Perspectives on Aesthetic Computing

Text-only Preview


Perspectives on Aesthetic Computing
Paul Fishwick, Stephan Diehl, Jane Prophet, Jonas Löwgren

already a significant number of projects that capture some
Abstract— We present an introduction to the new combination of computing and art? Let’s begin with the first
interdisciplinary area of aesthetic computing and then define this
question regarding aesthetics. We will define aesthetics
area with examples from each of our own disciplines, practices,
broadly as a combination of cognitive and sensory modes of
and research. While several decades of publication and work experience, which is generally associated within the definition
have resulted in significant advancements in art, as instrumented
with technology, less emphasis has been placed on studying the

of the philosophy of art. However, if we treat only the purely
converse issue of art affecting computing, or “aesthetic cognitive aspect of aesthetics, we find evidence of this within
computing.” We present our individual work in this area, and
mathematics [3] and computing. One speaks of an elegant
then critique each others’ work to surface different perspectives
proof for a theorem, or a beautiful representation. With such
of the area. By approaching the topic of aesthetic computing in
qualifiers, the mathematician is usually referring to
this manner, the paper serves as an introduction, survey, and
cognitively-grounded aesthetics. When we speak of aesthetics
analysis of the field.

in this article, we take it to mean the range and variety
Index Terms— Aesthetics, Art, Semiotics, Computing, encompassing cognitive and sensual aesthetics characteristic
Programming, Interaction Design
of art. As Knuth points out in his discussion of Metafont [4],

underlying his TeX typesetting system, “Type design can be
hazardous to your other interests. Once you get hooked, you
will develop intense feelings about letterforms.” Taken more
N collaboration with Leonardo, we participated in a generally, Knuth is directly addressing the issue of aesthetics
I workshop on Aesthetic Computing in the hills of as being more than the purely cognitive, even within
southwestern Germany in July 2002. The workshop [1], computing, which grew out of mathematics. A textual section
organized by Paul Fishwick, Roger Malina, and Christa of a computer program will have both denotative as well as
Sommerer, was one week in duration, and was attended by connotative signifiers, and it is easy to imagine that the
over 30 representatives of the following disciplines: art, program might align itself with the goals of art, thereby
design, computer science, and mathematics. The purpose of stretching the traditional boundaries of what may be
the workshop was to define the area, and to try to surface key
considered to be a usable computer program representation.
aspects of the field from a variety of perspectives. A The second question regarding the combination of science
manifesto of approximately one page was recently published with art is addressed by first noticing that, unlike computer or
in Leonardo [2]. Aesthetic Computing is the theory and digital art, aesthetic computing implies that art is affecting—
application of art to computing. Given this brief definition, and reflecting—some aspect of computing. This results in
several questions come to mind and we shall address these quite a different agenda than that found in many other fields
questions, and then proceed with the purpose of this paper, of digital art. It may be that taken to its logical conclusion, art
which is to cover sample projects in the area and the different
affects computing and that this, in turn, affects art, closing the
ways in which the authors proceed to accomplish their loop: art creates art. However, we are presently a long way
singular crafts.
from that proposition.
A question regarding the name “Aesthetic Computing” may
We acknowledge our interest of aesthetics in computing to
well be one requiring us to justify its existence. After all, isn’t
expand human-computer interaction and representation to
all computing within the realm of aesthetics, and isn’t there reach into numerous areas of computer science from the

primary operating systems interface to the interface used by
Manuscript received X, 2003.
computer scientists to create programs, and by scientists to
P. A. Fishwick is with the Computer and Information Science Department
create models of geometry and dynamics. This leads to two
at the University of Florida (corresponding author), e-mail: observations, partially justifying the move toward aesthetic
[email protected]
Stephan Diehl is with the Computer Science Department at the Catholic
computing: (1) aesthetics in computing are broader than the
University Eichstätt, Germany , email: [email protected]
purely cognitive dimension, and (2) the art-science confluence
Jonas Löwgren is with the School of Arts and Communication, Malmö
embedded within the discipline of interaction design is
University, SE-205 06 Malmö, Sweden, email: [email protected]
Jane Prophet is Director of The Centre for Arts Research Technology and
broader than the primary “desktop” interface. The first
Education (CARTE), University of Westminster, London, email observation is one of both ontology and epistemology—that
[email protected]
while we might leverage existing aesthetic principles toward

the sensory. Consider the case of “software patterns” as one


example. One would surely state that these patterns reflect
B. Implementation
abstractions of software structures, and that they are found
At the University of Florida, we have constructed a
lurking in numerous software applications. There are two software system called RUBE, which allows for different
ways at looking at patterns, reflecting two ways of defining representations to be applied to a select number of formal
aesthetics: cognitive versus material. What if the patterns were
dynamic model specifications. Using RUBE, it is possible to
surfaced in a way that was more attuned to material change the way that formal models look and sound. By formal
embodiment? This would build upon the existing pattern models, I am referring to a large class of models used for
literature and extend it. The “factory” method espoused by specifying systems that incorporate time for analysis and
Gamma et al. [5] could be the basis for a 2D or 3D scene simulation: finite state machines, Petri networks, Markov
which looked, and operated, like a factory. The look and feel
models, queuing models, System Dynamics graphs, as well as
of the factory would improve with artistic influence and ordinary and partial differential equations. RUBE uses XML
guidance, and provide strong metaphorical cues. This sensory
(eXtensible Markup Language), which separates content from
dimension seems lacking from the pattern literature since one presentation. In XML parlance, content refers to an abstract
generally finds that representation is limited to rectangles and
specification defined as a document tree, and presentation
arcs. And yet, it is not only in the pattern literature that it is refers to the way that the tree is presented to the user, the way
lacking, since the visual minimalism of program structures, it looks and sounds. Thus, using RUBE and guided by the
and the mathematical structures underlying them, is fairly XML philosophy, one may specify an equation, but then
common in computing. The second observation is that choose to present the equation as linear text, a network, or a
interaction design needs to concern itself with all interaction three dimensional structure. Choices as to which presentation
and presentation found in computing, including that of how to
to employ can be guided by XML style sheets and their
represent data and program structures, for instance. The associated transformations.
emerging areas of Information Visualization [6] and Software
RUBE’s architecture is based open source software, and
Visualization [7,8] render themselves toward this goal, and yet
begins with authoring toolkits: SodiPodi for 2D vector
the representations of information and software could do with
drawing, and Blender for 3D modeling. Let’s consider the 3D
greater emphasis on a wider range of artistic expression, pipeline beginning with Blender. The artist creates a 3D
without sacrificing utility. So, it is not that the area of design
model in Blender, and then uses a Python scripting interface
does not presently concern itself with incorporating aesthetics,
allowing attributions to be made regarding semantics. For
but that the current level and degree of this incorporation example, one might point to an object and say that this object
needs to be expanded beyond that of the typical user interface
is a state or a function. After the semantic assignment, an X3D
at the operating systems level.
(eXtensible 3D) file is created for the presentation, and a
We now have a working idea of aesthetic computing, and special XML file is created for specifying the formal model.
we need to explore different approaches. The structure of the
After some XML transformations, this XML file is translated
paper begins with four statements on aesthetic computing by into Javascript or Java, whereby it can be reincorporated into
each of its authors, followed by a discussion of each others’ the VRML file, resulting in an interactive VRML world. The
views and statements.
2D transformations are similar, except that SVG (Scalable

Vector Graphics) is used for presentation.
Let’s begin with a formal definition of a Finite State
Machine (FSM) M [13]. These machines have states that are
connected to each other through transitions that are made
A. Scope
active when an input to the machine is of a particular value.
In applying aesthetics to computing, we need to confine Here is a formal definition for M:
ourselves to some aspect of computing, or one of its subfields
M =< Q, I,O,δ ,λ >
such as HCI, visualization, or discrete structures, to name a
few. For the RUBE Project [9-12], we have focused primarily
Q= S
{ ,
1 S ,
2 S },
3 δ Q
: ×I Q
on representations, informed through an artistic sensibility, in
δ (S )
1 =S ;
1 δ (S
=S ;
2 δ (S
=S ;
mathematics and computing notation, from the notation of
algebraic and differential equations to that of program and
δ (S )
1 =S ;
2 δ (S )
2 =S ;
3 δ (S )
3 =S2
data structures. Our basic philosophy is that we want to build
I =
λ : Q O
a system that allows a multiplicity of different notations to be

constructed so that one may see and hear the same underlying
Even though this text might seem to be the formal
formalism in numerous ways. Not only do different people specification for M, it is actually one of many ways to look at
and cultural entities enjoy working with a formalism using the underlying formalism which would is encoded in XML.
different metaphors, but also the same person or group can The above text is one type of presentation among many. In
benefit from being exposed to diverse presentations.
general, all presentations require additional natural language
semantics if we are to make sense of them. Q is the state set


for M; I the input set, O the output set, δ the transition
function from one state to another, and λ the output function.
Figure 1 illustrates our second presentation for the FSM. It has
Fig 2: A 2D agent-based presentation of the FSM using the
Fig 1: A 2D static snapshot of an interactive diagrammatic
Virtual Reality Modeling Language (VRML).
FSM interface

presentations are strikingly different. Deriving the idea of an
iconic properties so that when the machine is in state S2, the abstract state in an FSM, for example, need not imply that the
presentation of a circle for S2 encodes the concept of a state be presented visually in a minimalist fashion. The key
boundary, and that which is inside it. That is, the graphical thing is to strengthen the metaphor underlying what it means
depiction of S2 is consistent with the underlying metaphors of
to be a state, and the corresponding elements of boundary that
set theory, whereas the purely textual presentation does not go along with it.
capture these metaphors. Moreover, Fig. 1 is incomplete on a
The second question about cultural barriers may be at the
non-interactive medium, such as paper, since the additional heart of the aesthetic computing challenge. Computer
information encoded in the text representation is equally scientists have been educated with minimalist figures and text,
present during interaction with the figure. Similarly, the and so it may come as a shock to realize that our
arrows capture the notion of transitioning from one state to representations for formal objects are not as constrained as we
another, since anyone who has seen an arrow fly knows that it
may have thought. Until the era of computer graphics and fast
is aimed toward a target. The metaphors of the figure computers, we had little need to inquire about, what initially
dramatically improve the semantics of the machine, and so appeared to be, exotic ways to encode formal knowledge.
one is led to wonder whether employing presentations with However, it is not only a challenge for computer scientists, but
alternative aesthetics might further improve the impact of the also for artists, since artists should be encouraged to consider
metaphor. The underlying assumption is that material aspects the computer, and computing practices, as subject material in
of levels of representation are based largely on what is addition to raw material. This suggestion on formal structures
available for a society, and what is affordable and materially as raw or subject material may strike some artists as a
efficient. Consider Figure 2 as a representation that has only modernist era agenda; however, there the computer, and its
recently become possible through computer graphics, and the
mathematical foundations, creates significantly higher
ability to employ 3D components. The metaphor of the circle
complexity as a tool, or as a subject, than paint, palette knife,
as a boundary has been replaced by a small gazebo-like or chisel ever could.
structure. The arrow in Fig. 1 is now shown as a red-clothed

woman walking from one state to another along a lamp-lit
There are a host of philosophical issues that come into play
Software is neither matter nor energy. It is just a kind of
here. Isn’t there a need to enforce visual minimalism within information. Matter and energy are media which carry
this sort of structure? What are the cultural barriers imposed information and thus software. To develop new or understand
that might prevent the adoption of models like Fig. 2 being existing software it has to be projected into a human readable
made possible for science and engineering? With respect to form – the program text. Note that the program text is not the
the issue of minimalism, we should note that is quite possible
software, but just a representation thereof. The program text is
to maintain abstraction without requiring visual minimalism. written in an artificial language with a strict syntax and a more
Within the context of the art community, this can be seen or less well-defined semantics. Trying to understand a real
when comparing and contrasting the genres of Abstract
software system by reading its millions of lines of program
Expressionism and Surrealism. Both of these genres contain a
text is a vain task. As a consequence many tools have been
wide variety of works that employ symbolism, iconography, developed to support software understanding. These tools rely
and the richness of semiotics even though the visual
on analysis and visualization techniques. Per se, software is


invisible. In a famous paper [14], Turing awardee Fredrick call this kind of coupling evolutionary [16], because it is
Brooks even stated that “software is invisible and based on the change history of files, to distinguish it from the
unvisualizable” because each kind of visualization only logical coupling usually used in software engineering. As the
addresses “one dimension of the intricately interlocked files are sorted by the containing directory the pixels form
software elephant.” These dimensions include the static blocks. These blocks indicate that files within a directory are
structure of the software, its dynamics and its evolution. Or to
coupled, i.e. often changed together. Software developers are
put it in other words, different kinds of visualizations show mainly interested in the outliers. These are those pixels
how software is encoded, how it behaves, and how it is representing couplings between files in different directories,
developed. In the following we will present and discuss like those labeled “Patches” in Figure 5. Outliers can be a sign
examples of visualizations for each of these dimensions.
of a bad system architecture.
Fig. 3: Program structure with analysis results.
In Figure 3 a graphical representation of a program, its
control-flow graph, is shown. In addition the graph contains
some information computed by a program analysis. With the
help of this visualization developers can detect certain kinds
Fig. 5: Number of simultaneously changed files

of errors, so-called stack overflows, in their programs [15].
We have now seen three very different kinds of
visualizations as they are used for understanding software and
its development process.
Now what about the aesthetics of these visualizations? It
may come as a surprise to the artistic eye of the reader, but
there have been actually some aesthetic criteria involved when
computing these visualizations:
In Figure 3 the number of edge crossings and bends has
been reduced and directed edges are mostly drawn
downwards. In Figure 4 color is used consistently in the
different views. While the algorithm actually performs
discrete changes, the animation of these changes is done
smoothly. In Figure 5 color coding based on the heat
metaphor is used: The color red shows the highest coupling,
blue low coupling and white now coupling at all. In other
Fig. 4: Animation of the HeapSort algorithm
words, hot files are those that are often changed together.
The sole purpose of the above mentioned aesthetic criteria
In Figure 4 a snapshot of the animated execution of a is to produce visualizations that convey the information as
sorting algorithm is shown. The window contains several clearly and effectively as possible. As a consequence of
representations or views of the data sorted. Algorithm concentrating on the automatic generation and usability of
animations are typically used in education. Most of the visualizations the current research on software visualization is
animation techniques do not scale for real software systems.
rich when it comes to the different properties of software that
Finally, Figure 5 is a pixel map. In this example the color
have been visualized, but poor when it comes to the spectrum
of the pixel at position (x,y) represents the number of times of visual metaphors used: boxes, circles, lines and color.
file fx and fy have been changed together relative to the total

number of times file fx has been changed. From this figure the
developer can see how strong different files are coupled. We


bone marrow, not from the female's own original cells. Thus,
bone marrow stem cells have given rise to skin-type lining

By contrast, in contemporary art practice photographic
I will consider the interdisciplinary area of aesthetic representations have no automatic truth-status (quite the
computing through a discussion of the interdisciplinary contrary) and are assumed to be subjective rather than
project, Cell. Cell is a collaboration between an artist (the objective. Artificial life (Alife) systems that have a graphical
author), liver pathologist (Neil Theise), mathematician (Mark
and/or sound output pose other challenges to notions of
d’Inverno), computer scientist (Rob Saunders), and representation. Their outputs are autonomous, not controlled
curator/producer (Peter Ride). The Cell project explores new or ‘made’ by the artist or illustrator. They are time-based, not
approaches to cell behaviour and its representation and uses still. They are not constant or predictable as visual or aural
mathematics to bridge the gap between scientific theory and outputs are produced in real-time to represent the software
computer visualisation. Our premise is that artists can running beneath them, which is itself constantly changing as a
‘imagine’ scientific and mathematical theories and thereby complex system of interactions between entities takes place.
influence the development of scientific, mathematical, and They are not ‘top-down’ but ‘bottom-up’ and potentially
computer science research and their associated aesthetics.
emergent: unexpected behaviours represented as images or
A. Context
sounds emerge from many interactions based on simple rules.
Our practical research context is a triangle of different

experimental research environments: Theise’s medical
laboratory; d’Inverno’s and Saunders’ respective
mathematical and computer science labs; and Prophet’s
artist’s studio. Each provides a different context for the work
and has particular embedded methodologies, from the
hypothesis driven ethos of the medical research lab, to
reflexive practice in the art studio, and the empirically driven
environment of mathematics. The aesthetic context of each
discipline is equally diverse. Visualisation in the laboratory
differs from visualisation in the art studio, aesthetics are
important to both. In the medical laboratory representation is
usually taken literally, leading to scientific illustration. In the
art studio ‘representation’ is a term and process framed by
debates in cultural theory and numerous theories of
representation (for example, an image, sound, object can
signify something without actually sounding or looking
anything like it). In Cell we are taking account of a wide range
of aesthetic traditions, including the aesthetics of
mathematical equations to produce a range of practical
outcomes (including animated 3D illustrations of cells,
mathematical models, Zen gardens, sound pieces, and robotic
Fig. 6: Hair follicle with lining cells derived from bone
artworks). In addition we document, develop and evaluate the
interdisciplinary collaborative process itself. Through a series
of studio and laboratory visits, Theise and I became immersed
B. Converging: focussing on behaviour across time
in each other’s working culture and identified significant
Having orientated ourselves to each other’s research
cultural differences. For example, in cell biology the environments we identified key concepts and contexts on
‘photographs’ of tissue slides have a truth status, and are which to focus, and converged and focussed on those areas.
accepted as ‘proof’ of experiments and hypotheses within Theise’s research examines the plasticity of adult stem cells
papers. The beauty of these representations (see Fig.6) and their function. To do this he uses processes based on
produced as part of his laboratory research, is important to hypothesis and hypothesis-testing including repeatable
Theise and there appears to be a correlation between aesthetic
laboratory experiments and the analysis of specimens of cell
quality (specifically how ‘beautiful’ a representation is) and tissue. Because the tissue is dead at the time it is analysed it
the publication rate of associated papers. Fig. 6 is one of represents a frozen moment in time, from which researchers
Theise’s images, and represents skin tissue from a female
mouse who received a bone marrow transplant from a male understand another aspect of stem cell behaviour, and
mouse. Blue nuclei of hair follicle lining cells surround the extrapolate further hypotheses to test. My experience as an
orange, autofluorscent hair shaft (large arrow). Two of these artist working in time-based media and Alife suggests a
nuclei contain fluorescently labeled Y-chromosomes (small different approach to assessing stem cell behaviour. We
arrows) indicating that they derive from the donated male therefore decided to develop an Alife engine to enable the
scientist to look at simulated stem cell behaviour as it happens


within the complex system of a wider community of cell types
against the canon of the artwork as a product of a sole
and enzymes. This output draws on the aesthetics of medical ‘genius’ artist, are conceptual and digital artworks where
illustration and expands it by making the connection between
collaboration is more common. Public acknowledgement of
changing image and underlying behaviour accessible (click on
collaborators is a significant part of the aesthetic framework
a moving cell and see Fig.7, a data read-out).
of such art practice and is in marked contrast to the

unacknowledged appropriation of “assistants’” work that has
traditionally dogged the fine arts.

D. Aesthetics and Conceptual art
The notion of ‘an’ aesthetic is contentious in Cell. Like
much conceptual art, the idea behind Cell (namely modelling
the behaviour of stem cells) and the means of producing it (via
interdisciplinary collaboration) are more important than the
finished work or its (fixed) appearance:

"In conceptual art the idea or concept is the most important
aspect of the work . . . all planning and decisions are made
beforehand and the execution is a perfunctory affair. The idea
becomes the machine that makes the art." [17]

Conceptual art can be defined as the “appreciation for a
work of art because of its meaning, in which the presentation
of shape colour and materials have no value with out the
intentions of the work.” [18] If conceptual art has an aesthetic
then it is the dematerialisation of the art-object; the object
only has value as a materialisation of the idea, not in and of
itself. Mathematics and computing science can both operate
without materiality and can describe the immaterial, which is
one reason why there may be a mutual attraction between
computer scientists, mathematicians and artists working
conceptually using digital media. The robot artwork produced
as part of Cell will comprise of objects and their functionality
and appearance is important, but the idea behind the artwork
is of equal, or more importance. The idea itself can be seen as

Fig 7: Cell 3D Java alife representations
part of the developing aesthetic of digital and other
contemporary arts: the development of an aesthetic of

virtuality and engagement.

C. Collaborative process, aesthetic impact
The collaboration expanded to include a mathematician
E. Scale
with expertise in agent-based systems (d’Inverno) to
Aesthetic debates concerning scale are central to the Cell
determine the mathematical rules that describe adult stem cell
projects. I have been interested in the ‘sublime’ in
behaviour as proposed by Theise (that stem cells can evolve contemporary culture for a number of years, in particular,
into mature cells of other organs such as skeletal muscle, fractal mathematics and an apparent cultural shift to a sublime
bone, and brain with unexpected plasticity). A computer of the very small and detailed. This develops ideas of the
scientist (Saunders) interprets the mathematical model and ‘natural’ or ‘religious’ sublime [19], based on our experience
produces a real time graphical display. Interface features of the human body in landscapes so large and overwhelming
enable scientists (such as Theise and d’Inverno) to make that they prompt a sense of awe and momentary terror. I
changes to stem cells and see the results; map changes through
suggest that there is now a sublime of the micro, nano and
generations of stem cells; see behaviour displayed as real-time
virtual, a similar awe and terror as we try to grasp an inner
animation and graphs. The aesthetic is that of medical and landscape of a scale too small in relation to the human body
scientific illustration, and in common with medical for most of us to comprehend. Theise’s theory challenges the
illustration, a team has produced this scientific visualisation. paradigm of the progressively differentiating adult stem cell
Group/multiple authorship is an accepted part of scientific (and of cells being one of the body’s smallest ‘building
publication. This is not the case in art practice. Standing blocks’). He draws attention to the role of technology (the


microscope) in assigning high status to the unit of the cell illustration and its goal of explaining via precise observation
(bounded by the cell wall made visible for the first time via of the appearance of things: this is at odds with my emphasis
microscopes). Determining the bounded cell as a key ‘unit’ is
on the behaviour of things (in this case stem cells). What is
central to our thinking of scale and reinforces a reductive key for me as an artist working on the project is to transmit a
model of the human body in medicine. Theise notes that if a sense of 'stem cell-ness'. What is captivating about our
different imaging technology had been invented (instead of contemporary understanding of these cells seems to be the
the microscope) that, for example, showed patterns of energy
way that they behave rather than the way they look. The
or fluid movement through the body, then we would be less aesthetic framework in flight and gaming simulations has also
inclined to reductionism. Any subsequent development of the
contaminated the 3D version of Cell, in particular the
microscope would have qualified the ‘fluid’ model to note that
characteristic focus on surface rendering, depth and
fluids sometimes moved across boundaries (i.e. across cell transparency reflects a relentless drive towards photo realism.
This is not what I believe to be of most interest as an artist

working with software. Photorealism is informed by the
medium, material and aesthetic of photography. I am
interested in engaging with the medium of code and software
and in trying to use materials in keeping with that, and to
develop a look and feel that contribute to a computer
aesthetic, for example that take account of the lack of depth of
field and infinite focal range of virtual space. Saunders and I
have discussed these issues at length and he is interested in
developing a 3D version of Cell that avoids the criticisms I
outline above. We are committed to developing a 3D version
because that is closer to our model of stem cell behaviour than
the 2D java version. We will attempt to reflect the
characteristics of virtual space (no depth of field, infinite focal

range etc.) as we do this.
Fig 8: Cell 2D Cell alife java representation

We have discussed the modeling of stem cell behaviour and
the role of mathematics in exploring and representing shifts in
scale. In choosing to ‘manifest’ the mathematical model by
Interaction design is concerned with shaping the use
developing software written in java, Saunders kept the project
qualities of digital artefacts. Another way of putting it would
sensitive to scale at the level of the computer code itself. Java
be to say that interaction design is design of the digital
language was suggested by Saunders because of its scalability,
materials, where the word design is used in the strong sense of
providing the project with a tool that could be used on many exploring all aspects of a possible future: aesthetical and
different types of computer, and on computers with a variety ethical aspects as well as structural and functional.
of speeds etc. (see Fig 8). Scalability has become central to the
It may seem odd, and in fact it is odd, to talk about aesthetic
ethos used to design the Cell software. Discipline-specific computing as if it were something new and hitherto
theories of ‘scale’ converge in Cell to become a key theme unexplored. All computing is aesthetic in the sense that all use
and aesthetic.
of digital artefacts entails aesthetic reactions. To be sure,
many contemporary digital artefacts tend to elicit aesthetic
F. Aesthetics and Visualization
reactions along the lines of frustration, indifference or
To date, the real-time graphic representation arising from
boredom, but these are aesthetic reactions nevertheless. And
Cell's complex adaptive system is not what I would consider a
as designers, we are free to aim for other kinds of reactions if
piece of art. It is a scientific visualisation, informed by the we like.
aesthetic framework of my art practice. As detailed below,
Of course, there are historical reasons for the existence of
conceptual art has influenced our approach to making Cell. In
such blind spots. The academic roots of interaction design
developing the look and feel of the scientific visualisation, I stem from the field of human-computer interaction, where the
have emphasised to the medical and computer scientists that I
main focus has always been on task-oriented use of digital
work with that as a contemporary artist I have been educated
artefacts and in particular its efficiency and absence of errors.
to resist beautifying the graphics. As far as possible, I want It is not surprising that the image of computer use is
the graphic look and feel to reflect the underlying software, to
sometimes simplified to the extent that useful, efficient, and
draw attention to essence of the idea or concept with as little error-free use is seen as the whole picture. The disregarded
frippery and decoration as possible. From this standpoint the parts of the picture, including aesthetic qualities of the use,
java version is a more satisfying outcome than the 3D version.
will then appear as new when they are brought into
The 3D version has been influenced the aesthetics of medical


How, then, should aesthetic use qualities be dealt with in be graceful and nondisruptive.
interaction design? A common fallacy is to equate aesthetics
As a simple but conceptually powerful example of fluency,
with pleasing visual design. To be sure, there are design consider the Hazed Windows concept by interaction design
situations where the immediate visual impression is an students Trine Freiesleben, Miska Knapek and Henrik Moberg
important factor in determining the outcome of the interaction.
at Malmö university [24]. The idea is simply to offer a more
A good example is a web shop with one-time customers who
lightweight and transient communication channel, for instance
should ideally spend money on their first and only visit. The between a little girl and her granny who live in different cities.
visual design of the web shop’s front page is crucial in The girl draws or writes with her finger on a display in her
establishing the right combination of desire and credibility to home. Her signs are redrawn at granny’s display but gradually
actually make customers enter, shop and pay.
fade away, as the metaphorical “window” is filled with
In nearly every other case, however, we need to realize that
metaphorical condensation again. If granny happens to see the
a digital artefact is constituted primarily not by its static visual
signs before they are gone, she can reply in the same way. A
design but by its dynamic Gestalt – the character of the sign on the display disappears completely in a few hours.
interaction over time. Digital design materials are temporal in
The strength of the Hazed Windows concept is not in its
this respect, at least as much as they are spatial. The rest of focus on emotional lightweight communication, which has
this section provides three examples of aesthetic qualities in been done thousands of times before, but rather in the elegant
the use of digital artefacts. They serve as illustrations of how questioning of the hidden core assumptions of computer-
the aesthetics of interaction design can be approached and mediated communication. When we do our email, we devote
articulated for further debate as well as for practical our full attention to it. We expect messages to be persistent
application in concrete design situations.
until we choose to file or delete them. In short, we approach
Pliability is the quality of plasticity, malleability of the the communication situation as a binary task. The Hazed
digital artefact under the hands of the user. A set of Window hints at the possibility of a new middle ground, a
information is pliable to the user if it feels like a responsive new approach to computer-mediated communication in text
material, a matter of inquiry that can be manipulated and and pictures that exhibits a much greater degree of fluency.
experienced in a tactile sense. Pliability contributes to a highly
Seductivity refers to the captivating qualities of a digital
involved process of exploration where the loop between artefact. Following the seminal analysis by Khaslavsky and
senses, thought and action is rapid and physical rather than Shedroff [25], seduction is described analytically as a process
elaborate and mental. I make a small, quick move – the of enticement, relationship and fulfillment. Enticement
material shapes and responds – I notice something new – I concerns grabbing attention and making an emotional
make another move – and so on. Ahlberg and Shneiderman promise. The subsequent relationship is based on making
[20] were the first to articulate this quality, under the label of
progress with small fulfillments and more promises, possibly
“tight coupling”..
lasting for a long time. The fulfillment, or ending, involves
In the interpretation above, pliability concerns the micro-
making good on the final promises and ending the experience
qualities of interaction, the qualities of the surface. Examples
in a positive and memorable way.
of interaction design aiming at pliability include the influential
It should be clear from the description above that
concept of dynamic queries [21] as well as the more recent seductivity, in the sense used here, is a quality that crucially
interaction technique Sens-A-Patch [22]. Another aspect of depends on the dynamic Gestalt, the temporal qualities of the
pliability has to do with the user’s possibilities to act freely digital artefact. Sexually explicit pictures on the front page of
and shape the material according to the larger situation at a web site has nothing to do with it. The example offered by
hand, such as annotating the margins of a paper form to Khaslavsky and Shedroff is the Visual Thesaurus [26] by
communicate something outside the rigid boundaries of the Plumb Design. It is a web application that duplicates the
form itself. As Henderson and Harris [23] point out, this kind
contents of a traditional thesaurus but takes on entirely new
of deep pliability is often unnecessarily lost in the transition qualities by virtue of its interactive properties. The user
from paper to computer systems in, e.g., administrative work.
explores words, their synonyms and eventually the transient
It is straightforward to see how many existing administrative and temporary nature of language itself by navigating a
systems could be extended to accommodate free-form beautifully animated network of words and their interrelations.
annotation and the equivalent of sticky notes.
Khaslavsky and Shedroff argue that the Visual Thesaurus is
Fluency as an aesthetic quality of digital artefacts is seductive in the sense that it offers surprising novelty, goes
brought to the fore in relation with the increasingly pervasive
beyond obvious needs and expectations, and creates an
digital infrastructure. Use is not necessarily a primary activity
emotional response due to its visual and interactional beauty
at the focus of attention, it is not a binary variable of either (enticement). It connects to personal goals through the
using a digital artefact or not. With ubiquitous and mobile fascination of words and concepts and promises to fulfill those
computing, it becomes more of a dance among multiple goals (relationship). The casual viewer may discover deeper
representations and mediations. Streams of information flow meanings of looking up a word in the sense of the
between center and periphery as we move through the shifting
multidimensional and dynamic relationships between concepts
environments of everyday life and work. Transitions need to (fulfillment).




Regarding Stephan’s introduction, one of the tenets of
Each of us applies aesthetic computing in a way that tends
aesthetic computing, at least from my perspective, is that we to amplify our own particular specialty areas. Mathematicians
should endeavor to balance body and mind, sense and and computer scientists are on familiar terms with beauty as it
thought. If software is “invisible,” then by ad absurdum, relates to their work, and so there is nothing wrong with
everything is invisible. For example, I could say that most art
focusing on either cognitive or visual beauty, although I admit
is invisible because the artists manifest artwork within their that beauty is one of many facets of the aesthetic experience.
minds prior to physical construction. It is not clear that For the computer scientist, representation and modeling are
computing (including software) enjoys a kind of privileged paramount, which is why I focus on representation of formal
mental status in this regard. I would say the same holds for structures, and Stephan focuses on software and program
mathematics. Brooks’ quote seems to re-emphasize this visualization. This is what we do professionally, and so we are
artificial Cartesian mind/body duality. We need to be careful seeking ways in which art and the theory of art (aesthetics)
here since if we condone this philosophy, then we place an can improve our discipline. However, I also think you are
unnecessary barrier between art and computing. The medium right to suggest that aesthetic computing can, and should, be
should be an integral part of software and mathematics, and broader than this.
not viewed as dwelling deep in Plato’s cave only to be

trumped by ideal mental constructs conveniently positioned Löwgren

To continue, the discussion of patterns in section I as well
as the whole section II appears to argue that 'the application of

art to computing amounts to finding more visually interesting
In my view, Software is information and thus just another representations for some sort of computing 'contents', such as
kind of entity, so it is orthogonal to matter and energy. algorithms or data structures. The contents themselves are
Regarding your reference to “invisible art,” I think this is a more or less given, and the job of the 'artist' is rather a
good point. The artist manifests her feelings and ideas in a cosmetic one (which, to me, seems more appropriate for a
piece of art, but the piece itself is not the feeling and is not the
graphic designer than a visual artist). The audience for the
idea. It is just a representation of it. I think that the 'artwork' appears to be computing specialists. To illustrate
visualization and the software are two separate things. And why I find this perspective rather limited, consider the wide
each visualization only covers an aspect of the software, in a range of art dealing with computing not as a given but as a
sense it is an "application" or an "interpretation" of the subject for inquiry. A rather well-known example here could
software, but it is not THE software. Bubble sort remains be Adrian Ward's AutoIllustrator [28], which is both a
bubble sort independent of the medium, whether I run it on a
mockery of commercial productivity software and also, more
computer, let a group of students sort themselves by height or
importantly, poses rather important questions on the nature of
whether I print the program text on the screen.
authorship. When a tool starts to act more independently, who

is the originator of the resulting work? The tool user? The
programmer/designer of the tool? Is AutoIllustrator an

example of aesthetic computing? I certainly think so, perhaps
In section I, defining aesthetic computing as the theory and
a more interesting example than the ones offered by Paul and
application of art to computing implies a position within Stephan.
computer science, where the field of art is 'applied' to the

extent that it can improves practices and understandings of Diehl
computing. Paul's and Stephan's sections appear to fall into

this category. Is this a position we want, and one we feel
The examples that are given in section 2 are visualizations
comfortable with? Personally, I am not sure. The following of different aspects of software. These visualizations are goal
comments might help illustrate why I find the initial position a
driven. I don’t claim that they are aesthetic computing, but
little awkward. The section on the aesthetic qualities of that software visualization can both learn from aesthetic
mathematics and programming source code (in section I) is computing and provide material and techniques. When we
slightly confusing to me. The discussion of 'cognitive developed the pixelmap to show file coupling, we didn’t know
aesthetics' appears to be about the beauty of certain what the result would be and were very positively surprised
representations as perceived by specialists creating and when we saw that most couplings appeared along the
manipulating those representations (mathematicians, diagonal. At least in research, we work to some extend like
programmers) [27]. Then, there are a few paragraphs on wider
artists. Our material are the visualization techniques and data
perspectives -- but sections 2 and 3 are essentially back on the
about software systems. And in a way we form this material
visual 'beauty' of representations.
by combining the techniques and applying them to the data to


get nice or useful pictures and provide new insights into simulation (a real-time complex adaptive system with a
graphic user interface and graphic output). This 'stem cell

engine' will now be used to drive a number of diverse outputs,

each peer reviewed in our particular disciplines. Theise has
authored papers for medical journals on the impact of Cell on

his thinking about stem cells; d'Inverno will author
For me, computing is less a subject for inquiry and more a
mathematical papers and produce a musical score and sound
medium that brings with it a range of discourses and has a
piece; Saunders will make web toys (
particular set of qualities. As an artist I want to work with the
and Prophet will make future robotics artworks.
computing medium in ways that reflect, counterpoint and

explore the characteristics of the medium and its discourse (I
am not really interested in computing as a tool to make

beautiful pictures for example). I think AutoIllustrator reflects
I see, so the actual process of doing Cell has resulted in a
and comments on software design and the experience of using
kind of massive catalytic reaction, involving all the players.
software like Adobe Illustrator by making software. This is
This does play well into your notion of conceptual art’s focus
like the way that Modernist painting explored the material of
on process rather than outcome; however, this leads me to one
paint by making paintings like Malevich's White on White -
of your earlier points on conceptual art—that it reflects an
the painting wasn't a representation of something else, it was a
idea or dematerialization. I would like to suggest that
reflection on the material qualities of paint and of canvas.
conceptual art reflects the process of making art, and as I
AutoIllustrator stays close to its subject in form and material
demonstrated in my section, processes can be visualized and
but it is not a representation of something, it is an idea and
comment about something.
materialized within a field of artistic influence. This is done

by modeling the process and thus surfacing it as an abstraction

for the phenomenon in question. For this reason, I am happy

with viewing “conceptual art as process,” but I do not think
this necessarily accords with dematerialization. If one records

the process, or models it, then the process itself is manifested
Jane – can you inform us in more detail about the aesthetics
as an artform.
of scientific visualization with regard to your Cell project?
One could argue that any scientific visualization could be part
of aesthetic computing; however, I imagine that the process of
One of the key tensions that represented itself in the
Cell, incorporating you as an artist, changed the outcome from
discussion is the interplay between that which artists produce
what Cell would otherwise be if it did not consider aesthetic versus that which computer scientists produce. Artists have
experience and involvement?
an agenda based a wide variety of styles and aesthetics from

formalism and cultural exploration to capturing social,
political, or economic aspects of phenomena. Computer

scientists are primarily after high utility artifacts; if something
Form is in part lead by function and the current 3D version
is useless, then most mathematicians and computing
functions well in the context of medicine and reflects a professionals will tend to shy away from it. However, there is
medical illustration aesthetic. It is enough that the current a line that stretches from “no use” to “full use” if there can be
version simulates a highly controversial 'paradigm shift' in such unambiguously defined things. To see this, we need to
theories of stem cell behaviour; for it to also fulfill an artistic
step back to the definition of aesthetic computing: the
agenda would confuse matters and make it less useful as a application of art practice and theory to computing.
medical tool. The aesthetic of medical illustration is to avoid
There is no reason why this application must be targeted on
any expressive artifice in the image and to attempt to produce
artifacts of high general utility. By exploring the boundaries
something as real-looking as possible. In this case it shares and interstices of the “use range”, we think we can enhance art
some aesthetic concerns with simulation and gaming. and computing. Artists will become more familiar with
However, medical illustration tends to remove dirt and elements of computing such as data structures, programs,
extraneous objects in order to expose, or focus on, a central architectures, and even core mathematical structures upon
mechanical structure or behaviour across time. 'Exploded' which computing is founded. What the artist produces reflects
models in anatomy drawings and sequential sketches showing
a computing essence, whether or not the result is of
for example, cell division, have been replaced by Flash immediately obvious utility. To the extent that a piece makes
animations and more recently by biomedical illustrations that one reflect, it is useful in exploration, creativity and education,
draw on agent based systems. At the heart of Cell, for all the
and so even the term “use” or “usability” becomes
professionals involved in the collaboration, has been the circumspect. Thus, aesthetic computing for the artist can range
development of a conceptual model of stem cell behaviour and
from Software Art (a fairly new movement defined by artists
then a maths model that informs the production of a producing their own programs or languages), to