Like every cultural phenomenon, even electronic art has its historical predecessors. The most primitive form of electronic art arose in the 1940s and 1950s, when computers were enormous, mostly unfamiliar calculators that took up entire rooms within research labs. The key figures during this phase were the US mathematician Benjamin Francis Laposky (considered the father of computer graphics) and his German colleague Manfred Frank.
As far as the visual arts are concerned, Dada is undoubtedly one of the most notable predecessors of digital art. It’s no accident that many art projects created on computers still use a digital version of Dada’s most quintessential techniques, such as collage and photomontage (in digital art, the recycling of images, sounds and shapes is practically the norm). Moreover, all it takes is a quick look at the many irreverent, ironic collages that resulted from early 20th-century avant-garde art movements to see that “cut, copy and paste” certainly wasn’t invented by computer programmers.
Mail art is another important ancestor of some digital art experiences, at least in terms of its spirit. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, in the wake of pacifist movements and psychedelic culture, it was customary for young people, whether artists or not, to exchange handmade postcards with dreamy graphics as a symbol of brotherhood. In more recent decades, the postal service has been replaced by the internet, giving millions of people around the globe an outlet for their need for communication and exchange.
Optical art, kinetic art and Pop art
From a purely visual point of view, we cannot deny the impact that movements such as optical art, kinetic art, and media-obsessed Pop art have had on electronic art. In the case of op art and kinetic art, some abstract-visual styles are clearly evident and found in many contemporary multimedia installations that are the result of elaborate algorithmic calculations produced by a computer. As far as Pop art is concerned, its guru, Andy Warhol, was one of the very first artists to use a computer to create an experimental work of art (which took place in 1985 for the launch of the now-legendary Commodore Amiga 1000).
Neo Dada, Fluxus and video art
Lastly, to wrap up this section, we can’t forget the more experimental explorations of Neo Dadaism, Fluxus and video art (artists like Jean Tinguely, Wolf Vostell, and Nam June Paik are emblematic in this regard). In fact, these movements, at least at the start, were enlivened by an anti-artistic and anti-commercial fervor that was very similar in its ethos and modus operandi to that which would enliven the first works of net art, activist art and hacker art two decades later.