Jim Andrews
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Aleph Null in a nutshell
leph Null 3.0—a labour of love—is an online, interactive, generative art engine and a tool for creating images and animations that have a unique, can't-get-it-anywhere-else look. Have a peek at some of the below videos to get a sense of the sorts of visuals that Aleph Null produces.
The writing below the videos contains video tutorials that will get your freak on using/playing with Aleph Null—appreciating it as a useful tool and as a work of art. Using it should be an explorative adventure. It's software as art. In VR, you navigate 3D spaces. In Aleph Null, you navigate innovative art creation and appreciation space. If you like the look of things you've never seen before, look on.
Aleph Null is an attempt to help make a better world with terrific art. It's important that there be ambitious works of net art that people around the world can access. Exciting interactive net art is one of the best things about the Internet. It boldly goes where no gink has gone. It carries the banners of imagination, innovation, activism, communication, international community, knowledge, art, beauty and truth. The Internet will be exciting only so long as it remains inspiring to artists—as an artistic medium. If that light goes out, the forces of dullness will have secured the entire thing as a department store, surveillance device and peep show.
Aleph Null is for viewing and creating the dreams of art. As the philosopher Plato said about 2,400 years ago, art is a dream for awakened minds. Aleph Null is for the dreamers and creators of the world.
Sampling art made with Aleph Null
Featured artist: Karl Kempton
Featured artist: Karl Kempton
Featured artist: Jim Andrews
Featured artists: Jim Leftwich, Brad Pasutti, Jukka-Pekka Kervinen, Gary Barwin, Jim Andrews
Featured artists: Ted Warnell, Regina Celia Pinto, Andrew Topel, Nico Vassilakis, Brent Bechtel, Klaus Peter Dencker, Jaka Železnikar
Featured artists: Maria Damon, Regina Celia Pinto
Featured artist: Chris Joseph
Featured artist: Stasja Voluti
Featured artist: Catherine Mehrl Bennett
Featured artist: Dan Waber
Featured artist: Ted Warnell
Featured artist: Jim Leftwich
Featured artist: Gary Barwin
Featured artist: Jim Andrews
Featured artist: Jim Andrews
Featured artist: Brent Nathan Bechtel, Jim Andrews
Featured artist: Jim Andrews
Featured artist: Jim Andrews
Featured artist: Allie Andrews
"Checking In", in collaboration with Adeena Karasick. Unlike the rest of the above videos, this was made with dbCinema, an earlier graphic synthesizer I wrote in Director. dbCinema created jpg images that I concatenated in ffmpeg into an mp4.
The Art and Architecture of Aleph Null
Some of the best visual poets on the planet have contributed their visual art to Aleph Null. When the viewer/player clicks an artist's nib icon, the editable brush sucks up the artist's art as a kind of 'paint' that the brush samples from as it sweeps around the screen 'painting/drawing/writing'. Aleph Null is a graphic synthesizer; just like an audio synthesizer uses sounds to synthesize other sounds, Aleph Null samples from graphics, mixing them together with dynamic opacity and global compositing operations.
The viewer can create/destroy multiple brushes with the 'create' and 'destroy' buttons. Different brushes can sample from different folders of images.

The Aleph Null control panel. In the above screenshot, there are 5 brushes (Dan Waber, Stasja Voluti, Ted Warnell, Andrew Topel, and Ted Warnell (a second Ted brush)). The user is selecting which of the 5 will be the editable brush.
Aleph Null supports layers of canvases—it's implemented as stacked dynamic layers of HTML 5 canvases. So the big picture is of an animation of multiple brushes painting/drawing/writing on multiple layers. It's like a multi-story house full of painters. At least one painter per floor. Aleph Null is a multi-dimensional art machine that generates looks you've never seen before.
A tutorial video on layering in Aleph Null.
There are three types of nibs in the program. The first type are the image nibs. These let you import your own images into the nib. Then there are the color music nibs. They use complex gradients as paint, not images—so, of course, they don't support importing your images into them cuz they don't use images. Color music brushes are all about color music, as in Aleph Null 2.0. The third type is text nibs. These support you entering text into the nib, which displays the text one word at a time.
How to use the Aleph Null text nibs.
Featured artists
The participating artists are listed below. Most of them are visual poets, as am I. A visual poet works with both language and image. When you click an artist's name, below, Aleph Null starts up using that artist's art, often with a custom nib made specially for that artist's work. The icon beside the artist's name is their nib icon, which you see in the Aleph Null interface. Click their nib icon in the Aleph Null interface to give the editable brush that artist's nib.
Aleph Null also includes bios of the featured artists and slideshows that show you the artists' images on their own, rather than in the Aleph Null context where they're being chewed on by a graphic synthesizer. The below video shows you how to access featured artist work in Aleph Null and also how to access their bios and the slideshows of their images.
How to access featured artist work, their bios, and slideshows of their images.
In this generative art, you're part of the generator
Aleph Null is an online work of generative art written in JavaScript, HTML and CSS. As soon as it starts, it starts generating art. It samples from the featured artists' visuals to create an animation that's never exactly the same twice. Usually, when generative art is successful, what you see is abstract art. One of the great features of Aleph Null is that it combines some of the programming techniques used in abstract generative art with an interesting representational aspect. The resulting art can be totally abstract, totally representational, or anything in between.
If there's a representational dimension, it comes from the art of the featured artists. The abstract dimension can come from them too, but Aleph Null itself also is an abstract art machine.
The basic idea of Aleph Null is that there are 'brushes' that move around the screen rendering at least one brush-stroke each frame of the animation. There's a large set of possible nibs that a brush can have. The nibs differ in their shapes and also in the default images they use to sample from. The 'paint' the nibs of the brushes use consists of samples from the art of the featured artists—or the viewer can import their own images for the nib to use instead of the featured artist's art.
Tutorial video on how to import your images into Aleph Null
That's an exciting feature that adds a whole dimension to Aleph Null. It's an art work but it's also a tool for people to produce images and animations using their own imported images. You can explore Aleph Null as a work of art or you can explore it as a tool. Or as both.
And there's a “save” button that's funkier than a “save” button on a browser app has a right to be. You can create print-quality, 300 dpi with it. The “save” button saves screenshots at high-res, if you want; Aleph Null itself can use virtual pixels, and lots more of them than are actually on the screen, just like in Photoshop you can create work that's much larger than the screen. That's cuz the HTML 5 canvas, which is what Aleph Null uses, can use virtual pixels.
Tutorial video on how to save high-res images
Generative art is art that surrenders control of part of the process that generates the art. It isn't always computer-based art—some artists, for instance, make art where chemical reactions generate the art. The interactivity of Aleph Null lets the viewer import their own images, and they can also configure the brushes in many other ways. The program itself also makes decisions such as the position of the brush (if you haven't made it mouse-controlled), the order in which the images are sampled (or you can set the nib to sample the images in alphabetical order), and the gradient colors of color-music nibs.
Viewers can change all sorts of things including these:
  • the number of brush-strokes per second (bps) the brush works at (via the bps slider);
  • the shape of the brush (via the nib icon);
  • the size of the brush (via the size slider);
  • the width of the brush (via the line width slider);
  • the visual rhythm of the brush (via the rhythm slider);
  • whether the brush's position is controlled by the position of the mouse or controlled via programming (via the mouse button);
  • the alignment and margins of the sampled images (via the Nib Options window);
  • how long it samples from a given image before moving on to another image (via the Nib Options window);
  • which featured artist a brush samples from—or whether it uses the viewer's images;
If you have multiple brushes, click the drop-down menu at top right of the control panel to select which brush is editable.
Aleph Null is a kind of a collager in that it samples from images and uses those samples as 'paint'. But the word 'collage' doesn't really cover it. Aleph Null doesn't produce work that looks like 'collage', normally. It looks more like 'remix' or 'mash-up'. But it has its own looks. I've tried to learn masking and anti-aliasing with JavaScript, the canvas, and the drawImage command, so that the 'collages' can be more synthetic of the images than is associated with 'collage', 'remix', 'mash-up' or 'glitch'.
Aleph Null draws on the work I did in an earlier graphic synthesizer called dbCinema. The 'db' in dbCinema is short for 'database'. dbCinema was written in Director, which is now largely defunct, unfortunately, so I switched to the JavaScript canvas which, when I started Aleph Null in 2011, was new. Aleph Null 3.0 is six years into the project, and about 13 years into the dbCinema+Aleph Null project of creating an online graphic synthesizer that's both a tool and a work of art.
So it should be doing something interesting by now, of course. Actually, I think Aleph Null 1.0 and Aleph Null 2.0 were pretty good in their own right. Mind you, they weren't graphic synthesizers. They were instruments of color music. The brushes didn't sample from bitmaps. Well, some did in version 2.0, but they were buggy and not fully developed. The good stuff in versions 1.0 and 2.0 was the way the brushes used complex gradients to produce striking abstract art. Instead of importing your own images into a nib, you'd select a central color and a color range to select a palette of colors.
Net art lives, bitch!
All versions of Aleph Null have been online. They're works of net art. I've been creating net art since 1996—as have some of the other people in this project. To me, it's still important to create net art. To me, fabulous net art is one of the best things about the Internet. As a medium, it's still got lots of tantalizing possibilities. And the technology is changing constantly. So there are new interesting possibilities—and challenges—popping up continually.
It's been my chosen medium for 20 years. Some of the contributing artists—Ted Warnell, Regina Célia Pinto, Chris Joseph, Jhave Johnston, Dan Waber and Nico Vassilakis—I've been in touch with for all or most of that time, and they've been creating net art all this time also. Ted and I have been corresponding for more than 20 years, and we're both now still making net art. He also uses the HTML 5 canvas, and we correspond regularly on art and programming matters. Chris also has been great with feedback through the development of Aleph Null 3.0, and he's also very active in creating new works of digital poetry, as of course are Dan Waber and Jhave Johnston, with whom I also correspond. And Regina and I have done many projects together, over the years. And I've known Nico since the late 80's when we met in Seattle. I published Nico's and Dan's first digital visual poetry on vispo.com.
Net art is still important for a number of reasons. Computer art, as has been observed by many, including the philosopher Dominic Lopes in his book A Philosophy of Computer Art, is a new form of art. What distinguishes it is programmability. The programmability of computers provides inert objects with the atomic level of thought. It isn't just interactivity that makes computer art special. There's interactive art without computers, such as theatre that responds to the audience's input. There's also non-interactive computer art, such as generative art that isn't the same twice but is not taking input from the audience. It relies on the computer's ability to make decisions and process data.
Computer art and net art are two different things. Computer art is art in which the computer is crucial as medium. Net art is art in which the Internet is crucial as medium. Net art, for me, is important because it continues to be an international medium of computer art. Anybody in the world with a computer and a browser hooked up to the Internet can view net art. There's an internationality to the aspirations of net art. With Aleph Null, you don't need to speak English, although it helps. Aleph Null has an interface of buttons, sliders, color pickers, and drop down menus. You do stuff to it and see how it responds. It's interactive computer art. You can't break it. You just get in there, click stuff, and see what happens.
Interestingly programmed net art is a type of art you just aren't going to see anywhere other than on the net. And it's the Internet at its best. It's a sharing of good things around the world. It's innovative. It's an amazing experience. Usually it's free and available to anyone. It's independent from the art world. It's artist-driven, not run by the curators or the brass. It reaches out across the world with exuberance. It's often a synthesis of arts and media. It's often deeply intermedial—that is, the connections between media are important ('multimedia' stresses the multiple nature of the media; 'intermedia' stresses the connections between media). Regardless of the medium, it's all coded in zeroes and ones in computers—which makes for easier confluence between arts and media. It's sometimes strongly interactive. This is what makes browsers interesting, to me, not widget stores and other consumer stuff.
There's the artistic appeal of the net, which is considerable, for me, cuz it lets me combine visual art, writing, audio and programming into something like a publication—writers publish—I'm a writer—mostly I publish—as opposed to performing or showing in a gallery. Coming up with interactive works that really hit deep is a thrill for me.
And then there's the other appealing dimensions of the net: it's international nature; its reach beyond the art and publishing worlds to a general audience; the ability to update projects at any time, and so on.
It's got more and more drawbacks and difficulties, of course, such as the dominance by 'social media', the commercialization and also the booby trapping of the net, so that people tread pretty lightly, not wanting to get robbed and brainwashed (more). And it's harder to create good work for the net now cuz Flash and Director are dead and the other tools aren't quite as friendly. Also, it's hard to create work that's OK on both mobile and desktop machines.
But it's been a thrill to create Aleph Null, and to work with new and old friends on it, to open it up to artist contributions and also to open it up to viewers importing their own work into it. It's been an opening. Not a closing. Net art lives. Now and as long as artists are still drawn to it.
 
In loving memory of Allie and Babs.