Generative Art and the Art of Letting Go


Julia Kaganskiy 10. Aug.


It may be 2010, but most people still have a 19th century idea of what an artist is and does: the lone genius, holed up in a garret somewhere creating works of singular beauty and emotional depth. Implicit in this image is the idea that the artist is making choices in the process of creation that are ultimately responsible for the transcendental properties of his work. His use of color, his treatment of the human form, his use of materials, and so on, all come together to construct a masterpiece that will shake the foundation of the art world. Or so it goes…

But what happens when the artist stops making choices and relinquishes control to a pre-determined set of rules, or a “system,” that dictate the outcome of the work? What happens when the art is “generated” almost autonomously rather than “created” by the hand of a genius?

Generative art is not a new idea—its roots can be traced back decades, centuries even, far back enough that Mozart was supposed to have created a generative means of composing music—and examples of this way of making art can be seen in the Dada and Fluxus movements, as well as in the works of artists like Sol Lewitt and John Cage. But lately, we seem to be seeing “generative art” at every turn. It just so happens that because generative art is based on systems, it has fallen into favor with many artists working in the field of computer art.

Sol Lewitt, Wall Drawing 631 (1990) on display at MASS MoCA

We spoke with artist and curator, Marius Watz about generative art and its particular manifestation in media art. Aside from being a practicing artist who focuses primarily on generative work, Watz has been documenting and exploring the use of generative strategies and software processes in digital art, architecture and design since 2005 on Generator.x, his blog and curatorial platform. Watz helps us break down and contextualize this medium:

The Creators Project: So, in laymen’s terms, what is generative art exactly?
Marius Watz: Generative art is this process of encoding your artistic idea into some kind of system—that system could be a piece of software, but it could also be a machine, like Desmond Paul Henry’s Drawing Machines, or it could be a set of natural language instructions like a Fluxus instruction performance, for instance LaMonte Young’s ‘Draw a straight line and follow it.’ The central element is that there has to be a logic through which the outcome is created—that logic is created by the artist, but is executed autonomously and does not even the artist’s presence or physical participation .

One of Desmond Paul Henry’s machine-generated drawings from the 1960s.

What do you think it is that’s so appealing to artists about this art making process?
It’s interesting because in that process of translation the artist has to give up a certain element of control. At the same time the system is capable of producing outcomes that the artist might not have expected. That’s really one of the best moments for an artist working with software processes—when your piece starts producing results that you really did not anticipate. Sometimes those results are the results of a bug in the code, something that wasn’t actually supposed to be there but which you realize is more interesting than what you had originally intended.

On a deeper conceptual level, you could say that generative art also is concerned with form as system. It understands forms not as static objects in time but rather as dynamic processes, always capable of transforming into something else. A given outcome of the generative process is understood as simply one permutation among a possibly infinite series. When you push the button and say “generate an image” you get one possible output, but in reality the system is capable of generating infinitely many more. Finally there is the interest in generative logic, which can be modular or based on processes like iteration or recursion but also often borrows heavily from nature (biomimicry). Look at how natural forms are created—they are never static; they’re always in a process of becoming and of being destroyed.

Neon Organic 0052 (sketch) from watz on Vimeo.


Why do you think so many artists, media artists in particular, are using generative strategies in their work?
It’s important to understand that computer work is always responding not just to the computer itself—although of course many art works respond to the medium in which they were created—but also to the cultural context around it. Our culture (or zeitgeist) is one of telecommunications, of social networks, complexity theory, quantum mechanics, what have you. Generative art is a culturally relevant response to these ideas in human society.

Your smart phone, for instance, is capable of giving you access to huge amounts of information. It’s capable of mapping you in time and space, it connects you to all of these social networks that you’re part of, and you just take it for granted that this seemingly innocuous piece of technology is plugging you into a much larger information construct. Generative art, I think, is responding to that new situation by showing you an art form that lives in that space, that accepts the virtual space of the computer as its default world. It makes sense that these artworks exist in this culture because they’re an appropriate response to the time that we’re living in.



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