Dr Jess Aslan, a professor and musician interested in using machine learning for musical generation, delves into the etymology behind ‘generative’ and how digital artists are engaging in embodied practices with code to find the human in generative systems. Presented in conjunction with our online exhibition Sonic Alchemy, this essay offers a novel take on Joëlle Snaith’s newest audiovisual collection.
“Generative sound is about process, practice, exploration and discovery. By using (and building) code we learn to understand the value systems embedded within it, interfacing various tools to allow them to speak and articulate themselves through the conditions of our ideas.”
This essay has been kindly commissioned by Unit London in parallel to a collection of generative artworks by Joëlle Snaith. I’ve been writing about generative sound for a while now, but this opportunity has prompted me to revisit the origin of the word generative. As always with etymology, the root shapes the context of the term today, and speaks to the societal structures that condition these types of definitions.
Generative – Generare – means to beget, to produce, to breed, to replicate. The definition of the word frequently also appears as to father a son. There’s a lot to unpick here, more than the words I have now. However, to me it provides a space to think about the complicated relationship between generative art and corporates, speaking to the pervasive reach of capitalism into all digital art practices. Digital media of course encapsulates this process of begetting – replication ad infinitum. Through the Slow Cancellation of the Future (1), Mark Fisher articulated digital media’s contribution to a perceived widescale loss of cultural originality, the very means of replication condemning digital artists to recycle old ideas into a simulacrum of creativity through content generation. Certainly this feels relevant regarding recent developments in technology, specifically AI. However, I wish to reflect on contemporary practice related to my understanding of a resistance to this stasis that happens through embodiment. I will examine artist practices which explore, internalise and shape digital tools as much as the tools shape the artist and output.
I have recently observed the word derivative used alongside or in replacement of the word generative in casual conversation regarding creative collaboration with a computer. It’s clearly a topic that sits at the heart of a digital practice. So what is the difference between working in a derivative way and working in a generative way? I would argue intention. And process. This doesn’t have to mean intention regarding outcome. Outcomes are likely a by-product. Intention resides within process, not why but how you are collaborating with machines. The presentation of material, machine washed through an algorithm creates a perceptible manifestation of the artist’s practice, a practice which necessitates probing and exploring the values inherent in the code itself as the means of generation. The iterative cycle that fuels a generative practice resides in the materials and context shaped by an artist, but also what is absorbed when you code or work with code. Donna Haraway might describe this chimera as rejecting the maker/made duality that can be prescribed through tech (2). To let go of the myth of the father (3). In other words, these processes of making are not linear and forms are not imposed but developed.
Before addressing Snaith’s work, I will talk about two artists that consistently speak to experiences of working in the generative space. Dualisms aside, Matt Bismick’s series on anti-hauntology (4) discusses SOPHIE as an artist pushing boundaries of digital tech to an audible and tangible extent. On this point I agree. Her production traverses new musical structures, through extreme processes on audiovisual materials. The tools might have made something that sounded like replication, but in SOPHIE’s hands they didn’t. Faceshopping (5) shows a mastery of the digital form as paradoxical. Aggressive noise combined with a pristine vocal; a video manifesting the absurdity of photoshop tools as a means to achieve the perfect image. In Faceshopping she exploits the spaces between the tools to generate a highly expressive and physical form of Glitch. Lauren Sarah Hayes also explores this blending of the corporeal and the digital through noisy and visceral live performances, melding her body with bespoke software, forming vivid new voices in combination with and augmentation of her own (6).
With Joëlle Snaith’s work, the output as a generative audiovisual collection is an exposition of the artist’s exploration of a curated digital space. Joëlle creates a sound-led environment of audio-reactive methods that fuel themselves through their own data. Through her works we are constantly discovering the human through the code, melting the organic and the digital to form a sensual output that dissolves and morphs into copies of itself.
Generative sound is about process, practice, exploration and discovery. By using (and building) code we learn to understand the value systems embedded within it, interfacing various tools to allow them to speak and articulate themselves through the conditions of our ideas. Pushing and breaking the tools through Glitch still appears a true form of boundary testing, the boundaries being the place where the most can be learnt about the origins of the tools themselves. In a way the tool is important, we need to listen to its grain and expression. Understanding where it has come from and why it was built can be a useful mechanism to facilitate understanding our wider digital landscape. But what makes a work generative rather than a derivative duplication is the most human conditions the artist sets for the digital reproductions.
Dr Jess Aslan
is a musician working in computer assisted music performance and production. Her research focuses on examining the aesthetic implications of computers and their languages in musical composition and performance. She has performed with collectives, bands and as a solo artist across Europe. Her work has been presented at conferences around the world including Sonorities, International Computer Music Conference, International Festival for Innovation in the Performing Arts and Conference in Interdisciplinary Musicianship. Currently she writes and lectures at Goldsmiths College on the generation and facilitation of musical material using machine learning.
1. A presentation of Fisher’s around the topic can be found here.
2. Donna J. Haraway, “A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century,” in Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature (New York: Routledge, 1991), 149-181
3. Beautifully articulated by an excellent series of philosophy podcasts from Stafforshire University
4. Four articles on the topic can be found here
5. Faceshopping by SOPHIE
6. A recent performance of Lauren’s work can be found here. Much more of her work sits on her website