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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Skot (Frank / Gmachl): aka (audio by General Magic) from Tina Frank on Vimeo.

We have posted about the Vienna scene and the Austrian Abstracts here on previous occasions, but the video work that was central to that movement has generally not been available for viewing online. Therefore, it’s with great pleasure we see that Tina Frank has posted some early videos to Vimeo. Let’s hope other artists follow her initiative, it would be nice to have an online archive of these early experiments somewhere.

Shown above is the video AKA by Skot, produced for Gasbook 4. Skot was the name used by Tina Frank and Mathias Gmachl for a number of collaborations from 1996 to 2000. Gmachl is also one of the founders of farmersmanual, a collective that was central to the Vienna scene. “Aka” means “red” in Japanese, and the video was made with Image/ine software from Steim, one of the very first softwares to support realtime processing of video on a regular computer.

Frank created the video "iii" below by taking digital audio files of the music by Peter Rehberg (Pita) and opening them as raw pixel data in Photoshop. An oval image mask was superimposed, giving a more specific form to the resulting video. The result is classic glitch, taking a signal of a given form and deliberately misinterpreting it as something else.

More videos on Tina Frank's Vimeo stream.

Tina Frank: iii (audio by Pita) from Tina Frank on Vimeo.


The early-to-mid 1990’s were an interesting time. “Multimedia” was a hot buzzword, and people were wondering if CD-ROM and Internet was here to stay. Macromedia Director ruled the world of interactive graphics, and World Wide Web and HTML was finally transforming the Internet into a visual environment.

Early experiments using the web for art purposes quickly became iconic: Jodi hacked HTML, Form Art was briefly defined as a genre, considered ironic approaches to art production via this new channel and artists like Stanza explored Director as a tool for generative graphics.

During this (golden) period, Vienna was a hotbed of experimentation. A large group of artists pushed the boundaries of abstraction in visual art as well as music, often experimenting with code-based tools. It should be noted that the term “generative art” was not in use at the time. Nevertheless, the work produced at the time clearly articulated generative and procedural approaches to sound and image synthesis, prefiguring the current interest in such work.

Among this loosely affiliated group were artists like Farmers Manual, Tina Frank, Monoscope, Pure, Lia and Dextro. The music label MEGO and the film label Sixpackfilm provided publishing outlets. Norbert Pfaffenbichler put together an overview of the scene in the exhibition Austrian Abstracts in 2006, which expanded on the previous exhibition Abstraction Now, focusing specifically on the activities of Austrian artists.


Dextro: Turux piece / c079

Early pioneers of generative Director programming, Lia and Dextro quickly became influential both inside and outside the Director community. Their mix of crisp pixels, erratic animation and blurred surfaces was unique at the time, presenting a perfect visual counterpoint to a musical scene experimenting with glitch and sound defects.

Together, they produced Turux, a seminal web site which featured Director “soundtoys” and generative visual sketches. Thanks to the site’s intentionally cryptic interface design and the “anonymous author” fad popular with the Vienna artists (many of which used pseudonyms or group names), the authorship of Turux was unclear to outsiders. Often, visitors had no idea if Lia, Dextro or Turux were actual people or just project names. Nevertheless, Turux became an important reference for the nascent scene, its fame only heightened by its obscure origin.

When the collaboration ended some time later, Turux remained online practically unchanged. As a document of a specific time period, it became a time capsule of styles and strategies.

The original is now offline for good, having been replaced by a placeholder. But Lia and Dextro have both set up their own archives. Lia recently launched, a partial archive of her half of the project. Included are 21 works in Director, documented as stills and interactive Shockwave movies.

Dextro’s Turux experiments have been integrated into, which presents his work chronologically organized from his early period up to now. See the Turux subpage for a list of sketches. For an example of his newer work, see c079.


The Austrian Abstracts
22.09.-15.10.2006, Arti et Amicitiae, Amsterdam

The Austrian Abstracts is an exhibition of 27 Austrian-based artists, collected through their concerns with principles of abstraction while working in a wide range of media, from software to sculpture and painting. The show continues the investigation from the 2003 Abstraction Now at the Künstlerhaus in Vienna, with several of the artists appearing in both.

As the title implies, the Austrian art scene forms a nexus for the show. Even though the participating artists are from different countries, many of them are based in Vienna or have a special connection to Austria. However, the point of the exhibition is not to establish a patriotic position. Rather, it takes as its starting point a renewed interest in abstract art, which could be clearly observed in the Austrian scene of the last 10 years or more.

As the work in the exhibition demonstrates, the new interest in abstraction became evident in work with video and digital media. From the mid-1990’s artists like Dextro, Lia, Tina Frank etc. began experimenting with code, creating mostly web-based works that dealt with generative systems. These works became popular with net audiences at the time, and were loosely seen as related to even though they essentially were formal investigations. Gradually these works became recognized as a coherent movement, and many of the artists involved have since expanded beyond the web to work with installations etc.

This movement has been given the de facto title “Austrian Abstracts”, deriving from a series of screening programs of digital experimental video that first gathered many of the artists in the current exhibition. Counting Abstraction Now, the show at Arti et Amicitiae is thus the third manifestation. Curator Norbert Pfaffenbichler has effectively become the chronicler of the movement, giving the works a framework in art history even as the artists themselves often refuse to comment on their conceptual aspirations.

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Abstraction Now, Künstlerhaus Wien, 29 Aug – 28 Sep 2003.

Abstraction Now was a seminal exhibition on abstraction in contemporary art, cutting across genres and media but featuring media art and generative works in a prominent position. Conceived and curated by Norbert Pfaffenbichler with Sandro Droschl, the show collected painting, sculpture, video and computer-based works grouped by abstraction as a theme.

The works of 74 artists were presented, 25 of them shown online and in a media lounge section of the show, curated by Lia and Miguel Carvalhais. The Abstraction Now online project is still online, featuring interactive and generative works by artists like Dextro, Levin, Lia, Yugop, Reas, Tindall etc.

A hefty catalogue was produced for the show, thoroughly documenting the works and providing a series of insightful texts on the exhibition theme. Norbert Pfaffenbichler presents a solid background to abstraction as artistic device, and then goes on to describe how generative works become algorithmic tableaux vivants. Lev Manovich’s text “Abstraction and Complexity” examines the works in the media lounge section, and argues that complexity is the main paradigm of generative software abstractions.

From the introduction to the catalogue:

The project ABSTRACTION NOW presented current tendencies of non-representative art, particularly focused on audio-visual media and interdisciplinary aspects. Classical artistic genres such as painting and sculpture were confronted with modern digital forms of expression in an interdisciplinary manner. In this context, the in art theory highly over-strained concept of Abstraction functioned as common denominator with respect to content, and it referred to so far hardly considered conceptual interrelations between individual disciplines.

The catalogue is available from Camera Austria. At 28 EUR, it’s good value for a high-quality production. And if you need proof, you can also access the catalogue texts in PDF form for free. Respect to Pfaffenbichler, Droschl etc. for making these texts available.


Nicolas Schöffer: Minieffet light box

Schöffer: Minieffet light box

Much like generative art, kinetic and cybernetic art suffer from being broadly defined. As historical movements, they encompass Op Art artists like Vasarely, video artists like Nam June Paik and sculptors like Calder. As art forms they are steeped in the utopian ideas of the 60s, and so often considered to be passé manifestations of Modernist thought.

But the basic drive behind the work sounds familiar: To create images and sculptures that change and move, rather than remain static objects. Norbert Wiener’s theories about cybernetic systems and feedback loops also strongly influenced the kinetic art scene, resulting in reactive sculptures that must be considered early interactive art.

Nicolas Schöffer was one of the pioneers of kinetic art, a classic multi-artist like so many artists working in the 50s and 60s, trying his hand at painting, sculpture, architecture, film and even music, always with a consistent interest in dynamic form. He broke new ground with his sculpture CYSP 1 (1956). Equipped with photo-electric cells and a microphone, it is considered the first reactive sculpture, with light and sound conditions provoking changes in the sculpture’s structure. Schöffer also created psychelic light boxes like Minieffet, which was mass-produced in an edition of 5000 copies by Editions Denise René. Using lightbulbs, perforated masks and screens the box produces a range of animated optical effects. He was a classic multi-artist like so many artists working in the 50s and 60s, trying his hand at painting, sculpture, architecture, film and even music, always with a consistent interest in dynamic form.

Looking at a virtual museum of Schöffer’s work it is striking to see the links both to the Constructivists of the past and the abstract software work being created today. His “spatiodynamic” sculptures look just wonderful. For more information, read [Joseph Nechvatal's review of an exhibition of Schöffer's work] or this site at Leonardo Online, which attempts to present a fairly complete vision of his art. The latter site is mostly in French, but contains many images. There is also a page over on re-title about a "found exhibition" of Schöffer's work (curated by The Centre of Attention.)

(via Antoine on the eu-gene list)


A delightful find: Steven Heller’s classic 1993 essay "Cult of the Ugly" is online at Typotheque. It might seem obscure to anyone not versed in the Great Debate of early 1990s graphic design, but this essay was once at ground zero of the battle for design’s soul. The bastion of rational Modernism was being assaulted by deconstructivists and vernacular graphics, or as some people saw it, plain old ugliness.

Heller argued against the then-popular but now so passé style of deconstructed visuals (think David Carson), concluding:

“Rarely has beauty been an end in itself,” wrote Paul Rand in Paul Rand: A Designer’s Art. And it is equally mistaken to treat ugliness as an end result in itself. Ugliness is valid, even refreshing, when it is key to an indigenous language representing alternative ideas and cultures. The problem with the cult of ugly graphic design emanating from the major design academies and their alumni is that it has so quickly become a style that appeals to anyone without the intelligence, discipline or good sense to make something more interesting out of it. While the proponents are following their various muses, their followers are misusing their signature designs and typography as style without substance. Ugliness as a tool, a weapon, even as a code is not a problem when it is a result of form following function. But ugliness as its own virtue – or as a knee-jerk reaction to the status quo – diminishes all design.

Computational design is in many ways the ultimate design modernism, often based on exact science and numbers. As seen in the work and teachings of someone like John Maeda, simplicity and clarity are the ultimate values. Not much space for ugliness there. It would be interesting to see some real ugly computational design, not in the sense of bad design, but in the sense that Heller writes about.

What was great about the deconstructions of the early 90s was that it allowed a personal expression, and even (shocking!) humor. Let’s hope that streak of mischief doesn’t disappear in all the clean surfaces…


Two classic out-of-print books on generative systems online for free perusal in PDF format:

  • Prusinkiewicz & Lindenmayer: The Algorithmic Beauty of Plants

    Classic text on the algorithmic modelling of plants, using formal grammars known as L-systems. This very comprehensive book describes models of varying complexity, from single leaves to flowers and finally trees etc. L-systems were invented by Lindenmayer in 1968 to model the morphology of various organisms, for more information see the wikipedia definition: L-system.

    The Algorithmic Botany site where the book is available is the website of the Biological Modeling and Visualization research group at the University of Calgary, and contains numerous related papers and resources.

  • John Frazer: An Evolutionary Architecture

    In this book, John Frazer describes 30 years of work with evolutionary strategies for form-generating processes. Coming out of the interest in system-based architecture in the 1960s, Frazer and colleagues propose organic architectural systems inspired by artificial life and shape grammars.