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I just read about this project at the electro^plankton blog, and had to re-post it immediately!

I know a couple of clever folks who tutor courses in the ITP department of NYU, and was lucky enough to hang out and chat with them a bit whilst in New York last month. The kind of work they’re doing over there I find thoroughly absorbing and just a little inspirational.

This project (Kacie Kinzer’s “tweenbots”) has been making news in its own right over the last few days, and is a brilliantly realised experiment in complex systems, navigation and anthropomorphic empathy. Basically, this little robot can only head in one direction. It bears a little flag, upon which its desired destination is communicated. This is the sum total of the powers at its disposal in its attempt to navigate part of New York city.

peoplebotweb

Basically, it relies entirely upon interventions from the perambulating public in order to achieve his goal- people have to stop, take an interest, and then to redirect, realign, retrieve and rescue him if he is to have any hope of success.

Perhaps surprisingly, succeed he does – via the interventions of 29 individuals over some 41minutes in Washington Square park.

tweenbot-path

I guess depending in the kindness of strangers can be a viable wayfaring strategy – if you’re helpless/cute/robotic enough to make it work.

For more info, visit the site.

Images sourced from http://www.tweenbots.com
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lost-locke2Yesterday I wrote about Lost‘s deliberately vague storytelling, and suggested that the narrative paradigm the show adopts is more akin to that of an ARG or a mystery game (like purported influence, Myst) than to a more typical unfolding of dramatic events. Today I wanted to focus our attention behind the scenes, and think about the lore surrounding how Lost’s stories get written.

There are two aspects of the show’s creative process that I think are worthy of some examination; both the writers’ approach to writing the show and role of the writers themselves in the Lost universe.

In the case of the former, popular legend (and a great deal of messageboard commentary) has it that the witers on Lost have only a vague idea how the story will ultimately pan out, and perhaps even less fixed notions on how any given character’s arc will develop from series to series. In effect, when writing Lost, those involved are making it up on the fly, improvising willy-nilly and creating a discordant mess of half-baked plot lines, ultimately to rely on a heavy-handed deus ex machina to resolve the story come the series’ end.

I have no idea how close to the mark this is, but in terms of how much license the writers have to alter the direction and flow of the show (adding unexpected narrative nodes and connections), it does seem to be the case that they are afforded extraordinary freedom.

Given the difficulties that some American television dramas (particularly those in the science-fiction genre) have had with Networks approving storylines  (Joss Whedon‘s new series Dollhouse is a case in point) or indeed with writers arguably being allowed too much scope for sweeping character changes (I’m looking at you Sylar) it is remarkable that Lost seems to operate the way it does.

It is interesting to speculate on ther mindset of the creators; the narrative, the story, the message, whatever you want to call it seems to play second fiddle to themore immediate, tangible qualities of the world they are trying to create. Their willingness to re-write at the drop of a hat is aptly demonstrated in the anecdotes about the casting process and- seems typical of the  approach to the show overall (the character of Hurley was invented after Jorge Garcia auditioned for the role of Sawyer, and the character of Sawyer was re-written to fit the accent and irascibility of Josh Holloway).

Perhaps the best example of this willingness to adapt and change mid-flow is the character of Benjamin Linus, easily the most compelling, complex and devious player in the whole drama.

benjamin_linus_by_lecsica_by_michaelemersonclub

It is hard to imagine how a character who is so central- indeed pivotal– to the world of Lost was originally only scripted for three episodes in season 2. So the story goes, his contract was extended to eight episodes, and then to the whole of series 3 and 4 as the writers sort of riffed off of Michael Emerson‘s brilliant, bug-eyed presence.

It appears that the overall narrative, the ‘story’ of what happens in Lost is far from sacrosanct – and in the case of Ben’s character, much the better for it. The world of Lost and the charisma of the players who inhabit it seem to be more important to the creators than the integrity of the tale itself. This of course, is another reason why Lost sits uneasily with television dramas like The Wire – a show that takes the existing televisual tradition of the hard-bitten cop drama to an apex of verisimilitude.

In The Wire, the story (ultimately the moral of the story) is everything – and quite right too.

In Lost however, it is the being in the world that seems to matter most.

Why is it that this seems to upset people? In much the same way that pop bands often get castigated for not having written their own songs, for being simply performers (though it doesn’t seem to affect president Obama)- it seems to many as if the writers of Lost are somehow affronting us, insulting our intelligence by not sitting down and writing the show properly.

I suspect this is something about the show, and something about the audience.

Because Lost seems to ride roughshod over the writerly, literary approach to narrative, it seems somehow less genuine when compared to shows that have a more readily demonstrable artistic vision. At the same time, the kind of audience that time-traveling, science-fiction, high-concept adventure shows would normally attract can be quite fickle, and I suspect many see Lost as a high-gloss confidence trick – a mainstream, big-budget drama that looks like its written for sci-fi fans but is a actually a hollow shell designed to suck in ratings and plenty of these…

dollars1

I have some sympathy with this view, because I’m exactly that type of fickle fan – however, rather than castigate Lost for sitting outside of one artistic tradition, I prefer to locate what it does within another. As the introduction of Benjamin Linus shows, in Lost’s peculiar ecosystem one actor’s performance, one variation, can literally remake everything else around it.

This example doesn’t suggest a writer carefully constructing narrative in accordance with an artistic vision, instead it shows new content being generated through the interactions of a set number of players acting in accordance with some basic rules.

It is emergence.

In this sense, Lost can be said to (at least in some part) be generating itself.

If we believe this to be intentional, this process would place Lost within a very different, but no less canonical tradition. Emergence is something that has fascinated many artists over the years, and continues to do so today. For an artistic read on the topic, you could do a lot worse than listen to this discussion between Will Wright and Brian Eno in this talk from the Seminars About Long-term Thinking (SALT) series organised by the Long Now Foundation.

eno_qa_fullIn short, emergence is the study of how small interactions- which take place on only a very local level with very limited inputs- can produce complex behavioural systems. The classic example is ant colonies, where whilst individual ants don’t take orders but act as autonomous units, the colony as a whole displays complex behaviour (such as finding the maximum distance from all colony entrances to dispose of dead bodies).

Emergent behaviour can be created and studied using cellular automata, illustrated in the video below. Simple rules govern each individual cell’s behaviour, whereby its state (black or white) changes only in relation to the states of the cells in its immediate vicinity.

Out of these simple rules, very complex patterns emerge.

In art with both big and small ‘A’s, there have been plenty of experiments using algorithms and processes to generate novel and unpredictable work, from William S. Burroughs’ “cut-up” technique to the automatic writing and exquisite corpses of the Surrealists or the Musikalisches Würfelspiel supposedly practised by Mozart.

Indeed, in the Wright/Eno talk mentioned above both speakers talk about work they’ve produced based on a fascination with the possibilities of this approach.

I particularly like Brian Eno’s example of a wind chime as a cheap and basic machine for creating generative music within established rules.

So is Lost set up to allow emergent narratives to appear?

Even if not their explicit intent, it seems that the interaction of actors, writers and creators is allowed to take precedence over the pre-existing narrative if it produces a variation that feels right. It may be idle speculation on my part, but if the writers and producers really were experimenting with emergent wrting it would make the whole show a rather grand project, I hope even for those who currently feel somewhat cheated by it.

After examining how the process of writing Lost sets it apart from many of it’s contemporaries, I intend to use the next post to explore the second aspect of Lost’s writing – the role of the writers themselves in Lost’s universe, where fiction and reality are blurred.

See you tomorrow 🙂

Brian Eno image sourced from Wired and Benjamin Linus image from DeviantART user Lecsica

me

I work in media as a strategist. I like art, robots, comics, interaction design, karaoke, wildlife photography, indian food, campari, gaming, American TV (teen drama included), reading non-fiction, reading fiction and listening to music. I also have a tenori-on because I'm so rad.

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