There must be no generative, procedural or computational art
This blog entry feels like a work in progress, so feedback is especially encouraged.
Lately I’ve been considering a dichotomy running through the history of computer art. On one side of the dichotomy, consider this press statement from SAP, the “world’s leading provider of business software”, on sponsoring a major interactive art group show at the V&A:
London – October 08, 2009 – Global software leader SAP AG (NYSE: SAP) today announced its exclusive partnership with the Victoria and Albert (V&A) Museum in London for an innovative and interactive exhibition entitled Decode: Digital Design Sensations. Central to the technology-based arts experience is Bit.Code, a new work by German artist Julius Popp, commissioned by SAP and the V&A. Bit.Code is themed around the concept of clarity, which also reflects SAP’s focus on transparency of data in business, and of how people process and use digital information.
As consumers, people are overwhelmed with information that comes from a wide variety of electronic sources. Decode is about translating into a visual format the increasing amount of data that people digest on a daily basis. The exhibit seeks to process and make sense of this while engaging the viewer in myriad ways.
As far as art sponsorship goes, this is pretty damn weird. The “grand entrance installation” was commissioned to reflect the mission statement of the corporate sponsor. I found nothing in this exhibition about the corporate ownership and misuse of personal data, just something here about helping confused consumers.
Of course this is nothing new, the Cybernetic Serendipity exhibition at the ICA in 1968 was an early showcase of electronic and computer art, and was similarly compromised by the intervention of corporate sponsors. As Usselmann notes, despite the turbulence of the late sixties, there was no political dimension to the exhibition. Usselmann highlights the inclusion of exhibits by sponsoring corporations in the exhibition itself as excluding such a possibility, and suggests that this created a model of entertainment well suited for interactive museum exhibits, but compromised in terms of socio-political engagement. Cybernetic Serendipity was well received, and is often lauded for bringing together some excellent work for the first time, but in curatorial terms it seems possible that it has had lasting negative impact on the computer art field.
As I was saying though, there is a dichotomy to be drawn, and Inke Arns drew it well in this 2004 paper. Arns makes a lucid distinction between generative art on one side, and software art on the other. Generative art considers software as a neutral tool, a “black box” which generates artworks. Arns gets to the key point of generative art, that it negates intentionality: the artworks are divorced from any human author, and considered only for their aesthetic. This lack of author is celebrated by generative artists, as if the lack of cultural context could set the artwork free towards infinite beauty. Arns contrasts this with software art, which instead focuses on software itself as the work, therefore placing responsibility for the work back on the human programmer. In support, Arns invokes the notion of performative utterances from speech act theory; the process of writing source code is equivalent to performing source code. Humans project themselves by the act of programming, just as they do through the act of speech.
Arns relates the generative art approach with early work in the 60s, and software art approach with contemporary work, but this is unfair. As could be seen in much of the work at Bit.Code, the presentation of sourcecode as a politically neutral tool is still very much alive. More importantly, she neglects similar arguments to her own already being made in the late sixties/early seventies. A few years after Cybernetic Serendipity, Frieder Nake published his essay There should be no computer art, giving a leftist perspective that decried the art market, in particular the model of art dealer and art gallery selling art works for the aesthetic pleasure of ruling elite. Here Nake retargets criticism of sociopolitical emptiness against the art world as a whole:
.. the role of the computer in the production and presentation of semantic information which is accompanied by enough aesthetic information is meaningful; the role of the computer in the production of aesthetic information per se and for the making of profit is dangerous and senseless.
From this we already see the dichotomy between focus on aesthetic output of processes, and focus on the processes of software and its role in society. These are not mutually exclusive, and indeed Nake advocates both. But, it seems there is a continuing tendency, with its public beginnings in Cybernetic Serendipity, for computer artists to focus on the output.
So this problem is far from unique to computer art, but as huge corporations gain ever greater control over our information and our governments, the absence of critical approaches in computer art in public galleries looks ever more stark.
So returning to the title of this blog entry, which borrows from the title of Nake’s essay, perhaps there should be no generative, procedural or computational art. Maybe it is time to leave generative and procedural art for educational museum exhibits. I think this is also true of the term “computational art”, because the word “computation” strongly implies that we are only interested in the end results of processes that halt, rather than in the activity of perpetual processes and their impact on our lives. Is it time to return to software art, or processor art, or turn to something new, like critical engineering?
The quoted bit struck me too; you could just as easily say that people can be overwhelmed by data while trying to cast a informed vote in a democracy, or overwhelmed by data when
trying to figure out what would be healthy for them or….
Either way there is a lot of power in the hands of the one creating the tool to “help”.
It’s interesting that the text of this marketing initiative looks at the audience exactly as you’d expect a marketer to look at them; as confused consumers in need of guidance. I wonder to what degree such exhibitions make people think of themselves in that way too, or whether this might cause a sort of mental rebellion.
I agree with the general thrust of this post. Very interesting read and it shows that there is always a need for a good bullshit LPF in sponsored art fairs, biennales and, in particular, when there are new art forms at play.
My problem with the argument is this dichotomy that you maintain from Inke Arns. I think strong definitions like those can often be helpful, but they do colour-by-number a reality which is much more complex.
I think there is a lot of software art that is generative and aims at erasing the author from the creative process and, likewise, I think generative art does not have to be neutral or a black box at all. It’s all up to the creator who rarely thinks in terms of such dichotomies.
Yes, Inke notes that her argument is polemical and I admit the same of this blog post. However the autonomy of processes is key to Galanter’s definition of generative art, and I think that strongly implies the negation of intentionality.
There is a big question whether “software art” as a culture ever really existed, it could just have been a curatorial fiction (see http://www.projects.v2.nl/~arns/Texts/Media/Software_Art_Panel.html). In any case it doesn’t have a strong identity now, and so Arns paper has dated since she wrote it in 2004. But still, she finds some interesting insights I think, which connect well with Nake’s earlier essay despite overgeneralising about that era.
I’m sorry but this article is full of senseless generalisations and semantical arguments which make no sense.
Arns’ distinction between generative and software art is wrong. Generative art is not necessarily made with software and we could even say software art is not even necessarily generative.
Furthermore, I often find people who describe themselves as software artists less sensitive to the context of free software, privacy etc.
Also, to say that the generative art seeks to erase the artist is a simplification. It questions the role of the artist, not the same thing. Refer to Cope for example.
I see a lot of generative art which is critical, I also see a lot which is less. However, the notion that it has to become “critical engineering” or “educational” is nonsense. There is a lot of engaging, aesthetic and critical work to be made, you can call it generative or computational or just art.
Yes I agree that generative art is not necessarily made with software, and this is clear in the paper by Arns so I assume you haven’t read it?
Arns defines what she means by Generative Art and Software Art quite clearly, referring to accepted definitions where possible. You might define these terms differently, but that is arguing over semantics and not a point of argument. If you want to engage with Arns you will at least have to try to understand what her words mean.
The software artists I know are very much aware of software culture, issues of freedom and privacy, and as Arns defines the term, artists who do not do so, are hardly software artists.
David Cope makes works derived from statistical analysis of other works, which he cherry picks and modifies by hand. Therefore I think the discussion of authorship around his work is either based on a misunderstanding or plain fraudulent, as well as beside the point.
No I haven’t read Arns, but then maybe your quoting is too selective?
I agree the discussion is semantic, that is where I’m having trouble with your article. It is largely based on semantics and a perspective on the generative/software art culture I don’t seem to share.
In Cope’s Computer Models of Musical Creativity, he spends quite some time on anekdotes and reflections on how his work is received and the problem of authorship, especially since he uses statistical methods. So I would say it is relevant, and illustrates my point of the position of authorship in people who call themselves generative artists is not as simple as “celebrating the lack of authorship”.
Just skimmed through Arns’ article (missed the link earlier) and though well constructed, I must say I still partly disagree.
Anyway, another thing to note, is that “software artist” is sometimes used to pigeon hole artist in a software engineering role, while the “real” artist works on the overall idea. This is a trend I thoroughly dislike.
In practice, a lot of it is down to communication. If I’m doing a generative installation thing and I explain it in a Dorkbot session, I can go on about the code and tools. When explaining it to to family, I will concentrate on the experience and aesthetics, general context. With an academic, about the wider cultural implications. If a curator picks it up, he or she will present it within the concept of the exhibition. It doesn’t change the work or the way it should be categorized.
I can’t comment on the corporate financing part as such funding is rare here, so the link is strange to me.
Hi Isjtar, I wasn’t aware of people confusing “software artist” with “artist assistant” before, that is a worrying trend although also helpful in showing who to ignore.
Good points about different ways of presenting the same work, although I think curators should present work which will challenge audiences in a multitude of ways, rather than present art as entertainment. I would also argue that the way a work is presented can change its reception fundamentally.
And yes, my perspective is from the UK, although of course Nake and Arns write from a German perspective.
I maintain that Cope is celebrating the lack of authorship, while hiding behind a mechanical turk. If you enjoyed “Computer models of musical creativity”, you might find this review interesting:
I’m not a particular fan of Cope, mostly because my music is electronic and his approach would produce something similar to Wendy Carlos, but I remember reading his book years ago and being particularly under the impression that he wanted personal recognition, but I see your point. Thanks for the link.
Anyway, a last point to make is that there’s another reason I like to use the term “generative” as it’s more or less easy to understand and applicable to different forms of art. For example “generative music” works, “software music” is weird. A computational installation sounds like a super computer, procedural will get you in court. But that is from a practical, not an academic point of view. We’re still stuck with the terms IDM and New Media.
I’ll stop spamming your blog now, by the way I see you’ve visited foam recently, if you’re in Brussels any time, let me know and we can discuss other things over a beer.
Heh, yes considering music does derail things somehow, Nake admitted as much in his follow up to the essay I cited.
On reflection I guess my blog post is about trying to challenge my own practice, which lately has been more like Arns’s generative than software art. I should make that clearer so it doesn’t look so much like an attack on other people.
Thanks a lot for the feedback, will let you know when I’m next in bru, great beer you have there 🙂
Here (Netherlands) corporate sponsorship is also quite rare, but state-sponsorship is very, very common (to the point where the great majority of art events are in some way funded by the state). It’s been sufficiently debated whether or not that is a good thing (at least sufficient for me to be quite tired of it) but it clearly does affect what art is created. For example; software art that critiques corporate data collection like that web2.0 “suicide machine” and Naked on Pluto are sponsored here but no similar works about state-based data collection appeared, at least not that I know of. For reference; this country has the most phone-taps per capita worldwide, so it’s not like there wouldn’t be a reason for such works.
Obviously sorporate sponsorships come at a cost in terms of what can and should be talked about in a given work, but IMHO state funding is not a panacea either. It’d be nice if I could now give a alternative, but the only thing that I can come up with is pointing out that the needs of the software artist are quite modest compared to many other arts…
I should say that corporate sponsorship is rare here too. It’s interesting that Cybernetic Serendipity was sponsored by American corporations and military institutions, and Bit.Code by SAP, a German company.
Arts funding in the UK mainly comes from the government via the arts council, although the digital arts funding from this route has been severely cut in the last year. I absolutely agree state funding has similar problems, and also extra problems on top. I’m sure both of these exhibitions received state funding and were compromised in ways that are perhaps a bit more hidden.
I’ve been involved with weekend dorkbot events for 80 people that cost £25 each including three days food and accommodation. And yet, an event that receives both large amounts of state funding and high profile sponsorship can cost artists many £100s to take part in *as performers*… What happened to economy of scale?
Yes, no easy answers..
Yeah. I wouldn’t be as sceptical about those funding structures if it weren’t more likely that they ended up paying security personel, bartenders, etc, before the actual artists.Oh, well, at least this model forced me to get experience as a barman, doorman, sound engineer, stage manager, lights rigger and organiser too. That has some value too. That’s fairly common amongst my social circle, not some claim about me being special.
First, thanks to Alex for some interesting points and stirring up an interesting conversation here and elsewhere. And my apologies to those who may have seen parts of this post elsewhere.
A couple points that are difficult to state briefly:
First, it concerns me greatly when, especially in the context of generative art, there is an implicit point made that art without political content is somehow lacking, or that formal art is somehow not enough in itself, or is merely a phase to be passed though and left behind. (Not that anyone here is saying precisely that…)
I’m fond of saying that art is too important to be wasted on politics, and politics is too important to be trusted to artists. This is, of course, intentionally provocative in its glibness. But perhaps the following will add some meat.
Form matters. Form isn’t just a concern for artists, it also has to do with science and philosophy and religion. Artists in the modern period made would-be heroic claims to privileged understanding of form as expressions of their inner psyche and the channeling of primordial forces. Artists in the postmodern period in the process of rejecting the claims to privilege and high art, a claim also attacked in part by the identity politics promoted in postmodern critical studies, rejected formalism. Beauty came to be thought of as, at best, a naive and useless notion, and at worst a destructive tool of ideology and political oppression.
Generative art, and especially generative art that harnesses what we are learning from complexity science, is a unique opportunity to rehabilitate formalism in art. It presents form as anything but arbitrary. It presents beauty as the result of an understandable universe neutral to human social construction in a fair and unbiased way.
Formalism in art can now be thought of as neither a claim to privilege nor meaningless beauty. Form can be appreciated as a real, meaningful, publicly understandable process available to all. Relative to the postmodern era, tired and played out, this new conception of form is revolutionary and well worth exploration in its own right.
Second point, regarding the claim that “generative processes are used to negate intentionality.”
They certainly can be, but they also certainly don’t have to be. A trivial example would be generative techniques used in Hollywood animated filmmaking. They might, for example, use L-systems and so on to create a forest scene. There is no negation of intentionality. The art director gets the look he or she wants. It’s a purely pragmatic decision.
Frankly I see the term “generative art” as having very little content. It’s a starting point in that it is a name for a subset of art made in a certain way. But it says nothing about that art in terms of content, meaning, value, criticism (other than categorization), and so on.
It’s a lot like the term “painting.” Painting refers to work made by applying pigment to a surface. But any statement like “painting is about revealing the soul” or “painting is about mimesis” or whatever is bound to be wrong. Wrong because painting can be about these things, but also so much more.
The one thing all generative art does has in common, by definition, is the use of generative systems. That’s why in my take on it the next step is to ask “what can we say about systems?” I try to put that question in the context of complexity science because I view that as the current best universal take on systems. And indeed it yields a way to sort out subsets of generative art, and it turns out those subsets came into practice in a historical order.
But beyond that I find statements that generative art is this or that wrong in that they are overly exclusionary. What *could* be said is something like “at this point in art history the most useful generative art addresses the issue of intentionality.” That would be a debatable point, but it doesn’t deny the category of “generative art” to art that really should be included.
Personally I am not very interested in the issues around intentionality, and I’m very much less interested in the intersection of art and politics. What is interesting to me is how complex generative systems give us a way to explore the very nature of the universe.
To clarify; I’m not that interested in the intersection of art and politics either, but I am interested in the link between politics and the ability to share one’s art. That’s without even going into the link between politics and the ability to benefit from one’s art.
Thanks for the thoughtful response, Philip.
I disagree that your definition of generative art has little content.
You define generative art as produced by an autonomous process. That
negates programmer intentionality.
Your example works against you. Not only are l-systems less
autonomous than a paintbrush, but animation studios are not at all
interested in autonomy, everything must be controlled within tight
parameters, because render farm time is expensive. Just using
generative grammars does not conform to your definition of generative
When generative art (such as Adrian Ward’s auto-illustrator) makes a
sociopolitical point, it does so by focussing on the process and not
just its output. That is when it transcends generative art as you
define it, and becomes something else. Not work produced by autonomy,
but work *about* autonomy.
Furthermore you ignore the strong political content of SAP’s press
release, and of the curatorial decision to show military and
industrial designs in the same exhibition as computer artwork.
Yes, there is plenty of room to explore the nature of the universe
through computation. But personally I’d rather leave that to Wolfram
— for me code is much more interesting as a way of exploring
ourselves, including in terms of what we can experience as
individuals, and understanding our place in society.
Well, I’m not very interested in the intersection between artists and politicians.
But I am very interested in the relation between the activity of writing code, its output and the human themes of perception, experience, thought, communication and freedom. This I think has more to do with politics than it has to do with autonomy.
Yes, that’s true too. You could say that in today’s world where the process is a given and can be intentionally hidden (for example in the case of those secret debates in supposedly democratic governments about that copyright law) focussing on the process at all is a political act. It’s also hard to make a distinction between “politics” and “autonomy” in a strongly regulated society.
I’d prefer not to have to be bothered by this and to stick to slinging some nice music and images into the world, but as pointed out above I’m often forced to.
Hello Alex, I would like to point you to my own work, which I consider centrally concerned with criticism and culture, generation and process, and scientific knowledge. In particular the “Dreaming Machine” installations. Some reading:
I think you are making a lot of assumptions about generative art that do not apply as broadly as presented.
Loose note, I thought of while walking to the store this evening; before we get too sceptical of corporate funding of computer arts; “Bell Labs”. There are a few more stray examples here and there (the Philips Studio, we might count the Radiophonic Workshop, etc). Bell Labs proves it can be done in a nice way and I fear we have to wonder where we would be without them.
Late in responding to this, but it’s given me pause to reflect on a lot of these relationships between art and politics, which I formerly considered myself quite uninterested in…
A few points:
1. This quiet exclusion of explicitly political work, in favour of ludic interactivity, is a very disturbing thought. Of course, there is something political about the democratisation of the artwork (and Metzger’s self destructive objects) blah blah, but I know this isn’t what you are getting at.
However, I’d wager that in 1968, the radical newness of these forms (robotics, kinetic art, synthetic biology, interactive sound machines, etc) would surely preoccupy the visitor and the artist. Trying to cram both the technologically new and the politically profound could dilute the message so thinly to become meaningless. Isn’t it the case that any artform in its early stage is first focused on the materiality of the form itself? Take early video art, sound art, or net art – all began with investigations of their own medium (thinking Nam June Paik, Christian Marclay, etc) and only later branched out to more overtly political messages (Marclay’s guitar drag). I think this is a pretty common trend in art history.
So, though the list of sponsors is pretty scary, I do wonder how different the artworks’ critical engagement would have been without it.
2. This lack of criticality in digital art is less justifiable nowadays, now it is a firmly established form. I was entirely underwhelmed by Decode, which felt basically like a glorified hall of mirrors and totally evoked the “winking lights, flickering television screens and the squawks” that Usselman cites.
However, do remember that Decode was an exhibition of digital design, not fine art, and should be judged as such. In terms of the objects, systems and interfaces that it showcased, it was moderately more interesting. But don’t expect profound explicit messages.
I think this distinction is very important, as a million identikit openFrameworks/openCV installations pop up and are presented as meaningful artwork because they consist of some kind of banal visually-based interactivity. This is design, or gaming, or art-lite.
3. From your post: generative art “negates intentionality: the artworks are divorced from any human author, and considered only for their aesthetic”. I strongly disagree! It relocates intentionality, and changes the role of the author to a meta-composer. Brings to mind the Cage quote, in which an artist’s choices consist in choosing what questions to ask…
I think it’s naive to claim that any generative work, no matter how autonomous, is not still the direct work of the artist-programmer behind it. My work that incorporates generative process does so in order to multiply its outputs, introducing some element of surprise but without doing stuff that I would attribute to the process per se – more as a conjunctive, distributed agency.
I don’t fully get your response to Philip re L-systems. I don’t think it makes much sense to say which is “more” autonomous, though with indeterminacy and context-based decision rules (which any Hollywood grammar would use) they can become so. And they certainly fall right into his definition of generativity (“any art practice where the artist uses a system, such as a set of natural language rules, a computer program, a machine, or other procedural invention, which is set into motion with some degree of autonomy contributing to or resulting in a completed work of art”).
It seems a bit like you are objecting to his example of a less-autonomous case by saying it is not autonomous at all, thus not generative, thus not a valid example!
The concluding point is, of course, the old chestnut: it’s all a continuum, there are varying degrees of generativity, varying degrees of political overtness, etc. But though most may be playthings, sketches or experiments, that is no reason to abandon the whole form.
4. I’m sure I had more than 4 points — might add to this later. I do have a continued interest in the topic, as some of the work that I do is very expensive to produce and install, way beyond my means and those of some other galleries/host institutions/funding bodies. A recent installation had backing from a corporate entity whose interests are divergent to my own. They provided complete backing, and genuinely engaged with the project and its ideas without any attempt to extract anything further (let alone impact on its direction or ideas). They did not ask for any explicit association on the project’s publicity itself. As far as I could see, the negative ramifications of accepting the backing were almost nonexistent. Your post has given me a lot to think about however, in terms of activities that commercial backing subtly discourages. So, thanks!
Hi Daniel, all good points.
Firstly note that in writing this I was reconsidering my own practice as someone who does not create artworks with explicit political content either. This was as much about introspection as anything else, although this got lost a bit as I got into a slightly argumentative mode of discussion with Philip. I found it useful to question my own position and the environment I work in.
I did consider the design context of the V&A and design subtext of the description of the exhibition. I think most of the exhibitors would describe themselves as artists rather than designers though, and on the whole the literature from the exhibition and sponsor does that… I think this exhibition is a good representation of mainstream digital arts.
I also thought decode was a hall of mirrors, literally so in many (perhaps the majority?) of the works.
I agree heartily that the human artist can’t be written out of computer art. What I’m trying to say is that by focussing on autonomy, we’re giving up responsibility for the content of the work and closing off possibilities. You’re right though, I did tie myself in knots a little over this due to the afore-mentioned argumentative streak (which continued on the eu-gene list for a while).
Although I’m taking an extreme view against my own practice, I agree a continuum is healthy. I think the decode exhibition was also an extreme, though.
Fair point about funding too, and Kassen makes a very good point that governmental funding has its own problems. It of course can be a positive thing for an institution or company to provide funding for the arts, but commissioning artists to communicate their corporate goals as the grand entrance to a digital arts exhibition is very strange.
My tuppence worth (rather late).
It is a post-modern dogma that all art must be critical (in a certain sense), but it ain’t necessarily so. I see a parallel between computer art and early abstract art. The early abstract artists had to persuade themselves that they weren’t being merely decorative, and they did this by invoking the spiritual (Kandinsky), the Zeitgeist or revolutionary spirit of the new machine age (the Futurists), and so on. It is not surprising that the earliest computer artists engaged in uncritical exploration of new techniques (with or without corporate sponsorship), but soon the question surely arose: how is this not purely decorative? The post-modern idea of critical art came to the rescue: see, we’re not being decorative, we’re not even (merely) making socially useful art, we’re making Critical Art! But there is more to art than critical art. (And did anyone attack the Iliac Suite after the fact for not being critical?) In these post-post-modern times it is an interesting challenge for computer-based art to move beyond simple exploration of new techniques, beyond the purely decorative, beyond the reflexive exploration of the performativity of code, and beyond the post-modern strait-jacket of critical art.
Apologies for the parody of the history!
Thanks Gordon, that’s an important point beautifully made, using computers to engage with the world in new ways and see new things is hardly about decoration.
As an interesting aside, the US abstract expressionists were covertly supported by the CIA as a kind of Cold War cultural weaponry:
Makes you wonder whether any art movement is totally without some kind of sinister backing lurking in the shadows..
Oeh, I like Daniel’s “hall of mirrors” analogy.
BTW, I’m not so sure I have a issue with “decorative” works. It seems to me that computer technology is primarily presented, sold and seen as tools to be either economically productive or to consume content. We here also use it for art, but when I’m totally honest with myself I have to say that lot of the time I also simply enjoy playing it for the joy of playing. The violin can be used to convey profound emotions, it might also be used to play some simple “decorative” ditties for the enjoyment of the musician and all there. I like to play compilers and DIY instruments like that, there may not always be a grandiose purpose behind it all and I’ve never had people complain about that.
Perhaps that is what I’m missing; the possibility for digital works to convey deep thoughts is getting accepted but the value in the simple joy of playing digital systems outside of any clear motivation beyond that joy doesn’t yet seem to have found it’s spot in modern culture. That might place decorative works in a awkward position and indeed make the works themselves a bit awkward.
Firstly, I don’t think theres any need to abandon the term ‘computational art’ it still serves a purpose. ‘Computer art’ risks placing unnecessary filters for art on a device called a ‘computer’ and emphasising it’s differences from other objects; ‘computational art’ simply describes the execution of given rule in a formal system from initial conditions, subject to more input.
Secondly, there is also the issue of human reducibility. Humans construct and look after computational processes, certainly. But to suggest that they are thoroughly reducible to human interaction, risks placing human values onto an independent process where nothing ‘human’ can be found. This is something that Joseph Weizenbaum repeatedly stated, although I wouldn’t endorse his reliance to differentiate human agency from computer agency by a factor of ‘choice’.