While searching for a structure and a medium, I received timely exposure to some of the origins of digital art practice, in the form of two seminars hosted by Loughborough University’s then-active Gallery of the Future. One was by the late Harold Cohen, who—using the programming language Lisp as a medium (when I naïvely asked why, he said it was good for Artificial Intelligence)—is an example of how computer science and art can interact (he programmed his machine AARON to create and colour paintings in his own style. Harold Cohen’s processis covered here). In the other seminar Paul Brown described how he adapted the ABC of artificial life theory to create evolving images. At the time, it was also encouraging to me personally that both—like myself and many other digital artists—preferred Apple machines for personal use (while other platforms drove parts of Harold Cohen’s work). After this exposure, I surveyed the landscape by trawling the web to find out what was being shown online (and incidentally discovered a now-dead review in Wired News of a 1997 New York show based on artist-modified vintage 512K Macs, as a comment on their digital art pedigree) and reading the then-sparse publications on the subject.
At that time I was beginning to combine the several component areas of my life—creativity, amateur mathematics and computer skills. I was familiar with the fundamentals of programming logic, having cut my teeth on Apple’s venerable (and now discontinued) rapid application development environment (RAD) Hypercard and it’s HyperTalk language, the syntax of which also prepared me for other languages. I was also familiar with the basics of artificial life, certain mathematical patterns, and the images that can be formed by experimenting with these. I chose Java because it was then an emerging language, solves the cross-platform problem in one go, and (then but sadly not now) worked on the web. I also wanted to explore a “proper” language by collaborating with another programmer, since scripting or RADs (like Director/Lingo, and x-talk languages like HyperTalk) then had limits, although the Hypercard programme (image, right) I wrote to research and test magic square patterns was a useful research tool (despite the fact that I never ported it to Live Code, formerlly “Runtime Revolution”). But why write code? Because during the process of creating, I invariably want to do non-standard things with computers, or follow ideas unlikely to be available within the limits of commercial software. To be fair, the heavy lifting was done by Greg Turner as part of his Masters. Once development of cubeLife really began, my skills only took me so far—my role was to guide the logic and overall intent. The process is covered in the 2002 edition of Explorations in Art and Technology by Linda Candy and Ernest Edmonds, who ran the department and the projects within in.
After listening to Harold Cohen and Paul Brown I could see that working as an artist directly in a programming language offers the optimum amount of control over the computer as a medium—I can create my own tools, to use the way I want. Anything I can’t create with my own partial skills, I develop in collaboration. Work generated by commercial software can often look assembled, not created. For instance, image manipulation tools like Photoshop contain a lot of baggage that can remain visible in the finished work, just as—in the early days of digital typography—randomly distorted type appeared everywhere simply because it was possible. The clever stuff in the code of a standard application can warp the path of the creative process. In a similar vein, the recent rise in the use of AI-generated images has created another level of critical concerns.
The interpretation of number pattern in cultural symbolism provides a rich resource, offering connections between apparently disparate material—for instance between Leibniz’s binary numbers and the Chinese I Ching. As another example, Albrecht Dürer’s Melencolia I contains the first known representation of a magic square in European art, and Dürer’s straddling of the mathematical and artistic worlds offers an early example for contemporary art-science crossovers. His famous engraving also hints at the lost Renaissance view of melancholy as a portal to inspiration, explored fully in Frances Yates’ pioneering book The occult philosophy in the Elizabethan age. The body of thinking behind the general cultural use and integration of mathematical forms is a long-standing interest which is also covered under the CubeLife.org project.
As well as the artistic and cultural sources informing cubeLife, I am also interested in the mathematics. I’ve become mildly serious (for a non-mathematician, anyway) about number theory and combinatorics, two branches of pure mathematics that can be used as tools to examine magic squares and cubes. During a separate residency at Loughborough University’s computer science department in the early 2000s, I began working with programmer Simon Nee to construct a tool in C++ to examine magic square structures (the work became the casualty of busy schedules and reorganisation, but the thinking is still there), initiated communication with some of the web’s magic square specialists, and made some minor explorations, which—with the help of the magic square webapp—are now coalescing into a body of work on the topic.
At Loughborough in the early 2000s, working as an artist in an HCI department meant I could pursue ideas in computer science that explore unconventional interfaces to computer-driven art (there were other projects with Mike Quantrill that used Silicon Graphics machines, including a movement sensor grid, and other public work under the EmergencyArtLab). The idea behind the single heartbeat-only input to cubeLife is to facilitate a warm and instant biological connection to an otherwise cool mathematically-based structure. I liked the idea of bridging the schism between digital space and meatspace in a direct physical way, without resorting to a standard interface—everyone alive has a heartbeat—so as far as audience input goes, cubeLife aimed to be the most widely accessible work possible.
In fact, my research so far inicates that the exhibited version of CubeLife in 1999 was actually the first heartbeat-driven interactive artwork, so I took some time to document in at the Archive of Digital Art.
Because each object in the virtual 3D space has a finite life granted by the data provided by each participant’s heartbeat, and weill eventually die, some variations are possible. As of version 2 (around 2010), more of these have been added as options by collaborator Greg Turner, including flocking.
Including wider research into magic matrices, cubeLife is therefore a long-term project and may (or may not) develop further in ways I can’t foresee according to collaboration, ongoing research and emerging technology. The latest iteration (2010) uses hand-grip heartbeat monitors, as the original clip stopped functioning. the intention is to restore this functionality with the original 1999 code for archival purposes.
There’s more information and some gallery images at cubelife.org, as well as the current allied magic square research that provided the foundation for cubeLife back in the 1990s.