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.