Coding creativity

With major exhibitions and increasing client interest, generative art is finally getting serious attention. Richard Wentk gets his code on"

Generative art has been happening for almost as long as computers have existed, but it's only over the last few years that it has begun to break out of the geek-chic ghetto and make some waves in the mainstream. Max Akkerman runs the Maxalot/TodaysArt Festival series in The Hague, and last September he curated a unique display of generative art projected on the side of the venue. As he explains, generative art is starting to become more influential: "This was our third year for the festival, which is about putting together large projection shows to present graphic arts and illustration on buildings' faades. This year we decided to work with generative artists, since we feel these types of artists often create organic patterns and artwork that lends itself well to surface panelling in architecture. Showing this through projection is an exciting medium. Generative artists aren't new in town but are definitely a big part of the future. Amazing things are being created, and this will keep accelerating along with the technology curve."

There's a lot more to generative art than using a computer to spit out random designs. Part of the appeal is aesthetic, as Danny Franzreb, chief designer at Taobot, notes: "Generative artworks have a kind of beautiful, fascinating, mathematical complexity that's simple and easy to understand, so it's not disturbing, since the same rules are found in nature. It sometimes feels like the kind of unbiased art we could find in atoms and cells. We are all drawn towards creations like these, because the rule sets and the maths they involve are closely connected to the world we live in."

More adventurous users of ActionScript will already be familiar with the basics of generative work. What makes the latest software tools, such as Processing - freely downloadable from - different is a dedication to openness in every sense. Processing is open source and can create still images and motion graphics with equal ease. But there's also a new open-mindedness about taking algorithms and ideas from science and art, and combining them in organic ways.

Karsten Schmidt specialises in extending the meaning of 'mixed media'. "The important point for me," says Schmidt, "is that I can be much more focused on design concepts and on their realisation or implementation by approaching them from the computational angle: first, by forming an abstraction of the initial ideas and then trying to isolate the core patterns. Using code like this I can shape the entire creation process. The benefit is that I can use any concept as a design tool. So, for example, I used a biochemical reaction model to literally grow a 3D model of a typeface, which was used on the cover of Print magazine - it was rendered with a solid printer and then photographed. I've also created wind tunnel simulations for a car ad and coded a virtual force-field to create the 3D deformations used in the Maxalot/TodaysArt show."

Similarly, there's a more collaborative ethic, with artists sharing examples and code libraries more freely than they used to with other tools. As Schmidt says, "Unlike with commercial tools, I've never become 'frustrated' with Processing, since the open source set-up always allowed me to take things into my own hands and find or create workarounds, or extend the tool by writing new libraries. Early last year I opened an open source repository of code libraries I've created for various projects - These cover various elementary things like vector maths, particle physics, colour palette tools, hardware audio support and so on."

Aside from offering a welcome respite from this year's Illustrator clichs, generative art is also a refreshingly different way to reconsider your creative options. And the biggest commercial and artistic payoffs are still to come. As Max Akkerman puts it, "It's still a pretty small world among these artists - the commercial industry is slowly realising the power and beauty of their work. The art world is, as always, quite conservative, but this type of work is making its way into art fairs and museums."

In fact, that's already too modest a view. Generative art has accumulated enough of a buzz to be showcased in its own exhibition at the V&A. In the meantime, Processing is free to download, free to modify, and free to use for commercial work. In a year or two, it could be your art that's being projected onto walls in The Hague.