Abstractagraph – a blast from the past and a peak into the future #BolamProspective #BolamAt60 #RichardBolam

Back in the 1980s, I had access to a ZX Spectrum home computer. It’s difficult to communicate the excitement we felt at the time, especially given the limited nature of home computer hardware back then, but the exhilaration of its potential was palpable.

I kind of discovered algorithmic / generative / computational art for myself because my main interest was in using computers for creating on-screen graphics, starting with the obvious string patterns, but moving on to other algorithmically created graphics. I still have that same ZX Spectrum but I haven’t tried to boot it up for years, never mind try to run the programs I wrote, loaded from (yes, really) cassette tapes.

There are many technologies that I will not miss and magnetic tape is one of them.

I had an idea to create a program that would create on-screen graphics using a number of algorithmic routines and would assemble and combine created images into new images, all of which would be informed by the rules of classical composition. Here is a program that was published in a magazine entitled “Your Spectrum” in 1985 that I actually typed in, line by line, and this is the kind of thing that I found interesting in those days. It was written by Colin Barnsley and called “The Squirler” and you can actually run this program under emulation here:

I came up with the name Abstractagraph, although these days I would have come up with something much cleverer. What’s more, it’s not really abstraction but whatever, for historical / conceptual reasons I am going to stick with that name. My intention for Abstractagraph is somewhat less formal than what The Squirler produced, although it might include some of this kind of geometry.

As I remember it, everything was a struggle, and that went on for me until the 1990s when I was writing commercial software for Macs and PCs and, after the crushing depression of my own software business failing in 1998, followed by a very brief stint in corporate IT, I was enormously relieved to get out of software development all together, at that time.
The rest of the story is very complicated and not particularly interesting but, suffice to say, the world of computing has completely transformed in the last 20 years. Throughout the 2000s, I accumulated various Macs as they started to become obsolete and businesses upgraded. I made some installation works and screen-based generative works using this obsolete-but-still-functioning technology, including HyperScape (2004).

The world turns and many years pass.

With hindsight, I think I wasted a lot of time thinking about which software tool to use to achieve this and other projects. However, I never lost interest in Abstractagraph and thought about how to achieve it many times. These days, SOHO computers are amazingly cheap and reliable and the choice of software (much of it free and open-source) is quite overwhelming. Back in the 80s, there were other languages that you could load and use, but mostly you were limited to whatever was built in to the computer you chose to use. In the 1990s and 2000s, I got really interesting in the very-high-level programming environments such as HyperCard and SuperCard, both on the Macintosh platform and it seemed to me for a long while that these highly-accessible, application development environments would solve all our software development problems. But they didn’t.

I also wasted a lot of time on AppleScript and Automator, both of which promised much but delivered pretty much fuck all. I loved HyperCard but Apple abandoned it decades ago. I loved SuperCard (HyperCard on steroids) but Adobe bought it and abandoned that too. SuperCard has been rescued, although I think it’s too late for me and to my thinking it is still not nearly complete and mature enough, and this is where I get to the point.

Despite being loyal to the MacOS platform for many years, because of the way the world has changed and not least the planned obsolescence of Apple Computer Inc, I have decided to move away from Mac and towards Linux. Although I still have many working Macs, and still use a great number of packages of favoured, platform-specific software, many of the older computers are starting to fail, and this left with a dilemma when I was testing them before Sheffield’s Open Up open studios event in May 2018. The video shows a close up of HyperScape 1 running on a rather battered SE/30.

I have shelves full of old Mac hardware, mostly obtained free, but a lot of it is starting to fail and I have the choice of spending a significant amount of time repairing and refurbishing these machines, or not.

In the meantime, LED TVs have got very big and very good, and single board computers like the Raspberry Pis have got very small and very fast, and they consume a fraction of the energy. Other factors include the maturing of open-source software and the establishment of new standards, and so I have decided to get rid of all the old Macs and standardise the development of the many conceived-but-unimplemented projects that I have in mind, with rock solid linux-based Raspberry Pis and big, beautiful, flat, lightweight non-CRT screens that are are sold on the high street and can be lifted with one hand.

The cathode ray tube is another technology that I will not miss.

So far, I have only dabbled to varying degrees, but I will be developing any technology-based projects using a mixture of Python, Bash, Processing, HTML, CSS & Javascript, none of which have that friendly Mac look-and-feel that I used to be so enamoured of, but which actually deliver the goods. I am not exactly sure how this is going to work out, but I think the Abstractagraph project will diverge into a number of smaller projects, each with a more refined and individual visual vocabulary. At least some of the iterations of Abstractagraph will be written in HTML, CSS & Javascript and delivered purely client-side, in a browser, but some might use image manipulation available in ImageMagick & Bash, server-side, and broadcast to web pages. “Scribble” (above) will be one of the first functions I want to implement.

HyperScape X at Access Space, Sheffield in 2014:

I have no timescale or deadline for this project, well, other than between 24th April 2024 and 23rd April 2025, the duration of my major retrospective Richard Bolam at 60, but seeing as I had the original idea in the 1980s, it’s already late, so whatever. Updates will be posted on its own blog site:

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