towards computational aesthetics
Copyright © Paul Brown 1996
Commissioned by and first published in Artlink Vol. 16, Nos. 2 & 3, July 1996
All Rights Reserved
In the 1960 many artists using computers were playing about with random numbers
and using them as an analogy for intuition or the "creative mistake". It was a
fairly limited area and by the late `60's most artist were expressing
frustration with this simplistic metaphor. The catalyst for change was Martin
Gardiner's regular column in Scientific American which many system and
computer-based artists read on a regular basis.
In 1967 Gardiner reported on the work of Cambridge mathematician John Horton
Conway. Conway had been working on a cellular automaton he called "The Game of
Life". It was a simulated machine based on simple rules which govern the way
in which individual cells in a matrix relate to each other over time. Cellular
automata were not new, John von Neumann, one of the inventors of the modern
digital computer had played around with them. They had inspired his hypothesis
of self-replicating machines, which wasn't proved until after his death in 1957
(and is the origin of the "Terminator" legend).
Conway's automaton was new and different. Von Neumann's had been complex
systems with complex rule-based behaviour. The Life Game was simple and
elegant but nevertheless manifested very high degrees of variety in it's
The Game of Life is played on a square matrix like a chequerboard. It can be
any size. Each cell of the matrix can be either occupied or empty. The game
begins when the matrix is "seeded" with occupied cells. This is like the first
frame in an animated sequence. The next "frame" is calculated by first
creating an identical matrix of cells and then filling it according to the
When all the cells in the new matrix have been calculated it replaces the
original matrix and the cycle begins again.
- Examine each cell in the first matrix and count the number of neighbours
that are occupied;
- if the cell is occupied and it has two or three neighbours it will be occupied in the
- if the cell is empty and has three neighbours it will be occupied in the
- otherwise the cell will be empty in the next frame.
Back in 1967 people were astonished that such a simple deterministic system
could produce such an amazing variety of behaviour. Marvin Minsky's fledgling
Artificial Intelligence lab at MIT is rumoured to have dropped all it's
projects to investigate the Game of Life. Unlike Conway, a mathematician who
was more interested in proving hypotheses about the game, the MIT researches
were hand-on computer hackers. They coded up software versions of the game
then let the multimillion dollar defence department computers at MIT grind out
endless generations. Soon they were discovering the strange new inhabitants of
this new computational space. The Glider was a stable creature that could
perambulate across the matrix until it was consumed by a block. Then there was
the curious life cycles of the pentaminos. A whole universe had been created
out of just three simple instructions.
I remember my own excitement when I read Gardiner's article and my frustration
working on large sheets of graph paper with a pencil and eraser as I
laboriously recalculated frame after frame. The idea of using a system to
create an artwork appealed to my logical mind and I began exploring other
alternatives like video feedback and symmetry systems. Six years later, in
1974, I began to learn how to use computers and quickly recognised a perfect
medium for explorations of this kind. In 1977 I began postgraduate studies in
the Computer and Experimental Department of the Slade School of Fine Arts at
University College, London and was astonished to discover other artists who
shared my fascination with logical systems.
Chris Briscoe was creating both drawings and music sequences using a system
that used mark/sound generating automata that based their future behaviour on
their proximity to their neighbours in both 2 and 3-D space. His drawings were
lyrical and surreal. The late Julian Sullivan shared my fascination with
cellular automata and developed code for boundary detection that was eventually
integrated into an early computer vision system developed by UCL's Engineering
School. Steve Bell stuck a disposable sumi brush onto the plotter and began
generating calligraphic sequences.
In 1978 a Polish mathematician and researcher called Andre Lissowski visited on
his way home from Harvard and brought news of a French researcher called Benoit
Mandelbrot and his work on interative systems. Chaos, or Non-Linear theory was
a welcome insight into the processes that many of us had been working with for
Harold Cohen was an occasional tutor and was already well on his way to
creating Aaron, the autonomous drawing system that is now on permanent exhibit
at the Computer Museum in Boston, USA. The late Edward Ihnatowicz was also a
regular visitor. In 1967 Edward had created SAM - the Sound Activated Mobile,
a petalled flower (each petal was a parabolic microphone) that followed peoples
movements as they walked past his plinth at the Cybernetic Serendipity
exhibition in London's ICA in 1968. Then in 1969, with a multimillion dollar
budget from Dutch electronics giant Phillips, Edward created the Senster which
is arguably the first great masterwork of the computer art convergence.
The Senster was a 16 feet articulating arm based on a lobster claw and operated
by a hydraulic system under the control of a Honeywell-8 computer. At the end
of the arm, on the Senster's "head" was an array of sensing instruments:
directional microphones; radar and sonar. It lived in a large geodesic dome in
Eindhoven, Phillips headquarter city, in Holland. If you made a noise, or
moved, it came over to "look" at you. If you made a loud noise or aggressive
movement it backed away from you. The geodesic dome could hold about 200
people. Each one was a variable in the Senster's behaviour which, not
surprisingly given that variety of "input", was amazingly complex. Behavioural
scientist queued up to do experiments with the system and couldn't believe that
something so simple (the Honeywell was a 12-bit computer with 4K of memory)
could produce behaviour so lifelike.
Sadly the Senster was expensive to keep alive and Phillips scrapped the system
in 1975. Edward never got a major budget again and died in 1986.
Cohen's Aaron is a self-referential system that has no concept of anything
outside of itself and it's own rule structures. By comparison Ihnatowicz's
Senster was computationally much simpler but had a prototype awareness of it's
environment. This reflected Edward's interest in the work of Piaget on infant
learning. He often spoke about artificial intelligence and his belief that
computers would attain intelligence in similar ways to young children and
animals - by interacting with a complex environment that they had to
accommodate and decode.
By the early 80's postmodern dogma had begun to bite and there was little
sympathy and even less support for the high-modernist formalism's of system
art. Laurence Gowing, then Professor, closed down the Slade's Computer
Department in 1981. Chris Briscoe and I left to set up Digital Pictures hoping
that we could underwrite our research by doing commercial computer animation.
It didn't work out.
1981 was also the year that IBM released the PC and, by the mid 80's affordable
computers with lots of "user friendly" software were on the market. Ironically
the art mainstream, who had never endorsed the work of the systems artists,
fell over itself to accommodate the neat little postmodern appropriations that
were created using digital darkroom software (and with a singular lack of
consideration for the unique and intrinsic capabilities of the computational
metamedium). Baudrillard said it was OK and postmodernism, in its guise as
romantic self-indulgence, concurred.
Benoit Mandelbrot had meanwhile created a focus that, after some struggle,
established the study of non-linear systems as a credible discipline. Now it
was scientists, mathematicians and engineers and not artists who were playing
with postmodern science and "artificial life".
There were a number of notable exceptions. All were working in relative
isolation from the mainstream artworld. In the UK William Latham began a long
standing relationship with IBM as artist in residence where he produced a
genetic system that "evolved" sculptures. It was based on his postgraduate
research in the sculpture department at the Royal College of Art. In 1990 an
exhibition of his work (fully funded by IBM) was offered to the Australia
Sculpture Triennial who rejected it because it wasn't "real" sculpture.
Latham's system was developed in collaboration with colleagues who were
computer scientists and involves formal language theory as well as a genetic
system similar to the "blind watchmaker" algorithm described by Richard Dawkins
in his book of the same name. William selects an initial object and the system
creates 8 mutated siblings. He then selects one of these and the process
continues. When an acceptable object results William "harvests" it and then
continues the search. In time he has a collection of objects which can all be
described by a unique formal "sentence" of operators. These sentences can then
be interpolated and the result is a complex animation where strange surreal
objects metamorphose into each other.
Karl Sims was for several years as artist in residence at supercomputer
manufacturer Thinking Machines. His major work to date "Panspermia" is the
story of a lifeform evolving throughout a galaxy. Although his work is quite
different from Latham's it shares similar processes. Sims has said about his
Michael Tolson is a scientist turned artist and founder of Xaos tools who
produce the Paint Alchemy filters for PhotoShop. His own 2-D painterly work
has been exhibited widely and won the Computer Graphic Award at Ars Electronica
- "for me it is important to consider the computer as not just a fine arts
medium, but as an artistic tool whose limits can be expanded. Ideally, a
computer would allow the realisation of virtual worlds and images without
limiting the levels of complexity of the resulting style". (SIM91)
It is also interesting to note that the Paint Alchemy filters his company
developed are not the planned work of humans but are harvested from a genetic
software farm that Tolson and his colleagues have created.
- "I imagine the computer as what Deleuze calls a "pure interior" and its screen
less as a window than as a petri dish. Considered from this vantage point,
surface becomes a pretty exciting place indeed. Far from being an
appliqué, it is more a substantial domain which is frothing with
And it's here that we come full circle to the experiments of Cohen and
Ihnatowicz in the late 60's. Aaron creates "original" Cohen drawings and
Cohen's success was precisely that he managed to completely codify and
externalise his own creative behaviour. Is it possible instead to create an
aesthetic behaviour? An automaton that can itself create unique artworks that
reflect a "personal" and evolving aesthetic that is distinguishable from its
human builder? I think it is and that the quest for this goal is one of the
most interesting challenges that artists face in these brave new cyberworlds.
SIM91 Sims, Karl, Panspemia, from Hannes Leopolder (ed.) Der Prix Ars
Electronica 1991, pp. 78-83, Linz 1991
TOL93 Tolson, Michael, Founders Series, from Hannes Leopolder (ed.) Der Prix
Ars Electronica 1993, pp. 19-25, Linz 1993.
This essay was commissioned by and first published in Artlink
Vol. 16, Nos. 2 & 3, July 1996, special issue Arts in the Electronic
Landscape. This issue also included the CD-ROM Sequinz which
contained examples of work by many Australian artists.
For further information about Artlink, this special issue and the
Sequinz CD-ROM contact:
Henley Beach SA 5022
+61 8 8356 8511 phone
+61 8 8235 1280 fax
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