The Brooklyn Rail

JUL-AUG 2022

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JUL-AUG 2022 Issue
Art and Technology

Beyond the Janus-Faced Typologies of Art and Technology

Vera Molnar, <em>8 Colonnes</em>, 1985. Computer-generated graphic ink on plotter paper. 9 x 12 5/8 inches.
Vera Molnar, 8 Colonnes, 1985. Computer-generated graphic ink on plotter paper. 9 x 12 5/8 inches.

This column aims to focus on art that engages technology as a medium or a topic. We live in a digital culture and I have found that I better understand the technologies I use, as well as what to reject, in no small part through the thoughtful efforts of artists. I’ve grasped the subtleties of coding and computational design by hearing about how artists struggle with it. I’ve reconsidered the history of art because it suddenly seems so strange that the last five hundred years of creative practice could be presented as if these artists were not responding to, discussing, and adopting technologies ranging from perspective, gross anatomy, printing, navigational charts, biological categories, camera obscuras, trains, electrification, photography, moving image, and here we start to get into the more recent technologies that are so easily disdained: television, computers, the internet, social media…

Though it certainly helps to bring a formal and technical understanding to the medium of a final product, it also risks a kind of medium- and techno-fetishism that obviates a more critical analysis of the culture that these artists are helping to reveal. Not just what and how, but why and for whom, to what end and when, are all important questions to contextualize an artist’s work. Amid the myriad crises of our times and the existential angst of the exponentially growing click-rate compulsion of our lives, we need art to help us see where we are.

A great deal of attention has been granted digital art over the last year because of NFTs. What’s been lost amidst the focus on market conversations are discussions of the media art practices that these artists are cultivating. Call them new media, digital, or computer artists, the point of what most of them do is based in a creative inquiry about the world in which we live.

In our post-medium moment, I am disinclined to focus exclusively on art of one type because speaking with artists so often reveals the myriad approaches they bring to what they produce. The current Tate Britain show about Walter Sickert makes explicit how frequently he used press photographs as designs for his paintings; the show includes the camera obscura that allowed him to reproduce those printed images. Now, artists who paint cull images online and compose works using computer softwares. Artists producing highly ephemeral works, like AR, draw and sculpt to develop sensuality in their work. A hybrid relation between hand and machine is evident.

We need more ties, not greater divides—digital or otherwise. We are nodes in an expanded field of creative effort resisting the decimating force of nostalgia and hyper individualism wrought by a post-neoliberal, transnational capitalism. Paint with Gamblin oils or Tilt Brush, sculpt with Carrara marble or Three.js, the medium is not the fight at hand.

Given how often art made with computers is still dismissed as unfeeling, automatic, random, inhuman, I start by examining generative art to suggest its surge of popularity speaks to some important aspects of our contemporary.

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Installation view: Tezos Booth, Art Basel, 2022. Left: Ryan Bell, <em>Organized Chaos #195</em>, minted on February 19, 2022. Right: Aleksandra Jovanić, <em>Grids, Stripes and Blobs I</em>, minted on Aug 17, 2021.
Installation view: Tezos Booth, Art Basel, 2022. Left: Ryan Bell, Organized Chaos #195, minted on February 19, 2022. Right: Aleksandra Jovanić, Grids, Stripes and Blobs I, minted on Aug 17, 2021.

Generative art is everywhere these days. Phillips presents Ex Machina, an auction of significant generative artists from July 13-20 (on display in London, July 11-August 5) curated by Georg Bak, who has guided and advised institutions from Hauser and Wirth to LGT Bank in Zurich on the aesthetic values of generative art. Art Basel had a major display of generative art at the Tezos booth, a blockchain popular among many artists. The presentation focused on four emergent artists alongside a major new work by Herbert Franke, whose retrospective, “Visionary” at the Francisco Carolinum, Linz, Austria was extended to July 3, 2022 due to critical and popular attention. Vera Molnár: Variations at the Beall Center (open through August 27, 2022) presents an astute display of her computational drawings to highlight this important but previously neglected artist.

These historic figures are getting deserved recognition for their works of the last sixty years. When Herbert Franke joined Twitter, fifteen thousand people responded to his initial greeting, stunning the 94-year old artist about the widespread interest in his work. Younger artists who have admired the previous generation of artists—Franke, Molnár, Manfred Mohr, Harold Cohen, Georg Nees and others, like A. Michael Noll or Béla Julesz—are now better contextualized and gaining success for their own generative works. The most popular works in the NFT space represent a generative art practice. Some blockchain galleries and platforms focus exclusively on generative art, like Art Blocks and fx (hash).

So why generative art? And, why now? Oh, and what is it?

Generative art operates within a rule structure but has an element of chance that is crucial to what many artists enjoy about it. The final work is partly produced by an autonomous system, which may be strictly regulated by the rules or operate within parameters. It is largely associated with coding and interactive art, but is sometimes compared to baking as when a cake made from a recipe but still has the variables of cook, altitude, temperature and humidity discrepancy, etc. There is a surprising lightheartedness in the endeavor of much generative art. The Algorists was a term devised by Roman Verostko, Jean Pierre Hebert, and Ken Musgrave to describe many of the artists previously mentioned—as well as Hiroshi Kawano, Frieder Nake, and Georg Nees—who had been working with algorithms since the 1960s. Their sense of humor can be seen in this algorithmic self-definition written by Hebert:

if (creation && object of art && algorithm && one's own algorithm) {
include * an algorist *
} elseif (!creation || !object of art || !algorithm || !one's own algorithm) {
exclude * not an algorist *
}

These artists experimented with the machine’s potential, using plotter pens before screens and printers could materialize the work. Their focus on the algorithm also introduces an importantly non-western history into contemporary narratives articulated by the scholar Matteo Pasquinelli: “the medieval term algorismus is a Latinisation of the name of the Persian scholar Muhammad ibn Musa al-Khwarizmi, a librarian from the House of Wisdom in Baghdad and author of a book on calculating with Indian numerals, written in about 825.” By the 13th century, a European book of verse existed to help people memorize the new calculating practices. Pasquinelli further notes how that transition “was tied to commercial transactions, the second is linked to industrial capitalism and its drive towards the automation of manual and intellectual labor.” The algorithm has reinforced the calculating efficiencies of transnational markets and produced new products. Here, we see global capital’s influence on culture.

And yet, to reject powerful economic players is naive. We are embedded. We are complicit when we don’t think about how to address these power structures. Being culpable, instead, means recognizing responsibility for our participation in exploitative capital and working to mitigate that through daily efforts, no matter how small. Anarchist aspirations of extraction from technological systems seem unlikely to me. But, by examining their products and practices, we can become more critical of them. In the 19th century, the great electro-magnetism scientist, Michael Faraday, rejected utility as a part of scientific research and answered questions at the Royal Institution about the use of his experiments by quoting Benjamin Franklin, “What is the use of an infant?” Utility became the by-word of technology in no small part because of the showman, Thomas Edison, but that focus on advantage and profitability limits what we can imagine. Histories like these can explain popular rhetoric and inform arguments that need to happen today at social and political levels. Understanding the underlying systems that produce the infrastructure of our lives allows us to reject the easy claims to utility, user based design, and expediency that enable corporate groups to sideline their social impact. These are urgent conversations.

The artist Auriea Harvey has expressed concerns that we learn the lessons of twenty years ago, when early web artists like herself witnessed the rise of corporatization. As she replied when I asked her, a greater understanding of generative art offers a chance to appreciate “the computers’ actual computational power—using the machine for its innate abilities in collaboration with an artist’s imagination…and using computers for something other than social media.” Imagine that.

The commitment to code of many generative artists is what leads them to fight for open source protocols and programs. They resist this information commons' enclosure with parallels drawn to the early modern period's land enclosures associated with the emergence of capitalism, as seen in Pasquinelli’s comment above and in the work of scholars like Sylvia Federici. The computational artist Casey Reas and designer Ben Fry created the open-source and exceedingly accessible software Processing, which just celebrated its 20-year anniversary, as a way to encourage artists to plunge into the medium of our day. The increase in no-code tools allows more people to be creative, but it also forecloses an understanding of what we are using and how those systems are using us.

The Algorists explored assorted machinic devices as they became available. Yet, they were no mere tinkerers. They revealed the potential for human and machine collaboration in creating art. They broke down the two cultures decried by C. P. Snow, but audiences were not quite receptive to these works. Some, like Grant D. Taylor in When the Machine Made Art (2014), argue it had to do with their lack of art context messaging, pointing to the acclaim received by Sol Lewitt for producing very similar work to Manfred Mohr. This speaks to the highly conceptual underpinnings of the best generative art.

Sometimes it is about exploring the code, as when artists like Alexander Reben, Kjetil Gold, or Manolo Gamboa Naon (“Manoloide”) focus on a rule structure like the game of life but often the work visualizes complex current issues. John Gerrard’s recent work Petro National (2022) is a generative art work that shows the per capita gasoline use by the 193 United Nations recognized nation states, plus Taiwan, and the two states of Palestine and the Holy See for a total of 196 works. Looking at the works without some background and knowledge would not reveal this. Art does not replace politics, but it can help us become more attentive to them.

Left: John Gerrard, <em>Petro National #33: Cuba</em>, minted on 21 June 2022. Art Blocks × Pace. Courtesy Erick Calderon.<br> Right: John Gerrard, <em>Petro National #66: São Tomé and Príncipe</em>, minted on 21 June 2022. Art Blocks × Pace. Courtesy Erick Calderon.
Left: John Gerrard, Petro National #33: Cuba, minted on 21 June 2022. Art Blocks × Pace. Courtesy Erick Calderon.
Right: John Gerrard, Petro National #66: São Tomé and Príncipe, minted on 21 June 2022. Art Blocks × Pace. Courtesy Erick Calderon.

The poet Sasha Stiles’s recent publication Technelogy is very much about trying to realize a clearer, albeit more complex, relationship with the machines of our lives; when asked about why she was interested in generative art, she explained that she’s intrigued by “how autonomous imagination can lead us to places we’ve been programmed by other humans to avoid.” Sometimes, our own imaginations and ideas limit and we need ways around those self-produced borders. New voices of all kinds can help.

The machine. It raises anxieties, like anything whose operations we don’t quite understand. Generative art requires that the artist adopt an autonomous system, a procedure or machine, that defines in significant ways the production of the art, and which often generates serial works. Many see this denial of authorship as leading to the impersonal, but that reiterates a problem earlier addressed in photography. Only thirty years ago, some still claimed that photographers had no style as they simply captured what was there.

Photographs were valued largely for representation, such that scholars like Roger Scruton deemed them merely mechanical productions, dismissing the medium as without artistry. Nigel Warburton rebuts such arguments in his 1996 essay “Individual Style in Photographic Art” in The British Journal of Aesthetics, to suggest that the style of a photographer becomes apparent by observing sets of images or several works in a series; only through context do choices, and therefore the underlying artistic personality, become evident. His argument shifted the conversation around photography.

Left: Dmitri Cherniak, <em>Ringers #61,</em> minted on 31 January 2021. PNG, 2400 x 2400 pixels.<br>Right: Dmitri Cherniak, <em>Ringers #191</em>, minted on 31 January 2021. PNG, 2400 x 2400 pixels.
Left: Dmitri Cherniak, Ringers #61, minted on 31 January 2021. PNG, 2400 x 2400 pixels.
Right: Dmitri Cherniak, Ringers #191, minted on 31 January 2021. PNG, 2400 x 2400 pixels.

Most audiences experience generative art as examples of singular work, thereby lacking the opportunity to discern the subtle distinctions an artist posits in their coding practice or selection of outputs. Appreciation often requires multiples from the series to perceive the subtleties and complexities of the design choices. The act of comparison and contrast reveals the startling effect of the random element, as I expressed here in 2019 about the work of Manfred Mohr shown at bitforms. The longstanding crypto art collector and curator, Jason Bailey included two works from each artist’s series for his exhibition “Field Guide” shown at Feral File, co-founded by Casey Reas, because “the use of small multiples was an attempt at increasing the sample size to gain context.”

Similar to the photographer in the darkroom, there is a kind of magic with generative art as the artist watches the image appear. That uncertainty is part of the excitement artists in any medium express as the drive and anxiety of their work. The use of blockchain for generative art allows the person collecting the work to participate in the creation; these works typically include a hash that is based on the moment of minting. It activates the attendees and can make the collector feel like a part of the work. Though some dismiss this as mere narcissism, it is no different than a collector of a work feeling compelled to own something in the belief they understand something about it that others simply won’t. Collectors connect with artists over this sensibility, this affective relationship produced through the work. Generative art has even created collector groups like FingerprintsDAO whose collection is available to view online and represents an impressive array of the leading lights in today’s practice.

As if invoking the inflections of nature in some generative art, the artist Anna Ridler compared the practice of making this work to gardening, “there is the same type of planning and shaping something that you are never fully in control of despite all of your best efforts, having to respond to what actually happens — a day to day practice of going to and tending to it, a slowness with moments of beauty. When gardening you have to think in four dimensions, how something will look across the seasons, and I think this also carries across to how I think about generative art making: not just what a single print will look like but how will this work across time.” Still images limit the delicacy and features of time-based work; they ought to be shown as clips online, which is now possible and introduces the work within a context similar to its native environment. How we see work influences how we understand it, which is why the arrival of galleries and magazines committed to serious discussions about generative art’s proliferation amidst the conversations about blockchain widen the discourse of Mainstream Contemporary Art.

Left: Sofia Crespo, <em>hedgerow still life</em>, Image (color), 5718 × 8192 pixels, Edition of 100, 1AP. <br>Right: Sofia Crespo, <em>neural swarm</em>, Image (color), 8192 × 8192 pixels, Edition of 100, 1AP.
Left: Sofia Crespo, hedgerow still life, Image (color), 5718 × 8192 pixels, Edition of 100, 1AP.
Right: Sofia Crespo, neural swarm, Image (color), 8192 × 8192 pixels, Edition of 100, 1AP.

Some call this surge of interest since the 1960s a renaissance, as if there had been some extended loss of engagement. If one considers the time span from the fall of the Roman Empire (476 CE according to Edward Gibbon) to Donatello (1386-1466), and then the period from Donatello to Michelangelo (1475-1564), generative art might more aptly be considered an emergent practice. I digress because I find it fatuous the way the study of contemporary art so frequently wishes to abandon its own extended historical moment and cut itself up into arbitrary decades of significance. It seems entirely reasonable to me to suggest that contemporary art launches with the debate between the surrealists and the socialists about how artists should bridge the needs of the creative self and the socius communis so well articulated in André Breton and Leon Trotsky’s Manifesto for an Independent Revolutionary Art. That was in 1938. The role of autonomy was already under question. Could the artist earnestly claim creative impulse outside the cultivating context of the community? Weren’t those conversations and social services crucial to the ability to make art? Was the artist ever truly making art in isolation? Though those debates compelled examination of the human environment, they also set the foundation for post-structuralist critiques and help us ask why using the machine should still cause such distress about the autonomy of the artist.

Dmitri Cherniak, <em>Ringers #77</em>, minted on 31 January 2021. PNG, 2400 x 2400 pixels.
Dmitri Cherniak, Ringers #77, minted on 31 January 2021. PNG, 2400 x 2400 pixels.

Dare I suggest that use of the machine more explicitly makes evident the social and technological ties that bind an artist to the larger economic, political and public cultures of which they are a part?

I could hardly claim that every artist using a machine is aware of this, but in looking at some digital works, I find myself thinking about the artist in the studio with computers made from parts derived of earth minerals and devised by a global labor force, using electricity whose cables snake under our one ocean to wrap us into a connective net, drinking water that is more or less clean than others in this mesh…That thought brought me to think about the source of the canvas, earth pigments, solvents, rags of painters I know. When I visited the oil painter Lucy MacGillis in Umbria, Italy, she was able to tell me where much in her studio came from. But, not all. That gap is the reality of most of our lives.

Listen, I am not saying that looking at generative art will change the order of things, although in Foucault’s sense I am saying that it may make the order of things more apparent. Generative art is not just a bunch of random computer lines that don’t mean anything. Software is a crucial epistemology of our time and to address the potential and problems of our era probably demands that we address the ways of thinking that it presents. Examining this art allows a complex foray into the contemporary. As we glean the workings of code, we may discover new forms and debate the basis for cultural desires. The Albright-Knox Art Gallery curator Tina Rivers Ryan explains, “artists who truly master software as a medium are able to generate works that are aesthetically and conceptually and technically beautiful.” As a leading eye in the art world’s engagement with technology, Ryan reinforces the triad that has always been the basis for judging art.

Herbert Franke's <em>Mondrian</em>(1979/2010/2022), mp4, in installation view: Tezos Booth, Art Basel, 2022.
Herbert Franke's Mondrian(1979/2010/2022), mp4, in installation view: Tezos Booth, Art Basel, 2022.

If Art Basel is the crème de la crème of the art world, generative art’s prominent display by one of the popular blockchains for artists suggests that generative art has arrived. Headlining the Tezos booth was a 21:21 minute sequence of Franke’s Mondrian. The original work by Franke was a software designed in 1979 for the Texas Instruments TI 99/4 home computer that was then updated for Windows XP in 2006 and is now minted on Tezos (though not yet available for sale by the artist). The archival history of the work asks us to think through the developments of technology and artists’ use of iteration to explore those changes.

The work on display in the booth covered an entire wall and honored the strong lines and color blocks of the Constructivist master. The lineage of influence introduces art historical ties, and more besides. The neurobiologist Semir Zeki wrote for Tate Modern regarding Mondrian’s Composition with Red, Yellow, and Blue (1937-42):

Mondrian aimed to discover the ‘fundamental laws hidden in reality.’ He believed that horizontal and vertical lines are universal forms which ‘exist everywhere and dominate everything’ and that all complex forms could be reduced to a ‘plurality of straight lines in rectangular oppositions’….He had also unknowingly managed to represent a physiological reality about the brain. Many years after his death, it was discovered that the cells of the visual brain which are considered critical for the perception of form are responsive to straight lines of specific orientations. Moreover, the field of view to which they respond is rectangular in shape….This kind of evidence suggests that artists are, in a sense, neurologists who explore the organization of the visual brain, though with their own unique techniques.

I challenge myself to look at art and conceive of what organization the artist is presenting to me. Alongside the Franke work in the Tezos booth, artists Aleksandra Jovanić, Eko33, Ryan Bell, and Sam Tsao were also present. Jovanić’s work was partly inspired by Franke but equally by Alexander Calder. As much as artists working with emergent technologies cull from cultures beyond the art historical canon, they are also afflicted by an age-old anxiety of influence. This is compounded by a prevailing dilemma for artists of whether to engage with technology — and run the risk of fetishizing it — or to reproduce tired critiques of it (risking the same). As Alex Estorick of Right Click Save observes of generative art: “It seems to operate through two channels—both image and code—simultaneously, which given the current collision of art and technology makes sense. One only needs to consider a project by Zancan to witness the supremacy of the code over its own visual display. Generative art is an art form made for this moment of human-machine interdependence. But it is also an art of visual seduction, one bizarrely suggestive of modernist revenge. It therefore suffers from the very same technostalgia that defines crypto art in general.” The medium isn’t the only message.

Gottfried Jäger, <em>Lochblendenstruktur 3.8.14 D 3.1</em>, 1967 (3/3) (vintage) gelatin silver print, 20 1/8 x 19 1/2 inches.
Gottfried Jäger, Lochblendenstruktur 3.8.14 D 3.1, 1967 (3/3) (vintage) gelatin silver print, 20 1/8 x 19 1/2 inches.

The limitations of computer graphics in the 1960s remains why generative art is often associated with abstraction. Franke may have been thinking of art historical influences like Constructivism and Mohr may have been exploring the beauty of mathematics, but the variety in generative art today challenges any attempts to declare its style. In the Phillips auction, for example, works by Franke, Molnar, Frieder Nake, Gottfried Jäger and Vladimir Bonacic are positioned with the next generation of artists like Dmitri Cherniak, Snowfro, Harm van den Dorpel, and Rhea Myers, whose works, and artist trainings, differ significantly. Words beyond the medium or practice become necessary to describe qualities of the work, eg. abstract, abject, ardent, or absolutely awful. This is as it has always been in observing art.

Generative art spans the terse line of programmatic art through to the ebullience of NFT-based PFP (ie. profile pic) projects. The portrait characteristics inherent to most PFP projects are often but not always based in a generative practice. These avatars are just one of the many faces of generative art.

Artists working with generative art may have ties to the sixty year history of computer art or not. They may be recognized digital artists or new players with other careers. They may be artists who rarely relinquish control or emphasize it. They may use Javascript, GANs, or any number of other softwares. They may program it themselves or hand it over to coders and design teams. The works they make may be still, morphing, looping, multigenerational, singular, or come in series. Someone might make a generative art work but not be described as a generative artist because that approach is an outlier in their practice. If generative art means work that has been produced partly through the work of an autonomous system, then variety is to be expected. It’s a practice that may have been associated with a lean, abstract aesthetic but NFTs’ ability to mobilize an interest in coded art has made it obvious that the term designates a foundation, not the façade. Generative art doesn’t have a single face and represents a diversity we need for these times. 

Contributor

Charlotte Kent

Charlotte Kent is an assistant professor of visual culture and an arts writer.

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