Gen­er­a­tive Art for Schools


How Might Gen­er­a­tive Art Be A Propo­si­tion For Cross Cur­ric­u­lar Learn­ing In Schools


Com­put­ing is the dom­i­nant media of our times and a cul­tural arti­fact; gen­er­a­tive art is a sub­ject to make art and tech­nol­ogy rel­e­vant to young people’s expe­ri­ences and bring art and the Stem sub­jects closer together as a value propo­si­tion for Steam. Gen­er­a­tive art, the cre­ation of visual and aes­thetic form using com­puter pro­gram­ming, pro­motes the value of cre­ativ­ity and the cre­ative indus­tries within edu­ca­tion to art, design and the core sci­ence sub­jects. It can also address the gen­der gap in Stem. It makes the sci­en­tific become the organic and can be used for young peo­ple to express them­selves, socially, polit­i­cally and eco­nom­i­cally. Whilst there is a declin­ing uptake in GCSE art and design, arguably being not sup­ported by the incom­ing EBacc cur­ricu­lum, com­puter sci­ence forms part of the core sci­ence sub­jects. Pol­icy mak­ers are insis­tent that every child learns to code, but code what? 1417 year olds, dubbed by the media in the UK as the “Gen Z’s” view learn­ing com­puter sci­ence as bor­ing, for the geeks and male dom­i­nated. Gen­er­a­tive art is a fun and approach­able way of teach­ing pro­gram­ming and fits the cur­ricu­lum as an exten­sion of exist­ing units of enquiry.

The con­text of this arti­cle intended to offer in some way a roadmap of how might we as prac­ti­tion­ers, researchers and edu­ca­tors pre­pare young peo­ple for work in the fore­see­able future. In order to avoid a tal­ent pool cri­sis, both the designer and the tech­nol­o­gist are needed. Gen art may go some way to intro­duc­ing these areas of prac­tice with the intent of a broad under­stand­ing and empa­thy span­ning Stem, art and design.

So, what exactly is gen art and how can it be applied to learn­ing in the class­room? Gen art is not built with plans, mate­ri­als or an objec­tive out­come. It is grown and cul­ti­vated like a tree or flower, emerg­ing from sim­ple func­tions and math­e­mat­ics. The art of the cre­ation of the organic from the log­i­cal. William Blake’s paint­ing of New­ton hav­ing his back turned to the nat­ural world in favour of “sci­ence” (his com­passes) is a com­mon inter­pre­ta­tion of logic. Gen art can be viewed as New­ton turned round; order vs chaos, which applies rather well to cre­ative cod­ing. Gen art can imi­tate nature and break lin­ear nar­ra­tion cre­at­ing a fluid, non-​repeating world.

Fig­ure 1: New­ton (17951805) by William Blake. Col­lec­tion Tate Britain.

The cur­rent situation

To offer some back­ground con­text it is worth review­ing the cur­rent gen­eral lack of sat­is­fac­tion of art and design teach­ing, both from teach­ers and stu­dents in the national cur­ricu­lum. Stu­dents opt­ing for design and tech­nol­ogy in schools at GCSE level has decreased from 440,000 in 2004 to less than 190,000 this year, an aver­age drop of 43% (JCQ 2016).

Ged Gast, Imme­di­ate Past Pres­i­dent of NSEAD, claims the cur­rent cur­ricu­lum is a major fac­tor in the declin­ing pipeline of young peo­ple needed to fill the UK’s cre­ative indus­tries tal­ent pool. “Owing in the main to the national stan­dards agenda poli­cies dri­ven by the DfE and con­se­quence of the removal of the Cre­ative Diploma, reduc­tions in applied learn­ing, EBacc, Acad­emi­sa­tion and gen­eral dis­re­gard for the value of cre­ativ­ity and cre­ative indus­tries pro­moted within edu­ca­tion in Britain at the moment. This has impacted on the num­bers com­ing through to study and appears to be nar­row­ing the pipeline into HE from schools and FE at the moment”

Gov­ern­ment is telling us to code, but code exactly what? How do we nur­ture young peo­ple to visu­alise, think and under­stand cre­ativ­ity cod­ing in a world where more and more young peo­ple limit them­selves to be just being pas­sive “users” of tech­nol­ogy and have no idea what is under the bon­net. This raises the ques­tion that the cur­rent pro­vi­sions for pro­gram­ming and are miss­ing the point. In short, it’s a male dom­i­nated bor­ing sub­ject. There are many com­puter sci­ence under­grad­u­ates who echo this view. So how do we turn on stu­dents, from users into cre­ative coders and dig­i­tal artists who can express them­selves socially polit­i­cally and economically?

Young peo­ple see tech­nol­ogy and cre­ativ­ity as impor­tant facets of their iden­tity. A report by Adobe pub­lished in Octo­ber 2016 shows UK 1417 year olds, dubbed by the media “Gen Z” learns best by doing and creating.

Towards a solution

In Jan­u­ary 2017 the gov­ern­ment pub­lished its Indus­trial Strat­egy green paper which was met with muted praise. In response to this, the Cre­ative Indus­tries Foun­da­tion com­mented that the cre­ative indus­tries would be one of five named sec­tors in the new indus­trial strat­egy was a major step for­ward for a sec­tor which has never been for­mally recog­nised in a national indus­trial strat­egy before. This is a step in the right direc­tion and one would hope that teach­ing tech­nol­ogy, art and design (the basic build­ing blocks of cre­ative prac­tice) should now fall into line with this pol­icy. So why not use gen art as sub­ject to nur­ture these skills. Simon Katan from the Depart­ment of Com­put­ing, Gold­smiths view is the teach­ing of gen­er­a­tive draw­ing tech­niques make for an ideal intro­duc­tion to cre­ative pro­gram­ming. Learn­ing these skills not only gives an intu­itive insight into the power of com­pu­ta­tion and its expres­sive poten­tial, but also brings together con­cepts from across the curriculum.

Given art is sub­jec­tive, com­put­ing is objec­tive; gen art is the point where the two should meet. We need more diverse stu­dents, bet­ter pre­pared stu­dents and make art feel more rel­e­vant. Gen art encour­ages, boys and girls to col­lab­o­rate and brings the art teacher and com­put­ing teacher together.

Cur­rently, the two best exam­ples of gen art tools are Live­Code­Lab, devel­oped in Lon­don and p5js. Live­Code­Lab is inten­tion­ally designed to be imme­di­ately acces­si­ble to an audi­ence with low com­puter lit­er­acy. p5js is a com­mu­nity inter­ested in explor­ing the cre­ation of art and design with tech­nol­ogy by using the orig­i­nal metaphor of a soft­ware sketch­book. Both tools can pro­vide units of enquiry to young peo­ple inter­ested in cod­ing and the arts, design and tech­nol­ogy. There is no rea­son why this can not be taught from Key Stage 3 (79 yr olds) upwards.

Live­Code­Lab has made sig­nif­i­cant con­tri­bu­tions to the bur­geon­ing “algo­rave” cul­ture. The expe­ri­ence of writ­ing sim­ple lines of code and see­ing results appear imme­di­ately are immensely pow­er­ful. LiveCodeLab’s frame­work of a JavaScript engine run­ning stun­ning graphic visu­als and sample-​based audio sequenc­ing is a per­fect exam­ple of art and sci­ence learn­ing (the devel­op­ers ago­nised over the choice of type­face for the front end code). The code is as much of the live per­for­mance as the real-​time 3d visu­als and music. The abil­ity to do quick dive cod­ing with no pre­vi­ous expe­ri­ence allows for a com­pelling play, learn and make experience.

The much larger p5js project has been devel­oped by a com­mu­nity of col­lab­o­ra­tors, headed by Lau­ren McCarthy and funded by Pro­cess­ing Foun­da­tion and NYU ITP. It is JavaScript library based on the core of Pro­cess­ing, so basi­cally you can do every­thing in Pro­cess­ing, now with html ele­ments over the web, such as sim­u­la­tion algo­rithms, open data and APIs. It is an ideal plat­form to deliver Steam learn­ing and offers stu­dents the abil­ity to pre­pare for Higher Edu­ca­tion sub­jects in either dig­i­tal visual arts or com­puter science.

Cur­rently only a hand­ful of UK schools are run­ning gen art courses. As exactly how to develop ideas and tech­niques for deliv­er­ing this the­o­ret­i­cal and prac­ti­cal con­tent in the class­room remains to be seen. What is cur­rently lack­ing in schools is a cohe­sive strat­egy between com­put­ing and art teach­ers. Con­sid­er­ing only basic pro­gram­ming knowl­edge needed to cre­ate high impact, non-​linear visual art through cod­ing, this is a great oppor­tu­nity for Stem and the arts to work closer together. Both the logic behind the cod­ing and the aes­thetic out­comes should be reviewed for crit­i­cal analy­sis and rig­or­ous inves­ti­ga­tion into how the out­come was achieved, rather than exam­in­ing the out­come based on a set of pre-​defined parameters.

Pilot stud­ies ran in part­ner­ship with Com­put­ing At Schools (CAS) com­mu­nity and Gold­smiths Cre­ative and Dig­i­tal Arts BSc course lead­ers in Lewisham last year revealed teach­ing gen­er­a­tive art had the sup­port of sci­ence and arts teach­ers, and stu­dents. Through prac­ti­cal and cre­ative exper­i­men­ta­tion stu­dents can enhance their under­stand­ing on a range of top­ics from across the cur­ricu­lum includ­ing 2D and 3D geom­e­try, abstrac­tion in art, New­ton­ian physics, evo­lu­tion­ary the­ory, prob­a­bil­i­ties and ecosystems.

Fig­ure 5: Back­ground, Rotate, Box. Sim­ple. www​.live​code​lab​.net
Fig­ure 4: Pri­mary and Sec­ondary school teach­ers learn­ing gen art at Gold­smiths.


GCSE assess­ments need to shift para­me­ters and focus on the tacit knowl­edge learn­ing out­comes that exist between form (of art and design) and func­tion (of pro­gram­ming). This will go some way to answer­ing the needs of future employ­ers who will need­ing a work­force equipped with a hybrid skillset of art, design, tech­nol­ogy and sci­ence: able to solve com­plex equa­tions and deliver con­cep­tual think­ing. Instead of mar­gin­al­is­ing cre­ative sub­jects, we should pro­vide young peo­ple with a mix of cre­ative and tech­ni­cal skills required for suc­cess. These add to the grow­ing clam­our for a sub­stan­tial change of direc­tion in education.

Chil­dren should expe­ri­ence tech­nol­ogy as the­atri­cal per­for­mance; the browser is a stage for cre­ative cod­ing; high impact, visu­ally rich artis­tic con­tent and the abil­ity to look under the hood of tech­nol­ogy. This envi­ron­ment should be encour­aged in schools to incu­bate the next gen­er­a­tion of artists, design­ers and engi­neers if the UK wants to remain a world leader in innovation.

The two gen art plat­forms dis­cussed here can be used in the class­room imme­di­ately. They cost noth­ing, are open source and thus have an unlim­ited scope for con­tri­bu­tions. They offer stu­dents unit of inquiry from the arts and sci­ences; it’s the glue between the two that is of inter­est and con­se­quence to all. Teach­ers from the arts and sci­ences should work closer together. None of this hap­pens with­out the kinetic energy between stu­dents and moti­vated teachers.

Fig­ure 3: The unsur­pass­able Daniel Shiff­man intro­duc­ing p5js. www​.hello​.p5js​.org


The author is indebted to Dr Simon Katan, Cre­ative Com­put­ing Pro­gramme Leader, Depart­ment of Com­put­ing, Gold­smiths; Ged Gast, Imme­di­ate Past Pres­i­dent NSEAD; Davide Della Casa and Guy John, Cre­ative Cod­ing Lab; Lau­ren McCarthy, NYU ITP; Eliza Eas­ton Deputy Head Research and Pol­icy, Cre­ative indus­tries Foun­da­tion and Ken Baynes.


  • Adobe Inc, “Gen Z in the Class­room, Cre­at­ing the Future”, Octo­ber 2016. http://​www​.adobee​d​u​cate​.com/​g​e​n​z​/​U​K​-​e​d​u​c​a​t​i​o​n​-​g​e​n​z
  • Archer, Baynes and Lang­don, “Design in Gen­eral Edu­ca­tion,” Royal Col­lege of Art, April 1979.
  • Ken Baynes, “Brex­u­ca­tion,” Lough­bor­ough Design Press, Octo­ber 2016. http://​www​.ldpress​.co​.uk/​b​r​e​x​u​c​a​t​i​o​n​-​b​y​-​k​e​n​-​b​a​y​n​e​s​/
  • Cre­ative Indus­tries Fed­er­a­tion, Jan­u­ary 2017. http://​www​.cre​ativein​dus​tries​fed​er​a​tion​.com
  • Della Casa, Davide, and Guy John. “Live­Code­Lab 2.0 and its lan­guage Live­Code­Lang.” 2014.
  • Joint Coun­cil for Qual­i­fi­ca­tions (JCQ) 2016
  • Sec­re­tary of State for Cul­ture, Media and Sport, “UK Dig­i­tal Strat­egy 2017 Pol­icy paper”, March 2017.
  • TOPLAP, 2010. https://​toplap​.org/​w​i​k​i​/​M​a​n​i​f​e​s​t​o​D​r​a​f​t

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This arti­cle was orig­i­nally writ­ten for NSEAD AD mag­a­zine and pub­lished in Sep­tem­ber 2017