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  • Early computer art at UCL Art Museum

    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

    13 Responses to “Early computer art at UCL Art Museum”

    • 1
      Colin Gale wrote on 5 April 2012:

      I was in the experimental department 1978 – 80. I was, am still, a computer artist, amongst other things.
      I don’t recollect much of Chris but I remember Julian and Chris Briscoe and some fellow students.
      I am just documenting my computer art practice so came across your post, mostly I have exhibited paintings over the years, but kept doing the computer work. My website is prehistoric now and doesn’t show much of my computer work.
      Happy to answer any questions you have about that time.
      Kind Regards

    • 2
      Krisztina Lackoi wrote on 13 April 2012:

      Hi Colin,
      Thanks for getting in touch. The UCL students looking into this period of Slade’s history have a fabulous blog, which I can highly recommend:
      There seems to be a lot of interest in early British computer art now, so it would be great to see more of your own work online. What we’ve struggled with in particular has been grasping the often highly complex techniques and programming behind these art works, so any technical descriptions would be especially welcome!
      All the best,

    • 3
      Colin Gale wrote on 31 May 2013:

      sorry for taking such a long time to reply! I have just had an ebook published on the iBookstore ‘Colin Gale Computer Art 1980-2010’ if anyone is interested. I have also kept a number of programme listings from around that time if anyone wants to see what went on. I also still have the original film stock of my work that was programmed by Chris Briscoe. I will have a look at the blog, thanks. Colin

    • 4
      Krisztina Lackoi wrote on 31 May 2013:

      Colin, if you’re ever in London do pop in to the Art Museum, as we would be keen to talk to you about the film stock you mention. You might also be interested in a new exhibition in UCL’s Octagon Gallery (Main Building), Digital Frontiers, which features 3 early computer art prints from our collections. All the best, Krisztina

    • 5
      Colin Gale wrote on 3 June 2013:

      Hi, I have an old vhs copy shot from the films that I am meaning to digitise into an mpeg or similar, however they are a bit more dramatic when projected. The 16mm film you can have if you like, there are 3 to 5 animations I think on two reels, its a long time since I have looked. I will let you know next time I am coming to London, happy to let you have them.
      Kind Regards

    • 6
      Krisztina Lackoi wrote on 4 June 2013:

      Thanks Colin, do get in touch via if you’re heading to London, and we can talk about the films then. Any acquisitions would need to be approved by a committee, but we would certainly be curious to see the material you have. Many thanks and all the best, Krisztina

    • 7
      Stephen Bell wrote on 13 December 2013:

      I was a student in the experimental and electronic art dept from 77-79. Chris Crabtree’s work was a major influence on the work that I have done since. His storyboard prints showed me how programming could generate narratives and led me to experiment with programs that might automatically produce comics based on computer gaming which led onto the Smallworld works.
      I have loads of memories of the people exploring the use of computers in at The Slade at the time, including Chris and the people Colin mentioned. It was a really exciting situation to be in having access to such a rare technology as an art student. Happy to meet with anyone interested in the era. There are examples of the work I did at the time on my website.

    • 8
      Krisztina Lackoi wrote on 13 December 2013:

      Thanks Stephen – and great to see the development of your work on your website. I will let our Curator know about your work, especially as we would really like to mount an exhibition at some point in the future about Early Computer Art at the Slade.

    • 9
      Stephen Bell wrote on 25 January 2014:

      Hi Krisztina, thanks for your reply. An exhibition as you suggest would be very interesting historically. There are many pieces that I saw at the time which would be good to see again, both to see the work and to find out what people would think of it now.
      I have kept much of the work I did at the time, including plots that went wrong, programs and print-outs from interaction with the computer, my notes and notes from my tutors, etc. and would be happy to show them to your curator if there is any interest.

    • 10
      David Armstrong wrote on 22 February 2014:

      This is for Chris Crabtree I have a drawing called the toy 18/40 .I would just like to know the value on this print.I found it in my dumpster I now have it on my wall it is a great peace of fine art.I do some India art style. Can you get back to me on the value of your artwork that I have thank you Dave Armstrong.

    • 11
      Krisztina Lackoi wrote on 24 February 2014:

      Hi Dave, what a lucky find! We don’t give valuations on artwork at UCL Museums, but you could try taking the print to a professional art dealer. Regardless of its commercial value the fact that you’re looking at some very early experimentations with computer art make Chris Crabtree’s work really quite special in my eyes.

    • 12
      chris woods wrote on 22 May 2014:

      Hi Krisztina,
      Very interesting to find this blog – I went to the Slade from 1972-74 and was a fellow student at the time with Chris – we are both originally from Canada and became very close friends living in the Slade Hostel together – He came to visit me about 4 or 5 years ago – here in Nova Scotia – but have been out of tough since – I was trying to see if I could find him online as I am traveling to London this week and had hoped to get together with him.
      I do have a few of his early prints – I would be happy to get together when I’m over if you are interested – you can email me

      all the best

    • 13
      Krisztina Lackoi wrote on 23 May 2014:

      Chris, thanks for getting in touch! I will send you a PM as I’d be interested to find out more about what it was like to study at the Slade in the 70s with all the computer art experimentation happening. Not to mention all the wild goings-on at the Slade Hostel! All the best, Krisztina

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