by Jim McClellen
"I think the computer screen is like a gateway into another domain. In some ways, people have realised that we can't go very far into space but we can explore computer space. What's even more fascinating is that this is a world that you invent then explore." Sat in the basement of the Harriet Green Gallery in London, thirty four year-old British techno-artist William Latham is telling me about the role the computer plays in his work. In this exploratory process, his computer is much more than just a utilitarian tool, he explains. It's an intelligent collaborator. "It's not like an airbrush, for example. It actually comes up with things that I would never think of."
The results of this collaboration between man and machine are currently on show upstairs, in a small retrospective show entitled Forms From The Virtual World. Latham refers to them as 3D computer sculptures (though he shows them on video or in still images). Strange mutant forms, they scramble your sense of time and scale and deliberately blur the barriers between the technological and the organic. The result could be called seashell cyberdelia or viral baroque.
At their best, Latham's techno-art objects look like fossils from some future alien civilisation, like the kind of fungal spores which might spark allergic reactions in robots. At their worst - well, let's just say that you could advance an argument that Latham could just be the nineties Roger Dean (the airbrush king who did all those post-hippy faery mystic album covers for prog rockers Yes)
"People think about art as being nice 'still lifes'", Latham continues. "But my art is far more about the very processes which actually generate life." Indeed, Latham uses those processes to actually create his work. In fact, it might be more accurate to say that he doesn't create his scupltures so much as 'breed' them, using computer software modelled on the processes of evolution, specifically a programme called Mutator. The starting point is a shape he likes. He then uses his software to randomly mutate the form's 'genes' (the computer code underlying the particular 3D form), creating nine variants. He picks the one he likes best and mutates that, and so on, until this process of artistic selection yields something he's happy with.
Of course one of the most fruitful sources of evolutionary mutation in nature is sex, and Latham's programme has an equivalent to this. He can combine forms he likes in order to generate aesthetically interesting offspring. However he isn't limited to plain old heterosexual couplings. He can set up polygamous, incestuous liasons between one form, its grandparent and second cousin - all in the name of pushing back the boundaries of art, of course. "With a mixture of human creativity and evolutionary systems as embodied in computer software, one can produce extraordinary things, things that are beyond the human imagination." he comments. "There comes a point when you cross the boundaries of what is familiar. The machine comes back with surprising results and you suddenly find yourself thinking, gosh, I've never seen things like this before."
In Out Of Control, his examination of the 'new biology of machines', Kevin Kelly suggested that with Mutator, Latham had created a tool for searching the space of all possible forms, which in a way sounds like a digital update on the old idea that the sculpture was already there in the block of marble, just waiting to be uncovered. A cynic, however, might suggest that Latham was just indulging in computer-assisted doodling. He disagrees, arguing that the implications of his work for artistic creativity are much more serious. "It's deliberately blurring distinctions between human creativity and natural creativity and the generative power of computing. If you've got a computer programme which is just using random numbers and genes and is producing things that are more interesting than a human can produce, then what's so great about human creativity."
Though it's possible to automate this process of artistic selection, and let a computer breed its own sculptures, Latham wants to remain in the driving seat. However, it seems clear that his method changes the nature of the artist's contribution. Technical competence - knowing how to put paint on canvass - isn't important. Rather an artist has to be able to make choices, to chart a course through the space of all possible forms and eventually arrive at something halfway interesting.
Given that, you wonder whether Latham's conventional fine art training (he was at the Royal College of Art in the early eighties) might be a hindrance. His work is often compared to Dali and Klee and, given his desire to uncover ideas 'beyond the human imagination', you wonder whether his knowledge of art history isn't perhaps leading him towards familiar forms and away from something truly novel. He counters this idea by pointing out that he just as influenced by things like Fantastic Four comics, cyberpunk novels and the Terminator films, even David Attenborough's recent documentary series, The Secret Life of Plants. Seeing a genetically engineered 'super bull' at a country fair a few years ago also affected his work. He says he's fascinated by these kind of technological mutations, that in his work he wants to go beyond nature, create something that is more savage (and beautiful) than nature.
For all this, some critics have suggested (slightly unfairly) that Latham's productions are quite tame, inoffensively empty computer-generated images that his corporate sponsors (for most of his career he has been supported by IBM) can comfortably recycle for PR purposes. He disagrees, arguing that his work reminds people of things that they'd rather forget (viruses, cancer, bodily processes). "I am making a direct reference to genetic engineering and the way we are messing with nature. I too am using genetics and inbreeding to come up with my work. And like the scientists, you can't help but be fascinated by it. It's addictive. You can't but explore, but some of the results are very extreme."
Recently, Latham ended his relationship with IBM and set up his own company, all part of a plan to leave behind the art world and branch out into pop culture. In the future, he says he'd love to shape the look of a whole film, in the way that H.R.Giger did for Ridley Scott's Alien (and he did contribute some early design work on the upcoming Ian Softley film Hackers). He'd also like to build an 'interactive experience', a virtual world which used the software techniques he's developed to create a constantly evolving garden of unearthly delights that users could explore and change.
To do that he needs to develop his relationship with the compter and games business. Consequently he has various projects on the go - an evolving 3D screen saver for Warners, a game project for Sony, a commercial version of his Mutator programme, which will let home users 'breed' their own art. He's also just completed the art work for the next album, single and video (due sometime in spring) from the techno-art popsters The Shamen (see what I mean about Roger Dean?).
Working on the project, he was suprised to discover that his work was popular within rave culture. "As to why, I'm not sure", he says, as he shows me early tests for the promo, which vaguely resemble a superior rave video. "My work is extreme but also slightly comforting. I suppose it's surreal but done in a very matter of fact way. But I'm not drawn to that culture at all, actually. I've never taken drugs in my life. I've never felt any need to. My computer hallucinates for me."
This text is copyright © 1995 Jim McClellan. Many thanks to Jim for allowing us to use it! Original text layout also by Jim McClellen. The images are copyright William Latham/Computer Artworks.