Algorithmic Art: the age of the automation of art

At the heart of the unmistakable upheaval caused by digital technology in accessing art and culture (and in our relationship with the world in general), Algorithmic Art, in the same way as Data Art, is thought of as the unruly new kid on the block. A sign of the current growing mathematisation of the world, following the advent of programmer art and the growth in the use of computers in all fields of artistic creation, machines and their servers, algorithms, now produce art independently. A complete overview of a movement in progress.

An emerging trend is undeniably in action in the field of contemporary culture: works of art automatically generated by machines, and/or programmes, without human intervention. This movement, known as Algorithmic Art, is the fruit of reflection by artists on the omnipresence of automated IT related tasks, managed daily by algorithms. It is also an understanding of the importance and the place of artists in the field of creation. Algorithms - dedicated programmes that select and put together music playlists, archives, books, documents and newspaper articles or works of art for us, manage our purchases, inform us about the weather, stock market prices or the flow of information that we receive - function autonomously and continuously without us even noticing. After acknowledging this now well known phenomena, a new development has joined the arena: the field of art, until now considered as an area enjoying in full the privileges of culture, imagination and human sensitivity, is also affected, and works of art are created automatically on a daily basis without human intervention. In more simple terms: an increasing number of works of art are now automatically machine-generated.

Origins of Algorithmic Art

The process consisting of creating new works using programming and above all automation, through information technology is not new in itself. Its key principles can be regarded as coming to light in the 60s and 70s, around works by the German precursors Georg NeesManfred Mohr and Frieder Nake. The world witnessed their different creative approaches in the field of computer design with algorithmic programmes (computer graphics first tried out on the Zuse Graphomat Z64 machine by Nees, sequential drawings on a computer by Mohr and generation of interactive graphics by Nake). 

The ZUSE Graphomat Z64 was a flatbed drawing machine of high precision. Its engineer, famous computer pioneer Konrad Zuse, had originally intended it to be used for the production of maps and for land registration purposes. Both Georg Nees and Frieder Nake did their first computer art pieces on the Graphomat. This historic fact may be seen as a case of an unintended use of a technical innovation.

left:  13/9/65 Nr. 2 ("Hommage à Paul Klee") Frieder Nake, (1965)  |    right: Kubo-Octaeder, Georg Nees and Ludwig Rase (1971)

left: Georg Nees (1965-1968)   |  right: Manfred Mohr – Random Walk (1969)

Mention should also be made of generative works by the Hungarian Vera Molnár, who, in the footsteps of Vasarely and Julio Le Parc, implemented the early stages of optical and kinetic art, as well as those by the American A. Michael Noll (professor within the Bell telecommunications group) who was the pioneer of three-dimensional graphic representation. 

left: first artworks with geometrics, Vera Molnar,
right: “Computer Composition With Lines”  A. Michael Noll, (1964)

Rotating hypercube, A. Michael Noll (1962)

These artists, real forerunners of digital art, then called ‘computer art,’ were in fact called Algorists and only really began to form an identified group during a round table organised at SIGGRAPH  in 1995 (‘Art and algorithms’) Their approaches, blending mathematics (programming algorithms) and exact sciences with the artistic approach, may in fact be considered the genesis of a shift in artistic creation towards computer science and automation.

Square Structures, Vera Molnar, (1989) credit: DAM Digital Art Museum

Human intervention obsolete in the era of machine artists

The rise of artist/programmers and omnipresent algorithms in our daily lives now enables software programmes to get hold of any computer database and to transform it almost without any human intervention. Filtered by algorithmic power generating deformations or reinterpretations (see the psychedelic experiences shared on the web by internet users with Google Deep Dream) all forms of data, web interfaces, spreadsheets, GPS coordinates, sound, video and photo now automatically have boundless possibilities.

Mona Lisa before / after Google Deep Dream

Google Deep Dream appliqué sur une vidéo. Ici, un extrait du film Las Vegas Parano

With this in mind, the German musician Florian Hecker recently presented a book and a record called Chimerization. Using the software process for recognition of similarities in two different images called SIFT, Hecker creates computer generated hybrid photos and pages of illegible text.

Florian Hecker - Chimerization (excerpt)

This is a typical example of the move in art towards automation arising from the current mathematisation of the world. A phenomenon that is certainly inescapable and all the more revolutionary as it also puts the role of human beings in the creative process in perspective. With Data Recovery, the artist Diego Collado illustrates this trend by creating images from data recovery software. The software generates forms, textures and colours in the areas that could not be reconstructed, bestowing a surrealist continuity to the part of the image that could not be saved.


Algorithms and Glitch, the art of error and chance

However, if algorithms are at the root of automated artistic creation that does not mean that what is produced is necessarily standardised, on the contrary. Subversive, Algorithmic Art in fact regularly adapts the myth of the pure functionality and perfection of computer tools and its language, and distorts it for artistic purposes, introducing errors and disturbances.

This trend is called glitch art. Thanks to this perfect offshoot of the philosophy of the bug, error and chance, contemporary artist programmers use glitch art to make light of the myth of this perfection, thus altering our vision of the world and introducing chaos to perfection. For Nicolas Nova, co-founder of the Near Future Laboratory and sociologist: ‘Slip-ups, bugs and all this incongruity produced by technical objects show us its limits and imperfections. Twitter bots are fascinating for example. Observing what they produce on social networks–that is where they ‘express’ the most –is a good way of appreciating these phenomena, to capture the diversity of these mechanical expressions, and to understand the underlying logic.’ 

This question is raised by the artist Clément Valla and his famous Postcards from Google Heart. Indeed, by initiating a collection of photos presenting the planet from deformed angles, Valla realised that in fact there was no glitch or error, but a well and truly faithful and exact mathematical re-transcription of reality as understood by Google Algorithm. In conclusion: mathematical logic gener

Postcards from Google Earth, Clément Valla

The start of machine rebellion…?

Art has often sounded the alarm regarding the grip machines have over our world. It is difficult then, not to see a certain form of irony in this re-appropriation of creation by machines, nonetheless orchestrated by humans. It is also impossible not to imagine a regular announcement of a hypothetical ‘machine revolt’. What about the rise of ‘artist machines’ or independent software creating works of art? This domain that is still emerging is the backdrop to contradictory directions.

Picasso and Vincent Van Gogh styles reproduced by a software on pictures

If German researchers allege for example to have produced software capable of rivalling the greatest artists in record time, the Swiss French artists, Matthieu Cherubini and Hervé Graumann, are reintroducing humans to machines by inventing an automatic artist called Raoul Pictor, in reality random drawing software. 

The glitch trend shows that far from standardisation, from excessive rationalisation, and therefore depletion in creation, Algorithmic Art also allows multiple diversions, distortions, reassembly and collages. Equally critical towards the act of creation, Algorithmic Art can also be interpreted as the terminal symptom of a period where art, and its discourse, fends continually for itself, in a cannibalistic movement that is uncontrollable as well as paradoxically advantageous. 

Maxence Grugier





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