TITLE: What is a Tree? AUTHOR: Eugene Wallingford DATE: January 30, 2008 8:39 AM DESC: ----- BODY: Ira Greenberg's Cobalt Rider I can talk about something other than science. As I write this, I am at a talk called "What is a Tree?", by computational artist Ira Greenberg. In it, Greenberg is telling his story of going from art to math -- and computation -- and back. Greenberg started as a traditional artist, based in drawing and focused in painting. He earned his degrees in Visual Art, from Cornell and Penn. His training was traditional, too -- no computation, no math. He was going to paint. In his earliest work, Greenberg was caught up in perception. He found that he could experiment only with the motif in front of him. Over time he evolved from more realistic natural images to images that were more "synthetic", more plastic. His work came to be about shape and color. And pattern. Just one word -- plastics.  From The Graduate. Alas, he wasn't selling anything. Like all of us, he needed to make some money. His uncle told him to "look into computers -- they are the future". (This is 1993 or so...) Greenberg could not have been less interested. Working with computers seemed like a waste of time. But he got a computer, some software, and some books, and he played. In spite of himself, he loved it. He was fascinated. Soon he got paying gigs at places like Conde Nast. He was making good money doing computer graphics for marketing and publishing folks. At the time, he said, people doing computer graphics were like mad scientists, conjuring works with mystical incantations. He and his buddies found work as a hired guns for older graphic artists who had no computer skills. They would stand over his should, point at the screen, and say in rapid-fire style, "Do this, do this, do this." "We did, and then they paid us." All the while, Greenberg was still doing his "serious work" -- painting -- on side. Ira Greenberg's Blue Flame But he got good at this computer stuff. He liked it. And yet he felt guilty. His artist friends were "pure", and he felt like a sell-out. Even still, he felt an urge to "put it all together", to understand what this computer stuff really meant to his art. He decided to sell out all the way: to go to NYC and sell these marketable skills for big money. The time was right, and the money was good. It didn't work. Going to an office to produce commercial art for hire changed him, and his wife notice. Greenberg sees nothing wrong with this kind of work; it just wasn't for him. Still, he liked at least one thing about doing art in the corporate style: collaboration. He was able to work with designers, writers, marketing folks. Serious painters don't collaborate, because they are doing their own art. The more he work with computers in the creative process, the more he began to feel as if using tools like Photoshop and LightWave was cheating. They provide an experience that is too "mediated". With any activity, as you get better you "let the chaos guide you", but these tools -- their smoothness, their engineered perfection, their Undo buttons -- were too neat. Artists need fuzziness. He wanted to get his hands dirty. Like painting. So Greenberg decided to get under the hood of Photoshop. He started going deeper. His artist friends thought he was doing the devil's work. But he was doing cool stuff. Oftentimes, he felt that the odd things generated by his computer programs were more interesting than his painting! Ira Greenberg's Hoffman Plasticity Visualizer He went deeper with the mathematics, playing with formulas, simulating physics. He began to substitute formulas inside formulas inside formulas. He -- his programs -- produced "sketches". At some point, he came across Processing, "an open source programming language and environment for people who want to program images, animation, and interactions". This is a domain-specific language for artists, implemented as an IDE for Java. It grew out of work done by John Maeda's group at the MIT Media Lab. These days he programs in ActionScript, Java, Flash, and Processing, and promotes Processing as perhaps the best way for computer-wary artists to get started computationally. What is a Tree? poster With his biographical sketch done, he moved on to the art that inspired his talk's title. He showed a series of programs that demonstrated his algorithmic approach to creativity. His example was a tree, which was a double entendré for his past as a painter of natural scenes and also for his embrace of computer science. He started with the concept of a tree in a simple line drawing. Then he added variation: different angles, different branching factors. These created asymmetry in the image. Then he added more variation: different scales, different densities. Then he added more variation: different line thickness, "foliage" at the end of the smallest branches. With randomness elements in the program, he gets different outputs each time he runs the code. He added still more variation: color, space, dimension, .... He can keep going along as many different conceptual dimensions as he likes to create art. He can strive for verisimilitude, representation, abstraction, ... any artistic goal he might seek with a brush and oils. Greenberg's artistic medium is code. He writes some code. He runs it. He change some things, and runs it again. This process is interactive with the medium. He evolves not a specific work of art, but an algorithm that can generate an infinite number of works. I would claim that in a very important sense his work is the algorithm. For most artists, the art is in the physical work they produce. For Greenberg, there is a level of indirection -- which is, interestingly, one of the most fundamental concepts of computer science. For me, perhaps the algorithm is the artistic work! Greenberg's program is functional, not representational, and what people want to see is the art his programs produce. But code can be beautiful, too. -----