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This Code-Based GIF Art Replicates Nature's Natural Algorithms

With his mesmerizing GIFs, digital media artist James Proctor lays down a virtual map of a mind in flux.

Through the many portals on his website, digital media artist James Proctor lays down a virtual map of a mind in flux, one in constant search for new artistic vistas through creative coding, GIF animation, and pixel sorting, amongst other digital media.

The site features such works as rgbRods, inspired by Kim Asendorf's pixel sorting code, by which Proctor references the human eye's photoreceptors. Wanting to fashion an entirely “synthetic composition”—one without photographic or other source material—Proctor plotted two loops on X and Y axes to create a shimmering, prismatic sheet that hangs in the void.  

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For his animated GIFs, Proctor experimented in three dimensions to see how generated objects behaved when set in motion. The Spiral GIF, for instance, is an optical treat inspired by pixel sorting, but with overwritten and destroyed pixels to generate the imagery. Bezier Construct 5, with its curved and colored shapes melting into one another, is another animated gem.

Proctor, however, set the GIFs and pixel sorting aside for other virtual pastures. His most recent gems appear on his Tumblr research blog, from which he unleashes a continual stream of glitched-out, scrambled, and occasionally insectile code-based art.

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As Proctor explained it, the instant feedback loop between coding and quick results was what hooked him—he now posts multiple code-based artworks per day. His process involves sitting in front of his laptop at night, opening up Processing IDE and Sublime Text, and sketching until things begin to take shape.

Proctor sets his parameters in the Setup function, which runs once at the beginning of each sketch. From there, he updates and changes operations in Processing's Draw function, running the command continuously until Proctor stops sketching. After every change, he stops and restarts his sketches to get a sense of each change's overall effect. After setting his sketch sizes and frame rates, it's then a question of the kind of image he wants to make.

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From there, Proctor can loop the images on-screen, then establish rules to that change his images based on their properties. He might look at something like each point's brightness; if it's above a certain value, he'll set it to be the value of the point next to it, thus making the image change over time. Proctor also sets other values to change positioning and color until he gets the outcome he wants.

“Sometimes I'll write the code from scratch, but a lot of times I'll pull chunks from older pieces and build around that,” Proctor tells The Creators Project, “Iterating on old ideas gives way to new ideas, and over time I've gathered snippets of code that I like, which I can draw on or recombine to get new effects.”

“It's very much an evolutionary process, where the best ideas survive and are refined, with occasional mutations or leaps forward. That's reflected in the images, which visually, in addition to the behavior that generates them, are inspired by biology and the natural world,” he adds.

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Proctor's relationship to the natural world starts with the process of generating and recombining code. It continues into the visual outcomes, which are guided by the rules he establishes, but can branch and change in unexpected ways.

“It's not as concrete as the evolutionary process used by something like Electric Sheep, since it's just me as an individual guiding it,” said Proctor, “but still, I'm selecting code based on the visual characteristics it produces and pruning it over time.”

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His code-created images start out arranged according to specific formulas, the same way the leaves on a plant grow in certain patterns. Over time, each image grows more complex, its characteristics changing based on the forces of the rules applied to it, the same way a plant might stretch in the direction of the sun, or tilt away from the prevailing wind.

“My goal is for the images to be visually pleasing in the same way—complex, but ordered according to regular patterns, and ideally, to encourage reflection on the patterns and complexity of life around the viewer,” Proctor explained.

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It's this interplay between organic and virtual that gives Proctor's work its mesmerizing power. It can be seen in works like //neighbors_140831b, with its digital moss-like motion lapse, or in //dispersedStrata_140829b, which resembles cellular growth replicated in a virtual realm. And that's just an extremely small sampling of Proctor's wondrous fusion of the real and virtual.

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To see these works and other project by Proctor, head over to his website and Tumblr.

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