Casey Reas on the History of Generative Art - Part 2

In Part 2 of this two-part conversation, the Le Random team speaks with Casey Reas, artist, UCLA professor and co-founder of Processing and Feral File. We touch on a variety of subjects, including historical generations, the most overlooked decades and the location of artistic intent in generative work.
About the Author
Casey Reas, Pfft!, 2014. Courtesy of the artist
Casey Reas, Pfft!, 2014. Courtesy of the artist

In Part 2 of this two-part conversation, the Le Random team speaks with Casey Reas, artist, UCLA professor and co-founder of Processing and Feral File. We touch on a variety of subjects, including historical generations, the most overlooked decades and the location of artistic intent in generative work. Read Part 1 here.

Peter Bauman
: At Le Random, we think of generative art history by generation, informing our collection as well as projects like our Generative Art Timeline. We’ve identified eight phases that fit into three very broad generations: 

  • Generation 1: 1950s - 1980s (The Computer Era)
  • Generation 2: 1990s - 2014 (The Internet Era) 
  • Generation 3: 2015 - today (The On-Chain Era)

Can you talk about how you would group the different generations of digital generative artists?

Casey Reas
: I think of the first generation as the “Mainframe Era.” And then I think of the second as the “Studio Era.” When computers went into artist studios, it was a major change and a major shift. The Apple II (1977), Commodore 64 (1982) and Commodore Amiga (1985) all represent enough of a change, moving out of the research labs and into artist studios, that it's a whole other era.

When computers became accessible for artists rather than through these intermediaries, that was a real surge in this medium.

Peter Bauman: That makes sense to think about generations in terms of the accessibility of computers.

Casey Reas:
Another distinction I make (and it's a bit fuzzy and problematic) is that a lot of the earliest people to make images with computers were trained as mathematicians, engineers and scientists. Then eventually people who were trained as artists started working in the medium too. 

Who is an artist? Who's not an artist? That's a really terrible thing to make decisions about. Frieder Nake oftentimes finds his way onto lists of artists even though he's a trained mathematician and a professor outside of the arts. Then other people like A. Michael Noll had a full career as a scientist. People like Ken Knowlton had a full research lab career. But I think that moment when trained artists like Manfred Mohr and Vera Molnár began to write their own code is another interesting piece of it too. 

Early-Internet and Flash Eras

Peter Bauman: This reminds me of Grant Taylor’s description in When the Machine Made Art of the 1970s as the decade of the artist-programmer. Your two points go hand-in-hand because the greater accessibility of computers in the mid-70s certainly facilitated the attraction of trained artists. Are there any other interesting generational distinctions you’d make?

Casey Reas: I think the time around the early Internet has a couple distinct eras too. First, you have the original Net art moment from the mid ‘80s to the late ‘90s. I think artists like JODI were doing really interesting work in the browser that I consider to be generative, using only standard HTML, form elements and things like that. 

That existed prior to the Flash era and the Java applet moment that happened just a little bit later. There was this moment from say 1999 to maybe 2010 where several of the artists who are making work now on fxhash and Art Blocks were active in that Flash community. There were a lot of international conferences in Barcelona and Toronto where people were getting together and sharing knowledge.

I lived through it [laughs] so I know about these early moments of Flash developing scripting capabilities because it was originally a timeline-based animation program. That was a huge surge in people getting engaged with coding and visual art for the first time. I really don't think that's been looked into relative to the ‘60s.

Generative Art in the ‘80s and ‘90s

Conrad House: We spoke to Georg Bak recently and he mentioned that the ‘80s were particularly overlooked in generative art history. The ‘90s are overlooked but there are still resources like Rhizome’s Net Art Anthology. What stands out to you within the decade of the ‘80s?

Casey Reas: In the early ‘90s and late ‘80s, the HyperCard (1987) software was really essential. A lot of poets and a lot of artists were making HyperCard stacks in this multimedia environment to make generative work with. Around that same time was the Director software (1987). When I was cutting my teeth in this world, everything was being made with Macromedia Director.

It preceded Flash as the medium that people were making work in. A timeline that I could get really excited about would be the tools that generative artists use and how that evolved over time. This time period was also the CD-ROM era. There were a number of extraordinary, experimental releases on CD-ROM made with Director, for example by LIA, which is also skipped over a lot. 

LIA and Dextro, Turux, 1997-2001. Courtesy of the artist
LIA and Dextro, Turux, 1997-2001. Courtesy of the artist

This was a very complicated time period. You had the so-called Algorists, Jean-Pierre Hebert and Roman Verostko, in the mid-90s continuing to make work along with artists like Mark Wilson and David Em. They were doing a lot of work at this time that wasn’t necessarily generating much interest.

David Em provided covers for a few Herbie Hancock albums, including Future Shock (1983) which I just received in the mail recently. This was an interesting example of generative art making its way into popular culture in the ‘80s.

David Em, Mar, 1985. Courtesy of the artist
David Em, Mar, 1985. Courtesy of the artist

David Em was one of those tenacious people who just made his way into labs. He was doing a lot of his work from midnight to 5 a.m. at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) for a while. He was working with Jim Blinn's code. Blinn was a really important computer graphics pioneer who wrote the code to make the Voyager satellite simulations.

People at that time also got acclimated to computer graphics through the history of Hollywood film. For example, John Whitney developed the effect that was used in 2001: A Space Odyssey for the time tunnel sequence.

Where the artwork lies

Peter Bauman: What advice would you give a non-coder or a non-technical person to better appreciate the process side of generative art, the coding?

Casey Reas:
The tricky thing for me is:

I treat the system as the artwork. Each output is an instance of that system; it's a representation of what the system is. It's something that can be enjoyed and appreciated. For me, the primary work is that system that generates all those things. 

For a long-form series of a thousand outputs, the “work” is the space of possibilities: those one thousand pieces. That for me is where the art lies. It's looking at the series as a whole that allows you to develop an appreciation and understanding about that system.

Another point is that the code is not the art. The code is not it. The code is a way of articulating ideas but there's nothing interesting, special or unique about the code. The true system exists on a level below the code. The code is the way that I can precisely articulate that idea but I could articulate each project in a half dozen different languages.thefunnyguys: How about when non-generative artists collaborate with coders on a project. Do you think a generative artist has to be both the coder and creative driver?

Casey Reas: I think they can be separated.

Personally, I couldn't make the work I make unless I was doing the coding because I discover the work through the act of making it the way a painter discovers the painting in the act of doing.

I don't really know what I'm going to make when I start; I work intuitively. In most cases the work happens in those details and unexpected things occuring while you're building. These lead the work in different directions that are oftentimes way more interesting than where you had started. I'm a believer in the hybrid, in the coder-artist-philosopher. But I think there are exceptions. Code is its own way of thinking, its own medium. People can have access to that without technically being able to implement the software. 

I think that If someone is a thinker in systems and is able to think through logic, that's what's really essential for this medium.

Overlooked Artists

thefunnyguys: From the Flash era or otherwise, are there any other artists that you believe deserve more recognition?

Casey Reas:
Yeah, it's a super good question. Robert Hodgin, Karsten Schmidt (Toxi), Marius Watz, Karl Sims and Zach Lieberman all come to mind. Golan Levin is a really important figure in this history. He isn’t making as much work now but has had consistently strong work throughout his career.

One thing that of course happened with the artists in the Flash era was limited support. There weren't people collecting this work. A lot of people weren't able to pursue this as a path and moved into industry. When you're young and you're in your early 20s your options are more flexible. As life gets longer you have to make hard decisions.

A lot of people weren't able to pursue this course. Otherwise, who knows what would have happened if there would have been support for this work at that moment.

thefunnyguys: Praystation, Joshua Davis, also moved into more commercial work.

Casey Reas:
That’s right and Joshua, of course, should also be on that list. Aaron Koblin made a lot of amazing work in the mid-2000s but then he went off and co-founded a VR company. That early Flash work is so strong and I think it deserves to be recognized for what it is.

Joshua Davis, ps2.praystation.v1, 1999. Courtesy of the artist
Joshua Davis, ps2.praystation.v1, 1999. Courtesy of the artist

Peter Bauman: Do you think that NFTs have enabled more artists these days to make a living off of their practice alone whereas 20 years ago they would have needed to go into an industry career or academia.

Casey Reas:
Yeah, completely. 

I think that's the potential of all this. There are people who instead of focusing on this from eight at night until one in the morning are able to put their best energy into things. 

The work is deepening as a result of that. It just wasn't possible before. 

I mean just to be blunt about it. You had to have something else to pay the bills.

Randomness and Emergence

Peter Bauman: Could you talk about the role of randomness in your work?Casey Reas: The lack of control in my practice varies from one work to the next but randomness is always present; it's always there. What I'm really interested in is the way randomness plays into nature: things like mutation allowing unexpected things to happen. For some work, it's just a slight amount and for other works, it really is driving things. 

When you talk about long-form versus short-form, I've done a lot of short-form work over the years and in that work randomness can take a really strong role. Maybe one out of a thousand is like, “Wow!” and the rest are not as interesting. But when you get into needing everything that the system produces to be a viable work, then one of two things happens. Either you have a ton of different conditions in the code or you just temper and tune the randomness extremely well. 

For me, I use randomness in the same way that artists got excited about randomness over one hundred years ago: as a way of getting around my biases, getting around my taste. When I see something unexpected, I know it; it just hits me. So randomness is a really good technique to get to something that's really unexpected.

Another thing that's essential for me and wasn't possible in the early days is the idea of emergence. The idea of growing compositions where what it looks like after ten minutes only could be because of how it looked after five seconds and after sixty seconds. Something that’s been a part of my work forever is working with code in a way where I'm not in control of the final form precisely but that form emerges through the system and the interactions I developed within the code.

Emergence is adding time to the process, adding growth to the process. When you do that, randomness unfolds in a different way. Instead of a big amount of randomness once like an early Frieder Nake plotter drawing, emergence is a tiny amount of randomness 60 times per second over a half hour.

Peter Bauman: Emergence goes back to developments in generative life and artificial life. Whose work do you admire from that space? 

Casey Reas:
A lot of this work was done by researchers. Conway's Game of Life, Craig Reynolds’s Boids and Langton's ant are all endlessly fascinating artificial life simulations. Boids is a simulation of flocks of birds as a decentralized system. You have a set of rules such as: “Be near the other elements but don't touch them” or “Match the heading or vector of the others.” From these simple rules, incredibly fascinating and complex murmurs emerge. Myself and other artists take a lot from artificial life research.

Standout Projects

Peter Bauman: Are there any projects of your own that you're particularly proud or fond of? What about them makes them stand out to you?

Casey Reas:
I love all my children but I'll spotlight three of them. The Process Compendium (2004-2014) work is really essential. Before that I was using algorithms and ideas that came from different sources. 

On the Process Compendium work, I made my entire system completely from nothing; I invented my own world with it. That was the first time I had done that and I worked on that with intensity for seven years.

Casey Reas, Process 4, 2005. Courtesy of the artist
Casey Reas, Process 4, 2005. Courtesy of the artist

It also spanned works on paper, fabricated objects, video and performance where software was really the core of everything. It was formative in stretching and exploring what I saw was the broadest possible way of working with code and how it manifests itself in different ways.

The next one I'll pick is the work that I did with machine learning and GANs from 2016 to 2020. That was just a completely different way of working, allowing me to move into cinema, something I've been wanting to do for a very long time. The images are basically the core of the videos and then how they translated into cinematic work is just something that I feel really strongly about.

The last one is my Still Life work, which is about the fundamental nature of digital images. That work really cuts to the core of what it means to simulate and render a digital environment. At the same time, it's an extension of the ideas of Cubism and early 20th century abstract movements. It involved looking at an object, not through a photographic lens, but from many different points of view at the same time, compressing them into one image plane.


Casey Reas is a software artist and Professor of Design Media Arts at UCLA. In 2001, alongside Ben Fry, he co-founded Processing, a free, open-source programming language and environment for artists. He is also the co-creator of Feral File, an online platform for exhibiting, selling, and collecting digital art. He holds an MA in Media Arts and Sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a BA from the College of Design, Architecture, Art, and Planning at the University of Cincinnati. Reas’s software, prints, and installations have featured in numerous solo and group exhibitions at museums and galleries in the United States, Europe, and Asia. His work ranges from small works on paper to urban-scale installations, and he balances solo work in the studio with collaborations with architects and musicians. His work is included in a number of private and public collections, including the Centre Pompidou, Paris and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. 

Peter Bauman (Monk Antony) is Le Random's Editor-in-Chief.

thefunnyguys is the co-founder and CEO of Le Random, managing the overall direction of Le Random and spearheading its acquisitions.

Conrad House is Le Random's Collection Lead, collaborating closely with thefunnyguys to build Le Random’s iconic, cross-generational generative art collection.