by software artist Scott Draves. You may also follow me on google+ or twitter, buy art, or join me on facebook.

January 27, 2006

Full Text from Whitelaw's Metacreation

from Whitelaw, Mitchell Metacreation Art and Artificial Life (Boston: MIT, 2004) 152-157, full text of the section on me below:

Scott Draves

Brown’s practice is very much concerned with art making and with the Modernist project of investigating the limits and boundaries of that practice, testing and questioning its definition. The drive for a generativity that transcends and supersedes the individual artist is clearly situates this work in the same lineage as Malevich and the Russian avant-garde and of Jack Burnham’s notion of an ultimately autonomous cyborg art. The agenda here is focused on Western visual art and the larger question of art itself.

By contrast, Scott Draves, who like Brown works with Cellular automata and other abstract generative machines, writes, “I’ve never taken a course in art and only recently, in the face of overwhelming evidence, have dared to call myself an artist. So ‘art’ is not my context. I am an outsider in the art world.” 4 The overwhelming evidence here is the recognition that Draves’s work has received within new media art in general and a-life art in particular. His Electric Sheep (2001) shared first prize in the 2001 Life 4.0 competition; Bomb (1995-1997) won third prize at the Prix du Public in Life 2.0 (1999). Yet Draves still describes his primary role as that of a computer programmer and, “metaprogrammer.” The dichotomy here is striking, partly because it indicates two characteristic approaches to a-life art –we could loosely call them modern and postmodern – but also because, despite their radically different contexts, artists such as Brown and Draves share techniques and some fundamental aims.

Developed between 1995 and 1997, Bomb is a generator of animated graphics, or “visual music.” It uses a combination of complex or chaotic algorithms and an open library of preexisting graphics to turn out a dense digital-psychedelic stream of visual stimulus. Bomb can be aligned with the growing genre of software systems for generating real-time graphics, or just visuals, in conjunction with music; this software has risen out of the cultures of electronic dance music, where visuals are a staple sensory ingredient. Draves uses Bomb and his other graphics software in live performance and cites the rave scene as a contextual influence, along with hallucinogenic and dissociative drugs. Like much of Draves’s other work, Bomb is “eyecandy,” though in a serious sense: it is a magnet for visual attention, something that in Draves’s words “ make you stare.” It succeeds in that: boiling, flickering forms, spreading waves of color and texture, streams and sprays of pixels; the visual surface is fundamentally unstable. Iconic images appear and are dissolved or submerged; colors, speeds, and patterns shift abruptly. There is nothing biomorphic here, nothing that resembles life; rather the overall impression is of complex dynamics and patterns, flows, accretions, and erosions. Not life as we imagine it, but perhaps something more protean.

Technically, the a-life in Bomb resides at the level of graphics algorithms, most of which are cellular automata. Draves uses a handful of preexisting rule sets, including “brain,” a more active variant on Conway’s Game of Life, and “rug,” a rule based on averaging of cell neighborhoods. (Incidentally, “brain” and “rug” were invented by CA explorer, sci-fi author, and noted cyberpunk Rudy Rucker.) Draves’s important innovation here is in how these rule sets interact with each other in time and space. Rather than as an isolated world, Draves treats the CA as a real-time dynamic filter, feeding image information into it from a background layer. That information might be static, such as a still image; or dynamic, driven by the computer’s audio input; or complex and chaotic, generated by a second cellular automation or another iterated system. In one of Bomb’s modes the background automation is the Game of Life, although it is rarely recognizable; its characteristic patterns are smeared and elaborated by a dynamic foreground layer running the “rug” rule. As well as this spatial coupling, CAs in Bomb are linked through time. Whether under user control or on autopilot, the system constantly shifts through rule sets and parameters. There is no playing out any single CA world; instead each new algorithm begins with the remains of the last, and each passes on a visual residue to the next. In both spatial and temporal axes, Draves works against the determinism of the CA or any idea of the CA as a formal world; instead they are contingent elements in an unstable visual soup.

Conceptually, for Draves at least, Bomb manifests artificial life in a broader and more expansive sense. He describes Bomb as a whole system, as a “form of artificial life,” and as “living software.” 5 Most tellingly, it is a “visual parasite”: it modifies itself and propagates by engaging the attention and energy of human users and programmers. It is open source (and has been since before the concept was popularized by Linux); anyone can copy and modify its source code, compile the program for different platforms, and build interfaces with other systems. Thus while, like any other formal generative system, any single instance of Bomb may fall short of what Draves recognizes as the ongoing novelty and “creative expansion” of living things, Bomb as an ongoing process is more difficult to delimit.

This expanded composite notion of creative artificial life is taken much further in Draves’s latest project, Electric Sheep. 6 Electric Sheep is a distributed screen-saver that “realizes the collective dream of sleeping computers from all over the Internet.” The architecture of the system was inspired by SETI@home, a popular experiment in distributed computing that uses the spare processor power of thousands of Internet-connected computers to scour radio telescope data for messages extraterrestrial life. In Electric Sheep, client machines compute frames in abstract, algorithmically generated animations, the sheep of the title. When a client computer goes to sleep, it begins displaying (“dreaming”) sheep already downloaded and stored locally; at the same time it contacts the server and joins in the computation of new sheep, rendering frames and uploading them back to the central server. Periodically, a new sheep is completed and distributed to the clients. Hundreds of clients might participate in this shared “dream” at any one time.

All of which would be for nothing, of course, except for the beauty of the sheep themselves, which are what Draves calls “fractal flames,” forms generated by the nonlinear mathematics of iterated function systems. On the screen they are luminous, twisting, elastic shapes, abstract tangles and loops of glowing filaments. Their motion is generated through smooth changes in the parameters of the flame algorithms; each individual sheep is a seamless loop, generated by plotting a circular path through that parameter space. The system also generates transitions between sheep in the same way, so that in the screen-saver the individuals merge into a continuous graphic flow, a path through a network of linked collective dreams.

As in Bomb, the most interesting engagement with a-life here is not the technical details of the system. In fact, Electric Sheep currently makes the barest use of artificial life techniques, by labeling the parameter set a genotype and the graphic output a phenotype. While Draves plans to introduce artificial evolution, the system currently generates new sheep at random; users can, however, vote for favorite sheep, thus increasing their longevity in the flock. Once again, the striking feature here is Draves’s creation of an open system on human participation and energy; he calls it an “attention vortex.”7 The contributions of individual clients are identified on a central server, developing a sense of personal stake in the system. A bulletin board system fosters communication among communities of users and developers; the project is open source, so clients appear on new platforms, increasing the user base and the life of the system. Draves imagines the totality as “ an evolving ecology of agents, codes and protocols.” Posted by spot at January 27, 2006 01:15 PM

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