Arie Altena

Interview with Driessens & Verstappen


AA One thing I have noticed is that many of your works involve the automatic generation of forms, as a seemingly continuous process. However, what you present in the end are often finished objects. Is your work about the creation of an algorithm -- in other words, is that the nature of your art -- or is it about the end product?

MV We have been concerned with this for a long time now. It actually goes back to the early '90s. We were confronted with the idea that there is a very compelling relationship between the artwork, on the one hand, and the art spaces which present it and the journals which in turn reflect on it, on the other. That the art world is a self-perpetuating generative (1) system. New art has to be shown every month, the production must go on. We asked ourselves whether it would be possible to automate the production of art, and so meet the continual demand. It was a somewhat nihilistic response to the powerless situation in which we seemed to find ourselves. This issue has now disappeared into the background of our work, but our interest in automatic generative systems has remained, and its scope has broadened. The generative processes that we design are interesting in itself, but they always have a direct relationship with the visual outcome or the end results.

ED It also had to do with the fact that at that moment we asked ourselves the question: what is style? Everyone had their own visual language, their own way of doing it. As if every artist had a developed a method for themselves. As if style was a system simply to be able go on producing art.

AA Is style based on a particular set of rules then?

MV That's what we thought at the time. When we tried to apply our idea it quickly became clear that you won't get far with such a nihilistic view. It turned out to be quite a job to devise a system which could produce something new each time, a system which even we didn't know what would come out of it -- otherwise it wouldn't be new. The challenge in our work, at the time, was to find a way to build a form of emergence (2) into the system, in order to obtain variable and unpredictable results.

AA You took a step back as an artist. What was yours, you now hand over to an automated system.

ED We wanted to be both artist and viewer at the same time. To be surprised ourselves by what it produced.

MV Right from the start we developed in two directions. We tried to formalize a way of dealing with the properties of the material, on the one hand. You could say that we devised physical algorithms (3) in which plastic materials independently took on a detailed fixed form. At the same time we were working with the computer and programming. We conceived formal systems, worked with mathematical formulas, with the aim of being able to cultivate images instead of designing them by hand. We turned the computer models into objects later. Here we found ourselves up against the limits of what was programmable at the time. You may think that you can program anything, but the technology sets the limits.

AA Can you give an example of a physical algorithm?

MV Take beeswax, a material which can easily be shaped: you liquefy it by heating it, it solidifies again as it cools. So you can easily do an experiment in which you pour molten wax into water and scoop it out again. Two liquids in motion, water and beeswax, together make a complex structure which is revealed by the solidified wax. It is a purely physical expression of wax. We made a machine, The Factory, which does that. The Factory shows a continual cyclical process of solidification and liquefaction and records the individual expressions of form of the successive lumps of wax on video.

AA Did you also work with genetic algorithms -- computer algorithms which grow and change constantly in those days?

MV Not to begin with. We were busy developing things mathematically and of some things you could say, with hindsight, that perhaps it was a generative system, but they weren't genetic algorithms.

ED In the beginning it was just fiddling about. We were mainly trying to find out what the scope of a particular programmed system was. When you're just starting out you think it's fairly straightforward. We tested formulas. You wrote something down and then looked to see what came out of it. The formulas were fairly primitive functions based on circles and lines which we made combinations of. We were ourselves too much involved in the design. Now we are at a stage where we leave even the composition of the formulas to the computer. To reach that level you need to be thoroughly familiar with programming.

AA In the type of generative system which you both make, surely you decide the parameters? What exactly do you determine and how do you create it in such a way that as much as possible is left up to the computer?

ED You try to let the computer work out the details itself. You do not program an image pixel by pixel. You just write a number of general things, for example: you want a 2D-image which changes with time. You can set up a repertoire of basic functions and a mechanism to link these functions to one another. The computer is then capable of creating short programs for itself, which then leave their mark on the screen.

MV But we definitely want the images generated to intrigue you as a person. You must want to keep looking. In the beginning we once wrote a program in which every pixel on screen changed colour at random. But this simply resulted in noise. If you want to make something that results in a coherent form or style, then there needs to be a feedback mechanism in the software.

ED There has to be growth in it, a genesis.

MV We want to leave the output as much as possible up to the system. Ultimately, we are the ones who set the conditions. At first, we also only have a general idea of the capabilities of the system. We then let go of control over the creation process to give the emergence a chance to grow. We deliberately allow unpredictability in the process, because we want to be surprised by the results. The more distance there is between our input and the end result, the greater the unpredictability and the surprise element. Our work with beeswax we initially made by hand. We had a bucket of water and a spoon and we then tossed the molten wax into it. The form was still influenced by your physical strength, which is why we made The Factory. Another important aspect is that there are limits to any system you set up. These relate to the state of the technology as well as the physical and chemical properties of the material. We did a project last year on changing form which was done by etching away and galvanizing metal. In such a case it is clear from the start what you can do. The results therefore show the possible variations in form within that particular process. That's the case with computer software too. You make a decision at the beginning which dictates what is and is not possible.

ED Everything we do is bottom-up. We always try to start out with a primordial soup and then see what emerges.

AA One of your works in which the computer essentially takes all the decisions, is Breed in which cells divide and divide again until an optimum form is created. You then create that form, initially a 3D-computer model, as an object. How do you decide where the program should stop?

MV During the growth of a Breed object, in each division every individual cell divides itself into eight new units which may be either solid or hollow. The choice of which it will be is determined by what the immediate vicinity of the building block looks like. A response to every conceivable type of spatial environment has been incorporated into the genetic code of the object. This genetic code gradually mutates through an evolutionary process in such a way that it meets a small number of set criteria.

ED We also include end criteria in the program. These set the limit. The process stops when the form meets the criteria.

MV The underlying principle with Breed was that the 3D-computer models could also be presented as an object. This meant that in the final object all the building blocks had to be fixed to one another. This was included in the program constraints. We built the first models by hand in layers of three-ply, so the limit was what you can cut out by hand. Nowadays the objects are more detailed because they are produced under computer control.

ED At the same time, what form it will take is left entirely open. We set a limit but within that limit there are billions of possibilities.

MV A type of artificial evolution takes place in Breed. The program mutates the genotype (4) for the form and compares the result of this mutation with the previous generation. If a higher percentage of building blocks are connected to each other -- and the phenotypic (5) form can therefore be more easily made than the last one -- then the new genotype is used as the basis for another mutation. This goes on until the genotype best meets the set criterion, and produces a phenotype in which all the building blocks are spatially connected to one another. The requirement that the results must be fully interconnected drives the development of the form. It is essentially a fitness criterion. We often borrow terms from biology, but we use these terms in a more abstract manner.

AA Are you training the computer to become an artist?

MV In the case of Breed, not to become an artist but more of a structural engineer.

ED Artist is not the word I would use. Creator or maker is better. We are now working on a new project named E-volver, in which you, as the user of the Breed-software, can choose what you find fascinating or interesting. The system uses this as a basis to learn your visual preferences. It takes these preferences into account when it compilates a new generation of the software. Gradually the positive properties (visual features that you like or find interesting) will be expressed, and the negative properties will be suppressed.

AA It has been suggested that Artificial Life (6) art, which could also include Breed, goes a step further than the readymade of Duchamp and the work of Warhol. In the sense that Duchamp and Warhol also stepped back -- or appeared to do so -- from their own artistic egos.

MV I think that because of Duchamp, Warhol and Beuys too, there has been some sort of short-circuit which has cleared the way for Artificial Life art, among other things. At least as important is that IMA Traveller for example - one of our works which is based on A-Life software and in which you navigate through abstract areas of colour - is acceptable because modernism opened up the abstract domain. It is also somewhat inherent to algorithmic art. You could say that A-Life art realizes this released potential. We use it as an area of exploration. They showed that everything can have an aesthetic quality, we are physically exploring that territory.

AA Do you see yourselves therefore more as investigating aesthetics than as artists?

MV The one doesn't exclude the other. It sometimes seems to be that if you do basic research in art you are more likely to be seen as a scientist. Our approach actually is entirely bound up with the visual and creative process, this connects us with the visual arts. In a number of projects we observe existing phenomena. Through the way in which we record our perceptions, we try to reveal an underlying process. As in Frankendael, which comprises 52 photos taken over a whole year from a spot in the Frankendael park in Amsterdam. They have been put on film and time compressed, which allows you to see certain changes which you would not otherwise be able to see. Or Morphoteque 8 and 9, in which an abundance of potato and carrot shapes have been collected and recorded. These series show the diversity of form within a species. The genetic potential is revealed. A work of art can attempt to evoke that sense of wonder about the physical form of the things around us. Not merely in relation to the external forms themselves, but also in terms of the underlying processes which create it all. In other projects we make use of the particular qualities that artificial processes can offer. In our software applications we describe the laws of an artificial nature. In this way we can evolve new, living, unlimited worlds of phenomena.

You can connect this with the aesthetic of the sublime. In the nineteenth century the sublime was linked to a sense of futility in relation to the unpredictable forces of nature. An important aspect of the sublime is the tension between pleasure and fear. That you can now do something with the computer, run a program that shows something of the amazing power of the computer, has something of the sublime about it. The underlying process cannot be directly grasped but we are capable of experiencing it through the machine. You can be overwhelmed by a sense of being out of control, and at the same time enjoy the spectacle. What nineteenth century painting could only portray figuratively, you can let the observer actually experience with A-Life techniques.

AA IMA Traveller is, in that sense, the computational sublime.

MV The AL artist Jon McCormack used that term at a conference in Melbourne. It certainly makes sense.

AA Does this mean that you are essentially looking to make a visual impact?

MV I hope that when people see our programs they encounter intriguing complex images, and realise at the same time that these worlds are evoked by a simple generative system. An algorithm that does something at a very local level, but through the occurence of self-organisation evokes an enormous cohesion and great detail. That is wonderful. This is also how we reflect on the world around us and our amazement about these things and how they are connected to one another, only grows. It is important that these worlds have a convincing visual impact, which you also get even if you don't know anything about what's going on in the background. What you often see in computer art of the past is that it is more of a demonstration than something which you can really experience. We sometimes say ourselves, half jokingly, that we are aiming for a sort of Hollywood quality.

AA You mean a high resolution image in which you can lose yourself, as it were?

MV That's why we also aim for a real time experience. After all the best thing is when the landscape that you explore as a spectator is generated at the very moment of your visit. It did not exist until you found it, you are the first person to see it. It is not a pre-calculated set of images, as in film or video. It requires fast computers and refined software. The pixels must be transmitted at lightening speed. The image should preferably refresh itself sixty times a second.

ED An artwork of this kind really has to be a parallel world. It has to compete as far as possible with the world we know.

AA With Tickle Salon and the tickling robot though, you are really competing with reality. The machines do something which we perceive as very human, stroking and tickling.

MV And they have surpassed human beings. They do it better. The psychology -- of the machine doing it instead of a person -- gives the machine an advantage. It does not have certain physical limitations -- like the limitation of what you can do with an arm. Besides, wanting to be stroked is mostly a very egoistic desire, but you need someone else for it. Sometimes it is just nice if that element is not there, that you don't have to burden someone else with it.

AA Have you ever been asked: when are you going to bring it out onto the market as a product? You haven't done that so far. Presumably you don't see yourselves as product developers?

MV These questions arise because the machine looks as though you could sell it in a box. That's important, it's part of the experience. But we certainly don't intend setting up a production line with all the risks that that involves.

ED We are more interested in the question of whether or not something is possible. If it turns out to be possible, then we turn our attention to something else.

1 generative: having the power to produce or originate.
2 emergence: the process by which properties come to existence unexpectedly.
3 algorithm: a systematic procedure.
4 genotype: genetic constitution of an organism.
5 phenotype: appearance of an organism as a result from the interaction between genetic predisposition and the environment.
6 Artificial Life: systems, designed by human beings, that give evidence of spontaneous and unpredictable behaviour, and therefore may be called 'living'.

The interview was originally prepared for SonicActsX, was previously published in Unsorted, Thoughts on the Information Arts, an AtoZ for Sonic Acts X, de Balie & Sonic Acts, Amsterdam, 2004.

This version was published in the catalogue of the works of Driessens & Verstappen, VOUS ETES ICI, Amsterdam

Original translation: Susan Hunt Additional translation: Arie Altena

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Arie Altena