From Fingers to Digits: An Artificial Aesthetic

From Fingers to Digits: An Artificial Aesthetic
Margaret A. Boden and Ernest A. Edmonds

The MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 2019
392 pp., illus. 27 b/w, 16 col. Trade, $50.00
ISBN: 9780262039628.

Reviewed by
Bronac Ferran
December 2020

It may seem paradoxical, given the frequent references in Boden and Edmonds' co-authored book, to 'the fine art bubble,' cast as seemingly adversarial to generative art practices, that shortly after its publication, an artwork based on 'generative adversarial networks' was sold at a fine art auction for almost half a million dollars. A few months later at Sotheby's in London, another artwork made in a related way fetched (as the press recounted) a relatively 'disappointing' $50,000, despite being described by its curator as 'turning a page in art history.' We might speculate on how such events might affect a potential opening chapter of a potential 2nd volume of Boden and Edmonds' Fingers to Digits: An Artificial Aesthetics, a book that in many ways backfills aspects of the historical gap such a comment reveals. The book has many other levels of topicality that its eminent co-authors may (or may not) have anticipated. Who indeed might have foreseen todays' global pandemic and our puzzled 2020 mindset where the very reality of fingers and artificiality of digits has been thrown into the air for all of us to consider whilst residing in our ubiquitous bubbles. Yet, in effect, with its significant thematic resonance, the book re-encodes into our 'quarantine zero' moment (to cite a prescient term used by Piene) an otherwise endangered memory of iterative and propulsive shifts over the course of the last century, towards our contemporary and generative digital quotidian.

Charting its thematic course, as if working from two different corners of a multilayered map, Boden and Edmonds succeed in drawing contour lines that others will follow and will add to further, addressing in so doing some of the gaps that become apparent in this publication. Developed over several years, it reflexively draws on published work by both authors, as well as presenting new writing, bringing into focus the need to consider the question of machine intelligence, and its seeming autonomy, in relation to human agency and indeed to issues of causality. It asks us to consider the role of generative artificial intelligence as a particular in this relation, as a step even further away from the conventional role of the individual artist or craftsperson, if conceived in Ruskinian terms, according to Boden.    In the second part of the book, Edmonds takes the lead on six chapters and is at his lucid best in writing about the emergence of process-led, interactive tendencies alongside the adoption of computers for artistic practices from the late sixties onwards, reflecting an exceptional combination of systems thinking with a visual artist's sensibility. So too we hear the authentic voice of the artist, drawn out in interviews led by Edmonds, where he reveals an understated ability to ask the right questions empathetically in dialogue with Paul Brown, Cohen, Julie Freeman, Aaron Marcus, Alex May, Alex McLean, Manfred Mohr and Aaron Marcus. These exchanges remind us that one of the leading characteristics of generative art practices is to continually reinvent the associated terminology, to keep it live as in live coding, or in software based art processes generally.

Most importantly, we gain access through the combining of professorial voices in this publication to a sense of the time that it has taken for ideas being sounded in the sixties, as witnessed directly by Boden and Edmonds to enter into mainstream circulation. A 1977 book by Boden, entitled Artificial Intelligence and Natural Man, soon became a classic text in related cognitive science literature. Yet Boden's tendency in terms of contemporary art analysis is to go narrow, focusing intensively on individual artists whose work she admires, notably the late Harold Cohen, whilst making rather sweeping statements in relation to art historical developments more generally. Whilst Boden's analysis of a Ruskinian resistance to machine-led practices might seem old-fashioned to Leonardo readers, it becomes clear that this is exactly the turf that is being churned up in the contemporary press coverage of the so-called groundbreaking art auction sales.

My main criticisms? Diagrams, rather than head-spinning acronyms, in Chapter 2’s attempt at a taxonomy of computer related/digital media art practices would have been welcomed. One also regrets a slight error in the title of Georg Nees' computer graphics exhibition in Stuttgart in February 1965; so too situating Gustav Metzger among 'maverick' artists who were not engaged with computer science and linking his auto destructive art practices only to bags of rubbish left in galleries is an over-simplification. But that's another history.