An Infinite Collection of Images | essay
About generative art, “Auto-Creative art” and the representation of the world.*

Generative art, also known as algorithmic art, is an art form that is created in whole or in part with the help of a self-managing or self-regulating system. Such a system is usually not human or sentient but should be able to establish general characteristics of a work of art independently of the artist. These generative systems are often autonomous and unpredictable. Through self-organization and interactions within the system, unexpected patterns and irregularities arise and occasionally a completely new entity is created. This is referred to as emergence.
The term "generative art" is usually used to refer to digital environments in which images are generated with computers. But generative systems are also used in physical environments. Think of chemical and biological processes for example, or mechanical installations. There are indeed many systems to think of in which unpredictable behavior can be found, and which can be used by artists as material or reference. To begin with, the artist focuses on the construction of a system which is capable of generating unpredictable events. For example, writing an algorithm that leads to different results in repeated execution. The starting point here is often the imitation of a system from nature, based on an organic or inorganic process. In doing so, the artist always places these self-regulating systems in a confined space; a closed environment in which the (digital) material is released. This limitation gives the artist more control over the system, but it is above all the space itself that exerts influence and determines the outcome.
The question that arises is how do artists work in these unpredictable systems? What are the possibilities and what are the limitations? Do results fall into the artists lap or does he have to struggle to receive them? And do we consider the results to be coincidental or are they a conscious design? It is precisely this issue that focuses on the substantive discussion about authorship in generative or algorithmic art.

Both in the digital environment as in physical setups, there is always an interaction between different levels of control - the composition - and unpredictability. This area of tension has been shifting immensely because artists increasingly have access to high-end equipment that enables generative processes to be manipulated faster and more easily. Developments in computing power, for example, make it possible to speed up, slow down or zoom in and out of a process effortlessly. Controlling materials in hybrid systems (partly analogue, partly digital) does ask a bit more of the "maker" - the person who triggers and operates the system - but with ample consideration and a lot of patience, more and more possibilities to control and manipulate complex systems arise here as well.
This does not shy away from the essential question of the authorship of the artist though. In discussions about generative art, the objection is that the behavior - or the form - is not all that spectacular. After all, the rules that govern this behavior are predetermined. Moreover, little detailed knowledge about the subject matter is needed to achieve a high level of complexity. In digital work, this question or objection is more explicit because the artistworks in an environment developed by the manufacturer (hardware) and with programs (software) whose rules and language are more or less defined. The conditions of these rules can be adjusted, but the technique, the hardware, is unchangeable. Of course, the issues surrounding the authorship of the artist is not that new but meanwhile I do wonder if these issues are really that important.  
It is often expected of artists to present all kinds of solutions or answers to this problem. Even if - as in the case of generative art - the work has obviously been accomplished in a system in which time and space are limited anyway. As if brain capacities of artists are limitless. In spite of this, it occurs to me that the properties of generative art are often considered 'true'. Somehow, the comparison with, or attempt to imitate a natural process has to be justified.
In my view, the point of departure of the artist is different. It starts with the assumption that the world is ultimately unpredictable, and unknown. A work of art that will explain how things are, based on technical or scientific models leaves little room for that ‘unknown’. The results are sometimes impressive and it is wonderful to see how different models operate, but often the presentation of the artwork is no more than a 'demonstration' of how the system works. it remains merely a means to explain the technology used. The expression of a new perspective is omitted. What remains is a confirmation of, or perhaps, a clever copy of something that already exists.
And yet, despite the limitation in the presentation of such autonomous systems, it is perhaps the closest possible relationship that can be acquired between the natural and the artificial. All these attempts, all those images; you could say that they represent a continuation of the age-old tradition in which people attempt to find accurate representations of the world. It is a process of looking, making, thinking and selecting with which we seek an optimized connection: it may very well be the only way to handle the inexhaustible richness of the natural world.
At a certain point the work takes over, is in activity beyond the detailed control of the artist, reaches a power, grace, momentum, transcendence…’                                                                                                                           – Gustav Metzger –

In his pamphlet on "Auto-Creative Art", the Polish-German artist Gustav Metzger (1926 - 2017) wrote about the importance of making materials "flexible" whilst working with generative systems. In his manifestos he focuses mainly on the way in which technology is used to achieve this. His own auto-creative works are characterized by the combination of technical procedures and chemical experiments. It was precisely this combination that Metzger saw as a fundamental part of modern artistry. His conviction was so strong that he compared the importance of it with other technological developments in art history such as the advancements in perspective, optics or anatomy.
In 1959 he wrote: ". . . Auto-Creative art aims at the integration of art with advances in science and technology. The immediate objective is the creation of works that are programmed and include "self-regulation".
But these goals do not yet constitute the final stage of the artistic process. It is the spirit of the artist that determines how chosen techniques are used, and not the computer. Despite the fact that he mainly saw opportunities, Metzger was also critical of the use of technology. In particular, how the development of technology influences the way in which we look at the world. As if you’d only look at your surroundings through templates. Despite his share in the development of computer art, he set himself in direct opposition to proponents of the then-coming digital age.
In 1968 he wrote about computers: "(computers) are becoming the most totalitarian tools ever used on society." Rather than call artists to bury their heads in the sand, he saw a leading role for artists in the development of technological innovations. Little attention has been paid to this role, because artists have virtually lost their position as a guide in society. This is unfortunate, because it is precisely by making use of this position that alternatives can be developed, and discussions about the way in which the world is displayed automatically arise. Of course, this is not just relevant for images. All possibilities for information processing, analysis and control methods must be used to offer unexpected and radical proposals.
For Metzger, this - the responsibility of the artist for his material and the world - was ‘the most critical topic in technological art’.
The area in which this unexpected and radical proposal is examined can be increased considerably if materials are able to flow and move freely. This creates numerous mutations, explosions and implosions with which autonomous systems can be developed in countless ways. The artist who is willing to be overpowered by these unpredictable circumstances must be equally prepared to eliminate himself. Once disconnected from pre-introduced rules, binary code or the sterile environment, there is no longer any question of clear connections or references and suddenly countless configurations become possible.
And is this multitude of possibilities - this uncovering of worlds - not the promise of technological progress that we have so eagerly sought? Is this not a possible answer to how we should face the challenges of ever-growing digitization?
* This essay is translated from the Dutch original: ‘Een oneindige verzameling aan beelden’