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AARON the computer creates constantly changing art at USU museum

April 15th, 2013 Posted in Arts and Life

By D. Landon Graham

LOGAN—A new exhibit at the Nora Eccles Harrison Museum of Art at Utah State University, donated by USU professors David and Terry Peak, opened last week. The exhibit is a screen showing artwork that is modified by the artist as people watch. Day and night, the art on the screen is constantly changing. That’s because the “artist” is AARON, a computer program created by Harold Cohen.

Cohen began developing AARON in 1972 when he was a visiting scholar at Stanford University’s computer science department. Physics professor David Peak said AARON started by printing black lines on paper.

“The printer would print a black squiggly line on the paper, and Cohen would tell AARON, ‘That’s a good squiggly line,’ and ‘That’s a bad squiggly line,’” Peak said.

Once AARON “learned” some basic skills, it was able to create works of art without any direction from Cohen. The program is now sophisticated enough to create images of humans, plants and animals. It never creates the same image twice.

“He didn’t want a program that would just spit out preprogrammed images,” Peak said. “He wanted something that was creating new images all the time.”

The version of AARON that was installed at the museum is completely independent from Cohen’s original version, making the exhibit one of only two such installations in the country. The other was installed in 2009 at the Carnegie Science Center in Pittsburgh.

Peak said the exhibit is interesting because it is always changing. He said it would nicely complement other pieces in the USU museum’s collection. “We are very grateful to Cohen,” Peak said.

Art & Design Department head Laura Gelfand, who is also museum interim director, said it is good for the museum to have such a “cutting edge” exhibit. “It puts us on the map,” she said.

Interim deputy director Deborah Banerjee said she believes artistic computer programs will become more common in the future.

“I think computer scientists are the ones who are thinking about it more right now,” Banerjee said. “But eventually artists will have to face the facts and ask themselves, ‘Is art something only humans can do?’”

Peak said a computer program that can create art independently of human control raises some interesting questions. “You have to wonder,” he said. “Do you need a human being here?”


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