Dr. Don's Digital Paintbrush 

Getting up close and meta with ANA, an art-generating computer program

"Idaho Fire Season 1" was painted by ANA with only minimal input from its creator, Don Winiecki.

ANA/Don Winiecki

"Idaho Fire Season 1" was painted by ANA with only minimal input from its creator, Don Winiecki.

At first blush, ANA's digital paintings are skyscapes. They have the aesthetic beauty of a sunset drifting through a polluted atmosphere, unnaturally juxtaposing colors and roiling with plumes of smog. But ANA isn't an artist; it's a computer program—a collection of algorithms developed by Dr. Don Winiecki, who sees his creation as a paintbrush he's teaching to paint. Sometimes, however, it's ANA that does the teaching.

"Occasionally the flamboyant mistakes in an algorithm create the most fall-down beautiful compositions, and that's where I learn from the machine," Winiecki said. "If I don't define what I consider a conservative choice of color, it can get really bold."

ANA stands for "ANA is Not Aaron"—"Aaron" being another art-generating computer program—and Winiecki is a professor of sociology in the Boise State University College of Engineering. Together, they opened their first exhibition, Making the Familiar Strange, April 20 at the Boise State University Student Union. Making sense of the exhibition and Winiecki's work with ANA is a philosophical exercise touching on issues like artificial intelligence, computer science and the nature of art. Though ANA's compositions are computer generated, Winiecki said they have the same aesthetic and interpretive merits as other, human-created works of visual art.

"It depends on the viewer and his or her readiness to engage with what's in there, as opposed to a viewer who just wants to look at a pretty picture," he said.

Though Winiecki is technically in control of ANA, his command of the creative process only goes so far. He inputs some data to the program, but the dimensions of the composition, the colors used and how they interact are up to the algorithm. Sometimes the composition ANA creates is more than a dozen feet high; in other instances, the results are small enough to hang on a household wall. Winiecki then adds a human touch: digitally applied diagonal lines across shaded rectangles meant to evoke the geometry of the painting itself. They're his way of teasing the idea that there's more to ANA's generated images than pretty colors—hints at the atmospheric and organic, nods at patterns and geometries that have underpinned art since ancient Greece and refined in modernity.

"[I] try to make an explicit reference to a piece of art in the art. I'm fiddling with the viewer's mind," he said. "That's my effort to do something that pointy-headed art people do, which is give multiple avenues to people trying to make sense of [the paintings]."

Most of Winiecki's input, however, consists of refining and expanding ANA's digital toolbox. Some of the program's first compositions were geometric, and eschewed the complex color relationships that are the current hallmarks of its work. In addition, Winiecki has tinkered with ANA's ability to process light sources in its work, making its compositions more evocative of atmospheric phenomena.

In the future, he'd like to make ANA work better with its printer.

"There are scenes that I think are fall-down dramatic, but they come off flat and nothing special in print," he said.

One of ANA's compositions will grace the cover of Boise Weekly, which means the original piece will go up for auction in October. Revenue from its sale, Winiecki said, could go toward paying the open-source software developers whose code went into ANA's design. That, or toward education for himself to continue augmenting the program. He'd also like to give ANA the ability to "draw." It's a development, he said, that would make its compositions more distinct.

"I want it to add lines and discrete dimensionality," he said.

All that work on the back end of the program raises questions of who is actually the artist in the Winiecki/ANA relationship. Winiecki doesn't call himself an artist; rather, he thinks of himself as a programmer. But ANA isn't artificially intelligent, relying on the code he provides to create images. Traditionally, art has been the province of human attributes like creativity and intuition, but Making the Familiar Strange comprises works for which creativity is a calculation and intuition is a function of the program.

That doesn't necessarily dehumanize the art ANA produces. The viewer could see the exhibition as a display of artificiality and technological prowess, but each piece in the exhibition could also be an invitation to observe and analyze. From ANA's uses of color, hue and shade to Winiecki's meta "glyphs," the works on display at Boise State are interpretively rich.

The fact that they were created by a computer can simply be food for thought. It can also be a feast for art theorists and philosophers interested in what art is, who makes it and peeling back the watch face of creativity.

There is enormous variety in how artists conceive of and create their work, and many have described their processes at length while leaving unanswered questions about how they manifest their inspirations. ANA's is code—a digital decision tree with inputs and parameter sets—but it's still "artistic" in the sense that what comes out is art.

"That's where the phenomenology comes in: [ANA] tries to get to the sense of something before it becomes sensible or objectively definable," Winiecki said.

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