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"The Authorship of Generative Art"

October 19, 2009

I found this short statement of aesthetics from two British artists on AAAARG.ORG this morning that is certainly relevant to our Gnoetic endeavours here. This is an excerpt from Adrian Ward’s and Geoff Cox’s 2005 essay, “How I Drew One of My Pictures: or, The Authorship of Generative Art“:

Although the ‘author-god’ might be dead (according to Post-Structuralist theory), we are forced to accept this ‘death’ as an inability to claim the privileged source of meaning or value of a work of art and artist.[2] This is by no means new; there are numerous precedents for collaborative experimentation in creativity and automatism within a history of art-machines, robotics, and deferred authorship: the use of chance by dadaists, and automatism by surrealists, aimed to stimulate spontaneous and collective creative activity and to diminish the significance of the artist. As the creating subject or author has largely been discredited and dematerialised over the years, there is a pressing need to examine new demarcations, and the functions released by this disappearance.[3] Perhaps ‘the death of the author’ is simply too literal, (too obvious and final) a metaphor to offer a critique of the productive apparatus by which contemporary creative operations using computers are organised and regulated. [emphasis added]

While I find much of their analysis coincides with many of my own ideas about generative, conceptual and/or digital works of art, I cannot agree with their emphasis on the programmer of systems as the primary inheritor of value as author and creator. I agree that “when a programmer develops a generative system, they are engaged in a creative act,” as well as that “programming is no less an artform than painting is a technical process;” but to conclude unequivicably that “it is no longer necessary or even desirable to be able to render art as
a final tangible medium, but instead it is more important to program computers to be creative by proxy” overlooks the many possibilities of digital art as well as many of the real examples of digital writing created using computer systems. It also conflates the site of creativity with the act of creativity–something which is definitely not true in many cases with generative and quasi-generative systems designed for artistic production.

Gnoetry is a prime example of this. Much credit an admiration goes to the creative act of programming such a system for artistic use, but this is not the only and final creative act, it is the first; and it is certainly not of greater importance as an aesthetic act than the many others to follow within the program’s environment. The act of the creation of such a system is invaluable to the following creative acts, as none of them would have occurred without it; but this is just as true as saying that the creation of cable television is more valuable than the creation of channels and shows to be on it. Jon Stewart and The Daily Show would not have come about without something like Comedy Central being possible within the context of Cable Television, much as individual works of digital art would not exist without the systems (Gnoetry, Project Gutenberg, the Internet, Western Capitalist society) upon which they rely; this does not mean, though, that all comedians should be more concerned with creating new forms of media to work within than in writing comedy.

Furthermore, to dismiss the subjective activity of a human collaborating artist by concluding that “a great deal of these so-called creative decisions made by artists are driven by chance, or other imperceptible influences” and should just be left to random decisions on the part of the machine, is to completely dismiss the importance of choice, as well as the act of “working the system” (exploring glitches or tricks in the program) to bring about an aesthetically and subjectively desirable result. There is something to be said for placing a reasoned or intuitively guided choice above a random one.

Much more could obviously be said about this. Programming may become an indispensible tool for artists and writers soon, either on their own or in collaboration with knowledgable and interested programmers, but wholly generative art will remain only one of the genres of this evolving branch of artistic process. In Gnoetry, one does not simply press play and let the system create the end result. The perception and subjectivity of the collaborating artist is at the heart of the gnoem’s authorship just as much as the system is. Models such as Gnoetry–human-machine collaborations within a programmed framework–are thus of great importance to the development of a digital aesthetic that marries the artist’s creative will with computer processes. I hope that as more writers come to use programs like Gnoetry, the truly unique approach of each writer will come to be seen as crucial to the evaluation of their work.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. Eric Elshtain permalink
    November 16, 2009 3:55 pm

    Those that shrink away from Gnoety (At a Gnoetry demo here in Chicago a young woman sat down to use the software and shot up from her chair and backed away from the resulting poem slowly saying "Oh, no, no, no…" I can only hope she was horrified by the awesome beauty of the poem she and Gnoetry collaborated on) most often invoke tired notions of subjectivity, originality and creativity, as if those ideas are a) pure entities within any given individual human, untainted by something other than an "I" anb b) somehow completely eradicated by the fact that a machine is involved in a creative process. That said, the Olde Author Is Dead idea is equally banal, and in fact Gnoetry does nothing if not *multiply* authorship: end-user+(software/author of code)+source text author(s). The idea that Gnoetry shores up is the true one that *all* art is a collaborative process. To believe in the artist hunkered down, alone with her mad ideas, scribbling incredible things is her notebook is to believe in a social fantasy. The artist collects data and arranges that data in a way that can be deemed–within whatever social/cultural context she lives–as art. At its base, art is collaborative, since there needs to be another person to call it "art" in the first place, and that small audience has to get his ideas about art from somewhere…

    In any case, Gnoetry shows that there is something of the random and the statistical in the creative process. To say this is *not* to reduce art to mere numbers and mechanics (I was accused of being a "used car salesman" at a reading in Iowa City during which I recited some Gnoetry) but to show that the human mind is a beautiful machine that can be artfully mimicked by a prosthetic device like Gnoetry.

    Those against a machine involved in writing should look closely at their own use of word processors, or even consider dismissing out of hand all poetry written with a typewriter. The latter is a machine with its own rules (QWERTY, to say the least) and is not a transparent medium through which the human mind 'translates' its thoughts.

    Gnoetry is a machine that helps us focus on the medium of language. That is, Gnoetry is a human machine that helps us focus on what it means to be poets.

  2. March 28, 2012 2:46 pm

    Being a used-car-salesman-of-poetry is not a bad thing.

    The existence of a market for second-hand goods increases the value of goods.

    Why should I invest in new texts, if my texts have no resale value?

    The used-car-salesman-of-poetry means that, should I someday want to replace my existing texts, instead of merely disposing of them in some sort of insanitary landfill, I can sell them, and see some sort of offset in the cost of purchasing new texts. And who news — perhaps my old texts have become “classics” or “rare”, and I recoup my investment, and more!

    why, the used-car-salesmen-of-poetry makes this sort of text-investment market possible! Where would the Damien-Hirsts-of-poetry be without this market?!?!?!?

  3. March 28, 2012 2:49 pm

    Wrong account used for that comment. I didn’t even realize that one existed.

  4. April 3, 2012 9:18 pm

    The “used car salesman” accusation (when directed at comp-poets) sounds like it refers to dishonesty – but that has no basis if we’re being up-front about the process.

    I just spent the last couple days working on a position paper that proposed using artificial intelligence techniques to model the post-structural view of literary interpretation, so I guess I believe that the roles of programmer, author, and poetry generation tools can be formally specified.

    Gnoetry just automates an authoring constraint (i.e. that pairs of words in your poem must also exist in a given corpus.) Like poetic forms, constraints are developed by humans. Automation tools are developed by humans. Interpretation is performed by humans. The texts being used for any given reading are produced by humans, but clearly those humans are only part of the process.

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