conversations – Interview by Anika Meier – 01.12.2022
"TECHNOLOGY IS NOT A THREAT TO ART"
INTERVIEW WITH HERBERT W. FRANKE
Herbert W. Franke is a universal genius; you can say that with a clear conscience. For several decades, he separated three lives: the caver and scientist, the artist and curator, the art theorist, and the science fiction author. Only on the occasion of his solo exhibition in 2010 at the ZKM Karlsruhe did he bring these three lives and careers together under the title "Wanderer Between the Worlds". In the early 1950s, caving led him to experiment with light and technology. He kept his curiosity throughout his life; it was his drive to examine new technologies for their artistic potential. His pioneering spirit made him one of the first computer artists who was more than six decades ahead of his time. Franke discussed his visionary practice with Anika Meier in June 2022.
Herbert W. Franke turned 95 in May, and the world seems to finally have caught up with his art and thinking. Herbert W. Franke and I met through the work of Alfred Weidinger, the director of the Francisco Carolinum, which was showing his solo exhibition VISIONARY. When we first met, I asked him if he was aware that he was a legend, especially for "the people on the internet". He said in disbelief, "Really?" I asked him to come on Twitter and see for himself. He did this with the help of his wife, Susanne Päch. The rest is history. He was followed by 10,000 people within 48 hours, and his first tweet has over 15,000 likes and 3,000 retweets. The dinosaur, as he calls himself, went viral. His first NFT drop was sold out within 30 seconds; he was the headliner at the Tezos Booth at Art Basel with a work from 1979. In 1970, Franke was represented at the Venice Biennale and showed a screen print of the series SQUARES created with the digital computer, in which he let chance and algorithm work together. Herbert W. Franke died on July 16, 2022, at the age of 95, leaving behind an extensive oeuvre.
Anika Meier: Mr. Franke, you are an artist, scientist, and science fiction author. How did you manage to combine three CVs over many decades?
Herbert W. Franke: I don't know if you mean "operatively." In fact, I kept these resumes separate for a long time. Many people who knew me through my works and publications were surprised to learn that I was also involved in seemingly unrelated fields such as computer art and vice versa. It was even more pronounced in caving. In any case, there were three CVs in my office cupboard for many decades, which I used as needed. It was only with the exhibition "Wanderers Between the Worlds" at ZKM Karlsruhe, Germany, that the connection was made between these three fields. They probably all corresponded to my tendency to break new ground.
AM: Today, it is quite common for artists to examine new technologies for their artistic potential. How did you start your first artistic experiments in the 1950s?
HWF: I came into art from science. I had noticed how "beautiful" some pictures of physics were, especially with the latest instruments such as scanning electron microscopes, telescopes, and particle accelerators, but also photographs of structures in nature. That made me curious as to why that is – and how art is related to it. In physics, as in nature, there had to be principles of order that have an aesthetic effect. It quickly became clear to me that straight curves, which can be described well in mathematical terms, possess a lot of aesthetic potential. So I started experimenting with them and synthesizing them in the photo lab – or calculating them with an analogue computer.
AM: What were the reactions at the time to your experiments combining art and science?
HW: Experiments with light, and nothing else, were my works at the time. They drew very little interest from the classical art world, let alone the art market. It was easy to publish such thoughts in magazines for photography or design; I wrote a number of articles at the time, but the traditional art world largely ignored such tendencies back then.
AM: Did the reception change over the decades? You have been active as an artist for more than sixty years.
HWF: Well, I have the impression that at the very beginning, producing this kind of art had at least some kind of curiosity effect. Then came the computer, and as it started to take off on a large scale, a lot of young people jumped on it and flooded the world with more or less relevant work. This may even have led to increased rejection in the traditional art world.
AM: If you think back to your first artistic experiments today, at what point did you dare to call yourself an artist?
HWF: That was relatively early, in the 1950s. Because I developed these works with conscientiousness and care, I have decided to call myself an artist. Incidentally, this was supported by a very far-sighted art historian, Franz Roh, who, as a mentor, pointed out tome in the 1950s that I should pursue these new approaches seriously. At the time, many of the early pioneers did not dare call their work art and instead categorized it as design. But I just had nothing to lose. And I was also convinced that I was on the right track of knowledge.
AM: What were your influences, both as an artist and as a writer? Who has inspired you in your work?
HWF: In literature, these were the authors of the Prague Circle and a few authors of American science fiction. When I started writing professionally in the 1960s, these authors could only be found very sporadically on the German market. In art, Franz Roh should be mentioned, but then also the cybernetician and communications engineer Karl Steinbuch, who strongly encouraged me and my information-aesthetic approach in the 1960s. I would also like to mention the perceptual-psychological work of the mathematician and educator Helmar Frank, with whom I have also published some work.
AM: You have been active on Twitter since March and, as a result, have become part of a global community of artists and collectors. Artists today share their work on social media and offer NFTs for sale on marketplaces. As an artist, curator, and author, you yourself were strongly involved in the community of pioneers in the field of computer art and generative art. You have written numerous books and curated exhibitions, such as the traveling exhibition for the Goethe Institute, which was shown in 200 cities. Today, it takes just a few clicks to get information, build up a network and organize exhibitions. How did you explore and exchange ideas and how do you keep up-to-date?
HWF: At that time, we mainly had the mail – and then, increasingly, the telephone before fax came along. But communication overseas was so expensive back then that people usually used the post office. Occasionally, you could also see colleagues at conferences and symposiums, which were often accompanied by small exhibitions.
AM: 1,800 of your manuscripts are in the ZKM Karlsruhe archive. That's a very significant number. As a science fiction author, you have won numerous important prizes, and your publications in the field of computer art are still standard works. What was your daily routine back then?
HWF: It was very different. I was self-employed, and my bread and butter was writing. So I had to offer articles or books to magazines and publishers by mail. And you had to offer more than was realized; that was part of the business. But I also did many lecture tours, especially at the beginning of my career.
Very early on, I switched from using the typewriter myself to dictating, because I quickly discovered that I can dictate much faster than I can type. And so, early on, I looked for typists who could write from tape. At the beginning of my career, I lived with a film producer who had good connections to the large Bavaria film production company nearby. There were experienced secretaries working at the company who were very happy to do such work as a side job. At first it was just the mail that I dictated, but by the early 1960s, I was also dictating my novels. I think I've reached a certain level of perfection in that.
The summer months were the time when I wrote long novels. During this time, there were a few other activities, such as attending to correspondence and also a few lecture tours. To write, I would lie down on a deck chair for a few weeks – either outdoors or in my cactus house if the weather was bad – and dictate page after page into my Uher tape, including the punctuation marks. The typists were always very grateful and said that the Bavarian bosses, for whom they worked during the day, would do much worse. In a few weeks, such a novel was dictated in one go. On average, I would dictate over several hours at a rate of maybe ten manuscript pages a day.
There was no word processing back then, which means that corrections were only possible to a very limited extent. I somehow had to keep all the characters and the course of the story in my head. When I was writing novels, I was in a kind of tunnel for weeks. Similarly, when I was on expeditions into caves – which usually lasted 14 days – I was also in a parallel world.
AM: Your work as a science fiction author was closely intertwined with your work as an artist and scientist. Has writing influenced your work as an artist and vice versa?
HWF: Certainly not in a specific sense. But it was clear that, even as an author, I was already asking myself what the social meaning of my work was. And right from the start, I abstracted from my artistic practice to such an extent that it should cover all art forms: from images to music to literature. The insights that I drew from these considerations have been taken into account both in literature and in the visual arts. They showed me that art – no matter what form it takes – has an important task in society because it promotes learning processes. Abstract art trains perception, shapes recognition processes and the like. In literature, envisioning different scenarios of the future can help actively shape it instead of letting it just happen.
Incidentally, in the course of my life I have often come across readers who have told me that my stories and novels were important reasons for their decision to become scientists or engineers. The nice thing is that now, in my later years, I hear very similar statements about my works of fine art. That's wonderful, because it's a late confirmation that this artistic activity not only brought me joy personally but was also effective. What more could an artist ever ask for?
AM: You were a pioneer all your life and way ahead of your time. In your 1970 novel ZONE ZERO, you describe the Metaverse as a world more real and livable to humans than the real world. How did you get interested in the Metaverse? Today, it is inevitable to hear about it.
HWF: Well, it actually started as early as 1960 with individual stories in the GREEN COMET – and the first novel, THE THOUGHT NET, as well as the second, THE ORCHID CAGE, both published in 1961, play with virtual worlds in different ways. It was already clear to me back then that they would become a reality for us due to the growing technical possibilities. And I was convinced that they would not only raise philosophical questions, but also pose the threat of perfect surveillance on a massive scale, which is something I already had to experience as a teenager under National Socialism.
AM: In 2005, you actually arrived in a metaverse yourself, namely Active Worlds. Together with your wife, Susanne Päch, you rented a piece of land there and built the Z-Galaxy, which you opened in 2008 with an exhibition you curated. Why was it important for you, as an artist and curator, to exhibit your art in a virtual world?
HWF: It wasn't a plan or a goal. It was an experiment like many others, a new technology that I had long been familiar with from my imagination. Now, I was able to design it for the first time myself – still on a monitor and by no means a ‘real’ virtual world as in my stories.
AM: What did you learn about the Metaverse from this?
HWF: Well, first of all, I learned that designing the Metaverse in my own head is much easier. The network quality, which was still much worse at the time, the limitations in the software, everything was still very imperfect. Yet, it was still a start. I was inspired by other worlds like Derrick Woodham's virtual sculpture park or the exotic Martian landscape to wander around. It was important to me as an artist that I could construct something myself – and Active Worlds offered this possibility, in contrast to the Second Life platform, which was then much better marketed. However, as an "artistic world builder," you could, on the Second Life platform, only use ready-made components, but you couldn’t construct them yourself.
AM: I'm sure you've been following the discussions about the Metaverse, which has been on everyone's lips since Mark Zuckerberg announced his plans for his company, Meta. Do you have any concerns, or do you see a bright future?
HWF: I would like to put it this way: the ambivalence of all technologies is given. It is up to us, as humans, to use them in one way or another. The possibilities of the Metaverse are tremendous, but so is their potential for abuse, as previously mentioned with regard to the surveillance of citizens by autocratic systems.
However, as far as the philosophical approach to fictional worlds is concerned, I think we should be careful not to view such possible futures too much in terms of our current values. Norms and values are not set in stone. They adapt to changes and, thus, also to technologies. Does such a technologically constructed, fictional world have to be a world of second choice? Does the reality around us necessarily matter more? Does it really have to be a loss of reality when another reality emerges?
We are familiar with social networks today. But if these networks continue to develop into real worlds in which we stay, live, and feel, then perhaps – I hope – individuals could grow together into a stronger collective with closer relationships where the interests of the other are more valued than in our individualistic Western culture. On the other hand, of course, I also see the dangers, because the perfection of these worlds gives autocrats and dictators completely new possibilities of manipulation.
AM: As an artist and scientist, you have always been driven by questions that you wanted to answer for yourself and that have social relevance. You worked on the MATH ART series from 1980 to 1995, i.e., for 15 years. That's a very long time. How did you come to work on this series and what was your goal?
HWF: The MATH ART series was created on a computer at the German Aerospace Research Center (DLR) in Oberpfaffenhofen. The in-house development of the system served to evaluate raw image data recorded by satellites operated by Germany or the European Space Agency (ESA). The institute developed its own software for image evaluation for the system, which worked with the latest mathematical algorithms to extract the best information from the data.
The head of the Institute for Communications Engineering came into contact with me in 1979. Ernst Triendl had a PhD in Mathematics and, like some of these thinkers, was a bit unusual. In the afternoons, for example, he lay down in his office on a couch specially set up there for a pause for thought – and, of course, it wasn’t allowed to disturb him. Perhaps his eccentricity was one of the reasons why he quickly became interested in my not very conventional ideas of seeing mathematics as the creative key to art.
We quickly found each other in a conversation. One idea led to another, and in the end, it was all about the aesthetic potential of the Fourier transforms. These algorithms are of the greatest importance for image analysis in communication technology. This is because they can be used to calculate the noise from the data transmitted by radio. They are an important tool in pattern recognition and for the evaluation of satellite data. At the end of the conversation, there was an appointment where we wanted to follow up with practical experiments on this computer system. It was no longer a matter of applying Fourier transforms to existing data or images, but of exploring the mathematical principle as such. The result was a set of images of Fourier transforms that were not yet so brilliantly colored, but which showed me that this path could be very promising.
However, something stood in the way: the head of a DLR institute naturally has other tasks than dealing with the beauty of mathematics. His job is to run an institute. But I was so fascinated by the results that it was obvious how much I would like to continue this work. So Triendl brought me together with an employee, Horst Helbig, who was a physicist and computer scientist. At the Institute, he was instrumental in the development of algorithms for image analysis – the software DIBIAS (for Digital Image Analysis System). My ideas immediately fascinated Helbig, who was a rather calm but precise worker.
AM: If I understand you correctly, there was no official "legitimacy" in DLR. How was it possible to carry out the MATH ART project for 15 years?
HWF: This was made possible by a special rule at the institute: at the weekend, employees were allowed to use the computer system, which ran 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, for private purposes. The offer was rarely taken up. So it quickly developed that Helbig and I sat together every two weeks on Saturdays in the otherwise deserted institute and experimented with mathematical formulas.
The end of this cooperation was not due to the fact that the two of them lost interest or that the work was completed. Rather, this happened because the computer that DLR had built itself was replaced in 1995 by the American system from NASA for reasons of compatibility. The entire system and the DIBIAS software were therefore scrapped. The system was offered to me, but unfortunately there was no way for me to accommodate the machine, which required an entire air-conditioned room.
AM: In these fifteen years, a very extensive body of work was created. You chose 100 images from this series for your first NFT drop, which sold out within 30 seconds on the NFT platform Quantum. How did you choose the images?
HWF: The images selected for the NFT drop come from the period of 1980 to 1988. They are based on a selection of images from the book THE WORLD OF MATHEMATICS, which was published by VDI-Verlag (VDI Association of German Engineers) in 1988. Shortly before that, the exhibition THE BEAUTY OF MATHEMATICS had been on display in the Siemens Museum in Munich, where a number of images from the series were displayed in enlarged form.
In connection with my exhibition VISIONARY, the Francisco Carolinum in Linz has started to digitize the entire archive of MATH ART in high quality and has produced transparent light boxes for this purpose, which now show the images as I saw them on the screen for the first time. It is an extensive collection, and I am, therefore, very pleased that MATH ART is to be made accessible in an edition.
AM: How important is the MATH ART group in your work?
HWF: The extensive group of works, with their numerous series, is, of course, of great importance to me. But it's not just the scope, it's also the meaning: art is traced back to pure mathematics.
AM: When you look back on your artistic work, what do you consider to be your most important work and greatest achievement?
HWF: That's a question I can't answer. Every era has its own tools and technologies, and I think every achievement enriches and gives impetus for the next step. But if I had to choose, I would pick a series that isn't particularly extensive: The SQUARES series, which I first started in 1967, paved the way for me to explore art experimentally with the exact methods of a natural scientist. That was a major breakthrough for me, as it allowed me to consider the phenomenon of art through a rational analysis.
AM: Is there something you haven't achieved yet that you still wish for?
HWF: Oh, there is still so much to explore. I would like to have a little more time for it.