Mona Mahall (M.A.)
Institut für Grundlagen Moderner Architektur und Entwerfen (IGMA)
Architektur, Universität Stuttgart, Stuttgart, Germany
Generative Design is anchored within automata theory,
minimal art and arte programmata. The text tries to accomplish different
approaches, all of them exerting a strong theory of communication to art and
design. To model generative design as a communicative game situation, it draws
a bow from John von Neumann to Marcel Duchamp, Donald Judd, GRAV and back.
1. To Start with Ramon Llull
To link generative art, or more
generally: generative design to some kind of programming seems to be certain.
Even more, if we follow John Warnock, programmer and co-founder of Adobe
Systems, who compared the coding of software to the acting out of dreams; for
us a quite optimistic but after all a short, sweet, and heroic definition of
design. Warnock, as a designer of application software especially for graphics
use, might be the one to know the things about coding.
We could be the ones to engage in a
theory of generative design, which actually could be described as the post-modern
version of Warnock’s notion on design: In separation to the modern and
definitely heroic artist, who all alone came to a sovereign and subjective
decision and who all alone created a totally new artwork by acting in
renunciation and negation to the tradition, indeed by acting out his dreams; in
separation to this classic modern position, generative art theorizing is being
determined by a post-modern or post-revolutionary attitude. As such it takes
late consequences of structuralist and cybernetic theories, as it focuses on
the art system, its elements, its relations and its functions – at the cost of
the artistic subject: Once being the creative center, modernly driven by the
subconscious, or by political and social missions, it now is degraded and
certainly liberated to a position at the corner. Or, following the notions of
generative art arguing, to the very ground, where only rules are to be
instituted. These basic rules or algorithms mark the limits of a then starting
autonomous generative process, out of which results a somehow unpredictable
artwork. Composed or constructed in such a manner through the use of systems
defined by computer software algorithms, or similar mathematical or mechanical
randomized autonomous processes, the artwork becomes a co-production of the
artist and an operating system; the latter is complex to a degree that
behavioral predictions are difficult or even impossible. Thus the artist
programs an artwork, in accordance to the Greek etymology of ‘to program’,
which encloses ‘before’ and ‘to write’. The artist codes a set of rules, which
then starts an open-ended process, which starts the development of a
The method of generative design has
been traced back to Ramon Llull, 13th century Catalan philosopher, logician and
theologian, who became famous through his teaching of the so-called ars magna.
We could call the mechanism invented by Llull, some sort of hardware program:
He designed a mechanical apparatus for the combinatory generation of true sentences.
Therefore the fundamental terms and principles of all cosmological knowledge
were ordered around the edge of a circular disc. A second smaller disc,
repeating the order of the first and adding some terms, was mounted upon the
bigger one. Through simple rotation of these wheels, new positions and
combinations were being produced automatically, new truths as Llull called
them. Coming up to a total of 14 wheels, Llull could generate any complex
notional combination as the logical fundament of arts as well as sciences. In
fact it was brilliant Llull who could, in this way, read off successively all
potential attributes of God – from a determined (!) set of possibilities. The
interesting because formal aspect of Llull’s wheel transforming logics to an ars
inveniendi, consists in the mechanism, which combined the elements without
considering any content.
Figure 1: The first combinatory figure (Ramon Llull)
2. To continue with John von Neumann
In concerns of our theorizing, it
seems adequate to forward in history until programming was specified to
software programming for electronic devices.
Although not using the term
‘programming’ it was the mathematician John von Neumann who developed the idea
of software programming, as it is still implemented in the most computers of
today. Therefore he introduced the so-called von-Neumann-architecture, a stored
program concept of a system architecture, in which programs as well as data
were located in the same accessible storage.
His influential texts from 1947 to
his death in 1957 build up a context of programming, in relation to
mathematics, engineering, neurophysiology and genetics, and they could also
give some insight in what could be meant with generative design. Von Neumann
noted in the definitions of a ‘very high speed automatic digital computing
«Once these instructions are given
to the device, it must be able to carry them out completely without any need
for further intelligent human intervention. At the end of the required
operations the device must record the results again in one of the forms
referred to above. The results are numerical data; they are a specified part of
the numerical material produced by the device in the process of carrying out
the instructions referred to above« .
According to the main points of the
von Neumann machine, the computer has to perform a cycle of events: firstly it
fetches an instruction and the required data from the memory, then it executes
the instructions upon the data and stores the results in the memory; to loop
this cycle it goes back to the start.
As programming is about the
manipulation of symbols, it is bound to a medium, be that 0 and 1, the Morse
code or any other alphabet, which defines a set of possibilities out of which a
selection can be made. This selection has the formal constitution of an
instruction or an algorithm, which, from von Neumann on, means the
operativeness of all formalizable ideas.
But the machine must be told in
advance, and in great detail, the exact series of steps required to perform the
algorithm. The series of steps is the computer program.
Figure 2: Universal construction in the cellular automata model of
Illustrating the concept of his
machine, von Neumann clamped an analogy to the nervous system: Thus neurons of
the higher animals are definitely elements, in the sense of those elements
needed for a digital computing device. Such elements have to react on a certain
kind of input, called stimulus, in an all-or-none-way, that is in one of two
states: quiescent or exited. In the draft of 1945 von Neumann actually designed
a device composed of specialized organs, which was able to operate on the
arithmetical tasks of addition, subtraction, multiplication and division. He
mentioned a central control organ for the logical control of the device, a
memory organ carrying out long and complicated sequences of operations and
transfer organs .
Actually in biologizing the digital
device, or the other way round: in computerizing the nervous system, von
Neumann consequently approached the revolutionary question of a living organism
being comparable to an artificial machine. In 1948 he gave a lecture titled
“The General and Logical Theory of Automata“ on the occasion of the “Hixon
Symposium on Cerebral Mechanisms of Behaviour.“ He introduced his design of a
universal constructor, a self-replicating machine in a cellular automata
environment. The machine was defined as using 29 states, which should provide
signal transfer and logical operations and which should act upon signals as bit
streams. The most interesting feature of this concept was the ‘tape’, actually
the description of the universal constructor, or in other words: the encoding
of the sequence of actions to be performed by the machine. In the eyes of the
machine, it must have been a kind of self-specification and auto-instruction.
Von Neumann’s cellular automata have
been regarded to modularize an environment appropriate to demonstrate the
logical requirements for machine self-replication. Theoretical Biology and
Artificial Life identified von Neumann’s automaton, and the separation of a
constructor from its own description to be useful as a treatment for open-ended
And it is the conceptual separation
of a constructor from its own description, which takes us back to design
theory, as it represents, or even more: as it formalizes operations of
symbolization, of abstraction and conceptualization, which characterize the
3. Minimal Art and Algorithms
Who else than Marcel Duchamp could
be analogically thought of in concerns of revolutionizing the art system by
separating the concept, that means the description of the artwork from the
artwork, and who else could be regarded the paragon of fields like Conceptual
Art, Fluxus and Minimal Art? It is not the place here to describe in detail the
complex strategies of Marcel Duchamp, but only to emphasize the common aspect
of his work:
Duchamp rejected the ‘retinal art’
as being stagy, and declared the concept, the idea, the description or
instruction of an artwork to be preferred to the artwork itself. He
demonstrated the mechanisms and algorithms of art as art, and it seems to us,
that, in this way, he executed the analogous separation of the constructor (the
realization of an artwork) from its description (concept of the artwork)
formalized by John von Neumann.
But it was Marcel Duchamp who had
thirty years in advance, and who even radicalized the concept by introducing
the readymade strategy, by replacing the artwork with the pure declaration of
an artwork. There is even no concept or description left, but only the
appellation. In 1917 he bought a urinal at J. L. Mott Iron Works’, called it
‚Fountain’, designated it with ‚Richard Mutt’ and submitted it for the annual
exhibition of the Society of Independent Artists in New York.
The philosopher and art theorist
Boris Groys  identifies Marcel Duchamp to having introduced the binary code
of 0 and 1 to the art system by his readymade strategy. His single sovereign
and subjective decision declares a profane object an artwork, just like yes or
no, art or no art.
One might think it would not take
long till this decision was set in the context of a formal logic or semiotic
system, in the context of an artificial language. But it lasted to the sixties
for the next step to do; the next step to art as a systemic and code guided, as
a generative practice. The reasons, Groys explains, are multifarious: artists
and theorists of the post-avant-garde surrealism declared the erotic desire to
be the engine of the artistic decision. At the same time these decisions were
politicized. Not until the postwar-era, not until the first higher programming
languages were developed, it was possible to describe the individual artistic
decision in terms of formal, logical, and semiotic systems.
Groys states: »The lonesome,
irreducible and undisputable decision of the autonomous artistic subjectivity
was replaced by an explicit, traceable, rule guided, algorithmic operation,
which could be read off in the artwork.« 
In this way arts and the computer
revolution got together in the sixties when the first electronic devices became
widely accepted and the minimalist art of Donald Judd finally challenged the
avant-garde attitude of negation. Minimal Art took another line: the variation.
Donald Judd presented an artwork as a series of binary decisions, as result of
an algorithmic loop transforming the same object to a row of variants. Actually
it was not the object, which was meant by Judd, but the code of transformation
itself. It was the in-between, the transition from one to another object,
moving to the center of minimal artistic interest.
It is von Neumann’s separation of
the constructor from the instruction clarified in a virtually endless
iteration. It is the art of a computer program without a computer.
Boris Groys calls Donald Judd’s
minimal art generative, in that it is able to endlessly produce variants, and –
that is the main point – in that its code is somehow observable for the viewer.
Thus it is the viewer who theoretically becomes able to imagine by himself all
possible not yet realized but evoked variations of the code. In this way the
aspect of generativeness is not limited to the production process but it is
opened up to the process of reception, or better: to some kind of prosecution.
In the notation of the sixties and seventies, one might as well take this as a
form of participation. And to
participate in an installation of Donald Judd, is to surround the objects, to anticipate
the algorithm and to think of all variants still to be realized for this open
Actually art being conceived as a
‘project’ implies, besides participation, re-technization, which means the
history of computer art from this point on.
4. Arte Programmata and Participation
We have to further engage in the
aspect of participation, focusing on actual generative art not just being a
method of making art, but as well an invitation of being proceeded or
prosecuted by the viewer.
Therefore we would like to turn to
another field of sixties art, which emphasized the aspect of participation, and
which indicated their methods as programming.
Coming from kinetic art and from
cybernetics, the French ‘Groupe de recherche d’art visuel’ (GRAV), founded in
1960, worked on game theory, on information theory, and combinatory analyses,
in order to reform their artistic strategies. Vera Molnar, co-founder and
member of GRAV, explored heuristic methods and problem-solving techniques for
her artistic interventions. She is stated to work in a series of small probing
steps, analog to our description of software programming above. After the
evaluation of one step, Molnar went on in varying only one parameter for the
next step, and so developed an artwork step by step. Stripping the content away
from the visual image, she focused on seeing and perceiving.
In thus adopting scientific research
techniques, and in quitting intuition for rationalism, GRAV changed their
self-conception as artists, and changed what is called work organization.
Cooperation and the presentation as a group replaced the solo work and the
single designation. Interesting to us, they opened up the object-oriented works
to create situations including the viewer in some sort of event or happening.
It was about to create game situations and game arrangements, so that the
viewer or player could take part at works like ‘labyrinths’ (1963) or ‘Une
journée dans la rue’ (1966). It was about the search of possibilities to
involve the viewer in a spatial composition that we could call the playground.
Thus the main theme for GRAV was to arrange game situations.
It seems to us a Lyotard comment
before Lyotard, when Francois Morellet, co-founder and member of GRAV declared:
»Art for me only exhibits a social
function when it is demystified, when it gives the possibility to the viewer,
to actively participate, to strip the mechanisms, to discover the rules and
finally to perform« .
5. Generative Design and Gaming
Actually it was Lyotard who
reintroduced the topic of game, more precisely: the topic of Wittgenstein’s
‘language games’ to describe communication beyond the ‘grand narratives’ of the
modern era. He states the aspects of play to be central to forms of pragmatic
communication like questioning, promising, literary describing or narrating:
There is no game without rules. There has to be a set of rules determining the
use of the different communicative statements. In doing so, the rules have to
be agreed on by the players, who should contribute all statements as moves, and
who should not give statements hitting the level of rules.
If we look back to where we began,
we realize that it is the achievement of John von Neumann and Marcel Duchamp to
emphasize and to formalize (within mathematics and within arts) the separation
of the rule (description) from the move (object). In this way they both
introduced the game to their fields.
In concerns of playing, Lyotard
continues with the reflection on two kinds of innovation – an important aspect
to design –. Innovation thus can be achieved through introducing new statements
that is through new moves during the game, and through the modification of the
rules of game. The latter results in the constitution of a new and different
game at all.
We would like to describe generative
design being ‘organized’  as communication, which is comparable to a game
situation – beyond the political implications of Lyotard’s postmodern
It is not about to realize every
artwork as a game; it is about to introduce a playful openness on both sides of
a work, on the side of production and on the side of reception or prosecution.
We recognize this feature as characteristic to all advanced generative design
To loop our argumentation, we
restart with John von Neumann, this time in concerns of game theory. In
cooperation with Oscar Morgenstern he introduced to the social sciences a
revolutionary approach, which should help to explain the complex phenomena of
economic, political and social life. The methods appropriate to modularize
observations made in the physical world obviously did not fit to concerns of
human behavior. Social phenomena are determined by human acting with each other
or against each other, by dreams, hopes, fears and not at least by different
knowledge. Von Neumann and Morgenstern could prove the adequacy of the
strategic game to describe social phenomena. Therefore they developed a
mathematical formalism, which integrated both, the human and the machine, in
search of the best moves to win the game.
Important to design theory seems the
possibility within game theory to depersonalize the process of decision.
Through the invention of a mechanism setting the rules, framing the playground
and the playtime, design could change from inventing to playing. Virtually
complete strategies can be tested and evaluated within tactic that means actual
decisions and their consequences. Roles can be accepted, or abandoned, or
consequently changed. The distance established in the organization of roles, is
the distance of the actor from its actions, which means the space, needed for
the self-reflection of a player. Within playing it is possible to give all
variants of a system a try, and then to choose the favorite, never mind if it
is von Neumann’s minimax or maximin or neither. Interaction, imitation,
cooperation, bluff, risk, and challenge, anything goes, as long as rules are
In fact, playing is about variety,
as advanced games, being played (!), contain developments, which are open-ended
and unpredictable. Games actually exhibit emergence, to use the term in the
sense of John Holland. So they make available whole contexts, they widen up the
field to the borders, and they are able to produce novelty.
Playing is the refuge of a
Buckminster Fuller kind of idealism, which, during the sixties, resulted in the
World Game, posing the question:
»How do we make the world work for
100% of humanity in the shortest possible time through spontaneous cooperation
without ecological damage or disadvantage to anyone?« 
John von Neumann could have proved
the impossibility of this aim within a few pages of calculation.
For generative design, we assume
however, playing within rules, might be an open and productive strategy, which
could take advantage of chance, and furthermore which could be fun.
There is a long tradition of
exploiting random processes and chance for design tasks, from Ramon Llull’s
combinatorics, we described at the beginning, to Mozart’s ‘Würfelmusik’ and
Dada. But now it is the computer to simply simulate all forms of chance, be
that mutations in evolutionary processes, stochastic calculations or simple
Stanislaw Lem has developed a whole
philosophy of chance stating the author to be a player in means of game theory,
who tests different variants of moves, who actually tests possible
transformations of the initial state of his work, while considering tactic
(micro structural) and strategic (macro structural) goals . Thus the process
of creation is defined as a queer and multiple undetermined construction
process. In this complex process the system emerges as the growth of
organization and at the same time as the reduction of susceptibility to noise.
But on the other hand it is this random factor as generator of variety, which
Not until there is found
equilibrium, the artwork is affected in an auto transformative motion.
It is not the place to further
engage in this fascinating theory, but one aspect should be added: Lem is sure
of the (literal) artwork being identical to the mental operations of its
reading. A truly cybernetic concept in accordance to Claude Shannon’ s
information and Max Bense’s aesthetic object, which seems extremely playful and
generative to us.
To complete our fast and
rough-textured thoughts we would like to mention the role of pleasure or
happiness within playing.
Ali Irtem, Turkish cyberneticist,
»The amount of happiness could be
seen as a measure of the adaptability of a cybernetic system at a given moment,
corresponding to the degree of efficiency in a mechanical system.« 
His happiness machinery might be a
nice example of a playful and open system design:
»System X can be seen as a man who
can only be happy when the condition p (p may also be a set of desires) is
attained. This condition, however, cannot yet be realized in system X; we
therefore have to amplify X’s amount of happiness through an additional and
appropriate regulation device. In order to do this, we have to couple system X
with another system S – S could be a woman – through channels G and U so that
each affects the other.
The new system S is able to attain a
state of equilibrium or happiness if the condition q is attained (again q could
be a set of conditions). Suppose now linkage G will allow q to occur in S if,
and only if, the happiness condition p occurs in X; S’s power of veto,
according to Ashby, now ensures that any state of happiness of the whole must
imply the happiness condition p in X.« 
Figure 3: The happiness machinery for amplifying happiness (Ali Irtem)
Irtem admits some limitations:
»A man’s or woman’s capacity as a
regulator cannot exceed his or her capacity as a channel of communication.
Anyway, the amplification rate of happiness by coupling, including marriage,
seems to be limited. Probably for this reason team-work is recommended, though
polygamy and harems are not allowed in many countries. Nevertheless, machines
and human beings must come together, in order to increase their intelligence
and to amplify their happiness.« 
 John von Neumann: First Draft of
a Report on the EDVAC, Pennsylvania 1945, 1.2
 John von Neumann: First Draft of
a Report on the EDVAC, Pennsylvania 1945, 2.2-2.6, 7.6
 Boris Groys: Mimesis des Denkens, in: Munitionsfabrik
15, Staatliche Hochschule für Gestaltung Karlsruhe (ed.), Karlsruhe 2005
 Boris Groys: Mimesis des Denkens, in: Munitionsfabrik
15, Staatliche Hochschule für Gestaltung Karlsruhe (ed.), Karlsruhe 2005
»Die einsame, unreduzierbare, unverfügbare Entscheidung der
autonomen künstlerischen Subjektivität wurde durch einen expliziten,
nachvollziehbaren, regelgeleiteten, algorithmischen Vorgang ersetzt, der im aus
ihm resultierenden Kunstwerk ablesbar wurde.«, p. 62/63
 Barbara Büscher: Vom Auftauchen des Computers in der
Kunst, in: Kaleidoskopien 5, Ästhetik als Programm, Berlin 2004
»Kunst hat für mich dann eine soziale Funktion, wenn sie
entmystifiziert ist, wenn sie dem Betrachter die Möglichkeit gibt, tätig
beteiligt zu sein, die Mechanismen auseinander zu nehmen, die Regeln zu
entdecken und sie dann selber ins Spiel zu setzen«, p. 234
 A form of self-organization.
In his Introduction to Cybernetics,
Ross W. Ashby describes communication directly as organization.
Ross W. Ashby, An Introduction to
Cybernetics, London 1956
 Buckminster Fuller cited on
 Stanislaw Lem: Die Philosophie des Zufalls (Polish
original 1975), Frankfurt/Main 1983, p. 78
, ,  Ali Irtem: Happiness,
amplified cybernetically, in: Cybernetics, Art and Ideas, Jasia Reichardt
(ed.), Greenwich 1971, p. 72ff
Ross W. Ashby, An Introduction to
Cybernetics, London 1956
Gregory Bateson: Steps of an Ecology
of Mind, Chicago 1972
Wolfgang Ernst: Barocke Kombinatorik als Theorie-Maschine,
Boris Groys: Über das Neue, Frankfurt/ Main 1999
John Holland: Games and Numbers, in:
Emergence, John Holland, Cambridge/Massachusetts 1998
W. Künzel/ Peter Bexte, Allwissen und Absturz. Der Ursprung
des Computers, Frankfurt/Main 1993
Stanislaw Lem: Die Philosophie des Zufalls (Polish original
1975), Frankfurt/Main 1983
John von Neumann/ Oscar Morgenstern:
Theory of Games and Economic Behavior (1953), Princeton 1970
Jasia Reichardt (ed.): Cybernetics,
Art and Ideas, Greenwich 1971