Jim Boulton
7 min readMar 14, 2021

Studies in Perception — a Digital Restoration Story

In 2013, I curated the historical section of the Barbican’s Digital Revolution exhibition. My job was to tell the history of digital creativity in 100 exhibits across 4 decades, from 1970 to 2010.

Digital Revolution poster, courtesy of Mother

Despite the brief, I thought it was vital to reference the iconic work that laid the foundations, amongst the most significant of which was Ken Knowlton and Leon Harmon’s Computer Nude (Studies in Perception) from 1966.

Ken Knowlton and Leon Harmon, courtesy Nokia Bell Labs

Created in response to Robert Rauschenberg’s 9 Evenings: Theater and Engineering, it was one of the first computer-generated images, and the first nude created on a computer (it would not be the last).

Computer Nude was made at Bell Labs on an IBM 7094, a $2 million investment at the time. A black and white photograph of the dancer and choreographer Deborah Hay was reduced to a grid of grey squares. Symbols from a telephony circuit diagram were then assigned to the greyscale values of those squares.

The resulting 12 feet by 5 feet print was hung on the wall at Bell Labs. Causing outrage, it was removed after a single day. Harmon and Knowlton were told not to associate the name of Bell Labs with the artwork in any way.