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: theory

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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 But this also means that many of the concepts are presented in a somewhat outdated way.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.)


Boredomresearch: f.wish / Leonardo Solaas: La Mosca 2

I have just returned from the Norwich International Animation Festival (NIAF), where festival director Adam Pugh had been courageous enough to present generative art and kinetic sculpture as part of the festival. Interestingly, the claim “I am not an animator” was often heard during the festival, pointing perhaps to a problem of positioning versus an old craft. The juxtapositions created by the festival made this dilemma all the more interesting, for instance as seen in the programme of abstract videos presented by Dietmar Schwärzler from Sixpack Films, with much of the work relating to the Austrian Abstracts blogged here recently.

Two panels on generative art were also presented. The first, chaired by Helen Sloan of SCAN, was an attempt at placing generative art in the context of animation. The panelists were Leonardo Solaas (creator of Dreamlines), Paul Smith Vicky Isley of Boredomresearch and myself. No real conclusion was reached, as none of the three participants would see their work as relating to conventional animation. Nevertheless, the inevitable time-based and performative nature of software does imply that ideas from animation could have an impact on the work.

The second panel (titled “Art on autopilot”) was organized by the Cambridge-based media arts organization Enter_, which will premiere a new international conference and festival next year. Geoff Cox acted as moderator, Geoff is an artist theorist who have written several articles on generative art and co-curated a generative exhibition called Generator. I spoke about the commissioned piece created for generating the festval identity visuals. Paul Brown talked about generative music, copyright and applications in music therapy (see this article). Finally, Dave Miller presented his work with creating an automatic approach to political cartoons. Here the practices of the participants were quite dissimilar, highlighting yet again the potential problems of the broad definition of “generative art”.


Köner & Reble: Quasar / Light Surgeons: Visuals

Quasar is an amazing film-based performance by artists Jürgen Reble and Thomas Köner, presented during the festival at the Norwich Arts Centre. The work starts off with a droning minimal soundspace and two juxtaposted 16mm film projections of crackly images that could be images off far-off star clusters. As it builds, a total of 6 projectors are activated (projecting in multiple directions) and enormous amounts of smoke pumped into the venue. The image is finally obscured, with the presentation transformed from a semi-traditional film to a kinetic space, where both sound and image become volumes rather than simple surfaces. The result was mesmerizing, and again points to the vision of the festival for including unconventional works.

The renowned London-based VJ group the Light Surgeons also presented a performance of integrated sound and visuals, with sampling being the dominant technique. The end result was a kind of video turntablism, as though a scratch DJ like Kid Koala had suddenly expanded to doing videos.


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.


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.


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


The ever-trusty feed brings news of a debate related to the Processing or Die thread a while back. A blog post over on Grand Text Auto about a lecture by C.E.B. Reas at the Human Systems | Digital Bodies conference has drawn some interesting comments about “procedural literacy” and discussion of general terminology.

Michael Mateas, associate Professor at Georgia Institute of Technology, has posted a link to his paper "Procedural Literacy: Educating the New Media Practitioner" (PDF). In it he argues that a knowledge of computational processes (i.e. procedural literacy) is a requirement for anyone seriously intending to deal with the so-called “new media”. It’s slightly on the techy side of things, but has some interesting historical references (Papert, Kay, Nelson etc.) as well as some fresh takes on the basic problem of computing for the humanities. For instance, he proposes (writing) games as the perfect vehicle for understanding a procedural approach. Interestingly, another participant in the discussion, Ian Bogost, has a book out on MIT Press entitled Unit Operations : An Approach to Videogame Criticism.

The idea of computational literacy extends beyond what is traditionally considered code. Our favorite Norwegian blogger heroine, Jill Walker, forced her electronic literature students to learn HTML and CSS in order to set up their own blogs. While HTML lacks any active computational component, it can still potentially hold a transformative experience in terms of understanding how computers “think”. Just ask all the Myspace kids.

And of course there is always the dogmatic Open Source view as to why you should learn to code: If you can’t hack it, it will control your life.


An interesting link just came down Tom Carden's feed, by way of mflux posting it on

The Art in Computer Programming is an article by Andrew Hunt and David Thomas, both veteran programmers with views on how programming practices can be improved. At the core of the article is the assertion that programming can be seen as an art form, and that approaches from painting etc. can be gainfully used to improve the process of coding.

Comparing programming to art is not new. Donald Knuth’s monolithic series The Art of Computer Programming establishes the connection quite firmly, even if he uses art as a measure of quality rather than as a description of an aesthetic / critical practice. Paul Graham also seizes on the analogy to painters in his book Hackers & Painters.

Apart from some slightly distasteful analogies involving military scenarios of “hitting your target”, Hunt and Thomas have some interesting points that will be recognizable to experienced coders and newbies alike. The challenge of the blank canvas and writer’s block is familiar, as is the issue of when to stop. On these points the article gives clear and useful suggestions. The issue of “Satisfying the Sponsor” is all-important to software engineers and designers, but perhaps less critical to artists.

For another interesting take on how to program, read this quote from an interview with Bram Cohen in Wired 13.01. Cohen is the genius behind the notorious yet much admired BitTorrent filesharing protocol:

“Bram will just pace around the house all day long, back and forth, in and out of the kitchen. Then he’ll suddenly go to his computer and the code just comes pouring out. And you can see by the lines on the screen that it’s clean,” Jenna says. “It’s clean code.” She pats her husband affectionately on the head: “My sweet little autistic nerd boy.” (Cohen in fact has Asperger’s syndrome, a condition on the mild end of the autism spectrum that gives him almost superhuman powers of concentration but can make it difficult for him to relate to other people.)

Final quote: “[premature] optimization is the root of all evil.” The author of this famous quote is the afore-mentioned Donald Knuth. It was mentioned in a post over on Vogon Poetry (again found through Tom C.) The post summarizes a talk by Cal Henderson on the building of Flickr, interesting reading as it describes how to create a scalable web application almost exclusively from Open Source software.


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.


Some calls for proposals that ought to be of interest to Generator.x readers. Sorted in order of deadlines, note that the first two deadlines are this week.

NIFCA is looking for practitioners in architecture, design and the visual arts, interested in the relation of architecture and design to society. The program is concerned with work that from a practical perspective deals with questions, such as, production methods, material, aesthetic, as well as different social and political connotations of architecture and design.
Deadline: 19 March 2006

Computational Models of Creativity in the Arts, a two-day workshop. This workshop will bring together practitioners and researchers who are involved in the use of computational systems in the fine and performing arts, literature, design and animation as well as the associated fields of aesthetics, cognitive science, art history and cultural theory.
Deadline: 19 March 2006
Announcement email

Cybersonica 06: Call for works As part of Cybersonica 06, there will be a two-week exhibition of sonic artworks. These works will explore new forms of interactivity, moving away from the keyboard and mouse and into the physical realm. We are now accepting submissions of existing sonic art works from artists wishing to exhibit and present at this year’s festival.
Deadline: 31 March 2006.

Jan van Eyck Akademie: Artists, designers and theoreticians are invited to submit proposals for individual or collective research projects for a one-year or two-year research period in the departments of Fine Art, Design and Theory.
Deadline:15 April 2006.


Images shown are not from the Swarm exhibition.

Julie Mehretu: Ruffian Logistics

Julie Mehretu: Ruffian Logistics

Wattenberg: Shape of Song

Matthew Ritchie: Self-Portrait in 2064

This has been blogged elsewhere, but it’s interesting enough to bring up again. The Fabric Workshop and Museum in Philadelphia currently have a show they call “Swarm”. The title is a tip of the hat to scientific and cultural theories, as well as a more general idea of “unplanned and decentralized modes of organization”. Some obvious references:

Curated by well-known designers and curators Abbott Miller and Ellen Lupton, the exhibition brings together artists that typically would not be shown together. Painting is juxtaposed with generative software works and installation art, well-known art world names mix with less obvious ones. Generator.x readers will be familiar with C.E.B. Reas and Jason Salavon, but perhaps less so with Julie Mehretu or Matthew Ritchie. Of course, the reverse would be true for readers from the mainstream art world.

The interesting aspect of this exhibition is how the works are selected for relevance to a cultural idea (the swarm), and not for their inclusion in specific art trends. Generative art, still an outsider art form as far as the art world is concerned, suddenly makes sense in the show. After all, it tends to address issues similar to those explored in the complex paintings of Mehretu or Ritchie (if nothing else, then certainly on a visual level). While generative artists usually shy away from talking about the relationship between their work and the human condition, this show makes just that connection.

Julie Mehretu reference via dataisnature. More to follow.


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.