Arabesque, Mandala, Algorithm: A Long History of Generative Art

The papers on this panel challenge the particular model of visuality proposed by a traditional understanding of film.
Dates: 
Wednesday, 14 September, 2011 - 13:00 - 14:30
Chair Person: 
Kris Paulsen
Chair Person: 
Meredith Hoy
Presenters: 
Zabet Patterson
Presenters: 
Laura U. Marks

Chair: Dr. Kris Paulsen
2nd Chair: Dr. Meredith Hoy

This panel will investigate the history of abstract moving image work from early computer films, to the first video synthesizer images, to current work in generative, algorithmic art. Unlike typical images derived from film and video, which capture indexical traces of the scenes and objects in front of their lenses, these works generate imagery without referents and often without cameras. Early computer animations experimented with the translation of code into graphics, video synthesizers mapped electric impulses directly onto the scrolling field of the cathode ray tube, where as generative art uses computational algorithms to define a set of rules which automatically set into motion and ever changing visual landscape. The papers on this panel challenge the particular model of visuality proposed by a traditional understanding of film. They trace out a long history of generative art, rooting new media practices in experimental work of the 1940s, 50s and 60s. The work of John and James Whitney, Stephen Beck, and Casey Reas model an alternative history of moving images that privileges abstraction over representation, and procedure over mimetic capture of the natural world.  In an effort to make something radically new, these artists refer to older histories of knowledge and make explicit reference outside of the lexicon of Western visuality to the Eastern figures of arabesques and mandalas. Like these spiritual motifs, the artists aim to create types of imagery that exceed the visible material world by making works of pure light. In doing so, they not only author an alternative history of film, but also hypothesize a metaphysics of the screen.

Paper Abstracts

The Cybernetic Cinema of the Whitneys

by Zabet Patterson

John Whitney and James Whitney began with random dots. Computer processing repeated, rearranged, and recombined these dots into figures, generating precise, strobing patterns, which they presented as films, with titles like Lapis and Permutations. These films, from the 1960s and 70s, pointed toward a future for “machine-realized art” that sidestepped traditional concepts and habits of representation. Indeed, according to the Whitneys, their early films sought to destroy “the particular of representation” through a concept of serial permutation by which a form could be “juxtaposed dynamically against itself through retrogression, inversion, and mirroring.” This paper will examine the work of the Whitneys’, across several generations of computers, as articulating a critique of hegemonic representation.  This critique is founded in a practice of repetition and difference that steps outside the hierarchies of representation. The repeating forms created by the strobing dots subvert representational self-presence as they generate an expansive, proliferating difference, to be experienced rather than accounted for—a difference which offers an alternative way of seeing with the computer.

Direct to Video: Steve Beck’s Cameraless Television

by Dr. Kris Paulsen

A live video camera pointed at its own monitor creates a vertiginous hall of mirrors in its feedback loop. The shallow distance between lens and screen is simultaneously flattened and extended toward an ever-receding horizon. The apparently automatic realist codes of the video camera turn suddenly surreal by exploiting an inherent effect of the medium. If one then tilts the camera at a 90-degree angle, this loosened hold on representation slips away completely into dazzling abstraction. The image of a monitor placed perpendicularly in its own frame morphs and swirls under the pressure of feedback. It pulls from the corners of the screen, and reconfigures into tumbling pinwheel that grows more and more complex over time. This live feed “mandala” effect is a simple means of divorcing the video camera and screen from the iconic and representational codes that usually govern it. Nam June Paik and Shua Abe exploited this effect and others to create their first video synthesizer at WGBH in 1969. They subjected live video images to a set of distorting processes that turned the visible world psychedelic and strange. The Paik-Abe Synthesizer, however, was still tied to the camera and its mimetic properties; it needed the camera’s images as the basis of their manipulations. At the same time, Steve Beck was working on his own synthesizer at KQED in San Francisco. Beck’s synthesizers, VSI#0 (Video Synthesis Instrument Number Zero) and The Beck Direct Video Synthesizer did away with the camera completely. His synthesizer was “constructivist in nature, not distortionist.” He created cameraless video by directly manipulating the basic component of video – the electron. This paper examines how Beck’s synthesizer, as well as camera-based synthesizers, proposes an alternative understanding of video and its essential qualities. Far removed from Rosalind Krauss’s reading of the inherently narcissistic qualities of early video and its feedback loops, this history of synthetic video grounds itself in the materiality of the screen rather than the transparency of the image.

Sensation and Individuation in Generative Artworks and Caucasian Carpets

by Dr. Laura U. Marks

This talk pursues a comparison in the last chapter of Enfoldment and Infinity: An Islamic Genealogy of New Media Art, that compares two bodies of algorithmic art: contemporary generative artworks and 17th-century Caucasian carpets. Each of them responds to new information and come up with results that could not be prefigured in the algorithm’s initial state. Caucasian carpets retain qualities of nonorganic life, molecular organization, and appeal to sensation. They exemplify the creative élan vital of artworks whose forms oscillate between figurative and abstract. The life of forms in these carpets, in its emphasis on self-organization rather than imitation, is molecular rather than molar. In these carpets life seems to arise from any point whatever, to self-organize and mutate. Though the carpets’ designs obey strict compositional rules, they nevertheless suggest the Open, in that the oddness and particularity of the forms suggests they could have evolved differently. Finally, I suggest that Caucasian carpets address not only cognition, not only perception, but sensation directly, in what Deleuze calls the Figural. This is one of their most subversive qualities.

These observations about carpets bring new criteria to artworks produced with generative software. Nonorganic life, an appeal to sensation, the subversion of ornament all characterize many contemporary generative artworks. The question that arises is, Where, in an algorithmic artwork, does individuation occur? Individuation is the actualization of the virtual, a becoming, a materialization of a life force from within. Caucasian carpets required industrial-level design and production; individuation occurred at the level of design. Similarly, in generative artwork, we may seek individuation at the level of programming and of material execution.

Virtual Resistance: A Genealogy of Digital Abstraction

by Dr. Meredith Hoy

According to one possible narrative, the history of computer graphic imaging has privileged verisimilitude, attempting to achieve a virtual image that imitates optical reality as faithfully as possible. This account posits an evolutionary trajectory for computer graphics beginning at rudimentary pixel-based figures and progressing towards richly layered, volumetric visualizations of an alternate world whose properties mirror our own. This history may or may not hide the fact that this virtual world is often visualized as if it were captured by a camera; the camera-based image is simulated  by encoding a mathematical model of a picture as it would appear through a lens, with a specific field of view and focal length[1] <#_ftn1> . So already, computationally generated pictures analogize and favor the visual qualities of a world seen through a camera lens. Thus, they would seem to tend inherently towards the particular qualities of virtuality, and the visual distortions, produced by a camera.  But there is an alternate tradition of computational abstraction that revels in the facility of the computer to render visual equivalents of abstract mathematical calculations. There are examples of such screen-based abstraction that generate imagery based on formulae for physical forces such as gravity, or painterly compositions that emerge as a result of inputting random values into an algorithm encoding change over time.  This paper assesses whether or not there are a set of principles with which cameraless, computationally based abstractions are concerned, and what kind of “world” is imagined through this algorithmically generated visual model. Taking into account the history of abstraction in modern art, it considers whether computational abstraction fits into a modernist narrative or whether it envisions a new call to order distinct from that set forth by 20th century modernist movements.

Bios of the Participants

Zabet Patterson

Zabet Patterson specializes in the history and theory of digital media with a particular emphasis on the intersection of computational media and art in the postwar period. Her publications include 'Consuming Fantasy in the Digital Era', in Pornography On/Scene, a collection edited by Linda Williams, as well as forthcoming articles on Jim Campbell and John and James Whitney. She is presently Assistant Professor in Art at Stony Brook University, and a member of the Consortium for Digital Arts, Culture, and Technology (cDACT).

Kris Paulsen

Kris Paulsen is Assistant Professor of Contemporary Art, Film, Video and New Media in the History of Art Department and Program in Film Studies at The Ohio State University. She studies contemporary art with a specialization in time-based media. In particular, her work traces the history of technology in the arts and the rhetoric of "new media" from photography to computational art. Her current research addresses artistic engagements with television and experiments with telepresence. Drawing on psychoanalytic theory, film theory, and semiotics, she examines the phenomenological and epistemological effects of technologies on space, time and bodily presence. Additionally, Professor Paulsen is interested in the legal and philosophical stakes of forgery, reenactment, appropriation, and copyright in the digital age. She is currently working on two book manuscripts, "Mass Medium: Artists' Television 1965 to the Present" and "Real Time over Real Space: Telepresence and Contemporary Art."

Laura U. Marks

Dr. Laura U. Marks is the Dena Wosk University Professor of Art and Culture Studies at Simon Fraser University.  A scholar, theorist, and curator of independent and experimental media arts, she is the author of  The Skin of the Film: Intercultural Cinema, Embodiment, and the Senses (Duke University Press, 2000),Touch: Sensuous Theory and Multisensory  Media (Minnesota University Press, 2002), and many essays. Several years of research in Islamic art history and philosophy gave rise to Enfoldment and Infinity: An Islamic Genealogy of New Media Art (MIT Press, 2010). She has curated programs of experimental media for venues around the world. Her current research interests are the media arts of the Arab and Muslim world, intercultural perspectives on new media art, and philosophical approaches to materiality and information culture.

Meredith Hoy

Meredith Hoy is Assistant Professor of Contemporary Art in the Department of Art and Art History at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. Her dissertation, entitled From Point to Pixel: A Genealogy of Digital Aesthetics, traces links between contemporary digital art and modern painting. Drawing on theories of visuality, space and spatial practice, cybernetics and systems theory, phenomenology, and post-structuralism and semiotics, her research focuses on the impact of technology on art and visual culture. She has written on modern and contemporary art and architecture, generative art, information visualization, and the phenomenology of networked space.