Saturday, April 28, 2007

going DEAF: Pneumatic Sound & Hardware Surrealism

After a short and jetlag-altered visit to Rotterdam, I've been reflecting on some more works from DEAF. My documentation was pretty poor (phone cams don't like dark exhibition halls) but luckily Anne Helmond has some excellent photos from the show, and we liked many of the same works. Helmond also shared my observation that despite the theme ("Interact or Die!") the strongest works were non-interactive (even non-computational).

One other work that rates a mention was Edwin van der Heide's Pneumatic Sound Field, an outdoor installation made up of a suspended grid of 42 pneumatic valves under electronic control. Rapidly switched, the valves emit tiny bursts of white noise - not to mention (as the artist points out) actual air, the material substrate of sound itself. The result is visually underwhelming - a metal spaceframe snaked with little hoses - but sonically and perceptually amazing. Impulses of sound and air flicker over the grid, moving between discrete rhythmic pulses and fused granular clouds that traverse the space like waves. The valves are tiny, perfectly discrete sound sources, so the textures they create are packed with spatial detail, even if they are limited in sonic variety. Van der Heide frames the work as a perceptual and acoustic experiment, but its reception is equally shaped by techno (post-techno, whatever) and its language of immersive pulse and timbre. In other words, it reminded me of Pan(a)Sonic. And like Roots and especially Ondulation (blogged previously), Pneumatic Sound Field uses physical media to create a perceptual field that is richer, higher-res, and more inherently dynamic, than the computational equivalent.

Finally, a work that isn't post-computational at all, but tightly and ironically wedged inside digital culture. Exonemo's Object B is in part a Half-Life mod with a case of Surrealism. Your gun emits oil drums, trucks, furniture, cows and lumps of masonry, which accrete into bizarre composites. What's more, the mod seems to have leaked out of the computer; most of the "players" are controlled by spastic robotic sculptures made from home hardware and electronics shop detritus. It's a beautiful and incisive satire of human-computer interaction, as well as the whole paradigm of 3D graphics. The mass culture readymades of game geometry and home hardware converge in a mad, twitching clump. Documentation online is a bit sparse, but check out this video from


Sunday, April 22, 2007

Procedurally Hip: Generative Motion Graphics

The title sequence for the latest Bond film Casino Royale is one of its high points (which admittedly is not saying much). It's a stylish motion graphics confection: stencilled rotoscoping, shatters with simulated physics, prominent Saul Bass references. More interesting for me, some of it appeared to use classic generative techniques, shape grammars and branching recursion. Playing card iconography grows into curvy tendrils and later, Mandelbrot-like blobs. There's some general info online but not much on specific techniques - are there Inferno plugins for doing recursive geometry? Did the designers do some custom coding? The sequence was directed by Daniel Kleinman and designed by William Bartlett and Adam Parry at Framestore CFC.

Procedural aesthetics in motion graphics are nothing new - Saul Bass used (analog, optical) procedural techniques. But the Casino Royale titles coincide with a recent trend towards custom coded generative and procedural elements in commercial motion graphics. See for example the Nike 'One' ads by Motion Theory and more recently the Audi TT teaser from Universal Everything & Toxi (which now has a making of video). I'm certainly not the first to observe that code-based tools like Processing are gaining a foothold in genres dominated by proprietary tools like AfterEffects and Shake.

I've started talking about this trend with my students, as a way to argue for why they need to learn to code (and initially at least, learn Processing). It works as an argument because motion graphics as a form is, for many of my undergrads, the sexiest thing around. It's the high-speed flagship of commercial visual culture - where new styles emerge, proliferate, and are superseded within a few weeks. Which is why this generative trend (if that 's what it is) is all the more interesting: is motion graphics going to chew through generative techniques like they're last year's hottest AfterEffects filter? Or will tools like Processing actually change the practice in this field? Custom code holds the potential for more aesthetic diversity, but how will that fit with the trend-driven visual economy of commercial motion graphics? What about the open source ethos? Whatever, it's bound to look really cool. And that's the main thing, right?


Thursday, April 12, 2007

going DEAF: Sound, Image, Matter, Form

I'm in Rotterdam, briefly, for DEAF07 - a little taste of the European new media festival scene. Synaesthetic media has been a minor theme - primed perhaps by the train trip from Amsterdam airport to Rotterdam; I had a hunch that minimal European techno would go nicely with the gliding green planes of the Dutch landscape. I was right: superb - though no doubt the jet lag helped, and of course I probably got the idea from Michel Gondry in the first place. My soundtrack was by The Field and Ellen Allien and Apparat.

A kind of material synaesthesia from Canadian artist Thomas McIntosh, whose Ondulation is one of the standout works in the DEAF exhibition. The work uses water as a connective medium between sound and light. Amplified tones create standing waves in a large shallow pool of water; lights reveal and reflect the wave patterns. Ondulation parallels earlier work exploring sound, vibration and form, especially Hans Jenny's cymatics and the late-60s cybernetic sculptures of Wen-Ying Tsai. The documentation of Ondulation is nice, but the scale and material presence of the work is much more powerful; it's an elegant, non-computational way to achieve the kind of tightly fused AV that many other artists are currently exploring. It feels deeply retro - it's essentially a programmatic son-et-lumiere show - and very contemporary; the visuals reference (and totally surpass) digital sound visualisations.

Roman Kirschner's work Roots, another dynamic / generative sculpture, also stood out for me. More cybernetic influences here: Roots draws on cybernetician Gordon Pask's experiments with growing conductive metal filaments in a solution. Pask showed that a device can "grow" a new sensor adapted to its input - something that remains beyond the capacity of most computational systems (see this paper from Peter Cariani). Roots mines the aesthetic potential of Pask's technique: filaments branch, curl and intersect, suspended in an orange-brown haze and streaming dark, viscous clouds. As Kirschner points out their growth and disintegration both shapes and is shaped by changes in the electrical current flowing through them. There's material synaesthesia here too: the voltage at each filament drives a simple analog sonification of those electrical transformations. Unlike Ondulation, the scale of the work is small and intimate, but both works have the same feeling of encounter, a sort of physical self-evidence often absent in computational, screen-based work.


Monday, April 02, 2007

Computational Nature Studies

The ABC's new arts show is about landscape painting; in the first episode aired last week, John Wolseley worked with three Bendigo artists at an old mine site. For mainstream arts TV it was actually pretty good, thanks largely to Wolseley's eccentric persona - somewhere between British naturalist and deep ecology shaman. His ethos also struck me, based around an experiential and material immersion in the landscape. At one point he scraped his canvas over some charred saplings, "collaborating" with them to arrive at a scratchy charcoal underlayer of the developing work.

Over the weekend I visited the coast and wondered about generative art as a medium for responding to landscape. I can't grind up local ochres for a nice impasto, so where does that leave me? Alienated, blinking in the sunlight, laptop plein-air? I did a quick experiment, studying the textures of the surrounding casurina forest and coding up a simple drawing machine in Processing. As in drawing, I worked from close observation, but it was synoptic, rather than specific; looking for patterns, tendencies, signatures, rather than tracing details. And to respond the generative artist has to find a procedure or algorithm, rather than an image - a way of making something. That gap between observation and procedure is productive in itself. Observation constantly challenges the representational ability of the algorithm: the lichen that grows on the casurina trunks is a crucial visual element in that texture, but the procedure I wrote was focused on growing trunks, not lichen. One path leads towards more detailed simulation; another could be to treat the model as a sketch or diagram - a looser and perhaps more poetic representation.

Jon McCormack's work has been exploring this territory for years; Eden, Morphogenesis (pictured) and the latest Bloom are all responses to a specific (Australian) landscape. The audio ecosystem of Eden was inspired by a visit to Litchfield National Park in the Northern Territory. Morphogenesis and Bloom come from more detailed studies of native plants, which are modelled then slightly mutated. McCormack's earlier Turbulence was an all-out digital hypernature; these latest works are crypic variants, rather than fantastic monsters. By "detuning" the model, these nature studies interact with their originals to set up a kind of uncanny interference pattern.

Way back in 1994 McCormack argued for the role of the computational medium as a way of knowing about the world: "You might expect that my ideas about the world are introverted around the machine, in fact the opposite is true. The computer has shown me things about the world that I could not have known, understood or seen any other way. I see and appreciate nature in a fundamentally different way than before." (Wild essay) Is this still true of the Flash/Processing generation of artists? The current aesthetic seems to reflect an environment that is predominantly urban, networked and social. Any exceptions come to mind? Where are the new computational nature studies?