The Role of Generative Art in Performance

The aim of this essay is to outline the area I would like to explore for my final year project. This will include a discussion of the relevant stakeholders, the human and non-human actors and their politics as well as a review of the potential issues I wish to investigate.

I am particularly excited by the role interactive media can play in the domain of theatre performance. Although there already exist several explorations into the area, for the most part, interactive systems are, to my mind, very much under utilised. The intersection between theatre and generative art is something that especially appeals to me. To further this discussion, an account of both of these areas is needed, followed by a discussion of some relevant artists.

Theatre and Performance

When you see something performed in a theatre, the experience is unique. The individual nuances and delivery are exclusive to the specific expression of the play you witness. A subsequent performance carries with it its own set of idiosyncrasies. This is a strength that theatre holds over film for example, where although repeat viewings might reveal a deeper meaning, the film itself is static and frozen in time. Performances, by contrast, are ephemeral and alive. Central to the experience is the relationship between the performer and the audience. This immediate and personal connection gives theatre its intimate quality. I am interested in interactive systems that emphasise and reinforce these ephemeral qualities.

The idea of an expanded or augmented theatre is nothing new. The Bauhaus advocated an approach to theatre that aimed to integrate technology with performance. Lazlo Moholy-Nagy wrote that the “theatre of totality, with its multifarious complexities of light, space, plane, form, motion, sound, man - and with all the possibilities for varying and combining these elements - must be an organism”.[1] This appraisal alludes to the transient, organic nature of performance with multiple actors assembling in configurations that are never quite repeated.

Generative Art

Generative art refers to any art practice where the artist uses a system, such as a computer program, a machine, or other procedural invention, which is set into motion with some degree of autonomy contributing to or resulting in a completed work of art.[2] The defining aspect of this approach is the use of an autonomous system for the creation of artwork. This opens up exciting possibilities when considered in terms of performance. Generative art provides a framework upon which to augment the actions of a performer. Information gathered from the performance can be used to influence the direction and evolution of the generative artwork. In this way, sound, image, and movement are interpreted and manipulated freely in a dynamic performance. This signals a shift from artists offering predetermined content to the user, to being able to offer facilities for generation of content.

Generative systems often appear chaotic. However, chaos in this case does is not the same as random. Natural chaotic systems may be difficult to predict but they will still exhibit structure that is different than purely random systems.[3] In his paper on Generative Art, Philip Galanter draws on the analogy of weather to expand on this point. “Even though it is difficult to predict the specific weather 6 months from now, we can be relatively sure it won't be 200 degrees outside, nor will we be getting 30 feet of rain on a single day, and so on. The weather exists within some minimum and maximum limits, and those expectations are a sort of container for all possible weather states.”[4]

Relevant Artists

It is useful for the purposes of this discussion to examine some relevant artists who adopt generative art principles. These approaches form a useful framework upon which to explore my final project.

Joshua Davis

Joshua Davis is a graphic designer and new media artist. Using generative art principles, Davis creates intricate and chaotic images. In the process of doing so he takes on three roles: programmer, artist and critic. Firstly, he sets about writing a program that dictates the boundaries of the system. Secondly he sets about illustrating the assets required for the artwork. And lastly, he runs the system over and over; examining various permutations of the artwork until he settles on one he is satisfied with. So rather than build up the artwork piece by piece, he designs a system, guided by a set of rules and constraints, whereby the artwork effectively creates itself. In doing so, he embraces randomness and chance while waiting for the right accident to happen.

In a paper entitled ‘The Art of Flow’, Davis stated that he “once read in some essays by Jackson Pollock that he considered himself a painter, though at times the brush never hit the canvas. Similarly, I would consider myself a traditional artist, though I have no control over what my programs ("machines") output. I program the paints, the brushes, the canvas, the strokes, the rules and boundaries. However, it is the machine that outputs the compositions, and I, the artist, am in a constant state of surprise and discovery, because the machine may structure forms that I had never thought of to execute.”[5]

Figure 1 The Generative Artwork of Joshua Davis

Brian Eno

Brian Eno is an English musician and composer concerned with making ambient and generative music. In a talk prepared for Imagination Conference, he describes his approach to composition. Eno outlines how generative music is sensitive to circumstances, reacting differently depending on its initial condition and on where it is happening. He describes how classical music, by contrast, seeks a neutral battleground. It is not comfortable with environmental factors outside of its control.[6] Eno believes that basic forms of generative music have existed for a long time. He describes how wind chimes are a good example, where the only compositional control you have over the music they produce is in the original choice of notes that the chimes will sound.

Referring to authorship in generative music, he goes on to say how “there's not a single chain of command which runs from the top of the pyramid to the rank and file below. There are many, many, many web-like modes which become more or less active. You might notice the resemblance here to the difference between broadcasting and the Internet, for example.”[7] Eno talks about moving away from the idea of the composer as someone who creates a complete image and then steps back from it. He prefers the idea of putting in motion a system and letting it make music for you. He goes on to raise the question of whether the resulting musical output may even be considered a composition if its exact constituents are in a constant state of fluctuation. He says that future generations will look back and wonder why we used to listen to same thing over and over again.

Figure 2 Brian Eno speaking about Generative Composition

David Rokeby

David Rokeby is an electronic artist and pioneer of early interactive art. A large body of his work is focused on interactive pieces that directly engage the human body. He is also interested in the creation of interactive artworks that transcend the control of the programmer.[8] The notion of giving up the author’s authority is an interesting constraint also evident in his work.

His early work Very Nervous System has the aim of translating physical gestures into real-time interactive sound environments. A computer observes the physical gestures of human bodies through a video camera. It translates them into an improvised music directly related to the qualities of the movements themselves in real-time. This creates a direct and visceral relationship between body, sound, space and technology.[9]

In his essay ‘Transforming Mirrors’ he argues that, for a conventional artist, "the act of realizing a work is a process of progressively narrowing the range of possibilities by a series of creative choices until one of the possible has been manifested in the finished work." He contrasts this approach with "the interactive artist [who] decides at some point in this process not to choose from among the remaining possibilities but to create some sort of audience-actuated choosing mechanism."[10] However, an issue that arises when examining his work is that novel means of user participation, like the ones he employs, tend to undermine reflection and critical distance in favor of direct sensual stimulation and the magic of technical effects. There is a danger that interactive art of this kind is just another form of entertainment “trading contemplation against involvement and immediacy, cognitive against physical engagement.”[11]

Interestingly, Rokeby feels that the creation of an interface carries with it a certain social responsibility. He suggests that interfaces leave imprints on our perceptual systems which we carry out into the world. He describes how after spending some time interacting with his Very Nervous System installation, which strongly reinforces a sense of connection with the surrounding environment, he feels connected to the world around him even by simply walking down the street. He explains how nearby events seem directly related to his movements and how he feels implicated in every action around him.[12] This is an important aspect to consider when thinking about developing interactive art systems.

Figure 3 David Rokeby interacting with Very Nervous System


We can extract from the discussion of these artists a number of relevant issues concerning generative art systems.


A salient issue that emerges when considering the practices of these artists is the question of authorship. They simply outline the scope within which a visual or auditory experience takes place. Its individual characteristics are the a result of the systems interaction with a participant. This dialogue is organic and constantly evolving. In this way, generative systems support the construction of experience by building a collaborative relationship between flexible systems and human actors operating within them. The politics of these artifacts are also of significance since this approach tends toward an almost democratic distribution of authorship between multiple actors.


The role of the user is also called into question in an interactive artwork. Generative art can provide a means to overcome the paradigm of passive consumption and empower the user. However, it is important that the user is not prevented from engaging critically with the artwork.

Also, If the artwork were mediated by a performer rather than a user, would be possible to include data gathered from aspects of the audience to inform an interactive artwork? Should the role of the audience be passive or active?


The role of the interface is also important in this context of interactive art. The issue raised by David Rokeby about the social responsibility of the interface would be intriguing to explore further. Also relevant is Mark Weiser’s vision of ubiquitous computing. His view is that computers should become part of our unconscious environment, adapting themselves to our existing behaviour. An interactive artwork seeking to augment a performance would have to adapt to the actions of the performer.


Over the course of this essay I have looked at a number of artists who leverage principles of generative art in their work. They are concerned with the creation of experiences that are unique and individual. They seek to relinquish their control to chance, chaos and coincidence. Various human and non-human actors perform roles in artworks of this kind. Light, space, motion, sound and people come together to create experiences that are temporal and fleeting. By exploring the process by which these artists seek to create image, sound and experience, as well as a discussion of some of the emerging issues that are raised, a solid foundation is laid for further investigation.

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[1] Drupas, M., Verity Smith, P., Hattosh-Nemeth, J. (2003) Beyond the mechanical stage-hand: Towards an Aesthetic of real-time Interaction between Musicians, Dancers and Performers and Generative Art in Live Performance [online] Generative Art International Conference <> [Accessed Dec 2011].
[2] Galanter, P. (2003) What is Generative Art? Complexity Theory as a Context for Art Theory [pdf] Available at: <> [Accessed Dec 2011].
[3] Galanter, P. (2003) What is Generative Art? Complexity Theory as a Context for Art Theory [pdf] Available at: <> [Accessed Dec 2011].
[4] Galanter, P. (2003) What is Generative Art? Complexity Theory as a Context for Art Theory [pdf] Available at: <> [Accessed Dec 2011].
[5] Davis, Joshua. (2003) ‘The Art of Flow’ Siggraph ’03
[6] Eno, Brian (1996) Generative Music, Imagination Conference, San Francisco. Transcript available: <> [Accessed Dec 2011].
[7] Eno, Brian (1996) Generative Music, Imagination Conference, San Francisco. Transcript available: <> [Accessed Dec 2011].
[8] Rokeby, D. (2002) Very Nervous System and the Benefit of Inexact Control Interview, Transcript available: <> [Accessed Dec 2011].
[9] Very Nervous System, (1991). Rokeby, D. [video] Available at: <> [Accessed Dec 2011].
[10] Rokeby, D. (2002) ‘Transforming Mirrors: Subjectivity and Control in Interactive Media’
[11] Rokeby, D. (2002) ‘Very Nervous System and the Benefit of Inexact Control’ Interview, Transcript available: <> [Accessed Dec 2011].
[12] Rokeby, D. (1998) ‘The Construction of Experience: Interface as Content’