Re:Interview #007:
Technological Mimesis | Marius Watz

Kugelstudie (2006), by Marius Watz

Colourful explosions of organic forms, visual structures that can only be percieved when the spectator allows herself to enter the flow of contemplative effects one has got viewing the artworks: generative practices have first been developed at the intersection of scientific and artistic settings to research visual patterns and form. Nowadays generative systems are used by artists, as well as in Design, Architecture and the culture of everyday life. Marius Watz, an artist concerned with generative systems for creating visual form, still, animated, or realtime, argues in the following interview: “One of the privileges of Generative Art is that the author can easily be surprised by her own creation.” Watz discovered the computer at age eleven and immediately found his direction in life. At age 20 he defected from Computer Science studies to do graphics for raves, using his programming to create organic shapes in 2D and 3D. In 2005 Watz started Generator.x, a platform for Generative Art and Design which so far has resulted in a conference, a blog, a travelling exhibition and concert tour. Watz currently lives in Oslo and New York. His tools of choice are Java, Processing, VVVV and Flash. He continues to edit the Generator.x blog and prepare future Generator.x events, as well as teach workshops in Computational Design and Generative Art.

What is an algorithm for you—the narrowest way you can think about it?

Narrowly defined, an algorithm is a recipe—a series of clearly defined steps through which a result is reached.

Apart from a technological point of view, how far does Generative Art today differ from generative practices that scientists and technologists started to develop in the early 1950s? (1) Do you see any conceptual progress and where is it located?

There is a definitive link between the two movements, but the cultural background and conceptual frameworks are quite different. The essential aspect of formal exploration through rule-based systems is constant, but the current generation is informed by a lot of influences that weren’t around in the 1950s-1960s, such as electronic music, cyberculture, the demo scene, the open-source movement etc.

I believe that the scientific principle of complexity is a crucial influence on the current scene, providing a departure from a reductionist understanding of the world. Complexity also provides a model for parametric systems, where minimal changes to the parameters can produce wildly different results. Another major influence is the digitization of media and the mediation of experience as flows of digital information, such as the Internet, mobile communications etc. This leads to an understanding of the world as divided into the physical and the virtual, both parts equally real but the latter accessible and moldable through the manipulation of software.

One of the paragraphs from the text Fragments on Generative Art you compiled for the magazine VagueTerrain is entitled Oh no, the Author Died Again. You are writing about critics and enthusiasts of Generative Art who have both claimed that within this broad field the artist disappears from the work. Can you explain why you don’t agree?

In defining a generative system, the artist sets up its basic processes as well as the boundaries for whatever parameters it uses. This means that there is a direct causal link between author and output, even if the output is created autonomously by a machine through the use of random numbers. One of the privileges of Generative Art is that the author can easily be surprised by her own creation, but that doesn’t mean that the output wasn’t brought into being through her agency.

Most current Generative Art doesn’t address the notion of authorship. That ground has already been covered in the work of artists such as Sol LeWitt, whose wall drawings were created as textual descriptions of how to execute the image, separating the artist from the creation of the artwork. A more interesting aspect is the understanding of form as a function of process, where each image is merely a single instance of an infinite series of possible outcomes.

With regard to the first use of computers for the artistic production of images, Frieder Nake, one of the pioneers of Computer Art, writes the following about the changing role of the artist: “The traditional artist deals with the one drawing. The programmer describes the schema of all of the drawings.” (2) Are you looking for some kind of transcendental or metaphysical nucleus?

Some artists may be drawn to generative systems by their metaphysical aspects, such as Brion Gysin’s Dream Machine. But that is not my personal interest. A ‘god’ model of Generative Art is tempting, but like the idea of an authorless image I think it’s a fallacy. Nake is correct in his distinction, but an algorithm still only describes a single family of possible drawings, not a Platonic idea of drawing as such. The artist might use such algorithms to investigate essential principles of drawing, but I’m not sure that the results are necessarily transcendental. On the other hand, I think that generative artists are attempting a form of technological mimesis. But instead of trying to draw a naturalistic image of the world they are focusing on details that normally go unseen, such as physical processes and kinetic models of behavior that underlie everything in nature. There is something transcendental about this approach, as it tries to look at the invisible structures behind what we perceive in the world.

Another statement of you says, that Generative Art is concerned with complex systems and that this vision of complexity transports its viewers, hinting at the sublime between the ones and zeros. What do you mean by addressing ‘the sublime’?

In art, the sublime refers to an experience that is beyond human ability to measure or describe, such as the presence of God or the beauty of nature. The task of addressing these experiences has traditionally fallen to artists, who provide aesthetic solutions. Art also has the potential to be sublime itself, the “Stendhal syndrome” (3) being the extreme case where ‘great’ art causes a physiological response in the viewer due to its short-circuiting of her ability to formulate an intellectual response.

In Generative Art the idea of the sublime can be found in the inherently infinite nature of parametric systems. It also applies to the non-verbal quality of the interaction between viewer and work, that critical moment of perception when a system goes from being simply a set of numbers to becoming a structure perceived by the viewer. This process takes place on a sensory level and is beyond verbal description. The op artists saw the image as a kinetic event taking place in the eye without being processed by the brain. Generative Art typically enlists the brain as a pattern-recognition device, relying on its ability to detect complex structure and behavior in the immediate image as well as in its development over time.

Some practitioners of Generative Art argue that it is not the output that is considered to be art but rather the input, the concept, the algorithmic code per se. Where do you see the artistic value of environments such as Ben Fry’s and Casey Reas’ Processing or Chris Coyne’s Context Free Art: in the simple fact that those environments have been developed or in their use?

Processing and Context Free were not created with the intention of being artworks, they are programming tools aimed at artists and designers. A better example of software as art object would be Auto-Illustrator by Ade Ward, which is simultaneously a drawing tool and an artwork in itself. The Software Art movement looks at software as a cultural and political object, critiquing code and interfaces and their role in our world. Generative Art uses software as a material from which work is constructed, but rarely critiques the nature of software as such.

A common question is why artists don’t exhibit their code along with the work, based on the assumption that seeing the code is essential to understanding the work. This is not true in most cases. A few audience members might be able to read the code, but for everybody else it would remain a techno-fetishistic object, essentially obscuring the work itself. I’m more interested in the problematic relationship between the ‘live’ software, which is capable of outputting an infinite progression of possible results, and the need of the artist to pin down the output as a definitive original work. This is a dilemma in the logic of the art world, where value is typically constructed through scarcity.

Do you think that generative practices should necessarily be placed within the system of art? Or could they be described more generally as a cultural phenomenon, regarding strategies like the visualization of information, design, games etc.?

Whether a generative work should be understood as art or not obviously depends on the intention of its creator. The explosion of activity around generative systems is only to a certain extent due to their use in artistic practices, it stems just as much from technical experimentation or applications in architecture and design. Also, many Media Art projects may have generative aspects even if the intention of the work is not to be understood as part of the generative canon.

I would restrict the term Generative Art to describe works that deal explicitly with the creation of aesthetic output through semi-autonomous system. In many ways, the current use of the phrase to describe any aesthetic system based on computation is too broad and does not examine what the core interest of the artist is.

An interesting special case is the practice of information visualization, which has been highly popular with audiences and theorists alike. On the surface, visualizations are intended as designed objects with a utilitarian value, but in reality most viewers perceive them primarily as aesthetic objects. As a result, Ben Fry’s visualization work has been shown at the Whitney Biennial, despite his constant refusal to describe his work as art. It seems that information visualization in this way is re-contextualized almost as a form of ‘outsider art’.

The aesthetics of your own work is mostly organic, sometimes mechanical. Is this fact based on your personal vision of a synthetic utopia of a ‘better world’ and is there a political demand in what you are doing?

My work is abstract in nature, and as such does not explicitly address anything outside itself. But my reference points when I started working as an artist were cyberculture and the excesses of early electronic music, with its deeply individualistic focus on physical experience mediated through technology. These influences can still be found in my work, hinting at techno-optimism and a belief in progressive hedonism. But I would stop short of articulating a truly utopian vision; the world is a much darker place today than it was in 1993.

On a personal level I am trying to communicate a sense of form as process, shaped by rules that are simultaneously organic and mechanical. I would like the viewer to experience the spaces I construct on a physical rather than intellectual level, so that there is always a duality between the classic perception of a two-dimensional image and the promise of a ‘real’ space. My current work with digital fabrication, 3D printing etc. is an attempt to break through the screen and present my structures in physical formats, with tactile and architectural qualities.

What is an algorithm for you—the broadest way you can think about it?

In the broadest sense, an algorithm can be a description of any kind of process, whether natural or artificial, scientifically rigid or possessing the ‘fuzzy logic’ of everyday human decision-making. In this sense Fluxus instruction works like La Monte Young’s Draw a line and follow it or William S. Burroughs’ cut-up techniques qualify as algorithms, despite having no technological component.

My first experience of wanting to articulate a complex algorithm came when I stood as a child under a street light in heavy snowfall. Looking up at the constantly shifting spirals formed by the snow falling, I had the sense that it must be possible to describe the forces causing those chaotic yet recognizable forms. That sensation of being just on the verge of understanding is always there when I try to create new work.

Thank you very much for the interview!

(1) See Christoph Klütsch, Computer Grafik. Ästhetische Experimente zwischen zwei Kulturen. Die Anfänge der Computerkunst in den 1960er Jahren, Springer, Vienna/NewYork, 2007.
(2) See Wulf Herzogenrath and Barbara Nierhoff-Wielk (eds.), Ex Machina. Frühe Computergrafik bis 1979. Die Sammlung Franke und weitere Stiftungen in der Kunsthalle Bremen, Deutscher Kunstverlag, Berlin, 2007.
(3) From Wikipedia: Stendhal syndrome or Stendhal’s syndrome is a psychosomatic illness that causes rapid heartbeat, dizziness, confusion and even hallucinations when an individual is exposed to art, usually when the art is particularly ‘beautiful’ or a large amount of art is in a single place. The term can also be used to describe a similar reaction to a surfeit of choice in other circumstances, e.g. when confronted with immense beauty in the natural world,