Category: Lectures

Repetition and variation

In August 62 I started doing silkscreens. I wanted something stronger that gave more of an assembly line effect. With silkscreening you pick a photograph, blow it up, transfer it in glue onto silk, and then roll ink across it so the ink goes through the silk but not through the glue. That way you get the same image, slightly different each time. It was all so simple quick and chancy. I was thrilled with it.
– Andy Warhol

Sol LeWitt, Successive Rows of Horizontal, Straight Lines from Top to Bottom, and Vertical, Straight Lines from Left to Right, 1972

In Op-Art (60s)
Abstract subgenre, short lived but influential all across interior design, fashion and advertising. Op-artists were exploring the limits of perception, creating visually tense images and optical illusions.

Victor Vasarely – Orion C – 1962 (not quite Op-art yet) Victor Vasarely, Boglar II Victor Vasarely – Titan Bridget Riley – Movement in Squares Balm by Bridget Riley Bridget Riley – Cataract 1967 Bridget Riley looking mod in 1964 Edna Andrade – Black Dragons 1969 Edna Andrade finale 1979 Edna Andrade

Repetition + variation in textile design:

Anni Albers Second Movement – 1978

In minimalist music:

Steve Reich – Clapping music 1972

In early computer art:

Manfred Mohr Cubic Limit 72-77

In «Cubic Limit,» Mohr introduces the cube into his work as a fixed system with which signs are generated. In the first part of this work phase (1972–75), an alphabet of signs is created from the twelve lines of a cube. In some works, statistics and rotation are used in the algorithm to generate signs. In others, combinatorial, logical and additive operators generate the global and local structures of the images.

10 PRINT CHR$(205.5+RND(1)); : GOTO 10
From the Commodore 64 manual

In generative art

Every Icon (1997) John F. Simon, Jr.
Can you reverse engineer Every Icon?

Jared Tarbell – click to see it in real time Jared Tarbell – Quarter Round

Same principle applied to rotational symmetry:

Marius Watz – Illuminations B

Marius Watz – Illuminations B
Video here

We’ll cover more generative art in a couple of weeks…

In level design
Modular generative systems are often used in games to generate levels procedurally:

Forget me not


and also beyond the 2D grid



Fuji by Robert Hodgin (flight404)

Fuji, test render from flight404 on Vimeo.

Art Instruments / Art tools

There is a fine line between making an interactive artwork and making an expressive tool or an instrument.

Golan’s Yellowfish was conceived as a tool for live performance:

Manual input session can function as a musical instrument:

Digital artist often experiment with the aesthetic of the interface:

Arcs21 by LIA (200?) by Miltos Manetas (2003) is way better for iPhone

Infinite Sketchbook / infinite doodle

Sound and visual toys became particularly popular with the advent of touchscreens and apps. Somewhere between interactive artworks and musical instruments:

Sonic wire sculptor or Rhonda:

Some software artists deconstruct the digital tools we use every day exposing the raw digital matter beneath the user friendly interface.

Auto-illustrator by Adrian Ward (2001)

Signwave Auto-Illustrator is an experimental, semi-autonomous, generative software artwork and a fully functional vector graphic design application to sit alongside your existing professional graphic design utilities.

Software as culture / speculative software…

Shredder by Mark Napier 1998

Web pages are temporary graphic images created when browsing software interprets HTML instructions. As long as all browsers agree (at least somewhat) on the conventions of HTML there is the illusion of solidity or permanence in the web. But behind the graphical illusion is a vast body of text files — containing HTML code — that fills hard drives on computers at locations all over the world. Collectively these instructions make up what we call ‘the web’. But what if these instructions are interpreted differently than intended? Perhaps radically differently?
The web browser is an organ of perception through which we ‘see’ the web.

(See also the more recent and playful Geocities-izer)

WebStalker I/O/D (1998)

Visceral Facades: taking Matta-Clark’s crowbar to software.

More recent artistic interventions in browsing took advantage of plugins and non-proprietary software (easier to expand and modify):

Add-Art by Steve Lambert (2008)

Hello Processing

Processing is a free and open source programming language created in 2001. It’s is a development environment, a set of tools, and an online community.
It was created to promoted software literacy within the visual arts but developed into a popular artist tool.
Download Processing here

Watch this introduction to Processing to get some basic elements and an overview of the environment.

Here you can find some more examples by various artists.

This Vimeo group is also a good resource to check out finished projects.

openprocessing contains plenty of examples with source code, mostly student’s work. It’s like Youtube for sketches you can upload your own sketches (they must work in javascript mode).

The material here is not comprehensive, you will need to use a variety of resources:

– The official reference to figure out how to use certain functions

– The official forum to see if your problem has been solved before (almost certainly yes). Please don’t ask for help unless you are doing advanced stuff.

– The examples within processing file > examples.

– Online textbooks like learning processing

– Language-agnostic communities like stack overflow

Note that googling Processing + your problem may not be the most effective way to find information because Processing is a very common word, especially in programming.

Next: Processing IDE, sketches and publishing

Infinite Monkeys


The “modularity” principle we found in new media is the basis of all languages: we combine a set of symbols to compose words, words to make sentences and so on.
The part of a text are clearly distinct and easy to recombine, and especially in poetry new unexpected meanings can emerge from arbitrary juxtapositions.
Many writers, poets and artists experimented with loss of control in writing.

Given enough time, a hypothetical monkey typing at random would, as part of its output, almost surely produce all of Shakespeare’s plays.
– the Infinite Monkey Theorem

Not to be taken literally…

In an experiment conducted in a Zoo in England, zookeepers left a computer keyboard in the cage of six macaques for a month. The monkeys produced only a five page document, consisting mostly of the letter S, until the alpha male bashed the keyboard with a stone and all the other monkeys urinated and defecated on it.
– Dario Maestripieri, Primatologist

Writers and artists have been fascinated with randomness and with the combinatorial properties of text since DADA.

To make a Dadaist poem
Take a newspaper.
Take a pair of scissors.
Choose an article as long as you are planning to make your poem.
Cut out the article.
Then cut out each of the words that make up this article and put them in a bag.
Shake it gently.
Then take out the scraps one after the other in the order in which they left the bag.
Copy conscientiously.
The poem will be like you.
And here you are a writer, infinitely original and endowed with a sensibility that is charming though beyond the understanding of the vulgar.
– Tristan Tzara, 1920

Writer William Burroughs in the ’50s applied this technique, dubbed cut-up technique, to his own writing and recordings. (And David Bowie, and Kurt Cobain, and Thom Yorke…)

At that point, artists were applying randomness not only to text:

In John Cage’s Music of Changes (1951) the composer selected duration, tempo, and dynamics by using the I-Ching, an ancient Chinese book which prescribes methods for arriving at random numbers.

Principle of variability in new media

A new media object is not something fixed once and for all but can exist in different, potentially infinite, versions. This is another consequence of numerical coding of media and modular structure of a media object
Lev Manovich – The language of New Media

The first example of Computer based text generator is Loveletter by Christopher Strachey (1952)
Web version

The Policeman’s Beard is Half Constructed is the first book supposedly written by a an artificial intelligence program called RACTER in 1983. In reality it used prewritten madlib-like templates with randomized word.

Happily and sloppily a skipping jackal watches an aloof crow. This is enthralling. Will the jackal eat the crow? I fantasize about the jackal and the crow, about the crow in the expectations of the jackal.
Babbitt, along with other enthusiasts, married a runner, and consequently L. Ron Hubbard married Schubert, the confused feeler, himself who was divorcing L. Ron Hubbard’s Tasmanian devil. Then elegance prevailed. Poor Babbitt! But that’s how enthusiasts are.

The Policeman’s Beard is Half Constructed

Context free grammars
Generation of text according to formal rules.

Taroko Gorge by Nick Momford. Derivative works using different databases and algorithms.

Word generation under constraint:
Adhesion text
You can create pretty interesting literature with it.

Text generation as parody:
Postmodernism generator

Automatic CS Paper Generator

Art critique generator

Artist Statement
Bad literature

And so on…

Machine imagined art
– based on the Tate database

Meaning by Eugenio Tisselli, 2005
Each time this page is visited, one of the words in the following section will be replaced by a synonym. The replaced word is shown in bold. Refresh the page to replace another word.

Twitter Bots
By Darius Kazemi
You must be – from dictionary
Two headlines – from headlines
Amrite – from twitter trends and ryhmes
– from dictionary
freestyle 80s battle rap generator – dictionary and fixed templates

Horse ebooks
(turned out to be fake)
Olivia Taters
in dialog with the Met museum bot.

Markov Chain generation
The algorithm analyzes a source text and stores all the variations of a sequence of n letters.
Text generation starts from a random 5-character sequence present in the table, then out of the possible resolutions it randomly picks the next symbol.

'hello ' -> [m,w,p] chooses 'm' (randomly)
'ello m' -> [a,a,a,o,o] chooses 'a' (randomly)
'llo ma' -> [m]
'lo mam' -> [a,b]
'o mama' -> [' ']
' mama ' -> [w,!]
'mama w'....

The result is text that sounds right but doesn’t make any sense.

Example Dissociated press

The most common and utilitarian use of Markov chain for text generation is Spam

living with bubble bounce fairy from diskette.
Still eat her from cream puff
from, ignore her around widow with fairy living with freight train.cleavage
ignore from industrial complex.

Because is predestined friends,
Designer Shoes
we meet by chance in the space,
because is sincere,
we become the friend who separates the screen,
a blessing,

Wholesale designer shoes
our invariable subject
stays behind in your space
belongs to my footprint
to remain the regard your space
to wish your joyful happy each day!

From Spam Poetry Institute

What would I say
– based on your Facebook updates

Branching narrative from Borges to the Hypertext

Linear story

Branching story

The problem with branching stories

The most common solution

Or another solution…

From You chose wrong

Your first assignment is a branching story.
The most popular artifacts of this kind are the Gamebooks or Choose Your Own Adventure. Very popular teenage literature in the 80s and 90s.

CYOA diagram – Michael Niggel

PDF here

Or you can check this impressive formal analysis of Choose your own adventure books:

Visualizations, playable books and essay here.

Before computers

We have to go back in time to find more “noble” precursors of non-linear and interactive storytelling.

Apollinaire – il pleut 1916 F.T. Marinetti and the Futurists “Words in freedom” (1909 – 1916)

And the DADA movement

To make a Dadaist poem
Take a newspaper.
Take a pair of scissors.
Choose an article as long as you are planning to make your poem.
Cut out the article.
Then cut out each of the words that make up this article and put them in a bag.
Shake it gently.
Then take out the scraps one after the other in the order in which they left the bag.
Copy conscientiously.
The poem will be like you.
And here you are a writer, infinitely original and endowed with a sensibility that is charming though beyond the understanding of the vulgar.
– Tristan Tzara, 1920

Writer William Burroughs in the ’50s applied this technique to his own writing.
(And David Bowie, and Kurt Cobain, and Thom Yorke…)

Jorge Luis Borges

The Garden of Forking Paths (1941)
In the short story a character named Ts’ui Pên tells everybody that he wanted to write a book and build a labyrinth. Nobody ever found the labyrinth, only a very confusing and contradictory book. We then discover that the book *is* the labyrinth. In the fictional book, every chapter is followed by “every” possible continuation.

"In all fiction, when a man is faced with alternatives he chooses one at the expense of the others. In the almost unfathomable work of of Ts'ui Pên, he chooses - simultaneously - all of them. He thus creates various futures, various times which start others that will in turn branch out and bifurcate in other times. This is the cause of the contradictions in the novel"
The Garden of Forking Paths - Jorge Luis Borges

Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon (1950) in which non linear storytelling is used to explore the subjectivity of truth, subverting mystery drama cliches.

Agusto Boal’s Forum Theatre (1960)
In this process, the actors or audience members could stop a performance, often a short scene in which a character was being oppressed in some way (for example, a chauvinist man mistreating a woman or a factory owner mistreating an employee). The audience could propose any solution, so long as they conveyed it on stage, working, acting, and directing not from the comfort of their seat.

Hopscotch, Julio Cortázar ( 1963)
Written in an episodic, snapshot manner, the novel has 155 chapters.
The book can be read either in direct sequence from chapter 1 to 56 or by hopscotching through the entire set of 155 chapters. There are several other ways to read the novel, such as reading only the odd or even pages, or choosing chapters in completely random order. There are multiple endings.

Raymond Queneau

Founder of Oulipo – Ouvroir de littérature potentielle (workshop of potential literature).

Hundred Thousand Billion Poems (1961)

web port here

Also by Queneau: Story as You Like It (1984)


Computer Lib / Dream Machines – Theodor H. Nelson, 1974. Self produced later republished by Microsoft.

Like many early geeks, Ted Nelson saw computers and networks as empowering tools and advocated for the democratization of these technology (You can and you must understand computers now!).Personal computer = personal liberation.

Ted Nelson coined the term Hypertext in the 60s.

“A system of non-sequential writing that would allow the reader to aggregate meaning in snippets, in the order of his or her choosing, rather than according to a pre-established structure fixed by the author.”

A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia – Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari (1980)
These ideas, and a general antipathy toward the author-as-authority, resonated with the post-structuralist theories (late 70s – 80s). In particular with the concept of Rhizome.

“Unlike trees or their roots, the rhizome connects any point to any other point, and its traits are not necessarily linked to traits of the same nature; it brings into play very different regimes of signs, and even nonsign states.”

“The rhizome operates by variation, expansion, conquest, capture, offshoots. Unlike the graphic arts, drawing, or photography, unlike tracings, the rhizome pertains to a map that must be produced, constructed, a map that is always detachable, connectable, reversible, modifiable, and has multiple entryways and exits and its own lines of flight.”


Even before the world wide web popularized the hypertexts, Apple already provided an intuitive way to create hypertext documents.  Maybe too ahead of its time hypercard never allowed the connection of remote documents, it could have been the first browser and the first visual editor.


cyberpunkstack - hypercard


The concept of hypertext is now familiar to anybody thanks to the World Wide Web (invented in 1990 and popularized in 1995 with the invention of modern browsers) but in the 80s it was a quite exotic medium, especially for non-utilitarian uses.
Still some fiction writers started to experiment with the hypertext as literary form.

Afternoon, a story by Michael Joyce (1987)

You can read Afternoon, a story online here

And “253” by Geoff Ryman here originally published in 1996. It’s assigned as “home play”.

Interactive fiction

The most vital legacy of hypertext literature is Interactive Fiction.
IF uses more sophisticated structures than the simple branching and a parser for the interaction, usually employed to navigate spaces, interact with characters and objects in a game-like fashion.

Everybody Dies by Jim Munroe and Michael Cho (2008) is a good introduction to IF. Also in homeplay.

IF is a kind of universe on its own which deserves its own course. A great introduction and a collection of resources can be found on Emily Short’s website.

Text adventures

The parser was pioneered by a more popular form of hyperfiction, the adventure game.


even cowgirl bleed

In recent years there has been a revival of digital choose your own adventure – type of games facilitated by Twine an accessible and open source tool.
Usually experimental in nature, twine games are emblematic of a fierce DIY game making movement spearheaded by queer authors.


253 by Geoff Ryman
Everybody Dies by Jim Munroe and Michael Cho
The Immoral Ms. Conduct by Hannah Epstein
Spent by McKinney
How to Speak Atlantean by Porpentine
Ultra Business Tycoon by Porpentine
Cyborg Goddess by Kara Stone and Kayte McKnight
Coming Out Simulator by Nicky Case
Nested by Orteil

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