Monday, November 17, 2014

On Art and Science, by Werner Sun

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Werner Sun, Imperfection III (detail), 2014. Mixed media, 24" x 12"

Editor's note: For a new series of posts to be published over the course of the coming year, I've invited members of the sci-art community to weigh in on the relationship between art and science, and, most significantly, the degree to which their merging into this third entity we call "sci-art" holds any legitimacy. Werner Sun, whose contribution follows, seems the ideal candidate for setting things in motion, as he has worked extensively in both fields throughout his career.

On Art and Science
by Werner Sun

When I became a scientist, it was with some reluctance because, throughout my life, I have also been pulled towards the arts. At one point in my youth, I had even entertained the idea of becoming a choral conductor. Instead, I went to graduate school in particle physics, and I have remained involved with the field since then. Particle physicists have a voracious appetite for data; we demand ever increasing quantities of it to study elementary particles in more and more detail and thereby discover new phenomena. Consequently, in my career as a particle physicist, I have developed a taste for analysis methods that attempt to squeeze as much information as possible from datasets of finite size.

At the same time, I have also developed an artistic practice that draws on elements of graphic design and data visualization. I collect visual fragments, often in the form of folded or embellished digital prints, which I assemble into ordered three-dimensional structures. Manipulating images in this fashion gives me the same pleasure as coaxing a scientific dataset into telling me something new about nature. Sometimes, I even use computer-generated fractals in my artwork to make this connection explicit. What I hope to explore in visual terms is the very process of turning data into knowledge. Creating art is my way of philosophizing about science.

Werner Sun, Traces, 2014, mixed media, 24" x 24"

To me, artists and scientists are both in the business of communicating. As we know from information theory, every communication channel has a finite capacity, meaning that it can only reliably transmit so much information in a given amount of time, no matter whether that channel is an Ethernet cable carrying digital signals or air molecules carrying whispered words. Therefore, no matter how simple the message, the information one wishes to convey must first be organized. In organizing or summarizing data, we displace it from its original context, and we highlight some aspects while ignoring others in an attempt to expose hidden similarities and patterns. Organizing data is equivalent to generating knowledge, and while there is an obvious benefit to this activity, it also entails a distortion of the data itself. The creation of any piece of knowledge, or the communication of any idea, is an inherently reductionist act.

Nor does data reduction stop with a single iteration. Data can be reduced repeatedly as different strands of knowledge are woven together into models of the world that keep growing in predictive power. If there is no limit to the amount of data that could be gathered, then ignorance is always present, even as we gain more and more understanding. Thus, if we view the fields of science and art as linked by a common framework for amassing and communicating information, then they are also logically linked by a fundamental spirit of inquiry and a pursuit of knowledge that will always, by definition, defy ultimate fulfillment.

CMS (Compact Muon Solenoid) detector at CERN

Visualization of a proton-proton collision in the Large Hadron Collider, as detected by the CMS detector

Plot shown when the discovery of the Higgs Boson was announced.
Red histogram shows model of Higgs Boson; black dots are the actual data.

Of course, science and art are not the only disciplines to confront the limits of knowledge, but I see in them a distinct posture with respect to the unknown. At the same time that artists and scientists push back ignorance, they also recognize it as the engine that drives their work. Not only is there an obsession with knowing (as with so many other pursuits) but also a tacit acceptance that some things may not, in fact, be knowable. This healthy respect for ignorance is reflected in some of the techniques that artists and scientists employ. For scientists, there is the notion of a blind or double-blind analysis, where researchers develop experimental procedures in isolation from the data, to prevent personal biases from influencing experimental outcomes. Similarly, when musicians are asked to interpret a song or a sonata, they often prefer to "let the music speak for itself,” allowing it a kind of intelligence of its own, even if they themselves composed it. . And with visual art, one often finds intuition leading the way, so that the crafting of a physical artifact becomes inseparable from the thinking about it.

In all these cases, the act of creation is partly choreographed and partly improvised. The artists and scientists who work in this way deliberately hold themselves in an imaginative agnostic state in which they oscillate between control and freedom, between working within a system and stepping outside of it to assess the results. And each cycle of this oscillation can itself be viewed as an experiment within an experiment, or perhaps an open-ended creative work in miniature.

The relevance of science to art has been amply demonstrated in recent years by artists who adopt the imagery and techniques of science. As Mark Dion has said, "For me and for a number of artists today, science really functions as our world view.... Our relationship to science is very much like the Renaissance artists' relationship to theology." The reverse question, however, is not often addressed. I believe the relevance of art to science lies in art's ability to productively probe the nature of knowledge without offering concrete answers. As any artist can attest, the meaning of a piece sometimes eludes even its creator. I find that when an artistic undertaking becomes too highly constrained, either by ideology or practical considerations, it grows stiff and incapable of reaching beyond itself. The same applies to science as well; it takes a light touch to keep one's experimental results from being polluted by preconceived notions. In both science and art, the best work, it seems to me, is done in an environment willfully purged of prior knowledge, for the sheer wonder of populating that space with new thoughts and discoveries. And because of the gaps in communication necessarily left in such a work, that wonder is passed on to other consumers and practitioners who, in laboring to close those gaps for themselves, end up opening a whole host of new ones as a result. Thus, a single seminal idea can acquire a life of its own as it flows through this chain of insights, shifting subtly with each step as it propagates outward to infinity.

Werner Sun, Imperfection I, 2014. Mixed media, 24" x 12".

Saturday, July 19, 2014

On Art and Science: Prospects for an Intersection

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Earlier this summer, the online magazine Sci-Art in America issued an open call inviting artists, scientists, and other interested professionals to submit their views on the nature of the relationship between art and science. Below is my response, an excerpt of which will be published in the magazine’s August issue. I want to thank Julia Buntaine, Sci-Art’s intrepid editor, for posing the question, and indeed for welcoming the wide range of (possibly contentious) responses she is sure to receive. As editor of Caldaria, I intend to pursue the question more thoroughly in a longer essay to be published here in the fall.

On Art and Science: Prospects for an Intersection
by Taney Roniger

On the face of it, art and science seem such vastly different enterprises as to appear antitheses. On the one side is a discipline fundamentally rooted in discursive reason, where, fueled by accuracy and precision, the twin engines of observation and experimentation power toward ever-greater knowledge, prediction, and control. On the other is art, a distinctly non-rational vehicle which necessarily traffics in ambiguity, mystery, and contradiction, and which depends for its success on the perpetual deferral of meaning. Both are legitimate approaches to knowing; why forge an intersection when two divergent roads seem the more natural course?

Proponents of sci-art often cite the primacy of beauty in both fields and their mutual interest in visualizing the invisible as the common denominators, and indeed as ample justification for dialogue. But perhaps the deeper link lies elsewhere. For, speaking as an artist, neither beauty nor visualization alone is what draws me to art, but rather their invocation in the service of insight.

The faculty of insight is no stranger to science. Ask any scientist and she'll tell you that it's not in the conscious work we associate with the scientific method that you'll find the genesis of scientific novelty; it's in those rare “aha” moments when, the conscious labor having prepared the house, a gift suddenly arrives at the back door of consciousness. As far as I know, no scientific account exists to explain how this happens. The unconscious (dare I say irrational?) plays no smaller role in the progress of science than it does in the arts. The wellspring of creativity is a deeply mysterious place, and one that may ultimately prove impervious to discursive reason.

The nagging question at the center of sci-art is what science stands to gain from the discourse, art's benefits being more readily apparent. Perhaps a shift in focus toward the common means by which insight is gained (i.e., the little-understood intelligence of subconscious mentation, including that of the body) might be one way to proceed, crucial as it is to both enterprises.

But let's not fool ourselves: the epistemologies of art and science are fundamentally dissimilar, and their differences should be preserved at all costs. The world needs more discursive art about as much as it needs more poetic cancer research. Rather than a merging or synthesis of the two, then, what I'd like to see develop is a mutually informed dialogue between two potentially complementary disciplines. But first: to stomp out the ignorance, for much exists on both sides.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Visualise: Making Art in Context, a review by Jonathan Zilberg

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Susan Aldworth and Karen Ingham. “Between Mind, Matter and Materials” exhibition.
Ruskin Gallery, February 2012. Photograph: Andy Robinson

Visualise: Making Art in Context
by Bronac Ferran, ed. Cambridge: Anglia Ruskin University. 2013

by Jonathan Zilberg

One might never think to associate Cambridge, England, with the genesis of Pink Floyd or auto-destructive art, let alone “open-source urbanism” and hacking as creative intervention in city dynamics. Enter Visualise, launch pad for new initiatives there such as the Art and Science Circle, impetus for the Cambridge School of Art’s new Digital Gallery, and celebration of the history of art, technology, business and science. Think Cybernetic Serendipity, Syd Barrett of Pink Floyd’s first gig, Alan Turing’s famous experiment, Future Fluxus, radical new manifestos for Arts Industry, synthesizers and stochastic patterns, kinetic poetry, and Eduardo Kac’s interactive “alphabet of gesture.” In a word: Hip.

Visualise. Bronac Ferran’s tastefully produced and highly readable volume of essays and interviews is the outcome of a program of public art held in 2012 in Cambridge to inspire engagement with public spaces through art and technology. Small and slim enough to slip into the side pocket of a briefcase, it is notable for its lack of glossy images or intellectual pretension and its sheer accessibility. A record of a series of art events either held in the Ruskin Gallery at the Cambridge School of Art at Anglia Ruskin University or outside in the streets, it tells of the past, present and future of the school, this university and this city, through advancing Ruskin’s mandate that to see is to learn and that art should be useful.

An experimental celebration of the nexus of art, business, science and technology, the Visualise project and this book—effectively a catalog—bridges the city and the university. Likewise, it bridges two generations of artists: those who were working with experimental media in the 1960s such as Gustave Metzger, Alan Sutcliffe and Liliane Lijn, and some of today’s younger leading figures in new media and sci-art who emerged in the 1980s such as Eduardo Kac and William Latham. This text throws traces and arcs back in time and launches new media art forward in an expanded field. There it is important to understand how this project was explicitly an exercise in anti-monumentality and thus introduces a critical rejoinder for British Art history in the larger context of public art. But that, along with the history of sci-art at Cambridge, the problems text-based records present for coverage of new media events, and the question of beauty so close to Ruskin’s heart are beyond the scope of this review and will be separately elaborated upon in a forthcoming discussion in Caldaria.

At a slim 79 pages, Visualise: Making Art in Context (and I emphasize the subtitle here) carries a weighty historical significance for the Cambridge School of Art, inaugurated as it was by John Ruskin in 1858. Though the essays are all brief, they do not lack for this. Edited and conducted by Bronac Ferran, they serve as an excellent demonstration and bellwether of the convergences taking place in public art, electronic media, art, science, technology and industry. A record of the outcomes of the Visualise project in late 2011 through mid-2012, it is highly readable throughout. And in the clarity of its writing, its absence of obscure and complex art criticism and theory, its telling of the story of how the business community and artists – and indeed the university and the city – came together, it is true to Ruskin’s legacy.

The genesis of the project is significant. In percent-for-the-arts schemes we typically see artists being competitively commissioned to create works for new buildings or public parks. In this case, in contrast, the percent funds set aside from the construction of the new business school were used for a series of events and exhibitions designed to connect the city and the university, and the new campus and the old. The idea was to create a conceptual rather than material legacy and thus advance Ruskin’s mission to “do most good by simply endeavoring to enable the artist to see.” In its address to Ruskin’s legacy, Chris Owen’s brief opening contribution is in itself an important essay for and on the history of Cambridge. And, to belabor an important point, it is precisely because of the accessibility and clarity of language and illustration, the fine design and production, the quality of the paper and careful aesthetic choices in every detail that not only make it an excellent conversation piece for those in the business community who funded and collaborated in this project, but a minor testament to the importance of the art and craft of producing a lasting record of such events in print.

Rather than in a work of art, then, Anglia Ruskin University has invested a percent of the new business school in a more communally inclusive legacy through advancing the conjunction of art and technology while engaging the community and business interests. It has united the old campus and the new with the city and its people at large. And for those of us who were not aware of these events, literally the only trace of this history lies between the pale green covers of this little volume.

* * *

Perhaps a note on the form of this unusually extended review is in order. In all the reviews I've written for Leonardo and other more academic journals, I've never had the chance, due to space restrictions and tradition, to illustrate the discussion or comment upon a book’s feel and form. The subtlety, the variable use of color and the angled titles, the range and manner of illustrations chosen (but, sadly, not the quality of the photographs), the quality of the paper and print type and the jacket flaps: all of it is very nicely done. It reminds me in these qualities of the Routledge Classics Author's series, which adds a classic touch by association. Because they have been so carefully attended to, these things make Visualise to some degree a work of art, even a monument of sorts. Small details such as the careful string binding, for example, convey a distinct sense of craftsmanship. These features add up. They matter because this is Ruskin’s legacy, and this book is all we have in terms of the effective material legacy of the Visualise program in either the print or digital public record. In itself, this raises important questions underscoring the value of creating a publically accessible archive for what are essentially immaterial phenomena. Fortunately, some of the artists, such as William Latham, have posted short videos to the internet explaining and illustrating their work (see video).

This type of extension of the material takes us from the comparatively sad and lifeless still images as they are presented on a page to how compelling the work is when experienced in the gallery through digital media. Compare, for instance, the video given in the link above to the following image from the interview “Like Escher on Acid,” and then both to the scientifically fascinating and numinous experience itself. In short, there are limitations to what one can do with text when writing about new media arts.

William Latham’s work in ‘Poetry, Code, Language’ exhibition
Ruskin Gallery. Photograph: Tony Ellis.

Cambridge. For those of us in sci-art, I think it fair to say that one image and two names will always stand out as iconic of Cambridge: Deoxyribose Nucleic Acid (the DNA double helix), and Watson and Crick. The double helix image is as immanent and representative of 20th century science as was Darwin’s Tree of Life for Cambridge and the late Victorian era. Through Visualise we learn that it was Crick’s wife, Odile, who created the first diagram of the structure of the double helix. I did not know that. And which of these artists did you know about before reading this review or attending those events – except for perhaps Kac and Metzger?

Who, after all, has not heard of the glow-in-the-dark transgenic GFP rabbit? But did you know about the Ruskin School of Drawing’s graduate William Latham, about the nature of his serious games with the trinity of art (computer engineering, science, and bioinformatics) which practice evolution in action? Here we learn about how his wooden spiral structures in the 1980s inform his remarkable mobile scientific visualizations of the evolution of protein structures and mutational grammar today. Ever heard of Liliane Lijn and Duncan Speakman? If not, read this book, for beside the canonical art histories of modern British and American art here are some parallel and intersecting fascinating minor art worlds connecting us back to European surrealism and American Beat. They are too little known.

Intimate and precise insights are provided into the history of all the artists concerned, from Metzger to those I cannot attend to Rob Toulson, Alan Sutcliffe, Tom Hall and Ernest Edmonds. While most readers will be well aware of Eduardo Kac and some of the older artists, the less well-known artists spanning the last forty years here are equally interesting, namely Bettina Furnée, Giles Lane and Duncan Speakman. Indeed, Speakman’s final essay about the “Visualise Associate Artists were Circumstance” is an all-important essay for this project in terms of people and place, music and the city. It fittingly concludes this collection while returning the reader full circle to the first artist’s essay by Bettina Furnée, “Reality Rules,” and her work on boundaries and augmented reality, “New Rules For a Fair Society” with Dylan Banarse and Caroline Wendling.

The most visible internationally recognized contemporary figure is the transgenic artist Eduardo Kac. Recall his remarkable “Genesis” project from 1999. Through bacterial mutation, he altered the meaning of the sentence in the bible which grants man dominion over nature, an extraordinarily original critique of literal scripturalist interpretation, and a demonstration of how we should not accept inherited meanings without contemporary interpretations. In the latest metamorphosis of his corpus, Kac has taken his transgenic work with the iconic green glow-in-the-dark bunny called Alba into completely new territory: interactive lagoglyphs.

For Visualise, Kac launched a new form of protest over the incarceration of his GFP bunny rabbit, held prisoner in a laboratory in the suburbs of Paris. Lapidographic lagoglyphic writing, inspired by the form and rhythm of the bunny hop, is something completely new. The technical processes involve radically creative conjunctions of cutting-edge experimental technology with the arts, in this case bio-conductive ink, interactive computer-based imagery, and music. These conjunctions are what makes this and the other collaborative projects so significant and are indeed why I call refer to them, not so tongue-in-cheek, as hip. Though Kac was not the only artist to experiment with language, imagery, and computers, I have chosen to foreground his work because it is the most recognizable (especially to an American audience). But this is in no way to diminish the work and contribution of artists Ernest Edmonds, Alan Sutcliffe, Bettina Furnée, and Tom Hall.

Eduardo Kac, Lagoglyph Sound System, proof of concept, Ruskin Gallery, 2012

Duncan Speakman’s interview, “Of Sleeping Birds: The Audience Become the Orchestra,” is especially useful for giving us a sense of the most visible public connections that occurred during the programs:
Having created a series of intimate experiences distributed around the city, we created this work as a singular journey. We built an orchestra of portable loudspeakers, each one responsive to its geographical location via satellite positioning technology… We plotted a route that would take the audience from the historic old city, through the commercialized pedestrian areas and onwards to the newest building construction at Anglia Ruskin. Each section of the composition was written to reflect and harmonise with its surroundings, but also to become a soundtrack for an imaginary film of the city. We acted as conductors guiding the audience through the streets while they carried the speakers, becoming both participants and performers. (p. 74).
Thus through hand-held sound boxes, Speakman’s collective allowed “people to see their home anew” and leave their trace in Cambridge’s collective memory.

Tom Hall added to this mediated sonic experience by questioning the notion of sharing in musical performances. As he begins his essay: “What motivates electronic musicians to share and show an audience aspects of the music’s structure that may otherwise remain unseen and unheard… ?“ What matters for Hall as a modernist is ultimately that the appreciation of his electronic music is in alignment with his intention as the composer. What follows is a fascinating insight into audience reception of live coding events. For instance, to synthesize audience alignment he created the “PitchCircle” as reproduced in the illustration below, see A program which uses SuperCollider programming language, it visualizes music notation, and is in this case applied to a saxophone-structured improvisation.

Tom Hall: PitchCircle

Hall’s clarity of intention is essential. His goal is to align the aesthetic experience such that the audience has a direct and unambiguous appreciation of what he is trying to communicate. This is a compelling example of how musical notes and chords can be both heard and seen, and how we can appreciate music through visual metaphors, both hearing and seeing patterns. As such, it brings me naturally to Giles Lane and David Walker’s ingenious visualization project, Lifestreams.

Lifecharm shells 3D printed in ceramic, glass, resin and sterling silver, September 2012

Anthropologically speaking, Visualise is interesting because it is about people and place. Through three innovative research collaborations with local businesses -- Reality Rules, Phillips Research and Proboscis -- the artists found new ways to make people more aware of their city. Citizens become more emotionally and intellectually engaged with the city, the university and even their own bodies and rhythms, as in Lifestreams. The shells in the above image are materializations which express in physical form patterns in life: health-related data as recorded in the details of these life charms.

Series of 3rd generation Lifecharm shells 3D printed in laser sintered nylon plastic, August 2012.
All Lifestreams images shown licensed under Creative Commons BY-NC-ND Proboscis

While for an idealist or a romantic beauty would rather be found in the perfect shell, the beautiful pattern, in the real world our beings and reality are marked by imperfection and distortion. But leaving this aspect of Ruskin and the debate over beauty for a separate and forthcoming discussion, is this not a fascinating example not only of how art and business have come together to create new kinds of the most intimate embodied informational forms?

One of the advantages of writing an extended essay-review such as this is that it allows us to extend our insights into the genesis of such art works. For example, the next two images are conceptual notes which explain the mathematics and logic behind these creations: first, the formula for generating a shell and second, the manner of expressing variation in chosen variables.

Perhaps one has to be a scientist by inclination, or at least interested in mathematics, but I take it as self-evident that, scientist or not, the conceptual work represented here is a wonderful example of the specificity and precision at work in all these science-informed projects.

As with Speakman’s understanding and application of the principles of evolution, and as with Tom Hall’s intention to communicate with his audience, this is not a matter of playing with language and the obscure for the sake of an elevated pretense of being philosophically and aesthetically minded.

* * *

Latham, in the short YouTube video describing his work featured in this show, stresses that the role of the artist is to create new and interesting forms, and that what he is doing is trying to change how we define art. In his words “… the role of good artists is to change the definition of art itself.” Latham’s evolving life forms, truly the interface of computer science and art and the application of Darwinian principles (especially with the music and in their rotation and development) are very mysterious, a little unsettling, and I would even say sublime, as over-worked a term as that may be. They provoke a sense of awe at what this artist has done with technology and art. But how does this relate to my primary critical concern about this book as a record of what are mainly new media art forms?

The black and white image in the figure for the interview “Like Escher on Acid,” reproduced further above in this essay, is a constantly transforming background, as is the imaginary life form in the foreground evolving in rotational three dimensions before our eyes. Though no still photograph could do justice to this work, this is a consistent problem with most of the other art works experienced during Visualise. It is an important issue. Until I watched the video, I could not get any real sense of why Latham’s work is so visually interesting and aesthetically compelling (again, see video). It makes me think, then, that the most fitting way to produce a book or catalog about such a show in the future is to create an on-line text with links to videos of the works. Perhaps that is a critical contribution this review can make.

From Liliane Lijn's performance of her Manifesto for Art Industry to Alan Sutcliffe's SPASMO to Tom Hall's musical performances and his “Pitchcircle” designed to use extramusical means to communicate the musical thinking in his work, we see here iconic examples of the conjunctions occurring between industry and the university and the arts. In every case, from Kac’s viewer-activated transformative holopoetry to Ernst Edmond’s code poetry created from his archives, to Speakman’s sound box glue which became an iconic symbol of the Visualise program, these interviews and artists’ explications of their art-historical trajectories must unfortunately rest for the reader on the frozen images in the text. As an artist who sees the world in terms of words, vibrations, energy and light, Lijn is perhaps particularly important here, as hers is an art of the word, light, and energy in motion. She returns us to early experiments in the 1960s and to ancient Greece; she makes images of industrial power into mythical archetypes and celebrates the future of plastic. So Visualise takes us back and at the same time that it moves us forward.

From Lijn’s “Faster Than Birds” to Speakman’s “Of Sleeping Birds,” the texts themselves are fascinating. They are lively and true. Never do they degenerate into the mindless babble and impenetrable philosophical rambling that characterizes so much art criticism. Ferran’s book is in this a masterwork of straight talk. Yet this book calls out to a digital future in which we who will not be there can yet be so in some way. What are needed for such projects are on-line multi-media archives of the art as it was experienced in sound and motion. In fact, should this not be an elementary requirement for any future project in new media art history?

“Of Sleeping Birds,” the collective participatory work orchestrated by Visualise Associate Artists were Circumstance, was the projects signature event and the book’s final chapter. Speakman’s Ruskin-like goal was clear: “On a fundamental level we’re trying to get people to become more present in and attentive to where they are.” He masterfully brings this to realization for those who were not only not there but who would never have heard of what happened in Cambridge at Anglia Ruskin University in 2012 had it not been for this book:
“We arrived as strangers and outsiders,… took guided walks through old chapels and colleges,… sat in pubs and listene[d] to tales of late night fights,… walked from shopping centre to shopping centre,… found out about 1,000 radio receivers hidden in a cinema, and imagine what would happen if they moved en-masse across the city… our explorations showed us a divided city… we tested connection and disconnection… we created a mythological walk… We opened doors to strangers… We acted as conductors… letting people see their home anew and leaving a mark in the city’s collective memory (Duncan Speakman in Ferran pp. 72-74).
The metaphor of artists as conductors is a good one; an enticing sense of the new, of excitement make palpable, is what they can bring us. Latham conducts experiments in the evolution of computerized life forms. Lijn conducts experiments in mythic empowerment. Kac conducts experiments in sound ink. What will these artists and their business associates imagine next, and what will happen if they fuse their works?

Liliane Lijn, Untitled Neurograph, 1971.
Letrafilm and Letraset electronic symbols on paper, mounted on card, 22 x 20cm

On that final note, imagine if Liliane Lijn’s vibrograph were engineered such that its hypothetical circuitry were developed as a synthesizer for Tom Hall’s PitchCircle, producing music modulated by audience interaction in which choices were made as to open and close circuits or to increase the strength of resistors and capacitors, either producing a sound file to download or forward, or printing a 3-D soundstream form, or acting as an environmental force inducing changes in the growth of one of Latham’s creations emitting light energy as it grew. Then we would have cross-sector trans-artist new media art synthesis on a whole new level.

To Future Fluxus, then!

Jonathan Zilberg is a symbolic anthropologist interested in the convergences of the arts, sciences and humanities. His most recent work on biochemistry and embodied learning, 'The Dance of Life,' appeared as the lead article in this month's edition of SciArt in America.

Monday, May 26, 2014

Interview with Joseph Nechvatal

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excitatiOn emigratiOn, 2011, computer-robotic assisted painting on canvas, 14 x 22cm

On the occasion of his latest exhibition at Galerie Richard in Paris, Joseph Nechvatal met with Taney Roniger to discuss his work. What follows is a transcript of their conversation supplemented by excerpts from their previous interview, conducted in 2012. Titled prOtOcOls nOn, the show will be on view from May 30th through June 24th.


Taney Roniger: prOtOcOls nOn (no rules). You have an interesting relationship with rules, it seems. On the one hand, your work, being digital, is fundamentally rooted in rules, in the binary logic and clockwork rigor of the digital computer, while on the other hand your entire oeuvre seems emphatically oriented in the direction of freedom – freedom from oppressive forces, unexamined conventions, and stultified thinking. Can you talk about the title of your show?

Joseph Nechvatal: The suggestion of “no rules” in the title is a mere provocation to thought. All software runs on strict rules. And of course I want some rules, at times, to be observed in art. Indeed, your question reminds me of three events that illustrate that need and desire.

In 2012 I was at the Fiesta del Corpus in Granada and at the tauromachie, drinking some fino and tinto verando in the sun. I could see the snow-capped mountains of the Sierra Nevadas behind the arena. I was watching Enrique Ponce work a huge and magnificent black bull, a real bête noire. What I love about bullfighting is its complete lack of cynicism. The matador is always deadly serious and noble, as is the audience of aficionados, unless he does something stupid, in which case the crowd whistles to show its disapproval. Even then, it is an art without a trace of cynicism, without a trace of irony. It is a classical rule-based art, set in ritualistic repetition (with difference).

Anyway, Ponce had done magnificent muleta work with this stately bull, and when it came time for the estocada (killing) he chose the dangerous al volapié approach, where the bull charges on its own initiative. This gesture is the hardest and most dangerous one in current bullfighting when properly executed, as the bullfighter loses sight of the bull's horns, which may, in a defensive reaction, raise up and gore him.

There was this dramatic pause, as Ponce waited in the recibir position for the charge of the bull, when a young American lad seated behind me loudly cried out “olé”! It was the most inappropriate expression imaginable, and a breakage of the classical rules that horrified me and everyone as it destroyed the élan of this classical art form.

The next night, after going to the Alhambra, I went to hear a classical music concert of Bach at Santa Inglesia Cathedral. During a wonderfully sublime passage, someone arrived late to the concert and walked their way to the front of the church to sit down. The only problem was, their shoes made the most ignoble, horrible squeaking sound, again destroying the nobility of the moment and the art form.

The point I wish to make here, and with the exhibition, is that of course art may show and hence create its own meanings and complex values by breaking expectations. Rules in art, like image logos and short sentences, do not make the hum and buzz of life any simpler. But steady rules and conventions can prepare us, if we observe them with an educated readiness for openness, for the possibilities of free emergings useful in experiencing and capturing the quivering vibrancy of life. This is why I often critique the always-shifting relational aesthetic that seems to hover over many exhibitions in France as a great correctness that cannot be questioned, but only tampered with. I see it as the relegation of all aspects of art to exchange value, something that more or less sums up bourgeois society. So long as we submit with humility to certain rules of the past, we can actually experience better the un-ironic hallucinatory mix of will and daydream that is at the heart of art.

I close this answer with a final recollection from that trip to Andalusia. After Granada, I went to Ronda to visit the Plaza de Toros, where I saw a blind man, cane in hand, slowly walking his way down the Orsen Wells path that leads directly to a steep cliff edge, which was providing me with a beautiful vista. I was ready to shout out (not “olé” - but perhaps - “señor”) when he, at the very last moment, swerved to his left and avoided the cliff. He must have been counting off his paces – playing by his own rules.

TR: I love your evocation of the ritualistic solemnity of bullfighting – without which, I suppose, the whole thing would devolve into mere blood sport. Ritual – whether religious or otherwise – seems the very paragon of the prescribed endeavor, but one where adherence to the rules is intended to promote not mindless obedience but a kind of self-expansion, or self-transcendence. On the subject of rules, I want to ask you about Manuel DeLanda, because I know he’s been influential for you. His automata theory, which explores the cellular automaton as a general principle underlying the evolution of the universe, presents a convincing challenge to the view that clockwork mechanisms (i.e., rules) can’t possibly account for the complexity, diversity, and splendor of our world. (Even early emergentists were skeptical, I understand.) Can you talk about what you find so philosophically potent about his work and its relation to yours?

JN: I was very taken by how my work, for this show, connected with DeLanda's exploration of simulations of emergence in systems of different scales, from the atomic to the social. As an artist, the concept of emergence is particularly interesting because of the dynamic qualities implied by the individual mechanisms of emergence. The distinct concepts of properties, tendencies, and capacities suggest an art that is conceptually flexible and ephemeral, yet materially imbedded, if not always fully visible, into structural (albeit OOO) objects.

This was an epiphany for me, and especially interesting because it rubs up against my larger viractual project. The idea that a virtual possibility can be a result of actual material properties, tendencies, and capacities (and not always/only the other way around) helped me reach a higher degree of chance-based rule decision-making for my art.

nOise anusmOs, 2011, computer-robotic assisted painting on canvas, 112 x 168cm

TR: What were some of your other influences?

JN: While I was reading Manuel DeLanda’s book Philosophy and Simulation I was listening to a lot of Roland Kirk and late John Coltrane – all this avant-garde sax.

TR: And Speculative Realism? Did that play a role?

JN: Yeah. I’d already been reading Speculative Realism the year before, specifically Quentin Meillassoux’s After Finitude, which is the one that got me started on Speculative Realism. I refer to him in my book, Immersion Into Noise. Actually, that book prepared me for all the other stuff.

TR: It seems there is, with Speculative Realism, a reintroduction of metaphysics into a climate that’s been hostile toward it for some time now… Metaphysics is now okay again.

JN: Yes. I think that’s the key thing. It’s a hodge-podge. And in fact, Ray Brassier, who is the translator of the Quentin Meillassoux book, and who I’ve read (he has a book on nihilism, and he wrote a piece on noise music), he actually says that it’s not a real movement, and that you can’t lump these philosophers together. You have object oriented ontology, you have some neo-vitalism, you have transcendental materialism, and you have an interest in science fiction. No, it’s a real hodge-podge, which I think is just grand. But depending on how rigid you are as a philosopher, people could be put off by that. I was prepared for this by Deleuze, because for him philosophy is the creation of new concepts.

TR: I recently read Bruno Latour’s We Have Never Been Modern, and I was struck by what seems to be a movement toward becoming a little bit more friendly toward the object world – the non-human realm. It’s not entirely off limits to us anymore, in other words – with our subjectivity “over here,” and it “over there.” That perhaps the twain can meet after all…

JN: Yes, that is central to the Speculative Realists. Their whole jumping off point is refuting Kant. Correlationism is the big thing they’re trying to escape – where we can only understand the world because we have this human spectrum of perception, and so that’s Being. And they say no to that, that being is post-human – it’s much bigger than us. Again, that brings us back to the sublime and transcendental metaphysics and all that. So, in a nutshell, they basically say: We have to explore philosophy and being – ontology – outside of the Kantian strictures.

TR: And that we can do that; it’s not beyond our capacities.

JN: And science fiction and speculation and art are all part of that because they’re very much into systems, the environment, the cosmos. It’s a real area that we have to explore and try to comprehend, but it is tough.

transcendental fundament, 2011, computer-robotic assisted painting on canvas, 168x112cm

TR: I see so many parallels between what you’re talking about and your working process. Here’s my understanding of the process, and correct me if I’m wrong: You and your programmer author a piece of viral code, which is then inserted into a selected image from your database of previous works. As the viral code transforms the image by altering its colors and configurations, you select “stills” from the process from which paintings will be made. During the painting process, your hand does not touch the canvas; rather, the application is made by a robotic device acting on commands issued by the computer. The whole thing strikes me as a sort of wonderful dance – a dialectic, perhaps – between human agency and non-human processes. You don’t seem to privilege one over the other; it’s just this back and forth.

JN: I would not ever say a dialectic, because I don’t believe in dialectics. Deleuze completely does away with dialectics. It’s too limiting. Because you have all the little differences in between the polarities – all those micro-areas that are far more rich and interesting and complex. So I would say: dialogue, but not a dialectic. A conversation or dance.

TR: When you’re selecting your host images for a viral attack, is it significant that they’re always your own images, your own prior works?

JN: Yes. The only other example I used in an attack was two paintings of Andy Warhol’s money paintings, which I just did for a short little YouTube thing, because that was a specific thing for the Occupy Wall Street blog that I was happy to participate in. Otherwise, no. It’s got to be within the family. It’s not applicable for all things, in my mind. Or it would lose its meaning, it would dilute its usefulness.

TR: You mean if you took an image from… well, from anywhere out there in the culture. You could conceivably do this to any image, right? And interesting things would happen.

JN: Absolutely. It could be any image. And then the question is why. That’s why when I talk about losing focus and the impact getting lost, that’s exactly what I’m talking about. If it’s any image, then why any one image? So I’m trying to maintain its function as art. I think I talked about that in the introduction of the book that it’s important to maintain this – even if artificially constructed – definition of art as something other. As a form of ideology. That’s what artists are supposed to do: challenge ways of thinking.

TR: That certainly comes across in your work. So thinking about thinking is really important.

JN: I do think so. That’s why I try not to make too much of a division between my philosophizing and my artistic creation. I mean, I’m not a philosopher, hard-core. But even Nietzsche himself said that the ideal philosopher would be an artist. And I’m trying to live that out, at least on a mini-scale, at least for my life. Yeah – keep it moving back and forth between the categories but not looking for homogenization, looking for those differences which make for creation, that suggest new avenues of creation. Difference is novelty. I believe that art should try to be something novel, and I do believe in innovation and invention. And I don’t fall prey to these postmodernist myths of stasis and decay and repetition and simulation. That’s a trap you can fall in if you want to, but I don’t want to go there. I don’t want to over-determine the interpretation of the work. At the same time I don’t want to deny where it came from or how it’s done – the viractual materiality it’s embedded in.

madOnna cOl bambinO, 2011, computer-robotic assisted painting on canvas, 168x112cm

TR: In your first book, Towards an Immersive Intelligence, you explored the shift in ontology that you saw emerging as a result of a nascent immersive consciousness connected to virtual reality. How did your interest in immersion come about, and how did it come to focus on noise, which is the subject of your latest book, Immersion Into Noise?

JN: It started, first of all, with my ideal for looking at most painting: that you enter the painting. Like Kandinsky said, he wanted to viewer to enter and sort of exist in, and explore, and be, and travel in a painting. So already I was on board with that. I just think it’s the total use of your imagination as an artist or as a viewer of other artists, to give all and just get into it, and drop what you’re doing and go there. But then it got more specific with my research with Roy Ascott for my Ph.D. There I wanted to take that immersive use of the mind and see how it could apply to new technology. So I started to study virtual reality and its ideals. And the idea for virtual reality is that you’re immersed into a virtual world which you can navigate. I did my thesis on that topic, and I revisited art history and the history of architecture and ritual and different cultural manifestations through the wide lens of immersion. What I call the immersive impulse or desire for immersion. So that was where it became concrete, with the head-mounted device. And then I applied immersion to audio aspects when I created the viral symphOny. Then I started to write the Wikipedia page on the history of noise music. I did quite a bit of research on audio and sound art, and anything that was non-musical in terms of audio experiments and that’s what led me to the book about immersion into noise. So then I could use some of the lessons I learned from the VR research, and that idea of environment, of ambiance, of surround sound, and apply it to a noisy surround vision. Pushing our sensibilities behind our head as well as in front of our eyes. Trying to use the full instruments that we have available to us to feel. And that was the basis of the book Immersion Into Noise.

TR: What I see underlying your whole project is a kind of syncretistic vision in constant search of destabilizing rigid polarities. But it’s not like you’re bringing the two poles together in order to form some third neither-here-nor-there thing; you’re putting the two together in a kind of dynamic tension…

JN: Dynamic tension! Beautiful. That’s the noise aspect. It has to have a tension, a kind of provocational element. It’s not trying to say “Everything is everything.” That may be true on one level, but we don’t live on that level. I think it’s more intellectual to perceive the minute differences, and that’s what a connoisseur does.

TR: I think that’s a really important distinction to make. It’s not the unification of the two, it’s the tension between them.

JN: I do think that’s the real payoff for this – the knowledge that things can be contradictory and true simultaneously.

TR: Right!

JN: If you’ve got that, then your life opens up and you’re far more tolerant and understanding, and a better and wiser human being.

anuscOsmOs, 2011, computer-robotic assisted painting on canvas, 112x168cm

TR: Another thing that I definitely want to ask you about is digitization. You’ve called it “the universal technical platform for networked capitalism.” It’s also your chosen artistic language. Can you talk a little bit about what makes it the ideal language for you?

JN: Okay. It’s the idea of the Trojan horse. If you’re going to be an agent of political consciousness, of resistant awareness, of non-acceptance, you still have to work within the language of the power. Otherwise, you’re immediately marginalized and cast aside and have no subsequent contribution that’s recognizable. So I think, again, you have to be driving a Trojan horse; you have to enter the dialogue, the vocabulary, the system, the semiotics, and then from there subvert. In other words, you can’t subvert from the outside. You have to subvert from the inside. This is Baudrillard. And I don’t like a lot of Baudrillard, but I do think he was right in this case. Yeah, it’s subversion from within. And that’s really why I started doing the big blow-ups and got into the computer. If you read my artist’s statement from Documenta, it’s all about this subversion. Yes, I’m using the computer because the computer IS the dominant language of military economics, and we have to confront it head-on. So it is a kind of realism. Of course, you have to be very careful with that, but that was my intension. I mean, it’s easy to make like an avant-garde stance and then end up just being swept up inside of some kind of slick production that plays along with the themes, so that all of your criticality is glossed over. And it’s hard enough already to maintain criticality in cultural production, but once you’re inside the slick game, you have to really be subversive. For me, of course, it really comes down to the imagery. I guess that’s really why I decided the anus was an important image. It wasn’t to be a sexual or provocative or funny image; it was to be a key portal to poke into the post-industrial information age.

TR: You’ve talked about things like “digital fluidity,” which is in some sense an oxymoron. You know what I mean? Because digital language is binary. So it strikes me as curious that if what you’re after is in some sense exposing the fallacy of rigid binary thinking that your chosen language is itself binary.

JN: The string of zeros and ones underlying everything – you can’t get more binary than that. I totally agree. But that’s almost like, water is made up of certain chemicals, but what we do with water varies drastically – we swim in it, we brush our teeth with it, we pee in it… It’s undeniable that zeros and ones make up the structure of the medium, but I think it’s almost not important because the medium is so fluid.

TR: Well, talk about the fluidity, then. As a medium, it does lend itself to a certain…

JN: Transformation, metamorphosis.

TR: Yes.

JN: You can take the same data that’s being produced, and you can output it as a visual or as an audio production. It’s so easy to convert signals into whatever you want to. You just change the parameters. It’s very, very easy to do – almost too easy. The question always comes down to: What are you doing? Why are you doing it? And not so much how you do it. But the fluidity part. So, of course when we think of the digital age, the fluidity of the internet, the networked connectivity, we think of flows of data. But for me it’s an interest also in human potentiality, which is one of the reasons I got interested in cyberculture in the early 90s. It seemed like the platform for transformation. And that folded me back into my interests in Classical Greek poetry – Ovid’s Metamorphoses in particular – where things become other things, and flowers become people, and people become clouds, and this kind of super-fluidity, which we do experience in dreams sometimes, if we’re lucky. But it has to do with a symbol, a poetic metaphor, for realizing our human potentiality and our full sensibilities towards our real life, the real people in our lives, our real politics – how we live our lives economically, and the decisions we make in the real world. So in that sense I’m a materialist. Actually, that’s why I became interested in Speculative Realism, because they don’t shy away from what they call transcendental materialism, which I really think kind of nails what I’ve been feeling and groping for. And it sounds of course oxymoronic, and certainly paradoxical – but maybe not! You have to dig in and dig around. Anyway, that kind of idea of human potentiality interests me. And I think that’s the reason we have great art. I think art is to change consciousness.

TR: That was actually going to be my next question. Because I feel like it’s so important to your project, this idea of self-reprogrammability. I mean, that is such a crucial insight – that we can change, that we can be liberated from our conditioning. At a time when we’re flanked on all sides by so many determinisms…

JN: The human spirit is being tamped down and down and down. We must strive to overcome the bullshit…It’s a metaphysical battle. And each person, each woman and each man, is a soldier, and we all have to fight. And art I think is the domain for that.

TR: And you feel that – this potential to change – when you’re with not only your own work, but when you have a profound experience with another work? You feel that it’s changed you in some way?

JN: I do. Almost chemically. And it stays with you. And not that we don’t outgrow our appreciation of certain artworks, particularly when you’re young. In my case, I had a passion for Jasper Johns. I just couldn’t get enough of him. I was in love with him, you could almost say. But then I outgrew it, you know? So that’s part of the maturation period, I guess.

anus, 2011, computer-robotic assisted painting on canvas, 168x112cm

TR: Let’s turn back to Immersion Into Noise. I just want to say that I found the chapter on Paleolithic cave art, where you describe your descent into the Lascaux cave (among others) so moving and so powerful.

JN: Thank you. I do think that’s sort of the core of the book, and I try to make the case for the art of noise visually based on that, because I think it was the most concrete example – in immersive terms – that I experienced and that I could write about first-hand. I mean, as you can tell in the book I tried to write about visual noise from my travels and experiences. But yes, the cave of Lascaux was a transformative moment.

TR: One of the things I was struck by in this chapter was the element of danger inherent in making the descent into those caves. I mean, it wasn’t exactly like stepping into the studio for a day’s work for these early artists. I wonder if there’s something of that element of danger, or fear, or incomprehensible enormousness that attracts us to the internet. I think you’ve touched on this somewhere.

JN: I have talked about how computers stimulate us almost like sublime vastness, which is both enticing and scary. Your typical sublime reaction to enormity is a mix of attraction and fear. There is a re-interest in sublime art, as you might know, in Brooklyn with the metal group Liturgy and the movement called transcendental black metal music. They’re connecting music back to the vastness of nature. It’s almost Wagnerian in intentionality. And I found that very moving, and it was one of the influences on my show at Galerie Richard.

euphOricanus, 2011, computer-robotic assisted painting on canvas, 112x168cm

TR: You clearly travel a lot. Travel is incredibly immersive.

JN: Yes, it’s inherently immersive. Couple that with reading about what you’re doing, the history of where you’ve been. I think that’s true knowledge. And then having physical experiences in space, and the cultural things – the wine and art. The art is key for me. Looking at this painting here [points to painting in studio], it’s easy for me to wrap it around my head. It’s very easy. It’s like this rectangle becomes a bubble that goes behind my eyes. And that’s what I’m hoping that people can project when they look at the work – is to get into it.

TR: That’s the thing. It doesn’t have to be an installation environment for you to experience immersion.

JN: Right. I don’t feel it has to be. It can be, and that’s obviously the most literal. But the literal way isn’t always the only or the best way. For me, I tend to use all-over compositions – not always, but often. That suggests that it could go on forever. I think in the chapter on Pollock I tried to make that clear. With the two museums that were proposed of his work – one by Tony Smith, a hero of mine. But they took that idea – the derogatory comment that Aldous Huxley made about Pollock’s work at the Museum of Modern Art, saying “Oh, but it’s quite a bit like wallpaper. It could go on forever!” You know, disdainfully.

TR: Aldous Huxley said that? Wow.

JN: Unfortunately, yes. And actually that’s the power of the work. That’s what Allen Kaprow saw in Pollock’s show at Betty Parson’s gallery, where he said: “Okay, I understand. It goes around the whole room, meaning it’s all the world, meaning it’s the street, meaning it’s a happening.” That’s where he got his idea to create the happening, it was from seeing this exhibition of Pollock’s. So this idea of expansion, of distribution, of availability all around us is really a suggestion that has many applications.

TR: So these new paintings that we’ll be seeing in Paris, these are still part of the Computer Virus Project…

JN: Yes. Almost everything is now to some extent. Everything has something to do with the technique, at least. It’s my vocabulary. I don’t necessarily forefront that aspect of it all the time, but it’s impossible to leave it out at the same time. Because I just find the viral techniques very valuable for getting unexpected results.

TR: To what extent is it important that people know how the paintings are made – your process, your involvement with artificial intelligence, etc.?

JN: Very important, and then I hope they’ll forget it. Because I want them to go to their own place with them. I don’t want to over-determine the interpretation of the work. At the same time I don’t want to deny where it came from or how it’s done – the viractual materiality it’s embedded in. But it’s more than that, so I don’t want to be self-limiting, and I don’t want to limit the viewer. It’s complicated.

TR: I see such a consistency across all your various media. Your prose style in Noise, for example, is characteristically syncretistic, non-linear, “all-over” – in other words, it’s noisy.

JN: Yeah. I thought it would have been silly to do a strictly academic style, when you’re exploring something that is the opposite of that.

TR: It’s not like it’s stream-of-consciousness, with no punctuation… There’s certainly a structure there, but the voice is ecstatic, personal, mercurial, even. And the text moves in unexpected directions.

JN: I agree with you. I think it’s my allover approach to life that provides a moveable aspect that we’re talking about.

TR: You make it explicit that your subject matter is ideology.

JN: Yeah. That started back with my early drawings. And that’s why I started to draw these cliché images. When you look carefully at some of those – most of those – early gray drawings, they’re pile-ups of biblical imagery and Playboy imagery and military or “macho man” cowboys. Because I was trying to work on cultural ideology and the visual language in which it’s spoken.

TR: I know a lot of artists who wouldn’t want to admit that their work carries with it an ideology.

JN: Right. Because I think we’re talking about our own upbringing, our childhood, our relationship to our parents. Our relationship to our church, or synagogue, or whatever. Whoever – our boy scout master. Baseball coach – what else is there? All the adults that teach us how to live. Which is not a bad thing, obviously, but it’s something to be scrutinized. Particularly when you reach maturity. That’s just the power of scrutiny, of self-reflectivity. That’s how you can get to reprogramming yourself. First you have to get to what you don’t want to do, and stop doing that.

TR: So that’s what self-transcendence means to you – moving beyond our unreflective cognitive habits, our conventional notions of the self, our utilitarian consciousness…

JN: Yes. And a kind of connection to the immanence of nature and materiality, the full vibratory spectrum. That is where it gets back to Speculative Realism, to understanding the limits of our perceptual spectrum and at the same time acknowledging that reality and being are beyond us while we still try to understand.

TR: That seems crucial.

JN: Yes. I think that’s an important understanding, particularly in urban life, for people to reflect on. I hope that’s what they’ll get from this show. That’s what my intention is – that urbanites, sophisticated art viewers, will for one instance think about the grander beyond that and have appreciation of it. The great outdoors indoor. Yeah, connecting the anus to the cosmos is for that purpose. To place an extremely personal, sensitive, human aspect, in a poetic marriage to that divine humongous “beyond us.”

TR: Huston Smith comes to mind: “The larger the island of knowledge, the longer the shoreline of wonder.” Always expanding, but with full knowledge that there’s always that “magnificent more,” as you say.

JN: I see it in some young artists who are really trying to work with getting back to respecting the enormity of nature. And of course it has everything to do with a kind of dialogue with cyberculture. The insufficiency of cyber-interactivity and networking and all that. No one ever said that would be the be all and end all.

TR: I’d like to end with a question about the rise of sci-art we’ve been witnessing over the last decade or so. In her book titled Art & Science, Sian Ede points to a fundamental rift between art and science today that has its roots in two very different epistemological approaches to knowledge. Science, as she puts it, has always been founded on the belief that there is an “implicit reality” out there to be discovered, while in the arts, that view is pretty much anathema. In our field, the idea that everything (including science) is a “construct” seems to be the prevailing view; knowledge and meaning are inherently slippery, unfixed, culturally and historically conditioned. I’m wondering, given your interest in the nexus of art and science, what your view of the situation is. Do you see the current increase in sci-art collaborations – or “science-based” art – as a promising move that might take us beyond this epistemological impasse?

JN: Explicitly theoretical discourses such as science, but also philosophy, have no problems finding phenomena which may accommodate them with different sorts of practices. On the contrary, there are many who see these hybrids not to be the exception, but the rule. For example, Bruno LaTour in his book We Have Never Been Modern. But many besides him. In other words, in a certain sense, of course sci-art combines opposing theory and practice and may serve as proof of the fact that theory and practice are not opposed in any field. But so do many other social and political phenomena.

However, some maintain that this combination does not prove anything against theorists who still try to avoid all contact with intuitive practice, because it is the pursuits of both pure theory and purely intuitive practice which ends up allowing for such combinations, such as that which takes place in sci-art. They would say that it is the idea that there are two separated realms of the symbolic and the imaginary which ultimately invites and makes the transgression of the boundary between them possible. Many post-Foucaultians maintain this.

I am sorry to use the third person while exposing these positions, but I haven't worked them enough to endorse or reject them fully yet. The point on which I agree with you concerning a promising move is that the way sci-art combines theory and practice does not mean that art cannot transcend its own theory. Quite the contrary. However, when art tends towards a dependence on the constructs of scientific theory, that may be a loss in its powerful freedom to imagine the unreasonable.

autOmata retinal, 2011, computer-robotic assisted painting on canvas, 168x112cm

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-residence 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:

Sunday, May 4, 2014

The Irrational Geometrics of Pascal Dombis


Post-Digital Mirror, 2011–2013, TZR Galerie Kai Brückner, Düsseldorf, 2013

For nearly two decades Pascal Dombis has been using computer algorithms to produce excessive repetitions of simple processes that create unpredictable, unstable and dynamic visual forms. By computationally reproducing a geometrical or typographical sign, he creates destructuring structures and develops irrational environments. He exploits the paradoxical coexistence of orderly control and chaotic aleatory forces to produce unpredictable, unstable and dynamic visual forms which he synthesizes into digital wall drawings, lenticular pieces or video installations. Dombis's work has been shown in numerous exhibitions around the world and is part of several public and private collections. Recent exhibitions include the 2008 retrospective Imaging by numbers: a historical view of the computer print at the Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art in Evanston, IL. In 2013, Dombis participated in Noise, an official collateral show of the 55th Venice Biennale of Art, based on Joseph Nechvatal’s book Immersion Into Noise. He presented Post-Digital Mirror, a large lenticular piece that follows the observer’s movements and produces organic and irregular shapes and lines. In May 2014, he will have a solo show at Holly Hunt New York based on his Irrational Geometrics works.

The following is an essay by Joseph Nechvatal written for the occasion of Dombis’ upcoming exhibition, Irrational Geometrics, at Holly Hunt (150 E. 58th Street, New York, NY). The show opens May 19th and will run through August, 2014. Gallery website: Artist website:

Post-Digital Mirror, 2011–2012, Lenticular mounted on alu-dibon, 3.30m x 1.80m (3 panels)

The Irrational Geometrics of Pascal Dombis
by Joseph Nechvatal

In our era of the late-capitalist circulation of digital signs, French artist Pascal Dombis has been creating perverse computer-assisted paintings that seem to try to overthrow, or at least displace, modern rationality in favor of a digitally debauched version of some vaguely remembered, disordered, non-mathematical emergence, now numerically manipulated and prefigured. This techno re-invention of emergence is accomplished by Pascal’s manipulating computer-generated hyper-structures which he synthesizes into abstract digital paintings. To my eye, within the borders of his post-conceptual practice, Pascal's complex results automatically hasten an elaborate visual irrationality via the most rational of means.

Just as antediluvian groups attempted to deal with the repetitious cosmos through irrational excess, so seemingly do these computer-performed simulations operate to make the rational/geometrical world move inexhaustibly towards irrationality. Thus his is a post-structuralist address to the fallacious nature of the former. Consequently, his hyper-geometric art leads us to a teeming process of rational expurgation through supra-rational excess.

Post-Digital Mirror (E1, E2), 2013, Lenticular mounted on alu-dibon, framed, unique piece, 0.90m x 1.20m

To do so, Dombis methodically uses an elementary warped prototype as his computational starting point, so as to advance an inhumanly complex pictorial space in which he addresses a miscellaneous collection of network issues such as complexity, perpetuation, enrichment, and chaos. By commencing with a singular and uncomplicated warped constituent (a lonely fragment of a curve or a diminutive portion of an arc) and by maniacally computationally reproducing it, Dombis achieves an intensely elaborate geotectonic optic structure, rich in associative significance. Into this elastic virtual matrix rushes a relentless machine-logic, one bent on achieving a contemporary techno hyper-irrationality of the sort which is becoming more and more familiar to us in all aspects of our lives.

This process of irrationality is ironic in that Dombis uses the computer in a simple, fundamental, computational way so as to incessantly compute the curved geometric element (the resulting intricate geotectonic configurations would be impractical to generate by hand as they are made up of tens of thousands to several million bowed constituents). Indeed, Dombis sees this methodology as "a kind of Arte Povera within new technologies." [1]

Post-Digital Blue, 2013, Lenticular mounted on alu-dibon (2 panels), 1.10m x 1.80m each

Post-Digital Blue, 2013 (detail)

Regardless, Dombis uses the resultant manic geometric hyper-structures so as to create an illusionary space that plays with the ambiguity between the mathematic structure produced by the computer and its metaphorical elucidation on a pictorial surface—elucidations in which the original motif disappears into the scrolling network. Dombis terminates this hysterical process at the point just before what Severo Sarduy calls the "black out". [2] According to Sarduy, in his book Barroco, if a structure is developed incessantly it will end up as a perplexed all-black facsimile of itself and thus attain its own "black out."

So long as his rational-irrational fabrications can mathematically multiply and permutate undisturbed by any apparent coherent restraint (short of "black out") there is no impeding them or, by implication, our own supra-rationality from attaining ever amplifying spectral capabilities. Hence I am delighted to see his rational-irrational simulacra proceed to blast away prior rational geometric pretexts so as to bring us closer not to our own limiting geometric "truth," a category long ago shattered by post-structuralism, but to the denuded realization of our own supra-rational coercive animus, now purified of all non-fantastical, non-multiplying delusions, including, finally, our own inelastic actuality.

[1] E-mail interview with the artist by the author
[2] Sarduy, S. (1975). Barroco. Paris: Editions du Seuil

SpamScape (Triple), 2010, IBU Gallery, Paris,
3-screen video installation. Video software: Claude Micheli

SpamScape, 2011, Lenticular mounted on alu-dibon, 1.20m x 0.90m

CensorZip, 2011,
Lenticular mounted on alu-dibon & PMMA (Plexiglas), 5 panels: 0.35m x 1.80m each

Post-Belaga (square), 2003–2004, Cháteau de Linardie, Senouillac, France,
Lenticular mounted on light box, 0.90m x 0.90m each