Sunday, July 16, 2006

Living with E-volved Cultures

Documentation of Driessens & Verstappen's E-volver has been floating around for some time - enough that I've already raved briefly about the work based purely on stills and a description of the generative system. I recently received a catalog on the work's installation at a Dutch medical research centre, which included a runtime / screen saver version of the work. Long story short, I've had the work running for a month or two now, at home and in the office... living with it, pretty much.

The generative system here is simple and superbly elegant; you can read about it briefly on the artists' site, though I think they under-explain it. Each image is generated by a set of eight single-pixel automata. Each automaton is a little state machine that moves around the picture plane, and alters pixel colours, based on the colour values of neighbouring pixels, and its own set of rules. A couple more things: each automaton has a unique rule set, so each set of eight forms an "ecosystem" or "culture" of interacting individuals; and each set is not hand-programmed, but evolved, based on the images they collectively produce. In the installation version visitors drive the evolution (as in Karl Sims' classic Genetic Images installation); in the screen saver version the artists have selected a set of pre-evolved "cultures".

I continue to be amazed by the images the system produces; watching it run live is especially illuminating. The word "organic" is overused in describing generative art, but it's unavoidable here; the forms that emerge have a fine-grained integrity and richness about them that inevitably recalls physical and biological processes. One of the "cultures" in the screen saver looks like time-lapse satellite photography of a rainforest: churning plumes of green threaded with dark river-like fissures. The rivers seem to silt up, forming classic serpentine paths, seeking out new channels. Another culture generates forms like the banded, differentiated structures of agate; another alien hot-pink and yellow clouds. Each one is in continuous process, eating itself, restructuring itself slowly from the inside.

The artists frame the work along the lines of their other practice, as an exploration of autonomous generativity. They also, like Karl Sims, talk about the interactive installation version in terms of human-machine collaboration. Again I think they underplay the significance of the work, which for me is in the structure of the generative system. The use of co-evolved communities is one element, but the key is the relation of the entities to their "environment", the picture-plane. It acts as a shared information space, a medium through which the agents interact, as well as a historical buffer; in this world the past is a rich source of structure for the present. Instead of a neutral "blank slate", the environment is a malleable habitat that in turn shapes the actions of its inhabitants. It plays out a kind of ecological fable of finely balanced coevolution, as one tiny fissure in the image forms a toe-hold for an influx of new forms: this is the world as teeming, shiftless self-structuring process.

So living with E-volved Cultures has been interesting; I had wondered if it would wear thin. It hasn't; I still love it, obviously, and I won't be switching it off any time soon. If anything this ambient exposure has given me space to keep thinking about the work in a back-of-the-mind way, and I'm aware that very few works in this genre get that opportunity. The people from Bitforms promote generative art for domestic consumption through Software {Art} Space, but I don't know how many takers they get. Anyone else out there living with generative art? Please report...


jpb said...

The e-volver software looks attractive, but I was disappointed to note that the creators haven't opted to make it available for download from their site.

Mitchell said...

Update: the E-volved Cultures screensaver is now available for download from the artists' site here - Windows and OSX.