Like it or not, we are all computer nerds now. All aspects of our lives are driven by computation and algorithms: how we learn, work, play, even date. Given this situation, one could argue that generative art—work created at least in part with autonomous, automated systems—is the art that best reflects our time.
Generative art was initially rejected by the cultural establishment as the domain of computer scientists and mathematicians. Grace Hertlein says a colleague called her a “whore” and a “traitor” for her use of the computer as an art-making tool in the late 1960s.¹ In a 1970 New York Times review, critic John Canada compared a display of computer art he saw at a convention to “popular sideshows” and “circuses.”² But recent years have seen a spike in institutional interest in generative art, as evidenced by a number of museum shows.³ Perhaps this embrace is linked to the increased accessibility of technology, as computers and network connections have become commonplace in homes in the last two decades.
These advances have been accompanied by shifts in who can make generative art, how they make it, what it looks like, and even the themes and topics that it is capable of addressing. Because the tools and the work are tightly coupled, the history of generative art can be seen as a history of developments in software and hardware.
In the ’90s, Joshua Davis was an art student at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, learning to paint by day and absorbing everything he could about programming and building websites by night. Eventually, he asked himself why he was bothering to learn to paint with the same tools and techniques that had been around for hundreds of years instead of focusing solely on computers and the internet, which had yet to be fully explored by artists. He decided to quit school and make websites full-time. Davis was not the only one. The pull in those days to drop out and join a dot-com start-up as a web designer was strong.
The web was catching on fast, and the demand for great digital content far exceeded the number of people with the skills to produce it. Flash, a tool for creating animations and other multimedia content, was born into this atmosphere of pent-up demand. Initially launched as FutureSplash Animator in 1995 by a small San Diego–based start-up called FutureWave, the software was acquired by competitor Macromedia the following year and rebranded as Flash. Adobe bought it in 2005.