About Georg Nees
Georg Nees is one of the three pioneering artists who showed their work in the first exhibitions of computer art in 1965. A mathematician working at Siemens, he created his artworks in one of the first flatbed drawing machines and wrote the first doctoral thesis on computer art.
A first person account of the beginnings of algorithmic art
In the framework of the solo exhibition Ornamental Spaces by pioneering algorithmic artist Georg Nees (1926-2016) at DAM Projects in Berlin, Wolf Lieser, director of DAM, had a conversation with digital art pioneer Frieder Nake on the work of Nees. The talk took place at the gallery on July 2022.
Georg Nees provided the groundwork for, and facilitated the subsequent explosion of, code-based art with his exhibition Computer Graphics, at the Studiengalerie Technische Hochschule Stuttgart. In 1968, he received his doctorate under Max Bense with a dissertation thesis on Generative Computer Graphics, which at the time was the first doctoral thesis worldwide on this subject. His early work from the 1960s is almost entirely in the collection of the Kunsthalle Bremen.
Wolf Lieser: Very welcome to DAM Berlin. And I’m really happy to present this exhibition, which is from an artist who passed away in 2016. He made history by having the first exhibition in a official gallery in 1965, in Stuttgart, in Germany. All over the world were at that time, three exhibitions per my information. One was Georg Nees in the spring of 65. Then in fall of 65, was Frieder Nake, who is now our special guest today. And Michael A. Noll, that was in the summer, right?. In New York.
Georg Nees had a background, or came from a background in mathematics, and… but I am not the professional to talk about that, because that’s why Frieder is here, because he has a background in mathematics as well. So he was able to learn programming very early on, as the first people who could do that, he had access to a pen plotter at the Zuse Graphomat at the time. So that’s how this early works came about.
Frieder, when did you meet him for the first time?
Frieder Nake: Precisely, I don’t know. But it cannot be earlier than 1965. And it’s definitely not later than 1967. Sometime during these two years, I’m pretty sure. Personally meeting him personally. I’m absolutely sure. I do know that the fifth February 1965, when he, Georg Nees, had his first show and worldwide, the first show of this kind of art in the Institute of philosophy, University of Stuttgart, with Max Bense. There, I saw him but we didn’t really meet them because he was the hero, so to speak. Nobody by the time knew this is the first show of such algorithmic art. And I was a student admiring what they were doing.
Wolf Lieser: So he was quite a bit older than you. He was already working with Siemens when he had this show.
Frieder Nake: Yeah. I went to Bense the next day telling him if you come to where I work in the computing center of the university, I can show you similar works. And I said only similar because I believe of course mine were better.
Wolf Lieser: We will discuss that maybe a little bit later. So, you mentioned Max Bense and I’m not sure if everybody is familiar with him. Of course everybody who got involved in computer graphics and the first people who wrote about it, were influenced by Max Bense and Abraham Moles. Maybe you can say something about Max Bense, because Frieder had the pleasure of visiting his lectures in Stuttgart as well. So that was initial for his interest in getting involved in the computer graphics, before we continue with Georg Nees…
Frieder Nake: The historians are telling that story a little wrongly, a little skewed, I could say. Namely, you can read here and there that Max Bense was a cause almost of some people like Georg Nees or myself, to do such experiments using computers, algorithms, programs.. to generate images. This is not true. Max Bense is important in that respect, by preparing the frame of mind, for people thinking of. I use some more or less mathematical and algorithmic methods, techniques in order to generate images. And Bense of course took this up immediately.
The story with Georg Nees is nice. Georg Nees is sitting on a train. And Helmar Frank is also sitting on the train. Frank was one of Benses PhD students, an advanced one. The two sit in the same compartment on that train. And they come to talk to each other. And then Georg Nees opens his suitcase and shows Helmar Frank some images and tells him: “these are done by computer.” So Helmar Frank was probably the first not producing computer graphics person in the world who has seen those. And Frank, when he returned to Stuttgart, went to Bense immediately and told him: “you know what, I met somebody on the train who has graphics done by computer.” “What?” replied Bense, “we must get him immediately!” Because in his mind, he was thinking of this, not concretely, not at all. And they immediately got hold of Georg Nees to then, in February 65, have that little little exhibition.
If I remember correctly, it was roughly between eight and twelve graphics. This middle one here was amongst them, but not in that size. This is a silkscreen. No, in small, small, tiny little size. And I do remember that everybody who was an intellectual by the time went to Bense’s exhibitions all the time. Every time, Bense spoke, nobody understood a word. That was his kind of philosophy that you don’t have to understand me, just listen to me. And the things he showed were always concrete art. This particular exhibition of Georg Nees was not concrete art. However, you sense immediately, ha! that’s the ultimate, the top of concrete art, because now, the method that the concrete artists use in order to produce their works by hand was not put onto the computer. Therefore, there was an immediate consequence from concrete art that it should be turned into computer art, as they then said.
Georg Nees’ exhibition itself did not create any reaction. Nothing, nobody wrote about it. It took a while until November 65, when Der Spiegel came and had a little report and AD panorama magazine came and had a report. Later in 66, Second, a German TV program also had a report. So then you have a little reaction. Negative like hell.
Wolf Lieser: Ok, we are not progressing that fast to 66. Let’s stay at 65. So Bense was not initial for Nees. Do you know why he started to work with a computer? What was his interest? Do you know about that? Because I couldn’t find anything.
Frieder Nake: He was working for the Siemens company, in the computing center. And there they’re starting to make experiments using that machine, the Siemens computer together with the Zuse Graphomat, the drawing machine that they had not because Siemens was soon taking over the Zuse company and therefore Nees now had the job of preparing for Siemens the technical drawings, preparing the software for that. That’s the reason and then he was open enough to do this little experiments with an aesthetic purpose.
Wolf Lieser: Okay, though, then we go to the end of 65 and this famous exhibition came about at the gallery Niedlich in Stuttgart, which involves both artists Frieder Nake and Georg Nees. Would you like to tell us about how that came about? Because originally it was planned and exhibition for yourself? Why was Georg Nees at all?
Frieder Nake: This may sound a little arrogant. But it is. So at least as I remember, in Stuttgart, there was the famous bookseller of a fantastic name in German: Wendelin Niedlich. He is a bookseller but also a gallerist showing concrete art. And when Georg Nees in February, has his exhibition, one or two days later, I go to see Niedlich, where I was always hanging around, and tell him: “Wendi, do you know that I do things like Nees is doing? “No,” he replied,“how should I know? What should we do?” And Niedlich says: “Okay, well, we prepare an exhibition.” So that was my entry into that field, and then Nidelich asked Bense: “Would you open that exhibition?” Which he often did, and he says: “Yes, I’ll do it. However, Nees must also be presented.” So Niedlich asked me: “Do you agree?” And I replied: “Yes, of course. I don’t mind.” So this is why Nidelich had that second exhibition, third really, with New York in between, and why the two of us Georg Nees and myself presented in that show.
Wolf Lieser: So did Max Bense actually do the introduction?
Frieder Nake: Yes, of course, he agreed. The opening. And he doesn’t come. He doesn’t come. He sends. He has written a text. I have it. So he had prepared something. Why he didn’t come I never learned. He sent his assistant who was reading Bense’s text. I guess he hated me.
Wolf Lieser: Okay, so you actually met for the first time because Georg Nees came to the opening?
Frieder Nake: No, no, no, he was not there. We had met at his previous exhibition. He didn’t come. The exhibition was myself. And since Bense had insisted on this must also be shown, His work was shown, but that were the same things that had been shown in February or at the university. The exhibition was really my stuff, I’m sorry to say.
Wolf Lieser: Okay, so let’s move a little bit further. It was 1968. Computer Graphics started to happen in a little scale in North America and Japan and in Europe, mostly what is documented, and then the first doctorate doctoral thesis was written by Georg Nees on computer graphics, you brought the actual book.
Frieder Nake: That’s his dissertation.
Wolf Lieser: I tried to read it, but gave up. So I thought, it needs a real professional like you to tell us something about this book and maybe give us a clue what he was writing about and what it was all about. What this thesis was based on. Can you tell us a little bit how it looks from your perspective?
Frieder Nake: Yes. It is published as a book in 1968. The actual dissertation was finished in 1969, and the dissertation itself was in 68, a year before the Siemens company published this book. That’s amazing. Not because publishing what one of their employees was doing, as a book was a great sign for “we invest money in this.” They had analyzed the market a bit, not really market research, but they considered that there would be people who buy this book. I bought it, as you’ll see. Its title is fantastic. The important word in the title was invented by Max Bense: generative computer graphics is the title. I believe it would have been even better if it had just been generative graphics, without the computer in between. And many, nowadays, call this kind of art, generative art without referring to the computer. Because with a computer, you will refer only to the medium that is being used to the technique here. Which is not important if you want to do art. If the question is art, you don’t have to refer to the technique. No, you don’t have to, I believe.
On the train here coming here this morning, I read in the book again. And I was surprised, it’s 50 years old now. I was surprised how the style of talking about something namely using computers to produce aesthetic images, how that style doesn’t live up to the topic. It’s technical like hell, you cannot understand it nowadays, young people would not be able to understand it, I bet. Because it’s so technical, explaining that you need this computer command in order to do that. And so he explains in that book, the if statement, and this blue, and all these things that everybody knows, takes it for granted. So 50 years ago, that was important enough to tell people as part of a PhD thesis, think of it. That means nobody understood what these people were doing. And therefore, Nees went through the effort of trying to explain to people look, I’m doing something that is accepted as art. And here is how I do this. Amazing.
I show you in the context, that this little thing, this is a little book. That’s the first publication ever in the world of computer art. And that appeared for Nees’ first exhibition in February 65. It contains just six graphics. I’ll show you one or two, like this, six, only in there. A little text by Bense. And another little text by Georg Nees, totally technical. I guess I could sell this for 10,000 Euros nowadays. I have no idea. But it is the first publication that appeared on this field. We were not realizing what was happening. It was happening. But what it meant. I believe nobody realized by the time. It just happened. That’s good.
Wolf Lieser: So from my perspective, of course, I was not involved at that time. The 60s and 70s had a little bit of a kind of larger attention meant some kind of I wouldn’t talk about a hype. And then came a period like the end of the 70s and 80s. When computer graphics hardly existed, I mean, it was a time when I already started to work in the art field. And I found out about it in 87. But I started my personal research and computer graphics on the art market basically didn’t exist. And so Nees, as far as I know, he stopped as well, or he didn’t do much. Because the only information I have is that after he retired, he started to work again, that’s why we’re coming to these pieces, which we see now. Which he produced after he retired. Do you have any other information about that period?
Frieder Nake: I guess essentially, it is true.
Wolf Lieser: Okay, so this, first of all, we had at that time already, 3d software, the first publication from David Em was a book on 3D graphics, which made history because they use this kind of software, existing software already. But this what you see here, even it looks like 3D. It’s programmed. It’s programmed with Lisp, which I hope you can explain to us a little bit, I’ll say something a little bit about this programming language. Because that is your field.
Frieder Nake: Lisp stands for list, processor. L is from list and then the P from processor. And lisp was the language of artificial intelligence. When artificial intelligence started, no other programming language was used, but lisp. Why? Because it was designed as a totally different programming language than all the others. It was not based on procedures, no, but on processing lists. And the only structure that that programming language knew off, was lists. And that they were used, they were needed for the way they then did artificial intelligence: lists of things glued together. And whether these things were births, texts, numbers, was immaterial. Therefore, it had that great power. Lisp was the language for those who did not understand how to write a program. But it was highly developed for the time. The start of Lisp is in 1956. In 1956, you were not even born there. And you may have heard of programming languages like Fortran, that’s the same time. But it’s not a programming language, we as computer scientists, we are full of disgust of that. But that’s the only one that spreads in the world. What we did was something totally different.
The frame of mind that you had to get into writing programs in lips was not difficult to acquire. But it was of the kind that your thinking must do, whenever you write a program. Writing programs means you must think you must try to think like a machine would think if it could. Machines cannot think will never think, never, never never. But if they could, then the kind of thinking you need is exactly that. What I want to say with that formulation, is that this is a particularly new way of thinking. And it’s not the trivial thing that we need only when we do something using Photoshop or any other high level programming system. To think in terms of writing programs that are capable of doing surprising things, that needs a new kind of thinking. Namely, thinking how the machine would if it could. See that it’s fantastic, you gain a totally new approach to the world and you must be careful not to be get lost in that role, no, because then you lose your humanity. You lose it. As a good programmer, you must be a full human, full blood.
Wolf Lieser: So we are on the year 1986. And as you can see on the laser prints, which you see here they are originally from this year, they are all signed with the exact date and time when they were made. The series was introduced in this exhibition, that’s why I’m holding this catalog all this time, in an exhibition where it’s documented as well. An exhibition in Munich in 1986 as well, artists like Herbert W. Franke of Manfred Mohr were included. And Frieder wrote an essay for the exhibition catalog, but it was not as you said, included in the show. But you saw it, right?
Frieder Nake: Yes, I gave a talk there. This is the time when I had some years before written a little article: “There should be no computer art.” And in that little article, I said something theoretical, so to speak. And then also practical: from now on, you will not get works from me anymore. This was my farewell to that field. Through which I had gained some reputation. Yes. Okay. But you must start doing something new. I believe.
I wanted to tell you a stupid little anecdote. Georg Nees? Yes. Michael A. Noll? Yes. And myself. Okay, these three they are usually known as the three big Ns. Ha ha ha. Nice. I’m the only one with two syllables. Ness and Noll just one syllable but my name has two. Noll told me he had his exhibition in a real gallery. Nees was in a philosophical department. Mine was in a gallery/bookstore. But Noll was represented in a real gallery, which by the time was leading in experimental art in in the United States, the Howard Wise Gallery in New York. It doesn’t exist anymore, but by the time they were standing for video art in the US. So Noll told me: “You know what, I had a contract with Howard Wise, how to deal with things that get sold.” However, nothing was sold. Then I told him, Mike, you know what, I did not have a contract, but I immediately sold. How stupid must you be? If nobody knows your name, and you’ll do something and you’ll start a contract. You must be American. I’m sorry to say, you know, if you are a little more open, if you perhaps have some idea of art, then you don’t have a contract, you do your work. I believe that’s a difference.
Wolf Lieser: What you see here these six screens on the left representing earlier works from Georg Nees from the beginnings from the 60s. The middle one and the left one are very famous pieces by him. The original plotter drawings are mostly the collection of the Kunsthalle Bremen which has a very large collection of this kind of work by him and they are much smaller, about A4.
Finally, to finish everything off, is how I received this kind of work because I only met Georg Nees once in person. And that was in 2014, two years before he passed away. And of course, we corresponded in a lot. And I had already started the online museum and represented him there, and documented everything. And when we met, it was fantastic. He was in a very good mood, he came towards me and said: “You are going to make it happen!” And that was the basis. And we had a very nice conversation. And we talked about it. And that was in 2014, when basically this market hadn’t really started, it was really very difficult at the time. So I was able to acquire these pieces, which you see here, directly from him from his studio, which was for a long time, I felt, too far away from everything else which was really collected on the market.
But I think times have changed, and many people are now getting interested in more in the over five years of what they have. And it’s from my perspective, definitely a very unique position, what he has created here with his computer graphics. So, so much for the background, why we why I’m able to show this to you now today. Would you like to say something else about Georg Nees?
Frieder Nake: The way you met him, that’s typical for him, he was a really friendly person, very modest. I never heard anything arrogant. To be with Nees was a situation where even if you didn’t know him very well, from joint undertakings and something, you always felt this is a very open situation where we could talk about everything. I do not remember very well, the situation when he came to Bremen, because he had before, maybe a month, maybe a few weeks more, when he had given his work to the Kunsthalle in Bremen. Which, by the way, it made them to have the largest collection of algorithmic art in the world. I don’t think they know this. Or at least they don’t behave in that way, to have such a treasure. They should make much more of it. But that always in a museum depends on the director.
Nees, you could say, was the friendliest person. And I believe I know why that is so. Because he was so narrow minded. Now that sounds terribly arrogant. Yes. And he was not narrow minded in the ordinary sense of that word. But as many who work for the Siemens company, they are born in Erlangen and go to school in Erlangen, and then work for the Siemens company in Erlangen and Nees after he became a pensioner, went each week to have lunch at the Siemens company. This is what I mean narrow minded. For me, this is unimaginable. How could you be so stupid to go… but he liked it. And this kind of frame of mind then meets my, I believe totally different frame of mind, in the things we do. Isn’t that interesting? The things we do is something that we give away. The way we think remains with us. And we cannot really give it away in any sense. So these two different minds meet in what they give away as objects, even though as subjects they are totally different. And it’s possible that such two very alien minds get along with each other in my life that was a lesson.
I don’t think I would have invited Georg Nees to go on holidays together. I don’t think so. But if he were here and I was across the street in the same place for holidays, I would meet him for lunch. Or, or even for a hike. We can be in our thinking of a great difference and do something where we connect. But still, as humans, we are totally different.
Wolf Lieser: That is a good final sentence because to connect us, that’s what we’re doing here. And I hope to see you again on next events which we are planning for. Thank you so much, Frieder, on breaking it down and giving us an insight on the life, or at least on the work of Georg Nees and his background. Hope you’ll join the rest of the day. And I’ll see you again. Thank you.