Generative art has a history measured in decades, not long compared to other arts, which is probably why it is still on the periphery of the art world. While Art Colleges across the globe are churning out tens of thousands of painters, potters, fashion designers and graphic designers every year, the number of practising Generative Artists in the world at present could probably fit quite comfortably onto a single Caribbean cruise liner. Which would be a lovely idea if anyone fancies arranging it.
This demographic is changing fast though. As popular computing technology accelerates, more creative people are getting theirs hands on the tools and discovering this novel art form.
While the term Generative Art has only really been in general use since the 1960s, the concept has been with us a lot longer. Generative forms of music, for example, have been around since Mozart. His Musikalisches Würfelspiel (Musical Dice Game) was an early example of a generative artistic system. The idea was to create a Minuet by cutting and pasting together pre-written sections, making selections according to the roll of a dice. Even with a single six sided dice, the number of possible combinations rises very quickly, e.g. by five rolls there are 7,776 possible combinations, with six rolls 46,656. These types of artistic parlour games became very popular in the 18th Century.
In the last century composers such as John Cage, Karlheinz Stockhausen, and Brian Eno expanded upon the idea of generative music. John Cage’s 4’ 33”, his controversial note-less piece defined only by it’s length, takes environmental ambient sounds as it’s only content, meaning no two performances of the work are ever the same. Later, Stockhausen and Eno (and others) experimented with procedural methods of composition, where music is defined by a set of rules or conditions. Eno’s Discreet Music LP (1975) is a fine example of this, the first side of which is a 30-minute piece created by a tape loop feedback system. A synthesised melody was recorded onto a tape machine, the output of which was fed into a second tape machine. The output of the second machine was then fed back into the first machine and the overlapping signals recorded. We know of this process because Eno included a diagram of his setup on the back cover of the LP.
Visual forms of Generative Art started emerging in the 1960s, firstly with computers outputting to plotters, then VDUs, and later more sophisticated forms of print and video. An early pioneer in this area was the artist Manfred Mohr, who published a collection of computer-generated artworks Artificiata I in 1969.
But while the development of GenArt has been closely tied to the evolution of the computer, computers are just a useful convenience. The real tools of GenArt, the underlying constants to the various tools we can use, are the algorithms. Algorithms are a part of the natural world; they have a universality that transcends medium. So while the systems capable of creating GenArt change over time, evolving as technology evolves, the algorithms remain the same. Generative Art may not quite as old as Art itself, but it might be said to be at least as old as mathematics.