It’s spawned some fascinatingly unpredictable visual creations, but how accessible is generative art to the average designer?
Whether they’re kerning type to perfection or making sure that Bezier curves bend just right, most digital designers are used to having a decent amount of control over their work. For some, however, there’s something liberating about letting go and giving in to the surreal beauty of generative art. There’s no snapping to the grid here: stake out the boundaries of your playground, and let the pixels come out and play.
“I love creating experiments where, at first, I can walk at a leisurely pace through the map of the code in my mind – in the same way people walk through gardens and smell the flowers,” says the enigmatically named Dr. Woohoo, a New Mexico-based artist and developer who cites Joshua Davis, Erik Natzke and Marius Watz as particular influences. “For me, it allows the art and the code to really breathe and come to life at the pace it needs to.”
It’s this tension between digital and organic that really gets him excited, like so many other generative art enthusiasts. “During these casual exercises, I’m able to see opportunities and to hear where the experiment wants to grow,” he continues. “It’s this level of intimacy with the code – the framework – that will eventually be utilised and iterated upon for future projects.”
Dr Woohoo reaches for a visual metaphor to explain the field that fascinates him so much: “Imagine a cube filled with many dots, each representing a possibility. Each dot is a single instance; a variation,” he explains. “Generative art can either randomly select a variation for us, or the current selected dot is influenced by input from the location of a mouse, the amplitude of music or some other dynamic data.”
Of course, generative art is still very young in artistic terms, and the tools used to create it are, like the visuals that they throw out, in constant flux. “Taken generally, programming has as much expressive potential as painting,” asserts Californian artist and academic Chandler McWilliams. “We’ve been doing that for a hell of a long time, and are still finding new modes of expression.”
For McWilliams’ fellow academic Mitchell Whitelaw, who leads the Master of Digital Design course at Australia’s University of Canberra, the possibilities within generative art are completely open-ended: “A generative process is just a process that makes something,” he points out. “What can we make? It might be easier to ask, what can’t we make?” he continues. “Generative art is a way of working with the computer that really makes the most of computation, rather than just using it to imitate traditional techniques.”
Whitelaw has been dabbling in the medium since childhood, whether he realised it at the time or not: “I first tried LOGO on an Apple II when I was about nine,” he remembers. “I didn’t think of it as generative art but, looking back, I was writing a program that produces a pattern. It had that signature moment, where you hit Run and the computer throws you something back. Things have moved on quite a bit since then, but it’s not all oneway,” explains Whitelaw. “One of the strong themes in the last few years has been artists experimenting more with physical outputs, such as plotter drawings.”
As Dr. Woohoo gladly explains, in its simplest form generative art is about visuals reacting to stimuli, from any number of input sources: “The creative content can be affected, down to the anchor points on a curve, and we can mix and match any input to any output variables,” he reveals. “The amplitude of sound can drive the shape or speed of an object, for instance.”
He first came across the idea of linking lines of code with an aesthetic output back in the mid-90s, when working in the games industry. A few years later, he began spending a lot of time in the computer science department at the University of Maryland, brushing up on Artificial Intelligence and Augmented Reality – technology that, at the time, was only accessible in academic institutions or government agencies.
“Now, we can buy an iPad or a Kinect, download some open-source frameworks and begin to develop our own creative experiments,” he beams. “Then when we’re done, we can share the code or push the application to the App Store so that everyone with a device has access to it. It’s insane. I love it!”
Like Dr Woohoo, Los Angeles-based artist and UCLA professor Casey Reas started experimenting in the late 90s, using university lab machines with price tags between $10k and $50k. “Now, I work with $2k laptops that have more capability,” he smiles. “The programming environments have shifted significantly, too – there’s a larger variety of systems created specifically for visual arts, rather than more technically oriented fields.”