On Computational Art

Ernest Edmonds’ art is in the constructivist tradition and he is a pioneer in the use of computers and computational ideas. His art explores algorithms used to relation to colour, time, communication and interaction. He first used computers in his practice in 1968, first showed an interactive artwork with Stroud Cornock in 1970 and first showed a generative time-based computer work in London in 1985. His many awards include ACM SIGGRAPH 2017; Distinguished Artist Award for Lifetime Achievement In Digital Art and ACM SIGCHI 2017; Lifetime Achievement Award for the Practice of Computer Human Interaction.

Ernest Edmonds: Milson Sound. Interactive artwork in Transcapes” Artificial Nature 1, UTS Gallery, Sydney, 2006 [photo Ernest Edmonds]

Richard Bright: Can we begin by you saying something about your background?

Ernest Edmonds: Well, I perhaps need to give you the ‘short’ version. It’s complex!

I became committed to art when I was a 6th form school student in London, where I grew up. After various discussion with friends at art school, I decided not to follow them. Instead I went to Leicester University to study mathematics, where I also took subsidiary philosophy. I had spare time to paint and developed many relationships in the arts community, including what was then the local art school (now part of De Montfort University). I ended up doing a PhD in logic. It may seem strange to some, but these studies proved to be a good foundation for my later art practice which was, at that time, nothing much to do with logic, maths — or computers.

By 1968 I was working at Leicester Polytechnic (now De Montfort University), using its one (mainframe) computer out of curiosity and on my way to becoming, rather by chance, a lecturer in computing. I found it helpful to write a computer program to help me make the final decisions about a relief that I was making and so my use of computers in art began. That is when I decided to concentrate on computing support for creativity, and art in particular, within the academic part of my life: thus bringing my passion, art, into my research and teaching life. Stroud Cornock[1] and I presented a sort of manifesto about art and computers in 1970 (later published in the journal Leonardo, see here) and that pretty much set my future path.

More on this and other aspects of my work can be found in Francesca Franco’s book Generative Systems Art: the work of Ernest Edmonds (see here).

RB: Have there been any particular influences to your art practice?

EE: I became committed to art, when still at school as I mentioned, not least because of my excitement at seeing the works of Cezanne, followed quite soon by Matisse. These artists provided the inspiration for all that has followed. In time I found Mondrian and then Malevich, whose work gave me more specific directions to follow. As my art developed I became influenced by various artists that I met and was able to learn from directly. Perhaps the most significant influence was Kenneth Martin. By the time that I met him I was using computers, which he didn’t, but his whole approach was completely in concert with my computational ideas. I also became quite close to Malcom Hughes and his experimental graduate programme at the Slade. I certainly acknowledge my many conversations with Malcom as influential in encouraging the ‘experimental’ nature of much of my art practice.

Ernest Edmonds, Nineteen, 1968-69. [photo Jules Lister]

RB: What is the underlying focus of your work?

EE: It’s not so easy to say, but it is probably best characterised as perception: how we see, understand and relate to the world around us. That focus is not on linguistic descriptions of that perception or social angles on it but much more basically on how it actually IS. So colour, for example, matters a lot to me. Seeing matters and some of my work challenges the viewer to take the trouble to go beyond looking and actually see what is there. So that raises the question of what is there? I mentioned colour, but from a relatively early stage I added other concerns, perhaps newer to visual art, such as interaction and behaviour. By my late 20s a driving force, however, became the exploration of the question, what is the implication of computing for art? I wanted to discover what this new medium meant for art practice, for my understanding of perception, and that is exactly what I have focused on ever since.

RB: You use the term ‘computational art’ or ‘software art’, distinguishing it from ‘digital’ or ‘new media art’, when discussing you own art practice. Can you say more about this and how you began creating ‘computational art’?

EE: ‘Computational’, or ‘software’, art is bound up with the use of computer programming as a core medium. Such art involves writing and manipulating code as an essential element, just as a painter might manipulate oil paint. ‘Computational’ might be a better word to use than ‘software’ because the key point is the conceptual use of programming. The physical use of a computer and the actual running of code isn’t the point (valuable as it is). It is the exploration of the concept of computation that is central, and this can be done by hand. Kenneth Martin’s work, for example, can in part be understood in this context.

The more general terms ‘digital’ and ‘new media’ art need not refer to the direct use of computation as a medium. For example, manipulating photographs with Photoshop or constructing a VR world would be digital but need not involve any direct involvement with code.

How did I begin? I started by using the computer to solve a more-or-less layout problem that I had in 1968, as I indicated before. Thinking about this led me to understand the significance of computation in the context of making art and to find quite a variety of ways in which it opened up new paths. Perhaps those paths were most linked to the constructivist tradition, but I also felt links back to Cezanne, my first inspiration.

Ernest Edmonds: Three Shaping Form interactive artworks. In Ernest Edmonds and Alf Loehr, Conny Dietzschold Gallery, Sydney, 2007. [photo Ernest Edmonds]

RB: Your generated images are not bound to any recording medium, but are based solely on computation. Can you something more about this?

EE: In fact, I have made some video/film pieces, but you are correct in noting that they are not central to my work. As announced in the Cornock and Edmonds paper that I mentioned earlier, I am particularly interested in what is special about computational systems for art rather than in how we can do the same old things more easily. My very first video pieces illustrate this well enough, I think. I discussed the point at the 2010 EVA conference in London (see here). Starting in 1980, I developed time based abstract artworks that were generated by computer in real time and recorded directly onto videotape. The first completed piece was ‘Fragments’ (see here) which lasted an hour and was shown as part of an art exhibition in London in 1985. These works potentially lasted for ever but, in order to deliver and show them at the time, I recorded a section onto videotape. Previously, people had been making computer generated films frame by frame, often taking days or weeks to make short films. Mine were made in real time. It was a small step, once I had the appropriate computers available, to exhibit works that used a computer, rather than recorded media, and so for example lasted all day without repeat. I made works that never repeated, no matter how long they ran, and I then found that I could add interaction into the mix. So interaction (again as promoted in the Cornock and Edmonds paper) became key.

RB: How does your experience of creating computer art compare to that of your previous art making?

EE: I think that the main point is that I now work much more at the structural level than just at the surface. Artists use grids, perspective, the golden mean, Fibonacci series and many other structural devices in their work, but these are frequently applied by hand and, quite often, carefully hidden at the end of the day. The painting, for example, is often the main activity once these structural matters are fixed and the structures don’t necessarily change much during making. For me, all of these processes are still there but the balance is changed. By instructing the computer to make the mappings from the abstract to the physical (the definition of which is also an important part of the art making) and by taking advantage of the speed with which the computer works, I can explore, revise and develop the structural aspects of my work much more effectively than I could before I used code.

Ernest Edmonds: Colour Energy generative movie. In Vivid Festival, Sydney, 2010 [photo Ernest Edmonds]

RB:  Your combination of generative time-based work and systems paintings had a specific emphasis on systems to select, vary and manipulate colour. Can you say more about these works and the reasoning behind the use of computational colour selection etc.?

EE: Yes, colour is very important to me. It is central to much of my work. What I have done is to extend the systems art notions to colour in the following way. The systems artists (and others) used logical, geometric or mathematical systems to organise form in various ways. So the shapes used and their relationships were often determined by these systems. Similar things are common in music of course. Many artists, even systems oriented ones, use colour as a kind of code to distinguish different elements, with the detailed qualities of each colour selected ‘intuitively’. What I have done is to construct a computational system for handling colour and helping me determine which colour to use at which time in which location. Basic to this work is the understanding that we need, or anyway I need, to deal with colour as it is perceived, so the common computer representation (red, green, blue) is of no use at all. The model has to deal with, for example, saturation, with hue.

Ernest Edmonds: Shaping Space, interactive installation. In Light Logic, Site Gallery Sheffield. 2012-13. [photo Robert Edmonds]

RB: Can you say something about the development of your interactive artworks, which use sound and image sensor systems?

EE: The key point about these works is that sound and image are treated as equal. I am not interested in the images representing the sound or the sound being a sonification of the images. It goes back to my interest in the core structure of a work, as I mentioned before. These works have a structure, over time, together with defined mappings from that structure to image and sound. Not every element is mapped to both. It is more like a duet where at times the sound and image might play in unison but at other times in counterpoint or, perhaps, only one might be active. Most of the works are developed with sound artists and many are interactive in the sense of being performance pieces where we manipulate the generative structures during the set. I am also looking at such pieces where audience movement might influence the work.

Ernest Edmonds and Mark Fell, DC Release 2007. Performed at the Sensoria Festival Sheffield, 2010.

RB: Can computers be truly creative, or are they merely tools to be used by artists?

EE: A few things to say about that!

It depends what you mean by ‘creative’, of course. Can a computer generate a new idea, a new solution to a problem, etc.? Yes, computers have already done that. Should we count those ideas etc. as ‘creative’? Perhaps not. Perhaps they are innovative. It is a long story, but one view would be that if the new thing was a point within the existing space of possibilities that we had not happened upon before it would be innovative. If the new thing was outside the current space of possibilities then it would be creative, providing that it was valued in some way. In any case, if the new thing was generated by computer, could it be art? One point in answer to these questions would be to assert that art is made by humans for humans – and so be it. Another would be to assign the creativity to the programmer rather than the computer, which seems pretty reasonable to me. Perhaps in a minute we could discuss the book I recently wrote with Margaret Boden, because these issues are discussed at length there?

Another point, though, is the possible characterisation of computers as ‘merely tools’. For many digital artists they are just that but, going back to our earlier discussion, if the computer is used to run crafted software, if code is at the centre of the work, then we must talk about a medium not a tool. Artists such as myself manipulate software, just as we brush on paint or carve wood, as our medium of production. Issues such as this one are covered interestingly in a book by Linda Candy currently in press (see here).

Ernest Edmonds: Two From Shaping Space paintings. In Primary Codes, Oi! Futuro, Rio de Janerio. 2015. [photo Thales Leite]

RB: Pushing the boundaries of the medium is a natural part of the art making process because, in some ways, the artist is exploring the medium itself. What boundaries do you wish to push with the medium that you use?

EE: When pushing those boundaries I ask, what is special about this medium? There are many things, of course, and we have discussed some of them already, but perhaps I should reply in relation to the next boundaries that I want to push, the next special things that I want to explore? Two are on my mind.

One is the nature of interaction itself. I have discussed this a few times already (for example see here) but briefly, the main point is that immediate, action/response, views of interaction are very limited. If we consider how we interact with the world and with one another we see that the ‘responses’, the changed behaviours, often come hours, weeks or years after the ‘actions’ that triggered them. I use the term ‘influence’ to replace ‘interaction’ in order to indicate this difference and my artworks are much more concerned with influence than interaction. However, how to do it, how to shape the artworks best to deal with this is still a boundary to cross.

The second boundary that I want to explore is distributed communication. Very close to the development of computational systems has been the development of communication systems and we see this all the time today with social media, for example. I have been making distributed artworks for a while now and I am very interested in exploring this further, where different parts of the artwork are in different locations, including in different continents and, as in some very early work of mine, the art is somehow in the processes of ‘communication’ that take place between people interacting with these different connected components.

Naturally I am also interested in pushing these boundaries together – and also with the other ones that we discussed.

RB: Your recent book (with Professor Margaret Boden) is titled From Fingers to Digits: An Artificial Aesthetic (see here), and examines computer art and how it has been both accepted and rejected by the mainstream art world. Can you something more about this book and, in particular, what questions does it aim to raise?

EE: Margaret Boden and I have discussed these things over many years. Margaret, of course, comes from Philosophy and Cognitive Science. These are subjects I care about deeply, but they have not been my focus. However, we both have a passionate interest in the computational arts and in creativity itself. A while ago we wrote a paper in which we tried to categorise different forms of computer-based art (a version of it is included as a chapter in the book) and from that collaboration came the notion of the book. It was interesting to us that, despite the wide literature on the digital arts, little was written about generative art, where the artist writes code, on the philosophical questions that computers raise or on the history of such art within the broader art world context. That is what we tackled.

What did we find? Generative, computer-based, art sits well within the art world’s traditions but, so far, is not fully accepted. Perhaps its short life of around 50 years is too short. We also saw a significant shift in the generations of artists, many of whom I interviewed for the book. There is no doubt that the digital natives, particularly those who learnt to code before they learnt much about art, don’t see a problem with code. It is as natural to use in their art as a pencil, even more so in some cases, perhaps.

I hope that this book, with its collection of essays on these different aspects of generative art, and the interviews with many significant artists who program, will provide a benchmark that will help us move to the next step, where computer-based art is seen to be as much part of the mainstream as watercolour or oil paint. Always remember how long it takes for a new medium to be accepted. William Blake, if I remember correctly, rejected that new-fangled oil paint as ‘corrupt’.

[1] At that time a lecturer in sculpture in the Polytechnic. Sadly, Stroud died in January 2019, see here.



All images copyright and courtesy of Ernest Edmonds.

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