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...]
 
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abstrakt Abstrakt: Ben Fry – All Streets

Ben Fry w/ Eugene Kuo, Chris Brown, Katy Harris: All Streets, 2008
Digital print, 4,7 x 3 meters

“All Streets” is a vision of the United States as represented only by its infrastructure of roads. The country that invented car culture is rendered quite clearly by drawing its 26 million streets. Focusing not on geographical features or political boundaries but only on routes of travel, the resulting map is revealing. Population-dense areas become complex fractal clusters that dominate the eastern parts of the country, while westwards the open landscapes of America’s heartland reveal blanker spots reflecting the harsh terrain.

Ben Fry is a pioneer of the new model of computational approaches to information visualization, applying design principles to revealing structures in huge sets of data. Fry does not consider himself an artist, but the emotional affect of his visualizations is undeniable. They represent a new form of augmented vision through which we might understand the complex data streams that increasingly dominate our digital lives.

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This is the first in a series of posts about the exhibition “abstrakt Abstrakt – The Systemized World”, which was part of the recent NODE10 festival in Frankfurt, Germany. The exhibition was curated by Eno Henze and Marius Watz to explore the use of abstract systems as artistic strategy and focus of aesthetic investigation.

This post consists of the curator text by Eno Henze. It will be followed by a series of posts describing all the works in the exhibition.

abstrakt Abstrakt – The Systemized World
NODE10 – Forum for Digital Arts
Frankfurter Kunstverein, Nov. 15-20, 2010

Artists: Ralf Baecker, FIELD, Ben Fry, Leander Herzog, Robert Hodgin, Thilo Kraft, Brandon Morse, Louise Naunton Morgan, John Powers, Patrick Raddatz, SOFTlab, Jorinde Voigt, Zimoun

Curator text by Eno Henze

The way of the world is increasingly controlled by relations and conditions that reside on an abstract plane. Cause and motivation for many events remain secret, because they trace back to invisible sets of rules that permeate our society and guarantee its functioning.

The two complementing events of the festival, exhibition and symposium, seek to analyze the nature and effect of such systems of abstraction. The exhibition draws upon artworks as visual evidence for the changing conditions of production in an abstract world. The symposium approaches the topic from a more theoretical perspective, facilitated by contributions from economists, scientists, artists and philosophers.

At first, abstraction appears as a method to contain certain properties of the world in a new medium. Formalized in this manner, these properties can be edited in a completely new way, demonstrating the power of abstraction as a productive tool. By these means the things of reality become transformable in an unprecedented way. This also implies a reversion of causality: the motivation for ‘real’ events now resides in an abstract place, in a certain constellation of values of the formalizing medium.

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There is now photo documentation of the Further Processing exhibition (see pts. #1, #2) online on Flickr: Further Processing photoset.

 
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Golan Levin: The Dumpster / Martin Wattenberg: Thinking Machine 4

DATA ART: The art of the database
The other identifiable tendency in the FURTHER PROCESSING exhibiton is data visualization as a new type of cultural artifact. Ben Fry's “Isometric Blocks” is a scientific visualization of blocks of genetic codes, while Golan Levin's “The Dumpster” datamines the world of teenager blogs to find patterns in blog posts relating to romantic breakups. Martin Wattenberg's “Thinking Machine” shows the user how a computerized chess player “sees” the playing board as a field of energies in flux. Pablo Miranda Carranza experiments with architectural principles and parametric design, creating systems that learn to design their own output through the use of genetic algorithms.

These works have aspects of design objects or results of scientific research, but their popularity with lay audiences are proof positive of their emotional impact. Contradicting their status as “objective” visualizations of dry data, these works can in fact be seen as a pure form of computational art. Within the context of FURTHER PROCESSING these works are shown as examples of a new type of cultural artifact, pointing to a need for better tools for understanding the complex world of information that surrounds us.

PROCESSING: The tool
Processing was originally created by C.E.B. Reas and Ben Fry in 2001, when they were both at the Aesthetics & Computation Group (AGC) at the MIT Media Lab. Directed by John Maeda, the ACG was the one of the first academic programs to combine computational and aesthetic theory.

Processing tries to reduce the threshold keeping non-technical persons from experimenting with code by employing a set of core strategies:

  • A simplified language syntax, allowing immediate experimentation with visual output.
  • A programming interface which is intuitive and non-technical
  • An Open Source architecture, which allows the extension of the tool by its users.

Since its inception, the Processing project has received considerable attention and the tool is now used as a standard teaching tool by many art and design schools worldwide. In 2005 Processing won a Golden Nica award in the Prix Ars Electronica.

Processing will be on display in the exhibition, so that visitors can try the tool and hopefully get a taste of code for themselves.

 
060922_toxi_napier.jpg

Karsten Schmidt: enerugii wa antee shite inai I (Unstable Energy I)
Mark Napier: Genesis (7 bit)

FURTHER PROCESSING: Generative art, open systems
23.09.-11.11.2006, Kunstverein Medienturm, Graz

Pablo Miranda Carranza (ES), Fabio Franchino (IT), Ben Fry (USA), Golan Levin (USA), Lia (AT), Mark Napier (USA), C.E.B. Reas (USA), Martin Wattenberg (USA), Marius Watz (NOR). Curated by Sandro Droschl and Marius Watz.

FURTHER PROCESSING uses the Open Source software Processing as a departure point to examine positions based on computational processes. Programming has always been a component in computer-based media art, but there is now an increasing interest in software and the computer code itself as methods of artistic exploration. Combined with the emergence of a new generation raised on microcomputers, BASIC programming and the Internet, this has produced a new movement within the media art scene, one which is concerned with code-based abstraction and the art of the database.

GENERATIVE ART: The system as art object
All software is by its nature based on systems. It is not surprising then that much software-based art is concerned with the system itself as an object of investigation. Loosely grouped under the term Generative Art, this work goes beyond the simple desire to use code as a tool. Instead, algorithms and code structures become the framework and material for the work itself.

Historical art movements like Conceptual Art, Minimalism, Fluxus and Op Art, as well as artists like Bridget Riley and Sol LeWitt, can serve as a background for understanding this artistic practice. At the same time. the importance of new scientific theories like complexity theory, emergence and artificial life should not be ignored. Advances in contemporary electronic music is another influence, with several of the artists working with musicians to produce software-based performance systems for the synaesthetic combination of sound and image in a live context.

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Lia: O.I.G.C / C.E.B. Reas: Process 9 (software 3)

Within FURTHER PROCESSING several artists adopt a generative position, but with distinct formal interests. Lia and C.E.B. Reas use kinetic processes as an analog to drawing, leaving complex traces on the screen’s canvas that become heavily layered surfaces. They both show a sparse use of form and color, but while Lia exhibitis a minimalist aesthetic, Reas’ work is richly layered and complex. Fabio Franchino explores the computation as a design tool by commenting on the nature of pattern, which itself can be said to be a practice of rules. His “Unfinished Wall” describes a pattern that is non-repeating, which through procedural creation could be generated on a vast scale.

Karsten Schmidt and Marius Watz deal with the evolution of structures in space, tracing out virtual sculptural forms on the screen. Here vivid color and density of the forms is used to great effect, producing bold spatial compositions. Finally, Mark Napier's “Genesis (7 bit)” is daring enough to use the text of Genesis from the Old Testament as raw material, interpreting the letters as the coordinates for points in space. The resulting arcs and filament-like traces are delicate and mesmerizing.

The generative works in FURTHER PROCESSING present an aesthetic of complexity, concerned with formal explorations of spatial and temporal parameters. Ranging from the opulent to the minimalist, these pieces comfortably bridge the gap between an electronic image culture and traditions in drawing and painting.

For more information, see Kunstverein Medienturm.

To be followed by pt.#2, on Data art.

 

The EXTEND workshop with Casey Reas, Ben Fry, Zach Lieberman and yours truly is now underway. Today is the second day, yesterday was spent giving personal introductions and dividing the 18 participants into groups. Each day we have micro-lectures. Zach started off by talking about animation and movement, and showed some examples from his making things move workshop.

The participants have shown significant interest in data visualization, and so Ben presented some background to computational information design. He used his Linkology project as a specific example.

Casey is currently speaking about the history of Processing (traced back to ACU and other MIT projects) and how to sketch with code. He is also talking about the importance of the concept of libraries as a way of extending Processing, and in particular to bring it beyond the screen. In particular, he is demonstrating the new PDF library with some code examples that will soon be posted to the Processing site.

I will sporadically be blogging the workshop over on Code & Form, a new blog I just opened to support workshops, teaching and code experiments.

 

Due to the current concert tour (which is going very well, expect an update very soon) blogging has been a low priority. Here are a few interesting things we’ve noticed recently:

  • Atelier Nord has a call for participation for a workshop called The Empire’s New Clothes - Art, Fashion and Technology. The deadline is today – Monday 24 April, so if fashion is your thing hurry up and send them a CV and statement of intent. Apologies for the late post of this call
  • Switchboard is a new Processing library written by Jeffrey Crouse. It implements a general application layer for using web services with Processing. Services already implemented to varying degrees are “google, yahoo, msn, allmusic, shoutcast, foaf, and rss/atom feeds”.
  • Linkology by Ben Fry is a project for New York Magazine showing link connections between the top 50 blogs. I’ve been meaning to blog it forever, but never got around to it so I’m simply linking it here.
  • Visualcomplexity keeps adding new projects. Some new favorites are Essence of Rabbit (by our Berlin friends at Pictoplasma) and Font 004 - Community by Marian Bantjes. Interesting to see that Visualcomplexity is including projects that don’t fit a strict infoviz focus. If you haven’t checked in for a while then take a look and consider subscribing to their RSS feed. It’s well worth it.

Photos and video of the Generator.x tour should go online in the next few days.

 

Barcelona is always a nice place to be, but the upcoming second week in May may hold particular interest to creatives working with digital media. The reason is the OFFF festival for "Post-Digital Creation Culture". Now in its fifth year, OFFF has moved away from its Flash-oriented roots and embraced the full spectrum of experimental digital work. According to the festival site, OFFF is exploring “software aesthetics and new languages for interactive and visual expression.”

The festival’s biggest pull is probably the presentations by a core of well-known creatives, with names like Kyle Cooper, Weworkforthem, Nando Costa and many more. This year the list is also conspicuously full of names from the computational design and generative art fields: Ben Fry, Golan Levin, Casey Reas, Marcos Weskamp, Zach Lieberman etc. It’s an interesting mix, and while the actual program of events hasn’t been announced yet there are sure to be some good presentations.

A special partner event of OFFF is the EXTEND: Advanced Processing Workshop. Co-produced by OFFF and Hangar (an art centre for the audiovisual arts), the one-week EXTEND workshop will be led by Ben Fry, Casey Reaz, Zachary Lieberman and Marius Watz. The workshop is intended for artists and designers who already know how to code, but who would like to experiment with new topics, learn how to extend the Processing tool itself or just play around in a constructive environment.

The workshop fee is set at a low EUR 50, so it should be accessible to freelancers without design agencies who can bankroll them. The number of places are limited, however. To be accepted, applicants must submit a personal biography and a description of previous experience with Processing.

Application deadline is 21 April. See the following call for more information.

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Ben Fry: Haplotype map in Nature

Cover of Nature

An image from Ben Fry’s Haplotype blocks visualization of genome data (a version of which is in the Generator.x show) adorns the cover of the 27 Oct issue of Nature. That gives Ben the rare honor of having been featured by both the Whitney and Nature (institutions of respectively art and science) within a short time span. Congratulations, Ben. (via user “postpop” on the Processing forums).

Somewhat unrelated (but not completely, since it deals with network models): Nature also has an article on small-world networks among dolphins. A small-world network is a network in which every node is connected to each other by a small number of connections. The term is often used to describe social networks, including the six degrees of separation principle.

So there you have it. Even dolphins are connected to Kevin Bacon.

 
Ben Fry: Isometric blocks

Ben Fry: Isometric blocks
SNP gene sequences

Ben Fry: Salary vs performance

Ben Fry: Salary vs performance
Baseball team expenditure

One should not increase, beyond what is necessary, the number of entities required to explain anything.

That is the lesson of Occam's Razor, the famous principle from reductionist science. It certainly should ring true to Ben Fry, who has made number sequences his field of aesthetic study. He developed his taste for data while at the Aesthetics & Computation Group at MIT, receiving his Ph.D. for a his dissertation on Computational information design. He currently works at the Broad Institute of MIT & Harvard on what he calls "genomic cartography", finding useful mappings of the genetic data.

Fry typically works by reducing the elements of the data set to their essential interactions. Once so reduced, he applies minor aesthetic constraints in order to make the data reveal its hidden structures. When compared to classic visualizations that rely on brute computational force and unreadable graphs, it is this light touch and clarity of approach that makes his works so appealing. Several of his projects (like Valence and Anemone) have already become classics of computational design.

While not committing to his role as artist, Fry continually crosses the art/science divide by exhibiting at places like the Whitney Biennial and the Ars Electronica. Some of his works have made cameo appearances in Hollywood feature films like “Minority Report” and “The Hulk”. Fry has also received considerable attention for co-founding the Processing project with Casey Reas. For that work they recently received a Golden Nica at Prix Ars Electronica 2005.

The Whitney Artport are currently having an online exhibition of Ben Fry. Users can interact with a selection of 4 works. Zipdecode and Distellamap have been shown in various incarnations before, while Salary vs performance is a new work looking at numbers in the world of baseball. All have been written (or re-written) in Processing for online viewing.

The Generator.x exhibition will contain two works on paper by Fry, one from his work on Haplotype structures and one of his Dismap visualizations of the execution structure of computer applications. Here, his pieces represent a direction in generative work where artists and designers concern themselves with data as a pure source of abstraction and complexity. This practice has been described by theorists like Manovich as “data art”, the art of data mapping.

Relevant links: