In 1995 a group of SIGGRAPH artists formed an informal group, the Algorists. One of their members, Jean-Pierre Hebert, coined the term “algorist” to describe artists who wrote their own algorithms to produce their creative work. The members worked with computer algorithms – writing code to produce typically print-based computer graphic work – but they were keen to acknowledge that algorithmic composition has a long cultural heritage. It is evident, for instance, in the combinatory systems of Raymond Llull (1232-1315) and Athanasius Kircher (1602-1680), the proto-computing machines of Gottfied Leibniz (1646-1716), the mathematically guided compositions of Johan Sebastian Bach (1685-1750), the permutative poetry of Stephane Mallarme (1842-1898), the formal constraints of the Ou Li Po (founded in 1960), and the rule-based conceptual art work of Sol LeWitt (1928-2007). It would be easy, furthermore, to describe a much wider context, pointing to all manner of cultural practices that are based on clearly articulated procedures. Although I think this effort to trace wider associations is valuable, it is worth noting some key and closely interrelated features that characterise formal computational algorithmic practice:
- All terms must be amenable to mathematical representation and processing.
- Algorithms are composed in formal languages which mediate between concept and electronic process.
- The emphasis is upon defining generic algorithms, conceiving procedures in the most abstract terms.
- Computational algorism occurs in a restricted space. It is circumscribed materially and symbolically.
- Processes proceed in an automatic, necessary fashion.
I mention these features less to neatly distinguish computer-based algorithmic practice from the wider algorithmic context than to resist any temptation to regard computational algorism as the logical summit of the overall field. The latter represents a highly delineated space that does well to think through the implications of its limitations, which represent both dimensions of possibility and dimensions – possibly – to be overcome.