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chance art

[a.k.a. probabilistic / stochastic / aleatoric art]

From the earliest days of algorithmic art, the probabilistic approach to art generation has been very popular. Its modus operandi can be summarized as follows: (1) a space of possibilities is defined in explicit, mathematical terms; (2) a probability distribution is defined over this space; (3) an algorithm is executed which draws random samples from the space, in accordance with the probability distribution.

The idea of chance-based art was first broached in the early twentieth century by Lewis Carroll, Marcel Duchamp, and Tristan Tzara. Its consistent application was pioneered in the 1950's by Ellsworth Kelly, François Morellet and John Cage; it was continued by a large number of artists which includes Mark Boyle, Karl-Otto Götz, Jackson Mac Low, Kenneth Martin, Manfred Mohr, Frieder Nake, Georg Nees, A. Michael Noll, Peter Struycken, Zdenek Sykora, Herman de Vries, and Ryszard Winiarski.

grids      Random Grids.

scatters      Random Scatterings.

lines      Random Lines.

boyle      Random samples from the surface of the earth.

quotes      Quotes about Chance Art

chance      Chance

quotes      Quotes about Chance

To add: Random Photographs (De Vries; Müller-Pohle? Winogrand?)

Different approaches to probabilistic art

Random Sampling

The computer may be used to make abstract art at a new level of abstraction. One may implement formal definitions of visual styles, and then use chance operations to sample pieces within that style. This was done, for instance, by Martin, Mohr, Nake, Nees and Sykora; Noll's Mondriaan simulation is another obvious instance. The best representative of this approach is perhaps Harold Cohen's program-sequence AARON, which was developed somewhat later and is significantly more complex.

Programs of this sort are sometimes viewed as models of a human artist. Because it is the role of the random sampling operation to create a certain amount of unpredictability within the program's style, this operation may then be viewed as the locus of "creativity" (Nees, 1969) or the placeholder for "intuition" (Nake, 1974). This is misleading; real variety and unpredictability depend on the complexity of the program's style.

Celebrating Chance

Several artists made work which does not merely employ random sampling operations, but uses chance in a more prominent role: to avoid choice and to symbolize arbitrariness. Work of this sort is created by drawing random samples from very elementary spaces (all possible grids, all possible dot configurations, all possible line configurations), or from spaces which themselves were chosen at random. Examples are Duchamp's Erratum Musical, Morellet, Cage and De Vries. Technically, such work is "algorithmic art". Content-wise, it is close to the traditions of the readymade and the monochrome. All of the artists just mentioned also made non-probabilistic work which shows this: Duchamp invented the readymade, and emphasized how the choice of his readymades was "based on a reaction of visual indifference with at the same time a total absence of good or bad taste ... in fact a complete anesthesia" (Duchamp, 1961). One of Morellet's favorite themes is the empty grid. Cage wrote silent pieces (4'33", 0'00"), and lectured on "Nothing". De Vries painted white monochromes and published an empty book.

The intrinsic connection between chance art and the monochrome is well-known from Information Theory textbooks: for human perception, strictly uniform patterns and strictly random patterns provide similarly boring, almost indistinguishable experiences; total order and total disorder are equivalent. For instance: randomly colored grids are perceptually indistinguishable from each other. If the cells of a random black-and-white grid are sufficiently small, it looks uniformly colored: grey.

Many chance-artists made very similar-looking pieces. The content of such pieces may nonetheless be radically different: Kelly's work is about perception; Morellet is ironically philosophical ("esprit"); Cage and De Vries used chance in an almost figurative way, evoking nature; Struijcken is concerned with objectivity (being right).

Art after the End of Art

To be aware of art history as a meaningless process of stylistic innovation, and yet to be part of that tradition, implies the desire to make a qualitatively different step: to not just add a few more styles, but to transcend the whole process. (Constructive postmodernism.) An unusually explicit articulation of this an ambition is the idea of the "arbitrary artwork" – the piece which is sampled at random from the space of all possible artworks, without any subjective aesthetic decisions.

Hard-core chance art as pioneered by Morellet and De Vries (random grids etc.) does not carry out this idea, but it symbolizes it. That was a necessary first step. To actually produce random artworks requires a long-term scientific research project: to develop an explicit analytical description of the space of all possible artworks, not in terms of pixel grids, but in terms of Gestalt structures as perceived by human observers. The IAAA project Artificial is a modest attempt in this direction. [Cf. Scha (1988), Harry (1992), Van Weelden (1994), Scha (1998), Scha (2001).]



Gottfried Boehm: "Zur Analyse eines künstlerischen Problems bei F. Morellet." In Exhibition Catalogue François Morellet, Nationalgalerie Berlin, 1977.

Kristin Brenneman: Chance in Art, 1994.

John Cage: "Experimental Music." (1957) In: Silence. Lectures and Writings by John Cage. Middletown, Connecticut: Wesleyan University Press, 1973, pp. 7 - 12.

John Cage: "Lecture on Nothing." Incontri Musicali, August, 1959.

Michael Challinor: "Change, chance and structure: randomness and formalism in art." Leonardo 4 (1971), pp. 1-11.

Ya-Ling Chen: Erratum Musical, Tout-Fait, Vol. 1, nr. 1 (December 1999).

Marcel Duchamp: "Erratum Musical." In: Michel Sabouillet and Elmer Peterson (eds.): The Essential Writings of Marcel Duchamp. London: Thames and Hudson, 1975.

Marcel Duchamp: Apropos of 'Readymades'. Lecture at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, October 19, 1961. Published in: Art and Artists, 1, 4 (July 1966).

Thierry de Duve: Au nom de l'art. Pour une archéologie de la modernité. (Paris: Les Éditions de Minuit, 1989), p. 118.

Huge Harry: "On the Role of Machines and Human Persons in the Art of the Future." Pose 8 (September 1992), pp. 30-35.

Dick Higgins: Computers for the Arts. Somerville, Mass.: Abyss Publications, 1968/1970. [Including "Hank and Mary" by Dick Higgins, and "Proposition No. 2 for Emmett Williams" by Alison Knowles.]

François Morellet: "Pour une peinture expérimentale programmée." (1962). In Exhibition Catalogue François Morellet, Nationalgalerie Berlin, 1977.

François Morellet: "Du spectateur au spectateur ou l'art de déballer son pique-nique." (1971) In Exhibition Catalogue François Morellet, Nationalgalerie Berlin, 1977.

François Morellet: "Avertissement." (1972) In Exhibition Catalogue François Morellet, Nationalgalerie Berlin, 1977.

Mihai Nadin: "Alea iacta est."

Frieder Nake: Ästhetik als Informationsverarbeitung. Grundlagen und Anwendungen der Informatik im Bereich ästhetischer Produktion und Kritik. (Vienna/New York: Springer Verlag, 1974), p. 53.

Georg Nees: Generative Computergraphik (Berlin/Munich: Siemens AG, 1969), p. 49.

Remko Scha: "Artificial Art." Informatie en Informatiebeleid 6, 4 (1988), pp. 73-80.

Remko Scha: "Readymades, Artificial Art, New Media." In: Annette W. Balkema and Henk Slager (eds.): Exploding Aesthetics. L&B Series of Philosophy of Art and Art Theory, Vol. 16. Amsterdam & Atlanta: Rodopi, 2001, pp. 40-47.

Remko Scha: "Towards an Architecture of Chance." In: Hans Konstapel, Gerard Rijntjes and Eric Vreedenburgh (eds.): De Onvermijdelijke Culturele Revolutie. (The Hague: Stichting Maatschappij en Onderneming, 1998), pp. 105-114.

herman de vries: wit. arnhem: m.j. israel, 1962.

herman de vries: "Random Objectivations." In: Revue Nul=0, 2 (1963), pp. 34-35.

Dirk van Weelden: "An ideal, a name, an explorer", Perspektief 47/48, Digital Issue(s) (June 1994), pp. 42-51.




Remko Scha, 2002/2006