Monday, December 16, 2013

The American Algorists: Linear Sublime

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

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