How generative art works

I’m fascinated with this video:

At the start Sylvie Rasch shows a sock that she says is completely done by the machine, with no adjusted stitches etc. Then she demonstrates how its done, immediately dropping half the stitches in the cuff in order to redo them by hand to make the ribbing. This would clearly be a very difficult and error-prone, manual process for anyone who wasn’t an expert knitter. There follows a lot more manual work to create the heel and toe. I’m really impressed by the socks and having struggled to handknit a pair of socks once myself I’m keen to try it.. But I’m also interested in how we sometimes spotlight our machines while side-eyeing the all craft skills that are still necessary around them. Unless you just want to make tubes, this ‘machine knitting’ also needs a lot of handknitting with a crochet hook.

This reminds me a lot of how generative or ‘AI’ music works – by an arduous manual process that is aided by some automation, but the composer is very keen to edit themselves out and make bold claims about their composition process being completely autonomous. David Cope is one example among many.

There’s something really alluring about automation but there are also deep ironies around it, as Lisanne Bainbridge outlined brilliantly nearly 40 years ago in her paper “Ironies of Automation“. For exampl if you automate something, you still have to have an expert that looks after it when it goes wrong. However if that person isn’t actively engaged in the now automated process, they lose the necessary expertise. Bainbridge saw this clearly in the 80’s and we can see it today with the Tesla crashes etc.

This isn’t necessarily bad, you can half-automate a process while staying hands-on as Rasch does in the video with the circular knitting machine. The Digital Norway looms (TC1 and TC2) are similarly designed for automation with continuous human intervention, where pneumatics select the warps and the human hand passes the weft. Lea Albaugh’s personal Jacquard loom takes this further at a less industrial level, where she has designed in ways to change the selected warps by hand.

I have to relate this to live coding as well.. Generative art is about automation, but live coders twist this – by making code changeable on-the-fly, they turn things back to hands-on craft.

I’m not really sure why we’re so keen to edit ourselves out of technology these days, and in a way I think it’s an urge that’s probably best resisted.. But this isn’t an argument against formalisation or automation. Whenever we really manage to formalise something to the point where we can automate it, that generally just creates new ground for human exploration.

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