Automatism is all about creativity; expanding the source of new things by adding to what human imagination and artistic skill alone can produce. The surrealists believed in the existence of sub-conscious human thought and this was what they primarily focusing on when they talked of “automatism”, a sort of non-conscious, mechanical expression of a deeper part of the human mind. I don’t consider that subconscious expression stuff to be automatism, I just consider it to be careless conscious thought, a kind of artistic brainstorming which might be a useful creative technique in other ways. That kind of automatism, “pure psychic automatism” as Andre Breton called it, is just an attitude, and a conscious one, too. Subconscious thoughts don’t draw pictures; I’m not even convinced that the subconscious mind exists in any meaningful way except as a purely conceptual construction used by psychoanalysts for explaining why people have mixed feelings about things and to rationalize our commonly irrational behavior.
Automatism is all about creativity and that creativity works in all cases by the same principle, mutation: the transformation of a pre-existing object. Mutation rather than creation of a new and original object. This is also why automatism is such a fun and easy method to work with: you create by reworking what has already been made and just watch and react to the results of the self-operating process.
Max Ernst produced something he couldn’t imagine in the painting, The Entire City. And it wasn’t some amorphous “abstract” piece of junk, either, that critics could find “serious, technical merit” in. Ernst used an automatic method to make something most viewers could relate to and marvel at. He did it by taking imagery that was made by natural and mechanical sources (surface textures) and through experimentation with it (trial and error) seized upon the one that “made art”. That is the process all “automatists” work with: experimenting with altered variables until they see “art” happen.
Ernst added to the automatic imagery and accentuated the effect it suggested and inspired him with. But without the freaky, wafer-cookie boards resembling ascending streets of gold built into a single, monolithic, towering hillside, the painting would be nothing but a selection of garden herbs beneath a full moon. In fact, Ernst would never have bothered producing a work with only those hand-painted embellishments. What would be the point? It’s always hard to say exactly how a piece of art works and how it makes the impression it does, but some degree of analysis is fairly obvious.
So visual imagery can be reduced to two different creative origins and sources:
1. The human imagination
2. The variability of automatic processes
Ernst employed both sources in his painting, The Entire City, but as I mentioned, the automatic imagery is the focus of the painting just as the person in a painted portrait is obviously the main artistic element there. In fact, I read something about the authorship of the Mona Lisa that said that although da Vinci painted the famous portrait, he quite likely did not paint the accompanying elements that form the background to the figure. Such secondary elements were commonly left to students and assistants because weren’t considered crucial to the painting’s effect and impression.
They’re all Kaleidoscopes
Human creativity is much more complicated than automatism since it revolves, obviously, around the human mind and what is called human “consciousness”. Who knows how our mind’s work? Automatic creativity however, revolves around nature and technology; natural processes like clouds in the sky or frost on window panes, or around mechanical processes like fractal software or something more simple and conventional like a kaleidoscope. Non-human creativity (which is just another way of saying automatic creativity) always involves some unthinking physical process like the physical environment that creates clouds or frost patterns, or a mechanical environment like a series of computer instructions (algorithm) or, in a simple example: the lens, mirror and colored pieces of a kaleidoscope. Change occurs in human creativity because of deliberate, conscious thought, while change occurs in automatic processes through variations initiated by the process itself or human intervention.
Everyone understands what thinking is all about and how it works because we are all thinking beings ourselves, but the formation of new things through mutation requires some explanation because, not being natural processes or machines ourselves, we don’t intuitively understand how they work. It’s easy to relate to an artist, but hard to relate to a cloud or a computer program.
Mutation is the changing of variables that control the expression (operation) of a static and stable system of parts. The best example is genetics and that’s why the term, mutation, comes from it. All forms of automatism can be described and explained as genetic systems and they quite often are described exactly as that using terms like “genetic art” and “genetic algorithms” in the area of computer automatism.
The way I think of it is all automatic processes (self-operating) are like machines. Those machines are made up of static parts with variable settings. For instance, a kaleidoscope is made up of a set of static parts: a tube with a lens you look through; mirrors at the end of the tube; glass pieces on the mirror; translucent background at the bottom of the tube. Only the mirrors and the glass pieces however have any potential variation. The other parts of the kaleidoscope machine are fixed. The position of the mirrors and the position of each glass piece can vary in a way that describes all the possible combinations and permutations of what one sees in a kaleidoscope. Every different image you see, each being a different “condition” of the kaleidoscope “environment”, can be expressed by the coordinates (x,y) for each piece and the rotation in degrees of the tube moving the mirrors. There are an enormous number of possibilities, but there are also a limited number.
Think of each colored glass piece as a gene and the mirror rotation as a gene also. The image they collectively create is the organism, so to speak. The values that go with each of those genes create the variations in the image seen and so the kaleidoscope image changes by changing those values by shaking the pieces around or turning the tube that holds the mirrors. One could easily create a computer program to simulate a kaleidoscope and each different “organism” created could be described by a long list of values for each glass particle gene and the mirror rotation gene. This is in fact how the amazingly complex imagery of fractal programs works. For every detailed fractal image there is a short parameter file consisting of nothing more than a bunch of number settings and menu options. That little parameter file will reproduce the exact same image in every detail on another person’s computer running the same program. The parameters are the DNA of the image. So when we play with a kaleidoscope (or a fractal program) we mutate the genes of the glass pieces and the mirror setting to create an new organism, the picture we see.
Clouds in the sky are no different. The genes are everything that makes up the system that produces and influences cloud formation and appearance. Things like: moisture content; temperature; atmospheric pressure; turbulence; wind direction; and so on. A cloud filled sky is a kind of very big, natural, kaleidoscope. Changes in the appearance come from changes in the variables for each three-dimensional part of the sky. It’s a machine and it’s self-operating and continually undergoes mutation of its settings but without any changes to the process itself which remains stable.
This is how automatism works and while it’s a simple concept it can yield complex results because cloud-filled skies, frost covered window panes, and fractal computer programs contain a large number of moving (variable) parts. But in principle they all work like a kaleidoscope, just as much more sophisticated kaleidoscopes.
The person who works the kaleidoscope then would be more accurately called a mutationist rather than an artist since their art work is created entirely by their skill of mutating the kaleidoscope image rather than by drawing or painting. Fractal artists similarly work as mutationists when they’re only adjusting the variables of the fractal program. Many fractal artists do other things to their artwork but those are not mutationism. Mutationism being the creation of artwork by mutating pre-existing imagery rather than creating something completely original and unconnected to anything pre-existing. Even the work done with distortion filters and other effects in a graphics program like Photoshop could be described as mutationism because it alters the genes of the organism (a photo) rather than create a wholly new organism (ie. take a new photo).
The concept of mutation, the role of a mutationist and the category of imagery it leads to called mutationism, quickly separates the creativity of the human mind from that of the automatic device and helps greatly to understand how the art works and what to expect of its medium. Furthermore, for those who create works that use automatism, the concept of mutationist will help them to work more effectively because they will have a better understanding of what they’re doing and can focus more effectively on what they can do.