Generation (2019/​2013)

Recent­ly, the kind peo­ple of Ohme invit­ed me to give a talk dur­ing ]Unframed[, a close up on ArtScience at Les Garages Numériques Fes­ti­val 2019.

Against the back­drop of Refik Anadol’s mag­nif­i­cent Bospho­rus instal­la­tion, I was asked to talk about cre­ative cod­ing and gen­er­a­tive art. An intim­i­dat­ing assign­ment, a Sun­day painter asked to talk about art at MOMA. Obvi­ous­ly, I said yes.

I named my talk “Gen­er­a­tion”. Think­ing about gen­er­a­tive art took me back a cou­ple of years, and as it turns out, I wrote a piece with the same name in 2013. I still agree with its sen­ti­ments. This is an update of that text.

A question

Is there any­thing to gen­er­a­tive art beyond its method­ol­o­gy? Is it a field defined by tech­nique, tool, medi­um, or is there an under­ly­ing foun­da­tion, a move­ment?

I am con­vinced there is a deep­er under­cur­rent to the super­fi­cial wall­pa­per gen­er­a­tors. An under­cur­rent in the evo­lu­tion of human soci­ety.

A silent revolution of narrative

We have long been a peo­ple of sto­ries. Tales on how the world works and per­haps more impor­tant­ly, how we were sup­posed to behave. There was no real rea­son to look far­ther, the sto­ry was both rea­son and expla­na­tion. Things are how they are because that’s how they are. The first sto­ries were all-encom­pass­ing. Sky, trees, rocks, water, all were actors in an ani­mistic world where every­thing inter­acts.  We, tiny humans, had no direct means of con­trol,  so we need­ed to deal with the mul­ti­tude of spir­its inhab­it­ing our exis­tence. Or rather, we inhab­it their world.

The sto­ries were invent­ed and told by us, their per­spec­tive unique­ly human. The nar­ra­tive was rec­og­niz­able and believ­able. And start­ed to change, reflect­ing emerg­ing pow­er struc­tures, echo­ing means of con­trol. Scaled-up exag­ger­at­ed per­son­ae appeared, the Greek big-beard­ed god­ly bas­tards, Norse pranksters, the Christian/​Muslim/​Jewish let’s-not-go-there… These sto­ries built, rein­forced, our soci­ety, embed­ded rules in dai­ly lives, com­mand­ed unques­tion­ing respect, gave author­i­ty — often to the sto­ry­teller. And the spir­its evap­o­rat­ed, our nar­ra­tive world­view firm­ly cen­tred on our­selves. Every­thing else inhab­it­ing our world.

But things hap­pened. One by one, our POV biased world views floun­dered, held up to harsh, imper­son­al light and found to be faulty. Use­ful mod­els for dai­ly life, valu­able tools of con­trol, but emp­ty of pro­found truth.

The flat world stretch­ing around us turned out to bend under­neath our feet in appar­ent absur­di­ty. We lost our seat at the cen­tre of cre­ation. Our sun was demot­ed to a close star. Our glo­ri­ous Milky Way, just one of many. Cos­mol­o­gists describe our uni­verse itself as only a bit of froth in a seething mul­ti­verse. Not con­tent with tear­ing down our sur­round­ings, we also tar­get our­selves. Our mind and soul were seized from the aether and con­fined in soft, squishy and above all, mor­tal mat­ter. We reclas­si­fied human­i­ty itself as a species, endowed with excep­tion­al poten­tial, yes. But from a bio­log­i­cal point-of-view in no way more evolved than the pets we mas­ter, the live­stock we breed, or the pests we exter­mi­nate.

But sci­ence, that cul­prit sci­ence, did­n’t stop there. The sen­si­ble but cold mechanical/​chemical sta­t­ic uni­verse of the 19th cen­tu­ry was fur­ther denied to us. Quan­tum mechan­ics ripped deter­min­ism from the very (sub)atomic fab­ric of our exis­tence. But even here at our own scale, where the clas­si­cal, deter­min­is­tic pic­ture still holds, we had to relin­quish pre­dictabil­i­ty to the gib­ber­ing jaws of chaos the­o­ry. (Gib­ber­ing might seem too graph­ic, but chaos the­o­ry is sin­gle-hand­ed­ly respon­si­ble for al those gar­ish­ly coloured Man­del­brot­ian hor­rors inflict­ed upon the unfor­tu­nate non-colour­blind.)

Where does that leave us with our sto­ries? For ages, we believed that to under­stand any­thing, we only need­ed to know. To pre­dict the future: study the past, mea­sure the present… Estab­lish rules and con­trol the sys­tem. And we seem very resis­tant to let­ting the sto­ries go. So we kept the sto­ries around. Prob­a­bly we’re too scared to cast them aside. Per­haps believ­ing, mis­tak­en­ly, that our soci­ety, our laws, our morals are found­ed on the sto­ries them­selves, rather than on the things they were ini­tial­ly meant to alle­go­rize.

But sure­ly, exot­ic math­e­mat­i­cal sys­tems might behave odd­ly, and philoso­phers delight in aca­d­e­m­ic dis­cus­sions of prin­ci­ple, but that has no impact on the real world, has it?

A silent revolution of science

The slow change of thought is most appar­ent in sci­ence. Let’s take biol­o­gy. Long con­sid­ered a sen­si­ble sci­ence for sen­si­ble mous­ta­chioed men, great minds cat­a­logu­ing species and record­ing behav­iour. They enjoyed invig­o­rat­ing rival­ries whether skele­tonized spec­i­men A was a rather size­able pygmy vole or a sick­ly giant vole. Glass-eyed corpses in the state­ly nat­ur­al his­to­ry muse­ums around the world tes­ti­fy to the enor­mous efforts of our fore­fa­thers. Mea­sur­ing, labelling, argu­ing, fix­at­ing… grow­ing and prun­ing the tree of life, a hier­ar­chy of sta­t­ic species.

With Dar­win came a rev­o­lu­tion of thought, sud­den­ly the tree was no longer a hier­ar­chy but a trac­ing of com­mon ances­try, por­tray­ing rela­tion­ships between ani­mals. The trans­for­ma­tion went deep­er than that. The the­o­ry suffered/​suffers much crit­i­cism, most­ly born out of mis­con­cep­tions. But worst of all, a sig­nif­i­cant point is often over­looked: the fun­da­men­tal con­cept of a sta­t­ic species is faulty. In fact, one wide­ly held argu­ment against evo­lu­tion was that species could not arise from oth­er species. A child can not be anoth­er species than its par­ents, the very thought. Seri­ous sci­en­tists tried to defend evo­lu­tion by rec­on­cil­ing it with dis­crete species.  Macro-muta­tions, rab­bit and hare spring­ing from a com­mon ances­tor in an improb­a­ble freak event; or the inher­i­tance of acci­den­tal traits picked up dur­ing life (a stretched-out neck or a lost tail).

But those efforts missed the point. Evo­lu­tion runs into prob­lems with our pre­con­cep­tions. Not because evo­lu­tion is wrong but because our assump­tions are false. There’s no leafy tree of ances­try, each leaf a species. There’s only a con­tin­u­um, an ever­grow­ing and divid­ing flow. Each of us a van­ish­ing point, nev­er seen before, nev­er to be repeat­ed.

The human nar­ra­tive had a clear pur­pose for dis­tinct species. It was a sim­pli­fi­ca­tion, a cop­ing mech­a­nism for an incom­pre­hen­si­ble com­plex out­side world. And yet, despite the fact that real­i­ty defies clas­si­fi­ca­tion at every turn — just try sort­ing your kitchen draw­ers or your book col­lec­tion — we embraced it, passed it on to our chil­dren and that sim­pli­fi­ca­tion became our sur­ro­gate world. And in that sur­ro­gate world, peo­ple are left out because our labels don’t stick. 

So, sep­a­rat­ed from its ori­gin, the use­ful sto­ry turns against us.  

A silent revolution of society

I see a com­mon thread in our his­to­ry of under­stand­ing that goes beyond this grow­ing recog­ni­tion of the con­tin­u­um of real­i­ty. We are wit­ness­ing the steady decline of the sta­t­ic, the “state”, and the accom­pa­ny­ing increase of the dynam­ic, the “process”. Of course, state and process are linked, but the state itself does­n’t tell you the process, and the process does­n’t always allow you to pre­dict the next state. There’s more to under­stand­ing than mere cat­a­logu­ing and observ­ing. Per­haps even more impor­tant, there’s more to con­trol than know­ing the cur­rent state and know­ing the rules.

Take our sor­ry, glob­al econ­o­my. An arti­fi­cial con­struct built on sen­si­ble rules, yet some­how it turned into an unsta­ble beast, almost active­ly resist­ing inter­fer­ence, as unpre­dictable as the weath­er. Or our pre­cious democ­ra­cy, like­wise based on sen­si­ble, ratio­nal rules, but some­how inca­pable of giv­ing us sus­tain­able lead­er­ship — but very good in pro­duc­ing peo­ple whose only tal­ent is to get elect­ed. So what is turn­ing our soci­ety into its strange cur­rent state: seem­ing­ly unsta­ble but at the same time resis­tant to change. Where does the chaos come from? Sure­ly time and scale are a fac­tor in this. But that can’t be all there is to it — that sounds too much like anoth­er human sto­ry, age­ing, the steady decline of every­thing.

Allow me anoth­er guess: feed­back, inter­ac­tion. “In old­en days” events were scru­ti­nized after they hap­pened. Wars, regime changes, tri­als, polit­i­cal deci­sions, these have always been news. The news led to reac­tions. The reac­tions lead to changes in future behav­iour.

But all in all, the report itself did­n’t real­ly affect the event. But we have closed the feed­back loops all through soci­ety. The mere report­ing of events, and the reac­tions, and the reac­tions on the reac­tions,… are so fast and all-per­va­sive that more often than not, the report­ed inci­dent is being changed. Although quan­tum ran­dom­ness does­n’t affect us, we nonethe­less man­aged to turn our real­i­ty into a quan­tum real­i­ty, the obser­va­tion chang­ing the thing observed. This kind of feed­back can lead to sta­bi­liza­tion but more often than not leads to chaot­ic behav­iour, in a math­e­mat­i­cal sense. We still know the rules, but we no longer con­trol the sys­tem.

Our soci­etal sys­tems, our pow­er struc­tures are based in the 19th cen­tu­ry clock­work uni­verse, a steady pro­gres­sion of sta­ble moments, tick, tock. The mind­set of our world, that should play along to our rules, but frus­trat­ing­ly refus­es to do so.

Not only a con­tin­u­um in form, behav­iour, space but a con­tin­u­um in time. Every­thing inter­act­ing, chang­ing, flow­ing. Full cir­cle, we end up much clos­er to our ani­mist ori­gins than to the celes­tial clock­work. Grab­bing on to sta­t­ic points, believ­ing this is ours, we tan­gle up the flows, and our sys­tems turn on us.

So with this world view in mind, what bet­ter art form to arise than gen­er­a­tive art. The danc­ing art of rules, of sys­tems, of inter­ac­tions, of com­plex­i­ty and emer­gence…