Friday, December 07, 2001

Let me tell you about the Swedish artist Professor Dan Wolgers. When the new Museum of Modern Art was opened in Stockholm a few years ago he was hired to create a new piece of art that was to be placed in front of the entrance. This is of course a museum of modern art, Professor Wolgers is a modern artist and, not surprisingly, the work turned out to be a modern one, however in a slightly different way, one is tempted to suspect, than a lot of people initially had expected.

He simply removed – stole, say some – the benches from the entrance, and called his mission complete. All he asked for as payment was to keep the benches. Thus the much foreseen Great Work of Art was downgraded – and the somewhat pejorative choice of word is entirely mine – to a lack of facilities for those who wanted to sit down and have a rest after their visit to the museum.

Very soon the debate took off. Was this really art? Wasn’t it just a simple theft? And what the hell is art, anyway?

Dr Fleming touched this issue in yesterday’s lecture. The topic was interactivity with computers and Dr Fleming illustrated the questions raised by demonstrating a graphics soft ware. This would, depending on what parameters were put in by the user, perform a complex and colourful graphic animation. Hence, when the parameters are set, the computer creates the animation itself. Now, is this art? Is this creativity? Is it possible for a computer to be creative?

I suppose it can be art. All you need to do is print, frame and sign and you have made yourself a piece of art. Or indeed, you do not have to print and frame, just place the computer set in a gallery. Or at the Cairo Airport, or wherever – yes, it is art. If it is a good or interesting work of art or whether it is for instance morally dubious or not, those are completely different questions.

You may ask how new this phenomenon is. When I was nine I visited the Liseberg Amusement Park in Gothenburg and made my own painting that was to cover my wall for a long time to come. Mind you, I did not know initially what the painting would look like. The paper was spinning quickly, and all I could do was to choose the colours with which to spray the rotating paper. I think it is fair to say that I put in the parameters (the colours) and that the program (rotating paper) made the painting, just like the program presented by Dr Fleming. What is the difference apart from the digitisation and complexity?

Some years later, in the Swedish equivalent to the Grammar School, I was studying mathematics in a computer lab. Giving a few parameters (e g y=x+3) to the program, it would then draw a nice graph to illustrate the beauty of calculus. What is the difference to Dr Fleming’s program, apart from complexity? (I guess then, that according to my line of thought my mathematical coordinate systems could be considered art, and I cannot stress enough how satisfactory such a conclusion appears to me. During my two years as a maths teacher I struggled, and very often in vain, to convince my pupils that mathematics is in fact beautiful.)

The issues concerning creativity are more tricky, hence more interesting than those about defining art, and I think that complexity is an important factor to take into account. I believe that it is a widespread opinion that only humans can be creative (and God if you are religious). A beaver’s dam, a bird’s nest or the honey production of bees are not regarded as creativity, these animals are merely genetically programmed in a way similar to how the computer is programmed to perform the before mentioned animation. It is also argued that we humans are so much more than individuals genetically programmed for reproduction.

The question I wish to ask here is whether that is true or not. Are we not animals, only with a considerably higher complexity to our genetic programs? Despite our bright intellects and our free will, we are still limited in our choices due to various factors – economy, weather, age et cetera – and that affects our creativity too. There are limits for what we are able to create. The same is true for computers, there are limits to what they can create and those limits are given by the technology. Hence, at some point, is it not fair to argue that the computer programs are bound to reach such a level of complexity that we must recognise them as creative?

Now, does this make any sense? Is what I just wrote nothing but one big load of rubbish, or am I really on to something here? I don’t know, but I would of course be interested in any opinions on the matter. Feel free to email them to

Well, I guess that’s it for now. Take care, my friends!


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