Creative Computing, Or Not

On Thursday, September 5, CentralTrak brought Ira Greenberg and Paul Fishwick, two local professors, to speak on “Creative Computing,” at the first of the fall season’s Next Topic lecture series.

Greenberg is Associate Professor at Southern Methodist University and Director of SMU’s Center of Creative Computation. Fishwick is Distinguished Endowed Chair of Arts and Technology and Professor of Computer Science at University of Texas at Dallas.

GreenbergIraIra Greenberg from SMU is one of the leading experts on Processing, a computer language designed to help creative people code. The project’s website playfully describes its goals: Processing seeks to ruin the careers of talented designers by tempting them away from their usual tools and into the world of programming and computation. Similarly, the project is designed to turn engineers and computer scientists to less gainful employment as artists and designers.” Frustratingly, almost no time was dedicated to this language, its merits and/or pitfalls. He didn’t show us a single thing he made using Processing. I think he ran out of time.

Instead, Greenberg spent too much time showing us his old work, including some phenomenally bad paintings and some early digital work that looked no better than what gets kicked out by music visualization software.

Greenberg walked us through the work he had on his website, most of it several years old. The reality may be that he has spent a lot of his time recently working on books on programming. We heard some philosophy at the end about art and code. One question that stuck out was whether coding is a necessity for artists going forward, or is this moment just a blip?

Ira Greenberg, Laughter, 1999, oil on canvas; Dancing Spirals (still), computer animation.

Ira Greenberg, Laughter, 1999, oil on canvas; Dancing Spirals (still), computer animation.

It was an unpolished presentation. Greenberg was a nervous presenter. There could have been something dragged out of him, but we would have needed a couple hours. There were a bunch of older dudes that I have never seen at an art thing; I assume they were computer science professors. Greenberg said that he was very dissatisfied with the way Photoshop and Illustrator make perfect lines, soulless. He wanted to find a way to make computer art drip—that was probably his best line.

When you look at Greenberg’s work, it’s very much computers doing what computers do, and it’s boring because of that—it doesn’t engage it in a sideways way like Jeff Elrod does. He’s probably a good teacher, but I wanted him to teach me something, and he didn’t.

fishwick-paulPaul Fishwick is a guy who has a very rudimentary understanding of art and art history. He is basically an evangelist for the beauty of math, and systems of equations as a way to model phenomena. He referenced several artworks by Bernini, Magritte, and Mondrian but does not seem to know any art history after 1950. To illustrate the beauty of topology he showed us the same images we always see—the donut, and that double donut thing. If you’re stoned, or nineteen, maybe those are interesting, but no adult who understands about art cares about them.

torus

He really wants to believe that mathematical abstraction and artistic abstraction are the same thing. He was obsessed with the idea of abstraction being a many-to-one relationship; he thought that when people view abstract paintings, they take away from it whatever they like, and that in representational art, they don’t. Basically, an unsound mathematical way to talk about art viewing.

The big problem with a lot of computer art people is that they don’t understand aesthetics; they just have shitty taste. I’m pro-beauty. I’m on the Dave Hickey team. Fishwick showed us an image of the predator-prey model by one of his students, which was supposed to simplify it, make it visual, and maybe did, but it remained a really ugly image. Don’t get me wrong—I believe it’s totally possible to make an awesome art machine that also shows the predator-prey model perfectly, but it would succeed because it was an awesome art machine, not because of its mathematical content. Content doesn’t make art. It doesn’t hurt, but usually transcendence matters more than the literal representation. I don’t think Fishwick understands this. There are probably a ton of worthwhile things he could have told us, but more about computer science than art.

Max Capacity

Max Capacity

The tools for computer art have gotten better, but the content is still not there. There’s some good work, but it’s being done on the edges, on Tumblr, in glitch culture; young people are doing it, and they’re not necessarily doing it with the idea that they’re making fine art. Max Capacity, on Tumblr, is one of my favorites. He’s more of an outsider artist, part of a Tumblr world where crazy glitches are cool. Paul Slocum is a good Texas example. He’s making works based on algorithms, but they look good because, although he’s a high-level computer guy, he’s got a sense of aesthetics, too.

There is beauty in code and equations, and good art can be made with and about them, but we certainly did not see any of it during these talks.

also by Thomas Ezekiel Williams

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6 responses to “Creative Computing, Or Not”

  1. It is refreshing that this ill conceived “review” contained many nearly well formed sentences . These infantile and subjective references to “beauty” and “taste” were evidence that the reviewer has taken some rudimentary stab at understanding the complex relationships between the multi dimensional boundaries that creative computing puts in front of those with such a narrow, almost 19th century view of aesthetic theory. Ad hominem attacks with unsubstantiated claims regarding the subjective understanding of what was being discussed belies the shallow and self serving nature of the writer.

    I am glad to hear about Paul Slocum and would be interested if he shared the same the same pedantic and unsupported claims about aesthetic theory and the semiotics of the term “abstraction” that the “reviewer” and his scatological imperatives revealed. Unsubstantiated claims of understanding are just that. …

    I attended this event and came away with the impression that I had seen and heard two amazing gentleman that were clearly and honestly trying to comprehend the new implications and disruptions that computers present to aesthetics. They both gave questioning and very personal accounts of their own years of struggle with understanding the implications of these changes and what they meant in terms of the broader context of future practice. For some reason this “reviewer” appears to be suffering from some illusion of understanding that was unsubstantiated by both his arguments and his examples. It just reads like a personal attack that had no real merit beyond the name dropping at the end.

    The word ‘art’ interests me very much. If it comes from Sanskrit, as I’ve heard, it signifies ‘making.’ (Marcel Duchamp).

    Williams has made an unsubstantiated attack on the work of two true makers, nothing more.

  2. Dave Hickey? Isn’t he that neoliberal art critic from the ’90s? <–sarcasm here

    The point is, relapsing into some sort of taste-limited critique of work produced by well-intentioned people whose idea of art is already heavily informed by popular notions that art is all about beauty, is about the worst way I can think one might address this topic (x is prettier than y). And why is it that any time someone mentions a computer in Texas, Jeff Elrod and Paul Slocum (whose work I love, BTW) are drug out like some comforting, nappy/blanket? Time to update the horizons, folks, and start talking about art on the other side of the beauty firewall (ie, that subjective thing the artworld uses to keep from thinking/responding).

  3. The discussion around code-based art, and indeed computer-generated imagery in art, has been greatly enhanced through the work of Tim Binkley. At least his notion of the computer (software) as a promiscuous assistant seems to capture the flavor of conceptual art’s challenge to aesthetics, medium-specificity, the centrality of the object, and the definition of art.

    What’s wrong about the above review is that it seeks to evade all these important issues by saying, “the examples I’ve seen are ugly and have no aesthetic interest”. Notwithstanding the pitfalls of the presenters (I wasn’t there, so couldn’t possibly comment), the significance of software and virtual reality and screen-based digital art (three distinct worlds, to be sure) doesn’t seem to be very thoughtfully analyzed. It is a good example, though, of where common sense in art criticism will get you safely and comfortably every time.

  4. As a computer coder, I can tell you that in general, the LAST people would I know of who would want to “mess with code” are artists.

    It is — I believe — the “other side of the brain” — the non-analytic, non-lingual side — that the best art comes from.

    So there’s a natural disconnect built-in to this topic of “writing coding for use by artists.”

    If you don’t like the way Photoshop draws a straight line, try FRACTAL PAINTER. Back in 1997 I created work in that program that was virtually identical to my oil paintings, and I am not exaggerating. You’ll have to look for a vintage edition (most likely) since I think Adobe bought it (Macromedia) out but then didn’t incorporate it’s brilliant “paint-handling” technique into the Photoshop program. What a waste, but this is Adobe we’re talking about — legendary greediness at the corporate level.

    As for whether “art is good” or not, or whether abstract art is more subjective than figurative art is — this is ridiculous.

    FEAR NOT — Art is ALWAYS in the eyes and mind of the beholder!

    Who do we think we are — as artists — telling our audience what to believe or think or feel about our own work?

    I love to hear what viewers think of my work. Not because I’m a narcissist (thought I suppose all artists are to some extent), but because WHAT viewers see (in my work) often totally blows my mind and isn’t what I intended at all — it’s far more interesting that what I originally intended. And I am a figurative artist — not an abstract artist…

    There’s beauty in the fact that viewers always assume that their interpretation is the same as my own…even though it’s rarely is.

    So this is why, when someone asks me, “what is this painting about” or “what is this song about” — I keep mum, and don’t say a word.

    I don’t want to lock them in to a certain “take” on my work. I want them to use their own imaginations — craft their own narrative — and find their own truth within my work.

    To me — that’s what defines “art” — to each person, art is unique.

    Long live A.R.T. — in all it’s mystery!!!

    Deborah Moore
    16 Sept 2013
    Houston, Texas

  5. My view of computer generated art is based on the generation of artists I grew up with, where a direct, honest engagement with the material and process seemed to be most important. I teach my students that the computer is just another tool of the studio, but rarely works well as a final product. Somewhere along the line, most computer generated art loses its soul. Not to say I don’t use the computer as a tool for manipulation and visualizing, mostly to plan ideas that are too large to create in my studio. I also live in Houston, where an artist can get anything he wants fabricated with a CAD drawing or 3D scan. That idea is useful and exciting, but I would miss out on all the messy and interesting questions that arise in the making of the art, and my soul would be left behind. Why doesn’t Chck Close just have someone write a program for him to abstract his portraits so they could be printed as large format prints?
    As for the question of an artwork’s meaning, I usually end up with more questions about what my art is about when its finished than when I begin. That’s why I keep making art, for that continual flow of unanswered questions. Ivan Karp once asked Andy Warhol what his art meant? Andy replied….”um, I don’t know”

  6. You might be surprised Deborah. I know a lot of artists whose practice is intimately tied to code, love coding, computing and the issues it raises. The history of art is littered with artists who would not fit the mythical left/right brain construct. Many might argue the most significant works of the past century pay no heed to this binary. What I see, regularly, are groups of people who have been socially conditioned to believe various myths that serve to limit what (in their mind) art can be. Myths function as an apparatus performing a process of “natural selection” producing what we take for granted as “art” and “artists”. Yes, there appear to be a lot of “right-brain” people making art, but that’s a function of the myth-at-work more so than anything intrinsic to the ideal of art. [in reality, the whole notion of l/r has been debunked]

    Your comment strikes the heart of why it’s a disservice to limit our discourse around art to antiquated notions of taste or beauty (as the article above seemed to do). It is, and always has been so much more. Despite the popular conception of art (especially that perpetuated by the commercial gallery system in most cases) the non-art, lay people with whom I talk are often surprised to find that any theoretically/philosophically/historically engaged art school quickly works to interrogate notions of “beauty”, “natural”, “craft/skill”, “truth”, “subjectivity” and the myths associated with these concepts. I’m regularly confronted with scientists who show me their latest colorized electron scan and want me to evaluate it as art. Conversely, artists mimic experiments and make scientific claims, or generally misunderstand science. We really have to do a better job of understanding the complexity of various disciplines, and above all, destroy this popular myth that art is only about subjective taste. The myth really only exists in popular culture, because it serves capital so well. Most any artist I know or respect have dispensed with it long ago.

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