Does living at a technology frontier mean we can learn nothing from the past? Not in the case of that most modern of technologies, computer generated design. At Middlesex, learning from the evolution of practice and the discipline of computer aided design, notably as a stimulus to novel artistic practice, has been stimulated by looking over our shoulder.
The polymath and passionate advocate of computer technology in all its applications, most particularly in architecture and the arts, R. John Lansdown (1929-1999) was Professor Emeritus at Middlesex University - the Lansdown Centre for Electronic Arts was named after him - and in 2012 Dr Simone Gristwood received funds from the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art in order to investigate and study the Lansdown archive.
An award-winning architect, Lansdown believed in the enormous potential of computers for architecture and other creative industries, using them to aid planning, make drawings and prepare designs. The co-founder of System Simulation, which he chaired until 1988, he developed special effects for feature films such as Alien and helped realise the original animated Channel 4 logo. A co-founder of the Computer Arts Society in 1968, he wrote the column 'Not only computing - also art' for Computer Bulletin and was the author of the classic Teach Yourself Computer Graphics, as well as writing, contributing to or editing 34 other books.
"Lansdown was interested in the use of computers for choreography, visual art, computer poetry, education, so it is a really rich archive," says Dr Gristwood. "I am hoping that through the project I can promote the richness of the archive to other researchers that might be interested in various aspects of Lansdown's work. His contribution to the history of computing and art and design in the UK was huge."
The archive not only includes papers but algorithmically-generated images, animations, compositions, conversations and choreography, such as the 18-minute dance piece A/C/S/H/O commissioned by the One Extra Dance Company and performed at the Sydney Opera House in 1990. It is also home to a computer-generated swordfight created for and filmed by Tomorrow's World in 1969.
"Lansdown would programme a computer that would then create a kind of script that actors would perform. It's easy to think about computer graphics but not so easy to think about computer dance. Lansdown understood things from the point of view of people in the creative industries, he had a high level of programming skills which he was able to apply across a breadth of areas," explains Dr Gristwood. "People talk about the Hornsey legacy because Art and Design at Middlesex began as Hornsey College of Art (Founded in 1880, it was an iconic British art institution, renowned for its experimental and progressive approach to art and design education). Lansdown filled a gap between Hornsey and now in terms of the truly visionary work he did at the University. It is exciting to be discovering the breadth, depth and brilliance of his work all over again."
As other material on this site suggests, Lansdown's fertile imagination is strangely contemporary and stimulating to researchers today – and an excellent illustration of the benefits of an occasional look over the shoulder.