System Stories and Model Worlds by Mitchell Whitelaw
Full title: System Stories and Model Worlds: A Critical Approach To Generative Art This text was comissioned by the software art factory Readme 100 in Dortmund 2005 and is included into the resulting publication: Readme 100 Temporary Software Art Factory, Books on Demand GmbH, Norderstedt, Germany, 2005. " [...]
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System Stories and Model Worlds

In his article „System Stories and Model Worlds: A Critical Approach To Generative Art“ Mitchell Whitelaw (Canberra/AUS) proposes to bridge what has been detected by various authors, the unproductive gap between „software formalism“ and „software culturalism“. While formalism tends to be visually abstract, and thus corresponds to the field of generative art, the culturalist approach, on the other side, suggests that software art is predominantly critical/political, focussing on and deconstructing software as cultural text. Refusing what he calls binary thinking, Mitchell Whitelaw instead proposes to overcome this split by calling for a „critical generativity“. Such an approach would deconstruct the system stories contained in the formal objects used by generative art and thus would critically analyze their implications. To put it shortly, it would allow to “read generative software art according to the critical paradigm of the software culturalists” (Whitelaw).

But how exactly are these system stories to be deconstructed? Whitelaw hopes to find examples for “critical generativity” by analyzing generative artworks by Reas, Tarbell, Ngan, Capozzo, Masuda, Annunziato, Driessen and Verstappen (all of them, by the way, male artists). By asking what kind of narrative these projects convey, Whitelaw formulates poignant comments on generative art’s, hm, let’s call it basic level of imagination (paragraphs 2 and 3): “a clone in a crowd, unchanging, with no traction on the space it inhabits, existing in an ongoing, perpetual present.” And he continues, criticizing the image of contemporary society that’s being provided as naïve and utopian: “a mass of identical (or typed) individuals, each contributing equally to the collective dynamic, each equally connected with and affecting all the others.”

That’s not what interests Mitchell Whitelaw. Instead, he is looking for “critical generativity”: Systems that sketch “possible worlds”, imaginations of the systems we live in, revolutions cast in software so to speak. As generative art’s basic material are systems themselves, Whitelaw predicts a “unique potential” for generative art: “unlike other forms of discourse, it can actually experiment with the emergent outcomes of particular ontologies, modes of being and relation.” Rather than reproducing known features and merely feeding these known features into “eye-candy machines” (as most generative art projects do, according to the author), he calls for prospective or utopian potential of generative ontologies that “might equally be ironic, critical, deconstructive or fantastic”. Golan Levin’s Axis applet is cited as an example: “Generative art can, and must, do more than make images of complex systems; it can tinker critically with the systems themselves, then set them running: possible worlds.”

Whitelaw’s suggestion to read the implicit system stories and to decode the narratives and ontologies inherent in the systems employed in generative art is extremely interesting. It shows that the performativity of the program code is embedded in a system story, and that this system story or ontology is a text that is at the same time narrative, performative and prescriptive. However, Whitelaw’s approach doesn’t seem to be radical enough. Isn’t the boringness of generative art projects all the more revealing in terms of uncovering system narratives contained within today’s economic or a-life models than generative art projects that produce “possible worlds” as alternatives to the existing one and its narratives? In bringing forth “possible worlds”, wouldn’t “critically generative” art projects rather conceal the system stories already at work in our contemporary world than uncover these narratives? And isn’t Mitchell Whitelaw’s counting on “critical generativity” (i.e. generative art producing alternatives to existing system stories) falling into the same trap of expecting generative art to produce the “unknown” or unexpected? Wouldn’t this unexpected system story have to remain per se system immanent – precisely because the solutions it offers are software based?

Mitchell Whitelaw’s postulation of “critical generativity” yet waits to be met by corresponding generative art projects. In the discussion following Mitchell’s remote presentation it was suggested that one of the first projects that could be called “critically generative” possibly is Renate Wieser and Julian Rohrhuber’s project “Invisible Hand Machine” realised for Readme100 (2005).

Inke Arns

by admin, posted 15 Feb 2006

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