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...]
Tag: science

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Manuel Lima of VisualComplexity gave an inspiring presentation yesterday at Reboot 9.0 in Copenhagen. Manuel set up the site in 2005 after doing his thesis project BlogViz at the Parson’s School of Design. Frustrated by the lack of a unified visualization resource, he started collecting links and even scanning out-of-print articles. Soon after VisualComplexity (VC) was born.

Since the launch in 2005, VC has grown to feature over 460 projects. Seen over time, it mirrors current trends in the Infoviz field regarding what kinds of data people are visualizing, as well as what techniques are popular. To reflect this, the site now features navigation by topic or by method. The statistics over common searches and subject distribution is also interesting reading.

Although the intention of VisualComplexity is academic, it does reveal a fascination with the aesthetic qualities of networks. In his talk, Manuel compared structures that look similar despite being essentially different in nature. For instance, the massive Millennium Simulation, which shows the evolution of the Universe, looks strikingly like the neural net of a rat. Obviously, this has no scientific relevance, but might explain why networks have such an aesthetic impact.

Lev Manovich has presented a reading of visualization as Data Art, with Infoviz projects often have an emotional impact on par with more traditional art forms. His paper “Data Visualisation as New Abstraction and Anti-Sublime” is downloadable from his web site. Seen in this context, VC is a treasure trove of works with both scientific and aesthetic impact. Simply scanning the page with thumbnails of all the projects will confirm this.

According to Manuel, the next step for VisualComplexity will be to turn it into an open map of maps. The VC database itself will be opened up for people to navigate or visualize in new ways. Hopefully this will help the database grow even further.

Relevant links


Soda was one of the original interaction design companies that really walked the walk. Instead of talking about the future, they were making it all the way back in 1996. Originally focused on technology and art with more than a slight architectural interest, they created a number of installations exploring robotics and unconventional interfaces. See 2743, Corrupted Nature and C20 Screen for examples of this activity.

More recently, Soda’s Journey presents the viewer with an oh-so-subtle journey through artworks owned by the National Art Collections Fund. An advanced algorithm identifies similar structures in two different images, so that zooming in on a small area of the first image gradually reveals the second. The result is a hypnotic never-ending fractal zoom. When Casson Mann Designers were asked to create an exhibit on Energy for the Science Museum, they worked with Soda to develop the concept and behaviour of the 40 meter long LED screen that is the Energy Ring (see the video).

Soda’s biggest claim to fame is without doubt the SodaConstructor. Launched in 2000 as a personal experiment (Ed Burton wanted to learn Java), it quickly exploded and within months was receiving more than a quarter of a million visits per week. Since then, several improved versions have been launched and the SodaConstructor community has grown immensely. Some very exciting SodaConstructor projects are in the pipeline, more about that in a separate post.

Pure resarch is central to Soda. Alongside commercial work they have received and worked on numerous research grants. Their research is then fed back into the commercial work, or made available to the design and engineering communities. SodaConstructor and Moovl have received considerable interest and support from NESTA, with exciting future developments still to come. These tools have then been used in schools from kids at primary level up to engineering graduates.

Soda’s work is analytical, minimal and of high technical quality. Their projects always retain a purity of form and function, without unnecessary showiness or designer flourishes. Instead of scoring points for trendiness, Soda’s work is the real deal. Producing a high-quality mix of science, design and art projects that actually work, they remain a leading light in an interaction design industry filled with funky demos and non-functional prototypes.


Just came across Krome Barratt’s wonderful Logic & Design in Art, Science and Mathematics. The book outlines ideas somewhere between art, design and science, applying semi-scientific evaluations to aesthetic issues. The quote above jumped out:

…We enjoy winding paths packed with friendly variety and affording appetising glimpses of future delights with their assurance of survival into the middle and far distance.

Now, if only life was that easy.


Jill Walker’s excellent jill/txt blog about electronic literature, social networking and, well, blogging, has won an award from the Meltzer Foundation at the University of Bergen. She will receive NOK 100 000 (approx EUR 12 000) in recognition of her “excellence in research dissemination”. This is exciting, as it reflects an official recognition of the potential of blogs to create and disseminate knowledge. Read Jill's blog post for more info, and her publications page for more of her work.

Congratulations, Jill, keep up the frontier work!

I am a hard bloggin' scientist. Read the Manifesto.

Apropos: If you are hip blogging scientish, you should have a look at the Hard Bloggin' Scientist manifesto. It provides operating guidelines for a new movement. While a bit tongue-in-cheek, it’s got some valid points.

They even have sticker images (in pink!) that you can put on your blog to represent the blogging massive. What better way to feel like a part of something important…

Falstad: 2D Vector field

Paul Falstad: 2D Vector field

Falstad: 3D Waves simulation

Paul Falstad: 3D Waves simulation

Workshops on computational design and generative art tend to start with a sense of excitement. The participants find themselves exhilarated as they discover that forms can be made to move and interact with just a few lines of code. But then a certain point is reached, where the words “trigonometry” and “vector” are mentioned. And often exhilaration turns to despair.

Regardless of whether you believe the old “right brain / left brain” clichee that creative people are bad at math and vice versa, there is a wall of knowledge that divides the scientist from the creatives. The old mistake is to think that the scientists have all the knowledge on their side, since they can to refer to physical laws and all kinds of theorems. The artists and designers are left with “soft” theories of communication and art history, much maligned by the rational scientific community. But put a physicist in charge of an advertising campaign, and you will most likely get a spectacular failure. In fact, it will be much like a nuclear reactor built by cubist painters.

Yet aesthetics is a field of knowledge, with massive amounts of empirical data to back it up. Advertising execs and industrial designers can refer to demographic studies, ergonomic principles and historical and cultural biases as to which color best expresses joy. But the artist is sometimes left with no option but to say “it is so”, without the faintest data to back her up. Still, no creative would doubt that any artist’s method is based on a mass of internalized knowledge. It’s just a shame it’s so hard to communicate.

A simple “you know stuff, too” pep-talk will never get creatives over the mathematics threshold. Some will give up, some will find unexpected resources within themselves and yet others will learn to build on work done by others. That’s where people like Paul Falstad come in handy.

Falstad has published a rich resource of Java applets demonstrating physical and mathematical principles, many of them with source code included. One can find wave simulations, vector fields, digital signal filters, magnetostatic fields and even quantum theory. And while this is still heady stuff, at least it’s in a visual form.

Another famous source is Paul Bourke. He has published papers, algorithmic how-to's and even information on common file formats. Many computational designers acknowledge a deep debt to Bourke’s work.

Want to model organic or mechanical motion? Go pay Craig Reynolds a visit, he created the classic Boids algorithm and has plenty of data and code online. This is essential reading for learning how to describe movement in terms of intention and action, rather than just as a set of changing X,Y coordinates.

The moral? There is hope. Any student who learns to google creatively will find help for even the most obscure problem.

(Via Andreas Nordenstam on BEK’s BB list.)

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.


The Society for Literature, Science, and the Arts will hold its biannual European Meeting in Amsterdam from 13 to 17 June 2006. The conference will be entitled “Close Encounters.” Prospective speakers can enter their paper proposals into one of 11 streams, which are, as fits a large conference, extremely wide-ranging and include panels on “The New Aesthetics”, “Soundscapes, Sound Technologies, and Music”, “Arts and Genomics” and more. Sounds like a potentially interesting forum for researchers and producers of generative art to formulate and exchange some ideas in the context of a humanities-oriented conference. Scheduled plenary speakers include Gillian Beer, Evelyn Fox Keller, Andrew Carnie, Richard Wingate, and Robert Zwijnenberg. The deadline to submit proposals is 5 December, 2005.

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