Behavioral Art: Is This Art? | judsoN


In previous papers (as per this discussion, relevant discussions include [1–4]), I have theorized that art serves a neurological function, not unlike eating serves a biological need.  Humans (and probably all vertebrates, at the least) have a built-in alarm clock called hunger, to remind us to consume nourishment.  Likewise, the mind creates an impulse, like hunger, as a motivational scheme within many humans, though clearly not all to the same degree, to update cognitive strategies to immediate environmental needs.  This “hunger,” the drive to experience and create synthetic, cognitive exercises, even faced with pressing mortal danger, we can simply call “art.”  Why would the cave painters of Lascaux [5, 6] brave the treacherous journey, about one mile into the Earth?  In furthering this discussion, it is important for us now to distinguish between this perhaps pre-conscious art impulse, via genes (phylogeny: artphilo) and “art” as a descriptive word in ordinary conversation, via life experience and learning (ontogeny: artonto).

 Though readers will surely think of counter-examples I have not considered, I would like to make a rough distinction in artonto, “art for art’s sake”—merely for the sake of identifying the categorization more clearly—into two general groups: art practices as personally therapeutic (artwonto-ther) and art objects as cultural focii (artonto-cult) where the object triggers associations for discussion, the discourse being the essence these groups.  Examples of artonto-ther are necessarily difficult to cite.  These are often created at home or by children, but are not generally marketed.  We might want to believe that Vincent VanGogh’s artwork was a product of artonto-ther, but he was apparently trying quite hard to make artonto-cult.  No doubt, his unusual psychology [7] filtered his creations in a way so that he produced works unlike others with different psychologies, and hence outwardly-appearing unique artonto-cult.  He was still attempting to gain entrance to the formalized world of galleries and curators.  As an example of artonto-cult, take a Jackson Pollock splatter painting.  Surely similar objects occurred spontaneously throughout time.  But in his case, the objects were formally contextualized in a way that Clement Greenberg [8] and others that followed could exploit, in order to discuss issues that they found interesting, allowing them to align under the social grouping called “Abstract Expressionism”.


figure 1. Is it art?  Is art-ness modality-specific, or does an object lose the quality in translation?  Addressing these questions, this is a screen shot from the piece Keller-Graham (2013), where multimedia is derived from a video of  Helen Keller’s (blind and deaf) visit to Martha Graham’s (dance) studio.

Complicating matters profoundly, it has become popular to make artonto-cult and claim that it is artonto-ther, while people creating artonto-ther often insist that it is artonto-cult.  This is not meant judgmentally.  Simply that where the high school artist might dream of being famous because the art is so much better than others, the effort to make better art, is actually an effort of artonto-ther, and not the business/politics of making contacts and getting known within the “scene” of artonto-cult. But it is more complicated yet!  For example, in the quote below, the modern painter Eric Fischl claims to be addressing very personal issues in his paintings.

“Since I began making art, I’d drawn on the emotional content of those thinly disguised childhood memories. But I always mediated the particulars of that experience through modernistic and formalistic means – abstraction, collage, and myth. Now, without consciously willing it, I’d become the naked, recognizable subject of my work. Had I realized how exposed and vulnerable it would make me feel, how troubling and powerful the images were to me, I might never have done it.” [9]

But Fischl’s admission, while perhaps honest, fits a little too neatly within popular issues in contemporary art.  These motifs have become too stereotypical, to the point where his teenage sexual embarrassments, do not appear particularly worthy of any therapy—even as artonto-ther.  It should be emphasized that it is not at all the case that we feel artonto-ther is somehow more noble, or that artonto-cult is somehow “selling out”.  This is not a criticism of the work, so much as a further example, describing distinct roles artonto might play: psychological and social.  These may be perfectly legitimate roles, but are often concealed, at cross-purposes, and casually convoluted.

Techno Art

In artonto-ther one can imagine how a person might relax and/or even reach a meditative state by painting.  As well, one might imagine children enjoying drawing (though this too may serve a biological function [10]).  However, a required requisite for artonto-cult is that there be a strong enough social scene to support itself with discourse alone.  Though computer art existed in the years before the web was public, the works would hardly impress curators then or now.  It was roughly once the web was public, and later Netscape introduced the ability to add images to web pages in the mid-1990s, that more people became interested in computers as a possible medium for art [11].  But the numbers of enthusiasts remained perhaps too small to encourage artonto-cult.  It was not until about 2000 that there was an explosion of users on the web, with little or no interest in science and academia.  This allowed for artonto-cult and sufficiently validated a techno-aesthetic [12, 13], also see the historical precedent in [14].  Hence, artonto-cult became available to “computer art”, despite the fact that, unlike in other traditional art media, it was still far from obvious how artists-as-programmers might actually implement artonto-ther.

In recent years, techno art has celebrated works of electrical engineering.  But the end result remains the goal.  The enjoyment is not essentially dependent on artonto nor artther, but the functionality of production (e.g. final object, correct execution, methodical process).


Thus the question regarding the degree to which the notion of source and model is problematic.  Literally, in the process of digitizing, there is (ideally) no such distinction.  Any differences are merely random artifacts.  But the notion of authenticity may be the real concern.  In the case of art-ness.  However, this issue defies strict quantification.  Given that all humans differ in their ability to detect stimuli, there is no objectively ideal resolution to compare.  No configuration of pixels actually depicts an image.  The approximate image is presented to the viewer, who then uses these stimuli as clues to reassemble an image exclusively within the mind (“Cartesian theater”) [15, 16].  Given the same viewer, the same number of pixels, but a less personally significant face, under roughly the same lighting conditions, etc, may not yield recognition that the pixels represent a face.  On one level then, there is no meaning at all in the notions of copy and original for digital resources (e.g. pictures, sounds, video).

Notwithstanding, for the process of artonto-ther, insofar as the artist somehow renders an impression (internally as a copy) of the environment (and assumes it is the external original).  The distinction in absolutely essential.  Nonetheless, the question, being posed in a somewhat formal manner by a social body as a shared topic of discussion, is a question of artonto-cult.  What the posing of the question accomplishes, in effect, is to draw a line between orthodox computer art practice and art as an orthodox personal therapeutic process.  But delving deeper into the issue, this opposition is not essential.

Here, we introduce the notion of Behavioral Art (BA), where the computer (or whichever technology is chosen) is not the essential focus for the artistic experience.  The fact that a machine can be programmed, that machine then becomes part of a larger system, which necessarily also includes the individual audience member.  The artwork itself is exclusively what is rendered in the mind of that audience member.  Whatever is broadcast on the screen or from the speakers by the computer, is trivial.  It might resemble what the audience member sees/hears, but the resemblance is merely a distraction for us, in BA.  What we are interested in is that some complex of conditionals (programming code) yields some experience for the audience member, which may or may not inform that member’s subsequent outward behavior(s).

This is  artphilo, an alternative motivation, art not being for any “sake” really, but as a catalyst of mental processes.   Not that BA is any more accurate or effective, but is an entirely different, and perhaps unintuitive, paradigm.  The previous sections regarding artonto were merely necessary to highlight this crucial but subtle distinction, not as criticism.

Example Behavioral Art Systems

There is no intrinsically artistic object.  To an advanced alien testing for every conceivable patterned physiological disturbance (eg. Infrared reflections, does it emit sub-bass frequencies?) the Mona Lisa is certainly not art.  At the simplest level, consider how one might imagine an image, viewing a constellation of stars in the sky.  An image comprised of pixels is precisely the same byproduct, but the “stars” are numerous enough that the role of the imagination is far from obvious, at this point.  Somewhere in between these extremes lies a hazy boundary where it is ambiguous how much information actually ends up in the pictured image.

Visual Redintegration

Ritual for a Non-repeating Universe (performed 2002–2005, 2007; see figure 1), choreographed by Philippa Kaye, uses a camera to analyze movement of dancers and create visual animation, using techniques discussed in [17].  Taking images from a live camera feed, the computer records the coordinates of the pixels from each frame sent, to determine where movement occurred.  Provided the camera is left alone on its tripod, the number of points corresponding to the dancers is always significantly less than total points of motion.  About 12 times per second, an essential number for perceiving animation [18, 19], a randomly chosen subset of the points are depicted on the screen.  As there are never nearly enough of them displayed simultaneously to sufficiently draw a recognizable image, a single frame would hardly depict anything coherent.

Some of the points also appear at random locations and do not correspond to actual dancers, but to errant light reflections, etcetera, and are ignored, or might be said to lose in this evolutionary competition.  Only when these points’ constant disappearance and reappearance reinforce each other, via redintegration [20, 21], do we see a recognizable image of the movement of the dancers.  What makes the motion of bodies more meaningful [22], as when we recognize a friend’s walk, to us than errant reflections of light?




figures 1a-d, e. Photos from performance of Ritual for a Non-repeating Universe (Again)

The photo 1e above is cheated a bit in order to illustrate what the audience might see.  The image is actually an overlaying of several sequential frames, as in photo 1a-d, where no single still would capture anything noticeable for the reader.

Noise or Music

In the piece, Migration (2014; see figure 2), for flute, guitar, cello, piano and (tuned) percussion, a computer analyzes a recording of a noisy subway station, determining the frequencies present at each moment, using standard DSP techniques discussed in [23].  Within the computer, a virtual ensemble performs the notes that would ordinarily comprise the complex wave of the original “noise”.  Aside from the ambiguities regarding timbres and pitches [24], rhythms are also subject to reassembly by the listener.  Unintended rhythms are byproducts of simultaneously swelling and fading frequencies.


figure 1. Screen shot of program generating the piece Migration.

There is no consistent correct answer as to whether the audio produced is musical or noise.  This is not merely an intellectual matter of taste.  But it shows that the determination resides entirely within the listener.  The human cannot know objectively, but subjectively feel conviction impulsively, which becomes therapeutic (i.e. Artonto-ther) [25, 26].

There is a salient issue as to the differences and relationships between the original and a copy, that is perhaps central to the traditional question posed by William Benjamin almost 100 years ago [27].  However, Behavioral Art (BA) essentially renders this polarity moot.  In cases where an imperfect copy of a scene, which many would assume is real, is “originality” more valuable in any sense?  Where imperfections lie beyo nd human detection, “originality” becomes an arbitrary distinction.  (As for the epistemological issues, consider [28, 29] regarding [30].)   Moreover, in recent digital technology, no original can be said to instigate this process.  An image document is not at all concrete, but an array of settings (i.e. bits) necessary in order to render the same image on a monitor or to a printer elsewhere.

BA is thus a radical departure from the expected paradigms that guide other technologies employed as media.  But I would speculate that once upon a time, when the paint brush was a new technology, this very same argument would apply [31].  It is only once the medium has been co-opted as mediation (as artonto) that these paradoxes come into play.  Fortunately for us creating BA (as artphyllo), this need not thwart us.  We shift the focus from what the artist creates (a noun), to the function (a verb) for the person (including the artist) experiencing the greater system.


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11. This was about when I began programming for Ädaweb, one of the first online art galleries.

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25. Alderage, D. (2006) Music therapy and spirituality: A transcendental understanding of suffering, in: Alderage, D. and Fachner, J. (eds.), Music and Altered States: Consciousness, Transcendence, Therapy, and Addictions (pp. 155–171), London, England: Jessica Kingsley Publishers & Germany: University of Witten-Herdecke.

26. Berger, D. (2002) Music Therapy, Sensory Integration and the Autistic Child, London, England: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.

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31. Marvin, C. (1988) When Old Technologies Were New: Thinking about Electric Communication in the Late Nineteenth Century, Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.


judsoN makes Behavioral Art, programming computers in order to study cognition.  His software experiments/artwork, papers, music, and performances have been featured extensively around the world since 1996.