Marius Watz is one of the leading players in the Generative Art movement. He set up a conference on Generative Art and a touring exhibition called ”Generator.x“ that can be seen all over Europe. His designs and own works are very strong and they seem to ask the question ”how can something so colorful be such a beauty“? Marius Watz just sits between the the ancestors of the Generative Art who developed of the programming language
Processing, Ben Fry and Casey Reas, and pushes the boundaries for this emerging form of art in the 21th century. Generator.x takes the art out of the web and prepares the ground for it in the real world. I met Marius in Berlin with some questions in the backpack.
How did you get into that computer stuff?
I started coding when I was 11, my dad brought home a Radio Shack TRS-80 Color Computer and I fell in love. I was an awkward but bright kid, so programming was a perfect creative outlet. I figured I would become a software engineer, but then I started using programming to create graphics. I ended up giving up computer science and started doing graphics for posters and flyers for the Oslo techno scene. That was in 1993. The result was that I worked as a graphic designer for many years, combining commercial work with self-initiated projects. These days I call myself an ex-designer, working as an artist only. I’ve lost the interest in client-based work, instead I focus purely on developing my own work.
What exactly is Generative Art?
Generative art is an art practice where the artist creates a system, typically a piece of
software, which is either used to create a work of art or constitutes a work of art in itself. Generative art describes a method or strategy, rather than a specific style or medium of work. The form of Generative Art that most people are aware of is software-based visual abstract art, with artists like C.E.B.Reas, Lia, Jared Tarbell etc. being the most visible exponents. This work is abstract, visually complex and non-representational. Typically, it will be purely digitally generated, with no ”natural“ origin.
There is of course a sibling movement in the design field, called computational design, with people like Ben Fry, Marcos Weskamp and Martin Wattenberg doing excellent work. Most Generative Art is percieved over the net.
What role does the exhibition play in the perception of Generative Art?
In the late nineties the web was an important stage, with many artists using their web sites as the main output for their work. These days they are becoming accepted by the art world, and are showing their work in galleries, festivals and in public spaces.
The mode of exhibition is crucial to all art, so this transition has allowed many generative artists to mature and find more satisfying forms of output. Some are looking to art quality prints, others are creating large-scale projections for media facades or software-based installations. The net is still important as a channel of communication and documentation, but is no longer the main stage.
Generative works are mostly ”open systems“ and in opposition to machines or paintings not finished. Generative works are ”open“ in the sense that the artist does not completely control the process, but allows other factors (whether randomness, external sensory output or user interaction) to affect the output. It is of course possible to create ”closed“ deterministic works, but most generative artists enjoy the aspect of giving up a certain amount of control. It is a great moment when your own work surprises you. The system becomes a co-creator, and you can sit back and enjoy the output. Accidents can be beautiful.
Do you plan your own works for a special impact on the people, or are you motivated by your own instinct?
I create my work for my own enjoyment. The social context and the output medium it will be shown in obviously has a role in the process, but I don’t worry about what other people will think. My artistic instincts is based on hedonism, if it feels good it probably is good. I don’t have any formal education in art or design, so pop culture is a big influence on my work.
What role play various programming languages to your work? And how do you get started to plan, code and design your works?
Different programming languages (C, Processing, Java, Flash) or systems (Max/MSP, vvvv) have different characteristics, one could even say they constitute different artistic materials. Most of my work is done in Java and Processing, building on software frameworks that I have developed from experience. I have worked with VVVV for live visuals, which is fitting since VVVV is a visual programming system which is always ”live“. Software has a strong performative aspect, and there is almost always a temporal dimension to the work.
What do you think about glitch-art or game-art? I am not using the term ”softwareart“ by intent. Do you see interconnections between them and Generative Art?
Glitch art definitely has some similarities with Generative Art. It is also interested in systems, usually focusing on what happens when systems are pushed to the limits of their controlled behavior and break down. Most glitch artists use “found” systems, created by subverting existing software rather than programmed. Game art is a wide field, some forms of which have a generative aspect. But usually the focus is on some other element, like narrative or interaction. Since the term ”Generative Art“ does not describe the techniques used or the style of output, both glitch aesthetics and game engines can feature in Generative Art. The main distinction would be if the work has an interest in generative systems as a core component, or whether they are just incidental tools. Most computer games will incorporate AI or Alife techniques to model interactive environments, but their goal is hardly to examine the nature of generative systems.
There was recently the discussion upon Processing: teaching tool vs. clear OOP programming concepts. What position do you have in this discussion?
The discussion is this: Do we want introduce as many people as possible to coding, even if it means teaching them quick and dirty techniques that they will need to unlearn later if they want to get serious about computational work? In my experience, most of the people I teach about code and aestethics will not become serious coders. Programming is a talent like any other, and not everybody will feel comfortable expressing themselves through code. Instead, the goal for a lot of students is to use code to understand how the computer works, so that they can better control their medium. To force them to learn OOP and advanced techniques would most likely just confuse them, and a lot would simply quit before they reached a level of understanding that is desirable. On the other hand, the scene will not improve much from a thousand script kids copying each other without any deeper understanding. The Flash community suffers from that tendency, but it doesn’t mean that no good work comes out of the scene. I’m not losing sleep over this. A new site called processinghacks was recently set up to discuss advanced topics, this should help to lead by example.
Do you think that is still possible to enchance programming languages to do better effort and get everything in the New Media Art more fluid or into the next big thing?
Of course. Programming tools are just tools, meant to facilitate human expression. They can always be improved. I’m hoping to see new tools, mixing metaphors from visual programming with the more traditional text-based coding approach. The Processing community is getting more professional, with more people reaching a level where they can contribute new libraries and functions that make it possible to do new things with the tool. I believe in an Open Source mentality where artists share their work instead of trying to keep their techniques secret.
How do you think will the Generative Art evolve? We are facing new interfaces almost every day…
Right now, I think Generative Art is too broad a term. I predict that we will see sub-scenes emerging, with more specific interests. Right now, some artists are looking towards the gallery scene and crossing over into the mainstream art world. Others are getting more involved with live performance, with very exciting results. Maybe generative artists will become more concerned with interactivity again.
Generator.x is a travelling exhibition. This seems to be a very new way of dealing exhibitions. How did you came to the idea of making the exhibition ”travelling“?
The idea of a travelling exhibition came naturally out of the Norwegian funding system. The National Museum is responsible for bringing art to all of the country, not just Oslo or Bergen. As a result, there is funding to do travelling shows. So now people all over Norway will get a glimpse of the brave new world of Generative Art and design…
Thanks for this interview!
Text and Interview: Martin Wisniowski, January 2006