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  • Constraints and Creativity in the Digital Arts
  • Linda Candy

In art, truth and reality begin when one no longer understands what one is doing or what one knows, and when there remains an energy that is all the stronger for being constrained, controlled and compressed.

—Henri Matisse

Constraints in creativity are both limiting and liberating. They are used to impose boundaries upon the creative space we occupy and at the same time enable us to grapple with inherent tensions between different demands, which may lead to a new idea, direction or artifact. When we choose particular forms, materials and tools for our creative work, we are also choosing the kinds of constraints that will shape our process and its outcomes.

Creativity may be seen as a process of exercising free choice in the context of a range of existing constraints. Constraints may be both negative and positive influences on the creative activity or task: the negative may be externally imposed or the result of unexpected phenomena, and the positive may be considered beneficial because they have either been self-imposed or have arisen from the intrinsic characteristics of the work itself. Constraints are restrictions that limit what the individual wishes to do, but such restrictions may also be seen as having a more positive and indeed, necessary function by providing the creative person with a more manageable creative space. A totally free or unoccupied space in which to begin a creative work is both unimaginable and probably undesirable. Constraints impose fundamental limits on our ability to think, perceive and create: for example, mental blocks are less amenable to change or control by the individual concerned than those that are self-imposed [1].

Boden characterizes constraints as a means of mapping "a territory of structural possibilities which can be explored and perhaps transformed to give another one" [2]. The way constraints within a particular genre are changed over time until an entirely new genre emerges is exemplified by the case of tonal music. Tonal music was developed over centuries by an exploration of the harmonic steps by which a melody could progress from one movement, phrase, chord or note to the next. There existed a structured space of chord successions by which to modulate from one key to another, and one would normally pass through successive neighboring keys. By the end of the 19th century, composers had gradually abandoned tonal constraints: pathways between modulations had become progressively shorter and the notion of an approved chord succession was increasingly problematic. Finally, Schoenberg took the step of dropping the final consonance indicating the end of a musical journey, and in doing so create a new field governed by different rules in which conventions of modulation and consonance could not be expressed. He saw that the tonal conventions were not arbitrary but were intelligible, mutually coherent constraints – in effect, a 'coherent generative system' to use Boden's terminology. The development of a conceptual space such as tonal music is a rich and complex enterprise that took many centuries to map to the point where composers set it aside in favor of a new atonal space.

In the digital arts, the creative process is fundamentally the same as in any other field of creative work. Some constraints are there because the artist chooses them; in others they are inherent to the context, the genre and the medium. The chosen genre is the basic creative conceptual space in which rules and conventions impose a set of boundary constraints within which the artist works. It is the choices made within this constrained space that create a distinctive individual style, which, if successful, is instantly recognizable as belonging to a particular person. In selecting a particular medium, the artist chooses a set of constraints that are inherent to it.

Digital technology brings with it special kinds of constraints that are both inherent to the nature of computers and also facets of a medium that is less than one hundred years old. The relative immaturity of the medium and its multi-faceted character are factors that have given rise to very different approaches to its use in the digital arts, from those who would "digitalise" existing forms to...


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pp. 366-367
Launched on MUSE
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