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Review of Jon McCormack "Impossible Nature"


Impossible Nature: The Art of Jon McCormack (book and DVD), published by The Australian Centre for the Moving Image, Melbourne, 2004. ISBN: 1-920805-08-7 (book), 1-920805-08-7 (DVD).


Jon McCormack is a pioneering Australian computer artist, working particularly in the area of generative art, that is art where the artist creates a process (typically a computer program) which in turn generates all or part of the artwork. His major works have been interactive installations, notably Turbulence (1994) and Eden: Evolutionary Sonic Ecosystem (2000). The book and DVD under review are a celebration of McCormack's art.


I will discuss the DVD first. It contains information about four works: Turbulence, Universal Zoologies, Eden and Future Garden. It does not contain the works themselves, as all four of them are interactive installations, and in fact Future Garden remains in the future; it was intended for Federation Square in Melbourne, but the funding evaporated. Unfortunately I have not been able to see any of these works in their installed form, so I am relying on the accounts in the book.


Turbulence consisted of fairly short video segments, computed in advance, which the viewer of the installation could call up using a touchscreen. The video segments contain complex animations of imaginary plants (and one or two animals) “evolved” by software McCormack wrote for the purpose. The DVD contains a number of the sequences. Universal Zoologies also had precomputed video sequences, but as part of a more complex installation involving other projections and a computer-generated conversation, and the sequences on the DVD were only visible when wearing special glasses. I think that the information on the DVD does not give any real idea of this work, whereas some of the animations from Turbulence are really striking.


The other two works are more unified, each consisting of a single generative process. Eden is a simulated ecosystem populated by virtual creatures which can move around, prey on each other, mate, and evolve over time. The creatures make sounds, and in time evolve to recognise and make use of the sounds emitted by other creatures. The video element is deliberately simple and quite abstract, so much of the interest is in the sound. The installation is equipped with sensors which can determine approximately where people are standing; creatures which attract people are rewarded with an increased supply of food. Future Garden was intended to be installed in an outdoors part of Federation Square and to look something like a flower bed. It would contain a large cellular automaton under a touch-sensitive glass surface. The automaton would react to touches, but also slowly evolve autonomously. The DVD contains some still images showing how the work would appear in its proposed setting.


These works make use of so-called artificial life techniques. Artificial life as a scientific discipline consists mainly of computer simulations of greatly simplified models of aspects of life, notably evolution, but also growth of animals and plants, cooperative behaviour among ants and humans, and many other things. The triumphant slogan of artificial life is “life as it could be” (Langton 1991). Part of the aim is to gain insight by running “what if” calculations: for instance, what if there were three sexes instead of two? Would there be any evolutionary advantage? McCormack is one of a select group of international artists using the ideas and techniques of artificial life; the recent book by Mitchell Whitelaw (Whitelaw 2004) surveys the field, and includes a discussion of McCormack's work.


Now to the book under review. Firstly, what it is not. It is not a coffee-table book, being in a small format, though quite generously illustrated. It is not a biography, containing only a couple of paragraphs about McCormack himself. It is emphatically not a how-to book, as it contains no technical information at all. The book is in fact an “art monograph”, a series of essays discussing the aesthetic and philosophical implications of McCormack's work. Four of the essays are by McCormack himself, written at various times from 1995 to 2004. In addition there are three more contributions, from Alan Dorin, a long time collaborator, from Jon Bird, an artificial life researcher from the University of Sussex, an institution at which McCormack has worked, and from Annemarie Jonson, an Australian academic and writer on new media. The book is rounded out with brief descriptions of several of McCormack's works, an impressive list of his screenings and exhibitions, a bibliography with more than 20 entries of writings about McCormack's work by other people, a brief glossary, and a combined bibliography for all the essays.


There are several common themes in the essays; I will mention three here. The first is the human alienation from, and destruction of, nature. Human activity has affected every corner of the planet; there is no wilderness any more; city dwellers encounter animals, if at all, in zoos, or, even further distanced, in nature documentaries. Yet we seem to need the natural world. If it is denied us, can generative art provide a fulfilling replacement? Alan Dorin argues cynically that the average viewer will not clearly distinguish between a shot of a blue whale (which is), a reconstruction of a dinosaur (which was), and a creature from Turbulence (which is purely virtual). To a casual eye, they are all “documentary”.


A second theme is that of “emergence”: when the system appears to give more than was put into it; when the results of the system cannot be predicted from knowing the components and interactions. Whatever exactly emergence is (there is no agreed definition), it is sought by artists and artificial-life researchers, but is difficult to achieve. It certainly involves letting go of control. Bird discusses the “evolved radio”, a general purpose circuit which was subjected to an evolutionary process and evolved the unexpected ability to detect radio waves. As McCormack points out, if creative behaviour emerges in artificial systems, would we recognise what the systems create as art? Art-as-it-could-be created by life-as-it-could-be?


The third theme I will mention is that of the sublime (which is related to the other two themes). The sublime in nature is the aestheticisation of fear. A tiger next to us is terrifying; a tiger in a safe environment, such as a safari park, is sublime. Aspects of generative art can be sublime: an out-of-control process whose behaviour, if emergent, is by definition unpredictable, may indeed have frightening aspects. Even the name “artificial life” is alarming. But we know the generative art we are seeing is just coming from a personal computer and a video projector.


There are many other themes, and fascinating asides, in the book. I do feel that by sticking to the “art monograph” format, an opportunity has been missed. I understand that a monograph dealing with a painter, for instance, does not need to discuss paint or brushstrokes in any detail, as most people more or less know what they are. But most people, most artists, and even most computer artists do not understand how generative art functions. I would have liked to have seen on the DVD a segment showing the generative process for one of the creations in Turbulence, giving some of the evolutionary stages, and some examples of the choices that had to be made. I think such a segment would enable a better appreciation of McCormack's remarkable work, which I suspect is undervalued because of a general lack of understanding of the generative process.


Despite this omission, the book is very valuable for anyone who wishes to engage seriously with generative art. The discussion of aesthetic and philosophical issues is important, as it explains to a large extent why anyone would create such artwork in the first place. Get the book for your library!


Langton, Christopher, “Artificial Life”, in 1991 Lectures on Complex Systems, ed. L. Nadel and D. Stein, Addison-Wesley, 1992. Reprinted in The Philosophy of Artificial Life, ed. Margaret A. Boden, Oxford University Press, 1996. This paper is an updated version of one published in Artificial Life: Proceedings of an Interdisciplinary Workshop on the Synthesis and Simulation of Living Systems, ed. C.G. Langton, Addison-Wesley, 1989.


Mitchell Whitelaw, Metacreation: Art and Artificial Life, MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 2004.


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©Gordon Monro 2005.       Last modified: August 13, 2005.
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