Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 2830: GENERATIVE ART

by: Andrew Boyd

Today, new territory. The University of Houston’s College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

It’s not hard to see how computers have changed the way photographers and composers work. Digital photography is cheap, fast, and easy to edit. It’s possible to write and realize musical compositions on a computer without the aid of a single performer. Creativity usually springs from the human; the computer is just a tool. But what happens when we hand the creative process to the computer?

We can’t just hand over everything. If you sit in front of your PC and tell it “make art,” you won’t be met with so much as look of disbelief from your electronic counterpart. But it is possible to write software containing instructions that result in a compelling picture or song.

Scott Davies picture

Mathematics gives rise to some astoundingly beautiful forms — fractals being a good example. A programmer creates a precise set of instructions and the computer renders a figure. He looks at the result and modifies the formulas until he finds something he likes. The skill required to impart brushstrokes on canvas has vanished. But computers can render images that wouldn’t be possible with brushstrokes alone, like images that change over time.

An example can be found in the music visualization tools on home computers. Here, a program converts music into a collection of changing colors and patterns on the computer screen. The programs are quite creative, as can be seen by what’s been produced. It’s worth taking a look at the visualization options on your music player if you haven’t already done so.

image of MilkDrop music visualizer

It’s also possible to instruct a computer to compose music. A programmer might include guidelines like “play a piano using this chord structure” or “use a syncopated rhythm.” Then, with the click of a mouse, set the computer to work.

[From Olympos audio]

The results remain pretty avant-garde. But there exist a surprising number of languages for telling a computer how to write music, and they’re constantly improving.

Computers are at the center of a larger artistic movement known as generative art. Generative art requires an artist to create something which in turn creates the art. Computer programs are a natural choice, but not the only generative medium. Smart materials that change over time or at different temperatures offer a world possibilities. Some ideas are a bit hard to swallow. Is blowing a fan on wind chimes really creating generative music?

[Passage audio]

But moving instances of generative art are out there — the result of creativity seeking to fashion creativity. And it reminds us once again what aspiring creatures we crazy humans really are.

Substrate by Jared Tarbell

I’m Andy Boyd at the University of Houston, where we’re interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)


Notes and references:

From Olympos audio is from the website of Robert Inventor: http://robertinventor.com/software/main/index.htm. See also: http://www.robertinventor.com/software/3.0/index.htm. Accessed September 11, 2012. Passage audio by E. A. Boyd.

Generative Art. From the Wikipedia website: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Generative_art. Accessed September 11, 2012.

Generative Music. From the Wikipedia website: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Generative_music. Accessed September 11, 2012.

The screenshot of the MilkDrop music visualizer and the work by Scott Draves are from Wikimedia Commons. The work by Jared Tarbell is from his Gallery of Computation website, http://www.complexification.net/gallery. Accessed September 11, 2012.

This episode was first aired on September 13, 2012



The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-2012 by John H. Lienhard.