Art from code - Generator.x
Generator.x is a conference and exhibition examining the current role of software and generative strategies in art and design. [Read more...]

[Dear Colleagues,
Several of you have contacted me requesting that I post the "Three Questions for Generative Artists" that I posed to the audience during my lecture last week. (I state, for the record, that I don’t have the answers, and I’m as perplexed/guilty as anyone else). Here they are...-- Sincerely yours, Golan]

Marshall McLuhan stated, in 1964: “The medium is the message.” Assuming we agree with this premise, in the way McLuhan intended it (as developed in his book Understanding Media), I posed the following questions concerning generative art:

0. So, with our generative artworks: what kinds of meanings are we making? In other words, what sorts of messages do generative artworks communicate, not through their medium, but as a medium?

1. How can generative strategies, which are designed to produce (or reflect) infinite variations, yield forms which nonetheless feel inevitable (i.e. which do not feel arbitrary)? Or is arbitrariness the point — the message of the medium? Here, I showed Jim Campbell’s “Formula for Computer Art” (2001). As an illustration of different approaches on the spectrum between ‘arbitrary’ and ‘motivated’ generative designs, I contrasted Mark Napier’s “Black & White” Carnivore client (2005), and Natalie Jeremijenko’s “Live Wire” project (1994), both of which visualize network traffic. Both of these artworks subscribe to Campbell’s Formula, but with very different results.

2. How can generative strategies tap into richer perceptual spaces? What other meaning-making potentials are latent in computational abstraction? Can we generalize the idea of generative form? Here, I showed Karl Sims’ “Evolved Virtual Creatures” (1994). These creatures have extremely simple forms (rarely more elaborate than a couple of rectangular blocks) — but highly evocative, generatively-evolved behaviors which address our perception in a very rich way.

3. How can generative strategies tap into richer conceptual spaces, without sacrificing the experiential aesthetics of abstraction? Assuming we value abstraction for its powerful ability to address our perceptual and aesthetic senses (as I do), how can we expand the conceptual scope of generative art? Put another way, how can generative strategies activate further dimensions of our psychology (beyond retinal experience), such as our imaginations, symbolic [Jungian] minds, or unconscious minds? Here, I presented Jason Salavon’s “Form Study #1” (2005). This project taps into rich cultural psychological territory, and provokes our imaginations, without (I claim) sacrificing generativity or abstract formalism in the slightest.

49 Responses to “More than Just Pretty Pictures: Golan’s Questions for Generative Artists”
1. watz, October 6th, 2005 at 12:10

Having thought about your questions for a while, it seems to me that you are looking for a more functional form of generative art. But the works of Sims and Jeremijenko that you quote would usually not be classed as generative art. Even though they have a generative component, they fit well into other canons of electronic art (i.e. alife art or simply alife research in the case of Sims, or interactive art in the case of Jeremijenko). Savalon’s form study I see as ironic, and not really addressing the generation of form. That’s certainly not a bad thing, I like the project but I wouldn’t see it as explaining much about generative art as such.

Works tend to be called generative art only when they cannot be described as anything else, as long as their main concern is with a process or an abstract aesthetic system. This “when all else fails” criteria of definition leads me to think that generative art in the long run is possibly a non-category, and that we need a different term to describe generative aesthetic abstractions.

2. sam, October 6th, 2005 at 15:10

having pondered this question and read your mails silently for the last year, I cannot remain silent anymore. I think that there are some false questions, and that the “search” that Golan elaborates is deep and I feel he is right to state it as”more than just pretty pictures?” so, would any of you suggest that it matters if a picture is a watercolour or a pastel , an oil or a pen&ink if the transmitted idea touches you?
Of course Watz is right too,the definitions are the problem and not part of the solution…….titles and categories don´t make the art better.
the only criterion should be if this idea or the other reinterprets the eternal and intemporal,universal themes that are about our existence here.
If they don´t do that then, they are simply decoration , complicated, electronic,generative or whatever.The really profound themes are in our most vulgar teenage poetry or shakespeare,goethe or balzac even hollywood.
if we ignore these “poetic” themes, we run the risk of having spent our lives playing and making “videogames”……”eyecandy”…..”electronic-rococco”…..
robert graves, in the “white goddess” outlines the poetic universal themes….an excellent book for those who ask the “big” question.
but as this is all new “mediums” and we are still children with it, it is right that we should “play” with it at first, and it is right that we should be growing-up and asking the big questions now!

3. watz, October 6th, 2005 at 22:10

“Electro-rococco” – now that’s a great term. While I understand your point, I disagree with you. These are not new media, and we are not children.

Yesterday I attended a lecture on the “end of art”, the position taken by many critics that states that since it is no longer possible to be avant-garde, art has lost its ability to criticize and stand outside society. It is an almost farcical debate, rendering artists incapable of action. The quest for “more than pretty pictures” is valiant, but I would be think twice about ascribing more intrinsic value to a social-realist work than to a work of pure abstraction. I think what Golan is addressing is a need to look more closely and with a critical eye, so that work which seems interesting at first glance remains interesting also after the tenth viewing.

4. trond, October 6th, 2005 at 23:10

Thanks for posting this, Golan!

To me, the core of using generative strategies is a matter of moving all or parts of the creative process from dealing with every nut and bolt of the piece at hand, to dealing with material on a meta level. There might be a number of reasons for doing so, and of the top of my head I immediately think of:

- introducing stochastic processes to expand the possible material.
- the amount of (control) data required grows to big to be able to deal with in detail.
- creating infinite processes, an infinite flow.

Within contemporary music, the work of Xenakis is a primordial example of the first two points, as this quote from Formalized Music might illustrate::

“… the collision of hail or rain with hard surfaces, or the song of cicadas in a summer field. These sonic events are made out of thousands of isolated sounds; this multitude of sounds, seen as totality, is a new sonic event.”

I’m not sure if it’s worthwhile to consider “generative art” a specific category of its own in the long run. Instead I would believe that generative strategies is and will stay an inherent part of a lot (but not all) new media art. It might be more or less prominent and important, ranging all the way from being (at) the very essence of the work to be mainly a means to some other end.

I have no problem agreeing that the questions raised by Golan are well worth considering, but another question seems even more pressing to me when dealing with generative art and new media art in general: How do it relate to contemporary art practice in general?

One potential pitfall of new media art is that it gets so involved with it’s own problems and discourses that it becomes detached from a wider and more general art context. In the final panel debate of the conference HC Gilje asked why so much generative art looks the same. This is a criticism that a few years ago also could be voiced towards a lot (but not all) of the video art works created using Nato. One possible answer is that there’s a tendency towards being so immersed in the technology used that you forget to consider your work in a broader perspective. Once you start working on images with an artistic content, you not only have to relate to discourses of generative or new media art, but also start relating to the tradition of visual arts in a much broader sense. In addition to genre-specific discourses you have to start addressing issues of form, material, color, content, context, history, etc. in a much wider sense. Maybe the new media art scene sometimes should put a little less emphasis on “new” and “media” and more on “art”?

5. sam, October 7th, 2005 at 02:10

You understand my point well and in fact I don´t think you disagree with me…. you may not like the analogy that I drew about children, but it is that very quality that we should “invest into our creative-play” with the same “seriousness that children have as they play”.I don´t think that you could infer that the poetic themes are by necessity social-realist? or by extension, that they cannot be pure abstractions……
very few artists before picasso would have thought of themselves as “standing outside society or using their abilities to criticize society….” yes there were the daumiers, and the goyas, but I think the majority like the titians,or rubens who was an ambassador, as was leonardo, van dyke a royal spy and advisor, etc etc. and the vermeers, rembrandts and the michelangelos who only ever wanted to hold up a mirror and then only sometimes. This relatively new idea of the artist as critic is a confusion of sorts, I think it actually might have been created by the critics! avante-gard is also a new phenomenon as well, for 500 years of western painting at least , modes and fashions changed very slowly it was only after the invention of picasso in the usa by guggenheim that the idea of a new ism every 18 months took root….the “culture of spin”…turned creativity into yet another wallstreet commodity helped by Dali!…your last paragraph hits the nail directly on the head and I think that is what I was saying with the poetic themes….these themes guarantee that the viewer will come back for a tenth viewing.

6. Neal, October 7th, 2005 at 18:10

Generative art has become a genre with good audience.

I am having real trouble making work that is both interesting and within the form.

Swarms are done.

But Richard Serra has been showing the same simple object for 30 years. Generative work is similarly powerful and similarly blank.

It’s possible to hack the culture like Serra, to erect a wall of art-critical blather, present the blank awesome effect and let it lie, but it’s worth noting that there’s only one Serra (Christo! Shut up!)– he’s got economics working as a barrier to competition. Our blank & awesome effect gets turned into a button in Flash.

Generative art is the art of atoms, of cells. This evokes physics, rationalism, biology, evolution, atheism, sociology. That’s most of what my culture is thinking about right now.

We can do better than McLuhan when defending ourselves. “The medium is the message,” gah, I have sooo many problems with that. I haven’t identified myself as a new media artist since I got screwed over by VRML 97.

My plan is, quit coding and think for a while.

7. Umberto Roncoroni, October 10th, 2005 at 03:10

I’m happy to participate into this discussion… Sorry if the message is long, I hope it is not boring.

0) In the first place, I disagree with the idea that the medium has its own message… generative artists (or corporations, or the cultural system) are those who shape the medium aesthetic, social and political forms.
So what interests me in generative art is: a) inter/trans disciplinarity and scientific knowledge that shape simulation and how all this is embedded and communicated with useres (readers, public); b) interaction, because generative and emergent processes are (or should be) open systems, that means that all its elements (artist, programmer, user, public, etc…) should interact freely and upon equal foundations.
It seems to me that the key factor (maybe the message) is the “openeness” of the generative system, its ability not to create more artworks, but to develop and share the generative capability for all the elements of the system. Finally, this question how knowledge is shared (say, feedback) and the role of software and interfaces inside a creative process. Now it seems to me that generative art software just produces generative images but not a true generative or emergent environment because software and interfaces weaken feedaback (they hide knowledge and information, thus, in my opinion, generative art is related with hacking, free software, media activism, etc.).

1) In my case the goal of generative art is not to produce more images or art, but is to develop the process itself. Only this is really interesting to me. Its not that I don’t like generative imagery, but I feel that these images are just instancies of the process, they are not important even if they are necessary elements of the system. So the real thing is emergence and creative freedom and how I, as an artist, share this experience with users (readers, or public). I do not exist as an author in the traditional way, even if my design is not arbitrary: determinism is inevitable (and also useful), but it must not disturb or limit user freedom. The problem for me is how to develop a true generative interaction that does not interfere with users. It’s the contradictory dynamic between the freedom of infinite designs and the deterministic tools we are using and programming that is aesthetically interesting and challenging. Besides, isn’t this what conceptual art stated many yeras ago?…

2) Generative and algorithmic images cannot be classified as abstract in the same way we speak of abstraction opposed to figurative or representational visual languages. Generative images are not in a strict sense the visual representation of the generative process and its scientific an technological tools: as algorist artist Roman Verostko once said, these are not images, they are a sort of reality by itself. But these entities cannot be truly understood and appreciated if the process which they are built upon is not communicated, and its knowledge and design properly shared with users during the construction of the image. If we read generative art when the image (or sound or animation) is already built, we are left imbued in the same context of traditional avantgarde (and here I read an interesting contribution about the death of art…). On the second hand, without a wider discourse that should include science, technology and aesthetics, technology becomes just a special effect and it deserves all the criticism that media critics launch over techno art (simulacra, eyecandy, etc.).

3) Because emergence needs open systems (by definition), they obviously develop new conceptual spaces through the interaction between the artist/programmer, the scientific knowledge embedded into algorithms, and the concot of users creative and cultural experiences that a generative design must take care of.
And we should allways remember that these aesthetic problems have been already studied and questioned and have a long cultural tradition: first of all Heidegger aesthetics, then H. Hesse, T. Mann, Musil, Benjamin, Borges, Calvino, Eco, Vattimo, Danto and many others starting more or less than 60 years ago. But digital technology does include something new: interaction and simulation. These elements and they aesthetic structures are in my opinion the true core of the generative/digital art problem and of its social and cultural meanings.

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