March 12, 2021
Computer algorithms are instructions that tell machines to solve problems and make predictions. They help us use our smartphones and stream videos. Someday, they’ll drive our cars.
Can algorithms make us more creative? Some artists think so. They are using algorithms to produce surprising artworks. Here are three of those artists.
Painting With Robots
Sougwen Chung uses computers to be more creative. Chung is based in New York City. She works with a set of robots called DOUG. DOUG can be a robotic arm fitted with a pencil or paintbrush, or it can be a team of robots.
Chung programmed DOUG to paint. She gathered 20 years of her drawings and made digital copies, then saved these copies in DOUG’s memory bank. As Chung paints on a canvas, so does the robot. From “memory,” it makes a stroke that Chung might make. Artist and machine work together.
Chung and DOUG often perform for an audience. The artwork they make is always a surprise, and that’s the fun of it, Chung says. “The second I know what’s happening in those performances, I’ll probably stop doing them. For now, I like the energy it gives to the work.”
“We are drawn to things that make us curious,” says Michael Hansmeyer. He’s an architect based in Germany and Switzerland.
Take the column pictured above. It started as a simple shape: a cylinder . Hansmeyer programmed a computer to fold a digital cylinder again and again. This produced countless new details. The result would have been impossible to draw.
A laser cutter shaped the actual column. About 3,000 slices of cardboard were made and stacked on top of one another. Hansmeyer has also made columns out of sandstone using a 3D printer. The columns were put on display. Signs read “Do Not Touch.” “But everybody reached out and touched them,” Hansmeyer says. “In a way, that was the greatest compliment.”
Color By Numbers
Ben Shneiderman, a computer scientist at the University of Maryland, doesn’t call himself an artist. “But I aspire to be an artist,” he says.
In the 1990s, Shneiderman was looking for a way to see all the data contained on a computer hard drive. It dawned on him to make a digital map. He designed an algorithm that could organize information into shapes of different sizes and colors. The maps were not only useful: They looked like art.
Shneiderman has mapped everything from sports statistics to population growth. Several of his works now belong to the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. “There’s a lot of unity between art and science,” he says. “You don’t have to choose one or the other. You can have both in your life.”