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MetacreationReview - Metacreation
Art and Artificial Life
by Mitchell Whitelaw
MIT Press, 2004
Review by Martin Hunt
Oct 29th 2004 (Volume 8, Issue 44)

Metacreation is a very interesting book. It provides a survey of how a number of artists in the 1990's used the technologies that grew out of various scientific disciplines that have been studying the processes of life by simulating them on computers. Rather than study nature, these studies study artificial life, or a-life.

A-life is a part of a significant and controversial extension of the scientific method. Since Newton science has used sophisticated mathematics to create simplified models of reality; models that are simple enough to be understood because they strip away irrelevant detail. For instance, Newton came to understand orbital mechanics by reducing whole planets to "centers of gravity" whose trajectories could be predicted by his calculus. This approach has an undoubted power; and yet it has its limits. Many natural processes, from the turbulence in a river to the processes of life cannot be modeled with such mathematical tools -- no matter how sophisticated.

The advent of computers opened a new way of creating sophisticated models. Computer programs could be written that simulated the behavior of systems that could not be modeled by calculus. For instance, the processes of evolution and genetics could be simulated in this way. It was from these roots that studies of a-life grew.

The techniques of a-life generate endless supplies of visual material.  This visual material has caught the attention of many artists. The material is not only visual in the sense of images on a computer screen.  A-life lends itself as well to robotic implementation that is of interest to both sculptors and installation artists. Metacreation provides a survey of the work of a number of artists who have been inspired by these concerns.

The work surveyed covers a broad range. Some of the artists are concerned with generating works on paper. Others are interested in creating interactive video environments. Rooms full of networked robotic arms hanging from the ceiling that interact with each other and viewers are discussed. So are tickling machines.

Whitelaw provides a wide-ranging survey of a-life art. He discusses many artists, and also presents a survey of critical thinking in this area.  The reader is warned though that the language of this book is artspeak with horns on. Artspeak is the jargon of academic art criticism and analysis. It is often difficult to understand. Regrettably, the resultant obscurity is often used to disguise very shallow thinking.  Many of the artists that Whitelaw discusses seem to have this flaw -- they seek to validate pretty unengaging work with essays of profound seeming obscurity. Your reviewer is pleased to report that Whitelaw himself seems not to share this flaw. Whenever his more difficult passages have been parsed, dictionary in hand, Whitelaw has always made sense.

 

© 2004 Martin Hunt

 

Martin Hunt is an artist living and working in Vancouver, Canada. His work is inspired by math and science. Lately he's been indulging an interest in evolutionary theory and its relation to consciousness.


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