Often when procedural generation is mentioned, someone will express, without room for debate, that things generated by an algorithm can never match up to the human touch. It’s always a huffy kind of statement, like it’s a waste of time to even consider any virtues. Really, it should be obvious, these styles of creation are not competing whatsoever. Still, people recoil at art that cannot transfer directly into some agreed upon essence of humanity, art that doesn’t reflect some soul or personality. That which cannot be rooted in the skill and cunning of its creator. It can seem like rejecting a personal touch is undermining the statements and abilities of a human author. Underpinning this an implicit fear that the recognition and social capital of the artist is under attack. As if making things needs to service the potential of perfect human genius, where each part is positioned with the utmost care; art as a contest of how much a master agonizes over small details.
Automatic art, random art, aleatoricism, mean to leave some part of the process of creation up to chance, though each in different ways. Automatism has a history in spiritualism—unconscious writing was believed to be the work of possession or some kind of psychic link with the afterlife. I can’t claim those or any irrational conclusion as false, because automatic art is an expression of the irrational. Classic surrealists were enamored with automatic techniques. They allow for creation uninhibited by rules or expectations, communication without any specific code-switching. Subconscious art can emulate dreams, incorporate the unexplained, pay tribute to the real omnipresent factor of the arbitrary.
I’ve written and drawn automatically; it is actually my preferred process. How I feel and how it works is difficult to explain. I clear my mind of all thought, I try to blot out consciousness, and create an illusion of having no material ties. In this trance my hand or hands move on their own, creating a sequence that immediately resonates with me, but if I tried to produce it actively I would be unable. It resembles prayer, an unbidden trust into aether and void and nothing else. It doesn’t compare to conscious creation.
I see aleatoricism as linked to procedural design in videogames, though the unconscious factor is not the unknown of self, but the presence of the unknown and the unpredictable in technology. The underpinning potential of glitches and mechanical failure; a slight defect in a videocard or because of arbitrary conditionals everything can go wrong. How in software’s immense complexity, most users have little understanding of the mechanizations which enable them. The order of operations is different, the mistrust is the same. Thoughtless art erodes entire pantheons of stress, of ideology, of worship to the altar of craftsmanship. Automatic art is blasphemy. If the artist doesn’t care about the arrangement, why should I?
Max Ernst, 'Forest and Sun', 1931 (Graphite frottage)
Max Ernst wrote this about frottage, an automatic technique he developed himself, in Beyond Painting:
Beginning with a memory of childhood in the course of which a panel of false mahogany, situated in front of my bed, had played the role of optical provocateur of a vision of half-sleep, and finding myself one rainy evening in a seaside inn, I was struck by the obsession that showed to my excited gaze the floor-boards upon which a thousand scrubbings had deepened the grooves. I decided then to investigate the symbolism of this obsession, and, in order to aid my meditative and hallucinatory faculties, I made from the boards a series of drawings by placing on them, at random, sheets of paper which I undertook to rub with black lead. In gazing attentively at the drawings thus obtained, “the dark passages and those of a gently lighted penumbra,” I was surprised by the sudden intensification of my visionary capacities and by the hallucinatory succession of contradictory images superimposed, one upon the other, with the persistence and rapidity characteristic of amorous memories.
Frottage is a collage of rubbed, often uneven surfaces, like wood or dried paint, laid over each other. It’s indebted to and inseparable from whatever material is rubbed over. The strokes are essentially chosen at whim and fancy, based on whatever shapes seem impressive in materials the artist has on hand. They’re traced and retraced until a shape apparent appears, which then the goal becomes to bring the cohesive manifestation to life. At least, that’s how I assume the process goes. The sheer technical ability needed to pull off a legible work of frottage seems insurmountable. What is notable, and interesting, is that a work starts from a common and mundane shape. There may likely be a specific vision guiding each rubbing from the start, but the textures already existed, they’re just being collected and curated. I don’t think the way the rubbings end up informing each other can be perfectly anticipated.
La forêt was made for Ludum Dare 34 with a theme of growing. It’s is a tribute to Max Ernst I would describe as a procedural sculpture. The piece creates what can be called the found and formed—unlike frottage, or general collages, that assemble the already found and formed. Booting the game drops a player into a breathing landscape with blurry details. Land rolls like the ocean, the tops of which move and shift like bedspread. The lack of a definite shape gives off an ethereal quality. Looking around smears textures together, blurring the colors of the ground, moon, and sky. The blur effect has a vague resemblance to thick brush strokes. Perception itself becomes expressionist, exaggerated by how point of view is approached, synthesizing the relationship of viewing and interpreting with creation. Floating in front of the player apparition is a smeared, barely wide, paintlike texture. I interpret it as a sapling. A left mouse click embeds it into the dreamscape.
The seedling is planted. Giant, wider versions of the original paintsmear start to manifest randomly in the world, growing at odd angles. Each time a new tree appears, one of various echoing percussive sounds play. Because of the mixture of gray and green from the treelike paint, the blur effect takes over the entire screen. Trees grow in at a crescendo: the initial intervals between new growths are a few seconds apart, eventually escalating to rapid growth with no delay. Play comes from changing perspective to stumbling on harrowing sights. Randomness factors: how elevated the ground has become, from what angles have the trees grown in, and how dense or tall the forest has become. Play is erratically painting with the blur effect, looking for just the right angle for viewing, like some kind of avant-garde photography, in a world that’s shifting, growing, and bleeding.
Yuliya Kozhemyako, 'La forêt', 2015
Ernst’s The Gray Forest could be an inspiration for La forêt, in which the white wheel moon is also prominent. The Grey Forest is one in a series of forest paintings that started with The Forest (or, yes, La forêt). To make these paintings, he would lay down materials like mesh wire, chair caning leaves, and twine, then arrange them until a pattern emerged. “In The Forest the artist probably placed the canvas over a rough surface (perhaps wood), scraped oil paint over the canvas, and then rubbed, scraped, and overpainted the area of the trees.”* In other words, Ernst developed a way to apply his frottage techniques to painting.
The Gray Forest feels intermediary. An ideal tree would be drawn for its aesthetic properties, minimizing its life and impact, made to signify naturalism and to be gawked over. Ideal landscapes are pleasing still. They’re comforting, nostalgic, and moving. With his landscape, Ernst painted something provoking, not nostalgic, confidently asserting purpose for that which is jagged and misshapen. Though the rough, unfamiliar shapes seem cold, alien, and distant at first, in reflection I realize the surfaces forming the wood textures exist without anyone’s input. They’re empty before being subjected to interpretation, they existed without human metaphor, they’re filled up by our impressions, rather than made to represent us. I feel warmth from these assertions, an unspoiled factor of spontaneity that is existence, countering rigid and traditional aesthetic values.
Max Ernst, 'Forest and Sun', 1927
Similar values can be felt playing La forêt, but as the game progresses, the tree textures overflow the world and impede movement. Their percussive growth rings out a cacophony and eventually the player is trapped under the oppressive forest; the screen turns to black and the application closes. La forêt, unlike the confidence of Ernst’s forest paintings, is anxiety inducing. It spirals out of control and overwhelms a player. As commentary relating to Ernst’s paintings, I can glean a statement like: rearranging the unkempt into beauty can be a powerful protest, but such a protest does not resolve my lack of control, though it feels so powerful that it could. The effect of expression can easily be overstated without materializing real world change; an art spiritualism that will certainly lead to burnout. Confidence in alternatives needs support and stability, even that which seemingly exists for itself. I also feel a sympathy in the potential of simple gestures spiraling out of control. How it feels for an unexpected mistake to press and choke out substantial time. Sometimes processing is letting the spiral happen.
La forêt does not just endeavor to conjure a similar landscape as Ernst’s forest paintings. They have a commonality in seceding the concrete details of the object’s creation to the void of chance. Randomness is not a shortcut, or an expression of laziness, but emotional, textural expression in its own right. I see the game paying tribute to exuberant anti-art formalism that both dada and surrealism encompassed in their time, a tribute also to the attitudes Max Ernst expressed toward spontaneity and vulnerability in creation. To a heralding of the unconventional. A reflection which immediately holds weight and importance as a videogame of this kind in the disapproving climate it exists in.
find la forêt on itch