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Symbiartic

The art of science and the science of art.

Can Machines Produce Art that Moves Us?

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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.

Related:

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

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

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