PRINT November 2019


Ulla Wiggen, Simultantolkning (Simultaneous Interpretation), 1965, acrylic on wooden panel, 42 1⁄2 × 61".

ULLA WIGGEN’S PAINTINGS ARE ENIGMAS. Flat, dense, and obsessive, her mid-’60s depictions of circuitry and electronics resemble diagrams, but instead of informational clarity they express an arcane strangeness. New York audiences received an introduction to the Swedish artist earlier this year, when a selection of her paintings appeared in “Vista View,” an exhibition curated by Caleb Considine at Galerie Buchholz. Here, art historian Ina Blom elucidates the early context of Wiggen’s work, teasing out its affinities and entanglements with modernism’s ongoing mediation of bodies and machines.

Ulla Wiggen, Vägledare (Microcircuit), 1967, acrylic on wooden panel, 27 1⁄2 × 27 1⁄2".

ON PAGE SIXTY-FOUR of the information-filled catalogue for “Cybernetic Serendipity,” the legendary 1968 exhibition devoted to the new computer arts, two paintings appear without curatorial commentary. On the previous page, art critic Henry Martin describes the humanist concern for the “world behind a machine” in Lowell Nesbitt’s paintings of computer equipment in minimalist office settings. Such concern is not in evidence in the works shown on page sixty-four. Beside a painting titled TRASK, 1967, all we find is a brief caption containing basic technical facts. The work is said to show elements from the transistorized sequence calculator, or TRASK, built in Stockholm by Gunnar Hellström in 1965—a modernized version of the Swedish computer BESK related to the American computer ILLIAC. (For a short period, TRASK was the fastest computer in the world, but that fact is not mentioned here.) The second painting, an abstract-looking composition in hues of red and yellow titled Vägledare (Microcircuit), 1967, features no commentary at all. Apparently, words are bound to fail paintings that come across as flatly factual, anti-humanist, “technical” to the core. What these works give us are simply glimpses of the machine world of electronic components, presented with diagrammatic precision as surfaces isomorphic with the picture plane. And, like diagrams, they appear to have no ambience, tone, or point of view.

Ulla Wiggen, TRASK, 1967, acrylic on wooden panel, 59 × 31 1⁄2".

Jasia Reichardt, who organized the exhibition, may have considered these works perfect icons of an art of and about machines. Yet in so many ways, the paintings, made by Ulla Wiggen, a Swedish artist then in her mid-twenties, were also fundamentally at odds with the exhibition’s general theme. For “Cybernetic Serendipity” documented the emphatic passage from an art of machine imagination to an art of machine function. In this context, machine images were not icons but indexes—that is to say, traces of electronic operations and network dynamics, cybernetics in practice. Which is why parts of the show must have come across as a tech fair for the many computer-driven drawing machines developed in the 1950s and ’60s. On display, for instance, were Ivan Moscovich’s pendulum harmonograph, which produced stunningly beautiful Lissajous curves, and Desmond Paul Henry’s drawing computer, an unprogrammable modified mechanical analog computer whose visual output was based on pure chance. And in the computer graphics of Frieder Nake and Michael Noll, starkly diagrammatic images spoke the language of programmability—for example, a computer’s capacity to generate an image similar to the distributed “plus and minus” signs of Mondrian’s 1917 Composition with Lines. Freshly made “Mondrians” abounded; in one informal survey, according to the catalogue, fifty-nine out of one hundred viewers claimed to prefer the computer versions.1 Such projects typified the radically relational systems aesthetics that Jack Burnham identified in 1968, the same year of the exhibition, as the key artistic impulse of advanced technological culture.

As a painting, Simultantolkning is a lot of nothing. It is dry, informational, boring, and adamantly self-effacing.

Wiggen’s paintings were different. There was, quite simply, nothing technical or cybernetic about them, at least not in Burnham’s sense of the term. TRASK, for instance, was a highly approximate portrait of machine insides, depicting a free combination of unrelated technical elements that just happened to strike Wiggen as pleasing when she was invited by Hellström to view and photograph the newly developed mainframe computer in Stockholm in 1967. She had those kind of connections. During the first half of the ’60s, she was married to Knut Wiggen, the electronic composer who was also head of Fylkingen, a legendary Swedish artist-run organization devoted to experimental music and art that provided a venue, in 1963, for some of the earliest computer-music concerts. Always attuned to technical stuff (childhood ambition: to become an engineer), she felt particularly happy in this environment of screens, relays, and circuit boards and frequently made use of the library at Stockholm’s KTH Royal Institute of Technology. In the painting, however, the voluminous contents of the massive TRASK cabinets were reduced to a vertically organized surface pattern, evoking the world of engineering yet also radically separated from it. The divorce between diagrammatic pattern and machine function is even more profound in Simultantolkning (Simultaneous Interpretation), 1965—perhaps the most emphatically “technical” of all Wiggen’s paintings from the ’60s. It is an interesting piece, situated confidently at the margins of painting, equally remote from the languages of abstraction and representation. Her earliest attempt at a larger work, and also her first made with acrylic—until then she had made tiny gouaches—Simultantolkning is a flat white rectangular surface almost entirely covered with the fine lines of a circuit diagram. The lines are mostly black, but some are red, and thicker lines in green or blue frame certain areas. While there are figures that would be recognizable to the technically literate—arrows indicating grounding, elliptical forms that might be radio vacuum tubes, symbols for resistors and capacitors—an engineer would be quick to point out that nothing could be built based on these diagrams. There is no technical coherence. It is, after all, just a painting, and the rules of physics do not apply. 

Ulla Wiggen, Förstärkare (Amplifier), 1964, gouache on wooden panel and gauze, 13 3⁄4 × 9 7⁄8".

BUT AS A PAINTING, Simultantolkning is also a lot of nothing. It is dry, informational, boring, and adamantly self-effacing, with little visual interest and no texture to speak of. It evinces none of the optical play or muscular physicality of much abstract art, and is also distant from the high-octane motifs of Pop art and Photorealism. It resembles a throwaway blueprint, a mass-produced set of plans from the realm of infrastructure, a glimpse of a world normally kept out of sight owing to its largely inscrutable technical vocabulary. Yet the work could hardly be called ephemeral. It is the result of a painstaking process: Creating the perfectly straight and almost impossibly thin lines in paint—which from a distance look as if made with a ruler and pen—required meticulous taping. And the design of the complex diagram demanded much premeditation. The whole thing was ambitious, an artistic investment as well as a financial one: Wiggen could only just afford the paint needed to finish the work.

To listen to Wiggen speak about her early work is to have your visions of modernist lineages and their current technopolitical transformations irrevocably deflated.

Like other ambitious paintings, Simultantolkning compels us to look for historical precedents, if only to gain a preliminary sense of grounding. Surely the work must be calling back to the many grids and straight lines of twentieth-century art—all those subtle and not-so-subtle mediations of modern industrial infrastructure and engineering. Surely it must be in dialogue with Francis Picabia’s mecanomorphic portrait-drawings, the disarticulated, diagram-like bodies that appeared in the Dada journals 291 and 391. At this point, projective imagination takes over. Picabia’s drawings famously associated modern mechanisms with the sexuality of jeunes filles, the hardened, liberated young American women of the 1910s and ’20s, who wore ever-shorter skirts behind the wheels of their automobiles.2 Could it be that in Wiggen’s work the young girl has stepped out of the murky realm of techno-erotic metaphor and become herself an agent, a producer of machine imagery? It is tempting to think of Wiggen at that time—the mid-’60s—as the quintessential young girl of the sexual-machinic revolution, and not simply because of her age. Picabian tropes were resonating across the predominantly masculinist art-and-technology scene. Working as Öyvind Fahlström’s assistant, Wiggen was conscripted to perform in Kisses Sweeter Than Wine, 1966, Fahlström’s contribution to the legendary 1966 performance series “9 Evenings: Theatre & Engineering,” organized in New York as part of Billy Klüver’s Experiments in Art and Technology (E.A.T.). Dressed in a bikini and placed in an inflatable pool half filled with a pink gelatinous substance, she was observed by a closed-circuit video camera—embedded in electronic feedback. Or engaged in machine intercourse: Fahlström’s original plan was to place electrical massage apparatuses on her chest so as to produce constant orgasms. However, engineers sensibly prevented the dangerous combination of liquids and electronic instruments, and Wiggen’s task was reduced to that of faking an orgasm—not easy while also trying to stay in position in the slippery jelly.

Francis Picabia’s cover of 291, nos. 5–6 (July–August 1915).

In recent years, however, the technicity of the young-girl trope has grown exponentially: Thanks to the writings of the collective behind the journal Tiqqun, “young-girl,” now hyphenated, has become the general nongendered signifier for capitalist proliferation in the media age, the brand name for a type of being who “lives on the same plane as Technology” and “advances like a living engine,” directed and directing herself toward the spectacle. And the only function of this girl-engine is to reduce everything she touches to a young-girl.3 If girls are still a minority in tech businesses, they are nevertheless biopolitically coded as pure machinic potential. Of course, the expanded concept of the machine in postautonomist political thought would be worth little without nods to the power of female reproductive labor and general care for the self and others, which are central to the increasing exploitation of life forces of all sorts. Yet as philosopher Nina Power has noted, one could ask where actual young women see themselves in this breathlessly hyphenated, hyperbolic analysis.4 Do they, like Wiggen, produce their own flatly derouted machine visions? Dysfunctional, resistant diagrams?

Desmond Paul Henry, Untitled, 1963, ink on paper, 9 7⁄8 × 7 7⁄8".

OH, PROJECTION. To listen to Wiggen speak about her early work is to have your visions of such modernist lineages and their current technopolitical transformations irrevocably deflated. No, at the time she was not particularly interested in, or knowledgeable about, modern art. There was no Picabia in her world. And no Mondrian or Rodchenko either, for that matter. What did she like, then? Italian Renaissance painting. OK, so the mathematical construction of perspectival space, then? The machinery of vision? Again, no. It was the representation of the human body that fascinated her. The bright-blue sky. Things like that.5 There are few traces of such interests in Wiggen’s early machine paintings, except perhaps for a certain love of dry precision enlivened by fresh, at times even brilliant, color. There are, however, things to be said about the technologically inflected mind-set informing Wiggen’s dry and precise approach to facture. If her compositions are flat, revealing no depth, the works themselves are not necessarily so. In fact, the thick yet finely articulated layers of paint in the early gouaches give each element within them a striking, thinglike aspect that almost approaches the materiality of electronic components—the bumps and grooves of transistors or soldered wire. To achieve this effect with a water-based substance like gouache, the dense surface of ordinary canvas would not do. And since Wiggen was working from her one-room apartment, oil paint, with the attendant solvent fumes, was also not an option. After experimenting with various solutions, Wiggen eventually settled on the loosely woven ground of bandages bought at a local pharmacy: Their grid of threads would provide the necessary support for building a subtle relief of color. As a consequence, the products available determined the works’ size: Even the largest compresses would still yield relatively small-scale work.

The “men who turn knobs to hear a message” are here supplanted by the women who might take cognitive and sensual pleasure in making things connect.

A random format, perhaps, but meaningful, too. For once you see these pieces up close, they begin to evoke other narratives about “girls and technology”: the long history of women as members of the workforce in the electronic industries, for instance, their labor in this capacity recalling the disciplined, quiet meticulousness associated with women’s crafts—the countless generations of nimble hands and keen eyes engaged in the most intricate needlework or weaving—represented today by images of female workers in factories in China or Vietnam assembling tiny mobile-phone components on grueling twelve-hour shifts. In a 1968 lecture, Leo Steinberg presented his groundbreaking theory of the “flatbed picture plane,” as he termed pictorial surfaces that no longer corresponded to the vertical posture of a painter at an easel but instead symbolically alluded to surfaces on which informational materials are gathered: tabletops, floors, bulletin boards. Bypassing the relationship between painting and optical event, and thus also cutting across the division between abstraction and representation, such works were said to evoke the “world of men who turn knobs to hear a taped message”—that is, the world of media and technology and, implicitly, the spatial expansiveness of wireless transmission.6

Ulla Wiggen, Kretsfamilj (Circuit Family), 1964, gouache on wooden panel and gauze, 13 3⁄4 × 11 3⁄4".

A very different approach to the flatbed picture plane comes across in Wiggen’s early paintings: the tiny, precisely contained work surface of a microchip. In Förutsättningar (Prerequisites), 1963, and Kretsfamilj (Circuit Family), 1964, the thinglike aspect of the elements makes them less symbolic allusions to informational surfaces than haptic evocations of concrete acts of constructing, tweaking, and testing—all the work that goes into manufacturing the surfaces of electronic devices. I imagine Wiggen, head bent in concentration over a patch of bandage, conjuring up, with minute, studious brushstrokes, a variety of components whose formal beauty is in large part an effect of the vibrant sense of their technical operation, whether imagined or real. Patterns that matter, in other words. The “men who turn knobs to hear a message” are here supplanted, perhaps, by the women who might take cognitive and sensual pleasure in making things connect, and who may also find a thrill in the ceaseless new permutations of connection as industry developments keep furthering miniaturization on almost every level. The thousands of young, unmarried, white middle-class British women who were hired as high-speed code breakers at the now-legendary Bletchley Park Government Communications Headquarters during World War II may have been categorized as “unskilled,” despite the mathematical training they received. Yet the inventiveness and know-how required to actually operate the vulnerable Tunny and Colossus computers must have involved the pleasures of creativity and expanding competence—despite the incredible stress of the situation—as well as the secret satisfaction of knowing oneself to be a programmer even if never officially recognized as such.7

Code breakers at Bletchley Park, Buckinghamshire, UK, October 22, 1943. Photo: SSPL/Getty Images.

Wiggen’s paintings appear withdrawn, as if refusing to engage.

Again, the affects in making things connect. If this is not a mode of thinking usually associated with painting, art historian Pierre Francastel nonetheless hinted at it in his 1956 volume Art and Technology in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries. In this anthropologically inflected study, he argues that works of art—including paintings—should be approached as “plastic objects,” things that have features in common with “works issuing from society’s most theoretical, experiential or mechanical activities.”8 Artistic development runs parallel with technological development and reveals new ways of apprehending the world through the senses. For this reason, works of art should not simply be seen as instances of individual perception and representation; they are, above all, objects that concretely register their makers’ smallest motor reactions and, in this way, contribute to the “immense network of figurative objects that make up man’s surroundings.”9 Francastel therefore rejects the distinction between the realm of artistic representation and the real world of physical effects. Technologies are only effective to the extent that their physical effects are linked to social effects—which is to say, integrated into a social body.10 From this perspective, the distinction—in an exhibition like “Cybernetic Serendipity”—between works that directly attest to machinic operations and works that, like Wiggen’s, seem only to depict machines or machine components is one of modality and degree, not some higher principle that places technology and the natural sciences in a separate realm.

AFTER 1969, Wiggen shifted focus. Reclaiming her love for the Italian Renaissance, she mainly produced portraits in acrylic or watercolor, dryly depicting human heads against an equally dry light-blue sky. She also began studying psychology and working as a psychotherapist: A sustained interest in the brain informs her current object-like shaped canvases portraying brain sections and irises. In recent years, however, Wiggen’s early machine paintings have resurfaced in tech-art contexts. Now shown as part of a prehistory of art in the digital age, they are placed in dialogue with a variety of post-internet phenomena and presented under one-size-fits-all titles such as “Ghosts in the Machine,” “Technologism,” or “Electronic Superhighway.”11 Art institutions, it seems, still view technology as a separate realm, one in need of explanation. 

Even so, Wiggen’s paintings hang alone. Surrounded by work that, like hers, is predicated on the idea of images as plastic technological things, manifestations of new ways of acting in the world, they appear withdrawn, as if refusing to engage. The feverish gestural interactivity of the new screen culture—expressed in evocations of the sideways swipe, the digital finger-paint trace, and the quick search, as well as downloading, cropping, reformatting, filtering, sharing, and printing—is quite simply alien to these paintings. Katja Novitskova’s internet animals turned photographic sculptures, Artie Vierkant’s image-objects defined and redefined through digital handling, Petra Cortright’s digital prints on silk hanging limply from walls as if to demonstrate the formless fluidity of networked images: All, in their various ways, revolve around today’s user-friendly human-machine interfaces. By contrast, Wiggen’s paintings suggest the abstractions produced by intra-machinic components that do not primarily address the human sensorium. Attesting to a time before “digital literacy,” when man-machine relationships were more difficult and opaque, they convey a sense of engaging with unknowable quantities, as if the concrete act of handling electronic technologies in and through paint made them even less, not more, familiar. As if modern painting, in its deep alliance with the world of technical things, would also somehow, when moving in close, be the guardian of their deepest secrets. 

Ina Blom is a professor in the Department of Philosophy, Classics, and the History of Art and Ideas at the University of Oslo and a visiting professor in the Department of Art History at the University of Chicago. 



1. “Michael Noll,” in Cybernetic Serendipity: The Computer and the Arts, ed. Jasia Reichardt, exh. cat. (London: Studio International, 1968), 74.

2. Caroline Jones, “The Sex of the Machine: Mechanomorphic Art, New Women, and Francis Picabia’s Neurasthenic Cure,” in Picturing Science, Producing Art, ed. Jones and Peter Galison (London: Routledge, 1998), 145–80.

3. “Premiers matériaux pour une théorie de la jeune-fille,” Tiqqun, no. 1 (1999): 102. 

4. Nina Power, “She’s Just Not That Into You,” Radical Philosophy, no. 177 (January–February 2013): 26–32.

5. Ulla Wiggen in discussion with the author, Stockholm, May 25, 2019.

6. Leo Steinberg, Other Criteria: Confrontations with Twentieth-Century Art (London: Oxford University Press, 1972), 82–92.

7. For the full story of the female code breakers at Bletchley Park, see Marie Hicks, Programmed Inequality: How Britain Discarded Women Technologists and Lost Its Edge in Computing (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2017).

8. Pierre Francastel, Art and Technology in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries, trans. Randall Cherry (New York: Zone Books, 2000), 143.

9. Francastel, 145.

10. Francastel, 146.

11. “Ghosts in the Machine” was on view at the New Museum, New York, in 2012; “Technologism” was on view at the Monash University Museum of Art, Melbourne, in 2015; and “Electronic Superhighway” was on view at the Whitechapel Gallery, London, in 2016.