Category Archives: art

Beyond Skin Deep


What is "art science" anyway? An artistic approach to doing, or representing, science? Let's say that the science is biology or astronomy. An artistic approach might be to create new media, or highly creative, representations of dividing cells or nebula. But I'd like to go beyond the surface, beyond being "skin deep." Most science is formalized in mathematical structure. Even formerly descriptive sciences such as biology are increasingly mathematical (e.g., systems biology, bioengineering). Can the mathematics, or the computing behind these formal structures, be constructed and sensed in an artistic way while preserving the core internal mathematical relationships? Can the abstract ideas of accumulation, difference, or iteration be felt, be heard, be seen? In an artistic way--with multiple representations, sensing the mental abstraction in personal ways? A bunch of us got together in 2002 in the beautiful hills of southwestern Germany with this in mind and created a one page Aesthetic Computing manifesto. [Credit for image: Metal Skin by Rómulo Royo, 2008].

Dream Models


I recall first seeing this image in a science museum - the Boston Museum of Science if I recall, in their wonderful Model Section. The image is Fritz Kahn's mechanical model of digestion. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) has a special exhibit celebrating the different views and perspectives of the body in an exhibit called Dream Anatomy. This design belongs to the history of automata, and adds some new twists in its detailed anatomical representation. Fritz Kahn, the designer, produced a variety of creative infographics for  the relationship of man to machine-- "Maschine Mensch"

Computing's Split Personality


What has two personalities and sits on your desk? A computer. To do in your spare time: search for the word "automata" in an image-based search. You'll probably see some crafty wooden machines and then a few odd looking diagrams with circles and letters. This is the split-personality surfacing. Prior to 1950 the word automaton, and the word computer, either meant a human being (who computed) or an analog machine. This is not strictly true because, for example, Babbage's 19th century engine designs were digital; however, up to World War II, analog computing was in wide use making digital computers relative newcomers. In the above image, on the left we have a deterministic finite state machine represented as a diagram. On the right, one of Cabaret Mechanical Theatre's inventions (Pirate Panic). Pirate Panic is driven by an analog computer, and like most analog computers, it solves a formula resulting in a continuum of states. Thankfully, the formula is most entertainingly realized with a Pirate and an Octopus. So, will the real automaton come forward? Both are valid automata and the divergence of types could be covered adequately only in a book. The short story is that the mathematical theory of automata proceeded in one direction, and the analog variety lives on in disciplines that rely on "signals and systems" which interestingly enough, means some computer music interfaces and languages in addition to the Pirate.

The Art of Machines


Machines as art. It seems a bit odd to ponder it in today's world. But, that is because as a society, we have lost touch with the past. It is only very recently in our history that we have come to associate art with art museums and with the business of buying and selling art for outrageous prices. The Greek word techné, meaning "skill" or "craft" in modern parlance, originally captured art's meaning. Artists were craftspeople, and through their intense labor, they made beautiful objects of enduring cultural and historical value. Now, we have fine art. What does that mean? As pointed out in the fine art Wiki, "The separation of arts and crafts that exists in Europe and the United States is not shared by other cultures." So, there is an apparent schism between those who produce something useful and those who, according to the Wiki, produce something that "has been created primarily for aesthetic and intellectual purposes and judged for its beauty and meaningfulness..." The problem with fine art and this division is that it doesn't mesh well with our society as it presently exists. I am not suggesting an end to art museums---they serve an invaluable purpose in preserving culture and, more importantly, in guiding people in how to perceive. However, we need to bring back the concept of artisan, craft, and utility as natural extensions to how we define art, so that fine art does not represent the sole authority on "art." Due to technology, we live in world where "making" and "sensing" are made infinitely possible through inventions such as 3D printing, computer-aided design, games, and virtual reality. The time is ripe to slowly erode this pointless distinction between that which is done only for itself and that which may be useful. I find the Computer History Museum's Lesson Plan "Perceptions of Technology: Its Hidden Art and Beauty" both timely and appropriate. We are all artists now.

Half Adder in Wood



Japanese Programmer/Artist Yamamiya Takashi created the above machine that represents a functional half-adder logic circuit. He was inspired after reading A. K. Dewdney's "A Tinkertoy Computer and Other Machinations". The operation in this circuit stems from Takashi's design of the AND gate. The AND gate's operation and look is seen inside his web page. At first, the half-adder design looks somewhat daunting, but it offers a certain aesthetic in puzzle-making and enjoyment in the art of logic. There is a piston-like wooden shape that represents the AND gate. The piston cannot move downward unless both L-shaped holders are also downward. This is logically equivalent to both inputs to the AND gate being 1. The downward extent of the piston is equivalent to an AND gate output of 1. This is a wonderful mechanical and artistic rendition of Boolean logic. As mentioned in the web page, the gears (3 of them) represent inverter functions. The rotating lever pinion at the top of the design is the 4th inverter. The pinions interact with the L-shaped racks to cause vertical motion, and vertical motion of the piston represents the AND gate outputs.

The Programmable Duck



Automaton created by Jacques de Vaucanson in 1739. The program is represented by a drum that you see in the external structure. Similar to cylinders that you can find in most music boxes, the drum has protrusions that indicate positional variation (over time as the drum rotates) for the controlling rods connected to the duck. The duck has appeared in various publications. The formal equivalent of the program is a state machine. Although, in theory, this machine can be classified as infinite (because of the analog nature of the continuous drum rotation), in practice with any type of standardized size on the physical drum protrusions (i.e., cams), the formal machine could be finite. The input to the machine is not clear from the diagram but is likely either weight or spring driven. Memory as for most of these automata, is based on angular position of the cylinder down to the geometric resolution of the cams. The output is the duck, which apparently did not actually go through the details of fully digesting pellets. In some additional browsing, I happened upon Jessica Riskin's essay on artificial life where she mentions many items of historical and cultural relevance, including that weight powered the duck. These automata provide a basis for a wide range of social and philosophical connections among disciplines: mathematics, computing, engineering, arts, and the humanities.

A New Trivium and Quadrivium


Representations of automata bring together the arts with technology, and computing with modeling and simulation. A broader topic is the structure of the academy (i.e., our present system of education) and how this system supports areas such as automata. George Bugliarello, former president of Sigma Xi and Polytechnic Institute of New York University, wrote a very good article on what sometimes divides us and what might help unite us as we improve integration of the arts and humanities with engineering. I particularly like this passage:

"Recently, with structural art—e.g., the view of a bridge also as a work of art (Billington)—and with the growing commercial importance of aesthetics in automobiles and other functional artifacts, the time is ripe in engineering for a renewed appreciation of aesthetics. Unfortunately, in the required curriculum of our engineering schools, not a single course deals with taste, aesthetics or style. Neither, for that matter, do arts curricula focus on the kinship of art and engineering as modifiers of nature. The consequence is, much too often, human-made environments with no emotional impact, that can benumb, rather than inspire."

Automata are, after all, machines whether they are made out of virtual or physical materials. They can be beautiful works of art regardless of their capacity to play a functional, utilitarian role.

5000 Moving Parts @ MIT

In MIT's curation of  5000 Moving Parts, Laura Knott asks questions on why kinetic art is not as well represented as it could be in art history. Kinetic art has a relationship with computing. Artworks that are driven by complex chains of power transmission through levers, gears, and cams are isomorphic to data flow graphs found in computer science. Can kinetic art be viewed not only on its own aesthetic merits, but also as means toward understanding data flow?  Here is a piece from Arthur Ganson's web site called "The Dream":



Here is another exhibit by John Douglas Powers with accompanying video. A simulation of waves of grain?


Introduction to Creative Automata Laboratory Archive

This is the creative automata blog for the Creative Automata Laboratory at the University of Texas at Dallas. The goal of the lab is to explore representation of process abstractions used in mathematics and computing starting with historical automata up to theoretical automata, code, and data in present day technology. Representation is informed by areas outside of computer science such as design, the arts, and humanities. The purpose of the representation is enhanced mass communications, education, and training in the arts of computing. Paul Fishwick serves as  Director of the Laboratory.