On Thursday, Nov 4, Andrew Johnston of the University of Chicago delivered his talk “Coding Patterns: The Algorithmic Mechanisms of John Whitney, Larry Cuba and Early Digital Animation,” from a chapter of his dissertation. Jon Cates, from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, provided the response.
Johnston proposed an understanding of digitality based in what he likes to call the “stuff of the digital” – its materials, the processes by which it works and is made, its hardware and its software. To do this he explored the techniques used by abstract animators John Whitney and Larry Cuba to create digital films in the 1960s and 1970s. Using research from interviews he conducted with the filmmakers and programmers as well as from a study of the Whitney archives, Johnston described the complex and time-consuming (as well as time-delayed) methods by which Whitney and Cuba developed computer animation from what might be understood as the aesthetics of the algorithm. Whitney’s animation signaled an attempt to produce an abstract visual art of motion structured in time which has a perceptual impact that is akin to the one music can generate. Unlike other forms of animation, his films are not meant to transport the viewer into a transcendent state or otherly world of abstraction. Rather, it is meant to generate an aesthetic pleasure rooted in the eye, one based in pattern recognition.
Addressing the uneasy placement of animation in the discipline of film studies, and the even more uneasy understanding of abstract digital animation within studies of animation, Johnston argues that animation is the technological programming and projection of movement, a definition that highlights the way in which animation is born from a technological articulation and ordering of artifacts – a definition that can encompass traditional animation of sequentially-ordered photographs, direct animation on celluloid frames, or the inputting of code to render images. Each process, Johnston notes, is dependent upon a technologically mediated process of selection that results in the projection of an arrangement of images in moving succession. Whitney, for one, recognized the similarities between these different procedures and likened the inputting of code to the manipulation of discrete frames of film.