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Computer Art
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Berys Gaut

What is computer art? The answer may seem obvious: computer art is any art made by a computer or with the use of a computer. But that cannot be right. Almost all novels are now written on a computer, but that does not make them computer art. Perhaps computer art is art made by computer and that is distinctive in some way. That fails too: novels written on a computer are distinctive in being written after 1945, but that does not make these novels computer art works. Rather, computer art is art that is made by computer and is also artistically distinctive in some way. For instance, hypertext stories enable the capacity to navigate through a story by the insertion of hyperlinks into it, and so create a form of artistically interesting interaction that does not obtain in traditional literature; by virtue of that fact hypertext stories are a form of computer art. What matters, then, for the existence of computer art is that one can do something artistically distinctive with computers, something that is not achievable, either at all or in practice, in other kinds of art.

In computer art, a computer’s capacities are exploited for achieving artistically distinctive ends. So we need first to determine what computers can do that other things cannot, either at all or in practice. The most general characterisation of a computer is as a Universal Turing Machine (UTM). A Turing Machine is an abstract device composed of a reading head and an infinitely long tape divided into cells, and in each cell there is no more than one syntactically specified symbol, taken from a finite list of such symbols. The machine takes as inputs the symbols in the cells; it reads one cell at a time and has a set of instructions (its program) about what to do when it encounters any of these symbols. It may retain the symbol in the cell, erase the symbol, or replace one symbol with another. It can also move one cell to the right or the left, and take as its next input the symbol in that cell. The set of instructions in the machine comprises an algorithm: that is, there is an exactly formulated rule that specifies what the machine is to do for each input and which the machine can implement in a finite time. The machine thus has an input (the symbols stored on the tape), an output (the symbols that it writes onto the tape), and an algorithm that transforms the input into the output. A UTM is a machine that can do what any Turing Machine can do. Computers, being UTMs, take inputs and transform them into outputs by algorithms. A UTM could consist of a human following the set of instructions, and was so thought of by Alan Turing in his original paper describing the device (Copeland 2004). Electronic computers mechanise UTM routines, allowing them to implement them at speeds billions of times faster than any human could. The notion of a UTM puts no constraints on how the inputs or algorithms are produced. The inputs might, for instance, be chosen either by the designers of the UTM or by its users.

When we talk of computer art, we have in mind electronic computers, not human beings running UTM routines. The conjunction of two features is distinctive of electronic computers. First they operate at speeds that far outrun human capacities, made possible by their automation of procedures. Second, since they are UTMs, they operate according to algorithms. These algorithms define a space of possibilities. Varying the input changes the output in accordance with the algorithms; varying the inputs allows us to discover what the algorithms permit, to explore the possibility space defined by the algorithmic rules. Doing so by electronic computer enables exploration with a thoroughness and speed not otherwise achievable. Computers thus afford automated algorithmic exploration.

Computer art exploits automated algorithmic exploration to artistically distinctive effect. It allows artists to discover the full potential of what rules permit, something that would not be in practice possible without automation. There are two broad classes of cases, depending on how the input is determined – solely by the artist in the case of non-interactive computer art, or partly by the audience in the case of interactive computer art.

In the first class are works such as those produced by Harold Cohen’s AARON and David Cope’s EMI (Boden 2004). AARON comes in various versions; in some it generates drawings of acrobats in various postures. Cohen specifies a set of algorithms, determining drawing-rules, models of acrobats’ bodies, how they may be physically positioned, and so on, and inputs the basic parameters for a set of drawings. AARON can then produce an enormous number of drawings according to the possibilities permitted by the algorithms. EMI is comprised of a database of composers’ melodic and harmonic motifs and a set of rules for combining these motifs. Musical works can be produced in the style of any composer whose motifs are in the database; compositions in the style of Bach, Mozart, Beethoven and Mahler have been produced, and many are indiscernible to the lay (and often the expert) ear from actual compositions by those composers. EMI’s works are musical explorations of aspects of a composer’s style: through automation one can discover what is possible in that composer’s style, exploring a vast range of possibilities: one can download 5000 computer generated Bach-style chorales from Cope’s website. Digital animation is also a type of computer art. By using software tools such as Maya animators one can build 3D animation “puppets,” either by hand or by mechanically capturing body information, rig (build the internal control skeletons of) these models, animate them, and then render the 3D models into 2D images. At each stage animators choose input and then see how output varies according to what is algorithmically permissible. This may involve short algorithmic routines – seeing for instance how moving a certain joint moves the 3D animation model – or extended algorithmic routines, using techniques such as particle systems or AI systems, involving multiple “agents” that interact with each other.

Automated algorithmic exploration can be distinctive in respect of either extensiveness or intensity (these are not exclusive). Extensiveness involves producing far more artistic output (drawings, musical works, etc.) according to set rules than would be in practice achievable by manual methods. Intensity involves producing individual outputs that are far more elaborated than could be otherwise achieved. Consider photoreal animation – animation where the animation image of some object is indiscernible from how a photograph of that object would look if the object existed with the properties that the image ascribes to it. Photoreal animation is not in practice achievable by manual animation, which employs traditional painting and drawing techniques. It requires huge computing power to render images with the degree of detail equivalent to that of a high resolution digital photograph. And photoreal animation matters artistically, in generating a beauty and detail not seen in traditional animation and in fostering greater character engagement (Gaut 2010: 66-7).

The other main type of computer art is interactive computer art, which depends on the fact that the input to a program can be partly set by the audience rather than entirely by the artists. Examples include Daniel Rozin’s Wooden Mirror and Camille Utterback and Romy Archituv’s TEXT RAIN (Bolter and Gromala 2003). Wooden Mirror consists of numerous small square wooden tiles set into an octagonal wooden frame; a video camera records the image of someone standing in front of the frame and a computer analyses the image and controls the tilting of each of the tiles to reflect back different amounts of light, forming a rough image of the viewer. The viewer, through her presence and actions, thus partly determines the input to the work, and the work is thereby interactive, processing the viewer’s input according to the algorithms that constitute the program and thereby producing the perceived output. TEXT RAIN involves a screened projection of the viewer’s image, and words and letters, taken from a poem by Evan Zimroth, that move slowly down the screen. By moving her body the viewer can control the fall of letters, cupping them in her arms, throwing them up, perhaps even creating new poems with them. Again, the viewer partly controls the input by her presence and movements, which are projected onto the screen. More familiar examples of interactive computer works are videogames. Here there is much overlap with the technology employed in non-interactive digital animation: Maya, for instance, is also sometimes used in the creation of videogames. The difference with non-interactive digital cinema, where input is specified by the artists alone, is that the player partly controls the input to the program and thus partly determines the happenings in the fictional world. Some videogames, such as Ico (2001) and Bioshock (2007), are sufficiently rich and interesting to count as artworks because of the way they employ interactive possibilities for artistic ends: in Ico the repeated need to touch and hold hands as part of the gameplay becomes an affecting symbol of love between the player character, Ico, and the princess, Yorda. In Bioshock, a series of increasingly fraught moral choices about whether to “harvest” (kill) or liberate genetically altered little girls guides the player to question some of her choices in the game world, something that is possible only in interactive contexts, and employs this questioning to artistically interesting effect. Computationally generated interactivity makes possible distinctive artistic achievements; like all computer art, it enables automated algorithmic exploration, with extensive or intensive possibilities, and in addition interactivity enables the viewer partly to determine the path of the exploration and output.

As this theory-sketch shows, the computer art form comes in two basic types, non-interactive and interactive. The differences between the types are important, and condition the ontology of works in those types, the role of the audience and that of the artist, and several other matters. These differences stem from the absence of audience input into the algorithms that generate the works in the case of non-interactive computer art; and the existence of audience input into the algorithms whose implementation constitutes the works in the case of interactive computer art. Nevertheless, there is a single art form that embraces both interactive and non-interactive computer works, constituted by the distinctive artistic possibilities afforded by automated algorithmic exploration. Some art forms contain other art forms: the art form of picture printing contains the art forms of woodcuts, engravings, etchings, etc. Interactive and non-interactive computer art forms likewise are contained within the broader art form of computer art.

The claim that the computer art form subdivides into interactive and non-interactive forms may seem obvious. Nevertheless, it has been denied by Dominic Lopes (2010). Lopes has written a highly original, systematic and groundbreaking account of the computer art form, from which I have learned a great deal. But he defends the following definition of the computer art form (CAF): “an item is a computer art work just in case (1) it’s art, (2) it’s run on a computer, (3) it’s interactive, and (4) it’s interactive because it’s run on a computer” (Lopes 2010: 27). So works in the computer art form must be interactive: the type of non-interactive computer art form that I have just defended does not exist. Thus, in virtually founding the philosophical discussion of computer art, Lopes has simultaneously radically restricted the object of study. Why?

Lopes is certainly aware of non-interactive computer art: he discusses non-interactive works, such as AARON’s paintings and EMI’s musical compositions, not only interactive works, such as Wooden Mirror, TEXT RAIN and videogames. AARON and EMI are discussed in a chapter about digital artworks. So one might suppose that the disagreement is merely verbal: Lopes recognises a digital art form, which comes in two kinds: non-interactive and interactive (and he calls only the latter kind “computer art”), whereas I am labelling as computer art what he terms the general art form of “digital art”. But that is not how matters stand. Lopes argues that there is in fact no digital art form, so it cannot be identified with the computer art form. What exists are particular digital artworks, which are members of traditional art forms: the acrobat pictures produced by AARON are digital drawings or paintings, and thus belong to the art forms of drawing or painting; EMI’s digitally created musical works are members of the musical art form. But there is no digital art form.

I agree with Lopes that digital art is not to be identified with computer art, though for reasons different from his. Some computers are not digital: connectionist (neural net) computers can be analogue, for instance, though connectionist systems are almost invariably run on digital computers. And some outputs of computers are not digital: the output of Wooden Mirror consists of the tilting of wooden tiles; in later versions of AARON, Cohen equipped his computer with a robot art, which employed a paintbrush and paint blocks to produce analogue paintings (Boden 2004: 314-5). Digital artworks are by far the most common kind of computer artworks, but they are not the only kind; the digital art form is the major type of computer art form, but is not identical with it. (Lopes categorises digital works as either made by a digital computer or for display by a digital computer; AARON’s recent output would count as digital works for him. However, categorizing these analogue paintings as digital artworks would be deeply misleading, for they lack essential properties of the digital image, such as being infinitely reproducible without information loss.)

My main disagreement with Lopes concerns his claim that there is no digital art form and the reasoning that leads him thereby to conclude that the computer art form must be interactive. Art kinds for Lopes are simply kinds of art, groups of artworks that share some feature in common: Tuesday artworks (artworks made on Tuesdays) are one such kind. Appreciative art kinds are defined thus: “a kind is an appreciative art kind just in case we normally appreciate a work in the kind by comparison with arbitrarily any other works in that kind” (Lopes 2010: 17). Being an appreciative art kind is necessary but not sufficient for being an art form: there are other appreciative art kinds, such as genres like horror, which cross different art forms. Digital art is not an art form because it is not an appreciative art kind; for we don’t normally appreciate a digital artwork by comparing it with arbitrarily any other digital artwork: we don’t appreciate, say, digital paintings by comparing them with digital musical works. Digital paintings are appreciated in comparison to other, often non-digital paintings; digital musical works are appreciated in comparison to other, often non-digital musical works. Those computer artworks that are digital artworks therefore do not belong to a digital art form, because there is no such form (Lopes 2010: 18). By parity of reasoning there is no computer art form that embraces non-interactive and interactive works, for digital non-interactive computer works do not fall under a common art form that could be a type of computer art.

Lopes’ argument depends on individuating art forms in part by comparison classes. The theory-sketch given earlier individuated art forms in terms of a medium’s (such as the computer medium’s) affording distinctive artistic possibilities (see Gaut 2010: chapter 7). Lopes’ individuation condition, however, does not individuate art forms. Consider Rembrandt self-portraits and prehistoric cave paintings. They both belong to the art form of painting, showing some of the distinctive artistic possibilities afforded by paint on a surface through enabling, for instance, seeing-in by attending to a worked surface. But it is not true that we normally appreciate Rembrandt self-portraits by comparison to cave paintings: perhaps such a comparison has never been made. So we do not individuate art forms in terms of normally appreciating a work in the kind by comparing it arbitrarily with any other work in the kind, for that is not true of Rembrandt and cave paintings. It may be replied that this is one of the abnormal cases: Rembrandt portraits or cave paintings are some of the exceptions where one only compares the paintings to a restricted set of other paintings rather than to arbitrarily any other painting. But taking this line means that in order to assure ourselves that the art form of painting exists, we would have to engage in a statistical survey to show that most paintings are compared to arbitrarily any other paintings and that only a minority of paintings are compared to some restricted set of paintings. But we know that the art form of painting exists without engaging in any such inquiry, and indeed this sort of enquiry seems absurd.

Alternatively, perhaps “normally,” in Lopes’ individuation condition should be read not as a statistical notion, but as a normative one; we ought to compare the Rembrandt with the cave painting because we can learn something from the comparison. However, making this move undermines Lopes’ claim that there is no digital art form. One can illuminatingly appreciate digital works by comparing them with each other, even when they are in different traditional media. One can, for instance, usefully compare AARON’s digital paintings with EMI’s digital musical works: the former are more original, since Cohen selected the input and algorithms to reflect his own style, but Cope chose EMI’s database and algorithms in accordance with an analysis of other composers’ style. However, the best of EMI’s output is I think artistically more successful than the best of AARON’s output, which likely reflects the greater value of the initial stylistic parameters that were fed into EMI. Comparing the two kinds of works, then, sheds light on the range and value of the possibilities offered by automated algorithmic exploration. So if the ‘normal’ in the definition of an appreciative art kind is a normative notion, there is a digital art form. Recall that I individuated art forms in terms of a medium’s affording distinctive artistic possibilities. Given that account, it will always be true that there is something to be learned from a comparison of two works in an art form, since they both illustrate something of the distinctive artistic possibilities afforded by the art form. This understanding of what an art form is explains why Lopes’ account understood normatively gets matters extensionally correct.

So Lopes’ individuation condition for an art form fails, if understood statistically; and if it is understood normatively, it does not support his conclusion that computer art form is always interactive. According to the theory-sketch developed earlier, the computer art form embraces both interactive and non-interactive works; both exploit automated algorithmic exploration, which grounds artistically distinctive features. Such a nested framework allows one better to appreciate the commonalities, for instance, between non-interactive digital cinema and videogames; both are types of cinema (the medium of the moving image) and both are types of computer art form, differing in that the latter supports interactivity and the former does not; but the technology behind both has a great deal in common and the appreciation of that technology is essential to the appreciation of works in the media (Gaut 2010). Since so much of it is non-interactive, computer art is far more ubiquitous and varied than Lopes countenances. A Philosophy of Computer Art is an enormously accomplished and groundbreaking work that will shape future philosophical discussion of computer art. But it overly restricts the computer art to its interactive form and so impoverishes the domain to be discussed. There is more to computer art than is dreamt of in its philosophy.


Boden, Margaret. 2004. The Creative Mind: Myths and Mechanisms. 2nd ed. London: Routledge.

Bolter, Jay David and Diane Gromala. 2003. Windows and Mirrors: Interaction Design, Digital Art, and the Myth of Transparency. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Copeland, B. Jack. 2004. “Computation”. In The Blackwell Guide to the Philosophy of Computing and Information, edited by Luciano Floridi. Malden: Blackwell.

Gaut, Berys. 2010. A Philosophy of Cinematic Art. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Lopes, Dominic McIver. 2010. A Philosophy of Computer Art. London: Routledge.

2009 © Berys Gaut

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