Once in an art class at cal arts our teachers, Sara Roberts and Hillary Kapan, told us we were going to play a game to get to know each other better. There were about 15 students, and they divided us up into two groups and gave us some simple rules:
• Sit in a circle.
• Look at the person to the right of the person (or space) directly across from you.
• Do exactly what that person does; otherwise do nothing.
That might not sound like a very interesting game, and it’s not clear what’s supposed to happen. Many of us were skeptical; how were we supposed to get to know each other by sitting around doing nothing? We weren’t even making eye contact, since following the second rule ensures that no two people are looking at each other.
In fact, in one group, nothing did happen. They stared at the sides of each other’s faces, bored, dutifully doing the nothing they’d been instructed to do, wondering what all of this had to do with the “integrated media” seminar they’d signed up for.
The group I was in, however, seemed to be playing an entirely different game. After a minute or two of sitting quietly, someone shifted in a chair, or scratched a nose, or maybe just blinked. I wasn’t looking at that person, so I didn’t see exactly what happened. All I remember is that suddenly a gesture went zipping around the circle. The woman across from me scrunched up her face, so I scrunched up mine. A moment later she grunted, so I grunted too. In a few seconds the scrunch came back, but now it was a full body scrunch/grimace/hunching action. Followed, of course, by an elaborate grunt/heehaw/raspberry. Each action was amplified and modulated as it made its way along the zigzag path around the circle, each person reacting a bit differently, some hamming it up, others playing it cool, some reacting right away, others taking a while to process what they’d seen and heard.
The simple rules set up a feedback loop, and like many feedback loops, the signals in ours were folding back on themselves and starting to squeal. Before long people were jumping up and down, standing on chairs, shouting, contorting their faces and bodies, doing little dances, in general having a grand time. Meanwhile the other group sat idly, wondering what in the world had gotten into us. After a while they gave up on their own circle, and started watching ours; the simple “get to know you” game had turned into a full-blown performance.
Roberts and Kapan, having played this trick before, knew that something interesting would happen. They didn’t know what, exactly, but they knew it would be fun and it would get us thinking about simple systems as generators of complex, often surprising behaviors. Lots of artists have used games, rule sets, algorithms, processes, and procedures as ways to generate new materials or explore novel situations. You don’t know what you’ll get, and sometimes you’ll get nothing much, but giving up a little control can be a powerful creative technique.
Many artists have used text-based instructions or scores to explore algorithmic art-making ideas. Some of the most compelling are concise. La Monte Young’s Composition 1960 No. 10 consists of a single instruction: “Draw a straight line and follow it.” Sol LeWitt’s many Wall Drawing pieces are a bit more involved, but not much; #65 is: “Lines not short, not straight, crossing and touching, drawn at random, using four colors, uniformly dispersed with maximum density, covering the entire surface of the wall.” Composers and musicians get in on the action as well; Yoko Ono’s “Voice Piece for Soprano” suggests various ways of screaming, while Christian Wolff’s “Stones” encourages players to “draw sounds out of stones” and ends with the request: “Do not break anything.”
Text-based instructions for making drawings or music are cool, but what about instructions for making instructions? Larry Polansky’s Four Voice Canon #13 (“DIY Canon”) is just that, a kind of second-order music-making system. From Polansky’s description:
The four-voice canons are a set of pieces I have been working on since around 1976. #13 (“DIY Canon”) is intended as a general template for making new four-voice canons: a kind of meta-canon. This “score” (#13) describes the ideas behind the previous canons (permutation lists, mensuration canons, heterophony), and suggests ideas for future ones. It is a how-to manual, a technical description, and an invitational “cookbook” for performers and composers to make their own pieces.
Sometimes, rather than defining a new algorithm and using it to generate materials, artists work with data or artifacts that are the result of some pre-existing process. Rachel Beth Egenhoefer recorded the moves in a game of Chutes and Ladders and then used bubble gum, lollipops, and string to turn the game play into sculpture. I once saw a very beautiful, and seemingly abstract, geometric sculpture/painting by Candy Jernigan: a board covered with small, colorful plastic caps arranged in clumps with a grid in the center. On closer inspection I discovered the caps were from crack vials that Jernigan had found during walks in her neighborhood. The grid was a map of the surrounding blocks, and the caps were placed on the board according to where they were found.
Often the goal isn’t to make a thing at all, but to have an experience or create an interesting situation. At “psychogeography” events like the recent Conflux Festival in Brooklyn, N.Y., participants often use games or systems to explore unfamiliar parts of a city or find new ways of appreciating familiar ones. Mary Flanagan introduced Mapscotch, a combination of hopscotch and mapmaking used to explore social issues in public spaces. And Christian Croft and Kate Hartman introduced the Energy Harvesting Dérive, a pair of Heelys roller sneakers with a wheel-driven generator and two light-up arrows that generate random turning instructions. Sneakers for getting lost!Related