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Man vs. Machine 'Connect Four' Games Become Beautiful Line Drawings

In his “Connect 4” series of drawings, artist Carl Lostritto battles the algorithms of a machine using vintage pen plotters.

by DJ Pangburn
14 November 2014, 12:00am

A Connect 4 drawing as seen zoomed in.

Visual artist Carl Lostritto is into the artistic interplay of man versus machine. At first glance, Lostritto's drawings are at once mechanical and organic-looking, resembling the line illustrations of surrealist Hans Bellmer. Lostritto's work, however, is much more influenced by his background in architecture than traditional drawing or code-based art. This influence, in particular, can be seen in his latest series, Connect 4, in which vintage pen plotters create complex, structural lines and shapes.

“I operate under the assumption that drawings and images can not just communicate architecture, but can generate architecture and even be architecture,” he told The Creators Project. “This is not a new idea, but drawing is an unusual place to bring computational into the discipline.” 

Drawing from Connect 4 series.

To create the drawings seen here, Lostritto writes code in Python, where he focuses on the “low levels” of what make a drawing. He spends a lot of time computationally defining the nature and behaviors of lines.

“A line often is thought about the shortest connection between two points, but it might also be defined in terms of a meandering path,” he said. “It might have a speed, a mass, a direction, a goal, a behavior; a line might interact with other lines based on global or local conditions; a line might appear to be two-dimensional but actually is imbued with or structured by depth.”

The above “Connect 4” drawing zoomed in.

Then, there's the mater of organizing the lines. In his Paper Space series, Lostritto defined the line with relatively simple rules, representing one line in an instance per sheet and then letting it "play out" for hours. Initially, the line's direction was arbitrary. After that, there was nothing random about it. As Lostritto said, the line “travels along leaving barriers for itself along the way.”

The above drawing's line work revealed in zoomed in detail.

Lostritto counts Paul Klee's Pedagogical Sketchbook, which describes a line as a character existing in space and time, as the single most inspiring definition of a behavior line he's encountered. Also influential are Edwin Abbot's legendary book Flatland, a story about a two-dimensional world full of various geometrically-shaped characters; and architects like Jun'ya Ishigami and Lostritto's MIT advisor, Nader Teharni, who he said both innovate in their built work with “the most primitive aspects of architecture: lines, corners and surfaces.”

Drawing from Paper Space series

“Over the life of the drawing its capacity to turn and move changes gradually, as does its color,” he said. “In other words, my control over the line is completely separate from its playing out. I, of course, am involved as an artist/designer in evaluating the result, modifying the code, and running it again.”

In the Storms series, he again defined lines computationally to be "played out" on paper. This time, the paper world was defined by environmental forces that are kind of but not exactly like gravity, surface tension, particle physics, mass, and fluid dynamics.

Drawing from the Storms series

With his latest, Connect 4, Lostritto created a “Connect Four engine,” a collection of algorithms that can play the game reasonably well. It's all based on the abstract strategy game Connect Four, though he noted he's certainly not the first to do it.

“I'm not actually interested in a machine that can play Connect Four really well,” he added. “Instead, I am interested in drawing the computer thinking about Connect Four (or anything for that matter). 'Intelligence' in computing is, in this case, a matter of searching—looking at a tree of possibilities and filtering out the ones that are waste of time, and considering only the most likely scenarios.”

A human-computer game played to an end-game computer win

As Lostritto noted, the Connect 4 drawings are record of the computer's memory as it plays the game. Each line is a possible move, Lostritto said, with each point a potential state of the game that has been considered.

All of the Connect 4 games are real games that Lostritto played against the engine he wrote. He had to place certain limits on the computer so that he had a real chance of beating it. But, he does find himself occasionally rooting for the computer.

In this drawing, 6,000 board states were considered by the computer and drawn in dense fashion.

To help him focus on the line, Lostritto uses vintage plotting machines, devices used to mechanically draw and print designs for, say, ships or buildings. But, he doesn't use the vintage plotting machines as output devices. Instead, he codes their behavior directly. Lostritto based his system on the work of those at Chiplotle.org, a small community of pen plotters around the world, who figured out how to talk to the plotters via USB connection.

Drawings made by the computer in reciprocal fashion instead of neat rows.

“Often I don't or can't see a drawing very well on a screen because it might exist at multiple scales or depend too much on the behavior of ink,” Lostritto said. “I try to avoid any pre-existing software or programming libraries that pre-define what a line might be.”

“Finally and most importantly, I address architectural questions through this work,” he added. “I emphasize implied space, the emergence of depth, and new ways to conceive of the most primitive 'building blocks' of architecture: corner, surface, enclosure and mass.”

The above image, zoomed in

Lostritto said that he's currently expanding this work into the domain of stop-motion animation. This work will play on the capacity of hatching lines to convey and misdirect the readings of forms in space.

“Making animation is always a bit of an imperative for me because drawings always have a dimension of time that often only I experience as I make them,” he said. “It's sometimes present as trace evidence in drawings, but animation is an opportunity to capture that explicitly.”

To see more of Lostritto's drawings, head over to his Drawing Database.

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