Intricacies of the human evolution determine the aesthetic of Karl Sims’ works

The anchor of digital evolutionary art, Karl Sims, allows the audience to understand the human evolution through its various stages.

by Dilpreet Bhullar Published on : Mar 06, 2020

When Victorian biologist Herbert Spencer coined the phrase ‘the survival of the fittest’, he succinctly summed up the evolutionary theory by English naturalist Charles Darwin. The indispensability of the expression could be gauged from its widespread usage in the social and cultural fields. The humankind has come a long way from the 19th century, and now the advent of the technology is instrumental to the survival of the fittest. Similar trends are visible within the discipline of art, where the technology upholds the future of the creative experience.

The anchor of digital evolutionary art, Karl Sims, with his computer-generated artworks let the audience have an interactive experience of Darwinian evolution of the human organism. When the art of technology plays a key role in defining the oeuvre of Sims, so does the artworks inadvertently hint at the fact that the future of visual arts lies in the success of the amalgamation between conceptual arts and technology? Sims answers this question in an exclusive interview with STIR, “Technology can provide very useful and flexible tools for visual arts creation, but I prefer to think of that as an option rather than a necessity for future success.”

Dark Thought - still from Seven Experiments in Procedural Animation | Karl Sims | STIRworld
Dark Thought - still from Seven Experiments in Procedural Animation Image Credit: Courtesy of Karl Sims

Not entirely determined by the technology, Sims’ Primordial Dance draws influence from the abstract art of the early 20th century. The video installation with 16 monitors was open for viewing at the Ars Electronica, Linz, and Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris (1993). The colour, composition, formation and line of the video begin the evolution from the first form of life available in the water body to the shape of the human body. With this video installation, the viewers could play with the tactile sensors to select the images and shape of the future generations. It may seem that calculative algorithm determines the logics of the shape, but the shape of the final organism was a conscious decision on the part of the artist. 

Echinoderm - still from Seven Experiments in Procedural Animation (2018) | Karl Sims | STIRworld
Echinoderm- still from Seven Experiments in Procedural Animation (2018) Image Credit: Courtesy of Karl Sims

The 12 computers of the work Galápagos were installed at the ICC in Tokyo (1997-2000) and at the DeCordova Museum in Lincoln and the Boston Cyberarts Festival (1999) that gave viewers a chance to choose an organism based on the aesthetic appeal. Like tactile sensors of the Primordial Dance, the viewers could stand on the sensors put up in front of the screens that allow the viewers to let the organisms follow the pattern of survival through the stages comprising mating and reproduction, and eventually mutation. Based on random mutation, the offspring born out of reproduction could be more attractive than their parents and the evolutionary cycle continues to produce a series of organisms. Interestingly, the organisms that are not selected disappear from the screens to give the audience a chance to understand the evolutionary systems. Here the simulated human evolution allows breeding process in hyperspace where the computer-generated codes dictate the results. 

Flow interactive exhibit in which fluid flow and other simulations react to the gestures and motions of visitors | Karl Sims | STIRworld
Flow interactive exhibit in which fluid flow and other simulations react to the gestures and motions of visitors Image Credit: Courtesy of Karl Sims

The five-minute version of Seven Experiments in Procedural Animation was exhibited at ARS Electronica in the Deep Space 8K Theater (2019) and the Animation Festival in Linz Austria (2019). It involved fractal algorithms, procedural noise, and technique of reaction-diffusion. Sims argues that the work Seven Experiments in Procedural Animation ‘evoke a biological aesthetic’, which makes one wonder if there is a special reason to render the moving images into the shapes of sea creatures and microscopic structures. Sims elucidates, “Many of my works involve generating emergent complexity and behaviour by using simple rules that give rise to interesting and unexpected results. This type of process is common in nature, and I enjoy when my simulations generate results that resemble biological patterns and shapes.”

Reaction-Diffusion still from Seven Experiments in Procedural Animation (2018) | Karl Sims | STIRworld
Reaction-Diffusion still from Seven Experiments in Procedural Animation (2018) Image Credit: Courtesy of Karl Sims

Even if the computer-generated codes and combinations dictate the logics of Sims’ artworks, its implicitly promises the survival of the humankind against all odds and makes one ponder that these possibilities demand excellence of the human mind and creativity.

Stalks - still from Seven Experiments in Procedural Animation | Karl Sims | STIRworld
Stalks - still from Seven Experiments in Procedural Animation Image Credit: Courtesy of Karl Sims

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About Author

Dilpreet Bhullar

Dilpreet Bhullar

Bhullar is a writer-researcher based in New Delhi. She has been co-editor of the books Third Eye: Photography and Ways of Seeing and Voices and Images. Her essays on visual sociology and identity politics are frequently published in leading books, journals and magazines. She is the associate editor of a theme-based journal dedicated to visual arts, published by India Habitat Centre.

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