Ahead of our online Web3 exhibition Uncomputer, presented in collaboration with GrailersDAO, Malte Rauch – the Head of Curation at Glitch Marfa – considers code-based generative systems in relation to the pioneering work of Marcel Duchamp.
As different mediums and movements are brought together through an analysis of randomness and indeterminacy, Rauch deepens our understanding of generative art and offers a fresh lens with which to view the practices of four participating artists.
“Just as poetry suspends the communicative function of language to reveal a different dimension, contemporary generative art exposes the indeterminacy and chance latent in deterministic, code-based systems.”
Randomness emerged as a major theme among early 20th century avant-garde artists, who incorporated aleatory elements in their work to challenge traditional notions of form and composition. Although much of contemporary art from the 1960s onward has deemphasised gestures of indeterminacy, the rise of on-chain generative art invites a revisitation of the theme.
First conceived in 1913, Marcel Duchamp’s 3 Standard Stoppages is the work he himself viewed as his “escape” from traditional artistic norms. And it might be regarded as one of the most exciting explorations of procedural randomness in the last century.
Duchamp meticulously cut three white threads to a metre each and let them fall from an equivalent height onto a prepared canvas. The threads formed unpredictable patterns, which were then secured to the canvas and encased in glass. Later, three wooden pieces were shaped to match the unique contours of these threads, transforming these random shapes into consistent measurement tools.
The work was in part inspired by the writings of Henri Poincaré, who pioneered a conventionalist approach to mathematics. Similar to Poincaré, who questioned if the theorems of Euclidean geometry are merely conventions, albeit non-empirical, Duchamp suspends the metric scheme and mockingly introduces his own system of measurement, which is purely random and subjective.
Rather than adhering to the absolute determinacy of the metric unit, Duchamp’s chance procedure produces an indeterminate phenomenon. By extension, aesthetic norms might be perceived as mere conventions that art can challenge or suspend. In retrospect, Duchamp remarked that the work was meant to “preserve forms obtained through chance, through my chance.”
The attempt to ‘obtain forms through chance’ is at the heart of the work of contemporary artists who utilise code-based generative systems. Similar to Duchamp, they do not create finished works; they create rule-based systems that let forms emerge from chance.
And yet, the essence of code may appear as the very opposite of what Duchamp was exploring with 3 Standard Stoppages. Code is deterministic and the numbers calculated through a deterministic process cannot be truly random. In fact, by definition, a deterministic system involves the absence of chance in the strict sense.
Incidentally, Poincaré was among the first mathematicians who explored chaotic deterministic systems, which are similar to the algorithmic systems used by contemporary generative artists. In generative algorithms, what appears as chance is procedural pseudo-randomness; more precisely, it’s an arbitrarily deterministic event. The random interplay of various hard-coded variables gives rise to unexpected, emergent forms. Despite deterministic code constraining chance within predefined parameters, the immense complexity of these systems ensures its presence.
While predictable in theory, the complexity of these systems makes it impossible to fully imagine or visualise their potential outputs. Put another way, each true work of code-based generative art must preserve the ability to surprise its creator and the audience with unforeseen compositions—ones that seem intentional but remain beyond the artist’s intention.
Just as poetry suspends the communicative function of language to reveal a different dimension, contemporary generative art exposes the indeterminacy and chance latent in deterministic, code-based systems.
The artists assembled in this show are at the forefront of exploring such an ‘other’ use of code and computation. Their works wrest forms from chance, demonstrating that the true place of artistic innovation today is computation.
Kim Asendorf, Monogrid 59, 2021, NFT Video, Unique Original
Kim Asendorf approaches generative art from a deeply conceptual perspective that strikes a balance between order and destruction, favouring the immediacy and rawness of early computer graphics. Stevie P uses a form of irony and meta-commentary truly reminiscent of Duchamp’s memes avant la lettre, like L.H.O.O.Q.
Emily Xie is reimagining modernist montage aesthetics through procedural randomness.
Mathcastles’ work presents one of the most ambitious engagements with the ‘medium specificity’ of decentralised computation, creating works that could not exist in any other form.
Malte Rauch ( twitter: maltefr ) is the Head of Curation at Glitch Marfa, a gallery dedicated to blockchain-based art in Marfa, Texas. In addition to this, he works as an independent advisor for projects at the intersection of art and crypto. Previously, he was the Head of Strategic Partnerships at Bright Moments and Director of a contemporary art gallery in Berlin.