Computer Nude (Studies in Perception I) (1967) was one of the earliest ASCII artworks. Made by two engineers from Bell Laboratories – Leon Harmon and Ken Knowlton – Computer Nude was made using a transparency of a photograph of choreographer Deborah Hay. The transparency was scanned, with the visual information stored as a series of pulses, processed by the computer, and printed out as a drawing made up of symbols. Widely spaced multiplication and division signs make up the highlights of Hay’s arms as she reclines, while tightly bunched symbols make up her navel and one visible nipple. Much like in a pointillist painting, up close the symbols look like random little groups of shading. Zoomed out, they reveal a gently shaded and undulating human form – hard code turned soft through creativity.
The image was later displayed at an event organised by Robert Rauschenberg which sought “to bring modern technological tools to the artist for creating new art forms and fresh insights and viewpoints to the engineer for creating a ‘people-oriented’ technology’”. That ASCII had been created for a more practical purpose was by-the-by. Combining its technical capabilities with the possibilities of artistic thinking allowed engineer-artists like Harmon and Knowlton to extend its relevance.