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Algorism and the Algorists

The Algorists are of particular interest to my study because they form one of the few artistic movements in Computer Art. Although they are essentially a loose grouping of like-minded artists rather than a school per se, the Algorists share a similar approach to creating Computer artwork. They employ algorithms to describe the artwork, which is then executed by the computer. In any case, Hébert considers a “school” of artists to be a “gathering of artists who share a certain set of algorithms that defines their art, and the school’s style”. He refers to the colour set defining the Fauves, or the shapes of Cubism or the Constructivists as “algorithms” in this sense:

analyze the style of any single artist and you will see that many have a style that could be summed up in rules or algorithms, some with periods and time evolving sets or subsets of algorithms (Picasso, Klee); think also of all the Greek vases, of the Islamic tilings, of Japanese Mingei fabrics, etc, etc… across centuries[1]

Programming is at the core of the Algoristic approach. The artist sets the parameters within which the computer can make an image. Yet, as with Latham, there is also a serendiptitious aspect, most notably developed by Jean-Pierre Hébert who incorporates the qualities and quirks of physical materials in the outcome of his work. As George Rickey says, “The participation of chance has fascinated many artists who have welcomed the richness of disorder and recognized, like Arp, that random processes are but another instance of order.” Moreover, the interaction of chance with an artist’s established processes is fruitful, in that it introduces “a visual order completely independent of either imitation of nature or the limitation and bias of his own invention.” [2]

The importance of the Algorists, in particular, is that they arrived at artforms which seem computer-specific rather than simply reapplying the methods and goals of traditional art media to the computer. Due to the length of time they have been working with the computer – up to twenty years in Hébert’s case, slightly shorter for Verostko – they have grown alongside their chosen programs.

Paradoxically, most of the Algorists aim for a physical realisation of their work. Some, like Roman Verostko and Mark Wilson, employ plotters to render their images on paper; Helaman Ferguson sculpts in stone and bronze, guided by his computer; and Jean-Pierre Hébert has arrived at a unique method of inscribing his images in sand. This would suggest the computer is only a stage in their process and that many Algorists prefer physical materials to the limitations of the computer display. Yet, whether on paper, as sculpture or in sand, they have produced artefacts which owe their existence to computer instructions.

The algorithm in art provides a procedural approach to creating art through instructions, which define the parameters for the production of the image. Verostko contends that one learns a lot about the process of drawing by writing code for a drawing procedure. He strives to establish a link between the algorithm and his own art-making: one where his own vision may be seen in the finished work[3]. Verostko aims to utilise the algorithm to make his art, containing a recognisable element of himself and his artistic understanding. Here is a telling comparison between the lines he drew by hand, and the lines made by his Hodos program through a plotter holding a brush.

[Plate: Roman Verostko: brush used by a plotter driven by his Hodos program; a comparison of work done by Verostko’s own hand, and the results of his programming]

Verostko tells us to distinguish between the artist’s creation of algorithmic procedures and the algorithmic process employed by the computer; the former is the origin of the art, the latter merely its execution.[4]

In Verostko’s work, the algorithmic process begins with a description of the art-making procedures; for instance, by comprehending the process of drawing a line. Then other decisions about colour and character, even flow and length.  “We identify the conditions of acceptable and unacceptable combinations of shape, scale, form and color” he says, and in this way arrives at a formal system which is amenable to being turned into a program. [5]

In this sense, the “art” is distilled into the program itself, through the artist’s conception of coding to create an image. In some cases it could perhaps be executed by other means, but using the computer is the most appropriate way of making these intricate, recursive and often highly detailed pictures. There is certainly an element of eliminating drudgery, but Verostko contends this leaves the artist free to concentrate on the “creative part of the work, namely the procedure which is the algorithm.” [6]

This is fundamental to the concept of programming to produce art. It is a conceptual creation where the resulting form is quite separate from the processes controlling it – and where the initial idea is worked out by non-visual means. Ken Musgrave, a fellow Algorist (although this group is a loose federation rather than a tightly-defined movement) explains another way of realising images through process, in the context of his virtual world-building software MojoWorld. He claims that they are illustrations, in a very direct sense, of the model he develops as a formal system he can work with: they are “verifications of some abstract idea that I was attempting to map into such a system.” [7] In this sense, the image that arises through the process of rendering art algorithmically may be an emergent property of the artist’s conception of the algoristic system. The algorithm stems from their understanding of the process, which encodes their visual approach to some degree.

Thus the computer gives the Algorists a framework for their processes through programming: in a real sense, the artist and the computer have a symbiotic relationship. The procedural basis of the image also seemingly informs its final appearance, usually giving it a highly geometric form; however, Hébert points out that an “informal” appearance can also be programmed and even apparently eratic or “artistic” elements may be entered into the system.[8] Verostko’s programmed “brushstroke” bears witness to this.

My own experience of Verostko’s prints finds this inherent form fascinating because it is somehow analogous to natural structures (as Verostko notes), yet obviously stems from an artificial source. In a sense, it has built up a parallel hierarchy of form which operates on the same level as the coils of a seashell, yet originated in the mind of its creator. This is probably best illustrated by the sculpture of Helaman Ferguson, whose toruses and everted spheres are the solutions to equations he solves, and then sculpts with the aid of a computer. [9]

[Plate XXXV: Ferguson’s torus]

Unlike the organic forms of Latham and others which set out to emulate evolution, the Algoristic form runs parallel to it. Algoristic forms arrive at this state, Latham (so it seems) strives for it. Connecting the two artforms, however, is a similar quality of fascination with growth and artificial, yet naturalistic, forms underpins the art of William Latham.

The aesthetic roots of algoristic artforms are, I believe, quite separate to those arising from direct manipulation. The algoristic forms underpinned by “visually obvious” mathematical processes, ones that are made manifest by the art through its intricate geometry. By contrast, images created through the GUI often stem from an artist’s previous non-computer experience: they are underpinned by a data structure that is not made manifest in their visual form. Internal complexity results in more usable art software and a greater finesse of effect; whereas the simpler algorithmic art is an elegant result to a carefully worked-out rule. Yet Hébert feels it is more artist- than process-dependent, and points to the “continuum of complexities, awkwardness, refinement.”[10]

As a movement, the Algorists are rather loosely-related, but it is interesting to see any such group arising in the generally fragmented Computer Art scene. Their approach may best be understood by examining the work of Jean-Pierre Hébert himself, who outlines his approach to art creation from the standpoint of building and executing algorithms with specific visual consequences.

[1] Correspondence with JPH, Nov 2002

[2] Constructivism: Origins and Evolution George Rickey (New York 1995), p157

[3] “Algorithms and the Artist” Roman Verostko, paper for a panel on Algorithms and the Artist at the Fourth International Symposium on Electronic Art, Helsinki, September 1994.

[4] From “Algorithms and the Artist”, Roman Verostko (presented at conference in Helsinki, 1994)

[5] “Epigenetic Painting Software As Genotype, A New Dimension of Art” by Roman Verostko, 1988

[6] Verostko, ibid.

[7] “Formal Logic and Self Expression”, F. Kenton Musgrave, find http:// ref

[8] Correspondence with JPH, Nov 2002.

[9] ref to Ferguson

[10] Correspondence with JPH, Nov 2002.