The “Computer” exhibition of Lausanne. Part 4: On the margins of “Computer”: cultural production

by Pierre-Yves Hurel

Context : This paper is part of a dossier about “Computer” exhibition.

  • In the first part (link), I detailed my methodological choices, presented the corpus of newpsaper sources and a chronology of the “Computer” exhibition.
  • In the second part (link), I have shown to what extent show was integrated into a context of regional rivalry
  • In the third part (link), I listed the companies attending “Computer” and introduce the clientele.
  • In this fourth article, I’m considering the ambivalence of targeting the show’s audience and the slow intrusion of cultural artefacts in the exhibition.
  • More articles will be published over the coming week

Who was Lausanne’s Computer trade show targeted audience? If you’ve read the previous articles, the answer seems obvious: local swiss professionals. All the more surprising is the emphasis with which the organizers had to repeat that their show was only for professionals, because crowds of enthusiasts and interested families had to be explicitly rejected for years… before a belated about-turn.

Above all, not too many “onlookers”! Who is the audience?

In 1978, Jean-Michel Vaucher wrote an informed and well-documented article “on the sidelines of the opening of Computer 78”. He began by detailing the program of this trade show, then asked: “who will be visiting Computer 78?” and immediatly gave the following answer:

“It will be extremely interesting when the time comes to take stock to see who will have come to Lausanne. The people who must deal with IT in medium-sized and large companies, but also the bosses and managers of small businesses, and the self-employed who will also have to reckon with this new tool that is IT.”

Then the journalist went on to focus on the explosive spread of “personal use” microcomputers across the United States. He described the global expansion of  personal computing, including the establishment of hobbyist magazines that distributed programs (via listings, i.e. printeed code), and the simulatneous spread of local computer stores: “This explosion is already spreading to Europe, where twenty ‘computer stores’ have already sprung up (including two in Zurich)“. A little further on, the author concluded:

“The success of Computer 78 is certain, because, faced with this immense range from the simplest micro-computer to the most complete system, visitors will be much better informed and will be able to see systems in operation”.

In this first article, we see a form of ambiguity that will continue to haunt the show for years to come: The main goal of the “Groupement Romand pour l’Informatique” (GRI) was on the one hand to boost the computerization of the local economy, as well as the dissemination of IT in French-speaking Switzerland. On the other hand IT was supposed to become everyone’s business. Interested persons however were sorely lacking informations, and above all, they needed to “see systems in action”. In 1987, these crowds wanting to see spectacular new products were the subject of the front page of the Gazette de Lausanne, in an article by José Bessard – rather unique in its tone. The author severley critisized the strategy taken by the G.R.I.:

“(…) let’s start right away with a major criticism. ‘Computer 84 is intended to be a specialized show’, declared Mr. Emil Jucker (…). ‘It is aimed at professionals, not the public. But market developments will eventually force us to modify this policy.’ That is what is called swimming against the tide! At a time when all the major manufacturers are rushing headlong into the microcomputer market, launching new product after new product in the field of family, laptop and personal computers, Switzerland’s most important computer system exhibition is being picky. You would think you were dreaming. (…) When Mr. Jucker talks about a possible constraint that could… you can’t help but smile. The ‘consumer’ avalanche that is sweeping through microcomputers will sweep away all this backward-looking quibbling” (…) By addressing professionals first and foremost, “Computer 84″ misses half its target. But people will get over it and invade all the stands, simply because the appeal is irresistible and goes in the direction of history.”  

A critical review of the “Computer” salon on the front page of La Gazette de Lausanne: a unique case in our corpus (Source).

However strong the critique, it did not lead to a change in GRI’s policy and, the following year, a dispatch dated June 5, 1985 explained that

“Le Groupement Romand de l’Informatique, which has been organizing the ‘Computer’ trade show for almost ten years, would like to make it clear that it is not intended for the general public: it considers the time inappropriate to ‘mix business computers with toy computers'”.

The organizers’ reiteration that they were “keen to clarify” seems to prove José Bessard right: the general public continues to flock to the show, despite the unsuitable opening hours (weekdays and office hours only). In 1987, Emil Jucker became even clearer: “We must not forget,” he said, “that for exhibitors, the quality of the visitors takes precedence over their quantity“. That is why “there remains the fear that the show will offer such a wide range of products that it will inevitably attract the public at large, and ipso-facto lose its highly specialized status”. The GRI argued on the quality of its visitors: 44% of them took computer courses on a regular basis, 67% benefited from ongoing training within their company. In 1992 they even strenghtened their claim: “We are aimed at professional users. As a result, we try to keep the number of curious visitors to a minimum.”

For all these years, it was the goal of the organizers to discourage a curious public. The crowd was seen as a risk, a threat to it’s aura of seriousness and professionalism. Yet the local swiss enthusiasts and amateurs just insisted on coming.

And then the market apparently won over this policy. In 1994, journalist Pierre-Henri Badel explained that “with the arrival of multimedia techniques, the commoditization of computing has now reached a point of no return”. It should be added that the show was experiencing some disruption at the time.

“The idea was simple: to attract a new audience to Beaulieu. In this case, private computer users, those who like to work from home, play games, listen to music or other multimedia. Confined away from the professionals visiting ‘Computer 94’, these visitors won’t be disturbed by noisy demonstrations or questions with no intention of buying. On the contrary, they will be able to buy on the spot and leave Beaulieu satisfied, their purchases under their arm.”

This article by Jacques Bettex, dated April 26, 1994, demonstrates the low regard in which the public still was held. Of course, we don’t read “confined” in the same understanding in 2023 as in 1994. But all the same: it is at the price of this game of inclusion and exclusion from “serious people” that local private users make their  entrance at “Computer”. In fact Emil Jucker seemed to have understood that a fundamental movement was underway:

Look at what’s happening in the United States. Home computers there are less powerful than professional machines, but they serve their purpose well. (…) In Switzerland, people want home computers that are as powerful as the machines they have in the office. They want to liquidate household mail on the most advanced word processor. This is absurd. With Computer at Home, we are going to try to open people’s minds to low-end machines.”

The history of microcomputing is usually traced back to the early 1970s  and the first home computers (the Altair 8800 for example). But we often forget that it took a long time for the phenomenon to become so widespread as to be unavoidable. It can assumed that from 1975 to 1994, home computing was, at least in the eyes of the organizers, a niche market in French-speaking Switzerland. From the GRI’s point of view, it is of course comprehensible to take an interest in the domestic market only then when it became a mass phenomenon and stopped being a niche for enthusiasts. This pardigmatic shift however forced the GRI it to invite the audience it has explicitly shunned for many years.  

Side note : During this first edition of “Computer at home”, an article by Fausto Solano provides information on the exhibitors. These included Computer Shop, a store specializing in Apple products in Geneva (and still active today, as evidenced by its website – on which there are a few mentions of Computer), games previously released on Smaky and now adapted for PCs, as well as Migros (which sells machines and organizes computer courses), and a few stands from major companies (Bull, Texas instrument).

 “Computer’s” ambiguous relationship to the large public did not end here, and the early 2000s were marked by several consecutive changes of direction. In 2001, the show’s new director, Patrick Lehner, wanted to revert back to a rpofessional clientele: “Our core target is business leaders and IT specialists,” he (Patrick Lehner) explained. “We are not looking to attract fathers who come with their children, for example. ”  So, to keep the crowds down, he raised the entrance fee and decided “to adopt an even more business-like language. For example, although I regret it, I have forbidden schools to come in groups. Our target audience is really businessmen and IT specialists.” Journalist Gaël Hurlimann attested the fair the same year:

“Looking at the list of new products to be presented at Computer-expo this year, it is clear that what was once a trade show for the general public is now becoming a highly professional event. Exhibitors aren’t here to make teenagers dream with flashy new computers or the latest range of cell phones. These products are presented at other fairs. Here, they are aimed at the business owner looking to equip himself with a ‘state-of-the-art e-business messaging infrastructure’, the latest model of ‘automated management of maintenance, ventilation and heating services’ or expert systems for ‘predictive management of business, prospects and customers’”.

It was no longer a question of inviting the public to play with new products, which the show is sorely lacking, but a place where contracts are concluded, where exhibitors can conduct negotiations away from the crowds and their hubbub”, explained David Haeberli this time. Patrick Lehner intended to “create a community where people know each other, meet up and talk. The whole thing almost has to have a ‘tea room’ feel to it”. However, the strategy was not bearing all the fruit hoped for: “Computer-expo’s orientation is very SME [small and medium-sized enterprises]. It is become difficult for us to bring our major customers to the show,” conceded Luc Béhar [Marketing Manager at Compaq Suisse romande]. “And while three years ago, the show featured worldwide innovations, this is no longer the case today. Exhibitions are all about making contacts, and we prefer to do this on an individual basis, away from the show floor.” That is why the G.R.I. put an end to “the concept of a trade-only show in 2003, with the 2003 edition expected to appeal to a wider public“. Even a “console tournament” was planned.

What can be learned from GRI’s ambiguous policy concerning the role of the crowd, the curious, the enthusiast, the familes? On the one hand, the home became computerized considerably later than the office, and this phenomenon only became widespread in French-speaking Switzerland in the 1990s. Secondly, the terms used to designate non-professionals reflected a constant fear: that the crowd would be a nuisance, synonymous with noise and disorder. It reflected also – no doubt – a certain self perceived ethos of “managers” and “decision-makers”.

This echoes a story told by Yves Delessert and Joëlle Libois in “Same player shoots again. Etude sur les salles de jeux à Genève”, in 1985. A short chapter was devoted to the mobilization of residents (including managers of luxury shops) against the installation of an arcade in their neighborhood in Geneva. Among the arguments exchanged, the rhetoric of disturbance to public order and tranquility occupied a prominent place. Home computing and digital games existed long before the concessions made to home computing in 1994. Before that it was perceived as a frivulous and time wasting phenomenon for.

The cover of “Same player shoots again”, from Yves Delessert and Joëlle Libois (1985)

The artists’ entrance: The slow intrusion of art, culture, and leisure

Accordingly artistic and cultural questions always played a minor role at the “computer” fair. However, they were addressed (albeit briefly) in the local press.

  • As early as the 1980 , the presence of “works by French-speaking graphic designers created for companies” werementioned. We don’t know much more about this unfortunately at the moment.
  • In 1985, “Polaroïd presented at Computer 85, an exhibition of works of art composed by Californian David Em using a computer”, according to the Gazette de Lausanne.
  • In 1989, Computer took a new step forward by dedicating a sector to culture, as Denis Jeanmonod wrote: “For its tenth edition, the Lausanne fair is showing for the first time (sic) works of art made from computers. A beautiful display in the reception hall, the opportunity to see artists at work or to meet Professor René Berger, designer of the ‘Computers and Culture’ space, are the highlights of this sector.”
  • In 1990, the same journalist announced the strengthening of the show’s artistic pole: “After a first attempt last year, Computer’90 is now plunging into this revolution with delight. Computers enter the world of images, music and entertainment”.
  • The following year, on the third edition of the “Computer in Art” sector, the Journal de Genève focused on the presence of the Ecole Cantonale d’Art de Lausanne and its Digital Image Synthesis Unit. A final column is devoted to Dominique de Bardonnèche, “well known in computer circles [and who] has fun with the images she creates live, interacting with the public.” We learn that the artist has a degree in history and art history and was awarded the Premier Grand Prix d’Art sur Ordinateurs in 1987 – and that she now exhibits in Europe and the USA.”
Article dedicated on “Computer in Art”, in Le Journal de Genève, on 23.04.1991, p.19.

The terminology “Computer in Art” was no longer used after 1991, and it is likely that the emergence of multimedia finally led organizers to believe that they this would be a new gateway to computerized images and sounds. For Michelle Talandier, in 1992, it was a veritable “tidal wave” from which [Computer] “cannot escape”. “Images and sounds will animate the screens installed on the stands. But it won’t always be multimedia, even if exhibitors play on the magic of the word.”

Article on multimedia entitled “Screens put on a show”. Le Nouveau Quotidien, 25.04.1992. P15.

Finally, with the opening in 1994 of a large “Computer at home” section dedicated to the domestic space, artists will only have been in the spotlight for a few years. And if there was any doubt: when actors speak of works on computers, of “Computer in Art” or even of “multimedia”, in the minds of the organizers, they are re not thinking of games.

Bonus : immerse yourself in Computer 1992 and its computer-generated images thanks to an RTS report hosted on the Bolo Museum’s YouTube channel:  

Header : Screenshot of a TSR report from 1992 and showing a short animated film, URL:

Cite this blog post
Pierre-Yves Hurel (2024, March 7). The “Computer” exhibition of Lausanne. Part 4: On the margins of “Computer”: cultural production. Confoederatio Ludens. Retrieved June 16, 2024, from

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