Casualty 14-18 ~ The making of a generative artwork by Richard Bolam – Part 1 #bolamat50 #WW1 #casualty1418

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Back in 2001, I had the idea for “Casualty” as a non-specific commemoration of casualties in conflict or other tragic loss of life. I have always been fascinated by infographics, especially pictographs, and I can remember seeing representations of war casualties in books when I was young. I was intrigued by the scale that these often cartoon-like figures attempt to represent, but simultaneously fail to communicate, of the real horror of acts of industrialised murder.

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My first sketches show how I originally intended to use a variety of symbols to represent men, women and children but, after some experimentation, I decided to settle on a single humanoid figure in order to imply the notion of human equality, despite it being a recognisably adult male figure.

I also experiment with symbolic representations of race/religion/creed by adding a motif to the figure’s chest. The obvious allusion is to the Christian crucifix, which I altered slightly by making it more of a Maltese Cross. I am still not sure if the symbols will make it into the final work, but I have fours years and three months to think about it.

I designed the shape of the figure based upon commonly-used stick-men and as a bitmap, but for a long time I intended to create a vector version that could be scaled and manipulated more subtly. After many years of looking at this work on and off, I have finally settled on using the original bitmap figure which measures only 17 by 35 pixels.

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The technical brief is to compile and represent a figure for each of the estimated number of casualties and publish them online every day, from 28th July 2014 until the 11th November 2018.

Why those dates? In Britain, the 5th of August is often cited as the beginning of WW1 but that is based upon the ultimatum that was given to Kaiser Wilhelm that ran out at midnight on August 4th, meaning that Britain was officially at war with Germany. However, the first shots were fired on the 28th of July 1914 although, arguably, the first shot was fired on 28 of June when Archduke Ferdinand was assassinated in Sarajevo. Also, the war did not officially end on 11th November 1918.

However, it’s not a literal work, and not solely about the British, so I chose the period from the first day of fighting until Armistice Day. That’s 1,568 days, and if you take the estimate of 16,000,000 deaths and divide it by the number of days you get approximately 30 pages of 340 figures every single day for the entire four years and three months. That’s an approximate average of 10,200 deaths every day for the duration of the war.

Having decided on an infographic / office aesthetic for the work, I decided to create all the figures in an array of 20 by 17 on an A4 sheet. This is partly for aesthetic reasons and partly for practical reasons. Although it might be more individual to create a singular image for each of the lives lost, it’s not even remotely practical, and any smaller and they start to lose any meaning.

It’s all easily said, of course, but how do I create so many and publish them automatically without turning it into four years’ hard labour for myself? Having thought about it a lot, I have decided on a mixture of techniques that allow me to automate it, vary it and monitor the work as it progresses. It’s quite possible that I will adapt the workflow as it goes along.

Here’s the technical proposal with a week to go. I will be publishing the code and workflow in detail.

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Each of the A4 page-sized images are created with a Linux Bash script using ImageMagick to composite and individualise the pages and save them as PNG bitmaps.

A batch of 30 pages per day (10,200 figures) are automatically emailed to a WordPress blog and tagged to publish on consecutive days. WordPress is very sophisticated and supports emailed blog posts with embedded codes to publish at specific times and dates. The blog is already set-up to publish a link to each blog post on Facebook, Twitter and Google+ with appropriate titling, hash-tags and meta-tags.

The rest is history.

Casualty 14-18 – A commemoration of 16 million dead 

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I had the idea for this work in 2001, although it was not specifically about World War 1. However, as the 100th anniversary falls within my Retrospective year, it seems an ideal time to realise the work.

This is a generative work that creates pages of images of human figures with no indication of gender, age, nationality or religion. It creates one figure for each of the 16 million people who died in the First World War. Each page is composed of 340 figures and it will take over 47,000 A4 pages to record them all. I am currently writing software to generate the pages and the representations of the figures will vary. The software will publish an average of 30 pages per day for approximately four years and three months from the first shots being fired on the 28th of July 1914 to Armistice Day on 11th November 1918.


Today is the 100th anniversary of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the act that triggered events that led to the First World War and 16 million casualties. Unlike much of the mainstream coverage that remembers the royalty, generals and civil servants who failed to avert The Great War, my work remembers the dead.