Harold Cohen

Today I received an email from Harold Cohen, a student at the Slade from 1961-68.  The interesting thing about Harold Cohen is that he invented the system AARON, one of the first computer drawing software systems.  As he says in his email below, he was at the Slade at an earlier time but he has given us some useful references to investigate.  He makes an interesting point about how it is easy to create something resembling an “art work” using a computer system with a limited knowledge of paint or art techniques, but it is not easy to create a computer systems itself and a great amount of knowledge is needed to build these systems.

Response from Harold Cohen:

Dear Victoria Taylor,
I don’t think I can be of much help to you. I was a student at the Slade, as you say, and I taught there from 1961-68. But in 1968 I moved to San Diego, and consequently have no personal knowledge of developments involving computing in the UK in the early 70’s. All of my own early work with the AARON program was done  while I was teaching at the University of California, San Diego.

Concerning AARON’s history; you might want to check my own website, www.aaronshome.com, which has all my papers, not just the earlier ones listed on the Kurzweil site.

To answer your question; I have no special feelings about the place of computing in the art world today. A relatively small number of serious artists are using computers in a serious way. Historically, only a small number were ever prepared to do the heavy lifting, and once the computer was developed as a “user-friendly” black box for running other people’s programs — eg, photoshop — it became evident that those programs had little to offer the serious artist. (You’ll notice that it’s possible to make something approximating a painting without any serious knowledge of paint, but there’s no such thing as “something approximating” a program, and you can’t write a program without any knowledge of programming.)

Apropos computer creativity; I recommend my recent papers, which deal with the issue at some length. The short answer to your question is that computers don’t do anything — including artmaking — the way people do them; they do them the way computers can do them.

I correspond with one old friend from my student days and, of course, my brother; and also with Paul Brown, who came later. But nobody in my student years had any interest in computing, including me. How many people knew what computers were in 1950, do you imagine?

All good wishes,

Harold Cohen


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