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English translation
of an article printed in Dutch (along with a different translation into English) in Perspektief 47/48 (June 1994), Rotterdam. A slightly shorter Dutch version was printed in the catalogue of an exhibition by Artificial.Mac in Galerie van Rijsbergen, Rotterdam, 1993. [Hein Eberson (ed.): Artificial. Trademark™, Amsterdam, 1993.]

Dirk van Weelden

An ideal, a name, an explorer


        In an period when the complex movements and the mesmerizing bodies of machines were still sexy, Alfred Jarry wrote his neo-scientific novel Gestes et Opinions du docteur Faustroll, pataphysicien. In this book, Henri Rousseau 'le Douanier' employs a painting-machine equipped with a 'beneficient lance' to put the 'uniform stillness of chaos' onto already painted canvases.
        Fifteen years later, in his novel Locus Solus, Raymond Roussel describes an ingenious machine which hovers up and down while it makes use of chronometers, sun and wind to lay, in a completely automatic manner, a mosaic of hundreds of thousands of human teeth. Later still, surrealists try to write and draw 'automatically', and cherish the emblem of the blind photographer.

        After his arrival in America, Marcel Duchamp chooses some ready-mades from the ample supply of mass consumer goods. His choice constitutes an exercise in visual indifference, an attempt to renounce every artistic intent, every form of good or bad taste. In this way he hopes to make art permeable, to open it up for extra-artistic experiences, perceptions and ideas.

        There are many more recent examples, but I deliberately mentioned some old ones. These are old and noble ideals: the anti-naturalistic, anti-psychological longing for an absolute and permanent experimental activity which would explore the unseen, the unthought, the unknown; t
he idea that there is much to think, to learn and to discover through the study of images and situations that do not represent or express anything, that merely result from impartial processes and combinations; to produce or evoke fascinating things without paying attention to beauty, style and the addiction to meaning and interpretation; and the suspicion that such an escape is only possible by mechanical means.
        Human fantasy is limited, it easily runs up against mirrors. Just as scientists do not explore nature with their eyes, ears and nose any more, but via electrical and mechanical measuring devices, artists might do the same. The search for such a mechanical artistic instrument or such a method for stretching the boundaries of our imagination, is a constant presence in the twentieth century -- it is the romantic soul of the modern era.


        In his 1992 Jacquard lecture, Remko Scha charts the possibilities and limitations of computational art production. He does not view the computer as a contemporary palette knife, but discusses a more fundamental idea: the computer as a medium for 'artificial art', art which is produced by artificial rather than by human means. He observes that computers excel in tasks in which humans are less strong: memorizing, sorting and comparing, and carrying out complex symbol manipulations. But they are notoriously bad in simulating human perception. And the idea of an artificial emotional life is even more obviously restricted to the realm of science fiction. For the time being, therefore, Scha's highest expectations for artistic computer applications are concerned with what he calls "the calculation of fully automatic chance art".
        Scha emphasizes the exploration of "the total search space" defined by a set of assumptions. Human art is always limited by convention and personal preference. A person can do little more than collecting minimal variations. In his own words: "(...) if we are more interested in unconventional solutions than in conventional ones, the computer program is superior!" Several years ago he thus developed an installation that involved a drawing pen and a brush, driven by electric sabre saws and drills, which made "machine drawings" following an algorithmic pattern.
        Artificial is a computer program he wrote, which subjects digitally stored images to a series of random processes. A program lives in an electronic machine, a network of circuits. Everything it processes and every process that it executes only consists of numbers and symbols. Hence the idea of a 'programming language' -- a system of 'traffic rules' which integrates data, processes and commands into a working mechanism. Because programs work in terms of language, they can be made to do things that we usually consider as mental activities, such as counting, calculating, memorizing, searching, comparing and sorting. Though an electronic machine works in a very different way than the human mind, we can employ artificial languages to find mechanical equivalents for the kinds of activities performed by our minds. Not for all of them, but for many of them, and often in ways which surpass human performance in accuracy and speed.
        Sound, image, text, movement, color -- all these things can be translated into the symbols and language employed by an electronic machine. Once they have been coded in an artificial language, the program can combine all the minuscule parts of the symbol sequences. Strictly speaking this can be done at random, i.e., without paying attention to how it sounds, what it looks like, or what it means. The combinations are controlled by the program.
        Remko Scha's Artificial is a program that rewrites or recombines ready-made images and decorative patterns. To generate a new picture, first it makes a random selection of images that it will employ. Then it cuts, crops, scrambles and reorders the symbol sequences which describe the images -- all according to rules, but not always in the same way, because a process of random selection also controls the choice of rules to apply.
        On the screen, the rewritten symbol sequences are turned into pictures again, and we see new images, which have come about automatically, found by the program. The program is a de-coder and bricoleur of pictures, which automatically writes new images.
        The program Artificial consists of twenty pages of printed text. It is a long name, written in programming language, for all images that can possibly be made on the basis of its picture library -- even before they have been constructed, and while we will never know which image will be generated in what way. It is the definition of a galaxy of possible drawings.
        To make a kaleidoscope one gathers beads, shards of coloured glass, pieces of plastic, transparent fabric, etc. These are put in a tube which reflects them many times, showing regular patterns which change at the slightest movement. In Scha's case the collected objects are simple black-and-white pictures, and the tube is a central processing unit. The connection between the mirrors and the moving hand is the program. Artificial: an electronic kaleidoscope.
        For how long would you have to look before the poetry evoked by the complexity of the images would vanish, and the mechanical and limited character of Artificial's punctilious combinatorial mania becomes noticeable? Much longer, probably, than it would take for a viewer to resist his tendency to start to distinguish beautiful drawings from ugly ones, successes from failures. Much longer also than the viewer would have to wait to be struck by the first flickering art-historical connections, or the first time to catch himself searching and smelling a meaning.
        Artificial could be used as a mental fitness-machine: to enhance one's capacity to resist the infiltration of taste, art and meaning, and to increase one's endurance for delay, deceleration and undecidability.


        A number of snapshots of the permanent stream of pictorial hotchpotch produced by Artificial is exhibited in a gallery for contemporary art. The author of Artificial made these images possible, but the program found these images, i.e., assembled them from existing input material. Who made the images? This question immediately evokes counter-questions: was it 'doing' or 'making' that happened here? And what is 'making' in this case?
       Yet the presentation looks as if an artist offers his products here for viewing and for sale as works of art. Are the visitors lured into viewing the Artificial program as an artist, as a kind of robot-artist who makes his debut here? Kaspar Hauser? The naieve art of the future?
       But precisely the 'business as usual' presentation of the images disguises the complex and paradoxical character of the works and the exhibition. As in many other cases, the emphatic confirmation of conventions in a situation where clearly something is amiss, is a revealing satirical-critical instrument. The exhibition is a joke which does not provoke laughter, but difficult questions which are uncomfortable and confusing for many -- questions which rarely surface in galleries full of objects made by real people and clearly recognizable as art works, but which could be asked there just as well.
        As he emphasizes in his Jacquard-lecture, Scha's notion of art is based on the idea of "practicing the esthetic interpretation of everything. (...) The project of artificial art shows that the awareness of the interpretability of everything is indeed a new beginning, of an activity which is related to art, but which is nevertheless clearly different from traditional art practice. The crux is that we really do not know what 'everything' is!"
       What is most beautiful (yes!) about Remko Scha's work on Artificial is that he shows little interest in the esthetic qualities of the output. For him the program itself is the investigation, an experiment without preconceived goal or function. He intends to develop the program much further, in more sophisticated programming languages, for more powerful computers, so that the material that Artificial employs can be richer, the processing more varied. He thus remains true to his starting point that "because of the conventional patterns of human thinking, we tend to be satisfied with what we happen to encounter in the world as it is, or what looks exactly like that. I propose to explore the combinatorics of the space defined by our repertoire of material and conceptual elements and operations, and employ scientific and tevchnological tools in doing that."
        Artificial could become something like a space probe, like Voyager, an explorer that travels to unknown corners of the universe and completely automatically transmits the most astonishing images to earth. We do not know exactly where they come from, what we must think about them, what they mean or what we should do with them. A kaleidoscope that can learn, a kaleidoscope that will be able to operate on all the images of the world, moving, static, real and artificial images, and that transforms them into something that no human can imagine. What exactly such a machine has to do with art, and how this mighty instrument could be used in the future, I do not know -- but I wish it existed already.