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Thursday 3 December 2009

Here's one I made earlier

The discovery of one of my Mondrians at the bottom of a pile of magazines when turning out a cupboard took my mind back to those pioneering days of steam computing. And that is the reason I am posting it; not because it is important or interesting in itself, but for the back story, which you might enjoy.

In the very early 80's the government, in its infinite wisdom, decreed that every school in the land should receive a computer. Ours duly arrived, a pristine, cutting-edge BBC computer produced by Acorn to a BBC-determined, government backed specification as part of a much vaunted literacy project. Along with all the others in the land, our (Special Needs)pupils were to be whisked into the computer age. The aim was not just literacy, but computer literacy as well. All this with one computer between 130 children. And it might have happened - up to a point - had they thought to include some software in their generous package. Alas, suitable software was not available. It was in the pipeline - a rather long pipeline as it turned out. A few of us decided that we would learn a computer language and have a shot at producing some software for ourselves. (After all, computer languages couldn't be harder to learn than French or Spanish - could they?) Whatever. A combination of in-service training courses, self-help from books etc and weekend courses run by companies trying to get in on a government hand-out, resulted in a few of us becoming half-way proficient with Basic - BBC Basic to be exact.

One of the exercises I gave myself in an attempt to get to grips with graphics was to write a program that would produce Mondrians. It was primed with the few basic rules that Piet Mondrian had at one point set for himself (periodically he would modify his ules to extend what was allowed)and would either choose random values within those rules or could be controlled by the user. The rather sad, faded specimen that emerged from under that pile of magazines is probably the only original extant King-Mondrian. As a result of our efforts, we did manage to produce some programs with which to introduce our youngsters to the delights of computing whilst actually teaching them something at the same time. Very amateur they were, of course. Laughable by the standards that even very young children would come to expect in just a year or two's time, but it was - we kidded ourselves - a start. And then one wet playtime a teacher thought it a good idea to set up the computer with one of the - not very educational - games which by then had come our way. By mistake she loaded in the Mondrian. Surprisingly, they took to it, and even became very competitive in comparing their efforts. Even so, it took a new lease of life after it had been explained to them what the pattern things were. They immediately saw themselves as counterfeiters and enjoyed the feelings of doing something that could be seen as both adult and illegal. In no time at all there were Mondrians hanging on all the school walls.

Below, in fairness to Mondrian, I give you one of his.

And some of his thoughts:
Everything is composed by relation and reciprocity. Colour exists only through another colour, dimension is defined by another dimension, there is no position except in opposition to another position. Form and colour have found their proper use: From now on they will be nothing but plastic means of expression and will no longer dominate in the work as they did in the past.
Neutral line, colour and form, in other words, elements that have the appearance of something familiar, are established as a means of general expression. As these means represent the highest degree of simplification, young people are the ones who must preserve them, determine their composition, and establish them according to their nature.

In order to approach the spiritual in art, we will make as little use as possible of reality, because reality is opposed to the spiritual. Hence, there is a logical explanation for elementary forms. As these forms are abstract, we find ourselves in the presence of an abstract art.

The universal can be expressed in pure manner only when the particular does not obstruct our path.


Rachel Cotterill said...

Yes, I can see the kids would've loved that. I think we had a computer in my primary school, but we seldom if ever used it. I learnt Basic on my dad's Commodore Pet.

A Cuban In London said...

Your effort, your patience, your understanding of your pupils needs are the elements commonly found in good teaching. Your attitude to the new computing world was a testament to that. Great post and great Mondrian, an interesting image in itself.

Greetings from London.

Enchanted Oak said...

I won't pretend to understand Mondrian, but the passage you printed about spiritual versus absence of reality made clear sense to me. If I understand him, he is saying that reality has to be ignored if one is to find spirituality in art. Interesting idea.
I agree with Cuban's comment: your dedication is a testament to a fine teacher.

Barry said...

I won my first "computer", a small Sinclair whose power I believe was 5k. It had to be hooked up to the TV screen and came with a basic book on basic. There was no memory, so I had to reprogram it every time I turned it on.

Even so, I had hours of fun with in.

Never produced a Mondrian though.

David Cranmer said...

I've been a fan for a long time and your Mondrian certainly reminds me of Composition with Yellow, Blue, and Red.

Intriguing backstory.

Kass said...

I'm in awe that you delved into this world. I'll never forget my young son being able to program our computer to shuffle cards (randomize). Can everything be reduced to binary bits? Is everything eventually a number? And is that number "one?"

Dianne said...

Dave, thanks for this. We see to be following similar wavelengths....?!
I just listened to a radio NPR program interviewing the Nobel Prize Winner for physics, Frank Wilczek, and his new book The Lightness of Being. Great explanation of quarks, gluons and space in lay terms. Unfortunately I do not have time to read the book, but the interview is a wonderful synopsis for the lay person about how particles interact, and how we think about the universe....Thanks for reading my poems. You could probably hear the reading by logging onto this link in a few days when they've archived it. http://www.kcbx.org/Pages/Programming/archives.html#EarsOnArt

The Weaver of Grass said...

This made me smile Dave as I was teaching special needs at that time too and we had one computer in the classroom and absolutely no software. I tried to teach myself programming to some extent and spent weeks on perfecting a programme which, if I remember correctly was to ascertain whether I needed a large or a small removal van when I moved the contents of an imaginary house. It was a brilliant exercise in logical thinking I found, but of no use in the classroom. I took early retirement before any exciting stuff came into school. Thanks for the reminder - oh and BTW - like the Mondrian!

Kay said...

Amazing the difference of today...i relate this to a book by Malcolm Gladwell's 'Outliers' example of success.

Stephen Dell'Aria said...

Interesting post and what a beautiful Mondrian you chose to post. I love his paintings. I go pay homage to one in the National Gallery in D.C. all the time. I like your computer one too.

Jeanne Estridge said...

I think you were completely brilliant to figure out how to do this. What a wonderful tool for working with kids.

Tabor said...

Fascinating. Not a side of you I would expect. My first computer was in Indonesia and I took a class at the University of Jogjakarta just to learn how to use it. By that time there was actual software...I think Pac-man was the one I used the most...!

Dick said...

I wish I'd been as ready to embrace practically that strange new world at the beginning of the '80s. Sadly, I remained a smug Luddite into the early '90s. A not untypical stance for arts teachers to take!

A very interesting account, Dave. And a pair of splendid Mondrians.

Rosaria Williams said...

I love this story about computers, simple programs and Mondrian. Now, kids plug into all kinds of games without any help from adults.

Karen said...

I remember the Apple IIe - our first computers that were right on the heels of Pong. Does anyone remember that? Fortunately, schools these days are filled with technology; unfortunately, the technology changes faster than the schools are able to keep up with. What a different world from those first machines!

Love the Mondrians and the quotes that help understand his work a little better. I saw a roomful of his work in Vienna. Beautiful.

gleaner said...

I like these quotes of Mondrian. Your story reminds me of my first school lessons into computers - what a struggle it was to learn the meaning of foreign words like RAM ...its incredible to see the huge progress over the last 20 years and imagine a world without computers and mobile phones etc..

Cloudia said...

I'll just call you "Piet"

Aloha, Friend!

Comfort Spiral

Mariana Soffer said...

I found this post super interesting, you know I like art myself aswell, you can check my past blog entries and have an idea about what I think
regarding it. Altough I never specially focused on abstract art, which your post made me wanna dig deeper into (i love the phrase about the universal
and the particular, that is amazing). I am kind of obsessed in discovering why art produces what it does in humans emotionally, for example I can think about
pollock and math, and I know that his paintings follow fractal patterns, which might be something that pulls a special string in us. well tons more of things to say, well continue soon.
Take lots of care

Shadow said...

well, now i've learnt another thing about art forms... i've seen this before but didn't know anything about it.

Rachel Fenton said...

According to my husband (software test analyst) your programming was very advanced - he's impressed! So am I - I like your Mondrian better than the real thing!

Dave King said...

Ah, those were the days!

A Cuban in London
Thanks for that. The program had not been meant for the pupils, of course. Young and very young special needs children like them were not supposed to be able to get anything out of abstract images!

enchanted oak
Yes, you have understood Mondrians words as I understood them. I think maybe you understand his work more than you realise. Thanks for the feedback.

Don't worry, so far as I know, Mondrian never produced a Barry.

Thanks for that.

Two digits, of course: nought and one - and, yes, I guess it can. There's an opening now, for philosophical or theological speculation!

Thanks for that and, yes, I will certainly try logging on to the archive.

Weaver of Grass
We certainly were running in parallel: my first teaching program was for my infants department. The teacher wanted something to help with size estimation. My program showed a house, random size, with no roof. A series of roof appeared one at a time and they had to select the one that would fit. If they got it right the lights in the house would come on and a puff of smoke would come from the chimney.

To my mind the one unfilled promise of those years lies in the field of virtual reality.

Many thanks for that. It's actually some time since I saw an original Mondrian. I must do something about that...

Thanks for that, but I had a lot of folk giving me a helping hand.

I remember Pac-man. Actually, he's still around, I believe.

I was just a few years into my headship. As a deputy my head had got me interested in teaching machines. It seemed a logical development, so far suprior to any of the existing machines.

That's because they are so far ahead of the adults. It began to happen from the first: pupils showing teachers how to operate the equipment...

Alas, alas, I have never experienced the joys of using an Apple. I envy you that - and the roomful of Mondrians.

I quite agree... like imagining the Stone Age!

I've certainly been called worse. Thanks for the compliment.

I can relate to what you say. Maybe I can extend it in that I am fascinated by how and why our minds respond to the whole range of physical experiences - I suppose I mean visual, really. What is it about our brains, for example, that responds to a landscape? - and what is it about the landscape?

That's probably the most encouraging thing that's been said to me in a long while. It's enough to keep me blogging!


Well, what can I say? I am just very slightly gobsmacked.. I know: thank you!

Jim Murdoch said...

My first computer was a Sinclair ZX81 but I moved quickly onto a Spectrum. I felt the same about these computers as I did about my electronic organ, it wasn't enough to play (or play with) something someone else had written I wanted to compose and program on my own and I devoted an enormous amount of time to it. What I found especially challenging was cramming everything I wanted into its 48K memory. 48K! My current machine has hundreds of gigabytes and is attached to a 1TB hard drive. But my claim to fame was to write a small adventure program set in all places the holy land where you have this guy wandering round sometimes being a saint and sometimes sinning with temple prostitutes. Rather than power, which is what most programs were about, with him it was spirituality – once he had 100% he went to heaven. The real trick was incorporating graphics – still images admittedly but I had to learn machine code to manage that and that was hard.

I've always had an affection for Mondrian's art and not simply his grids. I'm sure I had a go at one myself sometime in the dim and distant past. I never really cared for all the theory behind them. As far as I'm concerned the less you need to say about a work of art the better; if you need notes to understand it then it's clearly missing something. I can appreciate works like the ones you have on your site purely as relaxing patterns and they do calm me. Occasionally I'll paste one onto my desktop which is always a black background with some work of art in the middle. At the moment it's the cover to Regina Spektor's new album, Far, which I think is lovely.

You should do a post on album art one of these days.

Madame DeFarge said...

Very clever thing to do, very impressed. Never had PCs when I was at school (pre dark ages).This would have been rather fun to do.

Unknown said...

In the 80's I think there was an apple computer programme called turtle that let you solve logic problems. I think there were locations on a grid. I remember designing a checkerboard by accurately drawing it and then hooking up with a friend and playing checkers.

Mondrian is good art for young students because of the simple shapes and primary colors. The arrangements and neatness are the most difficult aspects. Good for you Dave for designing the software! Teaching has many "side" occupations.

Unknown said...

Hi Dave,

Computer programming and I never gelled! I remember a careers adviser saying that translating a page of French prose would be a good comparison. Enough said!

Dianne said...

OK, you can hear enchanted oak and I on this link:


Winter solstice soon!

Conda Douglas said...

Cool. At first I didn't like Mondrian, until I saw a real one (not in a book, hanging on the wall in a museum). Then the pattern leapt from the canvas, vibrant and alive.

Dave King said...

I take my hat off to you. I never did get into machine code. Didn't even try to! But you're right, I had all but forgotten the work w had to put in in those days to be as frugal as possible with the memory. I have to say, I like the sound of your adventure program.

I agree completely with your remarks on Mondrian. I have only fairly recently come to a knowledge, let alone an appreciation, of his early, more naturalistic, work. I do get something out of his writings about nature and spirituality, but, strangely perhaps, I don't relate them to his paintings. I see the two as quite distinct - which, of course, he does not.

Madame DeFarge
Yup, I often feel we all missed out on that. Shame... perhaps next time around?

You are right about the turtle. I was (am?) thinking in terms of a post about it - but maybe not. It was available for P.Cs. as well as Apples and there was an actual, physical turtle which crawled around on the floor. You could program it to navigate obstacle courses or draw huge designs on sheets spread on the floor.

Mm, I'm not sure about that. It would certainly have put me off. I suppose it depends on the particular computer language.

Cheers. Will do!

That is so true of so much art. Scale has something to do with it, so do the nuances of colour and texture which do not get reproduced.

James Bent said...

You've got to kind of wonder if something gets lost just after the point kids stop becoming kids - I mean, I love Mondrian, and I can hear someone saying (the voice of the perpetual and unreasonable critic), that it's no better than something a kid could do. Maybe like Pollock or Miro or even Calder.

But I bet you ask 99 out of 100 adults to do something like that, and they'd fail, badly. And that's what kids have that a lot of people lose just after they stop being kids - the ability to express things simply and perfectly. Which is Mondrian; which is Pollock; which is Miro.

I have a short story on the ezine Splash of Red: http://splashofred.squarespace.com/fiction/2009/11/9/excerpt-from-birdcage-melodies.html , which plays on that sense of simplicity in art. I also keep a daily 1000+ word offbeat short story blog at http://jamesbent.com/blog

James Bent said...

You've got to kind of wonder if something gets lost just after the point kids stop becoming kids - I mean, I love Mondrian, and I can hear someone saying (the voice of the perpetual and unreasonable critic), that it's no better than something a kid could do. Maybe like Pollock or Miro or even Calder.

But I bet you ask 99 out of 100 adults to do something like that, and they'd fail, badly. And that's what kids have that a lot of people lose just after they stop being kids - the ability to express things simply and perfectly. Which is Mondrian; which is Pollock; which is Miro.

I have a short story on the ezine Splash of Red: http://splashofred.squarespace.com/fiction/2009/11/9/excerpt-from-birdcage-melodies.html , which plays on that sense of simplicity in art. I also keep a daily 1000+ word offbeat short story blog at http://jamesbent.com/blog

James said...

sorry for posting twice!!

Dave King said...

Welcome and many thanks for the contribution. I absolutely agree with your remarks, though they are normally applied (as I would once have applied them) to representational art. It came as a surprise to me to see that children might have the same abilities when it came to abstract art.