From: ART NEW ENGLAND, February/March 1994, 3 Artists Who Make Art That Makes Art

Artificial Creativity

by George Fifield

Karl Sims, artist in residence at Thinking Machines, Corp. in Cambridge, is a computer/video artist, who creates art using the paradigm of natural selection, mimicking the process by which different species evolve. In an installation at the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris, Sims's program Genetic Images, starts by displaying sixteen simple pictures generated by sixteen random equations. The viewer picks the picture he or she likes the best. The program then makes sixteen random changes or additions to that equation, generating sixteen more pictures. Changes might involve color, shape, texture or a number of other parameters: some are almost the same and some differ greatly, but all are clearly descendants from their genetically successful predecessor.

Each time a "favorite" image is selected, another generation is born. The viewer acts as natural selection, applying an aesthetic filter to generations of random mutations. The images grow more and more complex: in only five generations, the viewer has chosen one out of over a million possible paths. Sims explains "People do the interesting work and computers do the mathematical work, the boring work." His goal, he says, is "to make complexity without having to understand it."

The idea for the program came when Sims was working on his computer animated video Panspermia. He needed a way to design many different images of plants and wrote a program to mathematically create plants using twenty different parameters. At first, he modified each parameter to see what resulted, but this was so time consuming that he wrote another program that would generate different parameters at random. He would then choose which results he liked best and the machine would then modify those equations to generate new generations. In 1991 Sims then used this process to create whole images for his animation Primordial Dance. Combining this process with scanned images and morphing techniques, he made Liquid Selves - with music composed by Peter Gabriel and John Paul Jones - for "Memory Palace" at the World's Fair in Spain in 1992.

In the spring of 1993, he presented the process itself as an artwork. A Connection Machine - a super computer developed by Thinking machines Corp. - was installed in the Centre Georges Pompidou connected to sixteen monitors. In front of each monitor was a footpad that enabled viewers to choose an image by simply stepping in front of their favorite. In a little under two months, the installation generated 1.5 million pictures responding to 204,123 choices by museum goers. All of them are now stored as equations which Sims can recall and examine. The experience is empowering, using only the simple element of choice, viewers find that within a few quick generations they are playing with images of great personal, and emotional significance. Marcel Duchamp described the creative act as an equation which included the artist, the art object and the spectator. Sims has effectively removed the artist, leaving the art object and the audience as sole collaborators in the creative act.

Not that this comes easy. The audience was sometimes shy, sometimes argumentative "People aren't used to making choices like that in an art gallery setting." Sims explains.

George Fifield is the director of the Boston Cyberarts Festival and curator of Media Arts at the DeCordova Museum and Sculpture Park in Lincoln, MA. Excerpt from the article Three Artists Who Make Art That Makes Art: Artificial Creativity; Published in Art New England, February / March 1994. © 1994, George Fifield.