I observed in my last post that many of the generative drawing/painting programs I have seen tend to have similar characteristics. The “wow” factor on first seeing it, being impressed by the cleverness and novel behaviour of the program (and often, also, by how high the frame-rate is) followed, after a few minutes, by boredom, as you realise you have already seen everything the program has to offer. In many cases these programs are made by people with backgrounds in programming, rather than art or design, and their goal is to achieve just this – a novel, elegant visual effect achieved with the minimum amount of code. These are beautiful visualisations of mathematical structures – which lack something (for me).
I have a Fine Arts background, and my main interests are in colour and abstraction. Creating an abstract painting with colour, composition and texture that is complex enough to hold sustained attention, and yet unified enough to not look too contrived, is quite challenging and enjoyable. When you add the time-dimension to this in a generative work, you are faced with a daunting task – the complexity goes up because you have a whole extra dimension to deal with – and the possibilities (which were already infinite), swell to another order of magnitude. How can I deal with all the usual “problems” of abstract painting, but also deal with the fact that the work is changing/transforming over time?
There are so many possibilities, and I explored some of them in my Digital Phenomena exhibition in Wellington, New Zealand last year. All of this work was pre-generated – videos presented either as large-scale projections or on TV monitors – but the principles of “abstraction that changes over time” are the same. Some of these works were like abstract paintings that simply morphed from state to state – which felt like a sort of narrative progression. Others were more like sort of unitary compositions that went through different oscillations or phases – but the “same object” was present the whole time. Some of the works had sound, which was either very strongly (algorithmically) linked to the video, or serving as a sort of “soundtrack” for it. Other works presented a sort of “fixed frame” in which activity took place – like a frame which can only see part of the “abstract universe” which it is observing.
But, back to the discussion of programming art. The simple, elegant generative work is like a “sketch”, an great little idea which is ready to be incorporated into a larger work. The finished work should have what I will refer to as “time complexity”. Over time, significant and surprising changes should occur, rewarding sustained viewing. This does not necessarily have to arise in some clever way out of an elegant, unified algorithm. It could be a really complicated, ugly algorithm that nonetheless achieves the desired result – a work that is capable of changing tack, moving into different states which contrast with the ones that came before.
These states can be explicitly programmed – “every 60 seconds randomly change into a different state”, for example, or, “if screen colour characteristics reach <condition> change into state x”. A program like this can become quite complicated, certainly not elegant. It is always checking to see if certain conditions have been met, and if they have it flips into different modes. It is this complexity of rules which are known to the programmer but not to the viewer which creates the “unpredictability” that make the work interesting to watch. For someone who likes the elegant, well-crafted programs, this probably seems ugly and unsatisfying, because their aims are different from mine – I don’t want to create some glittering internal algorithmic structure – programming is just a tool for me. In a way, my programs “cheat” by having some sort of staging behind the scenes rather than using clever mathematics for the complexity to arise out of. And, from what I have seen, the clever mathematics fails to create interesting art – it creates interesting visualisations of beautiful mathematical structures – which I enjoy looking at – but it doesn’t have the gritty, down-to-earth contextuality – the human element – I am searching for.
Read Full Post »