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 Cerebral Augmentation: The Generative Computer Artist as Cyborg 

 

 Laurence Counihan 

 

 

 

Cyborg imagery can suggest a way out of the maze of dualisms in which we have explained our bodies and our tools to ourselves. This is a dream not of a common language, but of a powerful infidel heteroglossia.

- Donna Haraway, A Cyborg Manifesto (1)


Introduction

While there exists no official consensus on the definition of generative art, Philip Galanter’s descriptor has been the most frequently cited in recent years:


Generative art refers to any art practice where the artist uses a system, such as a set of natural language rules, a computer program, a machine, or other procedural invention, which is set into motion with some degree of autonomy contributing to or resulting in a completed work of art.(2)


Generative production methodologies are employed by those in numerous areas of the arts including; architecture, film, music, performance, sculpture, video games, and visual art and design. As such utilising such a broad definition becomes necessary as artists operating in differing fields frequently end up defining the practice “as being most like the work that is closest at hand, namely their own generative art"(3). While it predates the twentieth century (for instance Islamic geometric patterns were, and are, created through generative systems) the contemporary practice is now almost synonymously associated with computers. Generative computer art, that being generative art created via a system that employs computational processes, traces it's lineage back the 1960s with musical composers such as Iannis Xenakis and Gottfried Michael Koenig, and visual artists such as Hiroshi Kawano and Georg Nees (whose 'Generative Computergrafik,' translates to English as 'Generative Computer Graphics,' in 1965 is often cited as the first exhibition of "graphic works algorithmically generated by a digital computer"(4)).

Since the 1990s the practice has experienced increasing growth, due in no small part to the proliferation and availability of the home computer, coupled in recent years with the development of a wide variety of creative coding environments - typically defined as programming languages designed specifically for the development of digital artworks(5). And while a computer is not necessarily a requirement for generative art, it is widely acknowledged that it does facilitate the creation of systems that would be impossible, or impractical, to realise via non-computational means(6). Although the tools used for creating generative art have seen huge growth, and have been expanded upon extensively (for example creative coding environments such as Max, Processing, openFrameworks, and vvvv are all actively maintained and popular amongst contemporary digital media artists as evidenced on websites such as CreativeApplications.Net), much less has been invested into the critical analysis and understanding of the practice, and the subsequent artworks that emerge from it. This has been highlighted by many writers on the subject, such as Alan Dorin et al. who propose that a framework for understanding and evaluating generative art is needed(7).

Using the aforementioned tools contemporary generative artists are routinely developing software systems for art making that grant such levels of autonomy to the computer that it may itself be viewed as a creative agent(8). However we currently lack a clear classification, and therefore understanding, for describing this new type of relationship that exists between generative artists and the digital systems they create. Viewing these type of autonomous generative systems as simply inert tools that the creative human artist exerts control over is inaccurate. However it is equally false to describe them as autonomous agents on par with, and comparable to, human collaborators. In reality the truth lies somewhere in between. It is precisely because of this that the metaphor of the cyborg is one that is particularly fitting when discussing the practice. First imagined by Manfred E. Clynes and Nathan S. Kline as a homeostatic system intended for survival in space ("For the exogenously extended organizational complex functioning as an integrated homeostatic system unconsciously, we propose the term 'Cyborg.'"(9)), and later recontextualised as a metaphor for the disruption of strict binary classifications relating to identity by Donna Haraway in her seminal essay 'A Cyborg Manifesto' (1985), the cyborg has gone onto become a powerful symbol for the many differing potentials presented to us via newly emerging forms of human-machine interaction that are present in our digital society.

Not only does the generative computer artist meet the criteria of Donna Haraway's concept of the cyborg (as the production methodology involved in generative computer art results in a coupling between human and machine that actively dissolves boundary distinctions between the two), but it also fits with Clynes' and Kline's original definition, as the modern practice has roots in the cybernetics and general systems theory movements of the mid-twentieth century(10). These cybernetic origins are manifested in contemporary practice as generative computer artists actively engage with quasi-autonomous systems during the art-making process. In all forms of art making the artist engages with their tool, and environment, to form an integrated cybernetic system resulting in feedback loop. However in traditional forms of art this feedback loop is internalised(11) with changes to the integrated system occurring only through direct action from the human element. This is because in this scenario the artistic tools are inert forces that are to be acted upon, their responses can be easily predicted - predictability being a desirable attribute in this instance. In the practice of generative computer art this is different as both the human and the tool both become discrete autonomous agents in the creative process. Here both human and tool are free-running entities that actively interact with each other, resulting in an integrated cybernetic system that more accurately reflects the original cyborg vision. It is hoped that the analysis and classification of generative computer art as being cyborg in nature will help in constructing a dialog around the practice, extending it so as to incorporate and reflect upon external cultural, philosophical and political factors relating to the ever-evolving relationship between humans and technology, as well as definitions and understandings relating to human identity.

 

Hiroshi Kawano Design 3-1, Color Markov Chain Pattern (1964)

 

Artistic Representations of Human Augmentation

In fiction the mutable cipher of the cyborg is most frequently employed to relay the simultaneous feelings of optimism and apprehension that accompanies our relationship towards rapidly evolving technologies. The endurance of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1818) lies partly in its representation of this duality, presenting a scenario where the human subject can be both augmented and dehumanised by scientific technology(12). Contemporary cinema has explored similar territory, as in RoboCop (1987) where a human police officer, Alex Murphy, is kept alive through the use of robotic implants. Here the human character of Alex Murphy dies and is resurrected as the cyborg RoboCop. Although the resurrection/birth of this new identity empowers the body of the subject through various cybernetic augmentations that increase strength, speed and vision, the integration process is not one that Murphy/RoboCop easily takes to. Although the new cybernetic enhancements position RoboCop as the epitome of masculinity, the new hybrid identity feels a distinct agonising loss of manhood(13) as he begins to recall memories from his former life as a human.

Although Donna Haraway's vision of a future "in which people are not afraid of their joint kinship with animals and machines, not afraid of permanently partial identities and contradictory standpoints"(14) does not come to pass in RoboCop, this particular version of the cyborg is quite extensively explored in other cinematic works, such as Ghost in the Shell (1995). The film, based in a near-future where cyborg augmentations to the human body are not only possible but enthusiastically embraced, follows a secret paramilitary wing of the police force which specialises in cybercrime investigation. This group is led by Major Kusanagi Motoko, herself a full cyborg - every element of her body, including her brain, has been replaced with cybernetic implants. However unlike Murphy/RoboCop, Major Kusanagi embraces this new cyborg persona, and while there are points during the plot where she questions the validity of her identity, the film concludes with her willingly merging consciousness with an artificial intelligence, forming a new hybrid life-form in the process.

In these examples the classic cyborg depicted in fiction is just that; fiction. These fictional events provide us with alternative simulations of reality, through which we are offered new angles as to view and interpret our own. As contemporary generative computer art can trace a direct lineage to the conceptual art movement of the 1960s(15) the resulting artworks can sometimes be quite cerebral in nature, therefore lacking an easily identifiable narrative. Additionally it should be noted that generative computer art does not represent a traditional art movement as such, rather it exists as a particular methodology of production used by artists(16), the results of which are manifested through a wide variety of forms and mediums(17). Accordingly it is not necessarily the resulting art from any generative computer artist that it is to be interpreted as being symbolic of the cyborg, rather it is the very artistic methodology and practice that classifies it as such. The importance of art in understanding and exploring the concept of the cyborg was noted by Haraway, as she claimed a debt to "writers like Joanna Russ, Samuel R. Delany, John Varley, James Tiptree, Jr, Octavia Butler, Monique Wittig, and Vonda McIntyre"(18), referring to them as cyborg theorists, crafting stories of embodiment in future high-tech worlds. Cyborg narratives, either literal or abstract in nature, allow for the initial concept of the cyborg, one borne from militarism and capitalism, to be reinterpreted and recontextualised through the arts.

 

Major Motoko Kusangi in Ghost in the Shell (1995)


How the Generative Computer Artist Disrupts Established Thinking Pertaining to Traditional Art Practice

The concept of 'the artist as a genius' has been well established since the nineteenth-century(19), with the link between both upheld in traditional views on aesthetics as outlined by philosophers such as Emmanual Kant (Critique of Judgemeant (1790)), and Arthur Schopenhaur (The World as Will and Representation (1818)), where both claim a direct link exists between the artist and the human attribute of genius. Further to this Martin Heidegger, in The Origin of the Work of Art (1950), states that the artist and the work of art exist in an almost symbiotic relationship. Similar to how in traditional cyberpunk narrative fiction the human augmented by mechanical implantations becomes a cyborg, so the human who creates a work of art becomes an artist. It is this act of art making that creates and sustains the image of the artist. Therefore the act of observable autonomous art making becomes extremely important to this traditional image, one where the artist exerts themselves on inert tools. Here the mastery of the artist is allowed to shine through, the tools are merely a lifeless vessel. The artist is not slave to their tools, they have mastered them. The artist becomes a mythical figure, a genius in society, with the art making process obscured. Generative computer art differs in that it mechanises this art making, via the creation of a system that automates various elements of the process. In turn what does this then say about the traditional obfuscated view of artistic creation? The process, and the result of said process; the artist, is no longer mystified. Here, similar to RoboCop, there is the potential for feelings of dehumanisation (both from and towards the artist) as previously coveted human actions become mechanically automated.

This connection between the act of art making and genius is an idea so deeply embedded within our society that it results in an overly humanist approach from artists towards their tools, whereby human artist and tool(s) are strictly classified as distinct and separate entities(20). This type of binary thinking not only overly favours the human artist, but it also plays directly into societal fears of technology. In this context the very notion of the generative computer artist is one that attempts to disrupt these traditions. In the practice the tools are not only acknowledged, they are actively celebrated and embraced as the artist willingly cedes certain aspects of creative control to them. The system that the generative artist creates becomes a cerebral augmentation, allowing the shifting of certain (creative) cognitive processes outside of the brain, to be stored within a digital computer and recalled at will. This system becomes a proxy, which the artist uses to store a piece of their creative identity within. However the generative system is much more than a simple storage hub, as the artist grants it a certain type of autonomy. This new cyborg artist - an amalgamation of the human combined with the autonomous generative computer system - allows for the discovery of new ideas and perspectives that would be impossible to realise using traditional methods.

However relinquishing any type of creative control to this system automatically invites questions relating to artistic agency. As in this scenario the human primarily takes on the role of tool maker, with the traditional role of artist being dually occupied by said human and the resultant generative system. This dissolution of clear boundaries used to distinguish previously well defined roles encourages us to think about the dual possibilities that a cyborg future represents. In one passage of A Cyborg Manifesto Donna Haraway offers two contrasting outlooks on the cyborg:

However relinquishing any type of creative control to this system automatically invites questions relating to artistic agency. As in this scenario the human primarily takes on the role of tool maker, with the traditional role of artist being dually occupied by said human and the resultant generative system. This dissolution of clear boundaries used to distinguish previously well defined roles encourages us to think about the dual possibilities that a cyborg future represents. In one passage of A Cyborg Manifesto Donna Haraway offers two contrasting outlooks on the cyborg:


From one perspective, a cyborg world is about the final imposition of a grid of control on the planet, about the final abstraction embodied in a Star Wars apocalypse waged in the name of defence, about the final appropriation of women's bodies in a masculinist orgy of war. From another perspective, a cyborg world might be about lived social and bodily realities in which people are not afraid of their joint kinship with animals and machines, not afraid of permanently partial identities and contradictory standpoints."(21)


The artistic form of generative computer art proposes a similar dichotomy, with the created cybernetic extension at once representing both domination of, as well as compliance to, technology. Dominance in the act of creating an art making machine that produces work ad nauseam for the artist, and compliance as certain creative and artistic choices are ceded to this system. It is multiple states at once, the practice is a literal realisation of both of potential perspectives.

 

Computer Software as a Cultural and Political Weapon in the Construction of the Posthuman

One of the significant differences between the human and the posthuman is that the former is an organic creation (a result of the natural process of genetic evolution), whereas the latter is a constructed entity(22). During the production process of any generative computer artwork the artist may sometimes choose to construct a system created entirely from their own custom algorithms. Alternatively they may make use of already existing general-purpose algorithms(23), or employ a generative system built entirely by another party. In these latter scenarios the artist is engaging not only with the generative system, but also those who originally constructed it. As we move towards a literal realisation of cyborg/posthuman identities, it becomes pertinent to ask; who exactly is involved in constructing the digital tools that we so readily adopt and incorporate into ourselves? These new identities, these new posthuman beings, will be constructed not by large scale species interaction with nature and the resultant evolutionary process, but instead by human engagement with digital tools that are developed by a relatively small number of individuals (in relation to the totality of humanity).

The homogeny prevalent in modern music making software (the majority of the tools being created in either Germany or the United States) prompted Jace Clayton (who produces music under the alias DJ/rupture) to develop a series of experimental musical devices based on the traditions of Moroccan music. The devices, entitled Sufi Plug Ins, are an experiment in creating musical software that intentionally deviates from the traditional Eurocentric/Western norm(24). And while the generative computer artist does not necessarily have to develop the entirety of the system they use in their art making, the focus that the practice places on the construction of systems forces both the artist and the audience to explicitly confront both the benefits and dangers that a cyborg future presents us with. As we move towards a future of tighter and increased integration with technology, are we to be granted more autonomy and increased customisation, or alternatively are we heading towards a homogenous future whereby identities are formed from digital tools constructed by a minority?

Digital technology has already made a significant impact on how modern music is made, not only in relation to how artists create, but also in the culture surrounding the entire music making industry(25). If we are to interpret a cyborg as an augmented figure (one which according to Haraway can help us escape the binary oppositions present in our current form), then it only seems rational that this augmented figure must adapt itself so as to best fit the current environment. This current environment is digital, and computer algorithms are the connective tissue holding it together. However computer algorithms are not objective. As Cary Wolfe writes:


What is paradoxical about this desire for "objectivity" is that it issues from a line of critique that has reminded us again and again that putatively "objective" scientific accounts are just as socially constructed as any other, and that indeed what we might call the ideology of objectivity has typically operated much to the detriment of women and other marginalized people.(26)


In relation to the above the practice of generative computer art is interesting because it actively encourages confrontation with the lack of objectivity that is prevalent in digital systems. As society becomes further enveloped within a digitally augmented reality it becomes not only advisable but necessary to actively challenge the perceived notions of objectivity that are attached to the tools that we so willingly integrate into our identities. The presupposition of caution is not one borne out of paranoia, but rather from genuine fears owing to the militaristic origin of the cyborg. Generative computer art encourages active engagement with the tools of technological control in our society (ones that play an increasingly active role in the construction of identities in the twenty-first century), as it places a distinct focus on the construction and analysis of digital systems.

 

Cycling '74's Max is a visual programming environment frequently used for the creation of generative sound and visuals.

 

 

Summary

This short essay has been a brief attempt to highlight some of the conceptual similarities that exist between the practice of generative computer art and the symbol of the cyborg. The image of the cyborg as a signifier of the future, representing at once both a literal and imagined reality, is so powerful because it is a construction of both technological practice, as well as artistic narrative discourse(27). Traditional depictions of the cyborg in art have primarily focused on the idea of a human very literally modified by technology, usually presented as very identifiable and observable changes to the body (for example the adoption of robotic limbs). It could be argued that this representation is overly restrictive and not accurately representative of our current society, where the concept of human augmentation occurs more subversively via technologies that are more often than not external to, rather than embedded within, the body. This type of cerebral augmentation is very similar to the concept of extended cognition, this being the view that elements extraneous to the human body (such as a computer or piece of paper) are directly included in, and part of, mental processors carried out by the mind(28). If the cyborg exists primarily as a representation of the constantly evolving relationship that exists between humanity, technology and politics, then it becomes necessary for it to adapt so as to more accurately reflect current processes of cyborgification that are occurring in societies enveloped in digitality. Generative computer art is quite similar to the construction of the cyborg in that the practice is a convergent point for both artists and scientists. However, unlike the traditional image of the cyborg the generative computer artist engages in cerebral, rather than body, augmentation. With one of the primary concerns of the practice being notions of artistic agency, it becomes useful to analyse prior interpretations and viewpoints of the cyborg so as to better understand the simultaneous fear and attraction that such a symbol represents. As such, while generative computer art provides us with new ways of interpreting potential cyborgian futures, utilising the metaphor of the cyborg also helps present new ways of analysing the contemporary practice of generative computer art, with both areas becoming ever more pertinent as we become increasingly engulfed in a digitally augmented reality.

 

 

 

 

 

NOTES

(1) ^ Haraway D. "A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century". In: Haraway D, ed. Simians, Cyborgs, And Women. 1st ed. Routledge; 1991:149–81.

(2) ^ Galanter P. "What is Generative Art? Complexity Theory as a Context for Art Theory". In: GA2003 – 6Th Generative Art Conference.; 2003. Available at: http://www.philipgalanter.com/downloads/ga2003_paper.pdf. Accessed May 10, 2015.

(3) ^ Ibid.

(4) ^ compArt daDA: the database Digital Art. Georg Nees: Computergrafik | Database of Digital Art. Available at: http://dada.compart-bremen.de/item/exhibition/164. Accessed May 10, 2015.

(5) ^ Valitutti A. "Creative Coding for Humor Design: A Preliminary Exploration". In
Computational Humor. 2012. Available at: http://tuhat.halvi.helsinki.fi/portal/files/ 25634980/IWCH2012_Valitutti.pdf. Accessed May 10, 2015.

(6) ^ McCormack J, Bown O, Dorin A, McCabe J, Monro G, Whitelaw M. Ten Questions Concerning Generative Computer Art. Leonardo. 2014;47(2):135–41.

(7) ^ Dorin A, McCabe J, McCormack J, Monro G, Whitelaw M. "A framework for understanding generative art." Digital Creativity. 2012;23(3–4):239–59.

(8) ^ A term frequently used at the Chaos Computer Club's 30th Chaos Communication Congress in Hamburg, December 2013, and also very recently by (Gurstein).

(9) ^ Clynes M, S. Kline N. "Cyborgs and Space". Astronautics. 1960. Available at: http://web.mit.edu/digitalapollo/Documents/Chapter1/cyborgs.pdf. Accessed May 10, 2015.

(10) ^ Boden M, Edmonds E. "What is generative art?". Digital Creativity. 2009;20(1–2):21–46.

(11) ^ Jones D, Brown A, d'Inverno M. "The Extended Composer: Creative Reflection and Extension with Generative Tools". In: McCormack J, d'Inverno M, ed. Computers And Creativity. 1st ed. Springer; 2012:175–203.

(12) ^ Cavallaro D. Cyberpunk And Cyberculture: Science Fiction And The Work Of William Gibson. London: Athlone Press; 2000.

(13) ^ Fuchs C. "Death Is Irrelevent". In: Gray C, Figueroa-Sarriera H, Mentor S, ed. The Cyborg Handbook. 1st ed. Routledge; 1996:281–300.

(14) ^ Haraway D. op.cit., 153.

(15) ^ Lewis D, Wrigley P. "Digital Minimalism: Generative Art as Avant–Garde Strategy". In: GA2000 (Generative Art Conference).; 2000.

(16) ^ Pearson M. Generative Art. Shelter Island, NY: Manning; 2011.

(17) ^ Watz M. "Closed Systems: Generative Art And Software Abstraction". 1st ed.; 2010. Available at: http://mariuswatz.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/03/201005-Marius-Watz- Closed-Systems.pdf. Accessed May 10, 2015.

(18) ^ Haraway D. op.cit. 169.

(19) ^ Madigan P. Expressive Individualism, the Cult of the Artist as Genius, and Milton's Lucifer. Hey J. 2013;54(6):992–998. doi:10.1111/heyj.12004.

(20) ^ Porter J. "Why technology matters to writing: A cyberwriter's tale". Computers and Composition. 2003;20(4):375–394. doi:10.1016/j.compcom.2003.08.020.

(21) ^ Haraway D. op.cit., 153.

(22) ^ Hayles N. "The Life Cycle of Cyborgs, Writing The Posthuman". In: Gray C, Figueroa- Sarriera H, Mentor S, ed. The Cyborg Handbook. 1st ed. Routledge; 1995:321–35.

(23) ^ Jones D, R. Brown A, d'Inverno M. "The Extended Composer: Creative Reflection and Extension with Generative Tools". In: McCormack J, d'Inverno M, ed. Computers And Creativity. 1st ed. Springer; 2012:175–203.

(24) ^ Clayton J. "SUFI PLUG INS ARE REAL. DEMO VIDEO + DOWNLOAD. mudd up!". 2012. Available at: http://www.negrophonic.com/2012/sufi-plug-ins-are-real-demo-video-download. Accessed May 10, 2015.

(25) ^ Prior N. Software Sequencers and Cyborg Singers: Popular Music in the Digital Hypermodern. New Formations. 2009;66(1):81–99. doi:10.3898/newf.66.06.2009.

(26) ^ Wolfe C. In Search of Post-Humanist Theory: The Second-Order Cybernetics of Maturana and Varela. Cultural Critique. 1995;(30):33. doi:10.2307/1354432.

(27) ^ Hayles N. op.cit.

(28) ^ Clark A, Chalmers D. The extended mind. Analysis. 1998;58(1):7-19.

 

 


 

Laurence Counihan holds a B.A. (Hons) in Music Technology, and is currently undertaking an M.A. in Creative Media at the Institute of Technology Tralee (Ireland). He is a digital artist and researcher interested in investigating the use of algorithmic and generative computer processes applied to the creation of sound and images. Through this work he hopes to explore the effect of digital and network technologies on culture and society, particularly in relation to concepts of human/computer automation, and disruption of binary thinking.

 

 

 

 

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