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Ben Laposky’s Oscillons

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Shortly after World War II, Ben Laposky began working with oscilloscopes due to his longstanding interest in geometry, curves and Lissajous pendulums. As he later noted:

The oscilloscope seemed to me to be a way of getting a wider variety of similar kinds of design and with controlled effects to produce even newer forms not feasible with previous techniques.[1]

“Controlled effects” is the key phrase here: even the primitive means of programming the oscilloscope ensured a greater variety of possible outcomes, sometimes replicating results with a pendulum but often far more complex. Laposky’s realisation that the oscilloscope could produce forms impossible by previous methods is most important. This is the dividing line marking off “Computer Art” from other forms of technological art – the combination of programming and open-endedness, an awareness of the huge variety of possible forms and the possibility of generating them through automatic processes.

[Plate XIV: Laposky’s equipment for generating oscillons]

Analogue computers operated on waveforms and frequencies by generating equivalent (analogous) currents, instead of using discrete data as with later digital computers. For artists of the time, analogue computers and oscilloscopes were part of a range of image-generating devices and there was no specific idea of “Computer Art”. As Laposky explained:

I began work in on the electronic abstractions while experimenting with other related design sources from mathematics and physics, such as harmonograph tracing machines and pendulum pattern makers. […] While these two methods gave a number of interesting designs, I felt that the electronic method had greater possibilities, especially in regard to control of the results and variety of possible forms.[2]

Laposky described how he used sine waves to produce his Oscillons, which are “unique images in light composed of waveforms as they appear on the screen of a cathode ray oscilloscope”. (p142) Each type of wave was employed to trace an image. Laposky had control over the shape and size of the images onscreen, in horizontal and vertical planes; he could move the figures about on the screen with positioning controls; and he could change the brightness and sharpness of the spot and trace line produced by the electron beam. By feeding sine waves separately into the horizontal and vertical amplifiers, a variety of shapes could be produced – and this was the crucial starting point for his Lissajous figures. Herbert Franke noted that simple Lissajous figures could be drawn with pendulums; this was one stage further, replacing the physical trace with an electron beam.[3] Importantly, Laposky constructed his own instruments to create the images, in order to reach the desired levels of complexity:

Some Oscillons involve as many as 70 different settings of controls on the oscilloscope and of other combinations of input waveform generators, amplifiers, modulating circuits and so on.” (p145)

Laposky also created coloured oscillons using red, green and blue phosphors or a circular coloured wheel rotating at various speeds.

[Coloured oscillon by Laposky]

Coloured Oscillon by Laposky

The importance of the Oscillons as a transitional form, linking abstract animation and kinetic art with post-WWII Computer Art, is that Laposky seemingly identified the essentials of the Computer artwork. The images gave the impression of spatial depth, they were often moving, they were insubstantial, and they were formed by the artist interacting with computer machinery to produce complex figures that had no parallel in previous artforms. As Laposky said: “The Oscillons are normally not accidental or naturally occurring forms – they must be composed by the conscious decision and control of the artist using the apparatus.”

Computer Art from its earliest days has revolved around the immaterial nature of the computer image. Laposky found that his glowing displays of Lissajous figures, complex curves reflected through several transformations, could only be achieved using a primitive computer. This marked an important break from previous attempts at drawing machines, which had always relied on inscribing images directly on paper. Laposky discovered that without the constraints of a physical medium, he was free to paint with phosphors on a screen, directing the cathode guns of an oscilloscope to make these structures of light.

[Examples of Laposky's Oscillons]

Laposky Oscillon

It was the inherent flexibility of the non-physical images from electronic computers that proved attractive to Laposky, as opposed to the restrictions of earlier drawing machines. These restrictions were inherent in their physical limitations, and when a general-purpose computer was able to emulate them, they were swiftly sidelined.  Even at this early stage, the non-physical and ephemeral, yet highly controllable, images generated on CRTs were the most distinctive aspect of the computer’s use in art.

He admitted that interesting forms also show up accidentally, but he thought that of all possible traces, only a small number had artistic merit. In other words, the artist’s selection was of great importance to the oscillons’ status as art. Laposky counterpoises this against his earlier statement on conscious decisions:

An entire system or theory of composition could be worked out for the oscillonic medium, but I believe that this might lessen the often spontaneous creativity which is possible by the method I have used so far.[4]

Indeed, because of the analogue nature of this computing, the results were seldom replicable. Laposky speculated that he could keep a record of all factors used, but this would often be too complex to consider. Similar problems, or challenges, occurred during the later use of the Scanimate and similar analogue systems for TV production; and are also referred to by photographer Tom Costello in his creation of abstract forms by photographic processes alone.

At the time, there were several artforms employing moving images, including abstract animation and kinetic art (though that would greatly expand during the 1960s). Laposky mentions Joseph Schillinger’s work and the harmonograph tracing machines and pendulums. He specifically says that he turned to an electronic method because he could exercise greater control over the resulting images.

Laposky considered the appeal of his work to derive from similar roots as the appeal of music, something in the rhythmical form of the animated lines, combined with the flaring trace of the beam on the oscilloscope screen. It was a series of bright threads against the darkness, quite unlike modern computer displays but similar to the vector screens used until the 1970s.

Laposky’s aesthetic recognised that his flowing lines and intersecting forms, whilst essentially abstract, could also evoke figurative images especially natural forms. He also noted that “some have mathematical precision, others are free-flowing in their curvatures and symmetries”. (p149) In this way, he also prefigured the multifarious forms made available to computer artists by the non-material basis of the computer image. Laposky considered the twin factors of time, and the impression of 3D imagery on a 2D surface which conveyed “an almost sculptural quality” on the oscillons – “luminescent moving masses … suspended in space” as he put it. (p150)[5]

[1] Ruth Leavitt, Artist and Computer (1976), p21

[2] Ben F. Laposky, “Oscillons: Electronic Abstractions” (Leonardo Vol.2, pp345-354, Autumn 1969)

See also Laposky’s interview in Ruth Leavitt’s Artist and Computer

[3] Herbert Franke, Computer Graphics, Computer Art (London, 1971)

[4] Laposky ibid

[5] Ben F. Laposky, “Oscillons: Electronic Abstractions” (Leonardo Vol.2, pp345-354, Autumn 1969) p142