ATC Revisited: Leonel Moura

20 Nov, 2019

ATC Revisited: Leonel Moura

Recap by KC Forcier, the 2019-2020 Graduate Liaison for the Art, Technology, and Culture Colloquium.

Decentering the Human with Leonel Moura’s Machine-Made Art

Leonel Moura is best known for his provocative machine-made paintings. By making robots that make art, Moura calls into question such fundamental concepts as art, intelligence, and personhood. Moura situates himself within the tradition of conceptual art, citing Duchamp’s found objects as important predecessors for his own work. However, as he recounted at a recent ATC lecture, Moura’s current trajectory of non-human art began not with machines but with animals.

As Moura observed in his talk, there is precedent for animals producing paintings at the behest of human handlers, such as those made by the chimpanzee Congo in the 1950s, with the artist and zoologist Desmond Morris. Moura became interested in the seemingly creative forms produced by animals without human intervention - such as termite mounds - and in particular came to focus on the chemical trails left by ants, which he saw as akin to painting. In 2003 he used an algorithm based on ant behavior to program a fleet of small robots equipped with markers to make drawings. Instead of following pheromone trails as an ant would, the Artsbots were programmed to follow trails of certain colors, in the process producing beautiful abstract paintings of colorful arcs and lines.

Since then Moura has developed numerous art-making robots, which produce abstract paintings that are exhibited internationally. Moura said, “My goal is not to have a nice painting, my goal is to change painting, to change art. To add something to the history of art. We should start accepting art by nonhumans. We should accept that animals and machines can make art.” By provoking the art community to accept an intelligent machine - who Moura insists make their own aesthetic decisions about the artwork - as a legitimate artist in its own right, Moura works towards decentering the human. “We have passed too many centuries seeing ourselves as the center,” he insisted. While robots are still relatively primitive forms of intelligence, they are evolving, and - argues Moura - will eventually produce art that is truly their own. While many strongly contest Moura’s claims that robots will evolve to surpass their human creators, his provocation forces us to question the centrality of humans. “Humans destroy everything,” said Moura. “We are seeing the rise of an understanding that humans are not the only ones on the planet.”

2019 ATC: Leonel Moura