Residency 2020: V&A Digital Art Collection

Hosted by Senior Curator Doug Dodds and Curator of Digital Art Melanie Lenz.

The V&A visit was something that I was intrigued about. What impression would I get from seeing art generated by machines, both mechanical and computational? I was pleasantly surprised by the delicacy of the early work. Reminiscent of Harmonographs and their derivatives. The works gave me a sense of nostalgia: a throwback to the sixties and science fiction, textbook illustrations and works that were on the edge of acceptance. There was a strong sense of aesthetics running throughout all of the drawings, prints, plots.

Herbert Brün

I think that the fact that most of the works were drawn in ink on paper, often art paper, gave them a sense of clean style and deliberately orientated towards creating an artistic outcome. It was interesting that the last two prints by Lomas and Latham were appreciated somewhat less. Albeit that Lomas’ work is exquisitely wrought by the algorithm that generated it, somehow there is a sense of ordinariness about it. Perhaps because they are photographs and they do not possess that material feel left by the traces of a pen with ink. Perhaps it because of the ubiquity of the plethora of complex imagery that floods our sensory world today. Or maybe the earlier works have that aura of uniqueness, often being sole samples of a machine’s restrainedly stochastic production.

Andy Lomas

In the few works that we were shown, the transition from analogue drawing to digital rendering is a distinct boundary in the development of machine art. In some cases, however, the means of production are practically indistinguishable. The earlier works were often made as exploratory curiosities, often prized by their makers but derided by the general public as travesties of art. There is the case of Harold Cohen, celebrated painter, Venice Biennale representative for Britain, descending into near obscurity having set aside his brushes and paints in favour of programming and mechanical hardware. His turtle drawings have the look and feel of something having been drawing on a tablet today, save for the fact that the ink is delivered from a pen attached to a moving bot programmed to choreograph the lines.

Harold Cohen

There does seem to be a difference in feel between plotted lines from a pen and scans across the paper by an array of nozzles or laser light sources. Perhaps the difference is academic, maybe a subtle variance in aesthetic, or simply, a pen held by a mechanical ‘hand’ or a human hand has a physicality, that today’s printers cannot or do not emulate.

Whatever the training or vocation of each individual, it is clear that in each case the intention was an aesthetic one. Today’s idea of process or concept overriding outcome does not seem to be the thing. It could be that the workers were intent on proving that a machine can be used to produce something beautiful with sensitivity in the face of criticisms that say, ‘this is not art’. In some cases, the stated intention was to codify the aesthetics and beauty contained in maths. In other cases, to codify the growth of organic form and or see how far they could go in humanising the machine.

I see it principally as a quest based on curiosity. What can be done using a machine, how can we humans, the rule-makers regarding beauty, deal with machines making manifest those rules or even making the rules themselves: what is the nature of nature and creativity. It is an expression of reaching for the divine by being the ex Machina of the machine and perhaps even giving/allowing it a will of its own.

The question still remains in my mind. How does this compare to art created by humans? To my mind, the works created by machines, generative art, plotted art, the programmed design seems in retrospect rather whimsical. Today’s complex marvels may also appear whimsical in the future. The production of imagery today, approaches perfection of making to my eyes, is this too much, even when it appears chaotic? Whether future generations will crave the imperfection of limited hand-making in a perfectly designed, manufactured machine world, where the imagination is matched by the possible, who knows?  No doubt there is room for both. They satisfy different paradigms that exist in a fluctuating relationship within a broader field. Artists and artisans have strived throughout history to create the perfect thing. That task has been taken out of our hands. The divergence of the ‘perfect’ and the ‘imperfect’ has now acquired a new meaning. We have entered a new world moved on from the Renaissance humanism. It appears we no longer focus on the divine in the human but search for what is human in the machine.

Interesting seminal catalogue: Cybernetic Serendipity, ICA, Studio International, Special Issue 25s