Cover photo

Interiors

Interiors is an interactive generative fold-up house inspired by Hammershøi’s Interior from the Home of the Artist (1900), and by the themes of ‘home’ and ‘story’ that are activated by the painting’s subject and mood.

By writing code for generative art you are writing a story. A story starts with a single premise, then each sentence is written to support and stretch it. The plot’s skeleton must be scaffolded, the characters known, and then each line carefully shaped, unfurling to the reader (and often to the writer) an understanding that builds and broadens, with tension and surprise but without trickery. This, then that. If, then, else. Imagination following pathways of logic.

Like writing a story, this generative piece Interiors has several components: 1) the original painting’s enigmatic coolness and domestic mystery, 2) the flat-pack fold-up structural 3rd-person conceit of showing everything all at once, 3) the modular parts of the home / the story / the code, and 4) their metaphoric potential in thinking about generative art.

Vilhelm Hammershøi's interior paintings
Vilhelm Hammershøi's interior paintings

1) the painting’s enigmatic coolness and domestic mystery

The Danish painter Hammershøi’s many Interiors depict spaces that are at once mysterious, domestically unremarkable, and, through direct or indirect reproduction during the century since their painting, culturally ubiquitous. Here was an introvert artist, moving furniture and people (his wife Ida) into position and into occasional patches of cool northern sunlight to paint reams of still life moments. Like any life it is ordinary but holds secrets; like any turn of the century European mass-built terraced house it’s all the same, but unique.

One explanation for the paintings’ magnetism is our collective understanding of ‘the house’ as a metaphor of ‘the psyche’. The house is a protective skin holding the accretion of physical and emotional stuff that defines a life. We therefore read the paintings as a view of Hammershøi’s Interiors (the rooms of his house) and as narrative clues revealing some of Hammershøi’s personal interior.

How is the writer (coder) to understand it, explore it, to put these rooms and their possessions (furniture, figures, memories) together in sequence? How are we to read the story?

Pattern / plan / framework / instruction
Pattern / plan / framework / instruction

2) the flat-pack fold-up structural 3rd person conceit of showing everything all at once

Interiors is a pattern for a fold-up house of many rooms and doors. It’s an instruction for the assemblage of the interior skin of Hammershøi’s house. I don’t expect anyone to spend a couple of hours slicing and folding this toy model, although I have. Its dollhouse smallness shocked me and activated memories of small fingers sticky with glue.

Like a sewing pattern or an architectural plan, at full view its structure is evident: 12 rooms, each inhabited by furniture objects that shuffle around the house in constant rearrangement, most rooms connected by doors, the resultant utility of pathway highlighted in blue trails. The first three rooms are representations of the elements described in Hammershøi’s Interior from the Home of the Artist (1900). The other 9 rooms are left to chance in the script.

Through simple commands (mouse click and mouse pan) the rooms can be explored at a claustrophobic zoom. Like the intricate IKEA furniture construction sheet, laying it all out there unfolded. Like the IKEA floor plan experience, seeking to drag the viewer through a labyrinthine path of fake living rooms and repeating modules.

Exploring Hammershøi's house in zoom
Exploring Hammershøi's house in zoom

3) the modular parts of the home / the story / the code

All the components of Interiors are modular, which is the way with code, houses and stories. In this piece the modules are: rooms (4 walls and a floor), walls (door / no door), wall panels (clip clip into place), procedural color (with subtly dynamic phasing), furniture (random generative arrangement of boxes drawn in plan and elevation; a reductive diagram of pianos, desks, tables, chairs), paintings (blue screening despite their demonstrated connection to a power circuit). Referencing Hammershøi’s approach to titles, each room’s trait is an “Interior with… [the materials of everyday life as defined by IKEA’s product spec and selected randomly at each instance]” . A catalogue of ordinary / intimate modules.

4) metaphors for thinking about generative art

A tribute to Hammershøi’s house/s, Interiors is also an exploration of generative art fundamentals. Pattern-making is the gen art methodology. It is a structure for documenting the application of rules (what is set by the writer), randomness (what is left to chance), repetition (how many unique things can be made with the rearrangement of instanced modules), reduction (what constitutes enough material to be an expression of ‘wall’, ‘room’, ‘house’, ‘furniture’, or whatever it is we are trying to say).

House and story are useful creative metaphors for thinking about other gen art fundamentals such as disclosure (how much of the system is intentionally revealed to the viewer), complexity / memory (how many characters, how many possibilities, how many russian dolls’ deep of endless containers of rules we cram into the algorithm), and categorisation (the stretch between epitome or edge), how to structure the sequenced machinery of the generative work (through cause and effect and audience interactivity), and where to tighten or release the grip of control on its retelling.

I’m also reminded of Janet Malcolm’s description of writing and of houses, housecleaning as narrating, and wonder if Hammershøi had these thoughts too — of how much of himself should be put into a painting, and what he should remove so that the viewer would linger a moment:

The house also stirred my imagination as a metaphor for the problem of writing. Each person who sits down to write faces not a blank page but his own vastly overfilled mind.

The problem is to clear out most of what is in it, to fill huge plastic garbage bags with the confused jumble of things that have accreted there over the days, months, years of being alive, and taking things in through the eyes and ears and heart. The goal is to make a space where a few ideas and images and feelings may be so arranged that a reader will want to linger awhile among them, rather than to flee.

But this task of housecleaning (of narrating) is not merely arduous; it is dangerous. There is the danger of throwing the wrong things out and keeping the wrong things in; there is the danger of throwing too much out and being left with too bare a house; there is the danger of throwing everything out.

From The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes

The task of housecleaning (of narrating)
The task of housecleaning (of narrating)

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