Christa Sommerer
Laurent Mignonneau ::: Biography


This paper reports on the creation of interactive computer installations that combine artificial life and real life by means of human-computer interactions. These installations have focused on real-time interaction and evolutionary image processes. Accordingly, visitors to the installations become essential parts of the systems by transmitting their individual behaviors, emotions and personalities to the image processes of the work. Images in these installations are no longer static, pre-fixed and predictable but become "living systems" themselves, representing minute changes in the viewers' interactions with the evolutionary image processes. Natural evolution has brought about a vast variety of forms and structures in nature. This research considers how artificial evolution can function as a tool of the visual creation process; design should no longer be done by a designer or artist but should emerge through the evolutionary image process itself.

Artificial Life has become a topic that not only interests the scientific community but has influenced the art world as well. [1] Traditionally, art was considered to be the sublime creation of the artist, who in Immanuel Kant's [2] terms was the genius through whose inherited "ingenium" nature decided the laws of art. However, in the 1920s and 30s, artists such as Kurt Schwitters, Marcel Duchamp, and others introduced the idea of "art as a process" in a new art form called "DADAism" [3] where random processes and automatism were exploited to create such then controversial works as Schwitters' Ursonate [4, 5] and Marcel Duchamp's famous "Ready-mades."
In the 1950s, artists like John Cage, Robert Rauschenberg, Nam June Paik, and others started to also include the audience in the creation process, thus widening the concept of the art work to a further dimension. Happenings, Performances and Video Art were part of a new movement called "Fluxus." [6] This considered art to be a communication process between the artist, the artwork and the audience where the distinction between life and art was increasingly blurred. [7] Artists such as Steina and Woody Vasulka [8] investigated the new technical and conceptual possibilities of Video Art in the 1960s. Other developments since then further explored the idea of "art as a process" in new art forms such as Land Art, Installation Art and Conceptual Art. [9] With the appearance of new computer technologies another dimension was introduced to the artistic creation process: time and virtual space.

Artificial Life and Art
Principles of artificial life and the emergence of advanced computer technologies in the early 1990s allowed artists for the first time to study the visual creation process itself. Much inspiration for creating digital life forms on a computer screen and modeling their complex internal behaviors was provided by Dawkin's Biomorph Land evolution software, a program in which users can guide the "evolution" of generations of graphical stick figures. This program was published in Dawkin's influential book The Blind Watchmaker. [10] Reynold's subsequent work from 1987, simulating the flocking behaviour of artificial birds was another milestone in establishing the idea of applying artificial life principles to computer graphics software. [11] Ray's Tierra evolution simulator, created in 1991, finally brought the possibilities of software evolution to wider attention. [12]

This on-line version of the book "Biomediale. Contemporary Society and Genomic Culture" is not full. The unabridged edition can be purchased in printed form as anthology. Requests should be sent to: (full information) or in written form: 236000, Russia, Kaliningrad, 18, Marx str., The National Publishing House “Yantarny Skaz”. Phone requests: Kaliningrad +7(0112)216251, Saint-Petersburg +7(812)3885881, Moscow +7(095)2867666. On-line bookshop (in Russian): Full reference to this book: "Biomediale. Contemporary Society and Genomic Culture". Edited and curated by Dmitry Bulatov. The National Centre for Contemporary art (Kaliningrad branch, Russia), The National Publishing House “Yantarny Skaz”: Kaliningrad, 2004. ISBN 5-7406-0853-7

Since the mid and late 90s many artists and designers have also become interested in applying artificial life principles to their interactive artworks. It would exceed the scope of this paper to mention all of these works, a comprehensive collection of works is provided at Telefonica Spain' VIDA website [20], the Generative Art conference website [21], Dorin and McCormack' First Iteration conference website [22] and Reynolds' collection of evolutionary art on his website. [23] We will now describe four of our interactive artificial life computer installations in more detail.

Fig. 1a, 1b. Top: Side view. Bottom: Section.

In 1994 we created the interactive real-time environment A-Volve [16], where visitors can interact with virtual creatures in the space of a water-filled glass pool. These virtual creatures are products of evolutionary rules combined with human creation and decision. By designing any kind of shape and profile with their fingers on a touch screen, visitors "bear" virtual three-dimensional creatures that are automatically "alive" and swim in the real water of the pool. Algorithms calculate a creature's form and movement in space. A-Volve provides a novel system, where movement and fitness is linked to the design and shape of a creature. [24]

Our special touch screen editor allows the visitor to draw any form (Fig. 1). As the visitor draws a side view of the creature, the outline of this drawing will be mirrored around the z-axis. Our software now subdivides this drawing into 20 points or vertices that provide the length and size for each parameter point. We then add this size and length information to the genetic code of the creature's genetic string (see Fig. 3).
In order to get a three-dimensional form, we need not only a side view but also depth information. This time the visitor draws a form that represents the section through the creature's body along the z-axis (Fig. 2). The same process of acquiring vertex points is applied to the creature's section. We acquire 20-vertex point for x and 20 vertex points for y, all of which are added to the creatures genetic code (Fig. 3). Figure 3 shows the genetic string of the creature with its 90 parameters. Each creature in the pool has such a genetic string, and the creatures are haploid and asexual.

Fig. 2. Genetic String.

Fitness and Speed
The movement and behavior of the virtual creature is determined by its form, which is based on how the viewer designs it on the touch screen. Behavior in space is, so to speak, an expression of form. Form is an expression of adaptation to the environment. Form and movement are closely connected, so the creature's capability to move will decide its fitness in the pool. The distance in which a creature pushes itself forward through one muscle contraction is its speed, and speed is equivalent to the creature's fitness. The more distance a creature can make with one muscle contraction, the faster it is, hence the fitter it is.

Predator-prey behavior depending on energy levels
The fittest creature survives longest and is able to mate and reproduce. The creatures compete by trying to get as much energy as possible. Thus predator creatures will hunt for prey creatures and try to kill them. A creature is not born as a predator or a prey, but will decide whether to attack or flee depending on the other creature's fitness and energy at the current moment.
A creature initially can be a predator but later become a prey if a fitter creature with more energy enters the pool. The creatures therefore have to constantly change their strategies about whom to attack and whom to flee from. A creature's energy level E=1 when the creature is born and enters the pool. But its energy level decreases with each movement and as soon as the critical energy level of E<1 is reached, the creature becomes hungry. The creature now becomes a potential predator. If it is fit enough to catch another creature, it will look for a suitable prey, attack it and add up the pray's energy to its own energy. Through his vision system the predator always chooses the prey that is nearest to it and which will provide the most energy with the smallest effort of movement. A detailed description on the relationship between fitness, energy, life-time, predator-prey behavior and genetic exchange is given in literature. [24, 25]

Fig. 3. Cross-Over and Mutation.

Mating and Genetic Exchange
If two strong creatures with E >1 meet, they can create an offspring. This new creature carries the genetic code of its parents. Mutation and cross-over provide a nature-like reproduction mechanism. Figure 4 shows an example of how the Cross-over operation is performed between two parents. Some mutation is applied at random to the genetic code of the child creature. The newly born offspring will now also live in the pool, interacting with visitors and other creatures.

An A-Volve creature can be born in two different ways:
1. by the visitors on the touch screen
2. by mating and genetic exchange of two parent creatures

A-Volve creatures can die in three different ways:
1. starving - they can't get enough energy by killing other creatures
2. natural death - their maximum lifetime has been reached
3. being killed - a prey gets killed by a predator

Fig.4. Artificial creatures in A-Volve project.

As the genetic code of the offspring is transported from generation to generation, and the operation of the system is based upon selection for fitter creatures, the system is able to evolve over time toward having fitter creatures. Although evolution could take place by itself without any influence from outside, the system is designed in a way that allows the interaction and creation of forms by the visitors to have a significant influence on the evolutionary process. We can consider the visitor a kind of external selection mechanism. The three main internal parameters - fitness, energy, and lifetime - regulate the interaction, reproduction and evolution among the creatures. The external parameters are the visitors' drawings on the touch screen as well as their interactions with the creatures.

Creature - Visitor Interaction
The creatures also interact with the visitors by reacting to their hand movements in the water (Fig. 5). If a visitor tries to catch a creature, it will try to flee or stays still if it gets caught. Thus, the visitor is able to influence evolution by, for example, protecting prey against predators. None of the creatures is pre-designed; they are all born exclusively in real-time through the interaction of the visitors and the interaction of the creatures. Thus a large variety of forms becomes possible, representing human and evolutionary decisions. By closely connecting the real natural space of the water to the unreal virtual living space of the creatures, A-Volve minimizes the borders between "real" and "unreal," creating a further step, after "Interactive Plant Growing" [26], in our search for Natural Interfaces and evolutionary design. More information about A-Volve is also available at: <> and in the literature. [24, 25]

Fig. 5. Visitors interacting with artificial creatures in A-Volve.

"Phototropy" is a biological term describing the force that makes organisms like bacteria or plants follow light in order to get nutrition and hence to survive. [17] Phototropy is also an interactive computer installation where visitors interact with virtual insects using a normal flashlight.

This on-line version of the book "Biomediale. Contemporary Society and Genomic Culture" is not full. The unabridged edition can be purchased in printed form as anthology. Requests should be sent to: (full information) or in written form: 236000, Russia, Kaliningrad, 18, Marx str., The National Publishing House “Yantarny Skaz”. Phone requests: Kaliningrad +7(0112)216251, Saint-Petersburg +7(812)3885881, Moscow +7(095)2867666. On-line bookshop (in Russian): Full reference to this book: "Biomediale. Contemporary Society and Genomic Culture". Edited and curated by Dmitry Bulatov. The National Centre for Contemporary art (Kaliningrad branch, Russia), The National Publishing House “Yantarny Skaz”: Kaliningrad, 2004. ISBN 5-7406-0853-7

The visitor in Phototropy thus supports, develops and enhances the lives of artificially living insects populations. Figure 6 shows an image of the Phototropy installation with a visitor interacting with the artificial insects.

GENMA - Genetic Manipulator
In 1996 we created GENMA [18], an artistic installation that enables visitors to manipulate artificial nature on a micro scale: abstract amoeboid artificial three-dimensional forms and shapes. Principles of artificial life and genetic programming are implemented in the creature's structure, allowing the visitor to manipulate their virtual genes in real time.
Looking into a mirrored glass box, the visitor sees the creatures as stereo projections. The visitor puts one or both hands into the glass box and tries to grab the creatures that are virtually floating in the space of the box. The genetic code of each creature is schematically displayed on a touch screen. By selecting segments of the genetic code on the touch screen, the visitor can manipulate the creature's genetic code, and thus modify its appearance in the glass box in real time. By selecting, merging and recombining different parts of the genetic string, the user can engage in more stimulating experiments and learn how to create complex forms out of seemingly simple original structures (Fig.7). GENMA allows the visitor to explore the tools of genetic manipulation, by taking parts of the genetic strings, cutting, pasting or multiplying them, and adding mutations and variations.
On a visual level, GENMA further explores the concept of "natural design" or "auto design," a concept referring back to the automatism used in DADAism [3] and Fluxus. [6] Its design is not prefixed and controlled by the artists but instead represents the degree of interest and interaction of each single visitor. Each visitor creates the desired forms, aided by artificial genetics, mutation and manipulation. To push it further, the visitors thus become "creators" or "artists" themselves, using the power and possibilities of such tools.

Fig. 6. Artificial creatures in A-Volve project.

Life Spacies - from text to form on the Web
In 1997 we developed a new interactive installation called Life Spacies [19] for the permanent collection of the ICC-NTT InterCommunication Museum in Tokyo, Japan. Life Spacies is an on-line evolutionary interaction environment that allows remotely located visitors to interact with each other in a shared virtual environment. Visitors can integrate themselves into a three-dimensional complex virtual world of artificial life organisms that react to their body movement, motion and gestures. These artificial beings also communicate with each other as well as with part of an artificial universe, where real and artificial lives are closely interrelated through interaction and exchange.
Through the Life Spacies Web page (Fig. 7), people all over the world can contribute to the system by simply typing and sending an email message to the Life Spacies Web site <> to create one's own artificial forms. These creatures will immediately start to live in the Life Spacies environment at the ICC museum and interact with the visitors on-site. When a visitor virtually touches a creature, it will produce a clone of itself, when two visitors each touch a creature these two creatures produce an offspring, a genetic mix of the two parent creatures.

The artificial species can be created in two different ways. First, through incoming international email messages. A text-to-form editor creates the genetic code for each creature: one message is one creature; complex text messages create complex creatures; different levels of complexity within the text represent different species. Second, by the creatures themselves: reproduction initialized by the visitors helps the creatures to propagate their genotype in the system so they can form groups of different species. A detailed description of the Life Spacies and Life Spacies II text-to-form editor is provided in literature. [27]

This on-line version of the book "Biomediale. Contemporary Society and Genomic Culture" is not full. The unabridged edition can be purchased in printed form as anthology. Requests should be sent to: (full information) or in written form: 236000, Russia, Kaliningrad, 18, Marx str., The National Publishing House “Yantarny Skaz”. Phone requests: Kaliningrad +7(0112)216251, Saint-Petersburg +7(812)3885881, Moscow +7(095)2867666. On-line bookshop (in Russian): Full reference to this book: "Biomediale. Contemporary Society and Genomic Culture". Edited and curated by Dmitry Bulatov. The National Centre for Contemporary art (Kaliningrad branch, Russia), The National Publishing House “Yantarny Skaz”: Kaliningrad, 2004. ISBN 5-7406-0853-7

In Life Spacies, interaction, interrelation and exchange happens on human-human, human-creature, creature-creature, human-environment, creature-environment and life-artificial life levels. As the interaction rules are non-deterministic and multi-layered, an open system was created where each entity, whether real life or artificial life, whether actually present (at the ICC Museum) or virtually present (the users on the Net, or the creatures as code), is regarded as an equally important component of a complex life-like system.

Fig. 8. Visitor interacting with artificial insects in Phototropy.

Natural Interfaces
Since 1992 we have been most interested in, and have pioneered, the invention of "Natural Interfaces" [28] as they transport the concepts of life, variation and personality. Using, living plants as an interface in Interactive Plant Growing [26] for example, not only provides an interesting new connection between computers and a living entity but also poses the question of what a plant is, how we perceive it and how we interact with it. Natural Interfaces allow us to project our personalities into the virtual space. They also diminish the anxiety one has when entering the virtual space. We have so far investigated the use of plants [26], water [16], light [17], unencumbered 3D full-body integration into virtual space [29] and most recently multi-modal interfaces combining speech and touch in our Internet-based installations Riding the Net [30] and The Living Room. [31]

Fig. 9. Building blocks for GENMA creatures.

Multi-Layer interaction and artificial life
Interaction is interesting to the visitors if it is not linear or predictable, but like a journey. The more one engages in interaction, the more one can learn about it and explore it. Nonlinear interaction and multi-layered interaction should be easy to understand at the very beginning and content-rich so one is able to continuously discover different levels of experiences. This is where artificial life can provide a new form of creation process that is not pre-designed and predictable but which varies according to the parameters employed in the systems. In the A-Volve, Phototropy, GENMA and Life Spacies installations, artificial evolution and internal and external selection mechanisms create systems of virtual creatures that are semi-autonomous and provide a variety and complexity of forms and interaction not created by the artist or designer but by the interaction between the visitor and the artificial creatures themselves.

Fig. 10. Christa Sommerer & Laurent Mignonneau. Life Spacies, 1997, an evolutionary on-line interaction environment.

Interactivity and artificial life teach us to rethink our definition of art and broaden our view, because they allow us to integrate personality, variety, the processes of nature, and new reflections on art and life itself. The artist who creates such installations only provides the framework: the visitors themselves must then create the artwork through their interaction with each other, with the system and with the image processes of the work. As the images in the installations are no longer static, prefixed and predictable, they come to resemble living processes themselves, reflecting the influence of the viewers' interactions with them and the internal principles of variation, mutation and evolution. The image processes are no longer reproducible, but continuously change and evolve. The artwork could therefore be metaphorically considered to be a "living system itself [28]," representing the relationship and interactions between real life and artificial life entities.

[1]. Kusahara, M., Sommerer, C., Mignonneau, L. "Art as Living System," In: Systems, Control and Information, 1996, Vol. 40, No. 8, pp.16-23
[2]. Kant, I. "Kritik der Aesthetischen Urteilskraft," In: Kritik der Urteilskraft (Frankfurt aM: Suhrkamp Taschenbuch, 1996, B180, 181, A178, 179), pp.241
[3]. Last, R.W. German Dadaist Literature: Kurt Schwitters, Hugo Ball, Hans Arp (Twayne's World Authors Series, Twas 272. German Literature, Twayne Publisher, 1974)
[4]. Schwitters, K. Die Ursonate von Kurt Schwitters in Text, Ton und Bild (Luchterhand Literatur, 1991)
[5]. Schwitters, K. Das literarische Werk in 5 Bdn., Bd.2, Prosa 1918-1930 von Kurt Schwitters, Dumont Literatur und Kunst Verlag, 1974
[6]. Kellein, T., Hendriks, J., Hendricks, J. Fluxus (Thames & Hudson, 1995)
[7]. Kaprow, A. Essays on the Blurring of Art and Life (Kelley, J. (ed.), University of California, 1996)
[8]. Vasulka, S., Vasulka, W. Machine Media (San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 1996)
[9]. Stiles, K. "Art and Technology," In: Theories and Documents of Contemporary Art (University of California Press, 1996), pp.384-396
[10]. Dawkins, R. The Blind Watchmaker. Appendix: BIOMORPHS - Evolution Simulation Software (London: W.W. Norton, 1986)
[11]. Reynolds, C.W. "Flocks, Herds, and Schools: A Distributed Behavioral Model," In: Computer Graphics, 1987, Vol. 21, No 4, pp. 25-34
[12]. Ray, T.S. "An approach to the synthesis of life," In: Artificial Life II (Santa Fe Institute Studies in the Sciences of Complexity Proceedings, Langton, C., Taylor, C., Farmer, J., and Rasmussen, S. (eds.), Vol. X, Redwood City, CA: Addison-Wesley, 1992), pp.371-408
[13]. Sims, K. "Artificial Evolution for Computer Graphics," In: Computer Graphics, 1991, Vol.25, 4, pp.319-328
[14]. Todd, S., Latham, W. Evolutionary Art and Computers (London: Academic Press, 1992)
[15]. Sims, K. "Evolving Virtual Creatures," In: Computer Graphics (Siggraph '94) Annual Conference Proceedings, July 1994, pp.43-50
[16]. Sommerer, C., Mignonneau, L. "A-Volve: a real-time interactive environment," In: ACM Siggraph Visual Proceedings, 1994, pp.172-173
[17]. Sommerer, C., Mignonneau, L. "Phototropy," In: Oltre Il Villaggio Globale - Beyond the Global Village (Mattei, M. (ed.), Milano: Electra Edition, 1995), p.134
[18]. Sommerer, C., Mignonneau, L. "GENMA Genetic Manipulator," In: Ars Electronica '96 - Memesis: The Future of Evolution (Wien-New York: Springer Verlag, 1996), pp.294-295
[19]. Sommerer, C., Mignonneau, L. "Life Spacies - An Evolutionary Communication and Interaction Environment," In: ICC Concept Book, NTT-ICC, 1997, pp.96-101
[20]. "Telefonica Spain" (1999, 2001, 2003) Vida/Life 2.0, 3.0 and 4.0 - Artificial Life Art competition. <>
[21]. Generative Art (1998-2002) International Conference on Generative Art. Milano: Politecnico di Milano University. <>
[22]. Dorin, A., McCormack, J. First and Second Iteration Conference on Generative Processes in the Electronic Arts Proceedings (Dorin, A., and McCormack, J. (eds.), Melbourne: CEMA, 1999-2001)
[23]. Reynolds, C.W. "Evolutionary Computation and its application to art and design," 2001, home page. <>
[24]. Sommerer, C., Mignonneau, L. "A-Volve - an evolutionary artificial life environment," In: Artificial Life V (Langton, C., Shimohara, K. (eds.), MIT Press, 1997), pp.167-175
[25]. Sommerer, C., Mignonneau, L. "Interacting with Artificial Life: A-Volve," In: Complexity Journal (New York: Wiley, 1997), Vol. 2, No. 6, pp.13-21
[26]. Sommerer, C., Mignonneau, L., "Interactive Plant Growing," In: ACM Siggraph Visual Proceedings, 1993, pp.164-165
[27]. Mignonneau, L., Sommerer, C. "Creating artificial life for interactive art and entertainment," In: Leonardo Journal (Cambridge/MA: MIT Press, 2001), pp. 303-307
[28]. Sommerer, C., Mignonneau, L. "Art as a Living System," In: Art @ Science (Sommerer, C., Mignonneau, L. (eds.), Vienna-New York: Springer Verlag, 1998), pp.148-161
[29]. Sommerer, C., Mignonneau, L. "Trans Plant," In: Imagination (Moriyama, T. (ed.), Tokyo: Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography, 1995), Chapter 2 ff
[30]. Sommerer, C., Mignonneau, L., Lopez-Gulliver, R. "Riding the Net," In: Siggraph 2001, Conference Abstracts and Applications (New York: ACM Siggraph, 2001), p.133
[31]. Lopez-Gulliver, R., Sommerer, C., Mignonneau, L. "Interfacing the Web: Multi-modal and Immersive Interaction with the Internet," In: VSMM2002 Proceedings of the Eight International Conference on Virtual Systems and MultiMedia (Gyeongju, Korea, 2002), pp.753-764


How to purchase this book



I. LABORATORY: science and technology

Svetlana Borinskaya. Genomics and Biotechnology: Science at the Beginning of the Third Millennium.

Mikhail Gelfand. Computational Genomics: from the Wet Lab to Computer and Back.

Irina Grigorjan, Vsevolod Makeev. Biochips and Industrial Biology.

Valery Shumakov, Alexander Tonevitsky. Xenotransplantation as a Scientific and Ethic Problem.

Abraham Iojrish. Legal Aspects of Gene Engineering.

Pavel Tishchenko. Genomics: New Science in the New Cultural Situation.
II. FORUM: society and genomic culture

Eugene Thacker. Darwin's Waiting Room.

Critical Art Ensemble. The Promissory Rhetoric of Biotechnology in the Public Sphere.

SubRosa. Sex and Gender in the Biotech Century.

Ricardo Dominguez. Nano-Fest Destiny 3.0: Fragments from the Post-Biotech Era.

Birgit Richard. Clones and Doppelgangers. Multiplications and Reproductions of the Self in Film.

Sven Druehl. Chimaera Phylogeny: From Antiquity to the Present.
III. TOPOLOGY: from biopolitics to bioaesthetics

Boris Groys. Art in the Age of Biopolitics.

Stephen Wilson. Art and Science as Cultural Acts.

Melentie Pandilovski. On the Phenomenology of Consciousness, Technology, and Genetic Culture.

Roy Ascott. Interactive Art: Doorway to the Post-Biological Culture.
IV. INTERACTION CODE: artificial life

Mark Bedau. Artificial Life Illuminates Human Hyper-creativity.

Louis Bec. Artificial Life under Tension.

Alan Dorin. Virtual Animals in Virtual Environments.

Christa Sommerer, Laurent Mignonneau. The Application of Artificial Life to Interactive Computer Installations.
V. MODERN THEATRE: ars genetica

George Gessert. A History of Art Involving DNA.

Kathleen Rogers. The Imagination of Matter.

Brandon Ballengee. The Origins of Artificial Selection.

Marta de Menezes. The Laboratory as an Art Studio.

Adam Zaretsky. Workhorse Zoo Art and Bioethics Quiz.
VI. IMAGE TECHNOLOGY: ars chimaera

Joe Davis. Monsters, Maps, Signals and Codes.

David Kremers. The Delbruck Paradox. Version 3.0.

Eduardo Kac. GFP Bunny.

Dmitry Bulatov. Ars Chimaera.

Valery Podoroga. Rene Descartes and Ars Chimaera.
VII. METABOLA: tissue culture and art

Ionat Zurr. Complicating Notions of Life - Semi-Living Entities.

Oron Catts. Fragments of Designed Life - the Wet Palette of Tissue Engineering.

Dmitry Prigov. Speaking of Unutterable.

Wet art gallery





© ncca kb. yevgeny palamarchuck |