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: FIELD - Interim Camp

FIELD: Interim Camp (2008), Muse (2010)
Computer-generated short films

The experimental short films “Interim Camp” and “MUSE” show us a glimpse into fluid dream worlds, synthetic spaces generated through custom software processes. The cinematic vision is here a product of algorithms controlling the camera’s motion as well as the simulated terrain it moves through.

The creation of artificial worlds has been a constant trope in computer graphics since its inception, reflecting the desire to model an alternate reality in silicon perfection. FIELD (Marcus Wendt and Vera-Maria Glahn) acknowledges this utopian vision, embracing a graphic style that clearly reveals the illusion they present to the viewer. Their films show three-dimensional landscapes but are constantly on the verge of becoming pure abstraction, space devolving into a composition of surfaces. Perhaps we should understand them as much as moving paintings as renderings of artificial worlds.

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abstrakt Abstrakt: Ralf Baecker - The Conversation

Ralf Baecker: The Conversation, 2006
250×250 cm, Solenoids, strings, custom electronics, cables, wood

“The Conversation” is an autonomous apparatus, consisting of one analogue and one digital part. These elements, which are almost inseparably tied together, simultaneously attempt to adapt to one another. As the process follows no linear program, it is not obvious which part is controlling which.

Even if Baecker describes the arrangement as a “Pataphysical Processing Environment” and declares it nonsense or else a machine without a purpose, we can nevertheless read it as a cybernetic diagram. Cybernetics employs the same method to describe both machines and living organisms as information processing (communicating) objects. In this, circular causal and feedback mechanisms play a crucial role. Through a feedback loop, the installation constantly supplies itself with the data on its deviation from “inner equilibrium.” The state of the apparatus, which in theoretical discussion is generally represented as a ‘black box’ and remains hidden, is visible in “The Conversation” as a relation of tension, so that we may view the machine talking to itself.

This text is taken from the NODE10 catalogue, written by Eno Henze and Marius Watz and edited by Valérie-Françoise Vogt. Please read the introductory curator text for an overview of the exhibition topic.

abstrakt Abstrakt: Ralf Baecker - The Conversation

abstrakt Abstrakt: Ralf Baecker - The Conversation

 

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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A post on the excellent Interactive Architecture blog reminds us that John Frazer’s classic book An Evolutionary Architecture" is downloadable as a PDF. Originally published in 1995 and now out of print, the book gives a fascinating history of experiments in computational architecture going back to the 1960’s. Frazer’s main interest is in the use of biological models in architecture, applying classic Alife models like cellular automata and genetic programming to spatial problems.

Given its age and that it was already a retrospective account when it was released, the historical perspective is one of the best aspects of the book. But this also means that many of the concepts are presented in a somewhat outdated way. Frazer’s approach to architecture is rather dry and academic, and his text can tend towards the bombastic. Still, the way he combines 1960’s utopian belief in systems with modern technology gives food for thought.

(In all modesty, there was a Generator.x post about the book all the way back in 2005.)

 
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Boris Müller: Poetry on the road 2006

Boris Müller has put online documentation of Poetry on the road 2006, a poetry festival for which he creates a computational design identity every year. A specific text is used as raw material, then treated by Müller’s software in some way to create a visual representation. This visual is then used for posters and other publicity materials, including the book that is released every year.

Eschewing the more magical approaches of previous years, the 2006 edition has seen Müller has gone firmly in the direction of information visualization. Words in a poem are given a numerical code by adding the values of their letters together. This number gives the word its position on a circle, which is marked by a red dot. Gray lines connect the dots in the sequence the words they represent appear in the poem. The diameter of the circle on which the dots are placed is decided by the length of the poem. In this way several poems can be represented in a single image.

To get a feeling for the system, try the interactive demonstration. Click the “write” tab to have a go writing your own text.

Müller has being doing Poetry on the Road since 2002, and the series are a wonderful showcase of computational ways of treating text as more than just typography. This writer’s favorite remains the 2003 edition, where letters were used to control a drawing machine much like the classic turtle graphics used in LOGO.

 
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Alex Dragulescu: Extrusions in C major (detail) / Blogbot (detail)

[Read pt.1 for completion] Dragulescu’s Extrusions in C major uses music as its input, specifically the “Trio C-Major for Piano, Violin, and Cello” by Mozart. Here the artist rigorously describes his mapping: Different colors represent different instruments, while each segment of the fragmented forms represent a single note, with characteristics such as velocity and duration controlling the development of the form. The final form represents the temporal structure of the piece.

Blogbot and related projects Havoc and Algorithms of the Absurd represent a slightly different approach with a performative flair. Blogbot generates “experimental graphic novels” from content found on blogs. Texts are presented as though being read, appearing line by line accompanied by visual icons.

The online example What I Did Last Summer appropriates pixellated images of war machines and soldiers taken from computer games. They are then used to illuminate a narrative of fragments from two blogs relating to the Iraq war. One is by an American soldier and contains details of raids and military maneuvers, the other is the famous blog of Salaam Pax, the Baghdad Blogger. The introduction of temporal and graphic aspects to the text turns it into a performed narrative. Simultaneously, a graphic composition of increasing complexity is created as the text grows on the canvas.

Lev Manovich speaks of data visualization as the New Abstraction (see Data Visualisation as New Abstraction and Anti-Sublime, Word DOC file). In this context Dragulescu certainly presents an interesting take on info-aesthetics, with complex data sets being appreciated for their structural beauty alone.

Alex Dragulescu is from Romania and currently leads the Experimental Game Lab at the Center for Research in Computing and the Arts at University of California, San Diego.

 
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Alex Dragulescu: Spam Architecture (detail) / Spam Plants (detail)

Romanian artist Alex Dragulescu turns data sets into raw materials for the generation of tantalizing 2D and 3D forms. Rather than scientific visualization intent on clarifying the content of the data, Dragulescu creates graphic and temporal compositions notable for their strong graphic qualities.

Spam Architecture is one project that has garnered much attention recently. Here spam is translated into three-dimensional form by analysing keywords and patterns in the text. Like its sibling project Spam Plants, it explores the mapping of textual data into spatial configurations.

All trace of the original data source is absent in the final result. No reference to the textual material remains, nor of the analytical process involved. Instead, a single coherent form is presented, with no signifiers indicating its origin. In this sense, the spam data could be said to simply constitute an arbitrary pseudo-random data input, with the result bearing no semantic connection to the raw material that it was generated from.

Dragulescu does not provide clues or any rational way of evaluating the nature of the mapping. But nor does he make a claim to producing literal meaning. Hence the viewer is free to enjoy the results as a complex formal experiment in which spam undergoes a process of transsubstantiation, transformed from a source of irritation into intriguing objects of great beauty.

 
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Vague Terrain: Jeremy Rotzstain / Paul Webb

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.

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Vague Terrain: meta / Ben Bogart

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.

 
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Graphic design excellence: Emigre / Zuzana Licko’s Puzzler

Nostalgia can be distracting, particularly the “good old days” variety that makes one feel things used to be so much better. But when Emigre launches a redesign of its web site (the first in 9 years – yes, that’s 1997) it’s hard not to feel at least a pang. A lot of Generator.x readers probably know the Emigre story, but here’s a short history lesson for those who don’t.

Although it was always the Emigre fonts that paid the bills, it was Emigre Magazine that built the cult. Founded by Rudy VanderLans and first published in 1984, it finally closed with issue 69 in 2005. Always uncomprisingly dedicated to eclectic visions and new voices in graphic design, it concerned it self with a theoretical and subjective approach to design.

Emigre was declared public enemy #1 by much of the design establishment of the 80’s and 90’s. Its unpopularity had several causes. Emigre openly embraced computers as design tools and digital artifacts like pixels as new design elements in their own right. This put them in the midst of the “desktop publishing” controversy, which would eventually cause the obsolescence of professional typographers. More importantly, Emigre championed postmodernist and deconstructivist design experiments, and became a soapbox for new ideas coming out of schools like Cranbrook and Calarts.

Emigre’s willingness to showcase stylistic exercises that explored “form as function” rather than “form follows function” was an affront to Modernist schools of thought. But by the mid-90s Modernism was on the run, and the idea that a designer is merely a neutral translator of content was all but dead and buried. The Emigre revolution was soft, but irreversible. But nothing lasts forever.

With little to fight against, Emigre started losing steam towards the end of the 90’s. The internet took over as the most important influence on graphic design, and the excesses of postmodernism fell out of fashion. Emigre were among the first type foundries to have a web site and offer downloadable fonts, but it didn’t have such a good grasp on the new issues brought up by digital design. Some early computational experiments like the RandomFonts from Letterror, found space within the pages of Emigre Magazine. But web design as a field was largely passed by in silence.

The final issue (#69) features a collection of 69 stories by Rudy VanderLans, chronicling the trials and tribulations (but also successes) of Emigre Magazine. The font foundry remains one of the most important independent foundries out there, dedicated to solid typography with an eye for the curious and eclectic. Don’t miss out on Zuzana Licko’s fonts, including her lovely Puzzler pattern generator.

Related links

 

Chris Robbins has posted a paper on the notion / nature of material in digital media. It was originally presented in Christiane Paul’s lecture series for Digital Media at Rhode Island School of Design. He describes the tendency to construct digital analogies of physical artifacts, and reflects on attempts to quantify digital material as semantic units.

Also enjoyable is a record of a chat between Robbins and his mother on the pseudo-science of morphogenetic fields.