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.


Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Medi(t)ations - Schiemer's Mandala 4

Last week I was in Adelaide for Medi(t)ations, the conference of the Australasian Computer Music Association. There was quite a bit of good old "computer music" (as well as electroacoustic, acousmatic, musique concrete etc), also threads of electronica, laptop, improv, sound art, and intermedia / audiovisual work. The tension between these approaches was clear at times, and like previous conferences in this series it was (for me) the dominant dynamic.

One of the most impressive performances of the conference brought these approaches together - or maybe showed up the distinction as false. Greg Schiemer's Mandala 4 is a piece for four performers and four mobile phones; spread around a large hall, the performers trigger quiet, microtonal chords from their phones, then slip them into little pouches on the end of long strings... and swing them gently overhead, their chords doppler-shifting as the phones orbit each performer.

It was a striking piece of music/theater, especially preceded (in the performance I saw) by a long pause while Schiemer and the performers prepared, huddled over their phones in the center of the room. The piece is a beautiful appropriation of the mobile phone, but also ties (ha ha) a very "now" technology to a long avant-garde tradition. Mobile sound sources were part of the expanded field of 60s minimal and process music; see for example Terry Riley's music/sculpture/video collaborationMusic with Balls and Steve Reich's Pendulum Music. Schiemer's approach aligns him with David Tudor, the composer and instrument builder who treated electronics as musical score.

Schiemer's mobile phone project, the Pocket Gamelan, draws on his "Tupperware Gamelan" instruments of the 70s and 80s. The Tupperware Gamelan, a set of small custom-made electronic instruments, housed in plastic kitchenware, was designed for non-expert players and used in dance and performance. The Pocket Gamelan is partly an effort to migrate this fragile analog electronics into software, and uses Java-enabled phones as the hardware platform. The technical lynch pin here is software from Schiemer's group that ports Pd patches to phone-friendly Java. There's more on the technical side of the project in a paper from this year's New Interfaces for Musical Expression conference.


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...