Data Sperm: Jon McCormack Interview


Nervously a 3D Woody Allen paces outside a polygon Sperm Bank. Polly is indeed gone, the nurse of his fantasies already gone home with his analyst. Virt.nature would soothe, but is hard to find in Virt.Manhattan. Mr.Allen clicks to Virt.Melb, coincidentally the locale of one Jon McCormack, who since 86 has been creating Electronic Gardens of Artificial Life, Self Generating Ecosystems, and acoustic and virtual environments that respond to weather conditions and audience responses. Jean Poole did the virt.handsake thing, and got this to keep:

How did you get involved with computer animation?

I started out studying mathematics, but I never really liked it until I discovered you could look at all those funny symbols in graphical form. You could actually see abstract symbols and relationships made visible / material through graphics technology. The next year I went to film school at Swinburne where they had computers that made animations. It was a revelation. Suddenly I knew what I wanted to do, and since then I’ve been using computers for creative applications to explore the aesthetics of processes.

Where has animation gone since you’ve been playing with it?

It’s become much easier since I started (in the mid 1980’s). A lot of software people had to write in the early days is now incorporated into animation systems, but fundamentally they all work in the same way. However I find most of the modern animation packages very disappointing, because they operate under a very limited aesthetic, essentially trying to mimic reality, rather than looking at an expanded representation of what computers might offer.

What attracts you to artificial life and ecosystems?
I suppose it’s the way they can often have these kind of emergent properties, with the whole being greater than the sum of the parts. I like the way they can surprise you and behave in ways that you never planned or expected. I’m also attracted to adopting the “metaphor” of process-based systems, particularly living systems, since they are such a rich source of creativity.

How far has work in this area advanced?
Calling something “artificial life” is easy, but just because you call it life doesn’t mean that its really alive in any sensible sense. Many layers of complexity exist in the natural world that are ignored in a-life simulations, because computers can’t handle all that intricacy. It’s surprised me how few biologists want to get involved in core a-life research. Maybe b-life is already too much of a challenge. We are a long way off from even matching the real complexity of a single cell in any a-life simulations, so there is still a long way to go yet.

What are the major A-Iife debates at the moment?
Could any computer simulation ever genuinely be called “alive” (strong Alife) or only ever be a simulation (weak A-life)? I tend to think the latter. Another major debate (that extends to cognitive science and AI) is the internal representation of concepts and the embodiment of meaning, although not all A-life models specifically reference this problem.

Douglas Adams said we’ll grow artificial intelligence rather than design it – what do you think?

It’s easy to get carried away with the notion of “growing” and “evolving” almost anything, but this approach may only be suitable for a limited set of problems. The problem of “intelligence” is very complex and varied, and a number of milestone results in AI have been achieved without using evolutionary algorithms. Nonetheless, ideas like growing intelligence come from the fact that our own intelligence is in some sense grown; i.e. that we evolved from “less intelligent” species over millions of years and also that our own learning processes have much to do with our physicality in the world (most computers have very little in the way of physical experience).

What’s the relationship between technology and your creative process?
My main interests lie in how interactive, process-based models allow us to interpret and understand the world in new ways. Certainly recent technological advances in, for example, real-time 3D graphics, have advanced the possibilities for investigating these ideas.

What are your favourite pieces of software and why?
I guess with all modesty aside I’d say my own software is what I like using the best. Software is the implementation of ideas in a technology that is “perpendicular” to the brain. The two complement each other very well, if the software is implemented in the right way.

How has using technology shaped your art & thinking (good & bad)?
It has benefits and difficulties. I am very conscious of the “digital aesthetic” that limits most technological works, and that computers aren’t designed as “art machines”, and carry a lot of cultural limitations from the disiplines where they were born (e.g. military/industrial, science, engineering, “American Ideology” and so on).

What will you say to your waking software daughter?
I have enough trouble relating to my human one at the moment.

Jon’s Life Online:
Cheq tha electronic artworks, installations, videos, and wads of reading on generative modelling for electronic media, electronic sound synthesis, and music composition, organic modelling techniques for computer graphics and philosophical and cultural issues concerning Artificial Life and Artificial Nature. Good resource page too, with x-hibition, software, music and other links.

Jon’s Favourite Website:
Jean’s clue: eoti = End of the Internet.

Create your own Herbivore
And then see how it survives this 3d environment, complete with email updates from your creature. My Datasperm, poor child, was killed by the predator ‘Jaws’, after much hunting for food and surviving other attacks.

Autobot Roulette:

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