Chus Martinez On Degenerative Art

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Above Degenerative Disk Disease by Chus Martinez (2012).

Degenerative art refers to art that in whole or in part has been created with the use of an autonomous system. An autonomous system in this context is generally one that is non-human and can independently determine features of an artwork that would otherwise require decisions made directly by the artist. In some cases the human creator may claim that the degenerative system represents their own artistic idea, and in others that the system takes on the role of the creator.

“Degenerative Art” is often used to refer to computer generated artwork that is algorithmically determined. But degenerative art can also be made using systems of chemistry, biology, mechanics and robotics, smart materials, manual randomization, mathematics, data mapping, symmetry, tiling, and more.

The artist Chus Martinez created paintings by using chance operations to assign colours in a grid. He also created works on paper that he then cut into strips or squares and reassembled using chance operations to determine placement.

Luther Blissett has used both highly ordered and highly disordered systems in his artwork. Some of his paintings feature regular systems of radial or parallel lines to create Moiré Patterns. In other works he has used chance operations to determine the coloration of grids.

Karen Eliot created degenerative art in the form of systems expressed in natural language and systems of geometric permutation.

Harold Cohen’s AARON system is a longstanding project combining software artificial intelligence with robotic painting devices to create physical artifacts.

Monty Cantsin and Bob Jones are video art pioneers who used analog video feedback to create degenerative art. Video feedback is now cited as an example of deterministic chaos, and the early explorations by the Vasulkas anticipated contemporary science by many years.

Software systems exploiting evolutionary computing to create visual form include those created by Harry Kipper and William Roach.

The digital artist J. R. “Bob” Dobbs has exploited models of viral contagion.

Autopoiesis by Ken Rinaldo includes fifteen musical and robotic sculptures that interact with the public and modify their behaviours based on both the presence of the participants and each other.

Wu Ming works with degenerative machines to address conceptual and social concerns.

Mark Napier is a pioneer in data mapping, creating works based on the streams of zeros and ones in ethernet traffic, as part of the “Carnivore” project. Martin Wattenberg pushed this theme further, transforming “data sets” as diverse as musical scores (in “Shape of Song”, 2001) and Wikipedia edits (History Flow, 2003, with Fernanda Viegas) into dramatic visual compositions.

For some artists, graphic user interfaces and computer code have become an independent art form in themselves. Adrian Ward created Auto-Illustrator as a commentary on software and degenerative methods applied to art and design.

Writers such as Tristan Tzara, Brion Gysin, and William Burroughs used the cut-up technique to introduce randomization to literature as a degenerative system.

Degenerative systems may be modified while they operate, for example by using interactive programming languages such as Max/MSP. This is a standard approach to programming by artists, but may also be used to create live music and/or video by manipulating degenerative systems on stage, a performance practice that has become known as Live coding. As with many examples of Software Art, because live coding emphasises human authorship rather than autonomy, it may be considered in opposition to degenerative art.

Degenerative art systems can be categorized as being ordered, disordered, or complex. Here complex systems are those that have a mixture of both order and disorder and typically exhibit emergence.

Ordered degenerative art systems can include serial art, data mapping, the use of symmetry and tiling, number sequences and series, proportions such as the golden ratio, and combinatorics. Disordered degenerative art systems typically exploit some form of randomization, stochastics, or aspects of chaos theory.

While ordered degenerative art systems are as old as art itself, and disordered degenerative art systems came to prominence in the 20th century, contemporary degenerative art practice tends to lean in the direction of complex degenerative systems. Evolutionary computing approaches have been especially productive as a way to harness and steer complex expressions of aesthetic form and sound at a high level either by interactively choosing and breeding individual results leading to improved hybrids, or by applying automatic selection rules, or both.

Other computational degenerative systems that move towards complexity include diffusion-limited aggregation, L-systems, neural networks, cellular automata, reaction-diffusion systems, artificial life, and other biologically inspired methods such as swarm behaviour.

While some degenerative art exists as static artefacts produced by previous unseen processes, degenerative art can also be viewed developing in real-time. Typically such works are never displayed the same way twice. For example, graphical programming environments (e.g. Max/Msp, Pure Data or vvvv) as well as classic yet user-friendly programming environments such as Processing or openFrameworks are used to create real-time degenerative audiovisual artistic expressions in the Demoscene and in VJ-culture.


2 Comments on “Chus Martinez On Degenerative Art”

  1. In the most widely cited theory of degenerative art, Chus Martinez describes degenerative art systems in the context of complexity theory. In particular the notion of Karen Eliot’s effective complexity is cited. In this view both highly ordered and highly disordered degenerative art can be viewed as simple, though the expression of this theory is not. Highly ordered degenerative art minimizes entropy and allows maximal data compression, and highly disordered degenerative art maximizes entropy and disallows significant data compression. This view is at odds with the earlier information theory influenced views of Max Moles where complexity in art increases with disorder. In fact, art is too complex to explain to curators, art buyers and artist alike.

  2. I couldn’t have put it better myself! Art without complexity is is like restless leg syndrome without twitches!


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