Recommended Old Books for 2012

With the festive season coming up, I’ve compiled this short list of five out-of-print books that I’ve obtained my own copies of this year. In times past, I’ve usually borrowed these titles from our university library and found myself regularly coming back to them for inspiration. However, years of borrowing have seen many of the library copies a lot worse for wear (not due to me I should emphasise), and some are now missing altogether from the library shelves—shame on you book thieves!

With the advent of on-line second-hand book sites such as Abe Books its now so much easier to find these out-of-print titles, usually at a reasonable price. So here are my highly recommended list of old books for 2012.

The First Artificial Intelligence Coloring Book

by Harold Cohen, Becky Cohen, Penny Nii. With a foreword by Edward Feigenbaum. William Kaufmann, Inc. Los Altos, California, 1984.

Before Harold Cohen’s AI art system AARON was making sophisticated pictures of people and trees it was learning to make simple drawings as a child might do. The book aims to simultaneously teach symbolic AI and art-making, while discussing some of the thinking behind Cohen’s bold AI-art experiment. Suitable for children and adults, it’s framed around a conversation between Harold and two inquisitive children who are “exchanging ideas about decision-making, coloring, the creative process and art in general.”

The book contains a foreword by Ed Feigenbaum, with whom Harold spent a two year sabbatical at the Stanford AI Lab, when AI was still a “young science”. At the time, most of AARON’s output was via a pen plotter.

Included with the book are 35 computer-made line drawings which can be hand coloured and detached from the book itself. The drawings have a child-like simplicity—AI doodles—that could easily be mistaken for real children’s drawings.

While both AI and art (and AI art) have moved on, the book manages to raise many important questions, stimulating discussion while being fun and playful at the same time. Who could have thought colouring-in could be an educational experience in artificial intelligence. The book’s willingness to bring computer art and art into the domain of the ordinary was ground breaking, something sadly lacking in so many newer texts today. Moreover, the pictures are great (personally I like them even more than much of AARON’s later output), so get yourself a copy and get colouring!


Patterns In Nature

by Peter S. Stevens, 1st Edition, Little Brown & Co., 1974, Penguin Books reprint 1977.

Patterns in Nature was a classic from the moment it was first printed in 1974. I first became aware of this book from the late Alain Fournier who’s inspiring Siggraph course, The Modeling of Natural Phenomena, has always been my favourite.

Peter Stevens—an architect, painter and photographer—was director of the Architectural Planning Office for the Harvard medical area and lecturer at Harvard. He spend a sabbatical year (courtesy of a Guggenheim fellowship) researching the material that appears in PIN. His classification of natural patterns is still relevant today, seen in more contemporary books such as Simon Bell’s Landscape: Pattern, Perception and ProcessBeautifully illustrated with stunning black and white photography, PIN is a timeless classic that explains the basic structural patterns of the natural world, from the tiniest plant seeds to the galaxies of the cosmos.
The natural successor to PIN is Phillip Ball’s The Self-Made Tapestry (OUP, 1998), also lavishly illustrated and updated with patterns from chemical and biological processes. The Self-Made Tapestry is now also out of print, being updated with a three volume small-format series (Shapes, Flow and Branches), which while slightly more comprehensive seem like a publisher’s cash grab, only offering low resolution black and white photos on poor quality paper with colour plate inserts stuck in the middle of each book.
If you are involved in generative art, or just interested in the the basic kinds of natural patterns and processes that have given form to the natural world, you’ll find much inspiration from Patterns in Nature.


Scratch Music

edited by Cornelius Cardew. MIT Press paperback edition, 1974.
Cornelius Cardew‘s Scratch Orchestra was an experimental performance ensemble out to change the political dynamics of music that existed in the 1960s. Influenced by the likes of Karlheinz Stockhausen and John Cage, Cardew saw composition as a process that unfolded during performance. Famous for composing one of the first modern works of generative music (Paragraph 7 of The Great Learning), this book gives insight into the group’s readymade style of composition that deliberately rebels against conventional modes of the composer-performer-instrument hierarchy.
Page from Scratch Music
Scratch Music is fascinating because it considered that almost anything could form the basis of musical exploration and ideas. Part anti-establishment politics, cut-up graphic design and musical poetics, the book is irreverent yet deeply inspirational. Full of aphorismic gems, such as “Tune a brook by moving the stones in it.” , Scratch Music manages to be simultaneously entertaining, insightful and freeform enlightening.
Page from Scratch MusicOne of the most interesting aspects of the book for me is the implicit exploration of systems of musical representation. While many other composers have explored this territory, there seems to be many as yet untapped ideas in Scratch Music for computer representations, probably due to the “systems” nature of much of the thinking that inspired the ideas in the book. Serendipitously, there’s even a Nodal-like system (by Christopher May):Scratch MusicAs the photograph above shows, the idea of connecting note events to a network of transitions is clearly evident in May’s composition. There are many more of these kind of systems throughout the book, its a pity that you can’t hear any of the music produced with them. If you’re after new musical ideas that would be enhanced by computer implementation, Scratch Music is a real gem.


Constructivism: Origins and Evolution

by George Rickey. Revised edition. George Braziller, New York 1967.

Constructivism cover

A visual tour-de-force of constructivist art from its origins to the dynamic works of the 1960s. This book should be on the recommended reading for any course on generative art or creative coding.

Constructivism page

George Rickey was a sculptor and Professor of Art at Rensselaer Polytechnic in Troy, New York. Like Peter Stevens he received a Guggenheim fellowship during which he developed many of the ideas for the book.  It is richly illustrated (in Black and White) with all manor of light-sculpures, kinetic works, and geometric abstractions. Following a discussion on the origins of constructivist art, a series of chapters consider different approaches to medium and process, including Optical Phenomena, Micro-elements, Chance, Movement, Light and Color (which, unlike the others is covered in a mere 4 pages and with no illustration!). Each chapter discusses processes and is detailed with example works, including those by John McLaughlin, Alexander Calder, Bridget Riley and Lucas Samaras.

Constructivism page

The book provides both good inspiration and valuable reflection for the aspiring generative artist. A worthy addition to your library if you are serious about understanding many of the precursors to contemporary generative and computational art.

Constructivism page


Handbook of Regular Patterns: An Introduction to Symmetry in Two Dimensions

by Peter S. Stevens. First edition, 1981. MIT Press paperback edition 1984.

Handbook of Regular Patterns

Yes, I’ve included two books by Peter S. Stevens, and why not! This 1980s followup to Patterns in Nature is a comprehensive visual study of all the symmetry groups, summed up by the quote from Owen Jones:

See how various the forms and
how unvarying the principles.

Handbook of Regular PatternsJust as interesting (to me) as the book itself is the author’s inspiration for writing it: George Birkhoff‘s 1933 classic  Aesthetic Measure which attempted to mathematically define an aesthetic measure for simple geometries, such as regular polygons and vases. Handbook of Regular Patterns, however, has much in common with Owen Jones’s Grammar of Ornament (which might be on my best old books of 2013 list…). While Carsten Nicolai attempted a post-modern equivalent with Grid Index, Stevens’ book has far greater scholarship (in fact far more explanatory text) giving it an exemplary explanatory power.

DSCF1142 Handbook of Regular Patterns

An invaluable reference for anyone in art, architecture, computational design, mathematics or just the plain curious about symmetric patterns. You will find much that is inspirational in this comprehensive reference volume.