San Base: Computer Graphics Avant-Garde

What Is Generative Art?

Courtesy: San Base

Plato stated that "necessity is the mother of invention." How true this is. Computers have aided mankind in ways too numerous to recount in a simple article. New problems demand new solutions, so we improve processes as well as designing new tools to help us innovate further. In the realm of computers we constantly upgrade parts with whatever is newer, better and faster.

Computer graphics continues to be the single biggest driving force for innovation in the world of computer hardware technologies. Twice a year we come to expect new generations of graphics processors, and we continue to see a doubling of performance with each major step forward. On the other hand, CPUs, memory, motherboards and storage have hit performance levels that do not necessarily yield greater performance returns with subsequent advances.

The advent of clusters and supercomputers has pushed computationally heavy applications forward, but at a great price. For the general population, these are out of the realm of possibility, while graphics continues to unlock greater potential for all with each progression. Far from its beginning, computer graphics hardware does much more than merely displaying an image on a screen. Over the past few years we have asked graphics hardware to manipulate data, compute massive blocks of information for projects like protein folding and physics, and make our games and digital content look better than it ever has before.

There are new fields of study being created to try to tackle the untapped potential of the graphics processor. In particular, an interesting discipline called Generative Art (GA) is merging the highly technical and mathematical practices with art utilizing computer graphics hardware. Philip Galanter, a professor at NYU, defines GA to his students as "any art practice where the artist uses a system, such as a set of natural language rules, a computer program, a machine, or other procedural invention, which is set into motion with some degree of autonomy contributing to or resulting in a completed work of art."

You might have heard generative forms of music that use randomizations or preset patterns to change sounds of speech and music. If you were using Windows 95 you most definitely heard something composed by generative musician/artist Brian Peter George St. Baptiste de la Salle Eno - better known as Brian Eno. He also did pieces for David Bowie, Talking Heads, and U2.

Moving to the visual arts, you might have seen images of fractal geometry (repeating geometric shapes) put to a color palette. A lot of research has gone into the visual aspect of generative art as far back as the 1980s, with projects designed on supercomputers by artisans like Karl Sims. For SIGGRAPH 1990, Sims created a short animation called "Panspermia." This animation was later used in 1994 by the musical group Pantera for its cover of Black Sabbath's 'Planet Caravan.' (

Both musical and visual are generative art forms, but in the domain of visual arts, we are far from the day of using 65,536 SIMD processors in a Thinking Machines' CM-2 for projects like Panspermia. We were fortunate to spend some time with current day artist San Base (Pronounced: San-Ba-Say'). He is an artist at the forefront of this exciting field, who is using consumer graphics hardware in conjunction with his own proprietary programming to create some of the most remarkable visual compositions in a field he calls "Dynamic Painting."