Soft Monkey

October, 2009

Animal painting is popular again; the evidence is on YouTube. But it was popular in the Fifties and Sixties too and taken seriously by some in the art world and certainly by some biologists. Congo, the painting chimpanzee was a star.

Abstract blue black and white painting by a chimp

The book "Monkey Painting" by Thierry Lenain inspired me to put together a software monkey that paints and looks at the canvas before deciding what to do next. As Lenain describes them, monkey aesthetics is based on a destructive play. The animal perceives a field and then disrupts it – that field can be either positive or negative space on the canvas.

Lenain's other key insight is that monkey painting exists only because of the human imposition of aesthetic significance on animal behaviour. The complete weight of signification rests with the human side of this equation. The circumstances of human culture are what determine the meaning of monkey painting and the slinging of paint is only play for the primate in question. The popularity of Monkey painting coincided with the ascendance of abstract expressionism and the visual similarity with monkey painting made the comparison productive.

To make a painting monkey in software is to ask a parallel question about the nature and meaning of software art and software aesthetics. Is it possible to look at this kind of work with an understanding of the displaced authorship and the way an oblique en-framing determines the significance of the artifacts of software aesthetics?

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