Calculation in Art: The Inconspicuous Heuristics of Computation

Judson Wright, Pump Orgin, New York, USA


How might computers, as tools for automatic execution of formal boolean logic, as opposed to their popular use as rote presentation appliances for presenting various pre-packaged media, be integrated into art? Though the latter use may only yield discussion relevant to a subset of media theory, and we have no argument in or with that forum, the former represents a fundamental inquiry regarding cognition, perception, biology, mathematics, and anthropology, which applies to a far broader issue that bleeds across to far more disciplines of study. The direct approach, algorithmically generating modal events, is hardly sufficient. It is the well-known, but hardly ever analyzed basis of the Turing test. As an example, computers taking input from distinct biosensors tend to create what can be called “cat-walking-on-the-piano” music. This is not to say that an individual cannot come to develop an appreciation for such an aesthetic, but merely that our species seem to be equipped with a general organic art-ness detecting sense.

keywords: cognition, Constructivism, development, modeling, perception

This depicts our triadic relationship with computers.  The computer has no sense of its own holism, its mechanical parts, or its own behavior.  As a middle, fairly optional, part of a three-step process, the computer can only aspire to indirectly encourage the rudiments of meaning within cooperating human minds.
This depicts our triadic relationship with computers. The computer has no sense of its own holism, its mechanical parts, or its own behavior. As a middle, fairly optional, part of a three-step process, the computer can only aspire to indirectly encourage the rudiments of meaning within cooperating human minds.


Both practices, the use of computers and the experience of art, are generally exploitations of perceptual gestalt rules. Yet gestalt can be applied much more deeply, through metaphor, to conceptualization. These gestalt rules, which allow our species to both perceive and enjoy the use of our bloated pre-frontal cortices, are products of Evolution. But can we say that the current results are optimizations of our design? With evolutionary competition as a model, beginning with number theory and the Turing machine (Ash, 1965; Shannon & Weaver, 1940; Turing, 1936), and culminating in the weighting of options that is fundamental to neural networking schemes (Adbi, Valentin, & Edelman, 1999; Sporns, 2011), the computer is implemented as a means of optimization. Optimization is somewhat synonymous with a common approach to computation. However, deep in the background of this underlying theoretical approach, remains the implication that Evolution itself is a means of optimizing individual species. It is not (Bjorklund & Pellegrini, 2001). It is a means of optimizing systems (relative to the current state of other systems)—not instances.

To this end, we will be discussing computer programs which tease apart aesthetic sensory experiences, of what is described as an objet d’art (i.e. embodied by recognizable media)—from cognitive effects, of which art-ness (in a much wider variety of forms) is a byproduct. As this certainly bears further explanation. Suffice it to say, these works are not intended to be conclusive of a hypotheses, but initial indicators answering what exactly is to be investigated. The former paradigm might be likened to aiming at an elusive target, while the later is more akin to turning on the lights before entering an unfamiliar room. However, there is a more fundamental obstacle.

This division of labor [between scientific fields] is … popular: Natural scientists deal with the nonhuman world and the “physical” side of human life, while social scientists are the custodians of human minds, human behavior, and, indeed, the entire human mental, moral, political, social, and cultural world. Thus, both social scientists and natural scientists have been enlisted in what has become a common enterprise: the resurrection of a barely disguised and archaic physical/mental, matter/spirit, nature/human dualism, in place of integrated scientific monism. (Tooby and Cosmides, 1992, p. 49)

Sarah Shettleworth (1998) makes an important point about cognition in nonhuman animals, that whatever their available behavioral and motor features, these mental abilities only tend to be idiosyncratic strategies the organism uses given its own embodied resources, rather than any reflection of the degree of that organism’s comprehension of the environment. There is no ideal vantage point from which to observe the universe. It must be taken as a premise on faith, that a world beyond the mind exists, roughly in the way humans describe it to themselves as conceptual metaphor (Feldman, 2008; Lakoff and Johnson, 1980). So too we humans must appreciate the effects of being human on our interpretations of our art and our computers.

This is no simple matter. We highlight a subtle distinction between physical properties (and the possible organization thereof), and the inconsistent detection of such physical dynamics by human sensory systems, as rendered within the Cartesian theater of the detector’s mind (as it is discussed in Dennett, 1991). That humans so easily confuse these two entities, that they are so often only considered as a single phenomenon, is ultimately essential to the utility of the computer, and coincidentally as well as art (this subtle distinction for art was recognized in Dewey, 1935).

Actually, this coincidence may be rather trivial. We are designed to overlook this slight discrepancy, and, in turn, design artifacts to accommodate this idiosyncrasy (as discussed in Deacon, 1997; see also Greve 2013). We do not experience the word objectively, rather the protocol/medium between mind and body is affect (to site various domains Clancey, 2005; Cobb, 2005; Grafton & Cross, 2008; Hohenberger, 2011; Lakoff & Núñez, 2000; LeDoux, 2002), subject to—or perhaps shared in the common adherence with—gestalt and grouping (regarding nonhuman animal linguistics, see Cheney, 1984; Seyfarth, 1984). Our species developed its complex processes of perception and conceptualization in response to evolutionary pressures (Herrero, 2005). One conspicuous byproduct of these features is art. Moreover, inventions of mechanical prosthetic devices, from the wheel to the computer, are ultimately embodied artifacts of those very same cognitive processes. We invent machines to satisfy our species-specific needs in this respect, and not to answer to an unknowable, ultimate objective perspective. It would be perhaps more accurate to say that the construction and employment of any technology (including paint brushes and the piano) is art, an expression of this creative impulse.

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