By Krisztina Lackoi, on 27 January 2012
Over the past two weeks we’ve been helping a group of UCL Museum Studies students who are currently working on a research project as part of their Collections Curatorship module looking into early computer art at the Slade School of Fine Art in the 1970s, and in particular the work of Chris Crabtree. Very little is known by UCL Art Museum about this period in the Slade’s history, although the 1970s seem to have been something of a golden age for the Slade, with lots of pioneering work in what we would today call new media. Even less is known about Chris Crabtree, who started out at the Slade as a student in the Etching Department in 1972 and then went on to become first a technician and then a research assistant in printmaking.
What makes Chris Crabtree so fascinating (for me anyway) is that he combined a traditional training in printmaking techniques with an interest in computer programming at a time when computers were still massively clunky machines and difficult to access (mostly to be found in university scientific research labs). I like to speculate that Chris Crabtree may have been inspired by the highly influential exhibition Cybernetic Serendipity at the ICA in 1968 – this was one of the first exhibitions showcasing the work of digital artists such as Nam June Paik, Leslie Mezei, Georg Nees, A. Michael Noll, John Whitney and Charles Csuri.
However that may have been, Crabtree was the right man in the right place at the right time: he started at the Slade at the same time as the fabulously named Department of Experiment was set up, in 1972/73. Later known as the Department of Experimental and Electronic Art, it ran until 1981. Slade artists would have had access to both hardware and the technical and scientific expertise to play around with new ideas and come up with some ground-breaking stuff.
What happened at the Department of Experiment? What was on the curriculum? What sort of art came out of this interdisciplinary approach? And most importantly – what happened to Chris Crabtree? (My searches have thrown up no trace of the man after 1980.) If you were at the Slade in the 1970s or if you know more about Chris Crabtree, we’d love to hear from you! Hopefully the UCL students will be able to shed some light on these questions, so watch this space for an update…
For some excellent articles on early British Computer art, see Catherine Mason’s work
And check out the V&A’s collections on British Computer Art