Moths are fascinating creatures. Their delicate wings and antennae; their eye-catching patterns and crinkly, sometimes feather-like textures. They are delicate, ephemeral beings that symbolize human yearning and vulnerability, as well as a grace and beauty that only nature can create. That is, except on Twitter, where a never-ending spawning of gorgeous moth species are taking place everyday, several times a day. These moths are completely computer-generated, a product of a brilliant art project called @mothgenerator.
@mothgenerator is the Twitter account art project of Katie Rose Pipkin and Loren Schmidt, who in one month created a bot that randomly and automatically generates and posts images of new moth species by mixing actual body parts and color combinations from actual insects. It also names its Twitter-born spawn, which it also does by randomly picking and choosing from a pool of programmed words. As explained on Hyperallergic, "Pipkin programmed a web crawler to collect around 4,000 real, English moth names and 10,000 Latin ones; while the program often matches whole English nouns with adjectives, the Latin words get spliced into phonemes, shuffled around, and pulled together so the linguistic bits form mostly gobbledygook."
I reached out to Pipkin and Schmidt to ask them some more questions about their fascinating project.
You've worked together on a few digital/online art projects. What made you first want to work together, and why and how did you decide to use Twitter to create and share your work?
Loren: We originally met last summer at an independent games event. We had quite a mutual admiration for each other's work, and we started collaborating shortly thereafter.
Last winter we worked together on a visual + text project about the various lives of a city. You can visit this at inflorescence.city. We're currently working on a second installment of that project, which explores related territory but has a more visual, interactive bent. This moth generator originally was an outgrowth of that larger project. We were going to use it to generate a few moths to inhabit the wilderness or dusty display cases in generated natural history museums. As we worked on the moth generator, it grew beyond our initial plans. it soon became evident that it would stand well on its own. we decided to tailor a version of it to work as a twitter image bot.
Katie Rose: In some ways. I think that drawing dichotomy between nature and a man-made medium can be a false ideological split. There is something to be said for designating structural differences between processes that are inherently triggered by human intent and those which would soldier on without us. That being said, there is a danger to viewing oneself as outside of natural systems, and I feel that programmical tasks have a intrinsic place in that organic landscape. I do think that much of my work is interested in emulation or recreating patterns that arise elsewhere in wild structures. These patterns can allow for compelling handholds in a space which otherwise may at times feel impossibly large, byzantine, or foreign.
In some ways, your creations are both like artists and gods; they stretch the preconceptions that people might have of a computer being a soulless machine. All your projects are engaging, social, and they "live," creating beautiful random things. Do you hope that your projects will change or open people's minds about what's possible through a digital medium?
Loren: The digital is really a very human, textural, approachable medium. It's sad that there is such a culture of insularity to using computers, particularly to programming. One of my goals is to be conscious of that, and to try to effectively invite people in.
When i'm programming, I tend to approach the work with a high degree of receptivity to the personality and whims of the process. Algorithms are frequently treated as mute tools, strictly as a vehicle for the desires of the human. But each algorithm has a natural autonomy. For me it's important to find and work with those voices. Co-creation and curation are large aspects of the work.
In the article on Hyperallergic about @mothgenerator, it mentions that the project is grounded in "hand-drawing." Are the images that @mothgenerator is piecing together handdrawn? Or, if not, what does this mean?
Katie Rose: So, the moth generator is based somewhat loosely in history of hand-drawn illustration. Rather than attempting to recreate moths photographically, it instead adopts the sensibilities of an anatomical illustrator: someone interested in exaggerating qualities of form, patterns, or features to capture the generalized idea of a species of moth rather than an individual creature. The effect of this programically is that we ended up constructing these moths as an illustrator would, with individual strokes (and no source imagery). Each of these strokes is placed in accordance with an individual ruleset, with high degrees of variance, and are assembled piecemeal: wings, antennae, legs, body, etc. Each moth is made of something like 50-100,000 strokes.
Loren: it might seem at first more natural to draw from digital collage or some other modern process. but we found there was a natural fit between this particular program's illustrative approach and historical illustration. despite the apparent disparate natures of those two processes, they actually have a lot in common.
Are either of you lepidopterists? Had you ever collected or spent time identifying real moths in real life, before or during this project?
Katie Rose: I am a hobbyist.
Loren: I used to go see the huge wall of pinned insects at the Natural History Museum. At some point someone explained to me how a killing jar worked. I remember visiting the museum after that and being disturbed, wanting to apologize to all those jewel beetles.