Artist and computer scientist Professor William Latham recently gave a TEDx talk on evolutionary art and computers to an audience in Oxford of 1,600. Read on or watch the video below to find out how his work - initially inspired by the exhibits in the Natural History Museum - has developed over the decades. What can we expect to see in years to come as the relationship between science and art continues to develop?
“Jumping back in time to about 1982, I was a student at the Royal College of Art. Whilst all my friends were producing vigorous paintings in the style of Baselitz and Julian Schnabel I was spending a lot of time in the Natural History Museum observing natural forms, such as snake skeletons and butterfly eggs. The natural world is fantastically rich from an artistic point of view,” Professor Latham explains.
“After spending much time in the museum I started to devise my own evolutionary rules, these were simple rules that would tell me as the artist what to draw and I used these rules to produce huge evolutionary charts. Some of these charts were up to 30 feet long. These enormous drawings showed evolutionary variants becoming more complex with each generation. I’d created my own natural system – a humanised version of what I saw in the Natural History Museum."
The work was influenced by fractal maths and by Froebel shape grammars, used by architects and mathematicians at that time. Latham also took influence from American graffiti artists such as Keith Haring, and from Tantric art.
“In my work I’ve looked to the Far East for inspiration rather than contemporary European or American art. As these drawings grew in time, the work coincided with Richard Dawkins’ brilliant work on the Blind Watchmaker, before he got bit side-tracked. I then became a Research Fellow at IBM. I went from art school to corporation, and found myself working in a computer laboratory using mainframe computers and started a long-term collaboration with mathematician Stephen Todd.”
This was an absolutely fundamental phase in Latham’s work: “We had software that could join things together, render them in 3D, and quite quickly we threw away the old evolutionary rules and developed a new set of rules that produced things that looked like animal horns, suggesting strange things that you might find them at the bottom of the sea or strange eggs.
"Fundamentally there was an underlying grammar, and the rules we designed determined the way forms would grow in time. Then our next novel step was to build an evolutionary fruit machine which would take all the numbers, that drive the rules, and randomly change them a little bit and generated hundreds of variant forms. The idea here was that the artist becomes a gardener, interacting with the computer, steering through a vast evolutionary space of possibilities.”
The interface Latham and Todd developed could cross breed and breed between multiple ‘parents’ to evolve extraordinary new forms, in effect an evolution driven entirely by human aesthetics.
“It’s a bit like the Rorschach Ink Blot Test. The viewer perceives what they want in the forms, because the forms have no meaning of their own."
"In effect, by viewing these variants one is sort of exploring a psychological landscape. When I was breeding forms I’d always pick anything that looked a little bit Rococo, a little bit Baroque, anything that looked like a Giger painting. My aesthetic was steering the evolution. Things that looked a little bit paisley, Greek helmets, pumpkins, viruses and other things that appealed to me. These were all evolutionary selection criteria that I was using to pick and breed.
“The world of plants had a massive influence on what I would pick, but also heavy metal imagery. I don’t like heavy metal music at all but the imagery is fantastic so anything that has a kind of heavy metal feel, I’d breed from that one definitely or maybe put it aside to breed from later, or cross-breed with a plant-like form.
“Some of the forms looked like they could be from an alien planet, they’re 3D, you can spin them around, and they’re continually evolving, subtly changing shape.”
More recently he’s been working on a system where the viewer also takes part in the artwork.
“The idea is that in a gallery someone can pick and breed the forms themselves, it doesn’t require my aesthetic, someone can bring their own aesthetic in to the gallery and that will influence the type of forms that they will evolve. The idea is that the artist is not sacrosanct, and the public can actively take part in the works creation. We’re starting to do early work with virtual reality to take this into the VR space. People will be absolutely immersed, surrounded by these 3D forms. Even subtle body movements will change the dynamic of the evolutionary space they’re within.
“Another question I’ve been dealing with recently with my collaborators is, what happens if you completely remove the human from the system? The machine has rules which decide which ones to breed from. A set of variants carry out calculations using a set of aesthetic filters.
“The challenge with this type of approach is that it’s fine if you can mathematically define what the rules are. So artists would often be concerned with such things as balance, size and composition. Because these are mathematical, you can programme them relatively easily. The computer can calculate the numbers. The machine generates the variants, picks the winner, and breeds new variants.”
What Latham and Prof Frederic Leymarie at Goldsmiths and their collaborators have found is that what computers cannot do is recognise forms that have got rich content to the human eye, like griffins or witches’ faces. A computer won’t be able to spot and “reward” forms that look to us like surrealist art, an alien spaceship or a bizarre lizard.
“Maybe this is the area where AI and computer vision really needs to make a breakthrough. It seems you can computerise a certain amount but still the human does have a role. You can’t completely remove the artist or the public from the artwork."
Latham has spent a long time working in laboratories with scientists and more recently, as a professor at Goldsmiths, he’s begun a collaboration with Professor Mike Sternberg, Head of the Bioinformatics Group at Imperial College.
“One of Mike’s PhD students had been a big fan of my work. A lot of the structures that we’re using resemble the way that proteins are bolted together. So this sort of crazy art system for creating evolutionary art forms does have some similarities to the natural world. For example, beta barrel -protein structures have some of visual and geometrical similarity to my horn-web forms.
“Ideally what we’re hoping for is a return to Renaissance art, with artists and mathematicians working together with programmers, engineers, experts in AI, computer vision. This to me is the direction art should take.”
"We have art reduced to a form of real estate"
But what do we have right now? Latham says “we have art reduced to a form of real estate”, driven by auctions and the gallery system “which has at its core a philosophy which says ‘If something sells, it’s good’. It’s about time this system was removed and we finally got back to our roots and started to be truly creative again”.
“The role of the artist in the laboratory is very interesting. There’s a lot of pressure on scientists to be creative, for example the use of statistics has generated a lot of good scientific research rewards but arguably the barrel’s kind of empty right now.
“One of the things I find very interesting when I work with scientists in laboratories, whether it’s at IBM or Imperial College, when you tag something as art it can be very, very, experimental because you’re not hindered by the scientific method. So having an artist in the team, with anything that’s just a bit too experimental, you call it art for a little while, experiment freely and translate back into the science domain later. It’s a really good approach, and one of the benefits of the artist being in a scientific context.
“What is the big picture here? If we’re going to redesign nature, which looks like it’s pretty much on the cards, even if takes a little bit longer than expected, it looks like ethics and aesthetics will play a major key role in that redesign. If artists are going to work with scientists, they already have to be engaged with software and engaged with some of the tools that scientists are using to be able to inject that aesthetic element into their redesign work. They already have to be in the lab.”