Missing History of Generative Art

by Paul Slocum
July 26, 2022

Recently I've seen a lot of articles reinforcing the misconception that generative art started in the 1960s, and then very little happened until its recent revival by the NFT community. It's always the same list of artists discussed, viewed from a very narrow perspective. There's no acknowledgement of the demoscene, Shadertoy, the fact that many video games are a form of generative art, or that many non-NFT digital artists have been doing this work continually for decades. I've written a short list of some important generative work that I see being left out of the conversation.

After Dark screensaver, 1990 (Satori by Ben Haller)

The Shadertoy community was the first thing I thought of when I saw the generative art NFT community forming. Although it has been conspicuously absent from recent generative art articles, Shadertoy is one of the most active and distinct predecessors to the generative NFT art scene where artists had already started making in-browser generative artworks as a community nearly a decade ago, often closely resembling current NFT trends. The founders of Shadertoy just won a SIGGRAPH award for its creation.

Warping - procedural 2 by Inigo Quilez on Shadertoy, 2013

The video below is a collection of Future Crew's PC demoscene excerpts from 1992. The demoscene sometimes needs a bit of curation, but algorithmic art from the scene 30+ years ago is often just as interesting to me as FxHash today. In the early 2000s, Cory Arcangel and Alex Galloway released a curated DVD of 1980s Commodore 64 demoscene work, presented demos at Team Gallery, and also published interviews, so this type of work has been considered in the context of contemporary art before.

Future Crew PC demo excerpts, 1992

Cory Arcangel's own Photoshop gradients (started in 2007) are some of the most famous algorithmic digital artworks, which I believe broke digital art auction records, but I never see them mentioned. Many of these prints can be recreated in Photoshop by anyone from the artwork's title text, similar to Sol Lewitt's instruction-based artworks. Cory also just launched a new algorithmic music project that generates musical scores for bells through a Twitter bot.

Photoshop CS: 84 by 66 inches, 300 DPI, RGB, square pixels,
default gradient, "Blue, Red, Yellow" (turn reverse on), mousedown
y= 1550 x=18400, mouseup y=300 x=150
by Cory Arcangel, 2009

I personally published generative art in a magazine as a kid in the 80s, and I've shown generative art in museums and with Rhizome. I'm not looking to promote or show my own work right now, but just making the point that many artists around here have been making this stuff for a while.

Conway's Game of Life Spacetime Visualization M1D67 by Paul Slocum, 2013

Duchamp often used systems of chance that are clearly related to generative art today, and these artworks have an original, noteworthy style. This work was influential in my thinking about generative art.

3 Standard Stoppages by Marcel Duchamp, 1913-14

Raymond Scott is one of the earliest producers of electronic generative art with with his Electronium that made generative music starting in 1959. Ten years before Kraftwerk formed, he was generating music that sounds like mid-2000s micromusic.net tracks.

Cindy Electronium by Raymond Scott, 1959

There have been a variety of generative writing and poetry projects from early non-electronic Dada experiments, to Racter's "The Policeman's Beard is Half Constructed", and "Just This Once", a sequel to Valley of the Dolls created by generative writing software running on a Macintosh IIcx in the early 90s.

Just This Once by Scott French, 1993

I think John Conway's Game of Life is one of the most profound generative artworks of all time. It's often discussed in the context of math or tools to make other generative art (like my art above), but sadly I never see it discussed as a work of art in its own right.

The Game of Life by John Conway, 1970 ("rake" example)

Technically, the games Checkers and Reversi are cellular automata, but people generally think of cellular automata in Conway's terms of creating a system with deep complexity that is emergently "interesting and unpredictable". These criteria clearly move into the realm of artmaking.

Conway's Game of Life cartridge for the Atari 2600, 1981

And although slightly different, even David Crane's video game Pitfall! from 1982 is an important generative artwork since it was the first popular game to use an algorithmically generated world, among other innovations. Generative art is much more prevalent than people realize.

Pitfall! game map, 1982

I'm actually skipping posting a few of the best examples because I'm saving them for an upcoming exhibition. I haven't had time to really dig into research, this list is just off the top of my head as a long time generative artist who keeps an eye out for other examples.

People writing about generative art need to quit focusing on NFTs, and begin with the assumption that the majority of artists who make code-based art also naturally work with generative art. It's important to dig through notable digital artist's catalogs and ask questions outside the NFT arena in order to present balanced coverage. This problem isn't just limited to generative art writing either; I'd say that that majority of writing coming out of the NFT space unnaturally limits the discussion to artists who happen to use NFT certificates. There's hardly ever a good academic reason to limit conversations in that way, and the general scope of discussion in NFT writing needs to be widely expanded.

(Also, because this article is specifically focused on artworks that have been overlooked, I'm including a link to a generative art article that discusses many of the usual suspects like Vera Molnar, Frieder Nake, and Casey Reas for those who may not be familiar.)