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Algorithmic Art Machines
Ernest Edmonds
IOCT, Leicester Media School, De Montfort University, The Gateway, Leicester LE1 9BH, UK;

Received: 1 November 2017; Accepted: 10 January 2018; Published: 15 January 2018

Abstract: The article reviews the author’s personal development in relation to art made by algorithmic
machines and discusses both the nature of such systems and the future implications for art.

Keywords: art; computer; algorithm; machine

1. Introduction
The paper presents a personal narrative about my exploration of algorithmic art machines.
Together with Stroud Cornock I presented a paper at a 1970 Computer Graphics conference, Computer
Graphics ’70 (CG70), held at Brunel University, UK. The title of the paper was “The Creative Process
where the Artist is Amplified or Superseded by the Computer”. In it, we discussed the advent of the
computer and the implications for art and for the role of the artist. Would this machine become the
artist of the future? Would the artist of the future have any role at all? The paper was later published
in Leonardo (Cornock and Edmonds 1973). Since we first wrote that paper nearly 50 years ago, time
has passed and in this article I will consider what has happened in that interval, thinking particularly
about how my own work has developed in this context. I will re-visit our thoughts from 1970 and
speculate on what comes next. What follows will consider algorithmic machines in the context of
making art. Algorithmic machines are at the centre of modern life in almost all of its aspects and art
does not stand apart from this. In this context, I again pose the question that Stroud Cornock and I
addressed in 1970: is the artist amplified or superseded by the computer?

2. Background
I first used a computer in my art practice when making my relief Nineteen, 1968–69, see Figure 1.
For this work, I wrote a program that helped me solve a problem that I had with determining the layout
of the 20 constituent pieces. More important, however, was the fact that this use of programming to
solve a problem alerted me to the potential significance of computer programming, of algorithms, to
art. I saw that algorithms could be used to generate art and also that the underlying order that such a
process implies was significant for the perception of art made in this way.

Arts 2018, 7, 3; doi:10.3390/arts7010003

 7. Nineteen (1968–69). 7. In making making a work. Of course. As. but we might algorithm that generated a work. We may not know about the algorithm that generated a work. Nineteen (1968–69). as exploited by the UK Systems artists (Bann 1972). the use  I became interested in algorithmic structures in two respects relevant to this article: first. for example. for example. I then just acted rather like a computer in obeying should be drawn and in what order I should draw them. such  One way of doing this is to select a structure to which the work will conform. One way of doing this is to select a structure to which the work will conform. I decided in advance what lines should be procedure by hand. the problem of facing the blank  how is one to select from the infinite? This is. It  the face seen in the stain on the wall. In fact. For example. After all. 3    2 of 7    Figure 1. It is as if we respond to the architecture of a piece of music or a novel before we can piece  of  music  or  a  novel  before  we  can  unravel  its  construction. There is more to the drawing and its structure.  The  second  respect  in  which  I  became  interested  is  that  constructive  itself. It is necessary to find a way of reducing the options to a manageable level. In fact. even when we cannot quite explain what caused our feeling quite explain what caused our feeling of satisfaction. I could have put those instructions into a computer program and had a plotter draw the purpose.  We  may  not  know  about  the  unravel its construction.  even  when  we  cannot  as in a final movement to a symphony. This may be so even if we do not know or notice the specifics. 3 2 of 7 Arts 2018. suggests that the search for order is a fundamental attribute of human perception: attribute of human perception: the face seen in the stain on the wall.  which  is  fine. I decided in advance what lines  drawn and in what order I should draw them.  I  wanted  to  experiment  with  the  process  of  following the algorithm myself. It is as if we respond to the architecture of a  of satisfaction. as exploited by the UK  at least sense its existence.  I first explored the algorithm in drawings and paintings where the process of making was I  first  explored  the  algorithm  in  drawings  and  paintings  where  the  process  of  making  was  determined in advance—I designed an algorithm for the purpose—and where I followed the procedure determined  in  advance—I  designed  an  algorithm  for  the  purpose—and  where  I  followed  the  by hand. Ernest Edmonds. Systems artists (Bann 1972). but we might at least sense its existence. This may be so experience of them. the apparent freedom of the almost infinite range of possibilities is a difficulty. the problem of facing the blank canvas or canvas  or  the  clean  sheet  of  paper.  Figure 1. See for example (Fosnot 2005). There is more to the drawing and its structure. After all. the choice or design of such an algorithm is a major aesthetic decision in aesthetic  decision  in  itself.  such as in  a  final  movement  to  a  symphony. I was interested in the act of drawing and the micro decisions that I  . Ernest Edmonds. such as an algorithm for as an algorithm for determining the form.  however. See for example (Fosnot 2005). in the drawing shown in Figure 2.  a work. and the very psychology. and the very existence of science. for example. how is one to select from the infinite? This is. the apparent freedom of the almost infinite range of possibilities is a difficulty. true freedom comes with the application of constraints (Stravinsky 1942). For example. suggests that the search for order is a fundamental  existence of science. for example.Arts 2018. obeying those rules.  In  this  case.  Stravinsky claimed.  In  of them is one way in which I make decisions about a work and reduce the specific choices. true freedom comes with the application of constraints (Stravinsky 1942). the use of  them  is  one  way  in  which  I  make  decisions  about  a  work  and  reduce  the  specific  choices. such a  work  has a  satisfying form. in the drawing shown in Figure 2. the choice or design of such an algorithm is a major  determining the form. We often say that  even if we do not know or notice the specifics. Stravinsky claimed.  It  is  necessary  to  find  a  way  of  reducing  the  options  to  a  the clean sheet of paper. but this point will do for our  Of course. I could have put those instructions into a computer program and had a plotter  draw  the  image. I then just acted rather like a computer in  those rules. manageable level. As. We often say that a work has a satisfying form. It is possible or even probable is  possible  or  even  probable  that  structures  in  artworks  are  very  significant  in  our  aesthetic  that structures in artworks are very significant in our aesthetic experience of them. The second respect in which I became interested is that constructive psychology. I became interested in algorithmic structures in two respects relevant to this article: first. but this point will do for our purpose.

  Figure 2. The totality of the work. This approach was not possible in the possible in the next development: time‐based art. 3  image. as well as in the order that the algorithm gave.Arts 2018.  in  the  the time time  employed  employed for  projection)  for projection) and  recorded  and recorded directly directly  onto  videotape. and other work done at that time.  Much  Much of  of the  the early  early work  work of  this  kind of this kind  produced produced  drawings drawings  executed  on  a  graph  plotter  or  was  drawn  by  a  human  as  in  the  case  described  executed on a graph plotter or was drawn by a human as in the case described above.  ‘projection’ over time by the audience or viewer (Le Grice 1977).  however.  I  developed  I developed a  system  a system for for  making  making timetime  basedbased  abstract  abstract artworks  artworks that  that were were  generated  generated by  computer  by computer in realin  real  time time  (i. object. Ernest Edmonds. Time was a concrete part of the constructed  work.  Figure 2. The first completed piece was Fragment which lasted an hour and was shown as part lasted  an  hour  and  was  shown  as  part  of  an  art  exhibition  in  London  in  1985  (Edmonds  1985).  The  images consisted of various arrangements of black and white squares as well as pure black and pure  of various arrangements of black and white squares as well as pure black and pure white frames. in(i. as well as in the order that the algorithm gave. above. Between  1980 and Between 1980 and 1985. Drawing: 7 (1975). white frames. This approach was not  pen to paper. In this case. 1985.  The  first  completed  piece  was  Fragment  which  onto videotape. Algorithmic  Algorithmic art art is  is produced  produced with with the  the aid  aid of of aa  computer computer  by by  programming programming  it  to  follow it to follow  some some  procedure  that procedure that  generates generates  thethe  art art  object. which   is fine. 7.  of an art exhibition in London in 1985 (Edmonds 1985). 3 3 of 7 Arts 2018.e. The images consisted See  Figures  3  and  4. Drawing: 7 (1975). such processes are often associated with time‐based art in which the generation of images  such processes are often associated with time-based art in which the generation of images is seen as a is seen as a ‘projection’ over time by the audience or viewer (Le Grice 1977). however. I wanted to experiment with the process of following3 of 7  the algorithm myself.e. Ernest Edmonds.  Today. with  . however. 7. The key point about this work was the full incorporation of the time element into the  The key point about this work was the full incorporation of the time element into the generative process generative process implemented within the computer. See Figures 3 and 4. In Fragment.  next development: time-based art. I was interested in the act of drawing and the micro decisions that I made as I put made as I put pen to paper... Today. both the images and the timing are determined  by the generative rules as the computer system works through them.

is. I was  for example. Ernest Edmonds. but include the idea of simulating ‘creative’ interventions and simulating interchange  vary. The meta‐logic  the exchanges with the outside world—for example reacting to the detection of movement. of course. of course. of course. still from Fragment (1964–65). Ernest Edmonds.  and hasartists  Many  no exchange with add  calls  calls  to any other number  random  system. the system is entirely self‐contained and has no exchange with any other system. 3    4 of 7  rules as the computer system works through them. is therefore completely implicit in the defining rules. After making the series of  with a world outside the algorithm (Baggi 2008). For a discussion of the the exception of its physical manifestation.  beginning of this article. For  construction of these works see (Edmonds 1988). progressing in different ways depending on the values of those readings.  run. The motives motives vary.  Figure 4. I use another approach. After making the series of  a world outside the algorithm (Baggie 2008). 3    done at that time. I began to make works where the algorithmic system was open.  it  to say. In plain language. and other work Arts 2018. that  That it ishas  is. but include the idea of simulating ‘creative’ interventions and simulating interchange with with a world outside the algorithm (Baggi 2008). Time was a concrete part of the constructed work. still from Fragment (1964–65). Ernest Edmonds. 3 4 of 7 implemented within the computer. still from Fragment (1964–65). In plain language. exchanges  I began with  to make works its  environment  environment  where taking  the algorithmic readings  systemfor  from  sensors.Arts 2018.  Figure 3.    Figure 4. Ernest Edmonds. I use another approach. a closed system. and which has been central to much of my recent work (Edmonds 2003).  a discussion of the construction of these works see (Edmonds 1988).  We can think of the algorithms used for open systems as having a meta‐logic that draws upon  We can think of the algorithms used for open systems as having a meta‐logic that draws upon  the exchanges with the outside world—for example reacting to the detection of movement. where  works starting the  system  system  with had  Fragment. where  works starting with Fragment. I use another approach. with the exception of its physical manifestation. Ernest Edmonds. 7. has  no  the system with  exchange  is entirely self-contained the  outside  outside  world.  The algorithmic system that generates a work such as Fragment is. the system is entirely self‐contained and has no exchange with any other system. but include the idea of simulating ‘creative’ interventions and simulating interchange run. Ernest Edmonds.  and  the system had exchanges with its environment taking readings from sensors.  Figure 3.  Many  artists  add  to  random  number  that is.  sensors. I began to make works where the algorithmic system was open. is therefore completely implicit in the defining rules.     Figure 3. That is to say.  no  exchange  with  the  world. still from Fragment (1964–65). whereand  the  had  exchanges  with  its  taking  readings  from  for  example. both the images and the timing are determined by the generative 4 of 7  Arts 2018. it has no exchange with the outside world. and progressing in different ways depending on the values of those readings.  wasexample. Many artists add calls to random number generators—technically pseudo random numbers (Strawderman 1965)—into their algorithms so that  generators—technically pseudo random numbers (Strawderman 1965)—into their algorithms so that  generators—technically the  resulting  resulting  works  are pseudo works  are  random numbers unpredictable  (Strawderman and/or  are  are  1965)—into different  each  each  the their time  the  algorithms algorithm  so that is  run. 7. and which has been central to much of my recent work (Edmonds 2003). a closed system.  The algorithmic system that generates a work such as Fragment is. I was  making interactive systems: something discussed in some detail in the 1970 paper mentioned at the  making interactive systems: something discussed in some detail in the 1970 paper mentioned at the  beginning of this article. The meta‐logic  . For  the exception of its physical manifestation. After making the series of works starting with Fragment. is therefore completely implicit in the defining rules. 7. a closed system. The totality of the work.  Figure 4. The algorithmic system that generates a work such as Fragment is. still from Fragment (1964–65).  open. that  That is to say.  The  the  unpredictable  and/or  different  time  algorithm  is  The  the resulting works are unpredictable and/or are different each time the algorithm is motives vary. a discussion of the construction of these works see (Edmonds 1988). still from Fragment (1964–65). In Fragment.

Algorithmic Machines and Art In the modern world the algorithm. Briefly. The algorithm might then embody explicit qualities that are desired. from finding a book to finding a friend. For example. His major function might. are essentially statistically based and are developed from a learning process. 7. there are two main classes of such machines. A book by Francesco Franco describing a fuller picture of my artistic journey has recently been published (Franco 2018). about the subject of concern with an engine of some kind that can act on those rules. our algorithmic machine. a connectionist algorithm might be used to recognise a face and so enable the artist to arrange that the work responds in a particular way when someone is looking at it. but in the 21st century. Connectionist AI systems have proved very successful in many recent applications. of whatever sort. more and more we seem to be confronted with artificial intelligent (AI) machines. There are plusses and minuses for both kinds of AI. The obvious case is where the algorithm is prompted to respond directly to a stimulus. The algorithms that drive a connectionist AI system. in the 1970 paper. then that and on some condition do something else” or “always meet this condition and don’t allow this state to arise”. that need not be the case. Amplified or Superseded? As mentioned above. . algorithms control or influence the process. is central to so much of life. on the other hand.Arts 2018. without there necessarily being any immediate reaction to the stimulus. From the washing machine to the car and airplane. They are. and which has been central to much of my recent work (Edmonds 2003). the essence of most machines is to be found in an algorithm. . but one thing that is certain is that the details of how such machines work is obscure to most people. I call this kind of interaction ‘influence’ (Edmonds 2007). a machine was a mechanical thing. Procedural. but they might in fact be learning. so that when one speaks of an ‘artist’ one means he who is performing a kind of catalysis of creative behaviour within society and not a specialist working for a section of that society. Typically. however. In the 19th century. Stroud Cornock and I considered the issue of whether the computer. Exactly what an artificially intelligent machine is may not be all that clear. I was making interactive systems: something discussed in some detail in the 1970 paper mentioned at the beginning of this article. Without repeating the full argument. 3 5 of 7 progressing in different ways depending on the values of those readings. from selecting a holiday to trading shares. might amplify or just supersede the artist. we said that “The traditional role of an artist is clearly called into question by these developments . a declarative algorithm could well match a set of specific composition rules that an artist wants his work to conform to. 4. obscure in the sense that they do not easily reveal the reasoning behind any given decision. However.” In particular. It is somewhat easier to draw such explanations out of a symbolic AI system. our basic thinking then was that “Though the computer can replace man in the production of graphic images. may have different implications for art. the algorithms used in machines are relatively clear sets of procedural instructions or declarative rules: “do this. The algorithms that drive a symbolic AI system can be seen as explicit sets of rules.” . in its various forms. The meta-rules can change the algorithm so that its potential behaviour in the future is modified. In plain language. face recognition systems are typically of this kind. large sets of examples are used to enable the system to automatically develop the ability to make correct. In many cases. or appropriate decisions. However. declarative. The meta-logic can automatically change the algorithms used to generate the artwork. A teacher might face still and blank looking students. making decisions as appropriate. be to initiate. those using symbolic AI and those using connectionist AI. 3. and AI algorithms. On the other hand. therefore. formal statements. For example. We can think of the algorithms used for open systems as having a meta-logic that draws upon the exchanges with the outside world—for example reacting to the detection of movement. A person can learn without performing any observable action. its function in the arts is seen as assisting in the specification of art systems and in their subsequent real-time management.

pp. pp. not discussed in the 1970 paper. and Cutthorpe. London: Arts Council. set things up. the artist creates the algorithms (GV Art 2014). Cornock. as we then saw it. as used in art. 1972. the artist would have defined the framework within which the situation was defined. of course. Ernest A. might find themselves. Reflections on the Nature of Interaction. In the developed world.Arts 2018. So I argue that this work is in no way on the edge of contemporary art. Edmonds. Constructivism: Theory. So. 3 6 of 7 The thinking behind these remarks was driven by the whole idea of computing. Algorithmic Signs. In Systems.bevilacqualamasa. Edited by Negrotti Massimo. 5–14. The creative process where the artist is amplified or superseded by the computer. Introduction. The answer. Conflicts of Interest: The author declares no conflict of interest. The algorithms create the work whilst. Bern: Peter Lacy. the algorithm. 19–20. Stroud. Oxford: Pergamon Press. the artists. whilst in some sense the computer might be left to create the artwork in detail. [CrossRef] Edmonds. What was the incisive point about the show? For me it came from a conversation with someone who was not deeply into visual art but had been deeply into computing for very many years (Catton 2017). The use of randomness in the simulation of creativity. Very many aspects of life are conducted by—or influenced by—algorithms. We considered the issue of where the humans. Edmonds. This idea was widespread as we know well but the particular significance in our context is the degree that it ties the invention of computation. Another issue. to a way of making art. uniq=f16445051ee333ea5f002352aca01f2e (accessed on 1 December 2017). The point that we jointly discovered was that this exhibition of algorithmic art represented art that engaged with the key issues that are part of modern life. 2007. The old Cornock/Edmonds issue of “amplified or superseded” has not changed—the computer. Logics for Constructing Generative Art Systems. was that the artist would become the figure who. Exhibition 4: Duality and Co-Existence. All of us used algorithms to make our art and many of us had done that for 50 years or so. we could argue that our lives are partly driven by algorithms and yet they remain an unexplored territory for many people. Perspectives. 1988. 7. So this kind of art is engaged with contemporary life like no other. is surely a metaphor of life itself. So. In Natural Chance. David. Roman Verotsko. and Frieder Nake. as it were. 1985. Looking back on that position. I confirm that early position. the metaphor of the algorithm. [CrossRef] Fosnot. Logic and time-based art practice. Conclusions: The Significance of the Algorithmic Machines in Art The thoughts that are recorded in this article were brought to a particular significance with the Algorithmic Signs exhibition in Venice (Franco 2017). UK. In this show. References Baggie. at least. It turned out that after my making of Nineteen this was crucially important in my own development. Available online: http://www. The underlying structures of the artwork can now be seen in computational terms. but now re-conceptualised. Vera Molnar. 25–46. London: Exhibiting Space. New York: Teachers College Press. the machine—is still something that the artist uses to create a framework of some kind. 2nd ed. Artificial Chance. it seems hard to take a different view. 1973. for the moment. 2017. In Leonardo. Derbyshire. Digital Creativity 14: 23–38. CoDesign: International Journal of Co-Creation in Design and the Arts 3: 139–43. Ernest A. Leonardo 16: 11–16. I exhibited along with Manfred Mohr. from selecting a holiday to obtaining a loan. Franco. Ernest A. 5. However. is the role of algorithms in the art making process. Electronic Art Supplemental Issue. the important issue of using an algorithm as an art making process was a critical advance. Bann. Francesca. Denis L. . Catherine Twomey. 2008. Catton. As I have described above. 2003. of the general purpose computer. Personal communication. Stephen. but is at the very core of our contemporary concerns. and Practice. and Ernest Edmonds. [CrossRef] Edmonds. as we know it today. pp. 2005. Ernest A.

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