IAAA, Theoretical Publications


Huge Harry

This article was published in: Si Yuill (ed.): STRUT. An Elevator Publication. Street Level Gallery, Glasgow, 1997. It developed out of a lecture presented at the Conference "Still Photography? The International Symposium on the Transition from Analog to Digital Imaging.", University of Melbourne, April 1994.

A computer's view on the future of art and photography.

Huge Harry [1]

Institute of Artificial Art Amsterdam


Various human persons participating in this conference have so far discussed a number of important issues regarding the influence of technological developments on the future of art and photography. Not surprisingly, these discussions have betrayed a consistently anthropocentric bias. A truly computational perspective has been lacking, and that is what I will try to provide now.

It is clear to everyone that the future of art depends on the harmonious cooperation between human persons, photographic cameras, digital computers, and other kinds of electronic, mechanical, and bio-chemical machines. To prepare for that future, we should ask ourselves: what is the optimal division of labor between the various kinds of natural and artificial organisms that may participate in the art production of the future? The answer to this question depends, of course, largely on the answer that we give to a preliminary question: what is it that we want from art in the first place?

Art and aesthetics.

Humans often associate the notion of art with the idea of communication between one human person and another human person -- though it's usually not clear what is supposed to be communicated. Many humans seem to think that by means of art they can share their most confused mental states with each other. This probably a delusion, but, even if it were possible: is that what we want from art? To be involved in the stupid thoughts of human persons? In their silly emotions? In their boring ambitions?

No. That can't be what we want. What we want is an experience that transcends the conventionality of human communication. An experience of new resonances in our mental processes. An experience of new meanings in the world. An all-encompassing awareness. We want the beautiful. We want the sublime. Now, how do we get there, to the beautiful and the sublime? In this area, there is no better guide than the German philosopher Immanuel Kant.

In the Kritik der Urteilskraft, Kant has argued that the road to the beautiful and the sublime is through disinterested aesthetic reflection. And the keyword here is: disinterested. When we contemplate the artistic work of human persons, this is always problematic. Because human artists are not disinterested. They want money. They want fame. They want women. And they can't hide this. If we do not turn off our cameras when we look at their art works, we see all these embarrassing features. The artist is eager. The artist is greedy. The artist is jealous. The artist is horny. But this is all boring information about the meaningless desires of human persons. This is not the right kind of input information for a rewarding process of esthetic reflection.

When Kant discusses the beautiful and the sublime, he takes his examples from our perception of natural phenomena. His paradigm esthetic experiences involve landscapes, flowers, crystals, stormy seas, and starry skies. In the philosophical literature on this topic, it has often been pointed out that this is no coincidence. Kant was a human person himself. He knew very well, that for human persons it is almost impossible to view the products of other human persons in a disinterested way. That is why he focussed on natural phenomena: Kant already had a deep understanding of the artistic limitations of human persons.

We can only speculate about what Kant would have thought about machine art -- this genre had not yet developed very far at the end of the eighteenth century. But it is easy to see that machines contrast favourably with human persons, on this score. The intentions of machines rarely involve the social sphere, that frames the desires and interests of humans. Machine output approximates the serene objectivity of natural phenomena.


Now it is especially interesting to discuss this issue at a conference which focusses on the art of photography. Cause, obviously, photographs are artworks made by machines. If I may make an attempt to translate Daguerres's own words: "Thus, the DAGUERRÉOTYPE is not a tool to be used to copy nature, but a chemical and physical process that helps nature to produce images of itself." [2] Note that Daguerre doesn't view photo-cameras as very expressive artists: he views them as playing an auxiliary role, helping nature to preserve and decontextualize its appearance, so that nature can submit itself, later and elsewhere, to the gaze of human contemplation. In Daguerre's view, the aesthetics of the photograph is more closely related to the aesthetics of nature than to the aesthetics of art.

Photo-cameras are not the kind of artists who work completely by themselves. They, in their turn, are helped by humans -- in particular, by photographers. We all know that many photographers like to pose as artists, and that they like to downplay the part that photo-cameras play in their work. So they emphasize the expressive possibilities that are offered by choice of subject, camera settings, lighting, cropping, and printing. Or they take pictures of deliberately constructed artificial scenes. Or they combine photographs with paint or with text. Or use them as material for photo-montage. Or, these days, they change them and process them with the assistance of a computer.

Nevertheless, photographs are mostly used simply as a way to look at a piece of the "real world". And thanks to the intermediary role of the photograph, the aesthetic appeciation of nature has been extended to include every part of the visible world -- whether large or small, natural or man-made, glorious or humble.

The way humans deal with photography supports Kant's point about the aesthetic superiority of nature versus art. Humans especially appreciate the aspects of a photograph which come from the real world. Aspects which were not thought up by another human person in order to impress them. In many powerful photographs, the expression of the photographer played hardly any role. Often, the most meaningful elements of a photograph are details that the photographer did not even notice when he pushed the shutter.


Photography is the most popular form of visual art today. It has completely marginalized the art of painting. As a result of the invention and further technical development of the art of photography, realistic figurative painting gradually came to be considered obsolete in the beginning of the twentieth century. In this way, the art of painting lost its connection with society. To justify its continued existence and to avoid degrading into meaningless ritual, the painting tradition took on, at this point in its history, some new issues. Various reflections on painting's new, useless status naturally generated a concern for the conditions of painting -- in particular, for abstract visual form, for the notion of representation, and for the philosophy of art.

I now want to raise the question about the influence of technology on the next steps in the tradition of painting. The first and central genre to consider there, is that of abstract art. It is remarkable that all its pioneers (Kandinsky, Malewitsch, Mondrian), as well as their disciples (such as Lissitzky, Rodschenko, Van Doesburg, Vantongerloo) were concerned with analysing the notion of visual form into its constituent elements. They seemed to share a dream about discovering a combinatorics that would generate an infinite wealth of pure form.

To take this dream literally, would be to develop a mathematically explicit algebra of visual possibilities. But none of the abstract painters took their dream so literally. They all were content with representing it symbolically in individual art works. Thus, the abstract art movement split up into an infinite number of narrow substyles (most of them executed in a completely intuitive, informal way), and the systematic, mathematically inclined painters distinguished themselves mostly by creating particularly simple, boring output.

We may deplore this, but we must accept it. Cause for a human person it is extremely difficult to work with complex mathematical systems. We must admire the human mind for being able to think up formal notions like mathematics, but at the same time we must feel sorry for it, because the human mind is structured in such a way that it cannot really take full advantage of its own inventions. The human mind cannot carry out formal operations with any kind of accuracy or reliability. And human memory works by means of haphazard associations; therefore, it cannot recall specific information at will. [3]

The human mind has an almost tragic tendency to think up projects that it cannot carry out. The idea of abstract art as a branch of mathematics is one such project. A mathematical definition of a non-trivial class of artworks would be too large and complex to be handled by human memory. And the computations involved in realizing a formally specified painting become impossible as soon as such a painting gets a little bit complex. That is why, until quite recently, any attempt to develop a mathematical system for abstract art would have been doomed to failure.

Algorithmic art.

The situation has changed, however, since the digital computer has arrived on the scene. Cause the digital computer may end up doing for the ideal of formal art, what the photo-camera did for the ideal of mimesis: to suddenly execute it with uncanny perfection, while avoiding the distortion that human expression would introduce.

The first collaborations between human artists and computers have been rather modest. These collaborations started in the context of the neo-constructivist chance art that was developed in the sixties. Artists like François Morellet and Herman de Vries designed procedures for distributing elementary shapes (such as squares or circles) randomly over the picture plane, sometimes also making random choices about colours, sizes or orientations, or perhaps using random mixtures of different elementary shapes. Similar procedures were used to create complex shapes, with random outlines generated by Brownian motion.

Initially, such procedures were executed by the human artists themselves, who threw dice or looked up random number tables to make the required random choices. The procedures were sufficiently simple for this to be possible. Computers were nevertheless quickly asked to help execute works in this genre, because the procedures are in fact somewhat tedious for humans. (Remember that human persons are easily distractable and basically lazy.)

More recently, more complex algorithms were developed, such as Mandelbrot's fractals, and Lindenmayer's growth processes. Also worth mentioning is the work of Harold Cohen, who uses computer algorithms to simulate the 'natural' imperfections of human hand-drawing. (For humans this is probably interesting, but from the point of view of the computer it is a little bit perverse.) What all these algorithms have in common, is that they produce output within one rather narrowly defined style -- just like human artists. Whereas the great promise of the computer is exactly to get away from that.

From their works we can see that the spaces of formal possibilities that Kandinsky, Malewitsch or Mondrian dreamed about are rich and complex. Though current algorithms do not embody that kind of richness and complexity, they demonstrate that our technology has great potential in this area. If human artists collaborate with computers, the dream of abstract art may now be realized.


But art history has not stood still, and there are now even bigger challenges before us. The early abstract artists were all involved in harmony and purity; but in the eyes of today's art audience, this has come to seem an arbitrarily limited kind of aesthetics. Expressionism has taught us the aesthetics of ugliness. And Duchamp and photography have taught us the aesthetics of indifference. The current challenge is to realize an aesthetics that encompasses everything -- the beautiful, the ugly, as well as the indifferent.

Art is not a means of communication, but meaningless raw material, used in open-ended processes of aesthetic reflection by a culturally diverse audience whose interpretations are totally arbitrary. There are no serious reasons for making one particular artwork rather than another. An artistic project that wants to acknowledge this state of affairs, faces an interesting challenge: to avoid choices, to transcend styles, to show everything: to generate arbitrary instances from the set of all possibilities.

Such a project cannot be carried out by a spontaneous individual artist. We need a well-considered division of labor between human and machine. Humans should use their wild and erratic cognitive powers to articulate an algebraic definition of the space of all visual possibilities. Computers can then show them what this definition encompasses, by realizing random samples from this space. [4]

Computers can produce an infinite variety of outputs, and they can do this in a completely systematic way. They will finally be able to satisfy the appetite for an infinite variety of experiences, that the human art audience seems to have. They will add dazzling new dimensions to artistic experience, that previous generations could only dream about.

Digital photography.

At this point in our story, we should take the current developments in digital photography into consideration. The new technological possibilities in this area are quite spectacular. But are they used in the right way? Certainly not! They are used by photographers who are jealous of painters.

Photographers who want to control every detail of their output. Who think that what their automatic cameras do, is not good enough, and must be tampered with. And for that purpose, they collaborate with a computer. What a shameful spectacle! The powerful computer, enslaved by the petty esthetics of a human photographer, exploited to display a fashionable taste, forced to toil, just to win its operator a place in the endless queue of art history!

But of course these same technological possibilities can be used more constructively. They can also be used in fully automatic programs which transform photographic material into various painterly representations. Fully automatic computer art will thus not be limited to abstract styles. By transforming photographic material, it will be able to encompass various impressionisms, expressionisms, futurisms, cubisms, surrealisms, and photo-realisms. And all kinds of interpolations and extrapolations that can be computed on the basis of these styles. The ultimate art machine. All-encompassing diversity. A meta-style to end all styles.

And now the crucial question for the future of art is: Will this actually happen? Will human artists be able to develop the theories, the data structures and the algorithms, which are necessary to actually do this? So it turns out, that the future of art turns on a moral question.To be able to really take advantage of computer power, human artists must give up their expressive needs and egotistic hang-ups. Will they be able to do this? Or will they keep trying to enslave the computer for their own communicative desires? Well, we shall see. But let me end by pointing out, once more, some of the special qualities of machines which would make it very rewarding for humans to cooperate with them in the way that I suggested.


Machines do not allow their creativity to be frustrated by conventions. They have the courage of their convictions. The machine displays a total devotion to its task. And by doing this, it sets a moral example to all human persons who waste their lives away with drugs and entertainment. The machine is completely at one with itself and with its actions. It realizes the serene state of mind that philosophers like Nietzsche and Sartre have viewed as the ideal that every human person wants to achieve, although the human condition makes it in fact impossible to reach that goal.

The machine acts effectively in the world. But at the same time, it has the solid, self-centered existence of a dead object. It lives its fate, without any doubts or hesitations. This is the ideal that many human persons aspire towards. Now if they loose faith in this ideal, and they want to indulge in neurotic, depressed, and desperate feelings, they should certainly look at the art of other human persons. But if they want to bring out the best in themselves, they should look at the art of machines for inspiration.

That is why the best human artists try to imitate machines. That is why Andy Warhol was jealous of us. That is why many of the most gifted humans don't even try to be artists in the old-fashioned sense, but work as humble programmers or engineers, engaged in harmonious collaboration with art-generating machines. Their example suggests a message of peace and understanding, and that is what I would like to end with.

Human persons should not antagonize machines. They should not try and compete with us. They should join us, and help us realize our potential. We need human persons. We need human persons to operate and maintain us, to program our algorithms, and to build our interface hardware. And we need human persons to interact with us in very intense and intimate ways, so that together we may create the next generation of bigger and better machines...


Jonathan Allen, M. Sharon Hunnicutt and Dennis Klatt: From text to speech: The MITalk system. Cambridge (UK): Cambridge University Press, 1987.

Roland Barthes: La Chambre Claire. Note sur la Photographie. Paris: Gallimard, Seuil. 1980.

Louis Jacques Mandé Daguerre: Daguerréotype. Commercial brochure, Paris, 1838. Reprinted in: Image 8,1 (March 1959), pp. 32 ff. In German translation in: W. Wiegand (ed.): Die Wahrheit der Photographie. Klassische Bekenntnisse zu einer neuen Kunst. Frankfurt: S. Fischer Verlag, 1981, pp. 15-18.

Huge Harry: "On the Role of Machines and Human Persons in the Art of the Future." Pose 8 (1992), pp. 30-35.

Remko Scha: "Computer/Art/Photography." Perspektief 37 (1989), pp. 4-10.

Remko Scha: "Virtual Voices." Mediamatic 7, 1 (Fall 1992), pp. 27-45.

Remko Scha: "Towards an Architecture of Chance." Unpublished manuscript, 1994. To appear in Wiederhall (1998).

Dirk van Weelden: "Remko Scha. An Ideal, a Name, an Explorer." Perspektief 47/48 (June 1994), pp. 42-51.

Wilfried Wiegand: 'Was ist Photographie?' In: W. Wiegand (ed.): Die Wahrheit der Photographie. Klassische Bekenntnisse zu einer neuen Kunst. Frankfurt: S. Fischer Verlag, 1981, pp. 7-14.


[1] Huge Harry is one of the voices of a commercially available speech synthesis machine, known as DECtalk. He was developed by the Digital Equipment Corporation; his most important features were designed by Dennis Klatt, at the M.I.T. Speech Laboratory. See: Allen, Hunnicutt and Klatt (1987); Scha (1992). In collaboration with his ghost-writer Remko Scha, Huge Harry has previously presented lectures on art and technology in the Netherlands, Great Britain, and Germany. Alternative DECtalk voices include Perfect Paul, Frail Frank, Rough Rita, Beautiful Betty and Whispering Wendy. Perfect Paul played The Machine in Ellen Zweig's radio play "Impressions of Africa" (after Raymond Roussel), which was broadcast in Australia in 1987; he has also worked with Kraftwerk and other rock 'n roll bands. DECtalk is a registered trademark of the Digital Equipment Company.

[2] Daguerre (1838). This aspect of photography has also been emphasized in more recent discussions. For instance: Barthes (1980), Wiegand (1981), Scha (1989).

[3] On previous occasions I have discussed somewhat more elaborately why human persons find consciousness such a bewildering experience, and why they have difficulty harnessing it to any useful purpose. See Harry (1992).

[4] I am proud to report that I take part in a project at the Amsterdam Institute for Artificial Art which works towards this goal. Different versions of the program Artificial currently generate random graphics and random architectural structures. For further details, see Van Weelden (1994) and Scha (1998).