Journey to the center of the machine

These images were made with George Maydwell’s cellular automata java applets that used to be posted at which now seems to be gone.  George’s applets took ca to a whole new level.  If you want to see some examples, here’s a posting I wrote years ago on Orbittrap:’s Modern CA –Animation Wonderland!

But these particular images have something special about them.  I set the parameters to extreme levels which along with generating a very different kind of imagery also greatly speeds up the process.   The result is these granular, pixel mosaics that flash on the screen in a rapid succession in a fraction of a second.  It’s too fast to take a normal screenshot (there is no other way to capture imagery from these applets) so one just has to blindly take screenshots and see if they’ve captured anything interesting.  It’s a bit like photographing race cars from the edge of the track as they speed past you.

These are the controls for the applet.  I think this is what makes the fast mosaic things I’m posting here but I can’t remember.  As you can see, it’s all about creative configuring and that’s really just a matter of discovery or experimentation.

If you look closely the gravelscape has very precise and detailed symmetry but it’s a little dull and repetitive and the only thing that catches my eye is the occasional pixelglyph (hieroglyph composed of pixels of course) that stands out.

They’re all different and they’re captured at a rate which is beyond that of human reaction.  When these screenshots occurred, whatever it was that prompted me was long gone, ten or twenty frames had passed, and this was captured instead.  Maybe it’s more like fishing but that analogy doesn’t contain the aspect of loss because even though you only save the best, you have no real idea what else was generated that was better that you never even saw.  The scale of the creative output is stunning if you think about it: a Mona Lisa a minute; a Sistene Chapel a second.  It’s these engines of creativity and just watching them work that makes automatism (my current term for all this) stand out in the world of seeing.

Looks like origami paper.  Not really too exciting except for the clarity.  The clarity with which this spark of creativity was drawn.  Mechanical artistry sounds like a ridiculous thing but once you’ve seen how computer code can use geometric and abstract imagery and complexify it, you will see that if art is all about creativity –drawing new things– then the mechanization of it is as logical as the mechanization of any other aspect of living.  I’ve often thought that if automatic/algorithmic art was presented as hand painted or drawn, it would have a deeper impression on most audiences.  It’s a kind of prejudice I suspect people have and it comes from a lack of familiarity with what creativity is as well as a naiveness regarding how imitative and replicative the human mind can be; something one associates with machines and not humans.

Not symmetrical.  There’s something more to the applet than I first thought because I thought it was taking a pattern and just kaleidoscoping it four times.  After you’ve seen a thousand of these things anything different jumps out at you right away but capturing it is another matter.  Perhaps it loops and goes through the same sequence again but I’ve never seen it happen yet.

This is the journey; seeing and wondering about what you saw. I find my attempt to explain what these picture machines are all about is like trying to find:

  • the lowest common multiple;
  • common denominator;
  • prime numbers;
  • central factor or essential ingredient

–to the art form.

I think now that thing is the principle of automata, which these applets just happen to embody in the form of cellular automata, a well known branch of mathematics that is both expressed in nature and can be used to explain other kinds of natural and social phenomena.

Automatic imagery is formed independently of conscious, human thought.  Conscious human thought is of course the creative source of most kinds of art.  But automatic imagery is the visual reaction to a mechanical configuration while hand-formed art is the expression of the human mind.  That’s what separates the two categories of imagery or, you could say, the two artistic mediums: the medium of mechanical configuration and the medium of human expression.

Everything automatic imagery does (and doesn’t do) stems from that essential quality of independence from conscious thought.  Similarly, the art of human expression is the same, stemming from that essential ingredient.  This is what the surrealists stumbled over but abandoned in their quest to paint the subconscious.  Surrealist automatism is a combination of real automatism and techniques that were thought to be an artist expressing their subconscious thoughts rather than their conscious ones.  What I’m suggesting with the term “automatism”, “automata”, “automaton”, “automatic imagery”, is the principle of non-human rather than human formation of art work.  The art term could just as easily be substituted for the more technical and neutral, “imagery” of which we then speak of an artistic medium from which art is made rather than a medium which is art itself.

This could be the bottom of it.

Painting with power


Only 8.5kb

I often like to quote things that have never been said before.  The “quote style” of writing has a whole new feel to it and instantly transforms an otherwise common place statement into the realm of the legendary.  In the same way I’ve often wanted to take images like the one above and make them into CD music covers that have yet to be made.  It’s like the crazy stuff in the old TV series, In Search Of: we don’t care if it’s not really true because wild “theory” is a magical form of lies and becomes a kind of science fiction that has a strange new appeal and almost infinite potential.  Call it creative non-fiction:  History before it happens: Pre-recorded history.

These things are drawn in seconds and that’s in batches of 12 or 24 or whatever size you want.  They’re then breeded with each other to come up with a new generation to focus on the specific visual genes of the parent images.  It’s a program called, Kandid and is referred to as Genetic Art.  It’s pretty weird to use because you really do “breed” visual parameters multiplying the variations of the parent genes (two images) over the unselected others in the previous set.

It’s bold and very digital and you need to have a special sensitivity electronic imagery to appreciate it or to even start to appreciate it.  Art is hard to define and I think the only logical starting place is your own mind.  If you find something engaging then that’s the first test.  Should anyone else in the world agree then that’s the second.  But art is elected one vote at a time.

I love the triangles.  So monotonous and repetitive but couldn’t the human face or the landscape around us, the two greatest artistic themes be described in the same way?  It’s the little variations that give the meaning and the message.  I’m also not posting the huge pile of junk the program produced in the process of making these few images.

A cliff and side of a power dam.  Patterns produce much of what we see in art, I think, so algorithms are not really so clumsy at producing art as one would expect.  Especially when it comes to the sensation of vertigo.

Almost the same image but just with different color genes.

Comic book like.  Superman’s Fortress of Solitude seen from the outside.

Cellular automata ought to be as exciting as a piece of asphalt pavement or a patch of concrete.  Well, actually it is 99% of the time but the productive power of a computerized algorithm quickly turns that 1% into something substantial.

Nighttime travels

The program Fractal Vizion does a thousand and one things.  One of my favorites that I wrote about way back in 2006 was the random landscape function.  It creates a random landscape.

It’s the automatic palette generator that really completes the effect coloring the “sea” and the “land” in just the right mysterious way.  I added something else; I substituted black for the sky color instantly turning the land into a glowing moonlight landscape under a starless sky.  I was a minor tweak.  Inspired by the automatic machinery’s artistry.

The sea is more sand like now and looks to be bathed in purple moonlight.  The dreaming has started.

I don’t care much for the sky here, but the green washboard sand and moon like mountains make me want to stay on this voyage.

Windswept rock now and light green plains.  I like how the language of landscape is so easily spoken by the algorithm.

Every shore is different and even every part of the sand sea unique if you look.  There’s nothing else to do but look.

A golden sea in middle of the night.  In the day time it will look darker.  I think Fractal Vizion was intended to be a fractal program.  Or am I dreaming?

One of my favorites.  Clearly this is sea but the sea looks map-like.  I always think of the Island of Doctor Moreau when I look at this one.  It even inspired me to create a completely new website and call it, “The Art Gallery of Doctor Moreau”.

Same color palette.  I had to save the original one and then apply it to this image.  The program likes to create a completely new one each time.  I have to tell it to slow down.

Back into moonlight and the deserted, forgotten places of the Persian desert.  I’m sure it was somewhere around here that Sindbad used the rocs to pick up diamonds for him.  Mining is often the only industry in beautiful wastelands like this.

Is there a whirlpool in the blue sand out there?  Sun is shining from somewhere.  Perhaps this is no longer the Earth.

Another dream, another color.  I never tire of these; it’s like going for a walk on a magic carpet.

The perfect palette: colorful but silent.

Here it is again.  The palette is like a set of genes and gives the image the eyes of its father.

Or the colored contact lenses of its father.  Analogies are hard to come by in the synthetic kingdom.

This is new: an archipelago.  When the water is frozen and covered with wind blown snow, its a new kind of desert.

The sand grows out of the land and just sits there.

Notice the difference when the sea is the horizon and not the land.  The eye is drawn to it in a primordial way as Herman Melville in Moby Dick says, “Circumambulate the city of a dreamy Sabbath afternoon. Go from Corlears Hook to Coenties Slip, and from thence, by Whitehall, northward. What do you see?- Posted like silent sentinels all around the town, stand thousands upon thousands of mortal men fixed in ocean reveries.”

“Say you are in the country; in some high land of lakes. Take almost any path you please, and ten to one it carries you down in a dale, and leaves you there by a pool in the stream. There is magic in it.”

The best assessment of synthetic art I’ve ever heard is by myself (I think I’m the only one who talks about it): It never rivals the greatest artists but it always rivals the average ones.

The Weird Image

I see music

HP Lovecraft in his essay, Supernatural Horror in Literature (1927) uses the word “weird” to describe a special quality in the works of a sub-genre of fiction that he labels, “The Weird Tale”.  I’ve found it to be a useful analogy to explain what the “synthetic aesthetic” is and what makes such machine made imagery surprisingly interesting.  Just as Lovecraft speaks of The Weird Tale in fiction, I would speak of The Weird Image in art.

Quotes from Lovecraft:

The true weird tale has something more than secret murder, bloody bones, or a sheeted form clanking chains according to rule. A certain atmosphere of breathless and unexplainable dread of outer, unknown forces must be present; and there must be a hint, expressed with a seriousness and portentousness becoming its subject, of that most terrible conception of the human brain — a malign and particular suspension or defeat of those fixed laws of Nature which are our only safeguard against the assaults of chaos and the dæmons of unplumbed space.
Atmosphere is the all-important thing, for the final criterion of authenticity is not the dovetailing of a plot but the creation of a given sensation.
And of course, the more completely and unifiedly a story conveys this atmosphere the better it is as a work of art in the given medium.

To sum up:

  • unexplainable… outer, unknown forces
  • conception of the human brain
  • suspension or defeat of those fixed laws of Nature
  • creation of a given sensation
  • the more completely and unifiedly… the better
  • atmosphere… atmosphere… atmosphere…

The Weird Image

Lovecraft speaks of weirdness entirely in the context of horror fiction and so his weirdness is really a horrifying weirdness.  But the weirdness of the Weird Image provokes a much wider type of mental sensation and isn’t oriented and defined exclusively by the disturbing themes of horror but rather is oriented around the broader theme of eccentricity.  Weird images can be scenes of strange happiness.  Of course horrifying weirdness may have made Lovecraft happy, too.

The weird image is one which inspires speculation and both a sense and sensation of the radically innovative.  Consider if you can the visual art equivalent of: a peculiar aroma; or a strange new musical chord. One is confronted with something they can’t categorize or identify and but which creates a clear, distinct and profound impression as if it was as real and as concrete and perceptible as a fragrance or a sound.

Max Ernst was there first

Some surrealist art employs what I would consider to be “synthetic” methods.  These are what the surrealists referred to as “automatist”  like grattage, fumage and decalcomania (scraping, smoking, paint squished under glass).  Syntheticism is not limited to computers and so it’s not surprising then that such surrealist works produced weird imagery in the same way computational methods do.  They both work with the same senseless mechanical principles.

The Entire City by Max Ernst 1935 featuring grattage, what I would call a “synthetic” technique

Weird Photography

Ansel Adams’ photo Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico is a weird image in keeping with my definition of a “strange new chord”.

Consider these three elements:

  1. the moon,
  2. the liquid, flowing clouds that reinforce and accentuate the eerie feeling of distance, silence and something rather hard to describe (the “weird”)
  3. the scattering of houses that forms the village of San Hernandez and echoes the mood of eerie peacefulness.

You see how weird a photograph can be?  It’s just a landscape, pastoral landscape even, and yet as Adams surely intended, it expresses a magnificent and mysterious sensation.  That’s the weirdness.  But it’s not really horrifying and wouldn’t do well as a book cover to any of Lovecraft’s works.  The image is surreal however and if there’s such a thing as surrealist photography this would be a good example.  The “surreal image” and the “weird image” are probably pretty closely related.

Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico – by Ansel Adams 1941

As a side note about art: notice how hard it is to describe what makes Moonrise as an image “work” and what gives it the impression(s) we have.  Images are complicated in ways that the written word isn’t.  There may be more than one way to interpret a written work but there’s always ten or twelve ways to interpret most paintings or photographs.  The visual medium is powerful as well as mysterious.  I think it’s because our brains — the real canvas in all this — are a real mystery to explain.

The Mona Lizard

The Mona Lizard by Leozardo, 2017, by permission of the Louvre

Where’s the connection?  It’s in the sky.  Notice up in the left corner, just to the side of Mona’s head, there is an interesting but weakly detailed landscape scene in which a greenish flash of light is reflected off the night time overcast sky.

Compare with the old version:

I think mine has better irrelevant background details.  Great artists like Leonardo were never very good at that.  I don’t think they even tried.  There are limits to what you can do with a paintbrush.

The lizard started out as a Sterlingware fractal which was then processed in XnView using photoshop type filters that messed with the colors, textures (if in fact texture exists in a pixelized medium) and finally did a mirror image thing that produced that strange symmetrical look that transforms an image radically but simply –sometimes.

I was just testing out my 32 bit filters in a 64 bit program running on the wine emulator in 64 bit linux.  In the synthetic realm the art is often in the details and the front and center main image can be less interesting than the little things hinted at on the sides.

The Introduction

A new creativity (introducing picture machines)
Configurism is a whole new way of creating artwork and being an artist. Since ancient times the creation of artwork has revolved around the artist and was an expression and extension of the artist’s intellect and thoughts. Understandably, it was hard to do, slow to do, and always running out of new ideas and returning to common themes. Artistic inspiration and the ability to render it is always in short supply when it relies on human efforts. But there is now a source of visual creativity that requires very little effort and is actually fun to use. It’s a type of computer program that creates visual imagery all on its own, that is to say, automatically: it’s an automaton but of a very advanced type. What was hard has become easy; slow is now fast; and the common and cliche is easily avoidable where the imagery is naturally wild and unpredictable and doesn’t depend on your own imagination.

How it works (where configurism comes in)
Some of these computerized automata (plural of automaton) have no adjustable settings and exist in the form of exotic screen savers. Most however, have some configurable settings because they’re implementations of some complex algorithm or transformation and the complexity is reflected in the number of variables that can be variously configured. The artist works by altering and adjusting the variables which in turn alter and adjust (control) how the automaton functions when creating the artwork. The artist’s part is to configure the program so that when it goes to work it will be more likely to create something worth looking at, like art. The automaton does all the drawing of the artwork and it does this autonomously, independently of the artist. That’s what “automatic” means in this context: “on its own”. So there’s two functions here: configuring and drawing. Subsequently, there’s two roles being performed: the role of configurist, and the automated role of renderist.

A Creative Symbiosis (what configurism comes down to)
Configurism is all about the symbiotic relationship between artist and automaton. This symbiosis comes from the fact that “the artist” who is the author of “the art” is really a function and a role that is performed by the combined efforts of both the configurist and automaton. For the sake of simplicity I refer to the configurist as the artist since they’re “the person most closely associated with the creation of the artwork”, but the relationship between the artist and the artwork, as you can probably see by now, is different than it is in the traditional situation where the artist is performing all the creative functions himself. The artist and the artwork have a different relationship. This is one of the things that makes configurism so unique: there is really no artist at all. Configurism, you could say: is art without an artist.

Symbiosis, rather than any other type of relationship is the best way to describe this unique creative arrangement because automata are a type of idiot savant: something that is brilliant in one way but stupid in all the others. These automata are computer programs that can quickly render a vast panorama but are absolutely blind as to what it looks like. But even if they could see, they could not relate what they’ve drawn to the concept of art in the way in which even the average person can. The configurist then does more than just come up with random settings (some programs will do this on their own, ie. automatically) the configurist thoughtfully experiments with different settings to discover more aesthetic imagery and fine tune the rendering of it.

What to expect (configurism as it relates to other art forms)
A pair of eyes and the artistic sensibility of the human mind are the only things automatons lack in becoming full-fledged artists themselves. Conversely, the inexhaustible and perfectionist rendering talents of an automaton are likely to be the only thing holding back the average artist from creating better artwork. And this is all about average artists, not great ones. I put it this way:

“Configurism will never produce artwork that rivals the greatest artists, but it will often produce artwork that rivals the average artist.”

Fog and Fyre

When it comes to making art by pushing buttons and turning dials, there ought to be a general rule of thumb that says push every button, turn every dial.  If it’s there – turn it.

I just discovered the blur thing.  It’s always been there, but I guess I just thought it made things blurry and that’s not terribly interesting.  But I’ve discovered that the two blur parameters, blur-something and blur-something else are very interesting.

The second image in a series I’ve titled, Smudge.  The first one didn’t look cool when I looked at it a day later, so I deleted it.  The blur effect is quite powerful and adds a unique style to the images.  I guess you just don’t know what the result of some parameter change will be until you see the results.

The above was left to render for a much longer time in order to made the light, translucent forms more visible.  The blur does create the expected cold, foggy, wet, rocky seashore look and the black and white color limitation actually enhances the style.

Above, nothing in particular to say about this one except it shows more of the blotchy, translucency of the humble blur feature.  I think the blur enhances the graininess which in turn gives an aged or patina effect to the image.

There’s a minimalistic feel to many of these blurred Fyre images.  In fact, the ones with more elements in them don’t look as good, in my opinion.  This combination of blur and the simpicity of Fyre (it only has a few rendering options) have a powerful effect.  It’s almost like the program has a whole new dimension to it.

If you have Fyre on your computer you can open these images in it and rework them as all the parameter settings for the program are stored in the images. The authors of the program, David Trowbridge and Micah Dowty, where pretty smart when they included that feature.  The image, and the “genes” that made it, are right there.  They’re alive, man.

This algorithmic stuff is too far out.

The Wheel of Digital Art

The digital medium allows for some very strange, head-warping things to be done.  For instance, one can take one piece of art in it’s final state, completed and ready for viewing, and use it as the raw material for another, completely new and different work of art.  This is more than a mere “reworking”; it’s a complete transformation of one thing into another where only the artist (i.e. machine operator) knows what has happened.

Made in Fyre, the above image is blown up to four times its size and transformed by Showfoto’s block wave filter.  I then cropped out a piece which is shown just below.

As always, sometimes it makes something interesting and sometimes it doesn’t.  I tried it on twenty or so images and came up with the following results:

The above, using the same procedure I just mentioned, yielded the image below:

The same thing again, from the above to produce the one below, which is a cropped out detail of the 4x image.

Above image used to make the one below.

Fyre makes very “clean” images.  Normally, I use fractals or some other image treated with the India Ink filter that adds black engraving lines in an irregular way onto the image.  The results from that are more messy and not so neat as the Fyre image results.  The Fyre images produce almost a sort of black and white pen and ink style image that has a very distinct style.

One you get used to this sort of genetic recombination of image genes, one thing literally leads to another and I’ve even found myself going back into my old images made years ago because I’ve discovered a new filter that “feeds” on exactly that sort of raw material.

Can Bad Fractals be Good Art?


Good software makes images that are too slick.  It’s hard to get good software to make smudgy, jagged, off-color stuff.  Purebred imagery is predictable.  Artists often make junk and crazy mistakes but it’s a process of trial and error that leads to new styles.  Good software and professional skills is a toxic combination that gets everything right the first time and inevitably leads to the best fractals — a dead end.

I’ve given the fractal world many bad examples to follow and, unless my disciples are all off in the desert hiding, no one seems to be following my liquid path down the drain.  But success and popularity are difficult obstacles to overcome.  The encouragement of others is sometimes all it takes to keep someone going down a fruitless path to a heartless goal.

If you want to help someone produce better art, not necessarily better fractals, challenge them with negative criticism and encourage them to give it up.  When the lights of success and encouragement go out, only the glow of your art will be left.

There is something that I call “Raw Style”.  It’s imagery that looks better when it isn’t anti-aliased and when it’s not cooked and simply presented “as-is”.  As fractal software has progressed, it’s become easier to process things and to do more to it.  One would expect this to be a good thing, and it is if what you want to do is make better fractals, but it’s bad because users quickly fall into a routine of tidying and polishing everything they make like obsessive-compulsive cleaning maids.  Imagine what news photography would be like if before anyone took a photo of someone, the subject’s mother appeared and combed their hair and straightened up their shirt collar before the photo was taken — every moment would be ruined.  Good art is often ready-made; but we overlook it because we don’t expect it.

The Great Seal

I’m not saying you shouldn’t tweak and process fractals.  What I am saying is that you should ask yourself “Why?” and try to avoid it because it leads to much better fractals and really bad art.  Fractal art is the domain of the Ugly Duckling; stop choking your swans.

The death of contests is good because contests take artists with talent and creativity and turn them into approval addicts.  After just a few contests most artists already start to exhibit the symptoms of mental degeneration that accompany similar dependency disorders: restlessness; anxiety attacks; obsessive grooming; checking their mail every five minutes.

The anti-art tendencies of contests are easy to spot: judges who don’t like art choose the best fractals and exhibit (no pun intended) an ingrained aversion to the bad ones.  A good fractal art contest will present a very pronounced dislike of good fractals and show a real affinity for bad ones.  But people like that don’t run contests — they run from contests.

A few rules of thumb: Great art is always unpopular because anything that’s so intensely specialized and focused alienates at least 90 percent of its audience.   It’s almost a law of mathematics.  But it’s a good thing because it means that your own gut feelings about your work are probably more important and a more accurate measurement of it’s value than the other 9 out of 10 people who may look at it — if we can only stop deceiving ourselves.  The majority is always wrong because whenever a lot of people think they all see the same thing it shows they aren’t really looking very closely.

Art is all about taking the trivial more seriously.  We can start by making bad fractals.

The Golden Shore 2

Although I tried as best I could to hide from the ugly brute, he no sooner awoke than I was snatched up in one of his enormous hands.  However, instead of consuming me like some dainty he in a very refined manner asked me who I was and how I came to be on this island.

Explaining to him as well as I could, for I had not yet recovered much from my unfortunate ordeal at sea, I told him I was Sindbad and had left my home in Baghdad and sailed from Bussorah almost sixty days ago.  I had however been shipwrecked and washed up here after clinging to some timbers which were all that remained of my ship.  I was suitably astonished when he responded in kind and told me that he too was a native of my own country and that if I was able to show him the way, he would carry both of us back there.

The means of doing this were no less extraordinary, for he claimed that once the sun had set he was embued with the power of walking on the sea as if it were dry land.  The only reason he had not already left this lonesome island he said was because he was unable to find his way from here to the next island in time before the sun rose and was sure he would drown in the open sea if he did not reach there by then.

I assured him that while I was merely a merchant and not a sea captain, I could certainly direct him as I had made some efforts to learn the ways of navigation albeit in a casual way primarily as a method of relieving my boredom while on long voyages.  As we were not far off from a series of islands just beyond which lay the mainland, we agreed to set off as soon as the sun set.

(From the 8th Voyage of Sindbad.  Image made in Sterlinware 2.)