Introduction to the work of Driessens & Verstappen

Our interest in growth and change arose while studying at the Rijksakademie in Amsterdam in the late Eighties. We were already working as a team then. We found out that we were as much fascinated by the underlying processes and preconditions within which something can be expressed, as the final results themselves. We wondered if you could allow artworks to grow instead of fabricating them. And might each one of them be unique (for isn’t that an important measure of art)? And might you build this principle of renewal into the process itself? In short: can you automate the production of art?

Initially this question was rather nihilistic, but it soon became an adventure when we realised how challenging it is to strive for an art in which spontaneous phenomena are generated systematically. Art not completely determined by man’s subjective choices, but instead is created by independently operating processes. Important sources of inspiration are the self-organising processes in nature: the dynamic of all kinds of physical and chemical processes and life that continually brings forth new forms. We pay particular attention to the decentralised processes, the bottom-up processes. The patterns in these processes are not determined by a central authority but by local interactions between decentralised components. Examples of this include swarms of birds, market economies, ecosystems or immune systems. The evolutionary theory of variation and selection is also one such bottom-up process. It is important for us to observe and study these existing processes (see Landscape films, Fulgurites Endoscopy and Tomato Habitus).

Inspired by these ideas, we began to develop generative systems in which decentralised organisation processes are crucial. We have worked with biological, physical and chemical processes during the years since then. This led to a number of form collections, the so-called Morphoteques. Each Morphoteque demonstrates the phases of change or the variations in form that may emerge within one specific generative process (see Morphoteque #12, Morphoteque #13 and Morphoteque #15). In other works, the transformations are called up in real time by a machine (see The Factory, Sandbox and Top-down Bottom-up). These works are rich and interesting, and deliver fascinating results. Up to a point, they satisfy the aforementioned desire for an art created by autonomously operating processes. Yet we also wish to see what occurs when one is able to conceptualise all the aspects of a process oneself. Since the early Nineties, our interest in the procedural and the automatic led us to start work on programming growth on the computer. Again with the aim to generate images on the basis of independently operating processes. We try to implement an artificial nature in the machine, a parallel universe with its own organising principles and spontaneous expressions (see Breed, E-volver and Accretor). In these projects, the computer is not just a slavish tool. It is a machine that independently carries out highly complex processes, that reveal a uniquely aesthetic space of its own.

Since 2016, our attention has been focussed on AI techniques such as Machine Learning and Artificial Neural Networks. In recent projects we have used neural networks for image analysis (see Pareidolia ), but image synthesis also has our special attention. Instead of a network that observes and categorizes input images, the perception is reversed here. Then the network begins to fantasise, and produces new images as output (see Deep Dive and Spotter). We want to develop Machine Learning systems ourselves in the future, possibly building them from scratch without using existing conventional toolkits. Instead of a goal-oriented training program - which normally forms a neural network - we are more interested in the open-ended process of evolution as a shaping principle, linked up to Machine Learning. Such learning processes may be more autonomous, i.e. not dependent on data that has already been pre-treated and interpreted. This is rather unknown and still unexplored territory.

The use of AI in art does not mean that something is lost, on the contrary. Indeed it contributes new and unprecedented possibilities for expressing man’s relationship to the world, possibilities that still belonged to the realm of fiction fifteen years ago. Because its expressions may be fundamentally different to ours, working with AI helps us to recognise and respect alternative forms of intelligence, to understand our place in a global ecology and to develop a meaningful dialogue with other species. Moreover, the many years of our research into bottom-up processes has taught us that we shall never fully fathom nature. The fact is, a small change within a complex system may lead to a dramatic turnaround, which can be explained in hindsight but is not predictable in advance. We have come to appreciate this sensitive coherence within complex systems enormously, it forms the basis for an aesthetics of emergence (the whole is more than the sum of its parts). It provides the necessary counterweight to the top-down aesthetics of reduction, simplicity, manipulability and control. Alas, these dated modernistic values still have a major cultural and social impact worldwide, with disastrous consequences for nature, climate and the environment. Only if we can see and experience the beauty of that fundamental unpredictability, if we can reconcile ourselves with our own humble origins, only then are we able to truly respect the intrinsic value of nature and act accordingly.

driessens & verstappen biography introduction