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Can Machines Produce Art that Moves Us?

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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This happens more often than you’d think: You tell someone you are an illustrator. They ask you a few questions and then get to what’s really on their mind:

“So, do you do all your work on the computer or do you draw everything by hand?”

When you respond that you do some (or all) of your work digitally, they drop a disappointed “hmm…” and the conversation generally fizzles. Like it isn’t “real” illustration unless it’s done with a pen and paper. Like you just type in “draw me a donkey” and the computer does it all for you. Like if you don’t like what it drew you can say, “No, stupid. Draw me an awesome donkey,” and it will get your drift.

At this point in the conversation, I generally resist the urge to hand them my laptop, tablet and stylus and say, “I see you think the computer is a crutch. You have zero drawing experience, right? Well, here’s a computer with some drawing programs on it. Why don’t you draw me something – whatever you know best.” Instead, I reach deep into my reservoir of patience and wax about how the computer is just another tool in the artist’s bag of tricks. There are dozens of drawing programs and it takes years to master each one – just like traditional media. But wouldn’t it be an epic sting to just skip the teaching moment and zing them with my computer drawing challenge?

But this all begs the question: if a machine could draw on its own, would it be able to produce images that move us in the same way that images made by a thinking, feeling human do? It would seem that a fair number of people hold the view that art produced by a machine could never hold a candle to “hand-drawn” images, despite their being enamored with animated films and hyper-realistic video games. In the same way that love still feels real and powerful and fraught with meaning even with the knowledge that it is, at its core, just a chain of chemical reactions, a drawing rendered by a machine can stir something deeply human even if you are aware of its mechanical origin. Take, for example, these:

Harmonograph image

Harmonograph image 13, courtesy of Anita Chowdry

Harmonograph image

Harmonograph image 11, courtesy of Anita Chowdry

Harmonograph image

Harmonograph image 4, courtesy of Anita Chowdry

Harmonograph image

Harmonograph image 3, courtesy of Anita Chowdry

Entrancing, no? These drawings were created by a machine known as a harmonograph, a collection of two or more pendulums that control a pen and a drawing platform. All a user needs to do is set the machine in motion and an intricate, geometric drawing will result. This particular harmonograph is named Iron Genie, and was constructed by artist Anita Chowdry (featured on Symbiartic previously for her project exploring the similarities between ancient Islamic shamsas and fractal geometry).

Harmonograph image

A miniature harmonograph built by Chowdry before constructing the full-sized harmonograph she dubbed Iron Genie

Why was Chowdry, who clearly has the skills to create delicate and elaborate drawings with her own two hands, compelled to make an instrument to draw for her? While it’s amusing to think she might have burned out on creating her intricate and exacting rosettes, the reality is quite different. In her own words,

The immediate appeal of the Harmonograph to me is that you can witness the unfolding of natural dynamic geometries that have always existed independently of our aesthetic sensibilities. We cannot draw them ourselves without the aid of mechanical devices. They have existed long before we discovered them, before we even began to understand the physics that drives them, before we had the language to define them in mathematical terms. They are a part of the dynamics of the universe – they have existed long before us, and perhaps that is why we find it so hypnotic to watch the drawings unfold before our eyes as the swinging pendulums drive the movements of the pen and paper… in our own slick, virtual, digital age in which we feel less and less in control, a venerable analogue machine with simple workings that we can see, understand, and touch, offers a reassuring physicality.

Anita Chowdry’s ‘Iron Genie’ Harmonograph will be on display at the Museum of the History of Science in Oxford, UK from July 8 – September 21, 2014. If you can’t catch it in person, you can see it in action here:

‘The Iron Genie’ – working Harmonograph in action from Josh Jones on Vimeo.

Anita Chowdry’s Portfolio
Developing the Harmonograph Project for my M.A., by Anita Chowdry
20th-Century Math Hidden in 15th-Century Art on Symbiartic
Chowdry’s inspiration: How to Make a Three-Pendulum Rotary Harmonograph, by Karl Sims

Kalliopi Monoyios About the Author: Kalliopi Monoyios is an independent science illustrator. She has illustrated several popular science books including Neil Shubin's Your Inner Fish and The Universe Within, and Jerry Coyne's Why Evolution is True. Find her at Follow on Twitter @symbiartic.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. Percival 6:28 pm 05/19/2014

    First, is the Iron Genie the (an?) ancestor of the Spirograph toy?

    Can machine-generated art “stir something deeply human”? Of course it can. It stirs something deeper than the “merely human”. We and all other life forms use our senses to perceive and make use of patterns in our environment, and to recognize exceptions to those patterns, exceptions that may be dangerous (or the opposite of dangerous). Our attention is quite naturally drawn to patterns and exceptions from them regardless of what generated them.

    You mention fractals in your article- they weren’t ever recognized as a formal field of study until relatively recently but once you’re made aware of them, you see them everywhere. Maybe that’s why “abstract fractal art” is so popular and fascinating; we see in it coastlines, ferns, landforms, neural networks (even implied motion in a static fractal image), and so much more of nature in something that’s superficially completely unnatural.

    Knowing the mathematical and engineering underpinnings of art (for me at least) detracts not at all from the artistic experience, same as “love still feels real”. Holograms are still breathtaking, the welded steel Watts Towers are still uplifting, and the Iron Genie still grants the wish to be fascinated.

    Thanks for a fun article.

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  2. 2. Mendrys 12:49 am 05/20/2014

    Isn’t the real question “Can machines be used to create art that moves us?” As captivating as the images created by the harmonograph are to me I still don’t view them as being created by machines. In the end the machine that produced them is itself a product of human skill and ingenuity and only creates the images because a human designed it to do just that.

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