Saturday, July 29, 2006

Generative Art is Child's Play (and vice versa)

I have two small kids, and an interest in generative art, so perhaps this post is just joining the dots. But it seems that there are some strong connections between the creative activities that small children enjoy, and the generative systems that older, more technologically sophisticated artists construct. The argument in a nutshell: kids like generative techniques.

A few kindergarten favourites illustrate this. The "butterfly painting" / Rorschach ink blot technique: apply blobs of paint arbitrarily, then fold the paper over, press down, and open it to reveal a magically symmetrical pattern. A related but more complex one: fold a sheet of paper over a few times, then cut holes around its edges: unfold the paper to show a pattern of "windows" mirrored through several axes. In both cases, you might remember, the gasps of joy occur only at the moment of unfolding. My kids recently tried "marble painting": find a shallow baking tray, put down paper, dredge some marbles through paint, drop the marbles in the tray, then tilt the tray, so the marbles bounce around.

There's a whole battery of these techniques, all generative in similar ways. They all give back more (in a way) than the artist puts in, by setting up physical and formal constraints. The window technique literally transforms - folds and multiplies - the mapping between input and output. The marble technique also transforms the input/output map, but adds the physical dynamics of marbles and paint. As the image above shows, we get all kinds of nice stuff "for free" from this system: collisions, momentum, adhesion; the marbles trace distinct patterns as they rotate, and the rotating patterns change as the paint sheds. Just like a multi-agent Processing drawing machine, but gooier, and with more complex physics. For the digital hyperspace version of the folded window technique, see Jonathan McCabe's butterfly origami, previously blogged on generator.x.

It's interesting to observe the contrast in the way children respond to these generative techniques, compared to more literal mappings of conventional painting. Mine, at least, get far more joy from the generative approach, especially while their motor skills are limited (and before representational drawing starts to take hold). It's the buzz of emergence, a moment of surprise, getting more than we expected - the same thing, I'd argue, that keeps many of us doing computational generative art.

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