Still, Marius Watz, System_C, 2005. Courtesy of the artist.

SEED: Stories of Rhizome and Generative Art

On June 28, Rhizome held our annual benefit in partnership with TRLab, honoring generative art and artists Rafaël Rozendaal, Lillian Schwartz, and Ix Shells. The night was also a celebration of Rhizome's affiliation with the New Museum, which was a relationship forged by New Museum Director Lisa Phillips and Rhizome founder Mark Tribe 20 years ago.

This text was included in a booklet that was distributed during the event, designed by Laura Coombs, and presented on a dedicated microsite created by TRLab, where you can claim on-chain rewards as you explore.  


“The artist creates a system, typically a piece of software, which is either used to create a work of art or constitutes a work of art in itself.” – Marius Watz

 Generative art today is associated with artworks that use code as a creative medium, often to create abstract imagery and dynamic visual effects. This way of working has a long history–arguably, one that predates the computer itself. Artists who use chance and instruction-based operations ranging from a roll of the dice to a reading of the I Ching may be considered generative, but the term has gained particular importance with the rise of digital culture, and the popularity of generative NFTs. 

Screenshot of rows of white text one a grey background.

Screenshot of a post by Mark Tribe in 1996 on Rhizome’s email list. Courtesy of Rhizome.

Here, we share ten stories of generative art as seen through our archives, as part of a partnership with TRLab. 

1. The word “generative”

Beginning in 1996, Rhizome was an email list, where artists shared resources and developed new language around emerging media. Terms and neologisms were introduced, tested out and discussed; sometimes adopted, and perhaps later discarded. The kind of work we know today as “generative” was described in distinct ways; one popular term was “artificial life.” “Emergence” was another key term.

Still, the term “generative” did make appearances and was often discussed with considerable sophistication. In 1997, Simon Biggs wrote about his work  in a way that seemed to mirror today's arguments around AI and consciousness. He argued for “an avoidance of the notion of an ’artificial author’”—the idea that the computer is taking the place of the human author—which has been part of computer art discourse since the earliest days. Instead, he argued for linguistic models that generate patterns “that can be interpreted as meaning in the mind of the reader.” 

Biggs’s argument from a quarter-century ago mirrors a contemporary debate around AI and the role of machines in the creative process: do AI tools have true intelligence and artistry, or are they just generating patterns that we interpret as meaningful?

Today, the term “generative art” is increasingly also associated with generative AI. While generative art has long been concerned with code as aesthetic material, generative AI makes use of complex models that analyze large data sets and generate new images, sounds, and texts derived from this training data. 

White, yellow, orange, and red dotted lines swirling on a dark grey background.

Still, Marius Watz, System_C, 2005. Courtesy of the artist.

With more kinds of artwork being described as “generative,” a further categorization suggested by Marius Watz in 2005 may be of use. For the term “generative art” to have any meaning, he argued, artworks must have a dominant focus on generative systems, not merely use a generative tool along the way. Whether it involves AI tools or Java Applets (or both), art can perhaps be most readily described as generative when it foregrounds the generative system through which it comes into being.

2. The World‘s First Generative Logo?

Rhizome’s 2001 logo, designed by Markus Weisbeck and Frank Hauschild of Courtesy of Rhizome.

Rhizome’s 2023 logo, designed by Mindy Seu and Laura Coombs. Courtesy of Rhizome.

In 2023, Rhizome introduced a new logo designed by Mindy Seu and Laura Coombs. The new logo is dynamic, adjusting to the time of day and the distance of recent website visitors to Rhizome’s New York City office. 

This logo drew inspiration directly from an identity that Rhizome has long been associated with—a starburst formation, with colored rays emanating from a vertex. This logo was introduced in 2001, and it took a dynamic form even at that time. An article on Rhizome’s “Net Art News” series asked whether it was “The World’s First Generative Logo?” 

Ever noticed that the Rhizome Logo never looks the same twice? The logo that appears in the top left section of our website is an example of generative art. It is generated "on the fly" each time it is viewed, depending upon the IP addresses of the last four people to visit the website. The logo was designed by Markus Weisbeck and Frank Hauschild of Check it out, we think it's pretty cool.

3. Flash & Splash

Screenshot of spash page artwork by Entropy8Zuper! duo, Aureia Harvery & Michaël Samyn. Image courtesy of Rhizome.

Splash art originated in comics from the 1940s, where the term referred to a full page of visuals at the front of a book. In the late 1990s, when the widespread use of the application Flash opened up new possibilities for animation and interactive media, the idea of the splash page migrated to web design. Online splash pages brought visual excitement to a webpage when low modem speeds made it impractical to post large or moving images amid a site's textual content. 

Flash introduced generative methods to a wide range of artists. It incorporated a timeline which allowed for visual editing, and allowed artists to easily incorporate code into their work using a language known as ActionScript. Artists like Entropy8Zuper!, for example, utilized ActionScript to program interactive elements, animations, and user interactions in their web-based artworks.

In 1998, Rhizome introduced splash pages to its website in order to display artwork with greater immediacy. These splash pages were designed by artists such as Josh Davis and the aforementioned Entropy8Zuper! duo, Aureia Harvey & Michaël Samyn.

4. The New Museum & ArtBase 101

In 2003, Rhizome and the New Museum entered into a unique partnership, aiming to increase the visibility and recognition of digital art within the contemporary art world as well as foster new opportunities for exhibitions, programming, and preservation of digital artworks.

Multiple screens mounted on white museum walls showing various digital artworks.

Installation view, “ArtBase 101” at New Museum, 2005. Foreground, MTAA (M. River & T. Whid), 1 year performance video (aka samHsiehUpdate), 2004, website with Flash.

In 2005, the New Museum, which was located in Chelsea at the time, presented the exhibition “ArtBase 101.” The show offered a curated selection of forty works from's ArtBase, an online archive of new media art launched in 1999. At that time, the Museum frequently hosted digital exhibitions in its Media Z Lounge—an ideal context for an exhibition curated by  Rhizome. 

In ArtBase 101, ten underlying themes were drawn out to characterize distinct areas of practice from Rhizome’s communities, which included considerable crossover with generative practice. The exhibition included Amy Alexander’s theBot (2000), Casey Reas’s Software Structures (2004), and John F. Simon’s Every Icon (1999).

Screenshot of brower window displaying website with black background and white text.

Amy Alexander, TheBot, 2000. Courtesy of the Artist.

In Amy Alexander's piece TheBot, visitors were asked to input search terms, prompting a web crawler to scour the internet for relevant quotes and their respective URLs. The gathered material was then transformed into visual poetry, which was displayed on screen, while the appropriated text was recited by a computerized voice. With Software Structures (2004), Casey Reas aimed to illustrate a significant rapport between Sol LeWitt's concerns regarding conceptual art and the related issues of mutability and translation in software art. The piece was created using a set of instructions LeWitt had drawn up for assistants to draw prescribed "structures," which Reas implemented through coding software to create various digital structures. John F. Simon, Jr.'s artwork Every Icon (1997) utilizes a grid of 32x32 squares to represent all possible combinations of white and black elements. Although the artwork gives the impression of displaying every icon imaginable, in actuality, it would take billions of years for it to render a recognizable icon.

Screenshot of brower window displaying website with white background and black text and cell grid.

John F. Simon, Every Icon, 1997. Courtesy of the Artist.

Soft grayscale geometry moving across a white background.

Casey Reas, Software Structures, 2004.

5. The Demoscene 

Silhoette of human figure dancing against multicolor background.

Logo from Future Crew, Second REality, IBM PC Demo, 1993. 

The demoscene is a distinct network of communities that have been a frequent source of inspiration for Rhizome’s community.

In the early 1980s, dial-up bulletin boards hosted extensive libraries of pirated software and videogames. These titles were distributed by software companies with copy protection in place, which was removed by savvy users, who would customarily add some digital graffiti to the software intro screen before sharing it with others. These intro screens grew into an early digital art form. “Intros were the computer nerd version of graffiti,” artist Cory Arcangel has observed. Crews made an effort to introduce as much visual complexity and style as they could into a highly constrained medium. 

Intros grew in popularity, and eventually crews began to use their visual vernacular to release standalone demos. Demos were often elaborate moving image works that were typically limited to tiny file sizes, like 4K, and sometimes written over the course of short hackathon-style competitions. “Like intros, demos are real-time graphics-and-sound software presentations, but they exist solely to push a computer to its limits,” Arcangel has observed. “They are a performative way for programmers and crews to flex their coding skills.”

6. The Birth of Processing 

Photograph of notes written with black ink on a white paper notebook.

Notes in Casey Reas’s sketchbook in 2001 from the first conversation about the project that would become Processing.

In the early 2000s, the Processing programming language started to feature prominently in many projects supported and featured on Rhizome. 

Casey Reas, Co-Founder of Processing, reflected on the origins of the programming language in a 2009 Rhizome interview:

It was sometime in June 2001, as I was finishing up at MIT. We made a list of the basic specs for the environment and drawing functions. It was one 8 ½ x 11 inch typed page. By the fall, Ben [Fry] had something working and the first workshop took place in Japan in August, 2001... The big idea of Processing is the tight integration of a programming environment, a programming language, a community-minded and open-source mentality, and a focus on learning -- created by artists and designers, for their own community. The focus is on writing software within the context of the visual arts. Many other programming environments embodied some of these aspects, but not all.

John Maeda's Design By Numbers is the direct parent of Processing. Our goal was to emulate its simplicity and focus on making images, animation, and interaction. But, we wanted to exceed the limits of DBN: 100 x 100 pixels, grayscale, and integer math.

7. Glitch Art

Distorted human face in purple gradients on black background.

Rosa Menkman, The Collapse of PAL, 2010.  

Artists have long been fascinated by moments in which technology breaks down–perhaps none more so than JODI, an artist duo made up of Joan Heemskerk and Dirk Paesmans. In a post on the Rhizome lists from 1999, in which he discusses JODI's software-based artwork OSS (2000), Alex Galloway argues that "Focusing specifically on those moments where computers break down (the crash, the bug, the glitch), JODI discovers a new, autonomous aesthetic.” The aesthetic was certainly not entirely new even then, but JODI's early work is a particularly strong exploration of the principles of glitch art, before the term came into common usage.

It was some years later, in 2010, when the idea of “glitch art” began to circulate with greater intentionality. Rosa Menkman, a theorist and visual artist, was a key advocate for this new digital art practice. In her Glitch Studies Manifesto, she reflect on how computers, devices hard-coded in logic and predictable functions, are the perfect playground for pushing the boundaries of artistic expression: 

...the spectator is forced to acknowledge that the use of the computer is based on a genealogy of conventions, while in reality the computer is a machine that can be bent or used in many different ways. With the creation of breaks within politics and social and economical conventions, the audience may become aware of the preprogrammed patterns. Now, a distributed awareness of a new interaction gestalt can take form.

The ideas at play in glitch art have had many lives, and one of the most significant is the use of the word by Legacy Russell to describe “glitch feminism.” In her 2013 Rhizome essay “Elsewhere, After the Flood: Glitch Feminism and the Genesis of Glitch Body Politic,” Russell proposed that “the glitch encourages a slipping across, beyond, and through the stereotypical materiality of the corpus.” Russell's concept of "glitch feminism" highlighted the transformative potential of glitch and its usefulness in breaking down broader societal rules and codes.

8. The First NFT

Kevin McCoy's artwork Quantum (2014) features pulsing, multicolored rings of light against a black background, creating the sensation of moving through an astronomical phenomenon at speed. The artwork is a screen recorded loop, consisting of 179 frames, derived from a code-generated animation written in the Processing language.

Blue sphere gradient on black background.

Image: Kevin McCoy, Quantum, 2014.

Quantum is widely regarded as the first NFT artwork. In 2014, as part of Rhizome’s 7x7 program at the New Museum, McCoy and Anil Dash developed a system for establishing provenance for digital artworks on the NameCoin blockchain, called Monegraph. Prior to the launch of Ethereum, the project demonstrated that the blockchain could be used to establish a cryptographically certified chain of ownership of a digital work, allowing digital works to be authenticated, bought, and sold. 

The work’s evocation of a futuristic science fiction narrative is balanced by the presence of what looks like traces of image compression, though on closer inspection, they are effects introduced intentionally by the artist. In some ways, the story of Quantum is an example of how NFTs can allow the often-overlooked cultural value of digital works to be properly recognized. McCoy chose Quantum from his digital sketchbook to be the first work to be minted in this new system; the code had been written for possible use in a 2013 project, as a backdrop for a drag-racing video. Today, the work is very much in the foreground, inseparable from this origin story: suggestive of new worlds arriving, while rooted in the digital material of its time.

9. A Queer History of Computing

Jacob Gaboury’s 2013 series of articles A Queer History of Computing, published on Rhizome, explored five foundational figures in computing history and drew out the ways their sexuality impacted their lives and work. In particular, Gaboury wanted to “question the assumption that the technical and the sexual are so easily divided.” 

One work that surfaced in the series is a very early generative artwork by Christopher Strachey, made using a computer that weighed 10,000 lbs. 

In 1952 Strachey developed a love-letter generator that ran on the Manchester Mark 1 using a random number generating algorithm, predating the ELIZA natural language processing program by twelve years. The project is considered by many to be the first example of algorithmic or computational art, though such claims are always highly contested. As a mathematician and computer scientist, Christopher Strachey was also one of the founders of denotational semantics and a pioneer in programming language design; yet this is not the path Strachey began on as a young man growing up in Bloomsbury among artists and intellectuals.

Gridded notebook with filled in cells of letters and title "MANCHESTER UNIVERSITY COMPUTING MACHINE".

The list of adjectives in Strachey's love letter generator. Photograph: Jacob Gaboury.

Photograph of printed love letter.

Poem generated using Strachey’s love letter generator. Photograph: Jacob Gaboury.

10. Ix Shells, Rafaël Rozendaal, and Lillian Schwartz

Rhizome’s 2023 benefit honors three artists at differing stages in their careers who all have had a profound impact on the development of generative art.

Photograph of Lillian Schwartz using a computer.

Image from the Collections of The Henry Ford. Gift of the Lillian F. Schwartz & Laurens R. Schwartz Collection

Lillian Schwartz first encountered a computer at Bell Labs in the late 1960s. After participating in the MoMA exhibition The Machine at the End of the Mechanical Age, she was invited to tour the facilities by fellow participating artist Kenneth Knowlton, and ended up staying on for more than three decades. 

Despite being an unpaid “resident visitor” on a male-dominated environment, Schwartz made artistic use of an incredible range of research topics at Bell Labs. Among her many experiments, it is her work with early computer animation that is perhaps most immediately relevant to today‘s conversations about generative art. 

Schwartz developed computer animations, programming on punch cards, 2D and 3D graphics without pixel shifting. She wrote, “There is a definable chemistry behind the electronic palette, a combination of data, logic, and equations that inevitably begins as an obstacle to an untrained artist and as a potential diversion from his future sophistication. I had to push the early machine and cajole scientists to make the computer an art tool. The functions of the machine could not remain mystical if I was to assess how far it could be prodded.”

 The answer, initially, was “not very far.” As Zabet Patterson described it, 

Schwartz drew patterns on graph paper and then used EXPLOR to code pixel-like blocks that became generative shapes once input into the computer. She had to wait until the full processing was done and the image sequences were output to 35-mm film before she could see precisely what she would get.

Despite these limits, Schwartz had a relentless drive to find the edges of her medium and material. Through her relentless experimentation, she contributed significantly to defining what it means to make art with the computer.

Screenshot of multicolor gradient covering homepage.

Rafaël Rozendaal, Into, 2010.

In 2008, Rafaël Rozendaal was commissioned by Rhizome to create a website in which the user could shake a gelatinous dessert. It was a single-serving website—a form of art that had come to popularity around a movement known as NEEN, founded by Miltos Manetas and Mai Ueda in the early 2000s. As Rozendal recalls, 

I started publishing each “experiment” as a single webpage in a unique domain name... The domain name was my solution to create digital scarcity and a proof of authenticity: when a collector bought one of my websites, their name would be listed in the title tag of the website, and the domain name is transferred to them. They become the full owner. It was a proto-NFT form.

Like many of Rozendaal’s early works, that work was focused on a simple, humorous interaction, but he soon began to delve also into visual abstraction, using a simple set of rules to develop a seemingly endless set of variations, all at a tiny file size.  

In 2012, at the invitation of Rhizome Executive Director Lauren Cornell, Rozendaal was commissioned to present a selection of works for Seoul Square, the world’s largest LED screen. He presented a collection of single-serving websites, including Much Better Than This .com and Like This Forever .com, to name a few. The new canvas was well-suited to Rozendaal’s work. "The idea is that the website is like liquid, or like a piece of gas," he observed. "It adapts to whatever environment it has."

In 2021, Rozendaal named Rhizome as the beneficiary for an auction on the Art Blocks platform, which offered NFTs that were rendered in-browser from computer code that was stored on the blockchain itself. Rozendaal’s work for that auction, titled Endless Nameless, was the largest donation in Rhizome's twenty-five year history.

Image courtesy of Ix Shells.

Itzel Yard, also known as Ix Shells, is a contemporary artist with a background in creative code who achieved early success through NFTs that involved flowing, organic forms realized through geometrical, black and white patterns. A way of reaching these works is suggested by Shells’ moniker, which as the artist has noted, evokes both computer terminal shell commands and oceanic life: 

Animals create "shells" to protect themselves- also "shells" is a computer program that takes the command from your keyboard to the OS and lets us start, kill, or automate processes. In short its a way to keep control while so many things are happening out there in the ocean, or, "the ocean of data.

This makes for a potent metaphor in the field of generative art; as Ron Eglash has observed, the shell is often associated with the concept of the infinite in African culture: 

The scaling properties of their logarithmic spirals; one can clearly see the potential for the spiral to continue without end despite its containment in a finite space – indeed, it is only because of its containment in a finite space that there is a sense of having gained access to or grasped at the infinite

“Grasping at the infinite” is perhaps an apt summary of what is at stake in much of generative art – and, indeed, of art of all kinds.