Monday, October 29, 2007

More is More: Multiplicity and Generative Art

Douglas Edric Stanley wrote a nice post recently on complexity and gestalts in code and generative graphics. In it he wonders about "all those lovely spindly lines we see populating so many Processing sketches, and how they relate with code stuctures." I've been wondering about the same thing for a while, and Stanley's post has prodded me to chase up a few of these ideas.

Stanley makes some astute observations about the aesthetic economics of generative art; the fact that it costs almost exactly the same, for the programmer, to draw one, a hundred or a million lines. Stanley pursues the machinic-perceptual implications - how simple code structures contribute to the formation of gestalts; but he only hints at what seems like a more interesting question, of how these generative aesthetics relate to their cultural environment: "all of these questions of abstraction and gestalt are in fact questions about our relationship to complexity and the role algorithmic machines (will inevitably) play in negotating our increasing complexity malaise."

I actually don't think complexity is the right concept here. For me complexity refers to causal relations that are networked, looped and intermeshed (as in "complex systems"). These "lovely spindly lines", and Stanley's gestalt-clouds, show us multiplicity but not (necessarily) complexity. Simple, linear processes are just as good at creating multiplicity. There's certainly a relationship here - complex systems often produce multiplicitous forms and structures; and causal complexities embedded in "real" datasets seem to be a reliable source of rich multiplicities - but complexity and multiplicity aren't the same thing. For the moment I want to focus on the aesthetics of multiplicity.

Multiplicity is the uber-motif of current digital generative art - especially the scene around Processing. Look through the Flickr Processing pool and try to find an image that isn't some kind of swarm, cloud, cluster, bunch, array or aggregate (this one is by illogico). The fact that it's easy to do is a partial and not-very-interesting explanation; to go one step further, it's easy and it feels good. Multiplicity offers a certain kind of aesthetic pleasure. There's probably a neuro-aesthetics of multiplicity, if you're into that, which would show how and where it feels good. Ramachandran and Hirstein have suggested that perceptual "binding" - our tendency to join perceptual elements into coherent wholes - is wired into our limbic system, because it's an ecologically useful thing to do. Finding coherence in complex perceptual fields just feels good. The perceptual fields in generative art are almost always playing at the edges of coherence, buzzing between swarm and gestalt - just the "sweet spot" that Ramachandran and Hirstein propose for art in general.

I don't find this explanation very satisfying either, because it doesn't seem to tell us anything much about the processes involved - it's a "just because," and a fairly deterministic one. Another way in is to think formally about the varieties of multiplicity in generative art. I rediscovered Jared Tarbell's wonderful Invader Fractal (below) in the Reas/Fry Processing book recently. It shows a kind of multiplicity that's the same but different to the "spindly lines" aesthetic. Each invader is the product of a simple algorithm; the whole mass is a visualisation of a space of potential - a sample (but not an exhaustive display) of the space of all-possible-25-pixel- invaders. Multiplicity here is a way to get a perceptual grasp on something quite abstract - that space of possibility. We get a visual "feel" for that space, but also a sense of its vastness, a sense of what lies beyond the visualisation. John F. Simon's Every Icon points in the same direction; towards the vastness of even a highly constrained space of possibility (32x32 1-bit pixels).

Perhaps current aesthetics of multiplicity are actually doing something similar. The technical differences are fairly minor; basically a switch in spatial organisation from array to overlay; a compression of instances into a single picture plane. The shortest (and my personal favourite) path to multiplicity in Processing is aggregation: turn off background() and let the sketch redraw. Reduce the opacity of the drawing for an accumulating visualisation of the space of possibility that your sketch is traversing. Multiplicity here isn't an effect or aesthetic for its own sake; it's intrinsically linked to one of the defining qualities of generative systems - their creation of large but distinctive spaces of potential. Multiplicity is again a way to literally sense that space; but also, since it almost never exhausts or saturates that space, it points to an open, ongoing multiplicity; it actualises a subset of a virtual multiplicity, and shows us (as in Every Icon) how traversing that space is only a question of specifics and contingencies. Multiplicity says "and so on"; an actual gesture towards the virtual.

Multiplicity refers to the specific space of potential in any single system, by actualising a subset of points within it; but it also metonymically refers to an even wider space of potential, which is the one that all computational generative art - and in fact all digital culture - traverses. Because of course any system can be tweaked and changed, no chunk of code is immutable or absolute, the machines of the Processing pool are ever-changing things that collectively sample the space of all possible (generative) computation. Just as it refers directly to the space of potential of its own (local) system, generative multiplicity alludes to the unthinkable space-of-spaces that contains that system - a space the system gradually traverses with every change in its code.

This, for me, explains the aesthetic and cultural charge that multiplicity carries. It's a gesture towards an abstract, unthinkable figure; an aesthetics of the virtual, in the Bergson / Deleuze sense of the word. What's more this particular form of virtuality, or possibility - the one accessable through code and computation - is at the core of digital culture and our contemporary situation. Generative multiplicity is, quite literally, a visualisation of that figure.


Thursday, October 25, 2007

Technology, Presence Aesthetics and the Frame (more Gumbrecht)

Continuing to think through Gumbrecht's theories of presence and aesthetic experience, I want to focus briefly on his comments on technology, and especially media technologies, in relation to presence. Gumbrecht is understandably ambivalent: "I am trying to neither condemn nor give a mysterious aura to our media environment. It has alienated us from the things of the world and their present - but at the same time, it has the potential for bringing back some of the things of the world to us." [140] Gumbrecht links this alienation with a "Cartesian" desire for omnipresence - the decoupling of experience from the body. But he also suggests that "the more we approach the fulfillment of our dreams of omnipresence ... the greater the possibility becomes of reigniting the desire that attracts us to the things of the world and wraps us into their space" [139]. So the Cartesian tendencies of communications media drive us back towards a consciousness of, and a desire for "presence." This reaction is clear in new media art (and theory), which seems increasingly focused on embodied experience despite, or because of, its (critical) immersion in technology.

Elsewhere in Gumbrecht's writing technology, and even media art, crop up again. In a recent paper on "Aesthetic Experience in Everyday Worlds" Gumbrecht considers how presence-type experiences can manifest outside the stale, exhausted realms of Art, and perhaps bring about a "re-enchantment of the world."

It might be that, at the intersection between some possibilities offered by contemporary technology with that longing for re-enchantment ... we have a chance of discovering the potential for a much more dispersed and decentralized map of aesthetic pleasures, and of a much less "autonomous," stale and heavy-handed style and gesture of Art. ...

Should such a possibility exist indeed, much will depend on the capability of artists and intellectuals to avoid its transformation into a "program." For I am not talking of the complicated merits of new art forms like "video art" or "digital installations" here but ... of straightforward pleasures like driving a high-powered car, riding on a speed train, writing with an old fountain pen or, for some of us at least, running a new software program on the computer - pleasures that do certainly not require the institutional status of aesthetic autonomy." [316]

From a media arts perspective this passage comes over as a sort of theoretical rollercoaster. "Dispersed, de-centralised aesthetic pleasures" and the "re-enchantment of the world" seem like excellent descriptions of the aims, if not always the outcomes, of current media arts. But apparently not! The "complicated merits" of these "new art forms" (sheesh) are no good; give us everyday kinesthetic pleasures instead. And then a final twist: "running a new software program on the computer" might just qualify as one of these dispersed, non-Art aesthetic experiences - echoing one of the refrains of software art.

Gumbrecht is probably most useful for new media art when taken at an angle, rather than head-on. One resonant concept in this "Everyday Worlds" paper is the device of the frame, a "structural threshhold in the flow of our perception" that draws our aesthetic attention to a section or "view" of the everyday world; Japanese culture is held out as an example here. For Gumbrecht this ubiquitous frame is a key device for the potential re-enchantment of the everyday. There are some striking parallels here with new media practice. In the systems art tradition, the frame plays a similar role, isolating or condensing a zone of reality in order to draw our attention to its immanent dynamics. Hans Haacke's 1963 Condensation Cube (above) is the perfect example. In data art, too, framing is a central, constitutive process; in one (idealised) sense data art simply selects and presents segments of the real, with the implication - just like Haacke's Cube and the temple gates - that what's here, is everywhere else; that this beauty (or whatever) is ubiquitous, all-encompassing.


Friday, October 12, 2007

Presence Aesthetics and the Media Arts - First Thoughts

Following Gumbrecht's candid approach, I'll be autobiographical for a minute. I've been trying recently to frame what it is that unites all the practices I'm interested in (and that this blog has been covering): generative art, glitchy / improvised / realtime sound, music and audiovisuals, "fused" or "synaesthetic" AV, data visualisation and sonification, live coding, software practices, systems art. I've been trying to use "inframedia" as a point of connection - this idea of art that refers to, or rather manifests or makes present its own underlying systems. Presence, or at least what Gumbrecht calls "presence effects", might be a more powerful and elegant way to express the same connection.

This work seems to be seeking out those moments or sensations of intense presence that Gumbrecht describes as aesthetic experience. This is no surprise - if Gumbrecht is right then all art pursues those moments. What unites all these practices is a sense of making-themselves-present that we can contrast, again following Gumbrecht, with "meaning culture" uses of the same systems. To pick a more or less arbitrary example, consider Carsten Nicolai's Telefunken (above - image from here). In its released form, the work was an audio CD carrying a signal designed to generate both video and audio; plugging the Telefunken CD into your TV set makes the TV/CD media system, and importantly the signal, present. Flip to broadcast television and you're back in "meaning culture." The point of intensity that Telefunken can induce is precisely a sense of presence, of a circuit of (electronic / audio / visual) materials being themselves. Not (at least not wholly) a sense of the work as an artwork, a manifestation of artistic will, a general or specific commentary on media or art, a self-conscious performance of media-hacking. All those elements are latent in the work, but on the "meaning" side of this binary. In a sense they follow on from that moment of intense presence that, in this work and others like it, seems to be primary. Like Gumbrecht I'm not outlawing interpretation (what critic or theorist would?); instead there's an "oscillation" between presence and meaning. The key is that this theory asserts presence as an autonomous or incompatible mode of experience. Presence can be interpreted, but not interpreted away.

How does data art fit with this schema? There are some striking conjunctions around modes of knowledge. One characteristic of Gumbrecht's "presence culture" is that "legitimate knowledge is typically revealed knowledge. It is knowledge revealed by (the) god(s) or by difference varieties of what one might describe as 'events of self-unconcealment of the world.'" And this is an unconventional form of knowledge: "substance that appears, that presents itself to us (even with its inherent meaning), without requiring interpretation as its transformation into meaning." [81] We can find a similar sense of revelation in artists' discourses around data art; a sense of the revelation of what is inherent in the data; and a transcoding between data-substance and sensory material. Lisa Jevbratt described her data images as "abstract realism" and "objects for interpretation, not interpretations" (the image above is from 1:1). Data art seeks out "events of self-unconcealment of data" - data as materially present. Data artists typically defer or avoid attributing meaning to the data material (though as I've also argued, meaning always leaks in); once again we find an oscillation between presence and meaning, but an emphasis or movement towards the presence side of the binary. We could align, more or less, presence and meaning binary with the data/information distinction I've used recently to critique this practice.

What about generative art? My hunch is that presence is relevant here too, and it has something to do with the generative process; it's that process, and the model or system it entails, that presents itself in generative art. In Jonathan McCabe's Butterfly Origami works (above) we see a complex visualisation of a generative process (an accumulating series of spatial folds and transformations). If there's an aesthetic experience - a moment of intensity - here, perhaps it is some kind of felt revelation of that process. Again we can pursue the work's ramifications on the meaning side, at both the image and system level; but these seem secondary to me. There's much more to do in thinking this through; are there any obvious counterexamples, cases where generative art is not a materialisation or making-present of its own system?

Gumbrecht identifies music as a form in which the "presence dimension" is dominant; as a lapsed musician this seems intuitively right to me. It's interesting then that music plays a role, either as disciplinary background or aesthetic model, in much of the work that I've written about here. My AV poster boy Robin Fox is a practicing musician; his signal visualisation practice (above) is a clear extension of his sound-only work. Peter Newman is a musician and painter. Speaking in 2005 about his work Drift, Ulf Langheinrich comments: "I try to create music ... It is almost like a CD, but visual. And when I see the image, I think this doesn't really need much sound. The reason is that the image is the music - the music is happening there on the screen, so I don't need to amplify it with another source." Contemporary generative art is always nestling up to music; I have a hunch that this affinity is more than superficial. Angela Ndalianis emphasises the visual and representational in her account of neo-baroque aesthetics (blogged earlier); but perhaps the musical aesthetics of the Baroque, which manifest moments of real sensory intensity within abstract formal constraints, are a closer analogy for generative art?

The theory I'm fumbling for here is: that there are practices across all these forms - digital sound and music, audiovisuals, data art and generative art - that are unified by an aesthetics of presence. They push against "meaning culture" by simply manifesting themselves, seeking out moments of embodied intensity in concrete networks of media and computation. More to follow; meantime, as always, thoughts & counter-arguments very welcome.


Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Notes on Gumbrecht's Production of Presence

Jens Hauser, curator of the Still, Living show at BEAP, pointed me to Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht's formulation of "presence culture" vs "meaning culture." Hauser used those ideas in his framing of that exhibition, proposing an understanding of bio-art through an aesthetics of presence. This got my attention, to say the least, and seemed to connect with my own attempts to theorise audiovisual, generative and data practices. How does "presence culture" manifest in the new media arts? I've just now finished reading Gumbrecht's book, Production of Presence: What Meaning Cannot Convey. I certainly haven't digested it properly; these notes are part of that process, and I'll follow them up with some more detailed thoughts on presence culture and the media arts shortly.

Gumbrecht's project centres on the humanities as an academic discipline; a discipline he understands as dominated by a cluster of concepts grouped around "meaning culture":

“Metaphysics” refers to an attitude, both an everyday attitude and an academic perspective, that gives a higher value to the meaning of phenomena than to their material presence; the word thus points to a worldview that always wants to go “beyond” (or “below”) that which is “physical.” ... “Metaphysics” shares [the role of] scapegoat ... with other concepts and names, such as “hermeneutics,” “Cartesian worldview,” “subject/object paradigm” and, above all, “interpretation.” [xiv]

In this paradigm the exclusive role of the humanities is to interpret the meaning (associated with essence, truth, mind, spirit and the immaterial) of a world which the human cogito is in, but not of. Gumbrecht argues that this is a relatively modern state. In presence cultures, by comparison, humans understand themselves as bodies within a material cosmology - Gumbrecht uses Medieval culture as an example. Rather than being produced - through interpretation - beyond or below material things, knowledge in a presence culture is revealed; it occurs in "events of self-unconcealment of the world" or moments of revelation that "just happen" [81]. Through Heidegger's notion of Being, Gumbrecht asks us to imagine a form of knowledge that is "not exclusively conceptual", prior to, or not dependent on, interpretation.

For Gumbrecht the meaning/presence binary is not a simple opposition, and his argument is not conventionally "critical" in that he wants to replace one with the other. Instead the relationship between the two is exclusive but dynamic: "What this book ultimately argues for is a relation to the things of the world that could oscillate between presence effects and meaning effects." [xv] "Presence and meaning always appear together ... and are always in tension. There is no way of making them compatible or of bringing them together in one "well-balanced" phenomenal structure." [105] "Presence phenomena" become "effects of" presence, "because we can only encounter them within a culture that is predominantly a meaning culture. ... [T]hey are necessarily surrounded by, wrapped into, and perhaps even mediated by clouds and cushions of meaning." [106]

Aesthetic experience plays a significant role here, as a source for exemplary instances of presence. For Gumbrecht aesthetic experience is about "epiphanies" or moments of intensity; fleeting, visceral instants of being that might be triggered by good food as much as great art - even (for Gumbrecht) the kinetic beauty of a touchdown pass in a gridiron game. Interestingly he writes, "there is nothing edifying in such moments, no message, nothing that we could really learn from them ... what we feel is probably not more than a specifically high level in the functioning of some of our general cognitive, emotional and perhaps even physical faculties." [98] What we desire here is is "the state of being lost in focused intensity" [104] - an intensity that might be accessed through other means than art - for example, extreme physical states. We desire it, Gumbrecht suggests, because we're overfed with meaning culture - quoting Jean-Luc Nancy Gumbrecht writes: "there is nothing we find more tiresome today than the production of yet another nuance of meaning, of 'just a little more sense.'" [105] The effect of getting lost in this state of intensity, is to "prevent us from completely losing a feeling or a remembrance of the physical dimension in our lives" - to remind us of our being "part of the world of things." Gumbrecht links this to a state of extreme serenity or composure, of "being in sync with the world", which is not to say in harmony or accord, more an embodied feeling of being in, with, and of, the world.

More on Gumbrecht soon - meantime I'd welcome your thoughts and links on these ideas in relation to contemporary art, and especially media art.


Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Pieces of PerthDAC

Final catch-up post from Perth, this time focusing on the DAC conference. It was probably fortunate that most presenters ignored the theme - "The Future of Digital Media Culture" - and as a result there was a wide diversity of art and thought presented. You can read some other (more punctual) responses from Mary Flanagan and Kristy Dena among others. Here are a few of my impressions.

Fox Harrell's GRIOT system is a generative poetry/narrative engine modelled on African diasporic orature. Harrell's work crosses cultural, linguistic and formal/computational domains with impressive ease, and offers a reflective and constructive response to the philosophical critiques of computing culture presented by Phil Agre (for example). He shows how a generative model or ontology can be constructed reflectively or critically, without losing sight of the pleasure and poetics of generativity itself.

Su Ballard gave an interesting paper on the work of New Zealand artist Douglas Bagnall, who was news to me. In Bagnall's Film-Making Robot (2004) webcams mounted on on Wellington buses collect video, then upload it wirelessly to a central server, where the "robot" - neural-network software - analyses the composition of individual frames, classifying them on the basis of some seriously received aesthetic wisdom. Out of this tongue-in-cheek Modernist engine comes abject, jittering, mundane "films" that nonetheless reflect the compositional training of the robot. Bagnall's deadpan, AI-powered deconstruction of the project of aesthetics continues in Cloud Shape Classifier and the latest Mimetic Television, a device that "watches" soap operas and synthesises new video based on frame-difference statistics. Sort of like Jason Salavon's Everything, All at Once, but with an embedded artificial agency; see also Nicolas Baginsky's connectionist robotic musicians, The Three Sirens.

Other generative-flavoured presentations included Jason Lewis of Obx Labs, who presented his interactive / generative digital poetry projects and the NextText library, a Java library for real-time dynamic typography apparently coming soon to Processing. Karl D. D. Willis presented his elegant interactive environment Light Tracer, and TwelvePixels, a pixel-art app for mobile phones; his related paper on "open interactions" is also worth a look.

Keith Armstrong presented a manifesto for "grounded media," a media arts practice that seeks to respond to an ecological crisis "perpetuated by our sense of separation from the material and immaterial ecologies upon which we depend." Armstrong's work foregrounds our material commonalities as well as their articulation with and through digital mediation and representation. His 2007 work InStep illustrates this elegantly; a foot bandage embedded with soft sensors transduces walking into haptic impulses sent to a separate, hand-held sculptural form. Working in pairs, participants gain a sense of another's "imprint upon the ground." Perhaps Armstrong's philosophy addresses the question I put to Toxi recently about sustainability and generative design?

Finally, Simon Penny's paper "Experience and Abstraction" made one of the strongest critical statements of the conference. It continues Penny's sustained critique of the ideologies embedded in technology, focusing especially on its tendencies towards disembodiment, abstraction and generality. Penny sets these against a sense of art as embodied, concrete and specific, and questions the ability of art practice to effectively work against this technological grain. Penny's position is a bit glass-half-empty for me, but it stood as an important challenge to some of the more technophilic tendencies at PerthDAC.


Monday, October 01, 2007

Impermanence - Life by Projector-Light at BEAP

Another quick catchup post from BEAP, before it recedes into the mists of time. The Impermanence show at the John Curtin Gallery is a beautifuly-installed collection of video and interactive works. The gallery is an impressive space and curator Chris Malcolm knows how to deal with media art: HD projections onto custom painted surfaces, well-contained hi-fi sound, careful design and layout, and tons of breathing space. Daniel Lee's Origin (below)was shown as still prints and high-def video loop, and looked quite amazing; though the work in itself didn't stun me. Originally created in 1999, it's almost retro on the new media scene's manic timescale, and to me it was showing its age. For 90s Photoshop organohybrids you can't go past Australian artists Patricia Piccinini, Murray McKeich or Linda Dement - all of whom deliver lush surfaces with a lot more bite than Lee's manipulations.

"Nice, but..." just about sums up my response to this show; Lynette Wallworth's Still:Waiting2 features amazing nature-doco style video, with thousands of small parrots coming to roost in some enormous red gums in the dawn light. But it only made me want to be actually watching the birds instead of sitting in a dark box in front of a HD projector screen. Bill Viola's slowmo screen Observance is very pretty, but I just can't watch the overacting. The most interesting thing in the place was, unfortunately, an outright failure.

When I visited, we were told that Christa Sommerer and Laurent Mignonneau's Eau de Jardin (above) was broken. This work reprises their 1992 classic Interactive Plant Growing, with sensors embedded in potplants driving artificial foliage on a panoramic projection. Ordinarily the artificial plants gradually recede back into their "pond," making space for new creations. But something was wrong and the water plants weren't dying, resulting in a kind of virtual algal bloom: the screen was locked up, choked with life. By contrast the real plants were not looking good at all. The ferns were shedding fronds onto the floor; I heard someone report that the soil in the pots was dry, while gallery staff explained the lengths they were going to in trying to keep the plants alive - wheeling in big UV lamps overnight, to compensate for the dim projector-light of their daytime life. The disjunction was stark; the polarity flipped on the happy techno/bio mix that characterises much of Sommerer and Mignonneau's work. It ocurred to me that a really useful project for all these bio-artists would be to engineer a form of plant life that could live happily under the light of a data projector.