Autonomy, Signature and Creativity

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Paul Brown: Autonomy, Signature and Creativity. In: Dagstuhl Seminar 09291 2009: Computational Creativity: An Interdisciplinary Approach.



One of the key themes that emerged from the formal investigations of art and aesthetics during the 20th century was that of the autonomous artwork. The goal of an artwork that was not just self-referential but also self-creating found renewed vigour in the work of the systems and conceptual artists and especially those who were early adopters of the then-new technology of artificial intelligence (AI). A key problem is that of signature: at what point can we claim that an artwork has its own distinct signature? My own work in this area began in the 1960’s with an early, and in retrospect, naive assumption. At that time art was still based on the concept of engagement with the materiality of the medium. I suggested that using a symbolic language to initiate a process would distance me far enough from the output of that process for it to have the potential of developing its own intrinsic qualities including a unique signature. By the 1990s it had become obvious that this approach had failed. Complementary research in many fields had demonstrated that the signatures of life were robust and strongly relativistic. The myriad bonds that define a signature are embedded in even the simplest symbol system and any attempt to create autonomy by formal construction is unlikely to succeed. During this same period a group of biologically inspired computational methods were revisited after several decades of neglect; evolutionary, adaptive and learning systems suggested a “bottom up” approach to the problem. If it’s not possible to design an autonomous agency then can we instead make a system that evolves, learns for itself and eventually has the potential of displaying autonomy as an emergent property? The DrawBots project is an attempt to apply these computational methods to the problem of artistic autonomy. It is an example of a strong art-science collaboration where all the disciplines involved have a significant investment in the project and its themes.

Extended Abstract


 author =	{Paul Brown},
 title =	{Autonomy, Signature and Creativity},
 booktitle =	{Computational Creativity: An Interdisciplinary Approach},
 year = 	{2009},
 editor =	{Margaret Boden and Mark D'Inverno and Jon McCormack},
 number =	{09291},
 series =	{Dagstuhl Seminar Proceedings},
 ISSN = 	{1862-4405},
 publisher =	{Schloss Dagstuhl - Leibniz-Zentrum fuer Informatik, Germany},
 address =	{Dagstuhl, Germany},
 URL =		{,,_Signature_and_Creativity },
 annote =	{Keywords: Computational creativity, autonomous art, signature}

Used References

Ehrenzweig, Anton, The Hidden Order in Art. A Study in the Psychology of Artistic Imagination, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1967)

2 Lippard, Lucy R., Six Years: The Dematerialization of the Art Object from 1966 to 1972 ... (University of California Press, 1973, 1997)

3 At the time of writing the co-authors, together with Margaret Boden and a number of art historians, are developing a research project that will use formal and computational methods to examine the concept of artistic signature.

4 Whitelaw, Mitchell, ‘The Abstract Organism: Towards a Prehistory for A-Life Art’, Leonardo 34.4, pp. 345-348 (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2001)

Ashby, W. Ross, Introduction to Cybernetics (London: Chapman & Hall, 1956)

Wiener, Norbert, Cybernetics: Or the Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. 1948)

7 Spencer Brown, George, Laws of Form (London: Allen & Unwin, 1969)

8 Kauffman, Louis H. and Francisco J. Varela, Form Dynamics, Journal of Social Biological Structures, Vol. 3, pp. 171-206, 1980

Schöffer, Nicolas, quoted from: – (referenced 15/08/06)

Zivanovic, Alex, maintains a comprehensive website on Ihnatowicz’ work – see (referenced 16/08/2006)

11 Zivanovic, Alex, ‘The Technologies of Edward Ihnatowicz’, in Charlie Gere, Paul Brown, Nick Lambert & Catherine Mason (eds.), White Heat Cold Logic: British Computer Art 1960 – 1980 (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, Leonardo Imprint, to appear)

12 Brown, Paul, private conversation with Edward Ihnatowicz (mid 1970’s)

13 Cohen, Harold, ‘Reconfiguring’, in Charlie Gere, Paul Brown, Nick Lambert & Catherine Mason (eds.), White Heat Cold Logic: British Computer Art 1960 – 1980 (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, Leonardo Imprint, to appear)

14 Reichardt, Jasia, ‘In the Beginning’, in Charlie Gere, Paul Brown, Nick Lambert & Catherine Mason (eds.), White Heat Cold Logic: British Computer Art 1960 – 1980 (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, Leonardo Imprint, to appear)

15 FORTRAN or FORmula TRANslation was an early “high level” language devised for mathematical and scientific applications and it was the first programming language I learned

16 Mason, Catherine, A Computer in the Art Room: the origins of British computer arts 1950-80, (JJG Norfolk, 2008)

17 Beddard, Honor and Douglas Dodds, V&A Pattern: Digital Pioneers, (V&A Publishing, London, 2009)

18 > gallery > timebased – Java Runtime Environment is required

19 Cox, Donna, ‘Renaissance Teams and Scientific Visualization: A Convergence of Art and Science’, Collaboration in Computer Graphics Education: Proceedings SIGGRAPH 88 Educator's Workshop (August 1-5, 1988, pp. 81 – 104)

20 Husbands, Phil and Paul Brown, ‘Not Intelligent by Design’ in Digital Research in the Arts and Humanities: Art Practice, Ashgate, to appear.


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