Generative Nature - critical essay

-Critical essay-

Generative Nature
Aesthetics, repetitiveness, selection and adaptation

by Marco Mancuso / critic, curator and Digicult director

for Mr. Bruce Sterling's workshop "Designing Processes Rather Than Art"
November 25-28 2008, Fabrica


In his De Rerum Natura, Lucretius denies any kind of creation, providence
and original bliss and maintains that people freed themselves from their
condition of need thanks to the production of techniques, which are
transpositions of nature. A god and some gods exist, but they did not create
the universe, nor do they deal with people's actions. Lucretius maintains
that the rational knowledge of nature shows us an infinite universe that is
made up of complex forms and constituted by atoms; it follows natural laws,
it is indifferent to people's needs and can be explained without gods.

When an artist uses a conceptual form of art, it means that all of the
planning and decisions are made beforehand and the execution is a
perfunctory affair. The idea becomes a machine that makes the art. - Sol Le


Modern ecology began with Charles Darwin's studies. In his "theory of
evolution" published in 1859 in On the Origin of Species, he underlined the
adaptation of the different organisms to the various kinds of environment,
which are subjected to the age-long examination of natural selection.
However, the word was coined by Ernst Heinrich Haeckel in 1869 and comes
from the Greek óikos meaning "house" and logos meaning "discourse". It is
therefore a biological science that studies environment and the
relationships that the different living organisms establish between each
other and with the environment itself. For some time, Haeckel was a strong
supporter and popularizer of Darwin's theories, but he soon became one of
his most bitter enemies; he firmly refuted the process of natural selection
as the basis of the evolutionary mechanism, in favor of a thought that was
more focused on the environment as a direct agent on natural organisms,
which is able to produce new species and generate diversity.

Ernst Heinrich Haeckel's thought and work represent the starting point of
this critical reflection. First of all, because it was the theoretical and
practical cue suggested by Bruce Sterling during his workshop for Fabrica,
to which the text refers. Secondly; because it allows me a philosophical and
critical reflection, aspiring to find a possible point of contact between
nature, theories of evolution and programmatic and generative art. Is it
impossible? Well, I would say no, on the contrary. Above all if we try to
compare and amalgamate, like the colors on a canvas, the German biologist's
research on one side with some works of conceptual and minimalist artist Sol
Le Witt and the possible relationship between mathematics and nature on the
other, and what is known today as art and generative design.

Nature as an art

"Kunstformen der Natur" literally means "artistic forms of nature": this is
the title of biologist Ernst Haeckel's 1898 most important text, his most
complex and fascinating research. Moreover, this is the text from which
Bruce Sterling took, for those participating in his workshop, some primary
images that could be the graphic material and starting point for an
aesthetic and methodological reflection on the practices of generative
repetitiveness. By watching the richly decorated plates in Haeckel's text,
it is undeniable that nature is able not only to create spontaneously real
"art forms", but also to produce a direct correspondence between a certain
generative aesthetics, starting from a fundamental unit/nucleus to come to a
complex entity, and a consequent adaptive and evolutionary practice.

In other words, if the stages of the embryological development of a species
actually trace the evolution phases that led it to its position in the
natural order, the survival of each species basically depends on its
interaction with the environment. According to Haeckel, the mechanism thanks
to which new species and a new diversity have origin is that of a gradual
addition of a certain development trajectory starting from an initial unit,
which is determined by imposed external (environmental) parameters, which
are able to influence the gradual direction of the trajectory itself.

At this point, a first important reference to the theoretic and
methodological bases of Generative Art seems evident, as one of the pioneers
of this discipline, Italian architect Celestino Soddu, suggests: "Generative
Art is the idea realized as genetic code of artificial events, as
construction of dynamic complex systems able to generate endless variations.
Each Generative Project is a concept-software that works producing unique
and non-repeatable events, as possible and manifold expressions of the
generating idea strongly recognizable as a vision belonging to an
artist/designer/musician/architect/mathematician. This generative
Idea/human-creative-act makes an unpredictable, amazing and endless
expansion of human creativity. Computers are simply the tools for its
storage in memory and execution. This approach opens a new era in Art,
Design and Communication: the challenge of a new naturalness of the
artificial event as a mirror of Nature. Once more man emulates Nature, as in
the act of making Art [.]."

Although, over the centuries, biologists and morphologists have widely
denied a so close correspondence between ontogenesis and phylogeny, and so
between unity and complexity, the germ of thought is interesting and I think
it is worth continuing to nourish it.

Forms, colors, lines and instructions

As everybody knows, US conceptual and minimalist artist Sol Le Witt, who
died not long ago, is one of the spiritual fathers of modern artists and
generative designers. By reducing art to a series of instructions thanks to
which everybody is able to draw forms, colors and lines in the
two-dimensional and three-dimensional space, creating geometric elements
that are repeated and modulated according to standard space proportions, Le
Witt loved reminding that "all the people are able to participate in the
creative process, to become artists themselves". It is well-known that the
artist tended to separate the planning stage from the realization of the
work; he devoted himself to the former, whereas his assistants devoted
themselves to the latter: if the artistic process thus lies in the
conceptual planning of the work, the (basic, elementary and geometric)
execution can be carried out by everybody, thanks to a series of detailed
instructions that are suggested by a thinking unit with a procedural
approach. He also claimed: "There are several ways of constructing a work of
art. One is by making decisions at each step, another by making a system to
make decisions."

In this kind of approach the work of the last years of some of the most
important generative artists and designers in the world (Casey Reas, Ben
Fry, Jared Tarbell, Theodore Watson, Lia, Toxi, Andreas Schlegel, Marius
Watz, Robert Hodgin, to mention only some of them) is reflected: if the
human being identifies himself/herself with the author of a series of
mathematical instructions that can be suggested to a computer, the resulting
work of art will be the sum of the operations that the computer has carried
out autonomously. Therefore, as for Sol Le Witt the emotional elements of
the authors, their joy at a moment, their frustration, their apathy were
constituent elements of a free interpretation of the instructions that had
been suggested to them and so of the resulting work of art, in the universe
of digital software as well (from Processing to VVVV to Open Frameworks, to
mention the most widespread) we can hazard the thought that the instructions
given by the artist/designer can be freely interpreted by a kind of
"emotiveness" of the "thinking" computer.

Le Witt's conceptual indifference to any kind of aesthetic judgement, the
aversion to prearranged aesthetic conventions that are assimilated by the
public, a general indifference to any kind of distinction between old and
new are perfectly reflected in the words of one of the most important
generative artists in Italy, Fabio Franchino: "In the evening I give some
instructions to the computer, which processes data and autonomously
generates lines, forms and colours during the night; in the morning, when I
wake up, I judge the results. If I like the product I will keep it, if it is
not satisfying I will throw it."

Well, I do not know what these things suggest to you: I think that also in
this case we can make a comparison with the natural universe. If we
assimilate the environment, nature in its widest meaning, as the entity that
is able to cause a series of changes, evolutions and dynamics, then the
organisms living in contact with it (again, the concept of "ecology") are
able to interpret these vital codes, to assimilate them, in order to react
to them and autonomously generate a series of forms, colors and systems that
can be seen as the result of their evolutionary process, which comes to a
complex final system from a starting unit. The difference maybe lies in the
"spontaneity" with which this process begins: if an artist/designer decides,
in advance, a series of instructions that will be given to the computer, it
is difficult not to think that nature operates by following only its
evolutionary spontaneity. At the same time, it is fascinating even to think
that as the artist/designer does not know the final effects of the
instructions, giving the computer the freedom to interpret them, similarly
nature does not care about the effects it produces on the organisms living
in it, giving them evolutionary freedom of forms and elements that we, human
beings, only afterwards could maybe consider as "works of art".

Numbers in evolution

Today, one of the most fascinating mathematical theories is undoubtedly that
of fractals: according to the definition of their discoverer, Polish
mathematician Benoît Mandelbrot, they are geometric shapes, characterized by
the endless repetition of the same pattern at ever smaller scales. This is
the most intuitive definition that can be given to shapes that exist in
nature in an impressive number but do not still have a precise mathematical
definition. The natural universe is rich in forms that are very similar to
fractals, forms that do not follow the norms of the Euclidean geometry: a
stretch of coast, the branches or the roots of a tree, a cloud, the
snowflakes, the ramifications of a lightning and the dentation of a leaf are
example of fractal forms originating spontaneously in nature. Among these,
the fractal form par excellence is the spiral, the constituent element of
the shell of many annelids and conches, which is one of the main objects of
study of Ernst Heinrich Haeckel's theories and one of the most beautiful and
fascinating geometric forms.

If we shift the field of analysis to mathematics, to numbers, to equations
and algorithms, the level of intersection between science, technology, art
and nature does not change. And if the procedural and generative method is
what we have chosen as the guiding element of this treatise, it is not
surprising to think that the construction of fractals follows a reiterated
process, that is, the repetition of a starting element for a theoretically
infinite number of times until, after a while, the human eye cannot
distinguish the changes in the starting element any longer. We must not
forget the fact that, as it is acknowledged, fractals are influenced by
certain controlled casualness. There is thus again the element of
casualness, of spontaneity, as the distinctive (or unifying) element between
computer and nature, according to which evolutionary mechanisms cannot be
predicted from their constituent elements and it is often impossible to
reconstruct them, starting from their visible manifestations.

At this point of the text, the procedural, generative, iterative and
evolutionary element may be considered as the pillar of the thought
underpinning a modern "computational ecology": between Turing's
revolutionary theories on "morphogenesis" (every living organism is able to
develop complex bodies, starting from extremely simple elements and basing
on processes of self-assembly, without the aid of a guide following a
prearranged plan) and the most recent studies that have been carried out on
"genetic algorithms" (a particular class of evolutionary algorithms using
techniques of mutation, selection and recombination, so that a certain
population of abstract representations of possible solutions to an
optimization problem evolves into better solutions) almost 50 years of
studies, analyses and research passed; they aimed at underlining the nearly
computational properties of Mother Nature on one side, and the ability of
digital machines to simulate and repeat complex natural phenomena. Frankly,
I do not wonder any longer what is the most fascinating form of art or the
most difficult process.

Moreover, I think that the most interesting answers to these themes can be
found in the studies and theories of Karl Sims, the famous artist and
researcher from Mit Media Lab; in particular, we can find them in his 1993
work, Genetic Images, which drew inspiration from his paper Artificial
Evolution of Computer Graphics, where he described the application of the
"genetic algorithms" for the generation of 2D abstract images, starting from
complex mathematical formulas. Therefore according to Sims, Darwin's
evolutionary theories can be simulated by means of a generative software or
appropriate mathematical algorithms; in this way, "populations of virtual
entities specified by coded descriptions in the computer can be evolved by
applying these same natural rules of variation and selection. The definition
of fitness can even be altered as the programmer desires." I think that what
is interesting in Genetic Images is the fact that this work was presented as
an interactive installation: in other words, it was the public who could
choose and select the most interesting images and forms from an aesthetic
point of view, among those generated by a computer simulating a process of
artificial evolution. The selected images were then recombined by the
computer to create new ones, basing on alteration and mutation methods,
similar to those of natural species during their evolutionary process. Karl
Sims thus wonders whether these interactive evolutions can be considered a
creative process. If yes, is it the public who develop an independent
creative attitude or is the presence of a designer making the computer
follow precise creative paths necessary? Or is it maybe the computer that
develops autonomous creative tendencies?

In his treatise, Sims duly mentions biologist Richard Dawkins who, in his
book The Blind Watchmaker, talks about the ability of natural evolutionary
processes to create complex forms without the external presence of any
designer or programmer: "It is thus possible that these generative
techniques challenge an important aspect of our anthropocentric tendencies,
according to which it is difficult for us to believe that we are planned not
by a God but by casualness showing through the codes of a natural
evolution", concludes Sims. Maybe true art lies exactly in all these things. /sets/72157601323433758/ît_Mandelbrot


, Vijay Pattisapu

"When an artist uses a conceptual form of art, it means that all of the planning and decisions are made beforehand and the execution is a perfunctory affair. The idea becomes a machine that makes the art." - Sol Le Witt

"Every battle is won or lost before it's even fought." - Sun Tzu

"It ain't over 'til it's over." - Yogi Berra

, Kevin T. Kim

As an atheist, I can buy the theory of art spontaneously emerging from the various processes of nature. I think I can relate this slightly to a discussion several weeks ago in my New Media class at UC Santa Cruz, where we talked about slime molds. Specifically, we discussed the tendency of slime mold to create vein-like structures as it spreads; these veins could be considered art that springs from random elements acting together within the slime mold, an artifact of nature. I think we actually watched some of this process on YouTube, so I'm willing to support Haeckel's theories. Nature CAN produce art, as corny as that sounds to me, and anyone who disagrees could be showing signs of human arrogance. The idea of nature giving evolutionary freedom to its organisms backs up the theory of spontaneity.
It also makes sense to me that the artistic process (at least mostly) lies in the planning rather than the actual production; technically, all one needs to bring an envisioned artwork to life is an agent—oneself or otherwise—that can follow specific instructions. An artistic process drives the writing of a certain program; a mechanical agent can take in that program's details and produce the work. Look at how many manufactured copies there are of the Mona Lisa, for (a crude) example. Da Vinci may have created the original, but people and technology have the capacity to follow instructions and produce that smiling lady's image on posters, Internet ads, Dan Brown book covers, etc.
But as humans and the nature that created humans are capable of producing art, so is the technology that humans created. Regarding Karl Sims' Genetic Images, my conclusion is that the interactive evolution is a creative process. Computers may follow a set of instructions in applying alterations and mutations to images, but those images have been chosen by human will; this is a matter of recreation rather than simply creation. Also, one could say that computers themselves are art, as they "evolved" from human interactions. In the end, I would say that the creativity ultimately belongs to the artist/designer, who is responsible for the computer, albeit relatively casually with its seemingly random instructions. Once we get into the idea of the computer developing its own autonomy, I believe we have entered the realm of fiction. (I'll see if I feel the same fifty years from now)