Frieder Nake and the Image Machine

New book: ‘Algorithmen & Zeichen — Beiträge von Frieder Nake zur Gegenwart des Computers’

Boris Müller
7 min readMay 14, 2021


If you are reading my essays, you probably know Frieder Nake. For over 50 years, he has worked at the intersection of computer science, semiotics, art, interaction design and cultural theory. His essays and his art are remarkably relevant for the current debate on the significance of the computer in our society.

I know Frieder since the mid 90s. When I started my degree in graphic design at the Art College in Bremen, I immediately went into multimedia and web design. (Macromedia Director 4.0 was one of the first applications I learned on the Mac.) A fellow student told me about a very influential and unconventional professor at the University Bremen, who was into computer graphics and who was actually a renown computer artist. So I got in touch with Frieder — and we have been in touch ever since.

Some time ago, I was trying to find one of Frieder’s essays. I realised that all his great contributions were difficult to find. They were hidden in proceedings, journals, out-of-print books and — if you were lucky — in PDFs on the web. So I wrote him an e-mail, complained about the fact that there was no book with a collection of his essays and suggested to make one. He was delighted and so we kicked off the project.

At the time, Jan Distelmeyer and I were collaborating on a lecture series on computers. Sophie Ehrmanntraut was just finishing her PhD on the history of the personal computer. We all worked at the University of Applied Sciences Potsdam and often referred to Frieder Nake in our work. So it was obvious (as well as highly enjoyable!) to team up and edit, design and produce this missing book.

Four years later, it is finally available! ‘Algorithmen & Zeichen — Beiträge von Frieder Nake zur Gegenwart des Computers’ contains eighteen essays (fifteen on German, three on English) from Frieder Nake — as well as an excerpt of his artistic work. The book is divided into three sections: Bild, Zeichen, Interface (image, sign, interface). The following text is my introduction (translated and slightly edited) to the section ‘image’.

Frieder Nake, ‘Hommage à Paul Klee’, 50 × 50 cm, 1965, version in pink

Introduction to the Section ‘Image’ from the Book ‘Algorithmen & Zeichen’

‘If there is nothing to calculate, we don’t need computers’
Frieder Nake during a preliminary meeting for this book.

A computer is essentially a calculating machine. It operates with binary codes and is only capable of performing numerical operations. Considering this very reduced and specialised range of functions, it is quite incredible that the computer has become the most significant technology of the 21st century.

In particular, the computer has become an essential tool for image production. Images are generated with the help of digital cameras and scanners but also on the basis of programmes and algorithms. The boundary between the optical hardware and computer software is fluid. Camera images are produced and optimised algorithmically. Computer programmes produce seemingly naturalistic images, ‘artificial intelligence’ classifies and alters images.

The fact that calculating machines have become image machines is remarkable. In the past, image production was always based on very different techniques and technologies. Now, it is almost entirely tied to computers.

Compared to an analogue image, the digital image has a distinct characteristic: it exists twice. Physical matter and semiotic representation are no longer fused into a single entity. They exist separately as an abstract data structure in memory and as a concrete image on screen.

This dichotomy is at the very heart of Frieder Nake’s work. Both his theories and his art reflect the two different states of the digital image.

Frieder Nake, ‘Walk Through Raster’, four parts, 50 × 50 cm, ink on paper, 1966

In his text Zwei Weisen, das Computerbild zu betrachten. Ansicht des Analogen und des Digitalen, Nake aptly writes: ‘The calculated image exists for the processor in the memory. There it is invisible to us, but executable for the processor. […] what is visible to us (analogue) is not executable for the processor; what is invisible to us is executable for it (digital).’ These two states — Nake calls them ‘surface’ and ‘subface’ — are essential for understanding the unique qualities of digital images.

The relationship between the ‘surface’ and the ‘subface’ is not only relevant in terms of media theory, it is also crucial for artists and designers. Professional image creators are constantly dealing with both states of the digital image. Artists, designers and creators must regularly decide if they work with the ‘surface’ or ‘subface’ of a digital image.

Designing with and for the computer is a multi-layered challenge. Designers deal with the images on screen, with algorithms and data structures as well as with operational images and interactions. This complexity is also reflected in the three major themes of this book: Image, Sign, Interface. And it becomes clear that these themes do not exist as discrete, delimited concepts, but form a union that shapes all forms of image production, image reception and image interaction.

Frieder Nake has a unique position in the world of computer science and computer art. Being both an artist and scientist, he has contributed both to the creation and the understanding of the computer image. In his work, the distinction between theory and practice is meaningless. Theory stipulates art and art stipulates theory.

This position enables Frieder Nake to develop a synthetic perspective on the computer as an image machine. In his theoretical considerations, he is never just a visual artist or just a computer scientist. Rather, he succeeds in overcoming this disciplinary — and in many respects artificial — difference. His work reflects a fundamental fact about computer technology in our present world: the computer is always both — technology and culture. You cannot have one without the other.

However, the concept of culture should not be misunderstood as ‘high culture’ or even art. Although Frieder Nake’s graphic work undoubtedly belongs to the canon of computer art, he himself has always maintained a critical and politically motivated distance from the ‘art business’. He never wanted to belong to the art market and he dislikes being called an ‘artist’.

Frieder Nake justified these positions in the remarkable essay ‘There Should Be No Computer Art’ from 1971. In this essay, he attacks the established power structures in the art business and attests to the fashionable and thus arbitrary tendencies of computer art, which was only just emerging. According to Nake, producing only ‘beautiful pictures’ is an act of ingratiation and conformity. Nevertheless, Frieder Nake already recognised the potential of the computer as a communication device and as a formative technology for everyday culture. In 1971, he makes the following visionary statement:

‘I don’t see a task for the computer as a source of pictures for the galleries. I do see a task for the computer as a convenient and important tool in the investigation of visual (and other) aesthetic phenomena as part of our daily experience.’

Today, the computer is (among other things) an image machine. Algorithmic images are omnipresent. As user interfaces, special effects in films, maps, data visualisations, computer games, social media feeds. Algorithmic images are an integral part of our ‘daily experience’. The fact that computer art represents only a tiny part of the contemporary art market makes the above quote all the more remarkable.

Frieder Nake’s theoretical, aesthetic and scientific work creates an important framework for understanding computers as image machines. The fact that in his work, computer images are explored and developed from different perspectives, enables him to take very differentiated and credible positions in the discourse.

Nake often engages in dialectical discourse. However, some conflicts cannot be resolved. His graphics belong to the canon of computer art — but he himself wants nothing to do with the art world. In other respects, however, his theories are an essential contribution to our understanding of the computer. The observation that the digital image exists twice — once in ones and zeros, readable for the processor and once as millions of light dots visible to humans — is a reference to the role of the computer in our present day. Not only does the digital image exist twice: the computer in all its forms has both a technical and a cultural dimension. In digital technology, one is inconceivable without its opposite.

Frieder Nake greatly contributed to our understanding of the computer image. Few other authors succeed in debating aesthetics, programming, mathematics, semiotics, politics, philosophy and media theory on a similar level. Just like his art work, his essays offer a multitude of insights, views and impulses for understanding computers as image machines.

‘Algorithmen & Zeichen’ was produced with the support of the Brandenburgische Zentrum für Medienwissenschaften (Brandenburg Centre for Media Studies). The ZeM is a joint research facility of eight universities in the state of Brandenburg.

Many thanks to Sabina Fimbres Sabugal (typography and design), Constanze Vogt (cover design), Wolfram Burckhardt (Kadmos Verlag) and Winfried Gerling (ZeM)!

The best way to get the book is either from your local book shop or directly from the Kadmos Verlag.

Frieder Nake, ‘Geradenscharen’, 70 × 50 cm, ink on paper, 1965



Boris Müller

Professor for Interaction Design at FH Potsdam, co-director of Urban Complexity Lab | | |