What Is Systems Art?

Systems art, broadly defined, is any form of art in which the creator approaches the creation of an artwork in a methodical, systematic manner. Systems Art, which is based in part on cybernetics, or the study of natural, social, and mechanized organizations, requires the artist to create an artwork using preset and sometimes automated methods. This type of art includes video game art and algorithmic art. The Systems Art movement began in the 1960s and is so broad that it encompasses almost any type of art that employs a methodical approach, including conceptual art.

Video game art is perhaps the pinnacle of using a system to make art. The technology and concepts of video games have sparked the imaginations of many visual artists. They follow a predetermined logic in which a specific outcome can lead to a specific event or series of events. Video game artists express a variety of different ideas about society and life in general either modifying these games or writing their own code. These works are on display in museums as installations or are accessible to the general public via the internet.

Algorithmic art is another type of Systems Art, in which the artist creates a work of art using a set of calculations and a computer. The artist will frequently include a random element in the algorithm, causing the image to change and produce different results. Algorists are digital artists who create art based on algorithms.

In the 1960s and 1970s, artists began to create systems art. Hans Haacke’s MOMA Poll, created in 1970, is an example of a more conceptual type of Systems Art. Over 25,000 people were polled about their reactions to New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller’s failure to confront President Richard Nixon about his Vietnam policy. At the Museum of Modern Art, the poll results were displayed in a show called Information (MOMA). Haacke was clearly making a statement about social systems referencing the voting process in the United States.

MOMA Poll exemplifies several other tenets of this art movement, in addition to an obvious concern with systems. Another key concept is influencing society through art, and there is no doubt that Haacke’s piece prompted a lot of thought from both participants and viewers. Furthermore, the Systems Art movement opposes the notion of an artwork as a valuable, rarefied object.