Monday, June 3, 2013

Battlestar Galactica, by G. W. Smith

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G. W. Smith is an English Lit major turned systems engineer turned kinetic sculptor, and the holder of two patents in the field of electromechanical display systems. His work has been exhibited twice, and he has two public installations; but since 2005 he has been engaged in computer animation studies of possible works based on his "Cybersign" programmable armature. He is also the author of Aesthetic Wilderness: A Brief Personal History of the Meeting Between Art and the Machine (Birds-of-the-Air Press, 2011). He lives with his wife Dianna in New Orleans.

Battlestar Galactica
by G. W. Smith ©2013

Those of us in revolt against post-Modernism – and, more to the point, in favor of the new "poetic-mythic-scientific" renaissance proclaimed by Joseph Nechvatal – will share at least two goals: first, to identify the artist heroes from our recent past who can be for us what Cézanne was for the early Modernists; and second, to remain vigilant for the wider stirrings of revolution.

And here – on both counts – we must be greatly encouraged by the latest news from Europe. A cadre of dedicated young men and women have taken charge of the Museum Tinguely in Basel, Switzerland – and they have launched to the aid of their compatriots in America no less than the Battlestar Galactica of museum catalogs.

This 552-page volume lands on our desks with a thump, redolent of ink from art house Kehrer Verlag of Heidelberg; on its cover is a photo of what might be mistaken for a nuclear explosion; and from its pages emerges – in startlingly complete fashion – the work and figure of Jean Tinguely.

Jean Tinguely! – the Swiss/French kineticist whose work is to be found throughout modern museumdom, and whose clanking mechanical monuments are treasured in conservative Zurich, Switzerland and even more conservative Columbus, Indiana; the performance artist who dropped leaflets from an airplane over Dusseldorf to advertise his next exhibition, and who set off explosions in MOMA's backyard and the deserts of Nevada; the dashing figure who snatched Niki de Saint Phalle from the cover of Life magazine and helped her realize her dreams of becoming an artist in her own right; the sculptor who worked with an incredible fury – but also with an incredible discipline.

This catalog has been released with historic precision, for it is only with the passage of some time – and against the complicated background of the excesses of post-Modernism – that Tinguely's real stature has become clear; but we must be careful to distinguish between revolution and rebellion.

Rebellious artists we have aplenty – ready to flaunt every social convention, and to set themselves apart from other artists, in exchange for a quick buck. Tinguely, on the other hand, sought always to engage his fellow artists and art theorists; and his body of work represents forty years of dedication to a coherent and ever-evolving program, and one which looked both to the past and the future.

"He is one of us!" the Agglomerationists will proclaim; and yes, much of Tinguely's work was built of cast-off machine parts; and yes, almost all of it has an improvisational quality; but for these makers of balls of stuffed animal toys to compare themselves with the great Tinguely is to repeat the mistake of the countless paint-spatterers who have invoked Jackson Pollock.

Consider, in particular, the electric motor – that same electric motor which even now powers the Internet in hundreds of millions of disc drives, and which is poised, further, to do no less than to save our planet by replacing the internal combustion engine in futher hundreds of millions of automobiles. Tinguely is the one twentieth-century artist – and in marked contrast to Calder, who made an inglorious retreat from it – who consistently and successfully employed this patiently-beating heart of the modern world in his work.

Méta-mécanique (Méta-Herbin) by Jean Tinguely,1954

It is to Tinguely, in short, that we must attribute the first comprehensive success in humanizing the machine – a program that will become only more urgent as the machine sprouts its own arms and legs; and it is thus that he re-established the great thrust of Western art history, whose role has always been to assimilate science and technology on society's behalf.

And it is thus, also, that we justify a museum catalog as the centerpiece of our own call to arms! The very words "avant garde" – the advance guard – imply some forward movement, some direction; and to use these words without a knowledge of what has gone before, and without having subjected oneself to the discipline of a particular medium, is meaningless.

As to the enthusiasm engendered among the public by such an approach, we are reminded again and again by the marvelously complete biographical section of this marvelously complete catalog that exhibitions of Tinguely's work typically drew record crowds to the galleries and museums; and we are further reminded that, in the summer of 1964, there were no less than two Tinguely-like characters on the screens of American movie theaters: one played by a young Paul Newman (in "What a Way to Go!"), and a second played by a young Jack Lemmon (in "Good Neighbor Sam").

The catalog, however, is also forthright in acknowledging the early failure of his native country to recognize his genius: Tinguely, like Brancusi, launched his career in Paris – a circumstance which the Swiss are working furiously to address.

Indeed, the resources which have been dedicated to the Museum Tinguely, and to this catalog, can have only one interpretation: Jean Tinguely – the artist of the machine par excellence – may be emerging as the great artistic figure of the second half of the twentieth century.


"'poetic-mythic-scientific' renaissance": "Our Digital Noology: Catherine Perret in conversation with Joseph Nechvatal," Scan | Journal of Media Arts Culture

"Battlestar Galactica of museum catalogs": Museum Tinguely Basel: The Collection, Heidelberg: Kehrer Verlag, 2013.

"the Agglomerationists": Saltz, Jerry, "Clusterfuck Esthetics", The Village Voice, Nov. 29, 2005

Smith, G. W., Aesthetic Wilderness: A Brief Personal History of the Meeting Between Art and the Machine, 1844-2005, New Orleans: Birds-of-the-Air-Press, 2011, 2012.

Smith, G. W., "From Search Engines to Saxophones: It's the Machine, Stupid!", On-Verge, Jan. 31, 2013

Photo credits

Jean Tinguely
Méta-mécanique (Méta-Herbin) 1954
painted steel and electric motor
174 x 81.7 x 108.7 cm
National Gallery of Australia, Canberra
Purchased 1979
©Jean Tinguely

Aesthetic States of Frenzy, by Joseph Nechvatal

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Since 1986 Joseph Nechvatal has worked with ubiquitous electronic visual information, computers and computer-robotics. His computer-robotic assisted paintings and computer software animations are shown regularly in galleries and museums throughout the world. From 1991-1993 he worked as artist-in-resident at the Louis Pasteur Atelier and the Saline Royale / Ledoux Foundation's computer lab in Arbois, France on The Computer Virus Project: an experiment with computer viruses as a creative stratagem. In 2002 he extended that artistic research into the field of viral artificial life through his collaboration with the programmer Stéphane Sikora. Dr. Nechvatal earned his Ph.D. in the philosophy of art and new technology at The Centre for Advanced Inquiry in the Interactive Arts (CAiiA) University of Wales College, Newport, UK where he served as conference coordinator for the 1st International CAiiA Research Conference entitled Consciousness Reframed: Art and Consciousness in the Post-Biological Era (July 1997); an international conference which looked at new developments in art, science, technology and consciousness. Dr. Nechvatal presently teaches at the School of Visual Arts in New York City (SVA). His book of essays Towards an Immersive Intelligence: Essays on the Work of Art in the Age of Computer Technology and Virtual Reality (1993-2006) was published by Edgewise Press in 2009. In 2011 his book Immersion Into Noise was published by the University of Michigan Library's Scholarly Publishing Office in conjunction with Open Humanities Press. (Website:

The following paper was presented at Cyber-Nietzsche: Tunnels, Tightropes, Net-&-Meshworks, a conference held at The New School, New York, NY, April 13th, 2013.

Odyssey Palimpsest #19

Aesthetic States of Frenzy: Friedrich Nietzsche’s aesthetic philosophy and the Odyssey Palimpsest noisy mesh challenge to the post-modern tragic carnival

by Joseph Nechvatal

If there is to be art, if there is to be any aesthetic doing and seeing, one physiological condition is indispensable: frenzy. - Friedrich Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols

The realm of aesthetics holds for Friedrich Nietzsche a position of supremacy. For Nietzsche, art is the unique offset to prevailing forms of nihilism. The basic role of art in Nietzsche's philosophy is that of establishing a countermovement to nihilism because art both destroys handed down nihilistic values and creates novel aesthetic values that allow for our inner intensity to flourish. This paper will address what Nietzsche called the aesthetic state - a state of being that is achieved through the intelligent sensuality of art - through a recent body of work that I have executed called the Odyssey Palimpsest.

For Nietzsche, the aesthetic state is an altered state of consciousness achieved through an artistic transcendental aesthetic. This aesthetic is the highest form of human activity, because in certain works of art opposites are conjoined. And it is through the majesty of such conjoined art that we find an optimistic path out of nihilism and towards our own aggrandizement. So we artists and thinkers need Nietzsche now more than ever - because there is so much to be nihilistic about in our mad and tragic world. Consequently, I am interested in Nietzscheian tragic aesthetic when Nietzsche emphasizes affective states – states of mind/body that we may enter into as a form of creative expression of our will to power in art.

Today the meeting of neuroaesthetics and information technology is one of the vital and pleasurable arenas in which interesting currents align for art. My endeavor here shall be to give evidence of this pleasurable meeting through my recent meshwork series called Odyssey Palimpsest – work that returns us symbolically to Homer's ancient lost hero. I will place this somewhat odd Odyssey in relationship to Nietzsche's affirmation of life and in line with his development of the tragic hero in The Birth of Tragedy (1872). His doctrine of tragedy is based in the fundamental knowledge of the oneness of everything and of art as the joyous hope that the spell of false individuation may be broken in the interests of a consciousness of restored oneness. Thus it is an affirmation of the mystery of everything.

Odyssey Palimpsest is a highly elaborated ornamental scene sequence that embodies primordial joyful frenzy and primordial pain. The lyric poet that you will see in Odyssey Palimpsest identifies himself with the pain of the world and merges into the unification of the world. But perhaps it is necessary to comment briefly on two of Nietzsche’s well-known aesthetic formulations: Dionysus (the god of intoxication, orgies, forces of nature and music) and Apollo (god of individuation, illusion, form and order). This use of the concepts of the Apollonian and Dionysian is famously linked to Nietzsche where he wants to bring to our attention the way in which the development of art is bound up with the duality of the Apollonian and Dionysian. As you know, Nietzsche's aesthetic usage of these concepts, which was later developed philosophically, first appeared in The Birth of Tragedy. His premise there was that the fusion of Dionysian and Apollonian artistic impulses are needed to form artistic tragedies. It is through a dialectical interplay of these two opposing - and at the same time complementary - aesthetic elements that my art owes its continuous allegiance to Nietzsche.

Nietzsche famously assimilated the Apollonian and the Dionysian together under the name of an experience of art. Odyssey Palimpsest attempts an equivalent, as it fuses chaotic disturbance with classical beautiful forms. It is an attempt at situating us somewhere between the surface of empirical diverse reality and the chasm of shattering incoherence where we must each pick through the meshwork and recover figurative meaning out of entangled ground. This approach relates to my book Immersion Into Noise (2011) where I have mapped out a broad-spectrum of aesthetic activity I call the art of noise by tracing its past eruptions where figure/ground merge and flip the common emphasis to some extent. Immersion Into Noise concludes with a look at the figural aspect of this aesthetic lodged within the ground of consciousness itself.[1]

But we must address noise aesthetics and the art context within our broad-spectrum data-monitoring info-economy environment of background machine-to-machine gigabyte[2] communication murmur - and think through and deploy noise art as an embedded subject within the larger environment of ubiquitous computing cognitive capitalism.[3] To do so, I will be examining Odyssey Palimpsest along with some trends and vivid prospects for what I have been speculatively calling noise art - that is visual art as compared to noise music.[4]

In brief, noise art aesthetics[5] is an unbound zone (where qualitative shifts of coordinates takes place) in which it is possible to carry out art experiments that would be unachievable in a different place. What noise art aesthetics has to offer is the possibility to understand things in a different way, shifting boundaries, departing from established functions. Of course art itself has recently ossified into some established functions that might provoke a nihilistic response. For example, I have been following the public proclamations on art of The New School philosopher Simon Critchley. Critchley described in 2010 contemporary art’s dominant trend as an in-authenticity of “mannerist situationism” based in rituals of reenactment.[6] Critchley goes on in 2012 to describe the circumstances further, as the “cold mannerist obsessionality of the taste for appropriation and reenactment that has become hegemonic in the art world.”[7] So things have gotten no better. Clearly something deep-seated must be reevaluated. And art aesthetics is more interesting when it does the work of shifting meaning. So I am declining here Critchley’s urging for contemporary art to focus in on the monstrous, as, in my opinion, that parody of gloomy general dystopia only plays into the extreme spectacle aspect of mannerism. To be fair, Critchley doesn’t explain what or who he means by the monstrous[8] but when I think of the monstrous today I think of the high visibility of Lady Gaga (and her little monsters), extreme Hollywood lowbrow movies and grotesque far right political claims and postures. And in art (commodified and co-opted by the socio-economic system that is its life blood) we have had the work of Eduardo Kac, Jake and Dinos Chapman, Orlan and Paul McCarthy.

No, here I am only interested in a new contemporary aesthetic labor based in a certain exquisite untouchablity, and unseeablity – a monster sacré affinity of disconnectedness, that focuses on an impregnable diva-like commitment to a nihilistic aesthetic of becoming imperceptible.[9] I am interested in an exquisite monster sacré aesthetic (where personal anthropomorphic eccentricities and indiscretions are tolerated) that is bent on combining the neo-materialist[10] vibrant world with a wider vision of political awareness including private spiritual, ecstatic or numinous themes accessible through the generative subjective realm of each individual; an aesthetics of perception politics based on resonance - not a politics of visibility - which reveals in minute particulars the full spectrum of the extensive social-political dimensions.

This monster sacré affinity is a materialist nihilism of no that (if it goes far enough) can transform a metamorphosis (subject to the flickering formative forces of emergence)[11] into an all-embracing yes of delicate abhorrence. So I am advocating here with Odyssey Palimpsest not the passive and thus incomplete nihilism of form, but a generative and virulent and curative nihilistic frenzy that unleashes forces of reverberation to emerge and resonate like a web of inter-connected, molecular and viral relational affects and intensities of dissonance, deviation, and the incidental. I believe this to be in accordance with Nietzsche’s aesthetic state.

Such noise frenzy makes use of the key notion of eternal return – an access to an appreciation of the eternal through analogy - that is at the heart of great art and enables art to express hope within the reality of current tragedy. It is, indeed, the access to the eternal that is the key motif of The Birth of Tragedy as is suggested when Nietzsche writes that any artwork is worth only as much as it is able to press upon experience a stamp of the eternal.

My project Odyssey Palimpsest is situated in my immersive noise theory of turmoil exchanges of figure/ground relationships: an agile art that emphasizes human and non-human entanglements. This is an art that depends on playing out nihilistic negativity by intensifying its forces into an affirmative nihilism. This nimble nihilist bracketing pushes us towards open de-familiarizations, challenging us to think outside of the normal system of human consciousness. So Odyssey Palimpsest as nimble frenzy is implicated in the very type of problematic instability that the ‘self’ undergoes in Nietzsche’s thought: the cohesiveness of the culture/state distinction, like the cohesiveness of the ‘self/other’ distinction disintegrates with the ontological instability produced by the annihilation of the real as distinguishable from the illusory. With a nimble art of noise - based in the distinction between active nihilism and passive nihilism (or monstrous nihilism) - Odyssey Palimpsest can depict the underground vigor of form as an active verve that can only be speculated at by thinking beyond the discursive. And that enacts a shift away from the subject-object dualism that is currently much lauded by Object-Oriented Ontologists.

The embeddedness of our inner world - the life of our imagination with its intense drives, suspicions, fears, and loves - guides our intentions and actions in the political-economic world. Our inner world is the only true source of meaning and purpose we have and exquisite frenzy-gazing[12] (that involves self-investigation) is the way to discover for ourselves this inner life. So we might consider now that, in contrast to our frenzied data market surveillance culture,[13] that which trains us to fear the atrocious eyes of outer perception, a protracted gazing art practice based in absorption could encourage the development of agile clandestine exchanges based on the embedded individual intuitive eye in conjunctive contact with an abundant optical-mnemonic commons (not cloud)[14] that shares a sensibility for building a defensive force.

Of course this sphere of anti-purist gazing-commons (essentially a cooperative rejection of the tyranny of labels, essential identities, privileged abstractions and fixed ideas) is what allows art to construct unstable distinctions between subjects and objects that embraces the entire spectrum of imaginary spaces; from the infinitude of actual forms to formless voids of virtuality. Subsequently, Odyssey Palimpsest requires a challenging exchange of the hierarchy of figure and ground (figure and abstraction) through a struggle between noise[15] and invisibility.[16] So I want to argue for an agony of style of logo invisibility - and the importance that should be given noise art aesthetics.

The principle of constructing patterns of infinite becomings is perhaps inherent in avant-garde artistic tradition (avant-garde values). But this avant-garde now, I think, should be considered in terms of noisy invisibility not ontology, as deviating from the regularities of visible normality provides the avant-garde new sources for artistic production. Certainly, the values of the avant-garde have always been interfering with the channels of artistic production and reception - and these values are responsible for expanding the forms and definitions of art itself.[17] But like in nature, noise in art plays a productive role in the invisible life of a system when it stresses becoming-imperceptible.

But a becoming-imperceptible-invisible monster sacré, today can no longer be a form of enfant terrible with-drawl, akin to Marcel Duchamp’s strategic invisibility,[18] but rather a phantasmagorical plunge into what Félix Guattari expresses as the chaosmosis.[19] Odyssey Palimpsest marks such a qualitative transformation into a non-place where being and non-being reverse into each other, unfolding out and enfolding in their respective outsides. This short-circuit causes a creative conflagration typical of the art of noise.

Let’s consider the difference between noise art (based on an individual’s inner vision) versus the monstrous mass machine data market,[20] with its digital functionalism. For me the difference is in looking into and projecting onto something - thereby discovering an emerging manifestation based in invisibility - as opposed to looking at something. In that sense it requires an active slow participation on the part of the viewer - and the noise style of Odyssey Palimpsest demands as much. For me this requires use of hidden mental participation and, as such, is now essential in our climate of monstrous mass media (mass-think) in that it plays against the grain of given objective consensus visibility. In that sense Odyssey Palimpsest is more like a service product (or a server).[21]

However, my main interest in invisibility with Odyssey Palimpsest lay in a texture of emerging claims of art-as-politics - with its emphasis on the production of individuality based in a political physiology (a political function of living systems) with a strong proposition of emergence as the key aspect. So, I will continue the work done in Immersion Into Noise by looking at the art of noise as an emergent property rooted in obscurity. This comparison relates to my palimpsest work as an indeterminacy-based noise artist.

Now I would like to look more specifically at the possibility of further developments in noise art aesthetics concerning where becoming-imperceptible and becoming-perceptible nimbly interact. As sketched out in my book Immersion Into Noise, the evolution of visual noise art develops from certain pre-historic cave areas and baroque grottoes, to certain levels of mannerist and counter-mannerist complexity, to noisy spatial renderings in various exuberant architectural styles, then into cubism, futurism, dada, fluxus and other 20th century avant-garde movements, into the screech of technological noise art, and into the softness of software noise art aesthetics.

As noted above, what is important in the art of noise aesthetics is its intentional and elongated invisibility[22] and enigma. That is why this subject is so hard to write about. The very topic is a very difficult one to pin down and make intelligible for good reason. The art of noise is an art of disbelief in habitual codes of practice and understanding. You must take the art of noise on its own terms or risk doing violence to the art.

Noise art is not a set of homogeneous practices, but a complex field converging around perceived weaknesses in the art system. Such a noisy hyper-cognitive stance[23] happens when the particular of electronic connectivity is seen as part of an accrual total system by virtue of its being connected to everything else - while remaining dissonant. Noise aesthetics is a complex and ambiguous political gazing, and its theory of an art of resistance and investigation would be increasingly valuable to an analytical social movement based on skepticism while undermining monstrous market predictabilities, as it strengthens unique personal powers of imagination and critical thinking. This is so as it counters the effects of our age of simplification: effects which have resulted from the glut of consumer oriented entertainment messages and political propaganda which the monstrous mass media feeds us daily in the interests of corporate profit and governmental psychological manipulations.

The noise art aesthetic of Odyssey Palimpsest is that of dissonant immersion into a maelstrom of glossolaliaic unintelligibility, chaos and exaltation. Such an art of noise style is a way of seeing that reverses the order of figure/ground[24] to ground/figure. It collapses being into non-being (ontological implosion). It creates ambivalent aleatory[25] processes that are true to our inner essential world: dynamic pools of expansion and disintegration.

Odyssey Palimpsest refuses easy consumption then and encourages love, because a love for visual noise art will make perturbing events in your life more tolerable. It will make you able to see more and make you more adaptable to disturbance, rather than being torn up about them. It will help you to avoid psychic ossification by your loving the space of latent expanse. This is what suggests referring Odyssey Palimpsest to the aesthetics of the sublime, which, in the 18th century, was linked to the grandness of natural phenomena. But Odyssey Palimpsest is an innovative version of the sublime in which, for the first time, the embeddedness that we recognize ourselves in concerning nature matches up with our subliminal inner orb. This embed awareness can be suggested and promoted by noisy artistic becomings such as Odyssey Palimpsest - as its generative aspect serves to produce unpredictable results based on arithmetic instructions contained in its code.

Poetically, the hyper-noise dense texture of Odyssey Palimpsest, along with its uniform rhythms, suggests to me a possibility of connecting ourselves psychically to the great chain of being (that which precedes us and of which we are a part). However, this requires an active imagination that is aided by the visualization properties offered up. Perhaps Odyssey Palimpsest then is a psychotic outburst that disrupts smooth image operations with an explosion of buried visual hysteria that promises a highly diverse world. Its incomprehensibility by design connects the commons to unconscious frenzy through what I think to be a type of chaos magic.[26] It creates the visualization bridge between form and intuition, as its uncertain images have more information in them than a clear certain image (or sound) where the information quickly becomes redundant. Thus Odyssey Palimpsest gives rise to new thought. It promotes the emergence of new forms of an old story: art.

As mentioned above, what is important in Odyssey Palimpsest is its intentional enigma. It needs to be obscure to the degree that its codes cannot be discerned. This phantasmagorical obscurity and mystery is increasingly desirable in a world that has become increasingly data-mined, mapped, quantified, specialized and identified in a straight-forward matter of fact way. This will for enigma is the basis for discovering and entering into an immersion into the art of noise, even.[27]

Its goal is to disrupt instrumental logic and contradict, counteract, and cancel out false reason and hollow feeling. Suffering and joy, like figure and ground, are here tied together in frenzy, neither one without the other. Thus Odyssey Palimpsest suggests and produces stress in us; one might even say an urgent anxiety of disintegration. So dedication to its merits, if there are any, might well be described as vaguely heroic, because Odyssey Palimpsest suggests the revelation of a plentiful nihilistic life force. Thus Odyssey Palimpsest implies a cul-de-sac of ill communication (vacuole)[28] – the communication of enigma itself as experienced by the lyric poet.

Thus Odyssey Palimpsest has something that words risk diminishing. Nevertheless, I obviously have felt that I must take that risk because if we are to continue to live among electronic vibrations that mine us, it may be helpful to talk back against them. But yes, Odyssey Palimpsest is the transmitter of unspeakable secrets. That is why art noise matters. It wants more from us. Moreover, it teaches us to want more from art. It teaches us to look deeper, to hear more, and to trust the inner noise.

There are now many artists who see the symbolic and metaphorical dimension of a work as of little importance. I am not one of them. For me, the real worth of vigorous contemporary art is in its ability to deliver to the commons excessive sensually-embodied implications. As noise art aesthetics are indistinguishable from that which it produces as Odyssey Palimpsest, in might be considered as a panpsychic[29] sphere that contains systems of chance operations within it.

So, as you can see, for Odyssey Palimpsest I eagerly identified with Nietzsche's Dionysian attention to the frantic painful beauty of primal unity. For as he wrote, “The brightest clarity of the image did not suffice us, for this seemed just as much to reveal something as to conceal something.” My urge with Odyssey Palimpsest has been, in his words, to “tear the veil and to uncover the mysterious background” of life through the powerful analogy of art.

Such a Dionysian approach to art includes the notions that The Birth of Tragedy emphasizes in its title - eternal recurrence - and the realization of “the eternal joy of becoming” that is the creative act.

The Dionysian embraces the frenzied chaotic nature of experience as all-important; not just on its own, but also as it is intimately connected with the Apollonian. The Dionysian magnifies us, but only so far as we realize that it emphasizes the harmony that can be found within one’s chaotic experience. Such a thinking of frenzy through the prism of Dionysian aesthetics was agitating my inner logic during the summer of 2012 when I did the lion's share of Odyssey Palimpsest in Corsica[30] and Provence.[31]

Nietzsche sees in eternal harmonious unification the genesis of the highest expression of art: tragedy that allows us to sense an underlying essence of primordial unity, which revives our Dionysian nature. This is an almost indescribably pleasurable feeling to try to capture, but it was my goal for Odyssey Palimpsest: art as means of self-transcendent turbulence.

Art is the great poetic stimulus to radical life, so from an aesthetic viewpoint we need not to look for purpose, for art is purpose in itself: the purpose of life. Indeed for Nietzsche, art is the supreme delight of existence. With the eternal return at the heart of Odyssey Palimpsest, I hope to articulate a turning to ecstatic frenzy within the current construction of contemporary tragedy.

Joseph Nechvatal

[1] This involves a question of the qualities (and levels) of awareness of our own consciousness within aesthetic realms which we are capable of attaining through noise art. Nechvatal, Joseph. Immersion Into Noise. Ann Arbor: Open Humanities Press (2011) p. 210

[2] Data storage is measured in bytes. A gigabyte is a billion bytes of information. The New York Stock Exchange, produces up to 2,000 gigabytes of data per day that must be stored for years.

[3] Stupendous amounts of data generated by nearly one billion people are set in motion each day as, with an innocuous click or tap, people download movies on iTunes, check credit card balances through Visa’s Web site, send e-mail with files attached, buy products, post on Twitter or read newspapers and art theory papers online.

[4] Noise Music in general traffics in dissonance, atonality, distortion, incidental composing, etc. This music begins with Russolo, Luigi’s reti di rumori (networks of noises) music that he performed on his intonarumori noise instruments and his text ”The Art of Noises: Futurist Manifesto” in Cox, Cristoph & Warner, Daniel (ed.): Audio Culture: Readings in Modern Music, Continuum (2004) For more of the history of noise music, see Hegarty, Paul: Noise/Music: A History. New York: Continuum (2007) and pp. 39-47 in Nechvatal, Joseph. Immersion Into Noise, Ann Arbor: Open Humanities Press (2011)

[5] For a full investigation into this topic see Nechvatal, Joseph. Immersion Into Noise, Ann Arbor: Open Humanities Press (2011)

[6] At his talk “The Faith of the Faithless, Experiments in Political Theology at the Dance Politics & Co-Immunity Workshop” in Giessen, Germany, November 12th, 2010

[7] Simon Critchley, “Absolutely-Too-Much”, Brooklyn Rail, Summer issue 2012

[8] Given his age and Englishness I would guess Throbbing Gristle.

[9] “Although all becomings are already molecular, including becoming woman, it must be said that all becomings begin with and pass through becoming-woman. It is the key to all the other becomings. […] If becoming- woman is the first quantum, or molecular segment, with the becomings-animal that link up with it coming next, what are they all rushing toward? Without a doubt, toward becoming-imperceptible. The imperceptible is the immanent end of becoming, its cosmic formula. […]” Gilles Deleuze, Félix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus. Capitalism and Schizophrenia, translation by Brian Massumi, University of Minnesota Press (1987) p. 279

[10] Manuel DeLanda coined the term neo-materialist in a short 1996 text “The Geology of Morals, A Neo-Materialist Interpretation” where he treats a portion of Deleuze and Guattari’s A Thousand Plateaus in order to conceptualize geological movements. For more on neo-materialist see Manuel DeLanda’s interview in New Materialism: Interviews & Cartographies by Rick Dolphijn and Iris van der Tuin, Ann Arbor: Open Humanities Press (2012) p. 38

[11] In philosophy, systems theory, science, and art, emergence is the way complex systems and patterns arise out of a multiplicity of relatively simple interactions. Emergence is central to the theories of integrative levels and of complex systems.

[12] Gaze; to look long and intently. Gaze is often indicative of wonder, fascination and revelation.

[13] For example take the fact that now under construction by contractors with top-secret clearances, is the blandly named Utah Data Center, being built for the National Security Agency. A project of immense secrecy, it is the final piece in a complex puzzle assembled over the past decade. Its purpose: to intercept, decipher, analyze, and store vast swaths of the world’s communications as they zap down from satellites and zip through the underground and undersea cables of international, foreign, and domestic networks. The heavily fortified $2 billion center should be up and running in September 2013. Flowing through its servers and routers and stored in near-bottomless databases will be all forms of communication, including the complete contents of private emails, cell phone calls, and Google searches, as well as all sorts of personal data trails—parking receipts, travel itineraries, bookstore purchases, and other digital transactions. It is, in some measure, the realization of the “total information awareness” program created during the first term of the Bush administration—an effort that was killed by Congress in 2003 after it caused an outcry over its potential for invading Americans’ privacy. For more on this trend see James Bamford’s book The Shadow Factory: the Ultra-Secret NSA from 9/11 to the Eavesdropping on America. Anchor (2009)

[14] The term “cloud” is often generally used to describe a data center’s functions. More specifically, it refers to a service for leasing computing capacity.

[15] As I have done with my own work while also collecting examples of many other artist’s work that can be placed in this continuum.

[16] Perhaps this should not be surprising given the hidden complexity of a basic internet transaction is a mystery to most users: Sending a message with photographs to a neighbor could involve a trip through hundreds or thousands of miles of Internet conduits and multiple data centers before the e-mail arrives across the street.

[17] For more on this read my essay Viractuality in the Webbed Digital Age that was published in M/E/A/N/I/N/G Online #5 25th Anniversary Edition (2011)

[18] Duchamp's entire artistic activity since the "definitive incompletion" of the Large Glass in 1923 was an exercise in strategic invisibility, giving rise to objects and events which--because they were apparently too impermanent or unimportant or insubstantial, or because they eluded established genre conventions, or because they confused or diluted authorial identity--evaded recognition as "works of art."

[19] Félix Guattari said in his noteworthy book, Chaosmosis: An Ethico-Aesthetic Paradigm, the work of art, for those who use it, is an activity of unframing, of rupturing sense, of baroque proliferation or extreme impoverishment that leads to a recreation and a reinvention of the subject itself.

[20] To support all that digital activity, there are now more than three million data centers of widely varying sizes worldwide, according to figures from the International Data Corporation.

[21] A server is a sort of bulked-up desktop computer, minus a screen and keyboard, that contains chips to process data. For security reasons, companies typically do not even reveal the locations of their data centers, which are housed in anonymous buildings and vigilantly protected. Each year, chips in servers get faster, and storage media get denser and cheaper, but the furious rate of data production goes a notch higher.

[22] This parallels the fact that in many data facilities, servers are loaded with applications and left to run indefinitely, even after nearly all users have vanished or new versions of the same programs are running elsewhere. At a certain point, no one is responsible anymore, because no one, absolutely no one, wants to go in that room and unplug a server.

[23] Nechvatal, Joseph. Immersion Into Noise, Ann Arbor: Open Humanities Press (2011) p. 32

[24] The characteristic organization of perception into a figure that 'stands out' against an undifferentiated background, e.g. a printed word against a background page. What is figural at any one moment depends on patterns of sensory stimulation and on the momentary interests of the perceiver.

[25] Aleatoricism is the incorporation of chance into the process of creation, especially the creation of art or media. The word derives from the Latin word alea, the rolling of dice.

[26] Some common sources of inspiration for chaos magic include such diverse areas as science fiction, scientific theories, ceremonial magic, shamanism, Eastern philosophy, and individual experimentation.

[27] As an example, see/hear Marina Rosenfeld’s Cephissus landscape (2002), an immersive noise work that undermines the central notion of "surround-sound" technology by locating viewers in an environment with no fixed center and numerous temporary sonic sweet spots where short bursts of mingled electronic and acoustic sounds intersect and decay in expanding concentric circles that suggest oscillate landscapes.

[28] This is a reference to Gilles Deleuze’s (1925-1995) notion of the vacuole. This concept of noncommunication comes from Deleuze’s Postscript on Control Societies. Deleuze’s notion of control is connected to information-communication technology—a concept he pulled out of the work of William S. Burroughs (1914-1997). A vacuole is like a sac in a cell’s membrane, completely bound up inside the cell but also separate from it. Vacuoles play a significant role in autophagy, maintaining an imbalance between biogenesis (production) and degradation (or turnover) of many substances and cell structures. They also aid in the destruction of invading bacteria or of misfolded proteins that have begun to build up within the cell. The vacuole is a major part of the plant and animal cell. Nechvatal, Joseph. Immersion Into Noise. Ann Arbor: Open Humanities Press (2011) p. 14

[29] Panpsychism is the view that all matter has a mental aspect, or, alternatively, all objects have a unified center of experience or point of view.

[30] Thank you Dominique and Isabelle Roussy.

[31] Thank you Jean-Charles and Jacqueline Blanc.

nymph palimpsest

siren 7

bOdily blue satyr palimpsest

cyclOps pOlyphemus 2

Exhibition review: Carter Hodgkin, by Taney Roniger

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VORTEX: Recent Animations and Works on Paper by Carter Hodgkin
Denise Bibro Fine Art
529 W. 20th St., New York, NY 10011
January 10th– February 23rd, 2013

by Taney Roniger

Eighth View of the Blue Vortex, animation still, 2012, Quicktime, 3 min. 50 sec.

Generative collisions loom large in the new series of works by Carter Hodgkin, currently on view at Denise Bibro Fine Art. Inspired by the field of particle physics, which studies the notoriously unstable world of the smallest constituents of matter, but evoking with equal force the cosmic expanse of galactic space, the works presented here are fraught with tensions between disparate (and often dissonant) associations whose interactions give rise to unexpected configurations of meaning and aesthetic emotion. For an artist who has forged a career at the volatile intersection of art, science, and technology, colliding forces is a fitting theme.

For almost a decade, the model that has informed Hodgkin’s work is a species of image associated with the “scattering experiments” conducted by physicists inside giant particle accelerators, in which charged subatomic particles are forced to collide at enormous velocities. The resulting fallout, whose scatter tracks are rendered visible with powerful imaging technologies, provides scientists with crucial insight into the strange world of quarks, leptons, and bosons, where the familiar laws of nature no longer apply, and where uncertainty, paradox, and ambiguity prevail. Among a host of other paradoxes revealed by these experiments, we are told that phenomena in the quantum realm that would appear mutually canceling can co-exist as complementary pairs, each rendering the other’s partial truth whole. Light is both wave and particle. The universe is both continuous and discrete.

Attracted no doubt by the strange beauty of these experiments and the metaphorical richness of all they portend (the artist has spoken of her association of the particles' traces with the ideas of Paul Virilio, a leading theorist of technology, speed, and power in contemporary life), Hodgkin has used the iconic image of colliding particles as a point of departure since 2004. Having spent the previous two decades exploring the ways in which scientific imagery allows us to visualize the invisible with its use of increasingly sophisticated technologies, the artist’s practice took a critical step forward in that year with her discovery of a computer programming language that would allow her to generate images of her own by way of simulated particle collisions. The works in this show result from her ongoing engagement with these simulated collisions.

Entering the gallery, we are met first by two dark screens on which two separate four-minute animations are looped. From within a deep, black void, bursts of countless vibrantly colored particles of light erupt and dissipate across the screen, curving into tendril-like tracks that cascade outward at varying speeds. Sometimes densely clustered, sometimes so faint and delicate as to be barely visible against the blackness of the void, the exploding and dissolving vortices, ringlets, and circular scatter patterns enact a drama that is as mysterious as it is beautiful. Immersed in a dense ambiguity that is rendered more acute by the works’ silence (the animations’ explosions emit no sound), one senses one is bearing witness to some momentous event that has heretofore gone unseen. Is it the birth of stars and galaxies that we are beholding, or are we peering into the vast inner space that surrounds the nucleus of an atom? Or, further still, are we being shown another kind of inner space, one that is at once more familiar and more incomprehensible than any other – namely, that of our own consciousness?

Hodgkin’s animations establish a tone of hushed sublimity that both slows and reorients the viewer’s mind, and this move toward the contemplative prepares one well for the rest of the show. What follows is a suite of paintings on paper that range in scale from small (12” squares) to medium (the largest piece is 44” x 44”), all rendered in gouache, watercolor, and inkjet. Against solid, untouched grounds that are alternately jet black or creamy white, the cascading forms and events that inhabit the animations here hang suspended in action, charged with the potential energy of excess poised for release. In these works, the individual particles are tiny dabs of semi-translucent paint whose subtle irregularities tell us of their origin in the artist’s hand. With a rich and varied palette that ranges from blues, violets, scarlets and earthy greens to bright yellow and ultra-saturated pomegranate, the painted forms acquire a physical presence that is wholly absent in the animations, and this emphatic materiality ushers in a host of new associations. One thinks here not of entities imperceptible to our unaided senses, but of botanical growth (i.e., the centrifugal movement of a budding flower and the centripetal shrinking occasioned by its death), geologic events such as erupting volcanoes, and man-made explosions such as pyrotechnics. While rapid flux and high energy are evoked in every piece, the work has a formal elegance that serves as a kind of nuclear glue, holding everything together in dynamic equipoise against the explosive forces of instability, speed, and scatter. The emotional evocations are equally complex; the sense of turbulence, tumult, and disorientation evinced by the swirling forms is interfused with a sense of warmth or human presence that issues from the works’ materiality.

For some artists, the process by which the work is created is, if not entirely incidental, of secondary concern; it is considered foremost a means by which a desired end is to be achieved. Such is not the case with Hodgkin, as it seems that embedded within her process are metaphors deeply resonant with – and ultimately inseparable from – the work’s emotional and conceptual import. Hodgkin’s process begins with the digital computer, which she programs to create her animated simulations of particle collisions. The artist codes the program such that by altering various parameters (e.g., speed, gravity, curvature, color), the behavior of four particles that constitute her basic lexicon is affected in unpredictable ways, causing a chain of visual events that plays itself out on the computer screen. Each simulation is unique, each outcome wholly unforeseen. Simultaneously playing creator, instigator and observer, Hodgkin watches the drama unfold until, whenever compelled, she freezes the motion to capture a still image. The stills thus extracted form the basis for all the artist’s paintings and works on paper. After subjecting them to further alteration on the computer, Hodgkin digitally imprints the compositions onto whatever substrate she is using, and then proceeds to paint, entirely by hand, onto the surface. Mark by mark, vortex by vortex, layer by layer, the paintings gradually coalesce to form the optically dazzling arrays that are her works.

In this protracted back-and-forth between the artist and her instruments, opposing forces abound: creation versus destruction, order versus randomness, human agency versus machine cognition, organic versus mechanical – with each set of oppositions generating not mutual nullification but new vortices of meaning out of their dynamic tensions. But perhaps most significant of all is the final phase of Hodgkin’s process. In another artist’s hands, the exquisitely beautiful images created by the computer would be the logical terminus of the work, the point beyond which anything else would seem superfluous. But for Hodgkin, having both created a world and then subjected it to explosive disintegration, order must be painstakingly re-established, and now solely by means of her own body and its haptic engagement with matter. In light of the artist’s oeuvre, it is difficult to see this as anything but a profound act that bespeaks many of the longings and anxieties of the digital age.

With interest in the art/science nexus on the rise among many ambitious and forward-thinking artists, some fundamental questions about the nature of these disparate domains and the ways in which each might enrich the other’s knowledge are becoming more insistent. While artists readily turn to science for a kind of knowledge not accessible to the senses or the intuitive faculties, for the inspiring novelty of its increasingly sophisticated technologies, and for its abundant wealth of imagery, questions surrounding how scientific knowledge might be enriched by art remain much less clear. Most current thinking on the issue focuses on visualization – on its role in the scientific process and how artists’ visual intelligence might augment scientific research. What Hodgkin’s work reminds us is that there is a dimension to art even more fundamental than visualization, and it is one that science alone cannot touch. This is the realm of human values, of metaphor and meaning. With its poetry, Hodgkin’s work folds science back into the human matrix in which our lives are thoroughly rooted, endowing its subject matter with a richness and depth that are the true hallmarks of aesthetic cognition.

If science thinks it has no use for aesthetic cognition thus defined, it would do well to recall the words of Niels Bohr, one of the pioneers of quantum mechanics:

…When it comes to atoms, language can be used only as in poetry. The poet too is not nearly so concerned with describing facts as with creating images and establishing mental connections…Quantum theory provides us with a striking illustration of the fact that we can fully understand a connection though we can only speak of it in images and parables…i

When the physical sciences can no longer traffic in certainties and exactitude but must move toward truth by other means, the intersection of art, science, and technology becomes fertile ground indeed. Carter Hodgkin’s established presence there is a testament to the epistemological possibilities that lie waiting.

i Werner Heisenberg, Physics and Beyond (New York: Harper and Row, 1971), p.68.

Irises on a Rock, animation still, 2012, Quicktime

Magneto Static Spin, 2013, gouache, watercolor, and inkjet on paper, 33.5" x 45"

Vortex I, 2012, gouache, watercolor, and inkjet on paper, 44" x 44"

Vortex II, 2012, gouache, watercolor, and inkjet on paper, 44" x 44"

The Map is Not the Territory, by Taney Roniger

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Originally published in Anti-Utopias, an international contemporary arts platform curated by Sabin Bors, the following is an essay I wrote recently about the ideas that inform my work.  I am re-posting it here with additional images.

The Map is Not the Territory
(But Neither is it Nothing)
On Knowing and Voiding in my Work

by Taney Roniger

Taney Roniger, Shadowscape Series (Bifurcations Square), 2013. Steel nails on painted wood panel, 30" x 30".

For the past decade and a half, my practice has been deeply informed by questions about how the digital computer is transforming our conceptions, attitudes, and outlooks about the world. Of particular interest to me are questions about the “shape” of our knowledge – the structure of the means by which we know the world – and the significant role digital technology is playing in this shaping process. What is the nature of the relationship between the analog world – the continuous, seemingly unbroken world we experience with our senses – and the digital world of pixels and bits presented to us by computers? Can computer models, with their binary language of separate, discrete units, accurately illuminate to us the real world? Or is there a fundamental gap between the digital and the real – the virtual and the actual – that can never be closed? Implicit in these questions is, of course, the perennial question of representation itself: To what extent can human beings know the world by means of thought? And, of paramount importance for the visual artist: What is the role of visual representation in this endeavor?

Korzybski was right: The map is not the territory.  Our cognitive models – our theories, pictures, and paradigms – are not the same as the things they represent, and to mistake the two is a grievous error. (Anyone unsure about this is advised to try eating a picture of a sandwich and see if it sates his appetite.) But, while nobody is denying the use-value of our constructs in helping us navigate the world, perhaps there is something more to them – something more substantial, more meaningful – than their failure to be that to which they point. What is certain is that with the digital revolution the map has been rendered, if not more earthen and edible, clearly more interesting – and, arguably, more profound.

The current ubiquity of images both in culture in general and specifically as vehicles of knowledge in the realm of science is unprecedented in human history. Central to this transformation is the figure of Benoit Mandelbrot, the mathematician whose invention of fractal geometry constitutes nothing short of a historic epistemological shift – and one whose relation to our current image-based society is not incidental. When Mandelbrot began generating and studying images in the 1960s as a means of pursuing mathematical insight, he introduced mathematics – that paragon of abstraction – to the realm of the actual, where our experience and understanding of the world are guided by observation and experimentation. Before him, Western thinkers had assumed an immutable affinity between truth and idealized forms – the Platonic solids and other perfect characters that populate Euclidean geometry – which, with a certain degree of irony, made the study of truth tantamount to the study of elsewhere and otherwise. (Has anyone ever come across a perfect dodecahedron in the woods?) Rejecting this otherworldly paradigm, Mandelbrot turned his sights on the world, and in so doing discovered that the realm we actually inhabit is far more complex, convoluted, irregular, and mysterious than our transcendence-seeking forebears had ever imagined.

Starting with the careful observation of natural forms such as clouds, Mandelbrot began to map what he saw with schematics (first, hand-drawn, and later, computer-generated, using his equations). Gradually, the images began to speak for themselves, and what they said was unequivocal: The old Euclidean geometry we inherited from the Greeks is inadequate to the task of describing the real world. If it was real-world truth he was after, Mandelbrot would have to discard the old map and forge a wholly new one. Guided by his intuition that there must be a universally valid principle behind the various phenomena he was observing in nature and in his schematics, Mandelbrot invented a new geometry (a “morphology of the amorphous,” he called it). Crucially, what began with sight led to insight – from vision to “vision” was the trajectory – and Mandelbrot would spend the rest of his life exploring the vital conduit between the two faculties.

As Mandelbrot discovered – and as further developments in computation have borne out – complex pattern and intricate interrelatedness rather than a host of separate, autonomous, and clearly defined entities constitute the underlying structure of the world. Significantly, repetition figures prominently in this structure. In his pioneering computer-generated schematics, shapes appear not once but repeatedly, and with slight variations, often at multiple scales within a single image (hence the “self-similarity” that has become the catch-phrase of fractal geometry). The persistence of certain structural entities (e.g., nested forms, spirals, waves, bifurcations) across time and multiple experiments suggests a universal morphology or language of form that is not transcendent to nature but is rather immanent in it, inherent in matter and energy. Further, the primacy of pattern both in organic form and digital simulations suggests that it is quality and not quantity – shape rather than number – that is more consonant with the structure of reality.

Benoit Mandelbrot, portion of the Mandelbrot Set (©Benoit Mandelbrot)

My fascination with fractal geometry and its implications for knowing led me about ten years ago to the study of cellular automata, a species of images that has been my source of inspiration ever since. Like Mandelbrot’s, cellular automata are computer-generated images used by scientists and mathematicians to study the behavior of complex systems (biological, ecological, social, etc.) as they evolve over time. Whereas Mandelbrot used mathematical equations as input, cellular automata are algorithm-generated (i.e., rule-based). Essentially two- or three-dimensional grids of  “cells” (simple black and white squares or cubes), cellular automata begin when sets of rules – often very simple in nature – are fed into powerful computers and allowed to run through millions of iterations at high speeds, the whole process being enacted visually on a screen. Since each cell is either black or white, each represents one unit of information at any given time, and, in accordance with the rule, each is subject to change to its opposite state in response to the states of its nearest neighbors (to whom it sits adjacent by way of edges and corners). As the rules are enacted one iteration at a time, a process of complex interaction unfolds, and the arrays of cells morph into fields of pattern that range from relatively simple (homogeneous states or periodic patterns) to exceedingly complex, where structures and configurations that cannot have been predicted by the initial input begin to appear. Essentially, cellular automata are populations of extremely simple computing machines (hence “automata”) that individually know only two states, but that together, as sensitively interconnected agents, create tapestries of great complexity that wholly exceed their limited binary intelligence.

The phenomenon of emergent properties – the strange features that arise unpredicted by the rules – is what is of principal interest to the scientists who study cellular automata (the real-world implications for ecology or meteorology or social studies are clear enough), but I suggest there is more to these images than their utilitarian applications. First, there is their exquisite beauty. When confronted with the most complex of them, one cannot fail to be captivated by the extraordinary intricacy and delicacy of the patterns, the subtle rhythms and pulsations that seem to course through them, and the uncannily organic integrity of their part-to-whole relations. Often, the strange localized structures that occur resemble features of an exotic landscape: jagged mountains, sinuous rivers, cascading waterfalls, billowing clouds, and aggregates of islands with inordinately complex coastlines. The preponderance of landscape-like features throughout cellular automata is so striking that it can hardly be coincidental. One feels it almost somatically: some underlying principle is at work here that is deeply resonant with nature. 

Cellular automaton by Stephen Wolfram (© Wolfram Science)

Detail of above image (© Wolfram Science)

But while we may infer “scapes” of all sorts from these images, they are clearly not representations of any actual, physical places. Neither, however, are they to be read as pure abstractions. Indeed, the inherent ambiguity of their representational status constitutes a large part of what makes these images so intriguing.

In the realm of art – particularly within the modernist paradigm – “pure abstraction” implies the absence of real-world references; a shape is a shape, a line a line, and a composition is to be analyzed and appreciated strictly on its own terms (i.e., in terms of the interrelations of its parts, those of the parts to the whole, the tensions and harmonies between the various formal elements, and the corresponding somatic, cognitive, and emotional resonances these induce). Without doubt, cellular automata can be appreciated on a formal level, but because they are inseparable from both the mechanical process by which they are created and the unique apparatus that makes them possible, they cannot be “nonobjective” or “nonrepresentational” in the way that an abstract painting insists it is. By virtue of this ontological dependence, they are endowed with a dimension of meaning (or reference) from which we cannot extract them. What is more, the conspicuous absence of human agency in their formation introduces another layer of meaning into the fold. In art, the artist behind the image is an ever-present, if muted, given; there is never a composition without a composer, a creation without a creator, an act without an actor. With cellular automata, by contrast, the agent behind the action remains resolutely ambiguous. Fundamentally, cellular automata are self-composedcompositions, and to our command-and-control-oriented minds (“Who’s responsible?” we impetuously demand) this makes them profoundly mysterious.

Hovering somewhere in between representation and abstraction, cellular automata can be regarded as instantiations of information expressing itself in “information space” – a space that is neither strictly “out there” in the material world, nor strictly limited to the confines of human abstract thought, nor attributable to any otherworldly, transcendent realm. The “space” of information pervades all other spaces. For several decades now, advances in science have suggested that ours is fundamentally an “informational” universe – that everything we observe empirically and all the immaterial realities we infer from experience (such as consciousness itself) arise from the continual energetic flux and exchange of patterns of information. The physicist John Wheeler, summarizing his “It from Bit” doctrine, puts it this way:

… Every “it” -- every particle, every field of force, even the space-time continuum itself – derives its function, its meaning, its very existence entirely – even if in some contexts indirectly – from the apparatus-elicited answers to yes-or-no questions, binary choices, bits. “It from bit” symbolizes the idea that every item of the physical world has at bottom – a very deep bottom, in most instances – an immaterial source and explanation; that which we call reality arises in the last analysis from the posing of yes-no questions and the registering of equipment-evoked responses; in short, that all things physical are information-theoretic in origin and that this is a participatory universe. (John Archibald Wheeler, 1990: 5)

Echoing the self-organization evident in cellular automata, Wheeler describes the universe as a “self-excited circuit.” If this essentially computational model of the universe is correct, then the digital computer has provided us – and will doubtlessly continue to provide us – with enormous insights into the nature of reality. Perhaps we have at long last found the language of the universe.

But then, the map is not the territory. Given sufficient human passion, the territory will invariably begin to resemble whatever map it is we happen to have become enamored with. Are we deluding ourselves with our current enthusiasm for all things digital? Is the computational model of the universe yet another projection – another imposition of our constructs on to an agonizingly elusive Nature? Will Nature forever remain impervious to human knowledge?

If all intellectual knowledge is subject to the tragedy of distance (it can point, but it cannot touch), then doubt may be the most rigorous – and indeed the most honest – means of arriving at truth. Nowhere is this practiced more wholly and completely than in the various forms of apophatic reasoning, which in its strongest form insists that nothing affirmative can be said about truth, but rather that it must be arrived at by negation (“not this,” “not that”, etc., until there are no more words or concepts).  By means of this process of voiding or cancelling, one eventually arrives at a kind of emptiness, of no-thingness, in which the glaring absence becomes interpenetrated by presence, and in this expansive silence another kind of knowing sets in.

Something of this via negativa is implicit in all visual art, one might argue, in that the latter’s primary distinction is its discursive silence. Visual art does not tell; it shows. In embodied images, meaning is made manifest – as one inseparable whole – rather than delivered analytically, and indeed this is what has drawn philosophers to art’s domain since the first philosophers. Art begins where logic and language leave off, in the “whereof and thereof” of Wittgenstein’s famous dictum (“Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.”). If art offers a different way of knowing – a more holistic, synthetic epistemology that puts us in contact with the deepest realities – we might imagine it was this that Mandelbrot intuited in his strong attraction to images.

Taney Roniger, Cellscape #5, 2012, holes pierced through watercolor paper, back-lit by fluorescent lights, 36" x 60"

Taney Roniger, Cellscape #2, 2012, holes pierced through watercolor paper, back-lit by fluorescent lights, 50" x 28"

Taney Roniger, Cellscape #6, 2012, holes pierced through watercolor paper, back-lit by fluorescent lights, 32" x 53"

While I find the source of my inspiration in science and technology, my work is emphatically neither. It is art, and as such, it traffics in ambiguity and polysemy rather than in facts and declarative statements. In working with cellular automata, my process always begins with a period of close observation, of prolonged looking. After immersing myself in an image I am drawn to for some time, I begin a series of rough drawings in which I explore selected features of the original image – abstracting, altering, simplifying, and distilling as I go along. During the rough drawing phase, I am primarily trying to discover what it is about the chosen image that so captivates me and draws me to it. It is a period of intense physical activity coupled with acute concentration. Hand, eye, and mind deeply engaged, this phase of the process is a kind of exploratory thinking unlike any other. Eventually an “answer” is arrived at in the form of a visual idea, a schematic, though the verbal center in my brain would be at pains to articulate its question.

After the drawing process is complete, I begin translating the marks on the drawing into whatever mark-language I have chosen for a given piece. In the paintings, the mark is always an empty circle – a zero or cipher – which ranges in scale but never changes its shape. In other works (such as the works on paper and wood panels), the mark is constituted by a literal void – either a hole that pierces all the way through the paper, a deep puncture that penetrates into the surface of the wood, or a dark shadow produced by a protruding steel nail head. In all cases, the same mark is repeated dozens or hundreds of times, forming patterns and configurations that echo those in the image that inspired the piece. Often, the compositions that result bear little formal resemblance to the original image, but something essential of the latter always remains. Typically, this process of marking-by-voiding yields compositions that are so delicate as to be “barely there”; if one is to see anything at all, close looking and sustained attention are required.

Taney Roniger, Cellular Automata Series (Scape #4), 2009. Oil and synthetic polymer on canvas. 60" x 40".

Taney Roniger, Cellular Automata Series (Scape #5), 2010. Oil and synthetic polymer on canvas, 40" x 70".

Taney Roniger, Cellular Automata Series (Scape #1), 2009. Oil and synthetic polymer on canvas, 36" x 72".

Like the images that inspire them, my works are neither abstract nor representational but something in between. I do not consider them fully abstract, because they certainly refer to things beyond themselves (most obviously, to the source imagery and its mechanical origin, but more interestingly, to the patterns of information that the latter make visible). At the same time, I do not consider them strictly representational, both because I have subjected them to a certain degree of abstraction (literally: to draw away) from the originals and because their more interesting “referents” are not objects or actions in any conventional sense. Above all else, my compositions and their various modes of embodiment are meant to evoke a sense of wonder – and then, perhaps, a sense of recognition.  When the rhythms, textures, and structures inherent in the works achieve a certain correspondence deep within me, I recognize myself in them, and a sense of wholeness and connectedness – of  belonging to the world – that is generally absent in ordinary consciousness permeates my awareness.

Whether the universe is or is not fundamentally digital (and we may never have an answer), there is something implicit in the rhythmic yes/no, on/off oscillation of digital circuitry that, I suggest, resonates deeply with human physiology and consciousness. Further, there is something about the extraordinary patterns made visible to us for the first time by our powerful computers that seems to echo the structure of human thought. Spirals, swirls, bifurcations, waves, undulating filaments, amorphous clouds, islands with erratic edges – all arising, interpenetrating, dissolving, and repeating themselves in a ceaseless process of becoming: how better to describe the invisible reality we call, somewhat misleadingly, “thought”?[i] If thought itself has a dynamic structure similar to Mandelbrot’s “morphology of the amorphous,” it seems clear that its constructs – its theories, pictures, and paradigms – will be the more attuned to truth the more they reflect this structure. No map will ever be the same as the territory it describes, but this does not preclude the possibility of a deep morphological resonance between the two. There will always be a gap, a chasm, between them, but let there also always be voids to remind us of the ground from which all else arises.

Taney Roniger, Stone Series (Stone #1), 2007, oil on stone, approx. 6" x 4"

[i] I say somewhat misleadingly because “thought” is both a static noun and a past-tense verb, neither of which seems adequate to describe the process it refers to.


Benoit Mandelbrot, The Fractal Geometry of Nature. (San Francisco: W. H. Freeman, 1977).

Benoit Mandelbrot, The Fractalist: Memoir of a Scientific Maverick. (New York: Pantheon Books, 2012).

Nina Samuel (ed.), The Islands of Benoit Mandelbrot: Fractals, Chaos, and the Materiality of Thinking. (New York: Bard Graduate Center for Studies in the Decorative Arts, Design & Culture, 2012).

John A. Wheeler, W.Zurek (ed.), "Information, Physics, Quantum: The Search for Links," Complexity, Entropy, and the Physics of Information. (Redwood City, California: Addison-Wesley, 1990).