Moving paintings can be unsuccessful for at least as many reasons as oil paintings and video art can be unsuccessful. There are, however, certain common fallacies and blind alleys in this medium which we’ll cover here.

A computer cannot yet distinguish between a strong line or shape and a weak one, an effective color choice or a poor one, an artistically successful composition and a failure.  Although AI is making strides to emulate the understanding of these matters, until computers are taught to experience emotions and make reliable aesthetic decisions, computer art will require a human being.  If too many of these decisions are left to a machine, the result is compromised.  I’ll refer to this as the Screensaver Trap.  Early digital art communities referred to this entire genre as “digital wallpaper”, a term credited to Darcy Gerbarg.


  • Inexpressive
  • Artificial-seeming
  • Repetitive

A viewer’s ability to respond to an artwork is in direct proportion to the number and quality of human decisions that went into that artwork.  This runs counter to the Duchamp school of readymade art, but is my position.  That is a problem for computer art and will continue to be a problem until we have successfully taught computers how to feel.

“I don’t make art about technology; I make art with technology. That distinguishes my work from most of the works out there right now. I’m not that interested in art about technology. It’s story telling. I’m thinking: what story do I want to tell? What emotion do I want to express?” – Scott Snibbe

“My goal is to deemphasize the technology.” – Casey Reas

Video and animation software provides a vast range of filters and algorithms designed to make a commercial artist’s life easier by automating visual decisions to produce a quick technically correct result.  This automation takes small-scale visual decisions out of the artists hands, eroding the emotional and intellectual power that artist may have had.   This problem has been compounded by the exponential growth of computing power, as video software developers wield this power with increasing creativity and frequency, providing automatic effects which transform any source content into briefly engaging eye candy.    Unaware or unheeding of this trap, artists can easily produce large swaths of artificial content appearing visually complex but signifying nothing.   

Artist Brian Knep solves it this way, “ I do most of my thinking on paper.  So I tend to work not at a computer.  If I work on a computer I get distracted.  I’m drawing, I have a little journal, I draw, I write.  I sketch out ideas.”

“The second way I do it is that I spend a lot of time making the interface to my work very intuitive.  So there’s the piece, right? While the piece is running I can bring up a little interface where I change all the variables.  Lots of people do this kind of thing.  Say I have a variable called “speed”, the speed of the piece and when that’s color and when that’s size, of blobs.  So the piece is running and I have a wireless keyboard, so I can work right in the piece, and I hit return and up in the corner comes up size and a number and with the arrow keys I can very quickly play with it.  My program itself has a constrained interface.   So I’m writing in C++ or Python or whatever I’m writing in and that’s very complicated but in there I put a lot of very easy ways to change all of the parameters in it…It lets me see in that way: “this feels too big”.  I hit a key and boom, it’s better.  “

“When you’re a potter you learn to make your own tools, particularly in the Japanese style, you make all your own tools.   It becomes very personal.  You make tools that fit the shape of your hands and fit the shape of the type of pots that you make.  I am making tools.  I learned as a tool-builder.  I studied math and computer science.  I was a tool-builder in academia.  I was a tool-builder in the special effects industry.   … There’s a part of me that loves that.  I enjoy building systems and using them to create things… The building of the tool, there’s an elegance to it that I appreciate, even if you the visitor will never see that.  To me there’s a joy in that.” – Brian Knep

The Screensaver Trap is so prevalent that it can induce an oversensitivity in evaluation of works.   Robert Seidel says “They sometimes believe that the art is generated solely by some clever software: just hit some keys, and the work is done… most of the time it is months of work.”

The Screensaver Trap can be avoided through human intervention. Human decisions in a work of art determine the human response.  Artist’s should show us their hand, the artist’s hand. This can be done through seeing physical evidence of artistic intervention, or by the creation of systems involving human decision-making.

Software art offers a broad array of types of artwork, some of which is meant to be fully commandeered and rendered by the computer. This is called generative or aleatoric art. The workmanship that goes into generative art must be distinguished carefully from screensavers, typically on goals, quality, and effect.

I have always shown live real-time generative software (not rendered video). There’s always a computer driving the exhibition. It continues and it’s flowing and it’s always changing. There’s no loop and it’s happening live in real time. There’s no end. It’s an integral part of the idea.” – Casey Reas

“When I am setting up an animation, I create a dynamically simulated environment using gravity, wind, acceleration and weight. The process is quite random, I let it render and then I decide if I like the result, it often takes many attempts.” – Jennifer Steinkamp

“My artwork is about the meaning of the art in relation to our times, our culture and humanity, it is not so much about technology. As an artist, you figure out what you want to do and then you figure out how to use the tools to create it. Sometimes with media art, the technology can get in the way of the meaning.” – Jennifer Steinkamp