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 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
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
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
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
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
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