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Algorithmic art

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My talk from the Catalyst Club, 14th April 2011: algorithmic art, music generation, and Nazi collaborations.

My talk from the Catalyst Club, 14th April 2011: algorithmic art, music generation, and Nazi collaborations.

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Algorithmic art

  1. 1. Algorithmic Art Catalyst Club, 14th April 2011 Friday, 15 April 2011 Hello, my name’s Tom Hume. I want to spent 15 minutes talking to you about algorithmic art. It’s a big topic, so I’m going to have to rush through it a bit. I’m going to make things harder for myself by talking about it in three ways: objectively, what it is and the history. Subjectively, how I came across it and some interesting characters I’ve encountered. And personally, how I’ve been turning it to my own advantage.
  2. 2. “Algorithmic art, also known as algorithm art, is art, mostly visual art, of which the design is generated by an algorithm” Friday, 15 April 2011 So the first thing you do when you want to learn anything about anything is go and look it up on wikipedia, which gives you this definition. Like lots of things you might be told by computery type people, it’s simultaneously factually impeccable and practically worthless.
  3. 3. “An effective method expressed as a finite list of well-defined instructions for calculating a function” Friday, 15 April 2011 OK, so what’s an algorithm. Wikipedia is as helpful as ever. A normal dictionary is a bit more friendly. Anyone in their 30s may remember the canonical example of an algorithm, as seen on home computers in high St branches of Dixons throughout the 80s.
  4. 4. “An effective method expressed as a finite list of well-defined instructions for calculating a function” “A precise rule (or set of rules) specifying how to solve some problem” Friday, 15 April 2011 OK, so what’s an algorithm. Wikipedia is as helpful as ever. A normal dictionary is a bit more friendly. Anyone in their 30s may remember the canonical example of an algorithm, as seen on home computers in high St branches of Dixons throughout the 80s.
  5. 5. “An effective method expressed as a finite list of well-defined instructions for calculating a function” “A precise rule (or set of rules) specifying how to solve some problem” 10 PRINT “TOM IS COOL” 20 GOTO 10 Friday, 15 April 2011 OK, so what’s an algorithm. Wikipedia is as helpful as ever. A normal dictionary is a bit more friendly. Anyone in their 30s may remember the canonical example of an algorithm, as seen on home computers in high St branches of Dixons throughout the 80s.
  6. 6. Friday, 15 April 2011 Maybe it helps to give you some really simple examples. Here’s a spirograph, which gives you a nice simple example of an algorithm, done mechanically. The pen follows some defined steps, which are repeated over and over again - producing these patterns. In a bit I’ll show you a spirograph which flattened cities.
  7. 7. Friday, 15 April 2011 It’s not a new idea. an Arabian mathematician who was active around 820 AD in Baghdad. It is  believed that his surname, al-Khowarazmi is the source for the term algorism. Early arabic (Islamic?) culture was mathematical, so it’s not surprising to see algorithmic patterns emerge here. Here’s the Brick ceiling of a vault in the Bazaar of Yazd.
  8. 8. Friday, 15 April 2011 Here’s another. Trippy isn’t it?
  9. 9. Friday, 15 April 2011 ...and another, again in Yazd. More pretty bricks.
  10. 10. “Supposing, for instance, that the fundamental relations of pitched sounds in the science of harmony and of musical composition were susceptible of such expression and adaptations, the engine might compose elaborate and scientific pieces of music of any degree of complexity or extent” Friday, 15 April 2011 Jump forward until pretty well around the birth of the computer, and you had Ada Lovelace. Ada wrote the first algorithm intended for machine-processing and is therefore the worlds first computer programmer, and in one of her letters she mused on whether the computer might have been used to generate beautiful music. (I’m going to make Ada a little bit sick later on, by the way) So you get the picture: this is nothing new, in fact it’s quite old.
  11. 11. Friday, 15 April 2011 Modern computing was really forged in the fire of WW2, and it’s not surprising that machined-generated algorithmic art really got kicked off then: the equipment just didn’t exist before. A chap called D P Henry bought an old Sperry bombsight computer from an army surplus warehouse in Manchester - it’s from a WW2 lancaster bomber. He’d served with the R.E.M.E. in the war and had an enthusiasm for its inner workings, so he played around with it a bit - the pen and paper bits you can see above were his
  12. 12. Friday, 15 April 2011 ...and he had it produce intricate drawings like these. It’s the worlds deadliest spirograph.
  13. 13. Friday, 15 April 2011 As computing moved from being purely military, you could see more experiments kick off. Initially they were in academia at universities. In 1953 notices like this started appearing on the noticeboards of Manchester University’s computing department: weird discordant love letters... which it turned out a chap called Christopher Strachey had been generating using the Mark 1, which is generally accepted to be the first machine with the characteristics of a modern computer. MAnchester University Computer These became known as the Manchester Love Letters. They’re generated randomly by a machine: algorithmic art doesn’t have to be visual (though having machines produce text with any understanding of what they’re saying is an order-of-mag harder)
  14. 14. DARLING DARLING         MY LITTLE EAGERNESS FERVENTLY DESIRES YOUR IMPATIENT LONGING. MY FERVOUR LOVINGLY LONGS FOR YOUR CHARM. YOU ARE MY AVID WISH: MY LOVELY FELLOW FEELING: MY PASSIONATE FERVOUR.                                 YOURS BURNINGLY                                            M. U. C. Friday, 15 April 2011 As computing moved from being purely military, you could see more experiments kick off. Initially they were in academia at universities. In 1953 notices like this started appearing on the noticeboards of Manchester University’s computing department: weird discordant love letters... which it turned out a chap called Christopher Strachey had been generating using the Mark 1, which is generally accepted to be the first machine with the characteristics of a modern computer. MAnchester University Computer These became known as the Manchester Love Letters. They’re generated randomly by a machine: algorithmic art doesn’t have to be visual (though having machines produce text with any understanding of what they’re saying is an order-of-mag harder)
  15. 15. DARLING DARLING         MY LITTLE EAGERNESS FERVENTLY DESIRES YOUR IMPATIENT LONGING. MY FERVOUR LOVINGLY LONGS FOR YOUR CHARM. YOU ARE MY AVID WISH: MY LOVELY FELLOW FEELING: MY PASSIONATE FERVOUR.                                 YOURS BURNINGLY                                            M. U. C. DARLING SWEETHEART YOU ARE MY AVID FELLOW FEELING. MY AFFECTION CURIOUSLY CLINGS TO YOUR PASSIONATE WISH. MY LIKING YEARNS FOR YOUR HEART. YOU ARE MY WISTFUL SYMPATHY: MY TENDER LIKING. YOURS BEAUTIFULLY M. U. C. Friday, 15 April 2011 As computing moved from being purely military, you could see more experiments kick off. Initially they were in academia at universities. In 1953 notices like this started appearing on the noticeboards of Manchester University’s computing department: weird discordant love letters... which it turned out a chap called Christopher Strachey had been generating using the Mark 1, which is generally accepted to be the first machine with the characteristics of a modern computer. MAnchester University Computer These became known as the Manchester Love Letters. They’re generated randomly by a machine: algorithmic art doesn’t have to be visual (though having machines produce text with any understanding of what they’re saying is an order-of-mag harder)
  16. 16. DARLING DARLING         MY LITTLE EAGERNESS FERVENTLY DESIRES YOUR IMPATIENT LONGING. MY FERVOUR LOVINGLY LONGS FOR YOUR CHARM. YOU ARE MY AVID WISH: MY LOVELY FELLOW FEELING: MY PASSIONATE FERVOUR.                                 YOURS BURNINGLY                                            M. U. C. DARLING SWEETHEART YOU ARE MY AVID FELLOW FEELING. MY AFFECTION CURIOUSLY CLINGS TO YOUR PASSIONATE WISH. MY LIKING YEARNS FOR YOUR HEART. YOU ARE MY WISTFUL SYMPATHY: MY TENDER LIKING. YOURS BEAUTIFULLY M. U. C. Friday, 15 April 2011 As computing moved from being purely military, you could see more experiments kick off. Initially they were in academia at universities. In 1953 notices like this started appearing on the noticeboards of Manchester University’s computing department: weird discordant love letters... which it turned out a chap called Christopher Strachey had been generating using the Mark 1, which is generally accepted to be the first machine with the characteristics of a modern computer. MAnchester University Computer These became known as the Manchester Love Letters. They’re generated randomly by a machine: algorithmic art doesn’t have to be visual (though having machines produce text with any understanding of what they’re saying is an order-of-mag harder)
  17. 17. Friday, 15 April 2011 Ben Laposky’s Oscillons: long-exposure photography of fluctuating oscilloscope patterns, were also published in the 50s
  18. 18. Friday, 15 April 2011 Because the equipment for doing these sorts of works tended to be expensive, many of the pioneers came from academia or big business. Georg Nees was working at Siemens when he produced this work: a structured operation by random generators that lead to the discovery of new images. This graphic visually displays the relationship between order and disorder, and the effects of chang. He was one of a group of artists from the 60s who became known as the Algorists Manfred Mohr, Herbert Franke, Frieder Nake, Georg Nees, and Vera Molnar e
  19. 19. Friday, 15 April 2011 Herbert Franke - another of the algorists produced a range of pieces which I find by turns strangely beautiful and appallingly retro by todays standards
  20. 20. Friday, 15 April 2011 Herbert Franke - another of the algorists produced a range of pieces which I find by turns strangely beautiful and appallingly retro by todays standards
  21. 21. Friday, 15 April 2011 Herbert Franke - another of the algorists produced a range of pieces which I find by turns strangely beautiful and appallingly retro by todays standards
  22. 22. Friday, 15 April 2011 ...and then in the seventies you have David Em, who I think has the best job title in the world: Artist in Residence at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. But some of his art has dated really badly. This looks bloody dreadful nowadays, I think in the 80s it might have been incredibly futuristic.
  23. 23. Friday, 15 April 2011 (flowers of learning, 1989 plotter work) And then there’s this chap, Roman Verostko. He’s an artist who’s been working since the 60s. He’s an ex-monk, who when he was ordained worked on a programme to modernise church art: the church has always funded lots of art, but it tends to be fairly traditional. Roman does lots of work generated by programs written in BASIC, and output on a plotter. This is one of his “flowers of learning”.
  24. 24. Friday, 15 April 2011 he happened to be over from Minnesota doing a talk at Lighthouse in the North Laine a few years back. He’s been back since and I was lucky enough to get some time with him talking about the history of algorithmic art. Fascinating guy. Talk at LightHouse to students: students considered printed work to be a representation of something on a screen. “No”, he corrected them. “It’s not like that, it’s more that the plotter is an extension of my hand: the interaction between lines of ink on the page is important”
  25. 25. Friday, 15 April 2011 I became interested in all of this in 2009, a couple of weeks before meeting Mr Verostko. Now my day job for the last 10 years has been running a little software company in the North Laine, we make things for mobile phones. We periodically enter teams into what are called Hack Days: you get a load of geeky programmer types together for 24 hours, set them the task of building something from scratch in that time, overcaffeinate them and offer prizes of consumer electronics to give them an incentive. So we did one of these things and wanted to do something arty. So we hid phones in the 4 corners of the main hall in Imperial College where the event was held, had them look for other phones and read the names. Most modern phones have a thing called Bluetooth - it’s like a short-range radio, it’s mean to replace cables - and every phone that does Bluetooth has a name. So we got these names, wrote some software to turn the names into little tunes,
  26. 26. Friday, 15 April 2011 So, remember that I got into this through that mobile phone piece? Well, I thought I’d play with that a bit more. I thought it was interesting that you could take anything and turn it into music. I’d like to say I was inspired by Ada Lovelace, but I’d be lying: I didn’t read that quote of hers until much later. So what else could I turn into music... Well, I was brought up on a diet of post-war comedy: chiefly Goon Shows, Spike Milligan’s Q programme and novels. So I’ve always found Hitler to be, frankly, a comedy figure. For me he’s more an object of ridicule than fear. And the more I thought about it, the more that turning something truly awful into something incredibly harmless - like, say, tuneless talent-free ambient marimba and woodblock music - was kinda interesting. So I downloaded a copy of Mein Kampf, skimmed it for the most hateful bits I could find, and ran it through the software we’d used to make tunes out of phone names.You’re listening the
  27. 27. Friday, 15 April 2011 So, remember that I got into this through that mobile phone piece? Well, I thought I’d play with that a bit more. I thought it was interesting that you could take anything and turn it into music. I’d like to say I was inspired by Ada Lovelace, but I’d be lying: I didn’t read that quote of hers until much later. So what else could I turn into music... Well, I was brought up on a diet of post-war comedy: chiefly Goon Shows, Spike Milligan’s Q programme and novels. So I’ve always found Hitler to be, frankly, a comedy figure. For me he’s more an object of ridicule than fear. And the more I thought about it, the more that turning something truly awful into something incredibly harmless - like, say, tuneless talent-free ambient marimba and woodblock music - was kinda interesting. So I downloaded a copy of Mein Kampf, skimmed it for the most hateful bits I could find, and ran it through the software we’d used to make tunes out of phone names.You’re listening the
  28. 28. Friday, 15 April 2011 So, remember that I got into this through that mobile phone piece? Well, I thought I’d play with that a bit more. I thought it was interesting that you could take anything and turn it into music. I’d like to say I was inspired by Ada Lovelace, but I’d be lying: I didn’t read that quote of hers until much later. So what else could I turn into music... Well, I was brought up on a diet of post-war comedy: chiefly Goon Shows, Spike Milligan’s Q programme and novels. So I’ve always found Hitler to be, frankly, a comedy figure. For me he’s more an object of ridicule than fear. And the more I thought about it, the more that turning something truly awful into something incredibly harmless - like, say, tuneless talent-free ambient marimba and woodblock music - was kinda interesting. So I downloaded a copy of Mein Kampf, skimmed it for the most hateful bits I could find, and ran it through the software we’d used to make tunes out of phone names.You’re listening the
  29. 29. Friday, 15 April 2011 Everyone’s got to eat, so I released put it up for sale on iTunes in the UK, US, Australia, Canada. And Amazon. And kinda forgot about it. I mean, it’s tuneless rubbish. I’m no musician, I don’t know what a scale is, never played anything, clearly no talent involved. And whilst I’ve not got my finger on the pulse of popular culture, there isn’t much of a market for ultra-right-wing ambient EPs, is there... ... or is there?
  30. 30. Friday, 15 April 2011 Everyone’s got to eat, so I released put it up for sale on iTunes in the UK, US, Australia, Canada. And Amazon. And kinda forgot about it. I mean, it’s tuneless rubbish. I’m no musician, I don’t know what a scale is, never played anything, clearly no talent involved. And whilst I’ve not got my finger on the pulse of popular culture, there isn’t much of a market for ultra-right-wing ambient EPs, is there... ... or is there?
  31. 31. Friday, 15 April 2011 Everyone’s got to eat, so I released put it up for sale on iTunes in the UK, US, Australia, Canada. And Amazon. And kinda forgot about it. I mean, it’s tuneless rubbish. I’m no musician, I don’t know what a scale is, never played anything, clearly no talent involved. And whilst I’ve not got my finger on the pulse of popular culture, there isn’t much of a market for ultra-right-wing ambient EPs, is there... ... or is there?
  32. 32. Sales of talent-free neo-nazi ambient music over time £30.00 £22.50 £15.00 £7.50 £0 Dec-10 Jan-11 Oct-10 Nov-10 Aug-10 Sep-10 Jun-10 Jul-10 Apr-10 May-10 Feb-10 Mar-10 Jan-10 Nov-09 Dec-09 Oct-09 Friday, 15 April 20111 Untitled Business is booming. I’m selling nearly £25 a month of this rubbish at the moment. Vast majority EU, then the US. Grossed about £250. Worrying because I have friends with actual musical talent who’ve sold less. And who don’t take kindly to my suggestions that they’d bit a bit more successful if their track titles were a bit more Nazi.
  33. 33. Makes yer think, dunnit? Friday, 15 April 2011 - it’s old enough that the founders are dying, but young enough that people keep coming into it thinking that it’s new. It’s interesting as an outsider, seeing the birth of an art movement. They’re trying to give it a sense of history - archiving in Bremen. - it raises questions over creativity. Plotter vs screen in Verostko. The system is everything from his brain through the machine, the pen, onto the page. That means the word is affected by the tools: the programming language he uses is best for some kinds of thing. It affects the output. - it raises questions over ownership, for me. Do I owe Hitler money?
  34. 34. Makes yer think, dunnit? • The value of history Friday, 15 April 2011 - it’s old enough that the founders are dying, but young enough that people keep coming into it thinking that it’s new. It’s interesting as an outsider, seeing the birth of an art movement. They’re trying to give it a sense of history - archiving in Bremen. - it raises questions over creativity. Plotter vs screen in Verostko. The system is everything from his brain through the machine, the pen, onto the page. That means the word is affected by the tools: the programming language he uses is best for some kinds of thing. It affects the output. - it raises questions over ownership, for me. Do I owe Hitler money?
  35. 35. Makes yer think, dunnit? • The value of history • How much creativity is in our tools? Friday, 15 April 2011 - it’s old enough that the founders are dying, but young enough that people keep coming into it thinking that it’s new. It’s interesting as an outsider, seeing the birth of an art movement. They’re trying to give it a sense of history - archiving in Bremen. - it raises questions over creativity. Plotter vs screen in Verostko. The system is everything from his brain through the machine, the pen, onto the page. That means the word is affected by the tools: the programming language he uses is best for some kinds of thing. It affects the output. - it raises questions over ownership, for me. Do I owe Hitler money?
  36. 36. Makes yer think, dunnit? • The value of history • How much creativity is in our tools? • How much credit should the artist take? Friday, 15 April 2011 - it’s old enough that the founders are dying, but young enough that people keep coming into it thinking that it’s new. It’s interesting as an outsider, seeing the birth of an art movement. They’re trying to give it a sense of history - archiving in Bremen. - it raises questions over creativity. Plotter vs screen in Verostko. The system is everything from his brain through the machine, the pen, onto the page. That means the word is affected by the tools: the programming language he uses is best for some kinds of thing. It affects the output. - it raises questions over ownership, for me. Do I owe Hitler money?
  37. 37. Makes yer think, dunnit? • The value of history • How much creativity is in our tools? • How much credit should the artist take? • People will buy any old shit on the net Friday, 15 April 2011 - it’s old enough that the founders are dying, but young enough that people keep coming into it thinking that it’s new. It’s interesting as an outsider, seeing the birth of an art movement. They’re trying to give it a sense of history - archiving in Bremen. - it raises questions over creativity. Plotter vs screen in Verostko. The system is everything from his brain through the machine, the pen, onto the page. That means the word is affected by the tools: the programming language he uses is best for some kinds of thing. It affects the output. - it raises questions over ownership, for me. Do I owe Hitler money?
  38. 38. Thank you! • http://www.flickr.com/photos/ dynamosquito/4342328373/ • http://www.flickr.com/photos/adavey/ 4873778094 • http://www.flickr.com/photos/piven/ 4835933539/ (Photo Credits) Friday, 15 April 2011

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