Thursday, November 29, 2007

Murray McKeich - Generative Gothic

While I'm in Melbourne I've been trying to catch up with some of the artists who have made this town a new media hotspot over the past decade or so. I recently met up with Murray McKeich, an artist who came to prominence in the 90s here through the amazing (and sadly departed) Australian magazine 21C. He's refined a signature style, imaging urban detritus on a flatbed scanner, then grafting those elements together into surreal-gothic hybrids. In the hyped-up, Wired-style 90s, McKeich's images in 21C were startling; artefacts from a far more unsettling future.

In recent years, as I mentioned a while back on Generator.x, McKeich has discovered generative art. His approach, and the resulting work, are interesting in part because they are so different to a lot of what goes under that banner at the moment. At the core of his practice is a kind of heresy I find really appealing: McKeich doesn't code. He cheerfully admits to being "hopeless" at programming, and has no inclination to start. I had to fight the urge to talk him around, the way I do with students sometimes, leading them gently into the joys of Processing. But I had a feeling it would be futile, and besides, the processes McKeich has devised are coding, of a sort, and they are working beautifully.

Having accumulated a massive library of scanned-in source material, and discovering Photoshop's actions, McKeich began to experiment with automated processes; macros that would randomly pull source files into large multi-layer compositions. Hierarchies and groups of layers and sources provided a mix of control and randomness. He ran batch processes that would output many thousands of stills, then hand-picked the best to form very large image sets, with works like A Thousand Pictures of Footscray and DVN (detail above). The artists's motivation here, he insists, is pragmatic, not conceptual; he's interested in the specifics of an image, the moment of its impact, not in process for its own sake. For him generative techniques are essentially a matter of externalising aspects of his own process; computational studio assistants.

McKeich's next step was his discovery of AfterEffects, which he describes as "a superior imaging tool" to Photoshop - even for stills. With a more procedural approach, nested compositions, and powerful automation, AfterEffects remains his generative platform of choice. As a kind of bonus, it produces video. McKeich's procedural motion graphics use his signature palette of materials, but feel lighter, more ephemeral. In Maddern Square (above) we seem to skirt the edge of some dense conglomerate of street flotsam which is forever dissolving into itself.

Most recently McKeich has begun a new line of work - in one sense another brilliant heresy in the super-abstract context of generative art. He's been making faces, or rather, zombies. pzombie is from "philosophical zombie," a term for a hypothetical non-conscious human in a cognitive science thought-experiment. Like digital Golems, McKeich's pzombies (above - hi res) are cooked up from junk and grime, articulated by recursive coils of AfterEffects scripting. Smoke and mirrors, in a sense, but they have that visual impact McKeich is after; he shows them in large groups, which adds to the uncanny effect. The apparently infinite variety of these faces makes them both more intriguing and more unsettling than the usual science fiction clone-armies. While the artist might deny it, there's a conceptual hook here too; who are these portraits of, after all? Aren't these zombies the faces of those studio assistants, who work tirelessly through the night, those macros within macros. This time, they've been rendering themselves.


imagineer said...

Stunning. Will the works be exhibited anytime soon.

Mitchell said...

All of them have been exhibited in Australia - largely Melbourne - over the past few years. The pzombies also featured in a recent issue of Australian photomedia journal Photofile, which you might be able to track down.