Generative art, creative code, and the world around us!

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Tim and Ruth jump right into creative code and generative art, this episode we talk about the what, when and why’s.

Welcome to the first ever episode of Generative Art podcast with your hosts, Tim and Ruth. We’re going to kick off with a general overview of generative art, creative coding, and digital art. So sit back, relax and enjoy our first episode. 


Tim: Hey everybody, welcome to the generative podcast. I am Tim.  


Ruth: And I am Ruth.

Tim: All right. And today we’re going to, yeah, this week we’re going to talk about a lot, I feel like there’s a big managerial episode almost like pay your dues kind of thing.

Ruth: Yeah. We have to talk about like… Where it’s come from, all that kind of stuff, which is a kind of big topic, there is a lot to discuss around it.

Tim: I mean, it’s very foundational for all the things that we want to talk about in the podcast.

Ruth: Exactly. So we’re just going to do something quite brief. It’s not going to delve into every single aspect of this. I’ve been doing a bit of research and there’s so many different things that have come up that I want to discuss in detail. We’re just going to do something quite generically overview. And from that it’s going to make up some of the more descriptive episodes that we will do in future, in the future.

Tim: Yeah, it’s more of a, a broad-spectrum grasp. And I guess the first thing therefore that we have to answer is what is a generative art? And that’s exactly the question of the day. That’s why everyone is here right now.  But yes, generative art is something that is made with one element kind of out of your control. So when you’re coding art, that is probably going to be the random function where you’re going to get a random number and the outcome of what you have coded is going to change based on having that random number. But it can be, you know, it can be very, very broad. You know, you could have, I think the example that I like to use is a fish in a fish tank. And if it swims to the left, you’d take an action. If it swings to the right, you take an action. And that fish is kind of providing the generative nature of your art because you have no real control over the fish. Yeah, I’d say that’s that in like a small brief, a finite description is what generative art is. But then of course we also to talk about creative coding.

Ruth: It’s kind of funny actually because what is generative coding, which I’ll come back into a second. There’s these sorts of levels when you’re coding, which is the computation is above the actual code. Say you are thinking about the way that the code is structured before you actually code it. It’s just, it’s a kind of like a pseudo code thing if you do actually code usually write down your actions before you actually write the detailed code part. Right. And the generative part, the generative art is exactly like that. Your computation is outside of the art. Does that make sense?  


Tim: Yeah, that makes sense.

Ruth: So the part of it was just out of your control is the computation part.

Tim: Yeah. You kind of give out one piece. So you kind of have an idea of how something might look. But I feel like if you did it over and over and over again, you’re very unlikely to have the same, the same outcomes.

Ruth: Yeah, I might rephrase that, the computation part, it’s the generative part. It’s one of the computation parts because you’re probably doing some other computation parts within your generative art.

Tim: Of course. And I feel like this is what makes kind of generative arts so interesting to me is that every single time you’re going to get something different. So, you know, this does, I feel like generative art has kind of boomed a lot lately, and you’re seeing things like that in galleries and in art spaces. And there’s a few really cool meetups right now where there is a pen plot on meetup. We’re talking about plotters in a later episode about tools. But just quickly a pen plotter is something that will hold a pen and it moves on two axis. So when you’ve coded something, it can draw it out on paper. And that these meetups people bring a bunch of the things that they’ve made with it and you kind of do like a little art swap. And the cool thing about that is you’re taking home something that is completely unique, you know from any other piece there, which I absolutely adore.

Ruth: You do an art swap.

Tim:  Yeah, yeah. They, they have like a big, you know, everyone will bring a couple of things that they’ve made and yeah, you can just kind of, everyone’s fairly open with it, you know like, Oh, you can take this. All right, I’ll swap you for this and that.

Ruth: Oh that’s so good.

Tim: Yeah and then you have, you have your one of a kind, one of a kind pieces, which is fantastic.

Ruth: I was actually at a creative coding meets up this week and we had a couple of newcomers. It’s quite a small one. And I live in a small city and it’s fairly new as well. We started it this year and we had a couple of newcomers and they’re both mathematicians and they said, oh no, we just wanted to come because one of the things we really love about coding and coder community is how open everybody is about sharing what they do. You can never really have that in our industry as mathematicians, we’re studying maths and university and like sort of PhD students and people are very closed about the work that they do. They like to own it, whereas a code everybody just shared their code willingly and you could take someone else’s code and you can make it your own and then you can share that and someone else will take it. And it’s just a really, really interesting thing. Which I’ll see isn’t necessarily related to the creative coding meetup, but that was something that really, we were just fascinated by.

Tim:  It is like that idea of like the close and openness is kind of something that I think the generative art and like creative coding people are sometimes struggling with more recently. I think there’s been a few cases where somebody has made an algorithm or something to create a particular type of work. And again, algorithms, we’re going to have a whole awesome episode kind of digging deeper into those. But yeah, people are kind of coming to terms with there is been a few cases where someone’s taken something open source and kind of used it to create a bunch of stuff and then sold it. And I’ve seen like a little bit of sour faces here and there kind of going, ah, well that’s kind of mine. You know, more recently there was that big, I think generative faces were made and the artwork sold for a fairly large amount. And the person that had made the code and open sourced it kind of was a little bit uppity on you know, oh, you just made $50,000 on something that I opened sourced. I mean, that is the nature of open source.

Ruth: Yeah it is a really really difficult one actually because I think that the openness feeds creativity and it influences how we are sharing our creativity within the communities. But at the same time we used to go into Wikipedia page something like creative coding and it specifically says somewhere at the bottom and I’d have to pull it up to be able to close it. But and it sort of says that computers being used as art is not as popular as it should be at this time. And one of those reasons for me anyway is because of this idea that you can’t sell digital art in the way that you can sell…

Tim: In a non-nonphysical form.

Ruth: Yeah, exactly. We don’t have this physical form. This is something that I actually asked from my friend, she just started to be an art producer and I was like, how do digital artists sell their pieces in galleries because, or like, you know, make money, right? How do you sell that thing? They don’t sell their piece. They make their money by putting it into galleries in a certain amount of time. So the galleries give them money to display it over and over and over again. That’s how the new model has been formed, which is only been over the past couple of, like I say, sort of five years. So it’s taken a long time for that new model to be formed because actually if we look at something like the history of something like computer art specifically, which is really the coding and being creative for coding, I mean that’s been around since the 60s.  

I’ve got some history stuff here. New tendencies exhibitions. So this is the first exhibitions that, this was the first series of exhibitions that brought computers or coding specifically into the art forms that they were displaying. They had a series of five exhibitions, new tendencies, and all the big art galleries around the world. It was the fourth exhibition that was actually called computer and visual research in 1968. There’s a collective from the Netherlands compos 68, 1968 to 1969 they’re formed. Jan Baptist Bedaux, Jerian Clausman, pretty sure I pronounced that right. And Arthur Bean, they were collective from the Netherlands that brought about some of the first digital art, which wasn’t necessarily produced on a computer, but it was just by a computer. So they would create the algorithms for the computer and then sort of paint them.

Tim: Are we in the punch card era here?

Ruth:   Yeah, we are 1968, yeah, we would have been, well would we have been? Hang on, I’m saying that because the work my dad does, he was, he would’ve been, yeah, he was still working on punch cards in 1975, so It would’ve been then and that’s a big assumption. We’d have to check that out. So yeah, they were, they did some stuff with process we should talk about in the tooling episode, but apart from the process that they did, they would sort of generate stuff and then paint it. So this is still really, really new stuff. But considering we’ve been making art with codes in 1968 and we’re only now beginning to build a model around actually creating money as artists who selling it, because a lot of the creative….

Tim: Just not all about the exposure.

Ruth: Yeah. Well this is just, isn’t it? Because you think about creative code over the past couple years has really exploded because I’m making another big assumption. A lot of people are just writing code for their day jobs because that’s an industry that needs that skill as a developer. And doing it as there’s, and I don’t want to say hobby, but doing it in their spare time.

Tim: That’s very much my case. You know, it’s like, oh, I’ve got, yeah, I’ve got these skills that I use, you know in my day to day basis. But they, yeah, they can be used for other things. I think like in general computers, this interesting case where like when we learn to read, we also kind of learned to write at the same time. And we’ve kind of got so many people now coming up with phones and computers who are able to consume for this device. And as time goes on, I feel like it is going to become like a mandatory school thing to be like, oh, you need to be able to create on these devices as well.

So it’s so cool, like looking at the big long kind of history of generative art and Computer Art. It’s like as soon as there were computers, there were some people that were like, let’s create art on these things. You know, let’s, even that example that you use where they use the computers to generate it and then they would paint it. It’s still, it’s still like, yeah, the second that it exists, somebody is going to try and get creative with that technology, which I love.

Ruth: Very interesting. So I can tell you a little bit more about the history, what I believe to be the history of creative coding. So the computation for creativity, but I’m actually quite interested in history for generative art because you know quite a lot about this. Cause it is  not just code is it?

Tim:  Yeah, I mean, yeah, I mean it just kind of goes back, it just goes back forever. The example that I like to use is the, I think it’s Mozart would write individual lines of you know, musical piece, different bars and then kind of roll some dice to put them together in a different way. I feel like that is such a nice good example of like early generative art with audio, with music. It’s like, let the dice decide how the composition is arranged.

But yeah, I’ve spent a lot of time, I think when you play around with a pen plotter you immediately kind of dig back to the first, the first pieces of generative art where they’re using, it’s like, what are those vector display kind of, you know, what am I trying to talk about here? Like before you had a screen, you had the one that’s like the little laser on it, like the old video games.

Ruth:  Yeah, I thought you had it. I sort of vote to dispose. The one that just had the little light drawing on it Right.

Tim:  Yeah. Yeah, yeah. I feel like even in school we kind of messed around with those and you change all the different frequencies and you’d create these kinds of yes, yes, exactly, pieces like that. And then there’s so many really cool artists we’ll link to a bunch of their works here, but Viera Mona, she is still actually producing generative and like art with computers. But she was doing that like all through the kind of sixties, Seventies. And I’ve kind of gone out of my way to recreate a bunch of those, a bunch of those individual pieces.

I think like when you have like, it’s funny that you brought up the mathematicians, when you’re playing around with like particular algorithms and particular ways to do things. And you  want to represent that on a piece of paper or on a screen, its kind of intrinsically ends up looking very artistic to me. You know, if you, if you pick something like an algorithm to pack as many circles as you want onto a page. And they have to be random sizes. You know, it ends up kind of creating like a molecular kind of cell.

Ruth: Without going too far into algorithms, because we were talking, I’m pretty sure we’re talking about older than that. There’s an artist Bridget Riley, she was very active, started in sixties, still working now. She does huge, big I say paintings and say plaques and she start to shape and then she modifies it to the next shape, just a little bit and modifies it to the next thing just a little bit. And so she ends up with what is this square that Everett? So just ever so slightly moves over time but on this massive painting. And to me that’s, that is still generative without the actuality. I think it’s still, yeah like a little circle or oval that just slightly moves, slightly rotates the next time she does the oval it slightly rotates, and so on and so forth. She doesn’t use a computer. It’s just as far as I’m aware anyway, it’s just how she’s, she figures out how draw it.

I’ve got a good one for you, you know this. Cause we have been actually spoken about this before. I read about this the other day. I was actually, I was doing some research on, I was writing a new talk and I do a lot of audio visualizations. So I was looking at like the history of that. There is a guy called Thomas Wilfred in the 1920s. He actually created an instrument called the Clabalax. He called it a Clabalax. Basically what he did was he stringed up a keyboard, not like a laptop keyboard. We don’t have them in the 1920s, like an actual sort of organ-based keyboard, but he strung it up with gels. So his gels specifically, we didn’t have like gels as far as visual artists to concerned is. So if you imagine all projectors, used to have at school, used to have like light projectors where you put a piece of film on the base and it would project up from mirror and project from the wall. Gels were like two things together and you could put like liquid in the middle and you can move them around or like gels over lights. It just colored film that you put over lights. They were gels. His gels were the bottom jam jars which he had painted in different colors. So he’d strung up what he called gels, bottoms are jam jars on different strings with the insides of sewing machines to control them.

He’s basically like shining lights through these gels and when he plays the keyboard, when he plays this organ and lights to move. So the lights turn on, the gels move, and he is basically one of the first visual artists, like one of the first DJs. And to me that’s one of the first generative artists as well. And he did like a whole show. We are going to do a whole chat on this properly. He did a whole show. There’s no music. Just in, I think it was in London just in a theater in London and the whole audience was just absolutely amazed. After that, that’s when he started putting these lights to music. Yeah. It’s not just about computers, but that is like an early form of computer If you think about it, you’re pressing buttons and things are moving.

Tim:  Yeah, I went to a band playing somewhere recently and behind them they kind of have this light show going on. And of course, you know, when you live in a creative coding world you kind of tend to see things like this. And be like, how have they built that? Like what’s the underlying aspect? And I couldn’t for the life of me understand what was going on and I actually went to see who was doing it. And what they ended up having was an overhead projector like the old kind.

Ruth: That’s what I am saying, an overhead projector. Thank you very much. Got the name.

Tim:  And he had a small spinning basically bowl that he was just pouring oils on over time and so they were mixing together, and it just was absolutely stunning. I was like, Oh, you know, he’s using real life to make these kinds of crazy art works.  I’ll put a link to the Instagram.

Ruth: Yeah, yeah. We will talk about this more in depth because there’s loads and loads of stuff around early VJ, my head is full of this weird knowledge. We will share. But that was my favorite, was my favorite findings of this week. Because I was like, this guys just got this machine that VJ’s.  It’s just basically a piano that controlled lights going through the end of Jam jars, which is exactly what you were just describing, which is like a modern day version, which is, only the head projector is somebody point out of it.

I really love your little comment about, you can’t see anything, but you could build it. When you figure it out, you’re satisfied. Oh yeah, I see what they’ve done there. They’ve done this and they’ve done that. I’m good.

Tim: Yeah. Yeah. I catch myself looking at artwork sometimes I’m like, what is the system behind this? What is going on?

Ruth: If I haven’t figured it out, that’s when I think something’s really amazing and I’m going to know like how have done this.

Tim: Yeah. Where do you start and where do you end is, it’s such a, I mean, that’s a big question in art in general really. Like how does an artist decide that their painting is complete? I don’t think, I don’t think there’s any full answer onto that. One other, one other kind of cool historical kind of aspect. And we’re also going to have an episode on this. I think we’re doing a good job now of kind of showing everybody what different topics we’re going to talk about. Is a data visualization as well. Like that is kind of an interesting aspect in generative art because the data that you use is kind of provided by an external system, so you could do something based on that. Exactly. So there is so many cool kind of, how the weather is, you know, you could use the weather as an example for some kind of visualization and use that information on, you know, if it’s raining, the lines are thicker or if it’s sunny, the lines are thinner or you know, temperature, things like that.

Ruth: Oh, I love that idea. Have you done anything around that?

Tim:  No, that’s a free one. It’s free one for the listeners. Yeah, absolutely. What else do we have? I feel like we’re…

Ruth:  Let’s go back to the what, just to answer that question, like what is creative coding. Because you obviously have coding and what differentiates, what is creative to what is not, which is quite a big philosophical question, which I don’t really want to go too deep into.

Tim: Start some internet fights.

Ruth: It’s a bit like, yeah, you’re going into what is art. It’s like you could discuss this for two hours.

Tim: It’s a one-way track to emotional breakdown, that’s for sure.

Ruth: The classic quote about what is creative is that it’s expressive and not functional. You are creating something purely just to express yourself rather than building something for purpose. So for the most part, as developers if we are going into our jobs as say web developers classically like I didn’t necessarily do that so much anymore but know if I wanted to take a job as a web developer, I could, I would be building something for a purpose. I’ve been building websites to publish your content.

It’s not particularly expressive. Whereas if I wanted to build something creatively, I’m just like hey, I’ve got this weird I did to make it do something that you say. I just built emotive piano, so I want to play a piano and I want emojis to come out of that every single time I, hit a key I what to show an emoji. There’s no functionality behind that. It’s merely expressive.

Tim: That’s pretty cool though.

Ruth: That’s the idea how on board with this idea I personally am is in question. Do a little chat on that if you want, because I think let’s not talk about it now, but that’s the idea about creative coding. It’s also a little bit around digital art and what makes something digital art rather than just art, which is the idea that it has code behind it. Dominic MacGyver Lopes has written a whole book on philosophy of computer art, which sort of talks about this is the role of coding in art and using code as a tool to create art, which is essentially what we’re doing. If we’re talking like us to specifically as coders who create things are going to do. But people have disagreed with that as well. These are all just opinions and you’re entitled to my opinion. People have their own Toby Judith and Travis Cox both big in the creative space. They look to expose the code as part of the creativity. I actually was discussing this, not for this purpose by the way, but a completely different purpose cause I wanted to talk about this, not on the podcast we talk that I was doing. Just in which one’s right.

Like are we creating these things that we’re making for the end results or for the actual creative process at this meetup that was at this week. Two people are sitting there just went both, they didn’t even waiver, they didn’t even think about it. They just went both. It’s the process and it’s the final piece.  So as far as creative coding goes, cause I’m the same. I’m just like, yeah, you’re creating a piece with your idea and this whole thing behind the idea and the journey that’s taken you to this idea. But your tool, your choice of what is making this idea becomes part of who you are. We could’ve been painters, we could’ve been sculptors, we could’ve been textile artists, we could’ve been any number of things. Creativity’s always been there, but we chose code for a reason. That’s because of that’s who we are as part of our journey.

Tim: Yeah. It’s funny that, no, I agree that it is both. That is motivating. I think sometimes one more than the other. And the reason that I think that is the amount of times that I’ll start a project and overcome the most difficult part of the problem, the biggest part of the challenge and then I’ll kind of lose interest. And for those ones, in a lot of ways, it was purely about the journey. It was purely about; can I do this? And I guess once I’ve proven it to myself, I didn’t really need to finish it in a weird way, which is not a great habit but it’s kind of the reality of how it played out.

Ruth: No, it’s a good habit. I agree with you. We have touched on this before when we were talking, because I can get really stuck on this because I’m creating is so much part of the process and I really, really love the point that you just made that because it’s just about that joy of actually doing and you found a tool and you just really love creating that actually, once you’ve solved that problem or you’re like, oh, got it. Okay, this is how I do this thing. I’ve done this thing; I don’t need to follow through. And actually at some point you are going to use that process again to follow through to something that is much more worthwhile following.

Tim: I hope so.

Ruth: Oh, that’s just it. That that is it. You will. It’s the whole creative process as far as I’m concerned, it’s a bit like, I was going to use Rockford as an example, but that’s a really classic example. I’m assuming using every single different kind of paint and layering them all up, you must have thrown away so many different many Roscoe’s.

Tim: Right.

Ruth: Gotcha. Okay. I see how these layers work. I see how putting oil on top of Goulash works. I see how Goulash on top of oil works. I see how acrylic on top of Goulash and so on and so forth until I actually got to the point where he was like: ”Now I know I want to paint red.“” I know how all of these things work on top of each other. Let’s paint red.

Tim: Right. We’ll have to definitely put a link to some of that. So cool.

Ruth: Too handy to explain Rothko.

Tim: Can one truly.

Ruth: Rothko go up layers of different types of paint. That was his whole big thing. There you go, explained Rothko. Every single art student is very disappointed that I didn’t go into it. It was all about the process. That was the whole big thing, it is all about process and because he was focused on that and like he made beautiful paintings. Right.

Tim: That’s good. I mean, yeah, the whole like part of the process and I guess you touched on it already, like with the like open sourcing your code. Like some people, you know, it’s like code as art is a whole different idea as well. Let’s not go too deep into that. Fall over from it.

Ruth: That’s a hole.

Tim: Anyhow, I kind feel like that the….

Ruth: I think that’s what Toby, Judith and Travis Cox is thought of etching on is exposing the code and that’s because that’s part of the process, as part of the art.

Tim: That’s good. I like art galleries, or the Smithsonian as has taken maybe Pac man or something like that as the code for Pac-man and kind of put it up in there, in their gallery. I might be mistaken.

Ruth: Yeah, I think. There was an exhibition about typography. We should try and find out the details for this, but this has just mentioned to me a few days ago and Code is highlighted in this because of the typography of code. Because obviously, we use monospace and its quite specific kind of topography that we use.

Tim: Yeah. We want the ligatures and whatnot.

Ruth: They do look cool. Like I can live without it. I’m going to write code.

Tim: I feel like it’s the journey that you take when you don’t want to start a project, let me change my font and the theme and the ligatures and next thing I know is its midnight and that’s that.  Anyway, I do feel like this is a, that’s a pretty good little wrap up. I think everybody listening should get excited because there’s so much good stuff to come. Again, we’re going to talk about all the crazy tools. We’re going to talk about algorithms, data. We’ve got a bunch of really cool guests. There’s just so much to come.

Ruth: I’m excited Tim.

Tim: I’m excited as well. Should we call it a kachow?

Thanks for listening to the first episode of the Generative Art Podcast. You can find all the links and the transcript www.generativeartestry.com. We also have a Twitter account, @genartpodcast, so you can follow us on that. We’d also like to give a big shout out to the musician in charge of our intro and outro music, Matt McKay. You can find him under destroy with science on SoundCloud and Bandcamp. So If you enjoy it, that’s where you can find hit. Keep subscribed because we’ve got loads more content for you and we shall see you next week.