The online digital art journal Vague Terrain launched Vague Terrain 03: Generative Art last week, featuring work by 11 artists and musicians. Edited by Greg Smith and Neil Wiernik, Vague Terrain asks contributing artists not just for works (images, videos, mp3s), but also to articulate the context those works exist in. The final result is both artistically challenging and theoretically weighty.
This issue explores generative strategies in art, an approach to image production as well as for sound and live performance. From the abstract images of Meta to the image producing machines of Jeremy Rotzstain or the random music systems of Paul Webb, the works presented show a range of possible uses of generative systems. Of special interest are the many examples of sound works. Lately the generative art field has gotten most of its attention for visual art, belying the rich history of such systems in musical composition.
The most important theoretical contribution is a new paper from Philip Galanter, in which he clears up some common misunderstandings about his by now canonical definition of generative art (see this interview). Entitled Generative art and rules-based art, it traces a genealogy of generative art, presenting a number of historical works that are generative without being computer-based. Specifically, he looks at two exhibitions (Logical Conclusions: 40 years of rule-based art at Pace Wildenstein, New York and Beyond Geometry at Los Angeles County Museum of Art). Using these as a reference point, he clarifies some often-misunderstood terms and analyzes how the works in these shows can be understood in relation to a generative tradition.
Galanter’s presentation of these precedents is thorough. In focusing on the principles used to produce the works, he presents a firm platform for defining a basic terminology. The downside is that his paper does little to connect the aesthetic content of historical works to the works typical of the generative art field today. This is both a strength and weakness. In looking only at a limited formal aspect, Galanter avoids getting bogged down in art history. He can thus compare works that would otherwise be seen as representatives of different art movements. But in doing so, he risks giving the impression that a work like Alfred Jensen’s The Apex is Nothing is concerned with the same issues as Salavon’s Shoes, Domestic Production 1960-1968.
This dilemma clearly illustrates the problem of generative art as a definition that only describes a methodology. Apart from identifying an interest in systems, it says nothing about the resulting work and so constitutes a tenuous common link. Uncritical use of the term risks conflating artists from different periods and assuming that their artistic interests are the same, when in fact the contexts in which they produce their works are very different. Philip Galanter is no doubt aware of this, and likely does not intend to make this implication. But the recent historicization of generative art has tended towards ignoring differences in the desire to find similarities.
Finding historical references for generative art has the potential effect of legitimizing the current work by placing it in an art historical context. But it also risks ironing over the unique qualities of works. In the long run, the current generation of artists working with code and software as artistic materials might do well to specify their position as being separate from this historical context. This would allow them not only to state what is unique about their work, but also to be understood by the art world at large as more than an updated appendix to work done in the 1960’s.
All texts from Vague Terrain are under a Creative Commons license and are available for download as PDFs.