Nonhuman Art

I have always searched outside the art world the intellectual stimulation needed to be an artist, as I belief that creativity is produce through the interaction between different experiences and knowledge’s. This personal attitude as been reinforced in a context where artistic practices tended to rely more and more in self-referential and circular systems, very dependent of the mercantile interests, and thus loosing excitement and novelty.
I was lucky to feel in that way, because from the side of sci­ence the “artistic” components of artificial intelligence (AI) and artificial life (aLife) have become increasable interesting, giving birth to completely new fields of knowledge and new ideas re­garding life, art and intelligence itself.
From this context were born several projects developed in collaboration with Vitorino Ramos and more recently the project of UnManned Art with Henrique Garcia Pereira.
In short the idea is to create an organism able to generate forms without any representational pre-commitment and with a minimum of esthetical intervention from our part. This project differs from others, namely those of algorithmic or evolutionary art, where purely random choices and/or an aesthetic fitness evaluation must be incorporated, with or without the require­ment of pre-constraints. Such experiments are based on a kind of ideal form, determined directly by humans or developed by computers after learning human idiosyncrasies. It differs also from certain proposals of AI, which try to simulate representa­tions, emotions or human sensitivity.
It is undeniable the interest of such experiments, but that is not the purpose of our project. We want to remove, as much as possible, the human factor. Particularly in what concerns aesthetic or ethical subjectivity, taste or style, leaving to the “artificial artist” the task to define its own “art”. It is our in­tent to depreciate the quality of the ‘oeuvre d’art’, liberating the aesthetic experience from all the moralistic and individualistic mythologies. For that purpose we are working with “artificial ant systems” and “swarm systems”.
This said, I must start by confessing some incredulity and frustration during the first year of work. Although we reached very quickly some fascinating results, it was difficult for me to perceive the utility of the exercise. As an artist, I asked often: ‘yes it is nice, but what can I do with it?’ Typically I was look­ing at artificial life as a new tool, capable of serving by means of its extraordinary combinatory performance my one specific objective. In fact I wanted those systems to perform tasks or solve problems. From that attitude and period I have accom­plished some curious artistic and architectural projects, but not a new kind of art. Besides that the overwhelming images that appeared in the screen of the monitor, soon gave place to a feeling of inconsequence in practical terms. Because an artist is essentially a builder, of objects or situations, the virtual reality of the pixel universe appears as an insurmountable obstacle.
It didn’t seem possible to undertake any significant concep­tual or esthetical rupture by means of flickering digital images, for very complex and elaborate that they would be. As we can already state by looking at exhibitions and art magazines, con­temporary art very soon did integrate such images, in the old logic of fashion and formalism.
The computer, primordial soup of the artificial life, is very deceptive when it comes to output. In the monitor all the im­ages, reduced to their condition of pixels, seem similar and equivalent. Over and over again I initiate the program, drop a set of “ants” randomly in a delimited space (ambient) and wit­ness the emergence of a variety of drawings, lines or clusters, mappings or 3d constructions, depending on the characteristics of the program or the specific parameters and grammar. The result was always exciting, and more exciting when increasing unexpected, that is, less controlled. But the monitor kept on returning this excitement to a kind of virtual dullness.
It was thus that after a sleepless night, I decided to break with the monitor and undertake a simple experiment. With the aid of a small CAD/CAM machine and a Japanese brush deepen in paint; I redirected the swarm to a white sheet of Fabriano paper. A painting emerged, formally similar to post-war abstract art, a children’s drawing or the experiments with the chimpan­zee Congo. I decide to call it “Swarm Paintings”.
This first painting was a true revelation. Facing the naive scrabbles from the swarm, I felt to be in the presence of a con­ceptual shift. Those kind of things that creates a before and an after. The excitement changed into vision.
The following step, very laborious and complicated, was to try to limit to the maximum the human intervention. Not only to bind the swarm directly with the painting machine, but also to increase autonomy at the level of the bottom-up methodologi­cal design. As a natural step I am now working with robotics.
The paintings and drawings reproduced here are the result of this “primitive” work. The colors and the formats are still my “interpretation”. Actually in this first stage all the works from the artificial swarm are human assisted. But they will be less and less as the autonomy improves.
Anyway, it can already be stated that these “paintings” have very few human characteristics. They do not share practically any of the conditions of (human) authorship. They do not re­fer to a pre-committed representation, don’t assume any senti­mental pretension or express a particular sensibility, and more­over they don’t expect an esthetical or ethical recognition. They also don’t reveal taste, style or any message. They are a form of automatism at its most radical manifestation.
The similarities with recognized art works are due to the production context. That is, they are defects and not qualities, inevitable at this experimental phase where my intervention is still considerable. The more I will withdraw from it, the big­ger the autonomy will grow. Tomorrow we will be able to “give birth” to an artificial life entirely dedicated to its “art”.
The use of current artistic categories, such as drawings, paintings, sculptures, is not relevant to the process, but is justi­fied by the need of a strategy of recognition for the art world, without which it would not be possible to introduce the ques­tions that really matter.
The desire to gain autonomy is not new in art history. Three moments, corresponding to important aesthetical ruptures, are of particular importance. The use by Renaissance painters of the “Camara Obscura”; the “invention” of the abstraction in the beginning of 20th century; and, a little later, the appearance of the “ready-made” by Duchamp.
The “Camara Obscura” was not the first “machine” to help artists, but it embodies a fundamental moment, when in a con­scientious and objective way an instrument of mediation be­tween the model and its representation was adopted. By that it was possible to depreciate the subjective aspects of craftsman­ship, allowing a concentration on the content. The invention of the “Camara Lucida” and later the photography has contrib­uted decisively to radicalize the process. For example, Vermeer paintings would not be possible without the use of a “Camara Obscura”. They look like Polaroid’s, because they are in fact hu­man assisted photographic snapshot.
If the “Camara Obscura” helped to concentrate on repre­sentation, the abstraction finally freed the artist from it. The art didn’t need anymore to represent a portion of the reality, it become a reality on its own. The subject of art became art itself.
With Duchamp and his “ready-made” it was the statute of the work of art to be questioned. It didn’t matter anymore the esthetical achievement, nor the skill of the author. The specta­tor and the context made the art. All the art after Duchamp is a context art, varying only in modalities of contextualization, decontextualization, recontextualization and so on.
At a first glance we can see these paintings as one par­ticular way of output, to be considered in the same plane of an image in the monitor, a print, a digital photography or a video.
However the essence of these paintings is not in the image, but in the process. Its implications have little to do with the step from virtual to real, even if that is important in itself, but with the consequences that this new art will have in culture and society.
It is thus important to understand that we are not speaking about a machine that paints more or less randomly. A robot, with wheels or legs, that evolves on a surface by chance or based on a predetermined set of instructions. In this context let me play tribute to the unjustly forgotten Italian artist Pinot- Gallizio. Inventor of the “pittura industriale” he created a ma­chine (human assisted) that spread energetically paint on rolls of canvas, later to be sold by the meter at the more appraised Art Galleries of the fifties.
Anyway swarm paintings are not simple mechanic automa­tion. Randomness or combinatorial aspects are not relevant. In fact, these works emerge from artificial ants, through a pro­cess of deposition/evaporation of pheromone. Some draw trails (where more pheromone, means more paint), others define clusters or build 3d objects. The result is a cognitive map and not a mere mechanical pattern.
When we look at one of these paintings, with its own mate­riality, we are not in the presence of chance. We see the plastic expression of an (artificial) life form. “Swarm paintings” are the product of an ant-swarm system capable of registering its exis­tential activity, in a delimited ambient and during a certain pe­riod of time. Each painting, drawing or sculpture represents the global behaviour of a set of agents in a bottom-up approach.
It is certain that we still need somebody and a context to disclose these works. This particular “artificial artist” depends, not only of human assistance, but also of a curator and probably also a dealer. But in the “swarm art” the essential decisions for the emergence of the forms belong entirely to the ant-swarm. Therefore this “art” cannot be attributed solely to any human being, even not to the author of the algorithm. That is, the programmer creates the “DNA” of the “artist”, but not the art works. The true artist is the swarm.
The notion of life in the label artificial life attained a vast consensus in contemporary science. The life from aLife share a significant number of characteristics that are recognized as defining life itself. Morphogenesis, the ability to generate forms, reproduction, the capacity to transmit genetic informa­tion and therefore survive death, evolution the ability to adapt to a changing environment. Autopoiesis, the process whereby an organization produces itself, is another and more difficult to perform feature of life. “A physical system if autopoietic is living. In other words, we claim that the notion of autopoiesis is necessary and sufficient to characterize the organization of living systems.” (Maturana & Varela) If we want to call art to the production of an artificial being than we must demonstrate to be in the presence of an autopoietic system. And that is the actual target of our undertaking. But from the moment we ac­cept life in artificial life, there is no reason why not to call art to artificial art.
Richard Dawkins states that the difference between human art or design and the extraordinary forms that we encounter in nature, is due to the fact that the first are born from a mental project, while the second result from natural selection. Cultural and natural selection are supposed not to work in the same way.
However, art and culture is the result of historical and so­cial consensus, established through a non analytical process. It is the community involved with the production, circulation and fruition of art that determines the value of a particular work of art or artist. Art that nobody is interested in faints, the one that pleases to a great number prospers and occupies the Museums and the collective imaginary. And, such as in nature, a bizarre mutation rejected first can in certain circumstances give place to a future consensus. Think about Van Gogh. This means that art and culture emerges also from a kind of “natural” selection.
The separation between artistic forms produced by nonhu­man life, be it natural or so called artificial, and those made by human artists, is not justified. The extreme anthropocentrism that characterizes our culture is not clever, nor productive. The nature is bursting with extraordinary works of art that we should appreciate, as such, in order to enrich our environment and ex­istences. The esthetical experience is present everywhere and it is not an exclusively human behaviour. For example beauty, so important for any definition of human aesthetics, can be trans­lated as the level of adaptation of an organism to its environ­ment. A greater beauty (or fitness) means a superior capac­ity of survival and reproduction. Thus to refuse all the possible forms, be it human mind origin, mechanical origin or natural se­lection origin, results in a limitation of our own universe. When our Museums will have human artefacts aside with nonhuman art (organic or artificial) the process of human aesthetic evolu­tion will speed up. The development of forms will be more com­plex and dynamic. Typically self-centred subjective matters, as authorship, sensibility or taste, will tend to be irrelevant. The recognition that life, intelligence and art are everywhere will open a new vision of all things and reorient our own place in the universe. It will be less grandiloquent but much more produc­tive and exciting.