Process over Product:
Generative art and the new demo

by x8oi2h3_0000202

At the start of the 20th century, artists began to rethink some of the basic ideas of what constituted a work of art. Mostly as a result of exploring new techniques in production, one of the emerging schools of thought was that of conceptual art, which declared the process of production as the actual artwork, leaving the final product as the byproduct, or more accurately the documentation of the production process.

The most famous example of this process-over-product methodology is Marcel Duchamp's "ready-mades", most memorable being "Fountain" (1917), an average public urinal autographed with the fictional name "R. Mutt". As an object of art, a urinal does not actually represent any creative craftsmanship other than that of the potter who made the urinal. And besides, Duchamp didn't actually make the urinal, he simply bought one (and hence the name "ready-mades" - using objects as artworks that have already been made by someone else).

It is easy to dismiss Duchamp's readymades for they exemplify everything that traditional art is not. What is important to consider, though, is that Duchamp carefully manufactured this reaction, and underwent considerable philosophy into the nature of art before creating his readymades. Essentially, he was asking "why are we making art?", for he drew into question every traditional artists' work and the general assumption that just because one has a craft, one must be an artist. For him, submitting a urinal to an art exhibition was a rebellion against the traditional bourgeois values of art. This partly philosophical and partly political approach makes his work very strong, and it is commonly used as a precedent for modern conceptual artworks.

Another interesting area of extreme conceptual artwork is manifested in the Dada movement and its offshoots. The Dadaists were primarily known as surrealists obsessed with mechanics, but more importantly explored these extreme ideas of creativity and artistic function. An offshoot from the Dada movement was the Oulipo movement, formed in the 1960s in France, which concerned itself purely with exploring the rigid formalization of logic and structures in creative tasks.

The Oulipo used number sequences the generate poetry, built machines to read and write books automatically, and wrote massive amounts of literature with self-imposed grammatical and syntactical restrictions. Georges Perec wrote an entire novel called 'A void', and didn't use the letter 'e' once. Their entire creative output was conducted under strict operational guidelines, in an effort to prove that creativity can flourish in the most restrictive of environments.

Modern generative art ...

Jumping some way forwards in time, let's take a look at modern generative art. I must be careful here about how I define the term "generative". I use the term to label works of art that show the key feature is that it generates itself. That is, its process is more fundamental than the final output (and hence, by definition, generative art is conceptual above anything else). Other people's definition of generative art differ widely.

It is quite easy to define computer code as pure process. What is code but the strict formalization of decision making and evaluation? It is therefore not inconceivable that computer code can carry creative decision making, and thus be a creative act. In essence, a coder imbues her code with her own creative impulses. The computer is merely the environment in which those processes execute, in the same way that Perec's E-less novel is the environment in which his strict language processes execute.

The sort of generative artworks that I produce are pieces of computer software where the execution results in some other artefact that further blurs the boundaries between process and product. When you run a piece of my software, there are so many philosophical issues being brought about through your interaction with my code, that one can only claim my software as conceptual artwork. From an idealist point of view, what my software does is irrelevant, although obviously this is not the case, as irrelevant software is simply not popular.

... and demos

Thinking back to my childhood, I have fond memories of sitting by my first 486 in my bedroom watching demos and thinking "I want to make these when I'm older". Not much has changed, I still have the greatest respect for demos, and to a degree I am doing what I dreamed of: I am writing software because I enjoy doing it, and I like making software that people enjoy experiencing. So why aren't I writing demos?

In my opinion, what the demoscene has lacked up till now is this real philosophical reasoning behind the creative activity. What democoders call their art form is no more than a very well honed skill (ie, a craft - just like the potter that made Duchamp's urinal). I don't believe the demoscene is currently a worthy movement to be working in, because it lacks this central critical theory that sets it apart from people playing with technology. (I believe "because we can" is exactly the wrong reason to be producing art.)

What the demoscene needs right now in order to rejuvenate interest in it is some critical theory that focusses not on the final outcome (ie some of the most amazing realtime computer experiences one can witness) but of the processes behind it. Essentially, by drawing this analogy with Marcel Duchamp, I'm hoping to get the demoscene to ask itself "why are we making demos?", just as Duchamp did himself years ago. You have proved yourselves as worthy craftsworkers, now prove yourselves as worthy artists.

How? That is the tough question. I've thought of a few starting questions that I think need answering, and I believe democoders are some of the most able people to contribute to these debates:

1. How come computer code is so analogous to the restrictive environment the Oulipo were engaged with? We all know software can be a vastly creative experience, even though at its basic level it is merely moving bits around logic circuits.

2. As an author of computer code, where do you draw the line between process and product? Yes, your finished code is a product, but it is also a process, because upon execution it creates a further product (ie, this conforms exactly to my definition of 'generative'). Does it even matter? Would exploring this issue further help to resolve some of the staleness than modern computing has built up?

3. Does it matter who is running your code? Perhaps not for most demos, but what of interactive software? Is this why, traditionally, demos are not interactive? Are you afraid of addressing this difficult issue of authorship (ie, the ultimate produced product would not actually be under your control any more, it is under the control of the user). Interactivity is key in audience responsiveness, surely?

4. When we use a computer to create an artwork, are we perpetuating Duchamp's readymades principle, in that our work can only exist as a recontextualisation of other peoples craft? In plain English: When you write code, are you aware that you are acting upon the work of all the engineers who designed the CPU inside your computer, of the engineers who designed the operating system you use? By analogy, are you merely placing your signature on the readymade instructions that Intel crafted when they built the x86 processor?

I do hope that this brief introduction to generative art helps to get the demoscene thinking about the issues which may ultimately result in demos being credited for more than mere craftsmanship. All this is written only from my own perspective, perhaps you can find a better perspective on which the reflect on your creations.

x8oi2h3_0000202 is a pseudonym. The real author works as a software artist writing interactive generative software for a wide range of purposes. Involved in educational and research projects, x8oi2h3_0000202 is trying to readdress the unbalance that has come to technology after its popularization, particularly with regards to the way it is used for the creation of new objects. x8oi2h3_0000202 operates as a hyper-dimensional supercreature, and networks with ultra lovely software/softwear 100% of the time. x8oi2h3_0000202 is starting to realise that the body is no boundary.