Harold Cohen

 “They [the artists] have to get somebody as a progenitor so as not to look as though they invent it all by themselves.  But art will be sunk or drowned by technology. […] Technology will surely drown us. The individual is disappearing rapidly. We’ll eventually be nothing but numbered ants.”

Marcel Duchamp.

Yesterday I started to read about the artist Harold Cohen, who dedicated his career to programming a machine to make artistic decisions, to draw and paint. I read the following Studio International article published in 2017 ‘Delving into Coding: the Art of Harold Cohen’: https://www.studiointernational.com/index.php/delving-into-coding-the-art-of-harold-cohen-aaron-computer-generated Cohen was said to have dived into the depths of plots and codes to explore how programming could be used as a form of creative expression. He gradually tested its limitations and potentialities, adapting his programming as he learned and comparing it to his own painting practice. I was really interested to read about the ways Cohen interacted with the computer, how he was surprised that the thought processes involved in programming were similar to those he applied to painting. I noted this down because to me it indicates Cohen’s perception of digital materiality, how he manipulated it and worked around its constraints. I like the idea of digitality as malleable and playful, not merely consisting of equations and existing in 2-dimensional form.

Image source: https://www.studiointernational.com/index.php/delving-into-coding-the-art-of-harold-cohen-aaron-computer-generated

What fascinated Cohen was not writing instructions to see something made (which is a common perception of coding), but the fact that some of the instructions generated forms he had never imagined before. I would be really interested to witness this process, to understand where the potential for innovation and unexpected and unintended results arises. [The article Keys to Ai Art: Structured Output and Direct Interaction (2019) by Erik Ulberg details the feedback systems and algorithms that Cohen used.] Indeed, Cohen was driven by this – by the possibility of setting up commands that would enable the machine to make artistic decisions. For me, the potential for technological objects to make seemingly independent decisions is the most engaging aspect of Cohen’s work. Due to this element of unpredictability, it can be linked to the model of digital materiality (discussed in a previous post) as unbounded and adaptable.

“My work at that time was neither abstract in a geometric sense nor was it figurative. It sort of hovered in a kind of space of evocation in which elements were present in a way that enabled the viewer to build meanings, compiling them into a single image. The question that lingered was: what was the minimum configuration of a set of marks that functions as a single image which appeals to the human vision? Therefore, the programme must have features that are very similar to the human cognitive system.”

Cohen during interview, 2015

Many of the images included in this post were created by Cohen’s machine AARON – one of the first and most complex software programs for computer-generated art. In the 1990s, once Cohen had enabled AARON to produce colour and no longer had to colour the images by hand using fabric dye (Procion), he built a series of digital painting machines to output AARON’s images in ink and fabric dye (Chiswick Auctions, 2021). Cohen never showed AARON any images, but taught it with lists of object/body elements and the relationships between them. These are fundamental rules that allow a robot that has never seen a human or a chair or flower to nevertheless paint something that looks like an abstract representation of those things (Moss, 2015).

The Cohen quote above references a ‘space of evocation’. I found the process of looking at AARON’s paintings incredibly stimulating and believe that this ‘space’ or aesthetic friction was integral to my reaction. I found myself analysing each mark and form, imagining how they were made and wondering what inspired it, thinking about whether it was planned or whether it was actually determined by technological constraints. I viewed these images on a laptop at home with no access to detailed interpretation. The tension between geometric and figurative, man-made and machine made are really important. I believe that ambiguity is key to my positive reaction and feelings of intrigue. The process of imagining how each mark was made and why particular colours were chosen motivates me to keep visually exploring the images. To what extent is Aaron a reflection of Cohen’s artistic identity and how much collaboration was involved? For me it’s important that these questions are left open to interpretation and remain unanswered.

As part of my role as Gallery Assistant at the Lowry, during one temporary exhibition I was responsible for operating/assisting a drawing machine. The machine took photographs of visitors to the gallery when prompted to do so by me or another staff member; it used this photograph to draw an abstract portrait of the sitter with a biro and paper. The machine interpreted areas of light and shade to create the portraits. Some were identifiable of the sitter, whereas others were almost completely unrecognisable. The sketches were over-worked with black holes for eyes and too much emphasis on the shaded areas around the neck or the hair. The process and therefore the resulting portraits quickly lost any appeal to me as I could see how the images were produced. The machine itself didn’t seem to have any creative control. The machine had an arm that both drew and looked up at the sitter intermittently. Despite this human-like feature, it had no ‘uncanny’ allure. The uncanny valley has relevance here – the uncanny valley is the hypothesised relationship between the degree to which an object resembles a human being and the emotional response to this. As stated on Wikipedia: The concept suggests that humanoid objects which imperfectly resemble actual human beings provoke uncanny or strangely familiar feelings of eeriness and revulsion in observers. This also alludes to the friction between the human / figurative and the replica / geometric. My eventual understanding of how the drawing robot worked removed any uncanny potential.

This has inspired me to conduct further research. I will read the book Digital Art Through the Looking Glass: New strategies for archiving, collecting and preserving in Digital Humanities (2019). I am quite interested in the first chapter, Early New Media Art. The search for originality in technological art and its challenges for preservation. I also hope to read the article below which was first published in 1974.

On Purpose: An enquiry into the possible roles of the computer in art

This is not another article about ‘computer art’


I will read more about creating art with code and continue my research into digital art that can be viewed from home to add to my digital objects table that I’ve been compiling as a resource for my dissertation.

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