Prophetic “Random War” Illustration By the Godfather Of Computer Graphics

July 23, 2014 | Sophie Weiner

ANIMAL’s Radicals Of Retrofuturism uncovers stories by the technological rebels of the past in vintage media and looks at their predictions in the context of today’s digital world. This week, we take a look at Charles Csuri’s “Random War” illustration inside a 1970 Sam Shepard playbill.

Operation Sidewinder, the 1970 play by luminary Sam Shepard, did not receive much critical acclaim. It told a story of a giant military computer in the form of a rattlesnake that escaped into the desert. It was called racist by some, and a “Disney version of damnation” by Brendan Gil of the New Yorker. They may have been right, but Sidewinder remains an eerie premonition of the insidiousness of technology and the role that automation would one day play in combat. Perhaps even more unsettling than its echoes of drone warfare and state-sanctioned dehumanization, is the fact that the US military conducted a real “Operation Sidewinder” in Iraq, (albeit devoid of robot snakes).

The playbill for Sidewinder contained the usual: Profiles on the cast and the playwright, short editorial pieces and ads like the legendary Virginia Slims’ pseudo-feminist “You’ve Come A Long Way, Baby” which graces the back cover. One of these editorials was an art piece by Charles Csuri, a pioneer of computer graphics and early digital artist. Csuri wasn’t your stereotypical nerd. A college football player who made it into the Hall Of Fame, he was drafted by the NFL in 1944. But Csuri decided to pursue a different path, and in doing so became a force that shaped computer-based art as we know it.

Csuri’s piece in the Sidewinder Playbill was a collaboration with programmer J. Schaffer, entitled Random War. Csuri created a program that generated battle scenarios, using his drawing of a toy soldier as the data set. Much like today’s strategy-based video games, each soldier was automatically assigned a name and rank. The algorithm then decided who would be killed or wounded. Based on these settings, the computer produced a color depiction of the randomly generated battle, and printed out the stats of the battle’s outcome. “Random War is an imaginary war, one with few variables, but it is a short step to a real situation with the introduction of many more variables into the computer,” Csuri told an interviewer at his 1968 London art show.

Random War was recreated for a 2011 show at the Museum Of Contemporary Art in Zagreb, Croatia called Dislocations. Co-curator Lanfranco Coaceti wrote about his revival of this seminal digital art piece:

Charles Csuri created a transmediation, specifically upon my request, of his original Random War (1966), transforming the plotter drawing into a video cascading upon the 400 square meter screen that adorns the Media Facade of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Zagreb. The video used Facebook data (my own Facebook friends) to re-create an hypothetical war with people wounded, dead, awarded medals or missing in action. They were also assigned military grades.


Csuri’s insight into the madness of war and his use of Facebook ‘friends’ is a subtle critique of contemporary life but at the same time, within the context of Zagreb, it is also an analysis of how ideology can turn friends into sudden enemies. Zagreb’s local history – within the larger conflict of the ex-Yugoslavia – became the context within which Csuri’s artwork was exhibited. 

Today, as we await a future in which militarized robots become an increasing concern and people speculate over Facebook’s involvement with the Pentagon, Csuri an Shephard’s visions have become all too real. Random War foresaw both the popular video games of the last few decade which allow players to enact realistic wars, and the much more troubling use of weapons with video game-like controls that soldiers now use to kill people in real wars.

On Csuri’s present day website, he recounts the surreal experience of going from creating animations using punch cards to seeing his work on an iPhone in his lifetime as “a taste of science fiction.”

“As I continue to be engaged with new technology, I feel I have only scratched the surface of what is yet to come. While the landscape is filled with ugliness there is also some beauty to be found,” Csuri, who is now 92 years old, wrote in 2008. “This is just the beginning.” (Images: Charles Csuri)