leph Null 2.0 is an instrument of color music. You play it. You play a musical instrument to produce tones, movements, rhythms, melodies and harmonies you find pleasing. You play Aleph Null to produce color tones, animation, visual rhythms, compositions and palettes you find pleasing. For each brush you create, you can configure its nib, central color and color range, among other things.
Video intro to Aleph Null 2.0
Are these screenshots of Aleph Null 2.0 in action—carefully created by me, the one who wrote Aleph Null—the best stills that can be created with Aleph Null? Or can others create equal or superior stuff with the program? This relates to the question of the stylistic range of Aleph Null. Can others create styles with it that aren't present in the screenshots? Or have I exhausted its stylistic range in these 277 screenshots?
I observe that a useful distinction between tools and art is that good tools typically don't determine much of the content. Photoshop and Word help us shape the content, but the content isn't strongly determined by the tool, typically. Whereas works of art typically exercise considerable influence on the precise nature of the content; works of art typically not only shape the content but determine it—more than tools do, typically.
Chris Funkhouser created types of works I hadn't anticipated when he used another visually generative program I wrote: dbCinema. The way he did it was to put dbCinema in the background and create other work in the foreground by means other than dbCinema. And, of course, that's generally how it works when other artists use generative tools created by other artists: they use them in the background (literally or figuratively) and foreground their own work. Naturally enough, artists want their own contribution to their own work to be more prominent than the contribution of any other artist.
Piotr Szreniawski created a booklet of 109 screenshots of his experiments with Aleph Null 2.0. Piotr publishes anthologies of experimental comics.
So there's this question as to whether Aleph Null is a tool or a work of art. If it's a work of art, when you create something with it, you're creating another instantiation of the same work of art: Aleph Null. If it's a tool, when you create something with it, you're creating possibly an original work of your own.
Or is it that simple? No, it's not that simple, usually. Because the distinction between a work of art and a tool is not that clear cut. Just because it's a work of art doesn't mean that you can't create original work with it, from it, as a tool. And just because something is a good tool doesn't mean that it is necessarily not a work of art.
Wordle is a good tool for creating "word clouds"; it's well-known and widely used. And who would be sufficiently anal retentive to deny that it itself is a work of art? It has taken the word cloud to a different elevation, architecture, and cultural significance.
The idea that art is necessarily useless is not informed by the way art and tools in generative art—and other types of programmerly digital art—intermingle. Of course, art needn't be useful, but neither need it be useless. The stylistic range of a work may be such that a certain part of its stylistic range is structured as a work of art (the tool/work strongly determines the content) and another part of its stylistic range may be structured as a tool (the tool/work loosens up on the degree to which it determines the content; the user/viewer/player/wreader makes the important decisions).
The art of Wordle is in its look. You only have to look at a visual once to know it's a Wordle-generated word cloud. Wordle strongly determines the look. But it eases up in other ways: you can include any words you like and can configure the relative size of them etc.
It wasn't my aim to create a tool as general as Photoshop or Word when I wrote Aleph Null. Those tools don't impose much of the content. Aleph Null determines more of the look than do most general tools. The goal was to create an interesting work of art. A generative, interactive work of art. That has considerable stylistic range in its generative paths.
I've been creating interactive works since 1996. Twenty years. If it's worthy of being called 'interactive', the viewer should encounter some interesting choices. Which implies that there's a combinatorium of possibilities; it's not just a house of secret rooms; each room is burgeoning with possible instantiations. The goal is not to harbour an infinity of possibilities—the life of art is not 'artificial life' or adherance to a doctrinaire letter of generativity, but this: the life of art is in its liveliness, its energy, intensity, imagination, freshness and ongoing fascination. The combinatorium should have an interesting structure that can be contemplated much as a novel, in its fullness, can be contemplated, or a sculpture. Or a tree, in its branching.
My friend Dan Waber, who created a piece called sestinas that generates very very large numbers of sestinas (a poetic form) says that his piece should be viewed as comprising all its possible outputs. All the sestinas it generates are part of the (one) poem it generates. Similarly, with Aleph Null, all its possible outputs should be viewed as color music that Aleph Null can produce. But I would only ever play some of them because we make our own choices as individuals.
The screenshots in this slideshow aren't randomly generated. The goal was to create screenshots that display interesting composition, dimensionality, balance, and color. And I wanted to create a set of screenshots that represent a relatively full range of the stylistic possibs of Aleph Null 2.0. It doesn't represent the fullest possible range of the stylistic range because different people may produce different styles with it. Maybe.
Here's' a PDF of a (rejected) proposal to the Canadian National Film Board. The proposal contains a description of the main features and goals of Aleph Null 2.0, a short history of color music, and a list of future features I'd like to add (to version 3.0).
Aleph Null 1.0 is also available online. I created a different set of screenshots that show version 1.0 in action.
If you compare the two slideshows, you see that version 2.0 generally looks different than version 1.0. The 2.0 screenshots mostly stayed away from reproducing the look of the 1.0 screenshots, although 2.0 can do most everything 1.0 can do (and more). The version 2.0 images are typically less obviously drawn with 'brushes' whose shapes are long, thin lines or curves; the version 2.0 images display more flow of color, more continuity of shape. This is a result of understanding canvas programming better. v
More specifically, the version 2.0 brushes, where gradients are used as fills, inject more transparency along the brush stroke, at random points. If we imagine a brush stroke whose shape is a long, thin line, we imagine also the thin rectangle being filled with a gradient. The gradient has probably at least a dozen color stops; the actual number of color-stops is a random number between something like a dozen and twenty. Each color-stop is a random color whose distances from the corresponding rgb components of the 'central color' for that brush do not exceed the 'color range' slider value for that brush.
So, for instance, if the 'central color' for that brush is rgb(100, 200, 0) and the 'color range' for that brush is 50, then a valid color-stop color is rgb(149, 249, 49), since each component is within 50 of the corresponding 'central color' component. But rgb(151, 251, 51) is not a valid color-stop color cuz it's too far away from the 'central color'. Also, each color-stop has an opacity. All that is the same between the version 1.0 and version 2.0 images. The version 2.0 images handle these opacities differently from the version 1.0 images. The version 2.0 images color-stop opacities are more likely to be 0 than the version 1.0 opacities and, even if not 0, the 2.0 opacities are more likely to be lower than the corresponding version 1.0 color-stop opacities. Consequently, the brush may appear 'feathered' because there are transparent gaps between color-stops.
Opacity is a subtle and important tool in digital art. Digital art, unlike analog art, does not usually offer things like real texture or other properties that typically are not digitized/informationalized. But it does offer layering with interesting use of opacity, for instance, which allows the artist to blend layers in subtle ways. Really interesting visual digital art, more often than you might suspect, involves subtle, intelligent use—even mastery—of opacity in a specific context; opacity can have different effects depending on the context. But, typically, it adds dimensionality, subtle integration of layers, and fluid borders.
Another difference between the 1.0 and 2.0 images is the way rotation and moving brushes are handled, with some brushes. Most of the brushes have two types of motion: they rotate and they move along the screen. In version 1.0 images, sometimes a brush rotates too quickly or moves too quickly and, consequently, leaves behind a very clear sign of the shape of the brush. Which isn't bad, per se. But if the goal of a brush is more about flow of color and continuity of flow, that's not so good. So some of the brushes in version 2 monitor how far they move from frame to frame or how much they rotate from frame to frame and, if they are supposed to move too far or rotate too fast, they tone it down. This results, again, in more continuity of shape, fewer traces of the actual shape of the brush.
The motion of most of the brushes, as they move around on the screen, is determined by an exotic function. Pressing the "path" button or the "p" key on the keyboard changes the path of the currently selected brush. Aleph Null provides lots of keyboard control so it can be played with the keyboard. The visible controls work with keyboard, mouse, or with touch on mobile devices.
If you have multiple brushes via the "create" button (or the "c" key), you can select which brush is editable via the below drop-down menu.
Some of the 2.0 slideshow images are quite different from the 1.0 images in that they sample from pre-existing bitmaps. These are done with the last four nibs; the icons for these nibs have images of David Bowie in them.
Version 3.0 will have greater stylistic range; you'll be able to use your own images in nibs that sample from pre-existing bitmaps. So that, rather than having to use Bowie images, you'll be able to point a brush at a local folder of images. And there will be quite a few such nibs. Also, I want to give each brush the option of having its own layer. Currently, all brushes draw into only one layer. So they over-write each other. But, concerning planned 3.0 features, have a look at this PDF. It says its about 2.0, but it ends up being about 3.0! I'd wanted 2.0 to have more features, but they'll have to wait for 3.0, if I can make a 3.0 happen.
In a world on the brink of environmental disaster and the savage rule of fascists, what does a humble web-based instrument of color music have to offer? Well, it's a delightful experience to play it, I feel. I play it with a combination of mouse and keyboard. It offers an interactive experience of color, motion, shape and composition that earns the description of 'color music'. And it's web-based art in a time when web-based art is more rare than it used to be, not many years ago. It keeps the net art flame alive, and it takes interactive abstract art in new directions. It feels to me like it's worth the effort. Computers and the Internet, ideally, are instruments of joy and discovery, not of surveillance, brainwashing, and slave labor. Aleph Null is part of a vision of the imaginative potential of the Internet.
Then there's the sort of idea expressed by the singer Phil Ochs (from the liner notes to his album Pleasures of the Harbor):
"You must protest
It is your diamond duty
Ah but in such an ugly time the true protest is beauty."
It is your diamond duty
Ah but in such an ugly time the true protest is beauty."
OK I didn't say it wasn't an odd quote. "Diamond duty"? That must refer to the diamond stylus used to play records, back in Ochs's day. As well as something like 'your high duty as a recording artist'. What he's getting at here is that although political protest, in the usual sense, is important (he was a protester via satire), the experience of beauty helps us appreciate what's of value, helps us recognize what's beautiful and what's ugly; beautiful art refines our shit detectors and gives us the satisfaction and joy of beauty like music we enjoy does also. Further, if we never see any terrific net art, the imaginative possibilities of the Internet are going to seem like myths or they'll only be thinkable in terms of business solutions and the like. But they're important. Not just for art, but for all fields. We need to use the Internet to help us solve real problems in the world, and we need to be able to draw on it as a source of inspiration and creativity; it expands our cognitive capabilities by giving us access to a lot of the world's knowledge and giving us tools to make connections between ideas and people.
This subject of the 'value' and 'role' of art and poetry is always an active one among artists. Even today on Facebook I read Jason Nelson saying "Digital poetry is how we re-humanize the de-humanizing trajectories of technology." Some interesting responses, including Alan Sondheim's:
"i disagree; any uses of technology humanize it; we just might not agree with the humanizing. second, technological 'trajectories' are problematic in and of themselves. and third, this overlooks the interplays of power, genre, and canon (with their technological counterparts) that exist within the concept 'digital poetry' itself or itselves. it's a bit of hubris, and reminds me of an inverted sokal approach to the world (itself a bit of hubris). ..."
I think they both make good points, actually. I think computer art/digital poetry and whatnot create new art in contexts that many people associate simply with tools of drudgery and employment, surveillance and propaganda, consumerism and a tireless sales pitch. Yet, as Sondheim suggests, it's easy to think one's art is doing all sorts of things maybe it isn't. We're not interested in being digital snake oilists.
Beyond relieving the drear and drudgery of the contemporary digital realms, the excitement, for me, in terrific net art is creating—and experiencing in the work of others—interactive, programmed art that gives us amazing, completely unexpected experiences of machine art that anyone in the world with an Internet connection and a browser can tune in to. That's been thrilling to me since the early days in the nineties of web art.
But of course Aleph Null is not going to get rid of Trump or help with global warming.