'Aesthetics can be a tool to navigate genetic space'

June 29, 2007

WILLIAM LATHAM Professor of computer games and entertainment, Goldsmith

As an art student, William Latham went through every style of art.

"I reached the conclusion that modern art has pretty much run out of steam - in some ways it is just going round and round in circles," he says.

The future, as he saw it, lay in computer games and graphics - and so he turned to "computer art".

Not everyone takes an instant liking to Latham's "virtual" sculptures and "organic" computer-generated images.

"The art world definitely did not like computers, and they still don't," says Professor Latham, professor of computer games and entertainment at Goldsmiths, University of London.

But Professor Latham, a graduate of the Royal College of Art, was unperturbed.

He has gone on to carve out a successful career as both artist and businessman, landing a number one hit with the game, The Thing , after founding his own company, and closing deals of up to $5 million (£2.5 million) with US software giants.

With an industrial chemist as a father and a music teacher and composer as a mother, perhaps it is not altogether surprising that Latham's work challenges the conventional boundaries between science and nature, maths and art.

It was the six-year period from 1987, when Latham worked as an IBM research fellow, that he describes as "formative". There he teamed up with IBM mathematician Stephen Todd to develop new computer art software that allows the user to develop mutating images.

Hit a button, and the computer generates limitless variations of an image - the user picks out what they find pleasing, and this can then be refined again.

"What was really interesting was that very natural-looking forms would emerge from the software," Professor Latham says. "It is almost like an alternative evolutionary system from another planet - a kind of synthetic nature. The idea is that it is like being a gardener, you select what you like, to grow new forms - a bit like breeding greyhounds or budgerigars."

The resulting pieces, which toured the world, were loved or hated - often hated, he says. He describes the process as "a kind of digital Darwinism".

He says: "Artists in the 21st century have become comic figures. I go back to more of a Leonardo approach, where artists were working with mathematicians around Euclidean geometry and classical perspective - exactly the space where computer graphics resides."

All this was put on hold for ten years while Professor Latham set up his own company, Computer Artworks, which under his direction grew from a Soho attic studio into a company of 65 employees with a turnover of £5 million.

In March, Professor Latham left his post as Running Stream professor of creative technology at Leeds Metropolitan University to join Goldsmiths, heading up a new MSc in computer games, and he has returned to his "mutation art".

Professor Latham's latest interdisciplinary project sees him working with the Bioinformatics Group at Imperial College London, on new ways of visualising DNA data. Together with his colleague Frederic Fol Leymarie, he has produced a film that depicts an evolving protein structure.

"In two and a half minutes the film covers approximately 90 million years - 45 million years back in time, then 45 million years forward," Professor Latham says. So complex was the data used to make the film, it required use of a supercomputer - the National Grid Service at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory. DNA data was also used to create the soundtrack.

The film's shifting shapes reveal that there are periods in history where changes occurred more rapidly - now scientists want to find out why.

"Our system currently amplifies numerical values into a visual form. It is like a metaphor - it may not be 100 per cent accurate, but we can refine it. Already visualising the data in this way is bringing new insights," he says.

Ultimately, he hopes to develop a visual tool for spotting genetic defects, or for designing new drugs. "Genetics is what is going to liberate humans from the animal kingdom - though there are going to be some tricky questions along the way."

Professor Latham believes there is a connection between aesthetics and elegance in nature. Converting the numeric values used by geneticists into a visual form allows artists to engage with the work of scientists on an aesthetic level, he says.

"The idea is that aesthetics can be used as a navigation tool in genetic space, as often the most successful solution - and elegant, economical solution - is also the most visually aesthetic."

But it is the fact that his work questions human creativity that usually provokes the strongest reactions. He recently gave a talk to a team of top architects, demonstrating a "house mutation program". One click of a mouse can bring up thousands of automatically generated design variants.

"The results we get are as good as a designer's, if not better. They absolutely hated it.

"Arguably human creativity is not that great," he says.

rebecca.attwood@thes.co.uk

I GRADUATED FROM

Oxford University with a BFA in 1982, and from the Royal College of Art 1985 with an MA

MY FIRST JOB

was at IBM's UK Scientific Centre in Winchester as a research fellow

MY MAIN CHALLENGE

is to balance my commercial interests and being "hands on" with new R&D work across a wide range of areas from genetic architecture to synthetic protein-folding

WHAT I HATE MOST

is Big Brother and everything that goes with it

IN TEN YEARS' TIME

I hope for seamless interfaces for complex software packages, and the resolution of ethical issues surrounding genetic engineering

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