Computer Artist Scott Draves to Speak at CMU | Program Notes
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Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Computer Artist Scott Draves to Speak at CMU

Posted By on Wed, Jan 18, 2012 at 1:40 PM

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The internationally recognized Draves, who grew up in Monroeville, speaks Mon., Jan. 23. The talk prefaces dedication of his latest algorithmically generated artwork, to be displayed in the school's Gates Hillman Center.

The poster says Draves will discuss the software behind his famed "Electric Sheep" project, but Draves says non-geeks shouldn't be intimidated: He'll also illuminate the philosophy behind his work, which employs computers to demonstrate the collaborative possibilities between machines and humans — and is ultimately all about letting computers do beautiful things we haven't programmed them to do.

In 1976, when he was in second grade, Draves encountered his first computer: the school's lone Apple II. "Nobody really knew what to do with it," Draves says by phone from New York, where he lives. "I started programming."

But even in 1990, when he enrolled in a computer-science doctoral program at Carnegie Mellon, Draves didn't conceive of the machines as having artistic possibilities. He credits his graduate adviser, the late Andy Witkin, with encouraging him to submit his work to an international art festival.

When Draves walked away from the Prix Ars Electronica with an honorable mention for his Flame algorithm, he says, "I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, this is art and it's worth working on it.'"

Now computer art is Draves' profession, typically video works generated by software, often with human input.

For years, until quite recently, one of his works the "moving painting" titled "Dreams in High Fidelity" — was displayed in the lobby at Google's corporate headquarters. Another work is currently exhibited at the Los Angeles County Museum of Contemporary Art; other venues have included art competitions in Montreal, Brazil, Madrid and Tokyo. 

Draves' new commission from CMU, "Generation 244," is actually his second from the school (a still accompanies this post); "Generation 243" is also displayed at the Gates Hillman Center, on the fifth floor.

Both those works are drawn from Draves' best-known ongoing project, Electric Sheep. In 1999, Draves activated software that created complex, abstract digital animations; some images suggest celestial forms, others microrganisms.

But the work is not "his," exactly. "I want to create an image that is beyond my imagination," says Draves. "I want to create something I couldn't think of."

Electric Sheep is actually a collaboration between Draves' software and, at latest count, some 450,000 computers and their users. The images are rendered as screen-savers that participants vote on. The images that are most popular "mate with each other and reproduce," as Draves has put it.

Draves is intrigued by the question of whether democracy and asthetics are compatible. He notes that the favorite Electric Sheep images tend to be "flashy [and] trashy" and symmetrically shaped — not his own preferences.

But for commissioned work, like those at CMU, he exerts editorial prerogative, curating and reshaping his favorites into high-definition video works.

The works are not loops, by the way: They're composed of a large number of sequences that combine and recombine in countless formulations.

And yes, Philip K. Dick fans, Electric Sheep is named in homage to the cult-favorite author whose story "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?" inspired the 1982 film Blade Runner.

Ironically, Dick foresaw advanced technology contributing to a dystopia. Draves' outlook is rather sunnier.

"He's a kind of techno-pessimist," says Draves. "I'm sort of a techno-optimist."

Draves speaks at 4 p.m. Mon., Jan. 23, in 6115 Gates Hillman; the talk is preceded by a reception and followed at 5 p.m. by an art tour.

The talk is free, see http://calendar.cs.cmu.edu/scsEvents/demo/7435.html for more information.

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