Computers (any digital device) are as much part of many people’s life as a kettle or spoon. Many technological advances in organizations like National Aeronautics and Space Administration (USA), the Ministry of Defence (UK) and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (USA) permeate everyday life. Take for example Global Positioning System (GPS). GPS stemmed from research and development work by the US Department of Defense. Now, if we use Google Maps on our smartphone we are using GPS.
Specialists make and use computer science diagrams. Only a minority of the population will understand these diagrams. People would have had a similar level of comprehension about GPS before the US Government made it available for civilian use. Now many people have at least a basic understanding of what GPS does, even if they do not know how it does what it does. It is fair to reason that people could have a broader awareness about computer science diagrams as they do about GPS. Artists can play a role in this diffusion of knowledge.
In discussing whether computer science diagrams have potential as an art form this essay will restrict itself to examining and analysing the role that systems play in the world, in art and in the field of computers. This paper will begin with an investigation of how the general theory of systems emerged. The next section will engage with artists who use systems. Artists have used diagrams as an art form and the penultimate section of this essay will provide historical and present day evidence of this. The final section will make inferences about how computer science diagrams would function as an art form. The conclusion looks at several types of computer science diagrams and suggests some possible applications for artists.
 What is a System
According to the Oxford English Dictionary a system is a “set or assemblage of things connected, associated, or interdependent, so as to form a complex unity” [i]. Examples of systems are therefore cars, the human body, transport systems, computer systems, systems within society, psychological systems and accounting systems. Systems are complex since they are constructed of smaller systems and are at the same time part of larger systems [ii]. Systems are pervasive now but how and why did they develop? There are references to systems since the seventeenth century. Yet it is not until the twentieth century that the theory of systems is constructed. This is discussed further in this section.   
 Emergence of the General Systems Theory
From the 1950s the effects of progress and change were the catalyst for the emergence of systems. The advent of nuclear bombs, wars, missions to space, environmental disasters, increasing modes of transport, biological advances and the early uptake of computers forced society to address the chaos it had caused [iii]. Science and technology had seen many successes over the previous two hundred years. Yet the deep rooted effects of this progress were inadvertently calculated to be “devastating for humanity” [iii]. Society had progressed at a faster rate than the plans it had in place to cope with this rate of change. Even though the concept of a “system” had existed since the 1600s [iv] the convergence of the technological and scientific advances mentioned above triggered the rapid development of this concept. The complex problems associated with progress and change needed solutions: the solution was the creation of a systems theory.
Karl Ludwig von Bertalanffy, a biologist, published in 1950 a paper entitled An Outline of General System Theory [v]. In this article Bertalanffy proposed a general systems theory (GST) in which he defined the need for a method of organizing and ordering which could be applied across diverse fields such as physics, psychology, social sciences, medicine and philosophy. He proposed that there must exist rules that could be applied to any system regardless of how that system is composed or behaves [v]. Bertalanffy stated that “a system can be defined as a complex of interacting elements” [v]. Dr Peter A. Corning stated that:
"There can be no doubt that Ludwig von Bertalanffy’s work represents one of the most important theoretical contributions of the 20th century. Among many other things, his writings (and his personal activities) inspired the systems science movement, a multi-disciplinary effort to develop general principles for systems of all kinds". [vi]
Corning’s observation concerning the impact of Bertalanffy’s theory on how we understand and relate to any kind of system correlates with the work of Kenneth Boulding, Bertalanffy’s peer. Boulding, writing in 1956, believed that this general theory of systems highlighted the elements that systems have in common in such a way that enabled people working and researching in one field to discuss general principles with people working and researching in another sphere [vii]. Communication is the key.
In 1977 West Churchman, another member of the GST founding group, defined the characteristics of a system as:
·      It is teleological(purposeful)
·      Its performance can be determined
·      It has a user or users
·      It has parts (components) that in and of themselves have purpose
·      It is embedded in an environment
·      It includes a decision maker who is internal to the system and can change the performance of the parts
·      There is a designer (creator of the specific system) who is concerned with the structure of the system and whose conceptualization of the system can          direct the actions of the decision maker and ultimately affect the end result of the actions of the entire systems
·      The designer’s purpose is to change a system so as to maximize its value to the user
·      The designer ensures that the system is stable to the extent that he or she knows its structure and function [viii]
Subsequent sections of this paper will discuss in detail the implications of Churchman’s definition of a system to artists who use systems in their work. However, it is useful at this point to note that this essay will assess the work of Haroon Mirza and Francis Picabia against these characteristics to judge whether the work in question can be called a system as the GST defines it. In these assessments this essay will: consider whether the artwork has a purpose; investigate whether its performance can be predicted; look at who the users of the work are; decide whether the work has constituent parts; examine if the work has any contextual inputs from its environment; and study who takes the roles of decision maker and designer.      
Bertalanffy, Boulding and Churchman identified the need for the GST and set out to define it. Bertalanffy saw that there must be overarching rules for systems from any field; Boulding saw the need for a universal language of systems and Churchman listed the features of a system.
General Systems Theory Now
Move forward to the 21st century and the GST is still being debated. In 2010 Manfred Drack and Gregor Schwarz, in a collaboration by the University of Vienna, the University of Rostock and The Club of Vienna, conducted a survey of the GST and examined issues that still exist [ix]. The highlight from this research is that there are far too many ideas of what the GST is now and that there is an inherent need for a “synthesis” [ix].
Rapid progress saw the need for the GST that Bertalanffy, Boulding, Churchman and others proposed. Their idea was to organize the chaos that progress caused and to bring about a “holistic worldview” [x]. Mulej et al summarized Bertalanffy’s contributions as proposing a “holistic worldview requiring openness and attacking overspecialization of the industrial era and its positivistic science, which reduced creativity” [x] and “isomorphisms, referring to the common attributes which different sciences tend to concentrate upon making a bridge toward a rather generalized view of nature and humankind” [x].
Technical and scientific progress has caused complexity. A system is an attempt to understand complexity. A superstructure exists that allows communication between diverse disciples. By taking a systemic approach to computer science diagrams artists can use them to understand and explain the world and create a certain, specific idea of order.
 Artists who use systems
This section will briefly refer to some artists who have used systems in their work and will then focus in detail on one artist, Haroon Mizra and how he uses systems in his installations.
Artists using Systems in the Twentieth Century
The Systems Groupof artists comprised of Malcolm Hughes, Jeffrey Steele, David Saunders, Michael Kidner, Jean Spencer, Richard Allen and Peter Lowe. They concerned themselves with developing:
“….canvases and constructions organized in arrangements free from painterly 'accident', subjective sensation or emotion, exhibiting regular constants and variables. The relationship between probability, distraction and chaos on the one hand, and regulations, law and order on the other was, however, considered to be of fundamental import in establishing an appreciation of the forces unlocked by the complexities of pictorial elements conforming to a system”. [xi]
An example of these types of systems is seen in 6 panel systems by Richard Allen.[xii] These panels, drawn in pencil, are organized and ordered and there does not appear to be room for error. In the Systems exhibition catalogue Allen explained the need to “reduce the more arbitrary subjective elements” [xiii] and to create a set of formal rules within which he would work. The rules would predetermine the outcome.
Allen created his system to bring order to the way he produced work. His work was system-led in that he sought to eliminate the personal element by creating his set of rules. These rules became the overarching system that Bertalanffy identified. Allen’s system crossed boundaries such as drawing, technical drawing, mathematics, constructivism, architecture, and abstraction. The system that Allen created corresponds with Bertalanffy, Boulding and Churchman’s aim to create a language for systems that crossed the inherent barriers found in mathematics and architecture for instance. Allen’s work would say something to mathematicians, architects, artists and engineers for example and not just to one of these groups.
Artists using Systems in the Twenty First Century
Haroon Mirza, winner of the Northern Art Prize and the Silver Lion Award at the 54th Venice Biennale, uses systems to make his work and also represents systems in his work. From the Lisson Gallery website:
“In his work Haroon Mirza attempts to isolate the perceptual distinctions between noise, sound and music and explores the possibility of the visual and acoustic as one singular aesthetic form. These ideas are examined through the production of assemblages and sculptural installations made from furniture, household electronics, found or constructed video footage and existing artworks combined to generate audio compositions. The subject matter of his work pivots around socio-cultural systems such as religious faith or club culture and their relationship to music”. [xiv]
At the start of this essay a system was defined as: a collection of things assembled to form a whole; a method to allow for communication across multidisciplinary fields; and as a means to create a sense of order. We see parallels with Mizra’s work if we look more closely at some of his work.
In 2010 Mizra took part, with seven other artists, in an exhibition called Systematics. His pieces Automation is Dead [xv] and Paradise Loft [xvi], featured in this exhibition and are seen as components taken from many parts of life, ordered and presented as a new system. The following statement is from the exhibition catalogue: “each of the works constitutes a system and exploits the emergent properties, accidents or failures of that system to produce its effects” [xvii]. Since these works by Mirza are organic installations it will be helpful here to look at a description of his work by Andrew Bonacina in Frieze Magazine:
“The Sheffield-based British artist’s work often resemble dislocated domestic environments assembled from an eclectic inventory of objects: found bits of furniture and electrical appliances, outmoded musical equipment, lamps and television sets, frequently interspersed with works by other artists, adding other voices to the organized cacophony. Each given a job to do, the functionality of these elements is often playfully challenged and redirected in the service of generating sound or other performative actions”. [xviii]
Analysing Mirza’s work mentioned above against the properties and characteristics of a system identified by Bertalanffy, Boulding and Churchman we can see that with the use of furniture, electrical appliances and signage [xvii] he does use components in his installations. Furthermore, the components that Mirza integrates into his work have different levels of interaction with each other such as the machine that turns water into mist [xix].
Bertalanffy stated that a theory of systems should function across diverse subjects. We see that Mirza’s work, in referencing art, analogue and digital technologies, sound, noise and music [xiv] reaches across these fields and therefore meets Bertalanffy’s criteria mentioned previously. Art, from whichever type of practice, does not exist in isolation. Thus, Mirza’s use of a cross-disciplinary system is an example of how he fully integrates his work into everyday life. Mirza’s supports further his integrative approach by manufacturing his larger systems out of smaller systems that are recognizable to most people. For example, a record player system and a desk lamp system. [xv]
Mirza’s work has a purpose, again meeting one of the criteria of a system. For example, the reason for much of his work is to create a new aesthetic form from noise, sound and music [xiv] Each of the smaller systems that Mirza employs also have their own purpose. For example, if you take a record player away from Mirza’s work it performs a task: it amplifies the vibrations embedded on a record to produce music. As seen previously this feature is a prime characteristic of a system.
Mirza organizes the components/subsystems into an order that he predetermines thus creating another system: “an insistent compositional order underpins each of Mirza’s ensembles, an order which explores moments when social or cultural experience becomes aligned (or misaligned) with music and historical aural traditions” [xviii]. Bertalanffy, Boulding and Churchman spoke of a system that gives practitioners from differing fields a common. Mirza’s use of systems, and in manner in which he orders and organizes the innate components, looks for points of social and cultural intersection and for places where there is social or cultural discord. Mirza’s work expands upon the GST by revealing important matters to society.
Mirza assembles his systems in such a way that he can predict what will happen. For example, when a certain sound is heard or an event happens: “he [Mirza] plays records made of cardboard and creates machines that turn water into mist.” [xix] Mirza deliberately devised the cardboard records to play music for instance. Predictability within interactive installations is easier to understand than with a painting or drawing. However, since it is possible to both predict the events, and the responses any artwork might trigger this characteristic is one that artists can manipulate further.
Mizra is the designer of the system he has created and has control over what happens with his installed systems. As the designer of the art systems, Automation is Dead and Paradise Loft, Mirza changes the subsystems he uses (by rewiring the record player for example), challenges existing systems in art such as the very perception of what art is [xix] and alters commonplace expectations (such as creating a record out of cardboard and not from vinyl). All of this is to create a new, different and enhanced experience for the people who see his work. Mirza’s system-based work is a prime example of how artists can question all that is regarded as the status quo. This has implications to the art world internally for example since it means that the very nature of art is questionable. This expands the discipline of art and gives artists permission to look into other areas for inspiration.
The issue of the “decision maker” [viii] in the work of Mirza is really the only uncertain property or characteristic of a system specified by the founders of GST. The decision maker could be seen as the viewer as they consciously and subconsciously interact with the work. In this way they are deciding their experience of the system. Or the decision maker may be seen as the designer, in this case, Mirza. Mirza is “internal to the system” [viii]. Like a combination of the central processing unit, the motherboard and the memory chips in a computer, Mirza decides what is happening in his systems and he can change the performance of the art system (installations). For instance in Automation is Dead [xv] if Mirza moved the lamp from its current position and rewired the electric sign the effect would be different. If Mirza gave a set of the components he used in this piece to any number of artists and asked them to build an art system (installation) all the systems would do different things. Thus, suggesting that Mirza makes deliberate decisions about what occurs with his systems.
Artists have in the past used systems in their work. Artists are using systems in their work now. By inference we can conclude that artists will use systems in their work since it has proved to be a valid way of working for many already. Other system led disciplines such as computer science are prime targets from which artists may borrow concepts.
The Diagram as an art form
The final section will consider the potential that computer science (CS) diagrams have as an art form paying particular attention to the role of systems: the CS diagram as a system and the CS diagram interpreting and representing systems. As a precursor to that discussion it is important to examine the pedigree that diagrams, any type, already have as an art form.
Prior to examining the work of Francis Picabia and Andy Warhol the diagram-based work of Leonardo da Vinci is of note. Leonardo da Vinci, in his work Vitruvian Man acquired systems from the fields of architecture and technology and reused them in his diagrammatic representation of what he understood the proportions of the human body to be. The Roman architect Vitruvius, while working on the proportions of a building, drew comparisons with the human form [xl].  Leonardo’s diagram is his interpretation of Vitruvius’ treatise and is a complex work of science and art.
Picabia Borrows a Diagram
Francis Picabia, an influential artist and responsible for bringing the Dadaist movement to Paris [xx], used diagrams as an influence for one of his many styles of work. He is probably most known for his mechanistic Dadaist work in which he used technical drawings and diagrams as the basis for paintings and collages. It is helpful at this point to analyse the development of a work that was inspired by a technical drawing and that became something else after the response it had in Paris in the 1920s.
Picabia painted the Fig Leaf [xxi] over another work entitled Les Yeux Chands [xxii] as a protest to the response the original work, Les Yeux Chands, had received from the Paris salon [xxiii]. This work started out as a diagram for an “air-turbine brake which had been published in a scientific journal in 1921” [xxiii]. The French newspaper Le Matin published the diagram adjacent to Les Yeux Chands. Looking at the two pieces in this manner showed that Picabia had copied the shapes and lines. “Picabia responded to this article by saying that his copying of this diagram was no different from Cézanne’s copying of apples and he added that he saw no reason why his painting, hitherto deemed ‘inadmissible’ and incomprehensible by all simply because it was now known to use a certain ‘convention of representation’” [xxiii]. There is a much to unravel in this narrative. Firstly, Picabia used the diagram as an art form. Picabia, if you look at Les Yeux Chands, used the text in his work to protest against people who made decisions as to what was displayed as art. Secondly, Picabia was seen as a fraud for copying an existing image and not exhibiting new concepts in art as his Dadaist credentials called for [xxiv]. Thirdly, Picabia used a system of text, shapes and line, a diagram, to object against the salon system prevalent in France during his time. Les Yeux Chands is both a system and also represents a system.
We see in Les Yeux Chands that it conforms to the majority of the properties and characteristics of a system as defined in the GST. An example of this is that it has the purpose of protest against the salon system. As the GST is applicable to different fields, like chemistry and sociology, the concept of a purpose is wide ranging. In Mirza’s work discussed previously the purpose is to create a new aesthetic form on a high level and on a lower level is it to play music from a cardboard record. Picabia intended Les Yeux Chands as a work of protest.
The ability to predict what will happen in this system, Les Yeux Chands, while not as obvious as in the installations of Haroon Mirza, is still an applicable feature. The role of decision maker in this system is at the centre of what will happen with the system in this painting. The people who this painting is about and the people influenced by this work are essential components of this system. Frantz Jourdain, as the president of the Salon d’Automne [xxv], was the focus for Picabia’s annoyance so it would have been his reactions that the artist would have wanted to activate. Picabia would have been able to predict this to a degree.
Warhol Borrows a Diagram
Picabia mutated a scientific diagram in such a manner that it crossed boundaries and became another means of communication. Andy Warhol, in the Dance Diagram series mutated a system from the discipline of dance into an art form that communicated beauty. In 1956 the Dance Guild published Lindy made Easy (with Charleston) and Foxtrot Made Easy [xxvi]. Warhol’s piece Dance Diagram [Fox Trot: “The Lady Tuck in Turn Man] [xxvii] is inspired by these diagrams. Looking at Warhol’s work mentioned above, and comparing it with a diagram similar to that found in the Dance Guild publications, we see that while Warhol has remained very close to the instructional diagram he has transformed the system of dance into an art system representing beauty. It is thought that as a secondary motivation Warhol is also making a negative comment on the work of Jackson Pollock and other action painters (abstract expressionists). Warhol is thought to have done this is by using a frivolous theme of ballroom dancing and juxtaposing that with the style of Pollock painting on the floor. Thus bring Pollock’s work down to the level of low art as opposed to “high art” [xxviii]. By removing the personal and subjective elements in the Dance Diagram series Warhol created a more analytical view of beauty.
Contemporary Artists Borrowing Diagrams
We have seen that artists like Picabia and Warhol used diagrams as an integral element of some of their work. This approach is still relevant now with artists such a Dean Kenning using diagram-based art to create community systems; Yvonne Droge Wendel and Mine Kaylan, as part of the Architecture of Interaction collective using diagram–based art systems to help artists from different arms of the wider discipline communicate more effectively while participating in interactive art projects [xxix]; and John Cussons and Andrew Conio, as part of the Diagram Research Use and Generation Group (DRUGG) are investigating, among other things, the use of the diagram in art as “experiments in thinking that have the potential to engender new discourses and relations between diverse artistic, philosophical and scientific fields” [xxx].
A group of artists consisting of Ruth Buchanan, Gerhard Dirmoser, Philip Hamann, Nicholas Gansterer, Luis Jacob, Eva Kotatkova, Michael Najjar, Alexandre Singh, Marcus Steinweg and Jorinde Voigt are currently participating in an exhibition called Schaubilder. These artists speak of the diagram as a developing art form due to the convergence of art and science. They see the diagram as an “independent, visual form” utilized as part of image-based systems [xxxi].
As more and more technology pervades into more and more of life the diagram, as a medium becomes more relevant to contemporary artists. A diagram can be aesthetically appealing and it can also be a vehicle for generating discourse [xxxii]. Artists can use the form of a diagram to say something about all aspects of modern day life such as politics, culture, society and economics [xxxiii]. An important intention of a diagram is to communicate as much information as possible in the simplest form possible [xxxiv]. The Architecture of Interaction collective [xxix] mentioned above are a prime example of using diagrams for this purpose. For the artist the diagram as a form of work is an opportunity for convergence and then divergence.
The Computer Science (CS) Diagram as an Art Form
Anything has potential as an art form [xxxv] but what makes the CS diagram an excellent candidate? Referring to material investigated in the previous sections this section will analyze CS diagrams as an art form.
CS Diagram as a System
A CS diagram is a system, and represents a system [xxxvi]. Francis Halsall stated that he works “from the assumption that art after modernism challenges us to find new critical paradigms by which to account for it. The central argument of this book is that systems theory is such a paradigm” [xxxvii]. Thus the marriage of CS diagrams with art fulfills the need for a new idea about the nature of art and allows for new developments in art. Using the model of GST with the CS diagram allows for the dissembling of subjects (politics, economics, environment etc…) in art so that artists and viewers understand the topic more. Then artists put the components together in an “improved system” [xxxviii] creating a different perspective. The CS diagram used in this way would perform as a new method for communicating within art and to those that engage with it.
CS Diagrams Help Understand the World
CS diagrams exist to impart as much information as possible in the simplest form possible. Artists may manipulate this feature to different effects. The notational systems in CS diagrams represent a synthesis of data. Artists can engineer these systems for example to make a political protest as Picabia did, or to create new aesthetical form as Mirza does. The result is a non-arbitrary organization of objects to make a new meaningful statement that communicates across cultural, political and societal boundaries.
It does not seem possible that computers will have more and more impact on daily living. A recent report by the BBC surveys the immense volume of information that we face every day [xxxix]. This has parallels to the situation in the mid Twentieth century where rapid scientific and technological advances motivated Bertalanffy, Boulding and Churchman to devise the GST. The CS diagram as an art form can help to organise, order, develop and change this information in such a way that it actually makes sense and creates a new platform for discussion.
The General System Theory emanated from the need to organise and order the repercussions of rapid progress in science and technology. There was also a requirement that people from different disciplines could discuss matters that should not exist in isolation like nuclear warheads and biological weapons.
This essay provides evidence that artists have used systems in their work. It is therefore possible to infer that the system is a proven methodology for artists. We have also seen from historical and contemporary perspectives that artists have used diagrams. The computer science diagram sees a convergence of systems with the diagrammatic form.
It is possible to see the notational systems used in CS diagrams become either a final art work or an integral part of the process of arriving at another piece. Database diagrams for example are about the relationships between different entities in the system (a student and a book for instance). This could be translated into the arena of performance art. The visual forms used in a database diagram could represent people and objects used as part of the performance. A collection of database inspired diagrams could be developed to transcribe the performance during the development of the work. In fact the systems used in noting relationships between units (people or objects) is an area that holds many possibilities for artists.
Another form of CS diagram is the Data Flow Diagram (DFD). These diagrams record the information that goes into specific parts of a system and also the information the system subsequently outputs. Further developments in installation art, like that of Haroon Mirza discussed previously, could use CS diagrams, in particular the DFD, as an essential element of the installation. The DFD could be used in both the development of the work and the presentation of the work. For example, a DFD would help in building different versions of an installation to predict the outcomes. Mirza arranges the components of his systems in a specific order for a specific effect. An artist developing this type of work could use a series of DFDs to the see different outcomes prior to assembling the final work. The series of DFDs could be the equivalent of an artist’s sketchbook.
The Unified Modelling Language (UML) is used by computer scientists to build new, complex software. It is used to visualize a system. The UML is divided into two major sections dealing with structural elements and with behaviour. There are many parallels with art forms. Artists using traditional forms like painting and sculpture are visualizing systems whether they are concrete or abstract, are in the past, present or future. The UML could be used and adapted by artists to visualize new systems in society or to comment on existing systems. These types of diagrams could be art works in themselves like the intricate drawings of Degas, or they could be part of the process at arriving at the final work. 
Further research into practicing artists who use computer science diagrams in their work is required to progress the premise of this essay. However, the material in this essay is a solid foundation for a research-led practice where artists can investigate further the discursive resonance of the computer science diagram.
A computer science diagram is a precursor to a technological advance to come so it is reasonable to see it pervade the world of art and subsequently, from there move to a wider audience. After the convergence mentioned above, divergence would see the computer science diagram, as an art form, behave as a conduit for expansive conversations on world affairs.
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