Breaking the art and science standoff

Paul Brown

Troy Innocent, Sound Form

Troy Innocent, Sound Form

“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 recode email list with a complaint about the ‘testosterone’ orientation of the event—mainly I think due to a misunderstanding about the definition of the adjective ‘computational.’ However on the day males certainly did predominate.

Why? Women are very well represented in the arts and Brenda Laurel has put to rest the 80s 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 significantly adopted 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 than push a mouse around with productivity enhancers like PhotoShop. This only reinforces traditional attitudes rather than encouraging a more meaningful engagement with this new metamedium. In general, the idea of science—or 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.

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 conference keynotes reflected these areas.

Alistair Riddell, currently a researcher in the Music program at QUT’s Academy of the Arts, presented the first keynote address, “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 in itself.”

Kurt Fleisher is best known for his work in texture generation. His early animation Knot Reel (made with Andrew Witkin and Michael Kass) won the Grand Prix at Parigraph ‘86 and received honourable mention for Prix Ars Electronica ‘87. He now works for Pixar (Toy Story I & II and A Bug’s Life). In his keynote address, “Who’s Driving? Control Issues for Generative Media”, Fleischer 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 things 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 said of their work: “5000 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 stadium crowd.”

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 computer naives. 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 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?

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 an historical context and descriptive framework for this area of work.

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 website which also announces the not-to-be-missed Second Iteration which is planned for 2001.

First Iteration, a conference on generative systems in the electronic arts, Monash University, December 1-3 1999. For more information, go to www.csse.monash.edu.au/~iterate/

RealTime issue #36 April-May 2000 pg. 31

© Paul Brown; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 April 2000