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  • Algorithmic Art
  • Frieder Nake, Leonardo Editorial Advisor

“One might justifiably question the artist’s role in images that are not merely assembled by the computer in its capacity as a tool, but generated directly by it. Where is the human input?” Lambert, Latham and Leymarie recently raised this question [1].

The core of their question is as old as computer art (about 50 years). I prefer calling such work algorithmic art; although algorithmic art does not necessarily involve a computer, this term is more distinctive.

When an artist uses digital computers today, she is not going to say: Look, a new technique is available, it’s complex, but I know how to use it, and look at my computer drawings! Such a silly, proud attitude may have been justified at an early stage of computer art. I call this stage the McLuhan stage of algorithmic art: the medium was still the message—which is to say that the specific form of the medium was more important than the content of the message.

In the early 1960s, when the story of computer art began, people were asking what contributions to a work were made by the artist, by the computer and by the output device. They felt that if the computer played a considerable role in generating an image, then that image could not possibly be a piece of art [2].

Leaving aside the fact that here I am comparing human work to machinic operation, the artist only produces a work. Beyond being produced, a work of art must be acknowledged as such. Only “society” may acknowledge a product of work as a work of art. It is not the artist who decides. The artist  finishes his work and presents it to the public. Thus begins the work’s transformation into a work of art. The result is open.

Marcel Duchamp said in 1957: “The creative act is not performed by the artist alone; the spectator . . . adds his contribution to the creative act” [3]. Duchamp saw a contribution by the spectator at the time of the work’s creation. How much more is this so when it comes to judging art.

Back to the case of algorithmic art! No computer operates without software. The artist may use software in her creative process. Either she has acquired it from somewhere or she has developed it herself. If she hasn’t and is only using packaged software, her work may still please people. It may be sold by a gallery. Critics may react enthusiastically. But the state of such work is that of the digital Sunday painter’s work. It will not attain the realm of acknowledged art. How can I defend such a position?

Algorithmic art starts with the development of an algorithm. That’s human work. The generative process ends in some material object, say ink on paper. That’s the machine’s work. What the machine realizes is one instance of a potentially infinite set of pieces. The artist, however, has described a concept: the entire class of those pieces. Depending on the expressive power of the parameters contained in the algorithmic description, the differences in visual appearance of the pieces may be immense. There is no limit to our descriptive capacities.

There can be no question that for algorithmic art the human artist is the originator and decision maker. Only the marginal effort of running the algorithm and outputting the result is contributed by the machine. By submitting the algorithm to the computer (in form of a program), the artist lets the machine do the manual part of the work. The operations carried out by the computer are of semiotic origin. Therefore, some think the operations are mental.

Algorithmic art, we thus see, is computable conceptual art. Algorithms are concepts in the special form of computability. They are concepts that can be carried out automatically and repeated indefinitely.

Algorithmic art is precisely described art with lots of surprises. It is chaotic and rule-based. It is contradictory in itself. The algorithm is a description from which the semiotic machine generates something that interests us to observe. Algorithmic art is abstract art where the work itself has been abstracted away...


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