The Never-ending Artwork

Posted on May 12, 2021 by Arts at MIT

A new online exhibit and film explore iterative and generative processes 

In 1975, artist Sol Lewitt created a list of instructions for drawing red, yellow, and blue lines on a wall. A piece of conceptual art, the wall could be endlessly painted over, and anyone could execute the instructions again to create the piece anew. In this way, the work, Wall Drawing, never ended, but simply assumed new iterations in different locations over time. 

Lewitt’s work is perhaps a forebear to the new online exhibit Generative Unfoldings, featuring fourteen browser-based generative artworks, which appeared as part of the CAST symposium Unfolding Intelligence. For the exhibit, curator Nick Montfort, Professor of Digital Media at Comparative Media Studies/Writing, issued an open call for browser-based works, and the proposals were judged blind. 

“Generative art in the most basic sense could be thought of as art that’s made with code and that is constantly generating or constantly making a new form with itself,” said juror and MIT alum Lauren Lee McCarthy, “So it’s different from a video or an image, where it’s a closed work that you could loop or view multiple times, but it always stays the same. With a generative work, there’s a quality of liveness, where it’s always changing,” Because the works are created with live running software, the piece will always be different each time you see it. 

The resulting works represented an exciting diversity of topics and approaches, spanning a wide range of media and techniques and challenging common ideas about what generative art looks like. The artworks ranged from the poetic to the political, from highly formal pieces to those that tackled social issues, said D. Fox Harrell, Professor of Digital Media & Artificial Intelligence in the Comparative Media Studies Program and Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL), who served as a juror for the show.

Generative Unfoldings is an art exhibit, but also “a free software exhibit that allows people to study, fork, distribute, rework any of the projects that have been done in it,” said Montfort. The way the show features open-source software, says Montfort, is a contrast to some current art world discussions that have focused on buying and selling NFTs. The works appear both as Generative Unfoldings (Screen), an exhibition of in-browser artworks, and as Generative Unfoldings (Code) in an open-source GitHub repository. Making the exhibit open-source builds community, jurors said, and helps to create a more collaborative and inclusive future. “I feel like that’s something that’s really important and unique about this work, compared to something that is a unified material object. It’s something that exists within a community and is also continually building off of each other,” said juror Sarah Rosalena Brady. 

Matthew Ritchie, 2018–21 Dasha Zhukova Distinguished Visiting Artist, similarly drew on such generative approaches for his multi-part transmedia work, The Invisible College. Originally a surrealist on-campus VR experience incorporating the geometry of Sol Lewitt’s terrazzo floor, Bars of Color within Squares (MIT), the project takes as its subject the “invisible college” of MIT: the informal and unseen interactions, discussions, and ideas that form the lifeblood of the institution. “The work visualizes both the information space and the physical space of knowledge production at MIT. What’s masterful about Matthew’s project is how he continuously incorporated the emerging technologies and circumstances he discovered at MIT to create mutating artforms,” said Leila Wheatley Kinney, Executive Director of Arts Initiatives and CAST, “The final iteration, exhibited at the CAST Symposium, even embraced the ghostly presence of a campus evacuated by the pandemic, yet still teeming with intellectual and creative life.” 

The project’s most recent version, The Invisible College: Color Confinement, is a robot-filmed video of mostly empty spaces on the MIT campus, filmed before the shutdown but appearing eerily similar to the vacant campus in mid-March 2020. In the mythopoetic film, a masked figure wanders an apocalyptic empty campus. Figures float in space, slowly circling as if in zero gravity, against a jarring and ethereal soundscape created by Evan Ziporyn and Shara Nova. The film also features animation by Nick Roth, while MIT students Sarah Schwettmann and Chi-Hua Jonny Yu helped create the computer-generated imagery. “Matthew is an amazing collaborator. He constantly makes one aware of unseen connections between ideas and disciplines. The music is literally built on a similar ecology of reclamation,” said Evan Ziporyn, Kenan Sahin Distinguished Professor of Music and Director of CAST. 

Both projects embody the idea of generative unfoldings, using iterative and evolving approaches while leveraging the expressive powers of technology to make sense of the new realities we find ourselves in.  “We need to constantly be including arts and humanities and force the machine to think outside the box. And I feel like this is the perfect moment. People are really starting to be aware of the systems they participate in because of the pandemic, because technology has been the crucial platform for this whole perspective,” said Brady, “I think that’s really important because we are going to have to break the systems in many ways. And art has always done that. And that’s why—because art and technology really do co-evolve with each other.” 

Written by Anya Ventura

Tagged with: CAST symposium, MIT faculty