Monday, December 23, 2013

Diane Burko: Moving Viewers to Pay Attention

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Grinnell Mt. Gould #1, #2, #3, #4, 2009
Oil on canvas, 88" x 200", © Diane Burko

For over forty years, Diane Burko’s work has focused on monumental and geologic phenomena throughout the world, many of which she has explored and photographed from the air. Her paintings and aerial photographs of “extreme” landscapes are informed by historical and contemporary scientific images yet guided by her intuitive search for the edges of representation and an expression of geologic time. Her ongoing “Politics of Snow Project” places her at the intersection of art and science as she continues to pursue her practice of developing strategies that present the data of climate change through an aesthetic filter.

Burko’s “Glacial Perspectives” is the subject of her current solo exhibition at the Zimmerli Art Museum at Rutgers University in New Jersey. Her paintings and photographs will also be featured in two upcoming exhibitions in 2014: one at Tufts University “Seeing Glacial Time: Capturing Climate Change in the Arctic,” where she will also deliver the keynote speech on April 3, 2014. In Philadelphia, she will be part of a collaborative exhibition between American and Icelandic artists “Due North,” which opens at the Crane Arts Building on January 9, 2014.

Diane Burko: Moving Viewers to Pay Attention
By Sue Spaid

With this essay, I aim to tease out the numerous scientific implications of Diane Burko’s paintings and photographs. To demonstrate the scientific value of her paintings, I first discuss how paintings, however mediated and/or distorted, complement ordinary perception in ways that photographs do not. By ordinary perception, I have in mind unmediated cases such as “seeing with the naked eye” or aided perception (using a mirror, telescope, or microscope). I then offer an analogy between Princeton neuroscientist Dr. Uri Hasson’s research, which proves that Hollywood films tend to direct spectators’ attentions to a particular spot on the screen more than other types of moving pictures, and Burko’s paintings, which lure viewers’ attentions to particular details in ways that photographs of like scale and composition cannot.[1] Moreover, photographs tend to mislead spectators, precisely because their believability diffuses viewers’ skeptical/critical faculties. Finally, I discuss her paintings’ tendency to prompt the illusion of motion, a “no-fi” (no film) feature that is unavailable straight photography.

Those who consider Burko’s paintings redundant in light of her own photographs, USGA photographs, NASA satellite photographs, or available data, may be ignoring the way “hottened up” scenes prioritize details that might otherwise go unnoticed. Some philosophers argue that photography’s advantage concerns “viewers’ special background beliefs regarding photography as a type of depictive representation that carries information about an object’s visually accessible properties more accurately than painting does.”[2] By presenting photography alongside painting, Burko exploits photography’s ability to instill beliefs about the landscape under consideration and painting’s capacity to subtly direct spectators’ attentions to particularities, enabling her project to achieve its double effect.

Painting’s Special Edge
The intuition that paintings’ haptic sensibilities make them more compelling than photographs seems to me to be a bit of wishful thinking. The plethora of die-hard photography fans and movie buffs undermines the notion of the human hand as necessarily commanding greater attention. “Photography fans” happily visit photography exhibitions and photo-fairs. Out on the highway, cars tend to capture more attention than hand-painted signs (however gorgeous) occupying drivers’ peripheries! It could be interesting to learn whether street artists’ modified billboards and buildings distract drivers.[3] If they do, it could be difficult to discern the actual cause: the presence of the human hand, some spontaneous response to novelty/absurdity, or being startled by irregularity.

A painter’s ability to render aspects of the composition in a manner that lures viewers’ attentions enables paintings to slyly highlight aspects that relay particular contents. By contrast, photographers who purposely direct spectators’ attentions risk undermining photography’s believability-advantage. The more manipulated photographs look the less neutral they feel, leaving tools that alter foci, crop/ frame images, or direct light/shadow to delimit their scientific value. As mentioned above, neutral-feeling photographs, like documentary films, typically lack particularized focal points, while paintings (and Hollywood films) tend to pin viewers’ attentions to specific focal points.[4]

As most philosophers attest, attention is necessary for consciousness, since attention prioritizes (and thus differentiates) “the sensations according to a subjective standard, through which the sensations-turned-percepts are ‘unified’ or integrated.” As Carolyn Suchy-Dicey remarks, the subjective phenomenon of attending thus appears to involve a shift in one’s experience that is “not reducible to changes in what one experiences."[5] When one shifts one’s attention from one region of a painting to another, one’s experience changes, yet the painting remains the same. Paintings’ capacity to draw viewers’ attentions to particular aspects is what gives painting its edge over neutral photographs. Suchy-Dicey notes that effortlessly captured attentions “mimic pre-attentional changes to the stimulus by enhancing salience.”[6]

Although Hollywood films notoriously direct spectators’ attentions to particular points on the screen, films influence, but do not totally “control” spectators’ reactions, which is why one cannot blame some movie for one’s actions. The phenomenologist Edmund Husserl considers apprehension volitional, since it requires the “willful acceptance or volitional attention (intention towards).”[7] Although Suchy-Dicey differentiates stimulus-driven (exogenous) reactions from participant-driven (endogenous) ones, she finds it difficult to look to spectator behavior to distinguish the two, since “subject-level activity [volitional attention] is just one of the many ‘internal’ drivers of behavior captured by endogeny, which also include emotion, arousal, and associative processing.”[8]

Given attention’s contribution to consciousness, one must admit that some paintings not only cue viewers, but they speed up access to the target or stimulus (a painting’s hot spots) in conjunction with spectator reaction, thereby optimizing selection. In such cases, spectators readily select particular properties that enable them to prioritize certain entities over others.[9] By contrast, the presence of too much information engenders sensory overload, disabling volitional attention. By regulating selective attention, well-executed paintings draw people’s attention to specific points under consideration, inspiring them to action.[10]

Antarctica Quartet, May – July 2013, 2013
Oil on canvas, 50" x 200", © Diane Burko

Photographs: Antarctica Quartet, © Diane Burko

Burko’s Project’s Particular Edge
Those who consider Painting’s capacity to lure spectators reason enough to deny its scientific value overlook the fact that really good paintings are the outcomes of repeated looking, as compared to photographs, which collapse 4-D reality into 2-D snaps. With ordinary perception, looking consists of nonstop saccadic eye movements, a continual process of checking and rechecking, however oblivious one is of one’s repeated glances. With photograph-looking, there’s no way to re-look, unless one is viewing time-elapsed photography, a lengthy sequence of events captured on film. But as philosopher Kendall Walton has pointed out, film lacks the epistemic connection to the world typically accorded the photograph. Scientific photographs may feel neutral, but paintings actually benefit from artists’ keen observational skills, which photographers who rely on photographic lenses need not develop. When photographs tracking climate change over decades exhibit different perspectives, painters tap their keen observational skills and powers of imagination to reorient images, engendering images from parallel perspective. By painting panels that reference multiple time periods, Burko avails changes over decades to viewers.

Even when Burko paints from photographs that were shot by others, her paintings incorporate her firsthand experience with the particular place. Each photograph offers only a single glance, while paintings are the outcomes of hundreds of glances. In addition to having visited glaciers in Canada, Iceland, and the United States; and mountain ranges in France, Switzerland, and the United States; she recently traveled to both poles to witness floating icebergs and melting glaciers. With both expeditions, she was in the company of scientists and science writers, giving her immediate access to the most recent research concerning climate change and glaciers.

Rather than lament Painting’s delusional and deceptive properties, long associated with hyper-realist paintings, its fictional status challenges viewers on levels unavailable documentary films. Paintings trump documentary footage in at least three ways. 1) Admittedly mediated, paintings direct attentions, require focus, and prompt reflective judgment. 2) Paintings can be allegorical; seeming to address a pleasant topic, while actually exposing viewers to foreboding issues. 3) Paintings visualize/contextualize information that enables viewers to perceive changes over time which are unavailable to observers of facts.

While animated films visibly change in real or accelerated/decelerated time, some paintings prompt perceptual illusions of moving imagery. Originally associated with Op Art, this no-fi technique is currently being employed to good effect by numerous landscape painters.[11] Such paintings pulsate, glow, vibrate, and emanate, and thus appear “hottened-up.” Exemplary of this phenomenon, Burko’s paintings relay the effects of expanding glacial lakes (Bear Glacier 2002, 2007, 1984) (2012)), bursting icebergs (Petermann Calving, August 16, 2010 (after NASA) (2012)), burning fires, ember-spewing volcanoes (“Volcanoes: Alaska, Costa Rica, Hawaii, Italy and Russia, (1998-2005), cascading avalanches (Approaching West Ridge, 1963, after Barry Bishop) (July 2010), receding glaciers (Columbia Glacier III (figure 46) (March 2011)), tumbling waterfalls (Godafoss #1-6) (2003), and verdant lakes (Twenty Mile Glacier #1 (1938 after Bradford Washburn) and Twenty Mile Glacier #2 (2005 after David Arnold) (2009). Just as with the paradox of fiction, whereby one recognizes that the fears one feels when aroused by horror flicks are no more real than movies, the paradox of painting concerns how one’s imagination often treats such perceptual illusions as real, even though everyone accepts paint’s static nature.

Bear Glacier 2002, 2007, 1984, 2011
Oil on canvas, 60" x 194", © Diane Burko

Peterman Calving, August 16, 2010 (after NASA), 2012
Oil on canvas, 60" x 72", © Diane Burko

Columbia Triptych II (figure 46): Vertical Aerial 1981 – 1999, A, B, C, after Austin Post and Tad Pfeffer, 2010
Oil on canvas, 76" x 36", © Diane Burko

Painting’s Scientific Edge
When paintings actually enable scientists and the general public to experience information in a new way, should painters be considered scientific collaborators, just as other scientists are seen as collaborators? That is, can artworks help scientists to access information the way other scientists' papers, experiments, and calculations grant them special access to data, theories or experiences, which they have yet to glean themselves? I not only believe this, but have tried to demonstrate Burko’s special role in aiding scientists in their efforts to publicize visual information. This seems to me to be no different than the role played by Early Netherlandish and Flemish Renaissance painters whose centuries-old paintings of flora and fauna still assist biologists in their efforts to classify and track species over the ages. Artists make great collaborators precisely because they have remarkable observational skills, are used to tedious activities and have been especially trained to identify and analyze systems.

Nunatak Glacier 1938, after Bradford Washburn: Nunatek Glacier 2005, after David Arnold, 2010
Oil on canvas, 60" x 134", © Diane Burko

[1] Uri Hasson, Ohad Landesman, Barbara Knappmeyer, Ignacio Vallines, Nava Rubin, and David J. Heeger, “Neurocinematics: The Neuroscience of Films.” Projections: The Journal for Movies and Mind. June 1, 2008. Vol. 2. pp. 1-26.

[2] Sue Spaid, “Refocusing the Photographic Practice: From Taking Pictures to Producing Negatives", unpublished paper, January 2011.

[3] Dozen of artists, such as Gomez-Bueno, have mounted billboards to manipulate them by hand.

[4] Hasson (2008).

[5] Carolyn Suchy-Dicey (2011), Attention, Subject, and World (Ph. D. dissertation), p. 15.

[6] Suchy-Dicey (2011), p. 18.

[7] Suchy-Dicey (2011), p. 22.

[8] Suchy-Dicey (2011), p. 27 and p. 32.

[9] Suchy-Dicey (2011), p. 21 and p. 38.

[10] Suchy-Dicey (2011), p. 39.

[11] While Executive Director at the Contemporary Museum, I was planning the exhibition “Moving Pictures: Activating the Mind’s Eye,” which would present Burko’s paintings alongside dynamic paintings of Arden Bendler Browning, Danielle Bursk, Mary Corse, Sharon Ellis, Terri Friedman, Theresa Hackett, Juri Kim, Andy Moses, Sabina Ott, Bridget Riley, Fred Tomaselli, and Laura Watt.

Having participated since the mid-80s as a collector, curator, art writer, and arts educator, Sue Spaid recently earned a Ph. D. in Philosophy from Temple University for her dissertation Work and World: On the Philosophy of Curatorial Practice. Hailed by Roberta Smith in The New York Times as the "artworld's new image," Sue Spaid Fine Art (1990-1995) gained artworld attention for launching the careers of dozens of Los Angeles artists. Soon after closing her gallery in 1995, she began curating exhibitions for museums. In addition to having curated 100+ exhibitions for institutions and alternative sites, such as the Staten Island Ferry, a Miami hotel pool, and the Pavilion's Grocery Store, she has penned 60+ exhibition essays and has written 100+ critical reviews. She is the author of five exhibition-accompanying books, three of which concern "practical art" (Ecovention:Current Art to Transform Ecologies, A Field Guide to Patricia Johanson's Work: Built, Proposed, Published and Collected, and Green Acres: Artists Farming Fields, Greenhouses and Abandoned Lots).

Monday, December 16, 2013

The American Algorists: Linear Sublime

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Jean-Pierre Hébert, Triptych: Bright Wavelets 1-3, 2008
Inkjet drawing, pigments on paper, 3 panels, each 77" x 38", © Jean-Pierre Hébert

The American Algorists: Linear Sublime
Curated by Grant D. Taylor
SVA Flatiron Gallery, New York, NY
October 26 – November 27, 2013

Presented by the MFA Computer Art Department at the School of Visual Arts in partnership with the New York Digital Salon

by Taney Roniger

If the hallmark of the sublime is the presence of that which transcends our powers of comprehension, it is a force operative on many levels in this provocative exhibition. Titled The American Algorists: Linear Sublime, the show brings together four pioneers of computer-generated algorithmic art whose inordinately complex and intricate abstractions push the bounds of optical sensation while posing profound questions about the nature of creative agency. Composed exclusively of line – that most basic element of mark-making – the work of these artists originates in a process entirely devoid of the human hand, and this looming absence gives rise to a host of challenges to many notions long held sacrosanct in artistic discourse. In keeping with the venerable tradition of the sublime, the cognitive failure occasioned here is as exhilarating as it is unsettling.

Entering the gallery, one is struck first by the extraordinary degree of precision evident in all the work. In each of the twenty pieces on view, which range from works on paper and stretched canvas to a kinetic installation and two screen-based digital works, complex linear forms overlap, intertwine, and otherwise self-interact with humanly impossible perfection, often in mesmerizing densities. While coils, spirals, waves, and irregular fractal-like forms predominate in the works of Jean-Pierre Hébert and Roman Verostko, rectilinear forms and more rigid geometry prevail in the work of Manfred Mohr and Mark Wilson. At times, one could be forgiven for mistaking the works for conventional abstract paintings, as, for example, in the irregularly shaped canvases of Manfred Mohr, whose geometric compositions evoke the austere aesthetic of Minimalism and its Modernist antecedents. But upon close inspection of the surfaces, one always returns to the essential fact at the core of this show: This is machine-generated work, and any reckoning of its content must take this into account.

Manfred Mohr, P511-N, 1997
Computer calculated drawing on acrylic/canvas/wood, 40-3/16" x 66-15/16", © Manfred Mohr

Moving through the gallery, one oscillates between a sense of awe generated by the optical complexity and the equally insistent, if more subtle, question it gives rise to: Why does this work have presence? Why, if the origin of its facture is a machine, does this work exude such life?

On the most immediate level, the emphatic materiality of the work provides one answer. Many of the works on view are presented as conventional drawings or paintings – i.e., as pigment-on-surface objects, sometimes framed and sometimes not, whose tactile qualities elicit our sympathetic response. In Hebért’s large-scale drawing titled Triptych: Bright Wavelets 1-3 (2008), for example, three dense fields of exceedingly delicate blue and yellow lines vibrate against grounds of warm, unframed paper. Each vertical sheet being slightly larger than human scale and scroll-like in format, the work towers above the viewer with a physical presence reminiscent of Rothko. This appeal to the human body is also palpable in Verostko’s drawings, which feature gestural brushstrokes evocative of Asian calligraphy and automatic writing. Created by a special software routine invented by the artist that drives a Chinese brush with a mechanical arm, these simulated strokes induce a somatic effect indistinguishable from that which would be effected by a “real” gesture; in their presence one feels movement, rhythm, vitality, and pulse. Another humanizing factor far from negligible here is the richness of the colors that fill the space. While some of the drawings feature black line on white ground, the majority of the works exhibit a range of sumptuous color that occasionally covers the entire spectrum, such as in Mark Wilson’s optically dazzling, circuitry-inspired triptych, e20808 (2011).

Roman Verostko, Green Cloud: Algorithmic Poetry for a Three Story Wall, video installation, 2011, © Roman Verostko

But perhaps more than the work’s material embodiment, there is something about the forms and patterns inscribed by the lines that suggests a numinous presence, or a kind of hidden order in various stages of self-revelation. This uncanny quality is most evident in what is perhaps the show’s most mysterious work: Hébert’s kinetic sand installation, titled Ryoan-ji (2000). In the center of an elegant, low-lying, wooden table sits a shallow tray of sand, perhaps 18” square, through which a small steel ball slowly rolls. Inching its way through the sand in short, regular spurts, the ball leaves a track that over time forms mandala-like patterns of exquisite beauty and symmetry. With each advance of the ball, part of the previous pattern is “erased” as a new one begins to emerge in a process that could, one supposes, continue indefinitely. The reference to Japanese rock gardens is strong (something that is made explicit by the work’s title), but the deeper import here seems to lie in the question this work so insistently begs – namely, who, or what, is doing the drawing?

Jean-Pierre Hébert, Sand Installation: Ryoan-ji, 2000
Mixed media, 48" x 48" x 1-1/2", Private Collection, © Jean-Pierre Hébert

In fact, the question at the center of Ryoan-ji courses through all the works on view, and it is what gives the show its pervasive sense of mystery. In the case of the sand installation, we might infer that the ball is being guided by some kind of mechanical device beneath the table that has been programmed to make a sequence of discrete moves according to a pre-determined plan. Whether or not this inference is correct, the larger question remains: Who or what is the agent determining the sequence? The answer, it turns out, is far less obvious than we might assume.

Clearly all the works here originate in machine code, or in sets of rules programmed into a computer which instruct an attached mechanical drawing arm (in most but not all cases here, a pen plotter) on how and when to issue what pigment. It is also the case that for these artists, writing their own code is an essential aspect of their work. Indeed, all four belong to a group that, calling itself the Algorists, has as its sole criterion for membership the creation of one’s own algorithms for the purposes of making art. Co-founded in the mid-90s by Hébert and Verostko, this is a group of artists who are all deeply knowledgeable about the inner structure of the computer and its processes, and all are themselves expert programmers. Curiously, however, even this doesn’t settle the matter.

In order to grasp the essence of this work it is important to recall what makes the instrument at its core so remarkable, and so alluring. When we think of the computer, we think not only of its sleek, hard surfaces but also of the binary logic by which it operates. And when we think of logic, we tend to think of fixed rules and inerrant, predictable results. While any machine capable of inhuman accuracy and precision may invoke feelings of the sublime (so radically “other” is it), what sets today’s digital computer apart is the unprecedented capacity of its computational power, which is so vast that millions of operations can be performed in astonishingly little time. As a result, even the most simple sets of rules can produce, after enough iterations, unfathomably complex results. Crucially, the computer is also capable of making genuinely arbitrary and unpredictable decisions by way of random number generators inserted into the code, another capacity well beyond the limits of human intelligence.

By way of the enormous power immanent in their instrument and its capacity to generate randomness[1], the Algorists create forms and patterns that are not only new to us but also wholly unforeseen and unpredicted by the artists themselves. With each new visual configuration that emerges, the Algorists are presented with forms they themselves did not invent. For these artists, then, the computer is a portal into the unknown and the infinite, and this sense of limitless potential imbues the work with a quality that verges on the mystical. Rather than creators per se, the Algorists are essentially seekers – and indeed, as this show so amply demonstrates, finders.

Closing the loop of collaboration, the creative process ends when the artists choose among the configurations generated which are of aesthetic interest, and it is these that become works of art. The act of aesthetic judgment, itself a notoriously inscrutable subject, is no small part of the drama here; as the mathematician Henri Poincare famously noted, all invention is essentially discernment or choice, a subtle operation in which an intuitive faculty unknown to the conscious mind plays a crucial role.[2]

The question of who or what is the ulterior agent behind this work is essentially a metaphysical one – and one that raises challenging epistemological questions. Given that the fundamental link in this collaboration between mind and machine is the common language with which they communicate, one begins to wonder if the ultimate author here might not be code – or information – itself. Located neither inside the mind of the human being who writes it nor inside the machine that enacts its commands, code is essentially immaterial patterns of information whose interrelationships determine (literally inform) the material world. We see evidence of code’s formative power in nature all the time, such as in the leaves, petals, and floret patterns that grow in accord with the Fibonacci Sequence, or in mollusk shells that follow the pattern of the logarithmic spiral. Located nowhere but informing all things, not itself a thing but a process, the ever-mutating pattern-field of information asserts itself as the ghost in the machine.

Mark Wilson, SKEW FF10, 1984
Plotter drawing, 27" x 43", Anne and Michael Spalter Digital Art Collection, © Mark Wilson

In ways that invoke cybernetics and the systems-theoretic thinking of figures such as Gregory Bateson, this show challenges us to consider, ultimately, the locus of Mind – both in the individual and in the larger sense. Lest artists who have no interest in the digital computer take these issues to be irrelevant to them, one might recall how many times we’ve heard claims about some mysterious, seemingly exogenous source responsible for one’s creative insights (“I don’t know where it comes from, but it’s not me.”). If we are willing to concede that our minds extend inwardly beyond our conscious, thinking selves, why should we not also allow for their external extension? In the systems-theoretic understanding of Mind, internal mind cannot be separated from external mind; both are subsystems of the larger whole that is information processing. It follows that if Mind is not strictly located inside the body, the human hand, that hallowed instrument of man’s highest artistic achievements, becomes just another tool among many.

Computer-generated art has long struggled to gain admittance into the Western art historical canon. Indeed, as Grant D. Taylor points out in his catalogue essay, “cold and soulless” are words that have haunted the genre since its arrival on the scene in the 1960s and that continue to influence its reception. Above all else, what this exhibition makes clear is that it is time to grant the computer the right of fecundity within the fine arts and humanities. Whatever its origin, there is nothing cold or soulless about any art that breathes Mind in and between every line. systems.

[1]Technically, it is usually more accurate to call the randomness generated by computers pseudorandomness, since in most cases the sequence of variables selected among set parameters is determined by an initial seed. For most intents and purposes, however, pseudorandomness is considered “random enough,” and what matters most in this case is that compositional choices are being made that are beyond the artists’ control.

[2]Interested readers are referred both to Poincare’s seminal essay "Mathematical Creation" (1908) and to a subsequent book by Jacques Hadamard on the subject, The Psychology of Invention in the Mathematical Field (1954).

Manfred Mohr, Program 21, 1970
Plotter drawing, 20" x 20", Anne and Michael Spalter Digital Art Collection, © Manfred Mohr