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November 14, 2023

The Power of the Plotter

Feral File’s new exhibition, +GRAPH, celebrates the art of generative drawing
Credit: Julien Gachadoat, Mineral #11 (detail), 2023. Courtesy of the artist
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The Power of the Plotter
+GRAPH is now open on Feral File, presenting works by Licia He, Joanie Lemercier, Aleksandra Jovanić, James Merrill, Iskra Velitchkova, and Julien Gachadoat.

In his curator’s note for Feral File’s new exhibition, +GRAPH, Casey Reas reminds us that most physical outputs today are digital prints: 

Sixty years ago, when generative art created with code was first evolving, it was all very different. Color screens and printing weren’t options. The majority of work from this time was created and experienced as physical drawings produced with a machine called a “plotter” [...] a physical drawing machine that holds a pen or other drawing tool and physically moves it across a sheet of paper.

Each of the six artists participating in +GRAPH has produced generative software that is capable of making infinite new drawings. They have then selected 30 variations to be plotted as single-editions. Five of those involved were also part of -GRAPH in 2021 — making this show a chance to track the formal development of a golden generation. In the intervening years, two of the artists, Julien Gachadoat and Aleksandra Jovanić, have evolved their practices as both creative coders and master plotters. Here, they discuss the art of generative drawing with Alex Estorick.

This conversation is also available as a podcast.

Alex Estorick: What can you tell us about the works you’ve contributed to +GRAPH?

Aleksandra Jovanić: It’s been exactly two years since -GRAPH, and our works are considerably different at both a technical and conceptual level. My original project explored apophenia — the tendency to perceive a connection or meaningful pattern between random things — which is a product of human psychology. My work for this exhibition, The Space in Between, focuses instead on negative space while incorporating surprising elements and plant-like structures. In the first edition, I emphasized the color of the paper, while this time I’m adding color in analog fashion — cutting adhesive stencils and applying a mix of dry pastels to produce smooth color gradients. 

However, only the final stage of the process is analog; everything else is generated through the algorithm in a controllable environment.
Aleksandra Jovanić, The Space in Between, 2023. Courtesy of the artist

Julien Gachadoat: Mineral is a continuation of the artworks I’ve been creating for some years now, which often combine lines and shapes ahead of being plotted. It begins with a square and therefore harks back to the original Feral File exhibition, -GRAPH. 

In this case, I applied the technique of random walkers — putting agents on a grid that move around according to certain predefined rules. 

For example, one walker might only be allowed to move north, south, east, or west, and be prevented from returning to the same position or crossing another walker’s path. Were this to happen, another walker would regenerate on a free area of the grid, thereby producing a series of discrete paths. I then use a technique known as a Voronoi diagram to subdivide the drawing space. Finally, I apply what I call “decorators” to the newly-created areas, which cover space with a set of coherent lines according to mathematical functions for orientation, spacing, etc. For Casey, it is these “decorators” that define my “world.” 

Julien Gachadoat, Mineral #1, 2023. Courtesy of the artist

AE: The quality of plotting machines as well as the ambitions of artists have evolved over time. But how can we reconcile a creative process that is born digitally with a physical output?

AJ: The pioneers of generative art needed to materialize their art in some way, and plotters were the best, or most convenient, way of doing so. But all technologies have advanced since the 1960s — these days, we’re more comfortable showing our pieces on screens because it allows for quicker execution and a multitude of colors, as well as time-based animation. Plotter art requires one to pre-empt the ultimate plotted output because it lacks the reliability of digital printing. Generative art demands constant awareness of the constraints of one’s medium, and working with plotters adds another layer of constraint. 

For this exhibition, we knew from the start that we needed to produce a plottable work. Julien is devoted to plotting so he always has that in mind, but I am constantly exploring different mediums and I had to let go of the things I usually use in my code in order to achieve something closer to my initial ideas. When I prepare a piece for plotting it’s either an SVG or some kind of vector format. 

The plotting itself is an interesting process to watch but not one to be interfered with — I press the button and wait for the work to emerge. That being said, there are generative forces in the environment that prevent an entirely controllable process.

JG: You have the system and then the plotter, and the element of surprise comes from the error and the texture of a line, which, on paper, is imperfect. Sometimes I use old pens because I like the linear texture that they provide. I feel that plotting adds value to the artwork through the unpredictability of analog materials, inks, and so forth. I also love the poetry of a single iteration on paper that I can hang on my wall.

Iskra Velitchkova, ANATOMY of a rabbit but bird, 2023. Courtesy of the artist

AE: There seem to be at least two sets of constraints here. On the one hand, the requirement to produce something physical, and, on the other hand, the requirements of long-form generative art, which demands a minimum level of quality as well as sufficient variety for the whole project to be interesting. How do you manage these different constraints?

JG: It’s difficult to build a system that has a large spectrum of possibilities because most of the time you end up having a set of outputs. In my practice, the essence of long-form generative art is the combination of algorithms. 

I like to build tools as much as I like to create outputs. Building a generative system means having a large variety of outputs, but something that helps me a lot in my practice is building tools with an ergonomic user interface with which I can navigate different possibilities. Surprises often emerge when values move beyond the bounds that are predetermined. In fact, a lot of my plotted artworks are generated based on values that lie outside a predefined minimum and maximum. 

Long-form generative projects are difficult because they demand both freedom and constraints. 
Aleksandra Jovanić, (Still from) The Space in Between #5, 2023. Courtesy of the artist

AE: How do you feel about the term, “long-form,” itself, which has become increasingly popular recently?

AJ: “Long-form” seems like an unfortunate choice of name for what we do as it seems to combine the influence of the market with the actual artwork. When we spoke with Manfred Mohr last year, we weren’t actually able to explain to him what it was. He insisted that what he does is make algorithms, and if he decides that a particular algorithm will produce similar outputs then that’s his choice and he doesn’t need a specific name for it. 

When we are forced to implement visual consistency across a variety of outputs it is a product of the market.
 Licia He, Fictional Lullaby, 2023. Courtesy of the artist

Traditional printmaking techniques such as etching, lithography, and screen-printing rarely involve editions of more than 100. In our case, editions are “printed” in low-cost fashion by simply clicking “mint.” But the benefit is that every edition can be substantially different, which is not always the case with analog printing processes. Our algorithms can produce millions of different outputs. For example, my piece in +GRAPH combines six different species of plant and eight background color gradients, while the silhouettes of buildings are composed randomly. When you see all 30 editions as thumbnails, you can see that they’re born of the same algorithm. I’m not enforcing too much variety, but I don’t see that it’s lacking something if it’s not considered “long-form.”

JG: The term, “long-form,” appeared with the rise of NFTs. But generative artists were creating work long before that. It’s a term that was defined for ease of communication but I am not sure “long-form” is evocative because what is “long”? Does it refer to length of time or quantity? I’m not sure about it. 

As Aleksandra has said, when you design something in the generative field, you’re going to have an infinite number of outputs. 
Julien Gachadoat, Mineral #4, 2023. Courtesy of the artist

AE: In his curator’s notes for both the original -GRAPH exhibition and +GRAPH, Casey Reas reminds us that before high-resolution printers and computers with screens, plotters were the primary way for code to produce images. How do you both relate to the pioneers of plotter art?

AJ: Our work is often inspired by the pioneers of generative art as well as their plots. Back in the 1960s and ’70s, artists were exploring the possibilities of the medium, which makes their algorithms more recognizable. One pioneering algorithm is Random Walk, which Julien focuses on in this exhibition. Today, we are building upon their work. 

When I am teaching, I often deconstruct works of the pioneers because they are more clear and concise than those produced now. But final outputs have always provoked interest — we are like curious children trying to understand how they were made. When I was writing my doctorate, my mentor asked me whether, in 20 or 50 years time, the code would still be comprehensible and I said “yes” because I will explain the algorithm, which could be rewritten in any programming language. 

An algorithm is just a set of instructions. In that way, it can be universal.

JG: The basic principles of computing that are used in the production of generative art haven’t changed since the days of Alan Turing. But algorithms have been used to solve problems since long before computers were invented. In the world of generative art there are also several drawing initiatives that don’t require a computer, including Conditional Design, Inigo Quilez’s “Human Shader,” as well as the Wall Drawings of Sol LeWitt. I actually produced a wall drawing for my first solo exhibition, “Lignes” in Bordeaux, France. I would like to renew that experimentation. 

James Merrill, Breakpoint. #8, 2023. Courtesy of the artist

AE: Is there a difference between the quality of an idea and the caliber of the code? 

AJ: In generative art the technical part (code writing) overlaps with the idea, concept, and other criteria applied when assessing whether something is art. I feel that, sometimes, the focus on the code is overly amplified. 

Simple code can produce good art if there is a strong concept behind it.

JG: Outputs are related to the capacity of the code. In my practice, I see my code as a series of big blocks that I connect together in order to iterate faster. It’s nothing new to have libraries that are open enough to be reused in other systems. When I examine other artists’ code online which is not obfuscated, I can often recognize their approach and even their style. Likewise, James Merrill has done a code review of Tyler Hobbs’s Fidenza (2021) that is very interesting to me. The code you write conditions the outputs — what is difficult is trying to be as open as possible. 

Aleksandra Jovanić, (Still from) The Space in Between #13, 2023. Courtesy of the artist

AE: Earlier this year, the artist Jeff Davis spoke of how he tends to move “toward more flattened space,” regarding flatness as “a smaller algorithmic space with fewer opportunities and possibilities.” Julien, your project, Mineral, seems to be preoccupied with filling space. You also decided to work white on black. What prompted that decision?

JG: For Mineral, I tried several sets of colors, and white on black produced the most impactful visual result. It was a challenge for me because, ordinarily, plotting white on black is more difficult than the other way round. 

In my practice, I try to reduce everything to drawn lines in order to achieve beautiful combinations while navigating parametric spaces. But my artworks have to please me before I present them to the public. I have a lot of work that I never show because I feel it’s not good. 
Joanie Lemercier, Fine Particles #24, 2023. Courtesy of the artist

AE: Aleksandra, how does your project, The Space in Between, reference urban life in Belgrade?

AJ: Recently, I realized that I don’t appreciate how many sunny days we have here. Belgrade lies on hilly terrain, so one is constantly moving up and down. On sunny days, buildings cast long shadows and all one sees is in between. 

At a conceptual level, I’m outlining this negative space, using it to draw the viewer’s gaze to that which is overlooked. All surprises happen in the space between.

The new forms, growths, and plant-like creatures that are generated by my code represent resilience, adaptation, and strength over long periods of time. The animation is there to amplify this life.   

AE: Julien, you’re part of a wave of leading French generative artists. What makes France such a fertile space for this new movement to emerge?

JG: There has been a strong community of generative artists in France for some time. Mark Webster was organizing Processing Paris ten years ago, and the Processing community has been an amazing vector for making people discover generative art. Today, the rise of long-form and generative systems on NFT platforms has really helped to display and promote generative art in general. 

Julian Gachadoat, Mineral #11, 2023. Courtesy of the artist

AE: For +GRAPH, each physical drawing has a single owner. But their digital counterparts will likely live different lives. It feels like the tokenization of digital art has elevated the born digital object above the physical. What is your perspective?

JG: I do not see a hierarchy. I regard NFTs as a great way to distribute and sell digital artworks. The idea of generating artworks on-chain while buying one’s work is still mind-blowing to me. In this case, one can see the NFT as a digital certificate of a unique physical plot.

AJ: A few weeks ago, a friend of mine was visiting and I gifted him one of my test prints. Later, I realized that the piece he’d chosen captures the last frame of an animation. Now, I feel that I should mint the code and send him the NFT as a certificate of authenticity. In this case, the digital work carried so much more weight. For +GRAPH, all the works started as digital objects, but the plotter drawings are inseparable final components — each representation carries its own delight.

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+GRAPH is now open on Feral File, presenting works by Licia He, Joanie Lemercier, Aleksandra Jovanić, James Merrill, Iskra Velitchkova, and Julien Gachadoat. The collecting period runs for 24 hours from Thursday 16 November at 16.00 UTC.

Julien Gachadoat has been exploring generative drawing for many years, creating unique art with algorithms. He works with the emergence of abstract form, combining monochrome and geometric shapes, playing with repetition, and using random operations to generate an element of surprise. Developing his own tools of creation based on simple graphic rules, Julien uses the computer — “this unique performer” (Vera Molnár) — to explore the formal possibilities that ensue. It is through the process of printing these unique pieces using plotters that he creates a link between text and code. He brings together the computer and the pencil on paper while combining the rigor of code with the poetry of art. Julien grew up making visuals with code as part of the demoscene of the 1990s and programming languages have been his principal creative tools ever since.

Aleksandra Jovanić is an artist and programmer from Belgrade, Serbia. She holds a doctorate in digital arts and a BSc in computer science. In her research and artistic practice she combines various media, mainly in the field of interactive art, art games, and generative art. Jovanić’s recent works focus on the aesthetic of data visualization and optical illusions, as well as explorations of accepted concepts of truth and reality. Her work has been exhibited internationally in exhibitions at Unit London, VERTICAL, Feral File, Vellum LA, and Art Basel. As an assistant professor, she currently teaches all three levels of study at the Faculty of Fine Arts in Belgrade, at MA level at the Faculty of Applied Arts, and at PhD level at the University of Arts in Belgrade.

Alex Estorick is Editor-in-Chief at Right Click Save.