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The Organic vs. The Mechanical

“From the standpoint of Taoist philosophy natural forms are not made but grown, and there is a radical difference between the organic and the mechanical.

Things which are made, such as houses, furniture, and machines, are an assemblage of parts put together, or shaped, like sculpture, from the outside inwards.

But things which grow shape themselves from within outwards – they are not assemblages of originally distinct parts; they partition themselves, elaborating their own structure from the whole to the parts, from the simple to the complex.”

Alan Watts 1958

Alan Watts, English philosopher and Zen monk, was a Buddhist in a very sixties sense. He was a master of Theology, a Priest, and the author of over twenty books on Zen philosophy. He also experimented with psychedelic drugs, both on a personal level and in laboratory trials. He had plenty to say on the subject of creativity and technology, but never, as far as I know, said anything specifically on the subject of Generative Art.

In the quote above he is talking about the incongruity between the natural world and the man-made, separating creation into the organic and the mechanical. This concept of organic growth, whereby forms are constructed “from within outwards”, describes Generative Art rather well, but in such a clear bilateralism how can we say that a work of computer programming belongs to the world of the organic rather than the mechanical?

Generative Art is neither programming, nor art, in their conventional sense. It is both and neither of these things. Programming is an interface between man and machine; it is a clean, logical discipline, with clearly defined aims. Art is an emotional subject, highly subjective and defying definition. Generative Art is the meeting place between the two, it is the discipline of taking strict, cold logical processes and subverting them into creating illogical, unpredictable and expressive results.

Generative Art is not something we build, with plans, materials and tools. It is grown, much like a flower or a tree is grown, but its seeds are logic and electronics rather than soil and water. It is an emergent property of the simplest of processes: logical decisions and mathematics. Generative Art is about creating the organic using the mechanical.

Watts’ opposing categories of worldly things, the mechanical and the organic, are usually quite easy to separate. A building has straight edges and sharp corners, it is functional and accurate, it is in the realm of the mechanical. A tree is irregular and temporally inconstant, its leaves shake in the wind and shed in the autumn, it is in the realm of the organic. Mechanical things are constructed; they are fashioned, as Watts says, from the outside in. They are built, drawn, assembled, sculpted, manufactured. Whereas organic things are grown, they are self-structuring, holistic. Their forms come about without intent, they do not conform to designs or blueprints.

Like the landscape gardener, the lot of the Generative Artist is to take naturally evolving phenomenon and to fashion them into something aesthetically pleasing. It is finding that point of balance between the beautiful unruliness of the natural world and the desired order of our ape brains. A garden that is unkempt and overgrows is unpleasing to us because it is too far into the realms of the chaotic, whereas concreting the area instead is the tidiest, most ordered of solutions, but it removes all beauty too.

The sweet spot is between the two, where the grass is neat and evenly cut but still no two blades are alike, or move in perfect synchronicity. Where the colours of the flowers are evenly balanced, but not in a way that is exact and precise. The sweet spot is where the “art” lives.




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