Alex's notes

Automation, magic, art

A friend of mine asked “can you optimize yourself out of a hobby?”1 He explored the idea that the impulse to optimize can ruin the craft of the hobby itself. This sparked a lot of ideas around art and automation for me.

Generative art is hyper-automated

Generative art relies on automating the production of art. Rather than painting, drawing, or singing directly, the artist defines an “aesthetic space” via computer code. The code outlines a range of potential artworks addressable via parameters. They press play on their code and watch as a continuous stream of images are produced at a screaming sixty frames per second.

Amazing, of course. The tradeoff is that the artist’s hand becomes distant from the work. The viewer can’t feel the artist’s brush strokes, follow their lines, hear their voice. Instead the artist works in a purely conceptual symbolic context, separated from the viewer’s experience by code. Like an office worker who manages an industrial process but never sets foot on the floor of the factory.

I took a Geography of Cities class in college where I learned that America is considered an “information economy”, meaning that the majority of our industry consists of people manipulating symbols. Generative art is born from and depends on that economy.

Magic spells

Consider the Christian Bible (the Word of God). It’s a bunch of letter-filled pages. But in the mind of a Christian, those specific symbols arranged in that specific order hold special power. Sharing the Word of God is like casting a magic spell; the language can transform directly.

“Is not my word like fire?” declares the Lord, “and like a hammer which shatters a rock?” — Jeremiah 23:29-30

Since we’re on the topic of spells, let’s actually consider pagan witchcraft, in which the casting of a spell involves drawing symbols2 and uttering words to project physical power. The fantasy of casting a spell is a fantasy of directly causing physical action via symbolic manipulation (the string of symbols composing the spell). We are enchanted by the idea that symbols & language could contain physical power in-and-of-themselves.

I think this idea is so enchanting because it’s an inversion of the usual relationship between language and the physical world. Usually language describes the physical world, maps it out, abstracts it. Language depends on and responds to the physical world, but the physical world does not respond to language. You cannot move a boulder by talking to it. However, in the fantasy of spell casting, you can.

Maps that generate territories

There’s this famous quote:

A map is not the territory — Alfred Korzybski

How does a map maker work? They observe the physical world and make marks on a paper (or encode symbols in some other medium) that represent the physical world. The marks-on-paper are an abstraction of reality. They measure and rationalize space into a symbolic code — the map.

Generative art is like a magic spell because it inverts this relationship. It’s as if the map maker made some marks on paper, and then a physical territory sprung up around them. The code artist writes abstract symbols, presses play, and observes a new generated world. The map creates the territory.

Beginner programmers often comment that coding feels like magic and gives them a feeling of power over the miniature universe of the computer. Programming is the realization of a long held human fantasy about the power of symbols; the same fantasy that drives the Christian obsession with the Bible and the pagan practice of spell casting.

In this way, programming is the ultimate triumph of abstraction and automation. Not only can the world be described by abstraction, not only can it be controlled by abstraction — now it can be generated from abstraction. Generative art is like the singularity of automated artistic production; it is optimization asymptotically approaching infinity. And yet it all still manages to be mostly boring.


  1. Max C. in a private posting (heavily paraphrased); 7/29/21 ↩︎

  2. The 12 Most Powerful Witchcraft Symbols, a quick example of witchcraft symbols ↩︎

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