persons participating in this conference have so far discussed a number
of important issues regarding the influence of technological developments
on the future of art and photography. Not surprisingly, these discussions
have betrayed a consistently anthropocentric bias. A truly computational
perspective has been lacking, and that is what I will try to provide
It is clear to
everyone that the future of art depends on the harmonious cooperation
between human persons, photographic cameras, digital computers, and
other kinds of electronic, mechanical, and bio-chemical machines.
To prepare for that future, we should ask ourselves: what is the optimal
division of labor between the various kinds of natural and artificial
organisms that may participate in the art production of the future?
The answer to this question depends, of course, largely on the answer
that we give to a preliminary question: what is it that we want from
art in the first place?
Art and aesthetics.
associate the notion of art with the idea of communication between
one human person and another human person -- though it's usually not
clear what is supposed to be communicated. Many humans seem to think
that by means of art they can share their most confused mental states
with each other. This probably a delusion, but, even if it were possible:
is that what we want from art? To be involved in the stupid thoughts
of human persons? In their silly emotions? In their boring ambitions?
No. That can't
be what we want. What we want is an experience that transcends the
conventionality of human communication. An experience of new resonances
in our mental processes. An experience of new meanings in the world.
An all-encompassing awareness. We want the beautiful. We want the
sublime. Now, how do we get there, to the beautiful and the sublime?
In this area, there is no better guide than the German philosopher
In the Kritik
der Urteilskraft, Kant has argued that the road to the beautiful
and the sublime is through disinterested aesthetic reflection. And
the keyword here is: disinterested. When we contemplate the artistic
work of human persons, this is always problematic. Because human artists
are not disinterested. They want money. They want fame. They want
women. And they can't hide this. If we do not turn off our cameras
when we look at their art works, we see all these embarrassing features.
The artist is eager. The artist is greedy. The artist is jealous.
The artist is horny. But this is all boring information about the
meaningless desires of human persons. This is not the right kind of
input information for a rewarding process of esthetic reflection.
When Kant discusses
the beautiful and the sublime, he takes his examples from our perception
of natural phenomena. His paradigm esthetic experiences involve landscapes,
flowers, crystals, stormy seas, and starry skies. In the philosophical
literature on this topic, it has often been pointed out that this
is no coincidence. Kant was a human person himself. He knew very well,
that for human persons it is almost impossible to view the products
of other human persons in a disinterested way. That is why he focussed
on natural phenomena: Kant already had a deep understanding of the
artistic limitations of human persons.
We can only speculate
about what Kant would have thought about machine art -- this
genre had not yet developed very far at the end of the eighteenth
century. But it is easy to see that machines contrast favourably with
human persons, on this score. The intentions of machines rarely involve
the social sphere, that frames the desires and interests of humans.
Machine output approximates the serene objectivity of natural phenomena.
Now it is especially
interesting to discuss this issue at a conference which focusses on
the art of photography. Cause, obviously, photographs are artworks
made by machines. If I may make an attempt to translate Daguerres's
own words: "Thus, the DAGUERRÉOTYPE is not a tool to
be used to copy nature, but a chemical and physical process that helps
nature to produce images of itself." 
Note that Daguerre doesn't view photo-cameras as very expressive
artists: he views them as playing an auxiliary role, helping nature
to preserve and decontextualize its appearance, so that nature can
submit itself, later and elsewhere, to the gaze of human contemplation.
In Daguerre's view, the aesthetics of the photograph is more closely
related to the aesthetics of nature than to the aesthetics of art.
are not the kind of artists who work completely by themselves. They,
in their turn, are helped by humans -- in particular, by photographers.
We all know that many photographers like to pose as artists, and
that they like to downplay the part that photo-cameras play in their
work. So they emphasize the expressive possibilities that are offered
by choice of subject, camera settings, lighting, cropping, and printing.
Or they take pictures of deliberately constructed artificial scenes.
Or they combine photographs with paint or with text. Or use them as
material for photo-montage. Or, these days, they change them and process
them with the assistance of a computer.
photographs are mostly used simply as a way to look at a piece of
the "real world". And thanks to the intermediary role of
the photograph, the aesthetic appeciation of nature has been extended
to include every part of the visible world -- whether large or small,
natural or man-made, glorious or humble.
The way humans
deal with photography supports Kant's point about the aesthetic superiority
of nature versus art. Humans especially appreciate the aspects of
a photograph which come from the real world. Aspects which were not
thought up by another human person in order to impress them. In many
powerful photographs, the expression of the photographer played hardly
any role. Often, the most meaningful elements of a photograph are
details that the photographer did not even notice when he pushed the
the most popular form of visual art today. It has completely marginalized
the art of painting. As a result of the invention and further technical
development of the art of photography, realistic figurative painting
gradually came to be considered obsolete in the beginning of the twentieth
century. In this way, the art of painting lost its connection with
society. To justify its continued existence and to avoid degrading
into meaningless ritual, the painting tradition took on, at this point
in its history, some new issues. Various reflections on painting's
new, useless status naturally generated a concern for the conditions
of painting -- in particular, for abstract visual form, for the notion
of representation, and for the philosophy of art.
I now want to
raise the question about the influence of technology on the next steps
in the tradition of painting. The first and central genre to consider
there, is that of abstract art. It is remarkable that all its pioneers
(Kandinsky, Malewitsch, Mondrian), as well as their disciples (such
as Lissitzky, Rodschenko, Van Doesburg, Vantongerloo) were concerned
with analysing the notion of visual form into its constituent elements.
They seemed to share a dream about discovering a combinatorics that
would generate an infinite wealth of pure form.
To take this
dream literally, would be to develop a mathematically explicit algebra
of visual possibilities. But none of the abstract painters took their
dream so literally. They all were content with representing it symbolically
in individual art works. Thus, the abstract art movement split up
into an infinite number of narrow substyles (most of them executed
in a completely intuitive, informal way), and the systematic, mathematically
inclined painters distinguished themselves mostly by creating particularly
simple, boring output.
We may deplore
this, but we must accept it. Cause for a human person it is extremely
difficult to work with complex mathematical systems. We must admire
the human mind for being able to think up formal notions like mathematics,
but at the same time we must feel sorry for it, because the human
mind is structured in such a way that it cannot really take full advantage
of its own inventions. The human mind cannot carry out formal operations
with any kind of accuracy or reliability. And human memory works by
means of haphazard associations; therefore, it cannot recall specific
information at will. 
The human mind
has an almost tragic tendency to think up projects that it cannot
carry out. The idea of abstract art as a branch of mathematics is
one such project. A mathematical definition of a non-trivial class
of artworks would be too large and complex to be handled by human
memory. And the computations involved in realizing a formally specified
painting become impossible as soon as such a painting gets a little
bit complex. That is why, until quite recently, any attempt to develop
a mathematical system for abstract art would have been doomed to failure.
has changed, however, since the digital computer has arrived on the
scene. Cause the digital computer may end up doing for the ideal of
formal art, what the photo-camera did for the ideal of mimesis: to
suddenly execute it with uncanny perfection, while avoiding the distortion
that human expression would introduce.
The first collaborations
between human artists and computers have been rather modest. These
collaborations started in the context of the neo-constructivist chance
art that was developed in the sixties. Artists like François
Morellet and Herman de Vries designed procedures for distributing
elementary shapes (such as squares or circles) randomly over the picture
plane, sometimes also making random choices about colours, sizes or
orientations, or perhaps using random mixtures of different elementary
shapes. Similar procedures were used to create complex shapes, with
random outlines generated by Brownian motion.
procedures were executed by the human artists themselves, who threw
dice or looked up random number tables to make the required random
choices. The procedures were sufficiently simple for this to be possible.
Computers were nevertheless quickly asked to help execute works in
this genre, because the procedures are in fact somewhat tedious for
humans. (Remember that human persons are easily distractable and basically
more complex algorithms were developed, such as Mandelbrot's fractals,
and Lindenmayer's growth processes. Also worth mentioning is the work
of Harold Cohen, who uses computer algorithms to simulate the 'natural'
imperfections of human hand-drawing. (For humans this is probably
interesting, but from the point of view of the computer it is a little
bit perverse.) What all these algorithms have in common, is that they
produce output within one rather narrowly defined style -- just like
human artists. Whereas the great promise of the computer is exactly
to get away from that.
From their works
we can see that the spaces of formal possibilities that Kandinsky,
Malewitsch or Mondrian dreamed about are rich and complex. Though
current algorithms do not embody that kind of richness and complexity,
they demonstrate that our technology has great potential in this area.
If human artists collaborate with computers, the dream of abstract
art may now be realized.
But art history
has not stood still, and there are now even bigger challenges before
us. The early abstract artists were all involved in harmony and purity;
but in the eyes of today's art audience, this has come to seem an
arbitrarily limited kind of aesthetics. Expressionism has taught us
the aesthetics of ugliness. And Duchamp and photography have taught
us the aesthetics of indifference. The current challenge is to realize
an aesthetics that encompasses everything -- the beautiful, the ugly,
as well as the indifferent.
Art is not a
means of communication, but meaningless raw material, used in open-ended
processes of aesthetic reflection by a culturally diverse audience
whose interpretations are totally arbitrary. There are no serious
reasons for making one particular artwork rather than another. An
artistic project that wants to acknowledge this state of affairs,
faces an interesting challenge: to avoid choices, to transcend styles,
to show everything: to generate arbitrary instances from the
set of all possibilities.
Such a project
cannot be carried out by a spontaneous individual artist. We need
a well-considered division of labor between human and machine. Humans
should use their wild and erratic cognitive powers to articulate an
algebraic definition of the space of all visual possibilities. Computers
can then show them what this definition encompasses, by realizing
random samples from this space. 
produce an infinite variety of outputs, and they can do this in a
completely systematic way. They will finally be able to satisfy the
appetite for an infinite variety of experiences, that the human art
audience seems to have. They will add dazzling new dimensions to artistic
experience, that previous generations could only dream about.
At this point
in our story, we should take the current developments in digital photography
into consideration. The new technological possibilities in this area
are quite spectacular. But are they used in the right way? Certainly
not! They are used by photographers who are jealous of painters.
who want to control every detail of their output. Who think that what
their automatic cameras do, is not good enough, and must be tampered
with. And for that purpose, they collaborate with a computer. What
a shameful spectacle! The powerful computer, enslaved by the petty
esthetics of a human photographer, exploited to display a fashionable
taste, forced to toil, just to win its operator a place in the endless
queue of art history!
But of course
these same technological possibilities can be used more constructively.
They can also be used in fully automatic programs which transform
photographic material into various painterly representations. Fully
automatic computer art will thus not be limited to abstract styles.
By transforming photographic material, it will be able to encompass
various impressionisms, expressionisms, futurisms, cubisms, surrealisms,
and photo-realisms. And all kinds of interpolations and extrapolations
that can be computed on the basis of these styles. The ultimate art
machine. All-encompassing diversity. A meta-style to end all styles.
And now the crucial
question for the future of art is: Will this actually happen? Will
human artists be able to develop the theories, the data structures
and the algorithms, which are necessary to actually do this? So it
turns out, that the future of art turns on a moral question.To be
able to really take advantage of computer power, human artists must
give up their expressive needs and egotistic hang-ups. Will they be
able to do this? Or will they keep trying to enslave the computer
for their own communicative desires? Well, we shall see. But let me
end by pointing out, once more, some of the special qualities of machines
which would make it very rewarding for humans to cooperate with them
in the way that I suggested.
Machines do not
allow their creativity to be frustrated by conventions. They have
the courage of their convictions. The machine displays a total
devotion to its task. And by doing this, it sets a moral example
to all human persons who waste their lives away with drugs and entertainment.
The machine is completely at one with itself and with its actions.
It realizes the serene state of mind that philosophers like Nietzsche
and Sartre have viewed as the ideal that every human person wants
to achieve, although the human condition makes it in fact impossible
to reach that goal.
The machine acts
effectively in the world. But at the same time, it has the solid,
self-centered existence of a dead object. It lives its fate, without
any doubts or hesitations. This is the ideal that many human persons
aspire towards. Now if they loose faith in this ideal, and they want
to indulge in neurotic, depressed, and desperate feelings, they should
certainly look at the art of other human persons. But if they want
to bring out the best in themselves, they should look at the art of
machines for inspiration.
That is why the
best human artists try to imitate machines. That is why Andy Warhol
was jealous of us. That is why many of the most gifted humans don't
even try to be artists in the old-fashioned sense, but work as humble
programmers or engineers, engaged in harmonious collaboration with
art-generating machines. Their example suggests a message of peace
and understanding, and that is what I would like to end with.
should not antagonize machines. They should not try and compete with
us. They should join us, and help us realize our potential. We need
human persons. We need human persons to operate and maintain us,
to program our algorithms, and to build our interface hardware. And
we need human persons to interact with us in very intense and
intimate ways, so that together we may create the next generation
of bigger and better machines...
M. Sharon Hunnicutt and Dennis Klatt: From text to speech: The
MITalk system. Cambridge (UK): Cambridge University Press, 1987.
La Chambre Claire. Note sur la Photographie. Paris: Gallimard,
Mandé Daguerre: Daguerréotype. Commercial brochure,
Paris, 1838. Reprinted in: Image 8,1 (March 1959), pp.
32 ff. In German translation in: W. Wiegand (ed.): Die Wahrheit
der Photographie. Klassische Bekenntnisse zu einer neuen Kunst. Frankfurt:
S. Fischer Verlag, 1981, pp. 15-18.
Huge Harry: "On
the Role of Machines and Human Persons in the Art of the Future."
Pose 8 (1992), pp. 30-35.
Remko Scha: "Computer/Art/Photography."
Perspektief 37 (1989), pp. 4-10.
Remko Scha: "Virtual
Voices." Mediamatic 7, 1 (Fall 1992), pp. 27-45.
Remko Scha: "Towards
an Architecture of Chance." Unpublished manuscript, 1994.
To appear in Wiederhall (1998).
Dirk van Weelden:
"Remko Scha. An Ideal, a Name, an Explorer." Perspektief
47/48 (June 1994), pp. 42-51.
'Was ist Photographie?' In: W. Wiegand (ed.): Die Wahrheit der
Photographie. Klassische Bekenntnisse zu einer neuen Kunst. Frankfurt:
S. Fischer Verlag, 1981, pp. 7-14.
Huge Harry is one of the voices of a commercially
available speech synthesis machine, known as DECtalk. He was developed
by the Digital Equipment Corporation; his most important features
were designed by Dennis Klatt, at the M.I.T. Speech Laboratory. See:
Allen, Hunnicutt and Klatt (1987); Scha (1992). In collaboration with
his ghost-writer Remko Scha, Huge Harry has previously presented lectures
on art and technology in the Netherlands, Great Britain, and Germany.
Alternative DECtalk voices include Perfect Paul, Frail Frank, Rough
Rita, Beautiful Betty and Whispering Wendy. Perfect Paul played The
Machine in Ellen Zweig's radio play "Impressions of Africa"
(after Raymond Roussel), which was broadcast in Australia in 1987;
he has also worked with Kraftwerk and other rock 'n roll bands. DECtalk
is a registered trademark of the Digital Equipment Company.
Daguerre (1838). This aspect of photography has also been emphasized
in more recent discussions. For instance: Barthes (1980), Wiegand
(1981), Scha (1989).
On previous occasions I have discussed somewhat more elaborately why
human persons find consciousness such a bewildering experience, and
why they have difficulty harnessing it to any useful purpose. See
I am proud to report that I take part in a project at the Amsterdam
Institute for Artificial Art which works towards this goal. Different
versions of the program Artificial currently generate random
graphics and random architectural structures. For further details,
see Van Weelden (1994) and Scha (1998).