Dirk van Weelden
ideal, a name, an explorer
an period when the complex movements and the mesmerizing bodies of
machines were still sexy, Alfred Jarry wrote his neo-scientific novel
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
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
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; the
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.
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 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
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".
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.
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
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
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.
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 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."
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