Is generative art formal or conceptual?

At ISEA 2011 one of the fathers of generative art (or algorithmic art, or system art) Roman Verostko delivered a keynote. I have not strictly considered my work in relation to generative art until recently. During questions, I asked Roman what informs the choices of what algorithms he uses. He answered that his work is considered in an historical arc of art. The history of art and culture involves shifts in “human consciousness”, different ways of thinking about the world. Every new tradition emerges from a background that is otherwise. Information science has allowed the potential of a generative art. Generative procedures are very different than the traditions that proceed it, although there are hints of it. What informs the decision to create this particular curve in “Green Cloud” is “very elementary”:

“…what you see is that character that has a set of coordinates that controls every stroke, every stroke in this piece is made on that information. Now what informs that decision? What is it for me is simply very arbitrary. In establishing each of the control points for the figure, I throw dice, and with experience I learned what parameters work. What less than and what more than. So my exposition will always end up specified when I cast the dice, and I’ll only accept an answer that’s not more than and not less than. So I continue that sequence and once I know one position then have another set of rules for the next position, but its always the dice throw within those parameters within that set of rules, so in a sense I’m making the decision based on my preferences through the kind of form generator I want. And you could say ‘why would you want that?’…Ultimately, yes you do have to have a vision, you do have to have a place your going.” (paraphrased to some degree)

In short, Verostko has an internal artistic vision that is manifest in constraints on random processes that result in generative forms. I get the impression that this vision may change through the process of production and that it may be ill defined and perhaps makes much use of the tacit knowledge he has collected over years of practise. This vision is for a particular aesthetic form. So is generative art a new visual neoformalism where only the final form is important? Verostko’s use of gold leaf and laborious pen plots appears to emphasize the final form over the process that constructed it.

I was trained as a visual artist in a highly conceptually driven way. It was in fact totally the debasement of form. I was expected to have a good artistic idea, and the form was to follow from that idea. The idea is where the art is. The form is simply a manifestation of the concept. This training has effected me deeply, and in fact has defined how I approach art (both as a artist and as a viewer). Before my artistic training I had experimented with computation and image-making with computers, so this was always in the background. As soon as I was in an institution that accepted artistic computational processes I found my place.

My interest in art was never to express myself, but to explore ideas (see Art in the Face of the Sublime). My early computational artwork was situated in Biology (specifically genetics). Rather than exploring generative algorithms I went straight to the biology and explored computational methods inspired by science (See Seed). The central location of the artwork was in the concept, which was literally manifested in code. The choices made in that process were informed by the science. Aesthetics, on the other hand, was not situated in this conceptual context. The outward appearance of the work was secondary to the process. I still think of aesthetics as a kind of formal skin to wrap the concept in. I only had (have?) a fleeting interest in this skin. After biology I explored physics, and made a work around the concept of the quantum wave function (Engineered). At the same time I explored semiotics, in particular the work of Derrida. My interest in the very notion of meaning and the relation between reality and symbols, which continues in my current work, began (see Aporia). My final B.F.A. project Oracle was about a complex computational system constructing “meaning” from the weather, like a Shaman reading the future in ‘random’ patterns of runes or bones. This was informed (to a mediocre degree) by my readings in chaos and complexity mathematics.

Once I graduated I had a massive creative block. That obsession with ideas and the need to manifest concepts from theory disappeared. The next few years I did the opposite of what I had been doing up to that point. I alleviated myself entirely of theoretical concept and performed a series of improvised visual performances where the concept and the aesthetic form was one in the same. Eventually theoretical inspiration returned. I started making a series of works that made use of computer controlled cameras that captured images of the environment used in the artwork’s process. This was a return to the question of meaning, and the relation between an artwork and the world around it. These works, “Context Machines”, are what I am working on to this day. These works are not only situated in notions of meaning (causal relations between the world and symbols in the system), but also cognitive and neurological notions of creativity, and in current work, dreaming.

Now is the time to return to the initial question: What is the relationship between concepts and aesthetics in generative art? Let us accept the segregation for a moment and see these as two poles of a continuum. On one end we have the tacit constraint of randomness for the purpose of generating aesthetic forms, and on the other end the manifestation of a conceptual process that is situated in broad systems of knowledge (in my case science, math and philosophy). I believe that the whole continuum is “generative art” as in all cases the emphasis is on a computational process that manifests an idea, conceptual or formal. It seems the majority of generative artworks fall on the side of using computational methods for formal and aesthetic purposes. This is manifest in the increasing use of images produced using generative means in the public sphere, thanks to artists like Casey Reas. Does the emphasis on the output of generative processes marginalize the process that manifests the image? Is the artwork in the process or in the output? For me, it’s certainty the process that is most significant. The output is a visualization, or even demonstration, of the artwork’s process. Part of the reason I situate my work in scientific knowledge is that, brain sciences in particular, reflect our own notions of ourselves. My hope is that these artworks then reflect ourselves back at us to encourage criticism, discussion and inspire new ideas.

Marius Watz posted this response to the original post on Google+.