First Iteration
a conference on generative systems in the electronic arts
1-3 December 1999
Monash University, Melbourne, Australia

Copyright © Paul Brown 2000
All Rights Reserved

This review was commissioned by RealTIme Magazine and first appeared in RealTime 36, April/May 2000.

"Generative processes have been used by artists for decades. Now, as the computer becomes the medium of choice for many artists, composers and designers, process acquires new form and meaning in the computational realm."

So ran the blurb in the call for participation in First Iteration - Australia’s first ever conference addressing this important area of artistic research and development. Almost immediately a flame hit the art & technology ::recode:: email list with a complaint about the ‘testosterone’ orientation of the event. The complain was mainly I think due to a misunderstanding about the definition of the adjective ‘computational’. However on the day males certainly did predominate the event.

Why should this have been? Women are very well represented in the arts and Brenda Laurel has put to rest the 80’s chestnut that computer science is a male “nerd” domain. Women can and do make excellent programmers and analysts and they make up a significant proportion of the workforce. So how come more men seem to be attracted to computer programming (or better - computational methodology) as a “metamedium” for artistic creation?

The answer is complex and I can only summarise my opinion here. The art mainstream and, in particular the art education sector have to accept much of the blame. Although many of the arts and humanities (psychology, social science, philosophy, etc...) have made a significant adoption of the computational paradigm the practical arts, by contrast, lag disappointingly behind.

Nationally in the visual arts there has been little attempt to address this area with the funding and staffing that it needs. Few art lecturers can do more that push a mouse around with productivity enhancers like PhotoShop which only reinforce traditional attitudes rather than encouraging a more meaningful engagement with this new metamedium. Mention programming and they either think it’s irrelevant or their eyes glaze over in terror.

In general the idea of science or of a meaningful relationship between art and science is anathema. I recently attended one research planning meeting at a tertiary institution where the visual art theorists made it clear that they had no idea what theory meant in the context of science or of the relationship between theory and practice in a quantitative discipline. For obvious reasons they were reluctant to include these concepts in their syllabi. With people like this governing the development of higher education’s curricula there is little hope for change in the short term. As Thomas S. Kuhn pointed out in his classic ‘The Structure of Scientific Revolutions’ ... “science advances because old men die”!

Music, with an established history in permutative and generative techniques fares better. In animation too there has been a significant development over the past 20 years of tools that overcome the prescriptive and limiting methods of traditional keyframe and inbetweening methods and stop-frame claymation. So it’s not perhaps surprising that the conferences keynotes reflected these areas.

Alistair Riddell, currently a researcher in the Music program at QUT’s Academy of the Arts presented the first keynote - “Data Culture Generation”. In it he considered how computational methods might alter the perception of music and lead to a new music aesthetic. He discussed process as ... “a way of thinking about music with an initial (...) absence of sound” and concluded that the ... “creative design of musical processes might become an art in itself”.

Kurt Fleisher is best known for his work in texture generation. His early animation “Knot Reel” (made with Andrew Witkin and Michael Kass) won Grand Prix at Parigraph '86, and received honourable mention for Prix Ars Electronica '87. He now works for Pixar (those nice folks who brought you Toy Story I & II and A Bugs Life) and, in addition to his work in evolving textures, his keynote ‘Who’s Driving? Control Issues for Generative Media’ discussed the dynamic relationship between computer visualisation professionals and the animators and designers in motion picture production. Fleisher and his colleagues are able to generate animations of a field of grass in a rainstorm or armies of ants. However the results have to be flexible enough so that the designers can frame and combine them with the foreground elements that the story prescribes.

James McCartney gave the last keynote. “Designing SuperCollider - a real-time audio synthesis language” was a first hand account of his development of this powerful digital synthesiser. As those who stayed for his workshop discovered it’s also an extraordinarily difficult tool to learn and McCartney joked that he puts people off buying it. His lesson was simple - if you want to mess around and do a few interesting thing get a WYSIWHG “shrink wrapped” app with some nice sliders, dials and buttons and fire it up. However if you want to achieve something a little more significant and at the bleeding edge you’re likely to find yourself on a long and challenging learning curve.

Many artists from Europe, the USA and the Asia Pacific discussed their work and methods. I particularly enjoyed the presentations by David Chesworth and Sonia Leber about “5000 calls” - their large scale sound artwork for the parklands surrounding the new Olympic Stadium. Public art too often devolves into compromised cliché as vested interests ‘negotiate’ the outcome. 5000 calls survives this process and demonstrates a role for new media arts in this area. The artists describe their work: ... “5,000 Calls can be seen as a kind of crowd made up of many individual voices which constantly combine and recombine in different ways. When new voices are introduced by visitors travelling through the space, they contribute to the ever-changing libretto, which is occasionally punctuated by the extraordinary sudden roar of the stadium crowd.”

US artist Steven Rooke described his work: ... “ my software begins by assembling random programs in a primordial soup consisting only of mathematical functions. Over eons of simulated evolution, increasingly complex image genomes are created, occasionally merging to form new levels of organisation.” His animations, in particular, were mind boggling! They did however prompt the expected question - ... “yes but is it art?”.

The best answer to this ongoing debate has come from the archivist and historian Patric Prince. She has suggested that professional artworkers should consider the works of people like Rooke in comparison to ‘naives’ like Grandma Moses. Rooke, like Moses, has no formal training in the visual arts. The paradox, according to Prince is that we expect ‘primitive’ artists to have unsophisticated technique and this clearly doesn’t fit the slick finish of the new computer naives.

The question is, of course, another example of the “closed door” philosophy typical of the contemporary arts mainstream. It’s an elitist attitude that belies their claims to postmodern pluralism and egalitarianism and one that many of us hope the new computational paradigm will eventually overthrow. It amazes me that such attitudes still prevail some 150 years after similar prejudice was voiced against outsider artists like Monet, Gauguin, Van Gogh and Cezanne. Doesn’t history teach us anything?

A wide variety of papers were presented ranging from the technically arcane (‘Tree Generation Using Environmentally Sensitive L-Systems’ by Sang-Hyunn Seo et. al.) to the idiosyncratic (and predictable artist talk from musician & composer Warren Burt).

Mitchell Whitelaw, in ‘The Abstract Organism: Towards a Prehistory for A-Life Art’ traced the ... “detailed engagement with particular processes and structures” into the arts of the 20th Century offering Paul Klee and Kasimir Malevich as examples. It’s good to know that such a lucid and thoughtful theorist is creating a historical context and descriptive framework for this area of work.

The conference was supported with an exhibition and music performance which included many of the works described in artist’s presentations. The obligatory Video Program included John Whitney Snr.’s pioneering film ‘Permutations, Experiments in Motion Graphics’ as well as more recent work like “Vamp 9” from the contemporary experimental German group ‘Granular Synthesis’.

First Iteration was an important event that brought together practitioners from around the world and confirmed Australia’s participation and profile in this new area. Documentation, which includes the Proceedings, a CD-ROM and CD audio, can be ordered from the conference web site which also announces the not-to-be-missed Second Iteration which is planned for 2001.

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