John F. Simon, Jr.

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aLife, 2003

Technologies: 15" PowerBookG4, C, OpenGL, XCode

Keywords: artificial life, generative, object, software


"I approach coding like it is a kind of creative writing. I do not start with a flow chart. I start with a simple loop and then observe how the small changes in the code effect the visual result. I never plan exactly what the code will do and more often than not end up incorporating something the code did in testing that I had not anticipated."


Although he works primarily with software code and pixels rather than paintbrushes and pencils, New Media artist John F. Simon, Jr. often cites the early 20th-century painter and draftsman Paul Klee as a major influence on his practice. Simon's 1996 work, Every Icon, echoes a process described in Klee's seminal book on drawing, The Pedagogical Sketchbook (1925). In this short text, Klee describes his attempt to study the combinatorial possibilities of patterns and structure by filling in the squares of a grid drawn on a piece of paper. Simon reinterprets Klee's experiment in Every Icon, a Java applet (a small program that runs in a Web browser) that executes the following terse algorithm: "Given: An icon described by a 32 X 32 grid. Allowed: Any element of the grid to be colored black or white. Shown: Every icon."

After calculating the computer's processor speed, the applet begins with an image in which every square is white and proceeds to display every possible combination of black and white squares until each square is black. Along the way, it will draw all possible images that can be represented by a grid of 1,024 squares. The huge number of possible combinations means that, even running on a computer showing 100 icons per second, it would take more than a year to display all variations of the first line of the grid, and more than five billion years to complete the second line. Recognizable images would not begin to appear for several hundred trillion years. Eventually, however, the applet would draw every possible icon, realizing a computational version of Klee's combinatorial grid. "While Every Icon is resolved conceptually," Simon writes on his Web site, "it is unresolvable in practice." Because of its mind-boggling duration, Every Icon is as much a thought experiment as it is a work of Net art.

In 1998, Simon took apart and reassembled a laptop computer to make a self-contained version of Every Icon that would become the first in a series of what he calls "art appliances." These wall-mounted objects are intended for gallery exhibition and function as software-driven, animated paintings. One such "art appliance" is aLife. This work features a grid of six continuously changing three-dimensional compositions. Each abstract animation is generated in real time by software, which models the emergent, recombinant processes of living evolutionary systems. Simon used a variety of sources, including hand-drawn forms and scanned maps, to create images that resemble scientific diagrams of subatomic structures, planetary systems, and microscopic organisms (not to mention Modernist design objects like George Nelson's Ball Clock). Although aLife is much more complex and colorful than Every Icon, both projects exemplify the importance of coding in Simon's work (the artist always writes all of his software code himself). For Simon, the software itself is as much a part of the art work as the images it produces. His iterative, experimental coding process is a way of exploring possibilities and capitalizing on accidents, much as Klee developed ideas on paper.

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