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Culture

William Latham Was Making Digital Art Using 3D-Modeling Before It Was Cool

The co-creator of "Mutator," a platform to "breed" digital organisms, has been making digital art years before Cinema4D was commonplace.

by Johnny Magdaleno
21 April 2014, 2:00pm

Images rendered in Mutator, via

William Latham has been making digital art on his computer since well before the internet was a widespread tool for creativity. In the late '80s, the computer artist began toying with genetic algorithms and 3D computer models, eventually leading him and mathematician Stephen Todd to create Mutator—a computer program whose purpose and function is implied by its name. Finding its aesthetics in organic evolution, Mutator was a platform where users could literally “breed” digital organisms by guiding their “growth” with coding and software tools. 

Mutator was revered by Latham and Todd’s peers. It was also the platform which positioned Latham as an international tech-celebrity, and branded him as one of the world’s first computer artists. Today we see countless digital organisms and other 3D-renderings popping up on Behance and Tumblr (many of which are amazing), but many of these works can be traced back to Latham's cutting-edge mind and practice. 

Almost three decades later, Latham’s repertoire has only become more illustrious. His book Evolutionary Art and Computers, co-authored with Todd and published in 1992, stands as a keystone read for anyone interested in computer-based arts. The THING, a video game he helped develop while working at Computer Artworks Ltd., was a Number 1 seller in countries like the UK and Germany when it came out in 2002. And after a handful of tenures at world-class academic institutions, he’s now a Professor of Computer Arts at Goldsmiths, at the University of London.

The Brighton Digital Festival, which hosted Latham’s first exhibition in over 20 years last Fall, explains Mutator by noting parallels between the program and Latham’s artistic approach: “He likens himself to a gardener who breeds organic art by exploiting and amplifying mutations in order to create new, hybrid forms, a process he describes as ‘an evolution driven by aesthetics.’”

Latham’s exhibition at the Brighton festival is returning for second iteration this month, at the Center for Digital Cultures and Technology in Brussels. Opening April 24 and running until May 25, Mutator 1 + 2: Evolutionary Art is part-retrospective, part-“welcome back” celebration. 

The Center’s website reveals that visitors to the exhibition will encounter “early hand-drawn works, large computer generated Cibachrome prints, video art and his most recent interactive projected imagery that explores and embodies evolutionary processes, physical and virtual space.” He’ll also display some wall-sized drawings, which he’ll complete within 48 hours prior to opening night. 

Latham may have been working before the age of Cinema4D, AfterEffects, and other digital art tools that are commonplace today, but if you were to place any of his creations side-by-side with a computer-birthed "organism" from today, it would be next to impossible to tell which came first. That's what we call a timeless artist and de facto pioneer. 

One of the first coiled forms Latham produced at IBM’s UK branch. 1987

You can learn more about Latham through this Phoenix Gallery-commissioned website, which outlines Latham’s life in context of his computer arts career.

All images courtesy of Phoenix Gallery and the Center for Digital Cultures and Technology, unless noted otherwise.

Follow Johnny Magdaleno on Twitter: @johnny_mgdlno