What is Generative Art?

What is Generative Art?

Humans have been experimenting with generative art for centuries, but Web 3.0 technology such as NFTs and smart contracts has unlocked new possibilities. Here’s what you need to know about the movement that’s shaking up the art world.

5 min read

swirling blue artwork by Tyler Hobbs – an example of Generative Art

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What does Generative Art mean?

In short, generative art is art that has been created with the use of an autonomous system. An autonomous system is one that uses a non-human decision maker, like an algorithm or some dice, to determine characteristics without direct input from a sentient creator. A human, for instance.

That might sound high-tech, but people have been experimenting with generative methods for centuries. Even Mozart played Musikalisches Würfelspiel – a game where the order of musical phrases in a composition is determined by the roll of a dice.

Op Art pioneer Bridget Riley photographed in 1963 surrounded by her paintings – each one an exercise in logic-driven geometry.

Riley's preparatory studies showcase the careful compositional logic that underpins her paintings. Many generative artworks use similar systems.

What is the history of Generative Art?

Generative Art as we know it today was anticipated in the mid 20th century, through movements like Conceptualism and Minimalism. Artists such as Sol LeWitt, Bridget Riley and John Cage were playing with the idea of unpredictability within systems. At the same time, philosopher Max Bense was developing his theory of generative aesthetics which he described as “the artificial production of probabilities of innovation or deviation from the norm.”

With the dawn of the computer, these possibilities were unleashed. Bense’s students put his theory into practice and went on to produce the first algorithms for generative art. These experiments were associated with technological advancements at Bell Labs, NASA and IBM to name a few – and early generative artists were most often computer scientists.

A Wall Divided Vertically into Fifteen Equal Parts, Each with a Different Line Direction and Colour, and All Combinations, Sol Lewitt, 1970

Lines of one Inch in four Directions and four Colours, and all Combinations, Sol Lewitt, 1971

As new coding languages were created and tested, suddenly 0s and 1s could create beautiful works of art. And the art world was taking note. In 1968 the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London held an exhibition of computer generated art called Cybernetic Serendipity. The term generative art, however, would not be coined for another 30 years.

With the advent of the internet generative art was democratised. Personal computing was on the rise, while creative coding tools such as Processing, PJ5 and Adobe Flash that helped translate strings of code into visual outputs made generative art more accessible. However collecting these system-based artworks was tricky, and they were not straightforward for galleries to exhibit.

Artificial Mondrian, 1965 – a Mondrian-inspired artwork by Hiroshi Kawano is an early example of computer-generated art.

Pixillation, 1970 – some years before they were widely available to the public, Lillian Schwartz was one of the first artists to base her practice on the use of computers.

Generative Art, or generative art?

Similarly to other capitalised terms like Surrealism or Abstract Expressionism, 'Generative Art with a capital G' refers to a specific artistic movement. In this case, contemporary generative art located on the blockchain. The same phrase without capitals is still used to refer to the broader category of generative art in relation to its definitive mechanics.

Is Generative Art the same as AI art?

Since Generative Art (capital G) refers specifically to art on-chain, and artificial intelligence (including AI-generated art) is another key player in the Web 3.0 arena, the two are often confused. While many Generative artists use artificial intelligence tools and software such as Midjourney to help realise the visual outputs of their coding, the two are not the same.

According to Generative artist Tyler Hobbs, “at the core of the generative process is creative coding – writing programs that generate artwork.” Generative scripts are designed so that one string of code can have multiple outputs. From there, the artist can run the script to create a series of unique artworks. Another option is a smart contract. When a collector purchases a work via a smart contract, the algorithm is triggered to generate a work of art previously unseen by both artist and collector. All of this can happen without the involvement of artificial intelligence.

My programs are varied because of the randomness that I carefully build into them. They often generate 100 or 200 images, from which I select my favourites. I choose the ones that stand out to me instinctively, and show the 'range' that the program is capable of.

Tyler Hobbs

Carefully programmed to appear handmade, generative artworks by Tyler Hobbs are the result of layer upon layer of creative coding. In some cases, he uses a computerised plotter to transpose them onto paper. Check out Fidenza, his "most versatile generative algorithm to date."

What does 'the goose' have to do with all of this?

Dmitri Cherniak is the Generative artist behind Ringers – a series of iterations of a generative, abstract artwork minted as NFTs. The code visualises strings wrapped around pegs as lines and circles. A fan pointed out that one of the works, #879 to be exact, looked like a goose. The nickname stuck, and a viral meme was born. One thing led to another and it sold for $6.2 million dollars at Sotheby’s – one of the most prestigious auction houses in the world.

Ringers #879, generative artwork by Dmitri Cherniak, 2021

There are 1,000 Ringers in total. Each one is contingent on a series of algorithmic steps. First, a grid of circular pegs is generated. The number and size of pegs can vary. Next, the pegs are 'sampled' to determine how many of them will be used in step three. Based on the sampled pegs, a 'centre of gravity' is calculated to guide the artwork's form. Here, Cherniak uses a mathematical function (an average) to enforce an artistic objective (a balanced composition). The pegs are then 'sorted' to make sure the subsequent connections do not overlap too much and the overall effect is harmonious. From here, the algorithm ascertains the appropriate angles, arcs and tangents to connect the sampled pegs. Finally, colour. For Ringers, Cherniak devised a palette of black, white, yellow, red, blue, green and beige – inspired in part by Lygia Pape's Livro Do Tempo. The frequency of individual colours is set across the entire series, ensuring a level of cohesion between indivudual Ringers when seen en-masse.

All 1,000 of Dmitri Cherniak's generative artwork, Ringers

Why is Generative Art important?

Generative Art speaks to our current moment. More and more our lives are governed by algorithms. It’s reassuring to think that within the rigidness of the system there is still room for chance, for randomness and – above all – for creativity.

With the ability to put collectors at the heart of the creation process, there is a collective consciousness among the Generative Art community unlike any other in the art world. Rather than posing a threat to art as we know it, Generative Art is creating connection and collaboration between collectors and artists in much the same way that is has between humankind and machines.

A still from 100% Gray Coverage (2013), a generative video artwork by Casey Reas

Sand flower, generative artwork by Sara Ludy, 2021

Curious to see all of this in practrice, or inspired to add generative artworks to your collection? Learn more about Dmitri Cherniak, William Mapan and Mpkoz – then register for updates on our upcoming collaborations.



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