Self-made art

The current pandemic has shown how a small entity with a simple algorithm can generate complexity to the point of paralyzing human activity around the world. Completely harmless, my art robots use a similar mechanism based on simple rules to produce drawings and paintings. These machines can generate complex pictorial compositions with little human intervention opening the path for nonhuman art.

1. Making art is at the same time expressing a personal view and being inscribed in a history that started millennia ago. Alike science innovative approaches are essential in art, even if, opposed to science and its validation mechanisms, the provisional evaluation is less objective. The value of art is determined by a complex network of interests, from collectors, curators, museums, taste, artist’s idiosyncrasies among others. However, with time, some art proposals, often initially neglected, emerge as the most representative of a particular instant in history. Examples are abundant when we look back, from which Van Gogh’s fate is a good illustration – dead in misery and madness it is now one of the most appraised artists of his time. The future will not be different.
Hence, when engaging in art decades ago, I had in mind how to contribute with something meaningful and distinct from my colleagues. Not being interested in an emotional or personal expression I concentrated on creativity mechanisms and the evolution of art history.

Figure 1. Art evolution: Wassily Kandinsky, Composition 6, 1913; Marcel Duchamp, ready-made, 1917; Art & Language, Air-Conditioning Show, 1965 (all images public domain)

Some quite recent extraordinary changes have redefined the concept of art. From figurative to abstract; from manufacturing to ready-made; from object to process (fig 1). Abstraction showed that the representation of the exterior world, or the representation of beliefs, was no longer essential since art could be a representation of itself. After Kandinsky, and other abstract artists, art became the main subject of art. Marcel Duchamp added another important rupture by stating that the artist didn’t need to do the work himself and could simply take an already made object and “transform” it in artwork by changing its context. After Duchamp the idea became more important than ability. Then, conceptual art favored immateriality as it claimed that idea and process were more important than the object.

Figure 2. John Conway, Game of Life, 1970, Glider evolution

Process and conceptual art opened the door for digital technologies applied to art in the late 20th century. Since the 1960s computers and algorithms became new tools for artistic creation. With the rapid evolution of these technologies the tool approach, i.e. that machines only do what the human operator wants, was replaced by the idea of autonomy where the machine is able of its own creativity.

The sciences of complexity showed that it is possible to simulate unpredictable emergent processes based on simple rules and local interactions. In this context, Conway’s Game of Life (fig.2), which I learned in the 1990s, was a true revelation. The potential for art was mind-blowing. John Conway, recently deceased by Covid-19, opened the field of Cellular Automata explored until today by many scientists. In 2002 Stephen Wolfram published a systematic study of one-dimensional cellular automata claiming the birth of a new kind of science. But it was only when I made acquaintance with the Ant Algorithm proposed by Marco Dorigo in his thesis in 1992 (fig. 3), that I decide to apply this new science to art.

Figure 3. Marco Dorigo, Ant Algorithm, 1992, 1000 iterations

The first Ant Algorithm was a path optimization simulation. But for me, a visual artist, it was a self-made drawing. I saw it as an evolution of Duchamp’s ready-made. Since it is enough to trigger an algorithm and the artwork emerges by itself.

Figure 4. Ant-like robot.

2. After several experiments on the computer, I jumped to the physical world with the aid of robots These machines evolve in the real world and can produce unique artworks. My first autonomous robots were a kind of artificial ants (fig. 4), interacting with each other based on the concept of stigmergy. For the purpose of generating pictorial compositions, I replaced pheromones with color.

Stigmergy is a concept of auto-organization based on indirect communication. One agent leaves a mark that once recognized by other agent produces a particular behavior.

These first ant-like robots worked as swarm. Each robot consisted of three components: the sensors, the controller and the actuators. The sensors received signals from the environment to be processed by the microcontroller in order to command the actuators.

The RGB color sensors, situated under the robot, could detect the entire palette of colors, but, since these originalrobots carry only two pens, color detection was divided into two ranges, ‘warm’ and ‘cold’. Proximity sensors assisted robots to determine the area of the terrarium and avoid collisions. Three servomotors: two for the wheels and one to operate the pens managed movement and painting. The controller was an on-board PIC.

The rules were simple. If the robot detected white it would walk away in a haphazard mode except when a random number generator produced a value that exceeds a given threshold and triggers the actuator to produce a trace. If the robot detected color it would reinforce that color. Soon, from an initial chaotic background some clusters of color appeared.

The first paintings done in 2004 favored cluster formation (fig. 5), although its perceptibility depended on the duration of the performance[1].

[1] That´s why in 2006 I’ve created a series of robots able to stop the process by themselves. One of which, named RAP from Robotic Action Painter, is displayed at the American Museum of Natural History in New York.

Figure 5. 270504, 2004, ink on paper, 195 x 180 cm. Guy & Myriam Ullens Foundation Collection

3. The artworks generated by this process are nonhuman in essence. The human is the trigger and a kind of symbiont, but not the creator of the works. The paintings result from the interaction between the agents, i.e. the robots, and their environment, i.e. the canvas, while the algorithm is a set of “if-then” simple rules. The necessary data for the operation is gathered by the robot itself based on rudimentary sensor observation, such as color, kind of color, or noncolor. The process is self-organized and emergent with trivial and insignificant human intervention. To choose one color or another, to stop at a given moment are decisions that don’t affect the essential, which is, that machines can build a composition on their own.

It is worth to add, that such artworks derive more from natural creativity than from human imagination. Cluster formation, for example, is common from bacteria to galaxies and ants, my model. Although not unique, self-organized processes are at the core of life and evolution.

The procedure demonstrates that complex behavior may be attained with simple but functional rules. Whereas, the role of the artist, the roboticist or the artificial intelligence programmer, is to find the rules that work. Such a view introduces a new kind of art in its historical evolution, since the purpose is now to create the creators and not directly the artwork, opening the field for an art made by machines.

4. Nonhuman art is interesting in many aspects. As said before, for art history it opens an entire new field of possibilities. Combined with artificial intelligence or generative processes it promises an explosion of creativity as we have never seen before. Until now innovation was constraint by the extraordinary but limited human imagination. By nature, our brain has difficulty in dealing with multitasking and exploring the unthinkable. Machines don’t have such constraints. Hence, it is foreseeable that in the future machines will produce something that we may call art and probably love even we don’t understand it.

Nonhuman art, be it made by other life forms or machines, is also important as a recognition of the complexity of life itself. Human civilization has thriven from the exploitation and disdain regarding all the other living species. To the point of the massive extinction that we are witnessing. To acknowledge that, although dominant, we are just one evolutionary solution is fundamental to evolve and to open our minds to the richness of other potentials.

I conclude as I’ve started. A small organism, a virus, not even really alive, is able to transform radically our world. It is terrible but at the same time fascinating and enlightening.