This week at Agora, we’re diving into Generative Art. If you’re into computer coding, digital art, a fan of both, or just looking for a new digital art style to feast your eyes on, this is the style for you.

Madi Apthorpe |  Ed Cristina Brooks  | 12 February 2021

Vera Molnar, Dialog Between Emotion and Method (1986), Source @ Courtesy of the artist 

This week at Agora, we’re diving into Generative Art. If you’re into computer coding, digital art, a fan of both, or just looking for a new digital art style to feast your eyes on, this is the style for you.

For most of us around the world, Covid-19 has meant swapping physical for digital communication. Getting the hang of apps like Zoom, Teams or Remo was new, weird and not always easy, but it has become the norm for many of us. Many aspects of our lives are now digitalised, from chats with friends to viewing art exhibitions, all from the comfort of our sofas – technology has become intertwined in our lives. 

For some, the collaboration with technology isn’t all that new. Generative artists have been working in the liminal space between the digital and the real for decades. So what is Generative Art, you ask? Put very simply, Generative Art is a form of digital art that’s generated randomly, whether that’s by using autonomous machines or algorithms.

Generative Art is a New Media art style that can also be referred to as Coding Art, Interactive Art or Generative Design. However, Generative Art isn’t limited to just digital code, the process can be influenced by biological systems, a chemical reaction or even an event like the Iraq War.

CernerEng , What is Generative Art?, Youtube ©Courtesy of the Youtuber

With roots in science and engineering, it may be confusing as to how generative systems made their way into the art world. Exploring and experimenting with computers and mechanical devices began in university science research laboratories, as the most advanced and powerful technologies often lay. Michael Doll, a professor at the University of Southern California, was the first person to programme a computer for artistic purposes. His work inspired many other engineers such as Philip Galanter, who may have been the first person to expose the multifaceted ways Generative Art has the capacity to benefit both scientists to artists: it can grant those without much creativity a set of new skills; it empowers amateur artists to experiment with their work and its accessibility lowers the barriers of entry to work in scientific and artistic fields. 

The beauty of Generative Art is that the possibilities for creation are limitless. A process is created by the user or artist, they set that process in motion, the element of chance does its thing and voilà! You have yourself a unique piece of digital art. Don’t like it? Set the process in motion again to create a new piece of New Media art in seconds. 

It’s no wonder digital art fans, artists and tech whizzes alike are all fans of generative systems to get their creative juices flowing. Generative Art has found its way into the hearts of many because it allows you to explore and experiment with countless numbers of ideas in milliseconds. 

Generative Art became more mainstream in the 1960s when abstract painter Harold Cohen became interested in work by computer scientists at the University of San Diego. Programmers create a system on punched cards, feed those cards into a machine which would then return results via a set of newly punched cards, or prints. He applied this new technology to computer-controlled drawing machines, or as he called them “turtles”. Cohen programmed the “turtles” to follow a set of processes which would lead to a piece of art being formed on canvas.

Harold Cohen, Drawings (1983),  Aaron and turtle machine using black ink on canvas, Source @ The Tate

Cohen wanted to explore “the minimum conditions under which a set of marks functions as an image”. In other words, he wanted to show that a machine can act with artistic intentions and produce a piece of work that would challenge the ideas society has on the relationship between technology and art. 

In the early 70s, Cohen developed a system that processes would mimic a painter taking a step back and contemplating their work. The result of this was Aaron, a programme written by Cohen with an identity and name of its own. The system Aaron ran on was input into a more modern and sophisticated “turtle” machine and began drawing, following the set of rules Cohen had formed. The moments Aaron took to pause was not to “think” but to go over the actions it had taken to know what to do next and areas of the canvas or paper that were still blank.

Harold Cohen, Untitled (1983), Aaron and turtle machine @ Courtesy of the artist

Cohen, who passed away in 2016, was both a practising artist and an engineer and has left a legacy, as Aaron still runs to this day. In an interview with Chris Garcia, a curator at the Computer History Museum in Cambridge, England, Cohen believed that his work helped bridge the gap between the art world and the technology sector. 

His work was undoubtedly pivotal in the world of computer-generated art, but it does bode the question: who, or what is really in control of the finished product?

Take a look at some of Cohen’s work in his later years here.

It was not just Cohen at the forefront of generative Digital Art. However, at around the same time, a Hungarian-born artist called Vera Molnar began experimenting with image creation using what she called “machine imaginaire”. In her work she created algorithms and a set of rules with which to paint a series of geometric images, giving her the opportunity to investigate endless shapes and lines. What makes her work even more impressive is that she did all of this before the first computer was even invented.

It’s clear then that the art of manipulating digital processes to create something new and idiosyncratic has been popular with artists all over the world for years, but in recent years it has become increasingly popular with coders. 

New Mexico-born, Digital Media artist and coder Helen Alexandra applies computer coding in her digital art practice then selects the moments in the process that she finds most interesting. “I’ll write code that creates real-time generative animations, essentially, moving agents that make colourful digital marks,” Alexandra tells digital news site, Vice

Alexandra has spoken of her aim in her work to evoke “a pause” within her audiences, using a generative system to create patterned images that mimic Buddhist and Hindu mandalas.

Helen Alexandra, Alternators Pagota (2016), Custom generative software, digital painting and 3D model on paper, @ Courtesy of the artist

As mentioned above, it’s up for debate whether the human or the system is in control when it comes to Generative Art. It receives criticism by some in the art world, with people going so far as to argue that the computer is the real artist, and should therefore receive all of the credit. Some of the human artists behind the creations have responded that this isn’t true, as it is they who control the location, the intensity, the code itself and the end result of the work. Perhaps Alexandra’s work will help sceptics appreciate Generative Art for what it brings to the digital art world, instead of seeking ways to undermine it.

“Ninety-five per cent of what professional artists and scientists do is exploratory. Perhaps the other 5% is truly transformational creativity,” said computer scientist Margaret Boden in her 2009 article for the Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence. Generative systems lead to new and experimental work by pioneers in the digital art world.

Generative Art’s growing popularity among those in the art and coding worlds, plus its versatility, shows us that it isn’t going anywhere. Have a look at the works of Katharina Brunner, Anders Hoff and other emerging artists to get a feel for this diversity. And if you want some help to get you started in transforming your art skills through technology, take a look at these online communities and systems.

Engage with our Digital Network on Discord.

Thanks to your generous support, Agora builds your permanent virtual exhibition.