An Evening of Computer Films with Ken Knowlton: Thinking Machines in the Computer Age (1959–1989)


The Lowdown

Spring is right around the corner and we’re gearing up to relaunch our Tech Tours programming where we visit locations and experiences that offer an informative, unique perspective on emerging technology, innovation and the future. For this excursion, we’ll be attending a special, one-time only event, An Evening of Computer Films with Ken Knowlton, which is part of MoMa’s exhibition, Thinking Machines: Art and Design in the Computer Age, 1959–1989.

As technological innovation accelerates with the rise AI, 3D printing, quantum computing and other technologies, it becomes all the more important that we look back at how we’ve progressed to understand the complicated path of innovation throughout human history. Attending this presentation being given by Ken Knowlton who, as a member of the Bell Labs research team in 1963, developed the BEFLIX (Bell Flicks) programming language for bitmap computer-produced movies, is a rare opportunity to understand an exceptional era in computer innovation and is a reminder of the of the crucial role of the arts in science and technology innovation.

[NOTE: Tickets go on sale March 12 at Moma’s website. If you’d like us to remind you to purchase tickets, click the reminder button above. Also, we’ll keep you posted of any changes or news about the event.]

About An Evening with Ken Knowlton:

Kenneth C. Knowlton

As a member of the Bell Labs research team from 1964 to 1982, Ken Knowlton was an instrumental figure in early computer animation. In 1964, Knowlton developed the BEFLIX programming language, one of the first designed specifically for rendering and animating images. During his tenure at Bell Labs, Knowlton created many computer images and films, usually in collaboration with other mathematicians, scientists, and visual artists. As a champion of computational art, Knowlton regularly encouraged artists to explore the medium and provided technical assistance, while they, in turn, impacted his own artistic output.

One of his earliest works, Computer Nude (1967), made in collaboration with Leon Harmon, was featured in MoMA’s 1968 exhibition The Machine as Seen at the End of the Mechanical Age. As part of the exhibition, Knowlton also hosted a screening of computer films by various artists working in this nascent form. Over the next few decades, he further developed BEFLIX and other languages for scientific applications while also collaborating with a wide variety of artists to help realize their visions. His impact still reverberates 50 years later. For this Modern Mondays evening, Ken Knowlton looks back on his career and those early days of computer animation. Original 16mm films by Knowlton and other artists will be screened, after which he will be joined by writer and critic Rebekah Rutkoff and MoMA associate media conservator Peter Oleksik for a conversation.

Ken Knowlton on Innovation:

Kenneth C. Knowlton (Photo Credit: Kenneth C. Knowlton)

“For people who believe in science, and who still believe in technology, [Bell Labs] was the epitome of free exploration into how the world did, or could, work. For those concerned with tangible results, the verdict, albeit delayed, is indisputable: fiber optics, the transistor, Echo and Telstar, radio astronomy including confirmation of the Big Bang. Advances in metallurgy, computational methods, and all manner of information storage, transmission and processing.

Bell Labs truly was a national resource, and for anyone who was there or who cared, its decline is one of the great tragedies of the past half century… We were all trying, exploring and enjoying things made possible by new hardware and software. Few of us were aware that we were making History — a misfortune for historians because both stories and artifacts, who knows how many, have slid into oblivion.

[In 1964] Bell Labs arranged a press conference for fellow movie makers and me to crow about our accomplishments. I remember in particular one reporter who badgered me about the possibility of someday resurrecting Rock Hudson and Doris Day, by computer, to star in posthumous movies. I argued that nothing like that would ever happen: it was too complicated, and certainly not worth the effort; computers were for serious scientific movies, for example about atoms, whose cavorting could be scripted by vectors and equations. Unswayed, his newspaper story about computer animation featured Rock Hudson and Doris Day. (As we all now know, the obstreperous reporter’s imagination was right on target.)”

About Thinking Machines Exhibit

Drawn primarily from MoMA’s collection, Thinking Machines: Art and Design in the Computer Age, 1959–1989 brings artworks produced using computers and computational thinking together with notable examples of computer and component design. The exhibition reveals how artists, architects, and designers operating at the vanguard of art and technology deployed computing as a means to reconsider artistic production. The artists featured in Thinking Machines exploited the potential of emerging technologies by inventing systems wholesale or by partnering with institutions and corporations that provided access to cutting-edge machines. They channeled the promise of computing into kinetic sculpture, plotter drawing, computer animation, and video installation. Photographers and architects likewise recognized these technologies’ capacity to reconfigure human communities and the built environment.

Thinking Machines includes works by John Cage and Lejaren Hiller, Waldemar Cordeiro, Charles Csuri, Richard Hamilton, Alison Knowles, Beryl Korot, Vera Molnár, Cedric Price, and Stan VanDerBeek, alongside computers designed by Tamiko Thiel and others at Thinking Machines Corporation, IBM, Olivetti, and Apple Computer. The exhibition combines artworks, design objects, and architectural proposals to trace how computers transformed aesthetics and hierarchies, revealing how these thinking machines reshaped art making, working life, and social connections.

Exhibit runs through April 8, 2018.

Start Time

7:00 pm

March 26, 2018

Finish Time

9:00 pm

March 26, 2018


The Museum of Modern Art, 11 West 53 Street, New York, NY 10019 Please enter at 18 West 54 Street, Floor T2, Theater 2

Event Participants