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Case study: William Latham’s pre-Computer Art and his Computer artworks

William Latham started working with computers in 1984 after completing his degree in Fine Art. Latham’s contribution to the field, following the ideas of Karl Sims, is that he has taken the idea of evolving forms and freely developed it into a distinctive artistic style, which incorporates natural and artificial elements. Latham is also interesting for having gradually moved away from straightforward art and into computer games, which incorporate ideas and code taken from his earlier art work.

Latham was interested in this evolution of form even before he discovered computers. Using a sequence of rules for the transformation of shapes, he sketched out these huge canvases of multiplying, changing forms.

[Plate XXXIII: Latham’s drawings and their computer-generated counterparts]

The logic and consistency of Latham’s possible worlds arises from, as much as anything else, his concept of an evolutionary approach to the making of sculpture. The complexity and vitality of the forms he devises comes about from the step by step accretion of “operations” on simple initial shapes such as cones, spheres or toruses [1]

Lansdown believes that Latham and others working with him (e.g. Stephen Todd and Mike King) have shown us “another form of sculpture”. This is derived from the illusory yet real appearance of his works: their seeming materiality which is defeated by the obvious departures from our physical reality.  Even this system could produce unexpected results:

Simple as the rules of FormSynth were, they seemed to have a creative power of their own. Even though Latham had created and applied the rules, they produced imaginative forms he had not expected.[2]

In 1987 Latham was appointed Artist (Research Fellow) to IBM at Winchester, and here he began working with Stephen Todd on a system called Form Build. This built on Form Synth and allowed simple construction rules such as bulging and hollowing objects. As he worked with this, building up a library of form, Latham realised that some of his long sequences could be condensed into new rules, such as those for growing tendrils and horns.

Later on, Latham began to breed these forms together, by identifying their basic components as “genes”, and allowing these to be recombined and modified to produce these trees of form. As he says: “Mutator derives its methods from processes of nature, and was partly inspired by a simulation of natural selection”.[3]

This system has an overall appearance that could be called “organic”, and seemingly aims toward natural, yet fantastic forms. So a stylistic decision by Latham was made at the level of the program itself, ensuring that all images bear his imprint, to a degree. The aesthetic of these images, whilst inspired by nature and by science-fiction, remains very much their own. These are forms that would have been inconceivable without the computer to perform all the possible changes, transformations and developments that Latham foresaw.

But the artist has to remain as director. Latham sees the artist’s role as similar to a gardener, selecting and changing the forms, guiding their development and arriving at images which were previously inconceivable. Even Latham could not foresee all the possible outcomes. Although using commercial software can produce images quite unlike pre-digital techniques, there is still some continuity between them.

Completely new artforms may only arise when the artist actually programs the computer themselves. In this way, new aesthetics can develop, as Latham seems to prove. Because he had been interested in evolving forms even before he used computers, he was able to apply the most distinctive computer-quality of all: the modelling of dynamic processes.

These artistic systems are not wholly deterministic, running an image through pre-set parameters until it reaches perfection. Indeed, Latham realised early on that the most interesting outcomes of his program were quite unforeseen by him: his evolutionary program could arrive at unexpected conclusions. Even if an artist programs the computer from the start, there will always be an important element of mystery in the working of the software.

The results of an operation which is open-ended but circumscribed by the programmer can still be unpredictable. Jean-Pierre Hébert, though valuing the control his software grants him over the image creation process, sees such indeterminacies as an essential part of the final work. Of course, he uses the computer as a controller to inscribe an image on physical materials – and it is in this transition from digital instructions to physical form where the most interesting chance elements can occur. [4]

Such quirks render the computer less mechanistic (and predictable) and more ‘artistic’, because the outcome of certain operations cannot always be foreseen. This unpredictability can be harnessed in the same way as the chemical reactions of pigments, or the densities of stone. In other words, an artist develops a feel for its working and gradually incorporates its idiosyncrasies into their work, which itself changes subtly or overtly to accommodate these properties.

This is evident in Formsynth and Mutator, where Latham’s choice of operations performed on the initial shapes guided their eventual appearance. Latham’s stylistic involvement was, in a sense, pre-visual; it affected the starting point and development of all images generated through the program rather than just a single artwork. Although it was a modification of the program’s underlying code, it had visual consequences because in this way Latham determined the visual environment in which his shapes could develop. Latham compares the artist to a gardener, guiding the growth of a plant rather than creating an image from scratch. This is itself a new development for art.[5]

Latham’s Organic Art images are the product of evolutionary processes, and thus indirect products of his artistic vision. “Indirect” in the sense that Latham developed the program to evolve shapes along particular visual lines, but its continued operation is not dependent on his intervention. Like Cohen’s AARON, the widely distributed Organic Art software could continue to create Lathamesque images long after his demise, with varying inputs and changes from computer users. The encoding of his evolutionary process in software allowed him to make it portable, and then distribute it widely as PC software. Again, this widely distributed software may produce pictures not directly conceived by the artist, but inherent within the parameters of the software. Latham is responsible for assembling these elements according to his vision and requirements, but the final image is the result of the software’s own working out of these possibilities. Hébert has drawn on

the wide field of printing techniques and creative opportunities that one [finds] in a good print studio [and] the wild opportunities happening in artists’ collaborations.[6]

Unlike AARON, however, with its complex relation to Cohen’s creative input, Latham’s software has a straightforward input procedure and generates images from his initial input parameters. Harold Cohen’s AARON is not so straightforwardly instructed; it seemingly derives its own decisions about what to draw from its understanding of art. Cohen sees his current work as a “collaboration” with AARON and is confident the software will be producing his art long after his death.

There are two different forces at work here. Firstly, there is the artist’s control exercised by writing or mastering the appropriate software to create images. Secondly, there is the serendipitous aspect of accidental discovery inherent in an open-ended program where absolute control yields to experimentation and chance discoveries. For instance, in William Latham’s work, the evolutionary nature is the result of a programmer’s control in setting up the initial conditions, then exercising further choice over the outcomes of these experiments.

On the other hand, the Algoristic artist Roman Verostko, who uses plotters to realise his images, sees imperfections in the printing as an impediment to realising his art. He values exactitude in execution.[7]

[1] John Lansdown: “The Possible Worlds of William Latham”, from The Conquest of Form: Computer  Art by William Latham, Arnolfini Gallery, Bristol, December 3rd 1988 – January 15th 1989

[2] Stephen Todd and William Latham, Evolutionary Art and Computers (London, 1992), p2

[3] Todd and Latham, ibid.

[4] Ref to JPH, and quote.

[5] Todd and Latham, ibid, p12

[6] Correspondence with JPH, Nov 2002

[7] Recent conversation with artist.