April 2nd, 2010

Six Prototypes for a Screensaver: A Retroactive History, Part 1

By David Reinfurt

Three minutes of doing nothing, then everything goes black. In 1983, John Socha wrote the first screensaver software to preserve the image quality of computer displays. Published in Softtalk magazine in 1983 and named SCRNSAVE, the simple program turned the user’s screen to black after three minutes of inactivity (the time could be adjusted only by recompiling the program). Personal computers were becoming affordable and popular, but their high-contrast green phosphor cathode-ray screens were subject to burn-in, where light intensity in one part of the screen left behind a permanent mark. SCRNSAVE was designed to eliminate these ghost-images and preserve the computer’s screen, coining the term and introducing a new software genre along the way.

In his small book from 1964, The Shape of Time, Yale historian George Kubler offers a useful model for constructing a retroactive history of the screensaver. Kubler proposes a realignment of art history based not on chronological procession (with one work following, updating and replacing the previous), but rather multiply-streamed parallel progressions moving through a constellation of distinct formal problems. One work does not necessarily exist at a fixed point in time, but rather connects to one or more form classes that may also have jumbled chronologies. With this rearrangement, Kubler suggests that time moves not forward in a straight line, but intermittently and coincidentally in retreating and recursive loops — “more knot than arrow”. He continues, “The rest of time emerges only in signals relayed to us at this instant by innumerable stages and by unexpected bearers…”1

Three minutes of doing nothing, then everything goes black.

Prototype 1 : 4D

Beginning in 1918, Marcel Duchamp pursued his Precision Optics project through a series of machines, films and assemblages. Rotating Glass Plates (Precision Optics), 1920, was comprised of four Plexiglas wings with black painted stripes placed along a rotating shaft. While the machine was engaged, the Plexiglas fins worked together to create a fleeting image of concentric rotating circles. Duchamp’s Precision Optics machines developed from his sustained engagement in the mathematics of Henri Poincaré, who had described a non-Euclidean geometry of four dimensions. When the three-dimensional Rotating Glass Plates machine is pushed into the fourth dimension of time (put into motion), the two-dimensional image of concentric circles results. Disks Bearing Spirals (1923), Rotative Demisphere (1924), and Disks Inscribed with Puns (1925–26) continued his Precision Optics project.

With the film Anémic Cinéma (1926), Duchamp set his machines to work. With the technical assistance of Man Ray and Marc Allegret, Duchamp filmed nineteen rotating discs, which shift between abstract optical illusions and literal puns, suggesting an infinitely rearrangeable composition (like its anagrammatic title.) As a proto-screensaver, the film is a simple graphic, made up of an elaborate mechanism and its resulting image, constantly redrawing itself. Even the themes — an animated (nonsense) message and an abstract geometry — prefigure the first screensavers. Do you remember Your Message Here, with its custom message floating aimlessly across the screen, or Mystify, and its bouncing and repeating trapezoids, from Microsoft Windows 1.0? By 1935, Duchamp attempted to commercialize this simple idea and introduced the Rotoreliefs at the Concours Lépine, an annual inventors’ fair in Paris. Designed to be played on an ordinary record player at 33 revolutions per minute, these abstract graphic disks became animated compositions when put into motion. His attempts to sell the toys to a general public proved hopeless.

American artist Alexander Calder was working in Paris at the same time and actively devising his own sculpture machines. In 1930, Calder visited Piet Mondrian’s studio and suggested to the Dutch painter that it would be lovely if his abstract compositions moved (Mondrian did not agree). Following this seminal encounter, Calder broke with his previously figurative work and began to attempt purely abstract compositions which would change over time. By 1932, he was making moving geometric constructions from wire and sheet metal. As he recalled in his autobiography: “I had been working on things with a little motion, some with more motion. I had quite a number of things that went round and round, driven by a small electric motor — some with no motor — some with a crank”. Around 1933, Marcel Duchamp paid a visit to Calder’s studio and was taken by the machines, suggesting immediately a name for them — “mobiles” — whose double meaning in French is both a “thing that moves” as well as “motive”.2

At the same time and independently, Italian designer Bruno Munari was developing his own moving models. As opposed to the underlying “motive” of Calder’s Mobiles, Munari named his constructions Useless Machines. Around 1933, Munari began to make his machines as “cardboard painted in plain colors, and sometimes a glass bubble, while the whole thing was held together with the frailest of wooden rods and bits of thread.” In Design as Art, Munari outlines the critical difference between the pure geometric abstraction of his Useless Machines and the natural figures of Calder’s Mobiles. “There is a harmonic relationship between all the parts which go to make up a useless machine…Mobiles are by nature different. The inspiration seems to be drawn from the vegetable kingdom”. Continuing, Munari describes that “the pieces of a useless machine all turn upon themselves and in respect to each other without touching” and therefore the total composition is solely determined by the unpredictable independent movement of its parts at one point in time. Meanwhile, Alexander Calder’s compositions mimic natural form with individual parts subordinate to a continuous whole. “One might say that Calder was the first sculptor of trees.”3

After his “beautiful machine” of 1855.

Prototype 2 : Phasing

An oscilloscope is a piece of electronic test equipment first developed in the mid-twentieth century, which allows signal voltages to be viewed as a two-dimensional graph of potential differences, plotted as a function of time. When testing an electronic system, the phase differences between two signals form two sinuous curves on the green phosphor screen of the ‘scope, connected together, constantly drawing and redrawing themselves as a horizontal figure eight. Two signals of varying frequency and phase result in a perpetual infinity (figuratively and literally as it actually constructs itself in the shape of the infinity sign given the right starting values), drawing and redrawing itself over and over, a picture of timing and sequence in the center of the screen. The familiar resulting shapes are known as Lissajous curves after French mathematician Jules Antoine Lissajous and his “beautiful machine” of 1855.

Devised to draw a picture of two superimposed systems falling into and out of phase, Lissajous’ machine was constructed of a pair of tuning forks placed facing at right angles, each with a mirror attached. The light source is focused through a lens, bouncing off the first onto the second and projecting to a large screen a few feet away. As the tuning forks are struck and tones are produced, simple vibrations begin to move the mirrors in a regular oscillating pattern. The projected image forms the strange and beautiful curves of a Lissajous figure that result from viewing a two-variable parametric equation calculate and recalculate itself over time.

The Lissajous figure returns in the title sequence of Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958) with the complex of lines spiraling out from the human eye in the first minutes of the film. These special-effect graphics were produced by California filmmakers John and James Whitney. Familiar with their previous short abstract films, title designer Saul Bass asked the Whitney brothers to contribute a visual sequence to the opening titles.

James Whitney had studied engineering in his native California while John Whitney left for France to study music. John began making short abstract films that he saw as analogues to his music while living in Paris in 1938. (Did he see Duchamp’s Rotoreliefs? Calder’s Mobiles?) He expanded the idea on returning to Los Angeles and made Five Film Exercises (1943 – 44) together with his brother James. The film was produced using an optical film printer of their own design based on the rotating mechanism from a salvaged U.S. Army M-5 anti-aircraft controller and multiple cards with apertures of varying size and alignment. The Whitney brothers would continue to develop the small-house-sized machine for forty years in their Los Angeles backyard workshop.

In Yantra (“machine” in Sanskrit) (1950–57), the Whitney brothers used a stack of punched cards to create optical effects (much as a computer of that time would use punchcards to load its program). Layering these and projecting light through each while moving, they were able to produce compelling moving images of phasing and interference. John continued to push with increasingly technical methods for creating his abstract images. By Permutations (1968), he was already employing the latest computer graphics systems and advanced military motion tracking facilities to produce his not-yet-screensavers. Other filmmakers built directly on what the Whitneys started.

Notably, towards the end of Stanley Kubrick’s film 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Douglas Trumbull created a completely abstract fantasy of timing and light to a soundtrack by avant composer Gyorgi Ligeti. The resulting scene, produced with an analog machine very similar in design to the Whitneys’, was titled Beyond the Infinite and looks remarkably like the current Macintosh OS X default screensaver, Flurry.

Meanwhile in 1968, a Physicist from Ann Arbor, Michigan invented another system for constructing pictures of phase and sequence. Lloyd G. Cross invented Sonovision, a simple laser light show which could be used to project a “visual display of sound” (U.S. Patent No. 779,510,27). His device consisted of a loudspeaker with a reflective membrane and a helium-neon laser pointed at the reflective surface to produce patterns on a wall or screen in time to the music fed to the loudspeaker. A self-contained 2-megawatt version in a futuristic-looking molded case was offered for $1,095. The Sonovision’s operation is described best by an early fan:

When one simple sound or musical note is introduced, the dot moves in an ellipse at the frequency of the sound supplied. When the note is changed, a different ellipse with a new orientation is formed. When two notes are introduced simultaneously, the laser beam produces a combination of the two ellipses, similar to the Lissajous patterns obtained from cathode-ray tubes. Thus a symphony of notes will result in a symphony of ellipse interference patterns on the display screen.4

Laser light shows were almost immediately combined with live musical performance, first in a production of “Faust” in Finland, famously by Pink Floyd and infamously by Blue Oyster Cult, who in 1976, recklessly pointed the lasers back at the audience causing minor injuries and considerable concern. Well-known light show technicians of the time included Mark Boyle and Joan Hills (London), The Joshua Light Show (New York) and Single Bird Turquoise Wing (Los Angeles). Each began with a simple graphic and complex system — Boyle and Hillis used corrosive chemicals on an overhead display, The Joshua Light Show combined moving lights and simple shapes, while Single Bird Turquoise Wing used multiple media. These psychedelic light shows tried to create a visual composition which, although recognizable in its parts, never performed itself the same way twice.

Breaking like surf on a shore until whole patterns of color are bounding to get in.

Prototype 3 : Flicker

In the early 1960s, poet Brion Gysin created a machine to produce similarly psychedelic syntheses of constantly evolving light patterns. While living with William Burroughs at the Beat hotel on Gît-le-Coeur, Paris, and with the aid of Cambridge mathematician Ian Somerville, Gysin designed a simple paper cylinder with periodic apertures surrounding a bare light bulb placed on a rotating turntable at 78 rpm. The resulting flickering light repeats at a constant frequency between 8 and 13 Hz matching the brain’s alpha waves present in deep relaxation, such as drifting into sleep.

When a viewer closes their eyes, sits close to the machine and the turntable is started, the flickering light induces waves of color and repeating geometric patterns that form and re-form in the mind’s eye. Ian Somerville described the experience in a letter to Gysin:

Visions start with a kaleidoscope of colors on a plane in front of the eyes and gradually become more complex and beautiful, breaking like surf on a shore until whole patterns of color are bounding to get in. After awhile the visions were permanently behind my eyelids and I was in the middle of the whole scene with limitless patterns being generated around me. 5

Unlike a pharmacological trip, the experience ends when the user opens their eyelids. Gysin called his vision machine for closed eyes the Dreamachine.

Between 1922 and 1930 in Berlin, László Moholy-Nagy was at work on his own flicker machine. Working sporadically with the help of a technician and an engineer, Moholy-Nagy designed and constructed the Light Prop for an Electric Stage (also known as the Light-Space Modulator.) The approximately 120 cm x 120 cm construction was made of chrome-plated steel, aluminum, glass, and Plexiglas perforated discs, armatures and planes mounted on a rotating turntable and a wood base. Moholy-Nagy described it as a lighting mechanism for demonstrating “both plays of light and manifestations of movement”. When put into motion and placed in the middle of a room (as originally conceived for the Provinzialmuseum, Hannover), the parts each move individually in a constantly changing arrangement. Stationary light sources are directed at the assembly illuminating a continuously moving mechanism and producing shadows, reflections and transmissions in an always-changing light play. Like Duchamp, Moholy-Nagy also used this machine to produce films including Lichtspiel, Schwarz-Weiss-Grau. The abstract film records the flat flickering light compositions projected on the wall from Moholy-Nagy’s complex mechanism. Describing the machine’s purpose, László said simply, “This piece of lighting equipment can be used to arrive at countless optical conclusions.”6

Similar tendencies circulated around early television and video art in the United States. After studying film and graphics at Cooper Union and at Black Mountain College, Stan VanDerBeek began investigations into using computer software to create video and television works. In Image After Image After Image (1966), VanDerBeek worked together with computer programmer Ken Knowlton to create “mental movies” — abstract processions of graphics and programmatic imperatives that could only be realized in real-time. The resulting all-over compositions were produced by generating a random two-color pattern in one part of the screen, duplicating and repeating this seed to form an 8-fold kaleidoscope symmetry.

In 1965, Nam June Paik produced Magnet TV, attaching a heavy grade magnet to a normal television set (cathode ray tube) to constantly and unpredictably alter the cathode rays and produce abstract, changing patterns. Later, Steina and Woody Vasulka created Noisefields (1974), consisting of a circle keyed on a background of electronic snow. The flickering circle appears and disappears, articulating the full range of possible colors and patterns of interference with the artifacts of its own reproduction. It seems more than coincidence that the primary journal collecting this emerging televisual work was called Radical Software.

Six prototype softwares together with this text comprise a retroactive history of the screensaver. All screensavers are available for sale online at www.o-r-g.com/O-R-G

O-R-G designs, makes and sells small, specific softwares.

Six Prototypes for a Screensaver was commissioned for “Quick, Quick, Slow: Word, Image and Time”. Curated by Emily King, this exhibition is a co-production between Museu Colecção Berardo and ExperimentaDesign Lisboa 2009, 10 September – 29 November.

Text and software © 2009, David Reinfurt

1. George Kubler, The Shape of Time: Remarks on the History of Things (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1962).
2. K.G. Pontus Hultén, The Machine as Seen at the End of the Mechanical Age (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1968).
3. Bruno Munari, Design As Art (London: Pelican Books, 1971).
4. Bruce Sterling, “The Dead Media Mailing List,” Link.
5. John Geiger, Nothing is true — everything is permitted, the life of Brion Gysin (New York: The Disinformation Co., 2005).
6. Ibid. 2