Friday, June 01, 2007

Generative Art, Virtuosity, and the Neo-Baroque

In her book Neo-Baroque Aesthetics and Contemporary Entertainment, Angela Ndalianis argues that "mainstream cinema and other entertainment media are imbued with a neo-baroque poetics". She draws parallels including an emphasis on sensation, pleasure and the spectacle, serial narrative forms, immersive intertextuality and cross-platform "story worlds," and an aesthetics of virtuosity drawing on scientific and technological change. I'm still digesting these ideas but I'm interested in how they could be applied to generative / data art. I owe the link to Timothy Jaeger, who pulls the neo-baroque into his (free!) book on VJ culture. Jaeger suggests that the virtuosity, technical self-consciousness, and affective qualities Ndalianis sees in fx-driven cinema are also present in VJ culture and practice.

For now I'll focus on virtuosity. Ndalianis analyses the quadratura ceiling paintings by artists such as Andrea Pozzo, which use perspective techniques to make illusions extending architectural space into the heavens. Pozzo's work is a virtuoso application of one-point perspective, a then-new technique. The image above shows his ceiling at the Church of S. Ignazio (1691-1694). The illusion is both a sensory delight and a display of technical mastery; those two moments coexist in our response. Ndalianis draws parallels with the "technological bravura" of Jurassic Park, which also indulges in spectacular but reflexive illusions.

Could we draw a similar parallel with generative art? I'm thinking mainly of the lush, maximalist strain pursued by artists such as Robert Hodgin and Marius Watz - but perhaps more generally as well. On the surface at least there are some similarities. These works are all about sensory pleasure - especially audio/visual interplay, which links up to the embodied pleasure "networks" of the club environment (eg Watz' Illuminations for club Transmediale (below)). Definitely neo-baroque. Visual density and complexity is another hallmark; like Pozzo's ceiling these are immersive, teeming spatial fields. What about reflexivity? This scene is marked by the artists' open interests (and pleasure) in technique; and its aesthetics are also displays of both construction and skill. This is 3D that is quite happy to look like 3D (unlike some of the more imperceptible Hollywood fx). Yet some features of generative art don't seem neo-baroque by Ndalianis' formulation. Illusion, a clear link between baroque painting and digital cinema, doesn't feature in generative art - unless we consider the toy worlds of (for eg) Magnetosphere as a kind of illusion without an original; if Hollwood persists in stitching the constructed into the photographic "real", maybe generative art (along with gaming) has crossed over into pure simulation?

Among other things this analysis questions my own theoretical line on generative art, which has emphasised the underlying system and the structures of (rather than the act of) simulation. Susanne Jaschko has written (approvingly) of the "retinal" quality of generative art, and this seems aligned with a neo-baroque perspective, focusing the pleasures of the generated surface. Virtuosity offers one link between system and surface - where the system is a cool-for-its-own-sake display of technical skill. I think there's more to it than that, but perhaps there need not be?

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