: Thank you for the conversation.
EXPANDED.ART turns Web3 inside out and expands the notion of a gallery and an online marketplace by being both. EXPANDED.ART presents yesterday's pioneers and today's avant-garde, among others, they represent the Estate of Herbert W. Franke.
PROOF aims to bring the digital art world into a physical dimension, providing a unique space for artists and collectors to meet, interact, and share their experiences.