We Two Anoraks Together, Coding – The binary star of generative art

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HyperScape IV – Landscape / Portrait

There are two kinds of anoraks in the world. Those that keep the rain out, and those that are a fashion statement.

Recently I attended “Computer Art Pioneers On Making Art By Writing Code”, organised by Site Gallery, Sheffield, UK, to accompany their current exhibition of Ernest Edmonds’ work.

In conversation were Ernest Edmonds with Douglas Dodds (V&A), Roman Verostko with Francesca Franco (researcher), Frieder Nake with Richard Sides (artist) and Manfred Mohr with Alex May (artist).


Please feel free to correct me if I get any of the detail wrong. The talks were recorded and maybe Site Gallery will be publishing them. As it is, I am relying on the notes I took at the time, between live-tweeting, so I might have missed something.

All the speakers were good talkers, and all the in-conversation people did the right thing by taking a back seat and letting the speakers drive, although Richard Sides clearly hadn’t prepared at all. It didn’t matter as Frieder Nake didn’t need any prompting and was very playful.

So why was I there? Well, I’ve made a number of generative artworks in the past, but I am not from the same world. My own introduction to the concepts of generative / algorithmic art came very randomly from the desire to make art that was never the same twice.

For me, the thinking began sometime in the late 1970’s but my introduction to computers was in 1981 when my father, a secondary school teacher, borrowed a brand new BBC Micro over the six-week summer holiday, and that was my introduction to programming.

The very first thing I did was to make string pictures. When I googled “string pictures” this is what I got.

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Pictures of string, string bikinis and string theory. How the world has moved on.

What I meant was this kind of thing.

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Interference patterns formed a lot of those early experiments as they were easy to produce, particularly with a low resolution display.

I would have made music with it too, but the manual was new and incomplete, so the SOUND command was undocumented and I failed to guess the parameters.

This experience contrasts sharply with our named pioneers. In the 1960’s and 1970’s, computers were the almost sole property of universities and large businesses, and their graphics capability pretty much non-existent, hence the use of plotters and structured graphics, rather than the bitmapped visual display unit (VDU) which became universal later on.

In the 1980’s there was an explosion in the development and availability of small, domestic computers which could be connected to a television, and this is when I got involved. Even though these machines were aimed at consumers, and programming them was very much easier, there was still a large hurdle to overcome. My own experience makes me admire the pioneers in this field even more. Easy programming is not easy, and producing successful work with computers that were not designed for the purpose is a major achievement.

What is also contrasting is what led the different generations into the field. I am not a mathematician or computer scientist. I started with a desire to make art, and use computers to help me. My own motivation is primarily aesthetic, and this is reflected in my methods which are very simple, mathematically speaking. I studied A Level maths at school, but I use the simplest methods, given a particular goal.


Frieder Nake in conversation, 12th November 2012 at the Cantor Building, Sheffield Hallam University

I was particularly taken by Manfred Mohn’s early work, and also the plotter drawings of Frieder Nake, who claimed that it was “all random”. Nake was very playful and said a lot of provocative things, including “There [are] no masterpieces anymore.” With an attitude like that, it’s easy to see why Mohn talked about having eggs thrown at him, and referring to the computer as “real pornography” to some people.

I can see the Sunday magazine headline now: “Is this the end of painting?”. Well, no. I guess some artists saw computer-generated art as a threat, but like any new medium, it does not render all other media obsolete, it just provides additional choice.

Also, Ernest Edmonds’ first use of a computer was not the end in itself, it was merely a means to help him make a painting. Edmonds’ conversation was particularly coherent and my favourite quotation from the day was when he explained why he chose to study maths. Apparently, he was attracted by the fact that he could do that course in only 10 hours per week “which left plenty of time for painting.”

Nake’s claim that it was all random is simply not true, of course. It might be more accurate to call this approach “managed chaos”, and the famous image “Hommage à Paul Klee, 13/9/65 Nr.2” (above) shows this quite clearly, where the algorithm only allows a degree or randomness within aesthetically-informed boundaries, and hence the accessibility of the image.

Mohr’s early work is clearly informed by circuit diagrams and symbols, and is very graphic, whereas his later work is much more “pure” and mathematically informed, although still carefully composed.

Roman Verostko was particularly larger-than-life. I really don’t know what your average ex-Dominican monk should be like, but his Cyber Flowers, produced in his later life as a self-proclaimed “algorist”, are tangibly sensual.

As far as Edmonds’ exhibition at Site Gallery is concerned, I find the memorabilia, artifacts and background information absolutely fascinating, but the paintings and prints leave me cold. To my eye, not enough of that background texture is apparent in the work. Edmonds’ explanation of the constructivist nature of his work, as opposed to the composition, really expanded my understanding. However, the construction and methodology are much more apparent in the other featured artists’ work.

I think a lot of what is termed “digital art” is deeply misunderstood because viewers are alienated by their own perceived lack of understanding of the technology. However, the technology is only important if the method is part of the work.

Not necessarily these guys, but some artists working with technology are deeply suspicious and protective of their methods, and don’t like to explain how it’s done, but this threatens to render their work as no more than the art of illusion, rather than the communication of meaning.

My own work is graphic and aesthetically driven, and is both constructivist and traditionally compositional. My HyperScape series of works uses mathematics that is no more complex than arithmetic and simple algebra. I sometimes wander into trigonometry, but nothing hardcore. However, there are techniques and effects that I employ that overlap enormously with the early work of these pioneers. Synchronisation, repetition, variation, weighted randomness and an intuitive acknowledgement of traditional aesthetics are all present.

HyperScape I

HyperScape II

HyperScape IV

HyperScape V

In my mind this explains what I see as a polarization of approach into two camps. Some of this work is fundamentally concerned with its own genesis, and this is an anorak that is worn as a fashion statement. It is art about the digital world.

I was once telephone-interviewed for wired.com and the only stipulation I made was don’t refer to me as a “digital artist”.

The other work is that which uses technology, but is not about technology. It was interesting to talk to Alex May who, like me, learned the maths he needed in order to make the work he wanted to, rather than starting with the tech, and I guess we both wear an anorak to keep the rain out.

Surprisingly, the idea of the actual code being the art was’t mentioned until the final panel discussion. All of the featured artists in this day were more concerned with the result rather than the method, although the idea of constructivism informed the day.


Programmers Betty Jean Jennings (left) and Fran Bilas (right) operate ENIAC’s main control panel at the Moore School of Electrical Engineering. (Source: Wikipedia).

A female friend, artist and coder, expressed to me a slight concern that the event was very male-dominated. I pointed out to her that it is up to the girls to get coding.

In my teenage years I would have preferred the company of the opposite sex, rather than the various solo occupations in which I indulged at that time. This included teaching myself to program. However, teenage girls were not interested in the same things at that formative time, and certainly not interested in me, so I had to entertain myself.

I am not one of the pioneers of course, but I did have a quick look around at the audience and the gender split was about 60/40 in favour of the boys. This included digital pioneer Sue Gollifer, although she wasn’t one of the speakers. Also, Site Gallery is almost entirely staffed by women, and the day was chaired by Leila Johnston of Final Bullet, so I think the balance is being redressed somewhat.

It’s good to see generative art being shown in a mainstream contemporary gallery, and not part of a niche event.

Get coding. How hard can it be?

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