Photon’s Dream

A photon is a particle representing a quantum of light. Because it travels at the speed-of-light, time and space as we understand it do not exist for this elementary particle. The Big Bang was less than an instant ago for the photon and yet it has already traversed the cosmos. Time and space to it is what? It's hard to say. The word non-dual comes to mind.

Some components in Photon’s Dream look like images from an electron microscope. Other parts have a more cosmic or planetary vista. Juxtaposing both creates tension and intrigue where the boundary between fine texture and grand architecture becomes blurred.

The expression ‘One in all: all in one’ is somehow embodied in the wavefield primitives used to make this art. Art that aspires to create both holistic simplicity and the mystery of deep complexity. The quasicrystal and hyperbolic geometry employed here are subjects to the artist that express what is beyond macro and micro, internal and external and ultimately self and other.

Geometric primitives

This project grew out of a series of tools I developed to explore and build intuitions about a geometric object I have been fascinated with for over two decades. I call this object a Protofield. This wave field in turn can be combined in specific ways to produce interference patterns that belong to another, more complex, class of objects called quasicrystals. Quasicrystals have been gaining increasing attention in the scientific community due to their unusual and remarkable properties when produced in the atomic structures of a new breed of materials. The Protofield which creates every part of Photon’s Dream has its own curious properties that make it a powerful building block for constructing generative art. In essence the field contains a finite expression of an infinite set of all possible scales of radial waves. In artistic terms this can mean it is possible to generate a high degree of visual variety using only a few primitive building blocks. Quasicrystals by definition are non periodic space filling patterns. So as we traverse within a crystal it never repeats its structure. This also lends itself to building complex and intriguing visual dynamics especially when we start to emphasize harmonic relationships within the crystals.

Move mouse over below to manipulate protofield

Some interactive visualizers to help explain the next steps in construction

Visual language and Subject

As I see it, one of the challenges of making expressive generative art is finding a meaningful ‘subject’. Here, I’m going to draw a distinction between a subject and artistic language although there is a sense in mature art in which the two are completely enmeshed and cannot be teased apart. A subject as I am defining it is an external source of information. Not a data set specifically as the information could be an emotion, a message, a text, a cultural movement or many other things conceptual or physical in nature. Visual language as I am defining it is visual marks and the grammar that tend to constrain the organization and relationship of those marks in a compositional and textual way.

Visual language in this sense, evolved by artists throughout time, is not unlike a generative algorithm. Until the advent of computers however that algorithm was not explicitly defiable in code, but embodied in the act of creation, in the medium and in the aesthetic impulse of the artist. Contrary to a casual notion of creativity, limitation is the key to expression. Without very tight constraints any artist has no distinct style, no visual language. Often we adopt the stylistic constraints of our time without even being conscious of it. Typically, artists of today do not adopt the visual language and mediums of the past but we do think we are on this creative knife edge of expressing something entirely fresh, but we are not creating in a vacuum. Everything we see and experience sets up and contextualizes the languages we are co-creating in this artistic epoch.

Now that I have defined my concept of ‘visual language’, I want to talk about the relationship between visual language and ‘subject’. I would argue that an artist doesn’t just use visual language to express a subject, but uses the language to think about and explore a subject. An artistic language provides us another means to abstract our reality to give it meaning and also access our inner emotional and even transcendental worlds. Plato reportedly said that geometry was the purest philosophical language. We also have the saying - ‘A picture is worth a thousand words’. I believe our artistic language and even tools we use to create it are an extension of our minds that give us purview to intuitions we may not have access to when relying on words alone.

For me, the ‘subject’, is an external source and a field of investigation that provides a rich seam of visual ideas, intuition and mystery. I feel if the subject is shallow, then visual poetry and surprise is not readily forthcoming. There is a natural creative flow that comes from being in relationship with a subject that fascinates us and is an expressive proxy for deeper truths about ourselves. Investigate one thing completely and in it you will find both no absolute reality and the entire universe. The subject that I have found that has artistically captivated my attention for over 20 years is a simple geometric object that can be defined as a waveform primitive. I will go on to describe why I find this primitive so intriguing in the coming days.

Flatness vs illusionistic space ~ An Historical primer

Las Meninas by Velasquez
Fuji from the Minobu River by Hokusai

Many artists in the last century became interested in the surface of the canvas and what could be called pictorial space as opposed to illusionistic space that we see in photorealistic art. The idea of flattening an image and honoring the fact that a painting or drawing is first and foremost a surface is often thought of to be a key revolutionary idea developed in Western art in the beginning of the last century. Perhaps more accurately the practice of attempting to create illusionistic art, that began with the advent of oil painting, was a relatively small and Western centric period in art history. I believe the notion that many Eastern traditions drew scenes using isometric projections because they didn’t understand perspective and foreshortening is conceited and fundamentally missing the point. We see many devices in Eastern art including isometric drawing and the clear delineation of negative spaces that are primarily about increasing the tension and diversity of abstract markings on a flat surface. These devices respect the reality of the surface and do not attempt to create a false impression of illusionistic volume or depth. It’s not that other cultures could not master perspective, I feel it was more that the idea to do so just did not seem relevant to making art and clearly communicating an artistic vision or narrative.

Playing in the space of pictorial space

Las Meninas, after Velázquez by Picasso
Officer and Laughing Girl by Vermeer

At this point I want to be clear that I am not for or against art that employs illusionistic devices. I believe art and the rationale around making art throughout time just change. My feeling is that artistic movements do not get closer or further away from any ultimate truth or integrity. Standing in front of a Vermeer it would be silly to bring his methods into question, when the work he made was so exquisite and compositionally robust. In many of Vermeer’s interior scenes the largest wall is nearly always parallel to the canvas and often has pictures and furniture on them that echo the pictorial boundary. This is another way to flatten the picture and create tension between the illusion of depth and the surface of the canvas. Great artists always seem to find ways to play tricks with whatever visual devices they employ and create tension and variety in whatever spatial modality they are working with.

What’s all this got to do with Photon’s Dream?

Early attempt to create generative illusionistic space from Chakra algorithm
Early attempt to flattern quasicrystal space from Photon's dream algorithm

In this series, I wanted to juxtapose both outputs that had a very flat surface-texture feel to them with outputs that looked more like objects in illusionistic space. This is a homage to the rich history of Western art going back to the 16th century and the golden age of Dutch painting and through to the 20th century and abstract expressionism. The most successful outputs for me are the ones that contain both and thus have a tension and ambiguity. The sense of scale is also something I want to create a mystery around. Some outputs look like they could be images from a microscope or even an electron microscope. Some have a much more cosmic vista to them. This notion of melding the macro with the micro and the inside with the outside is a fundamental feature of the protofield primitives I use to construct the work. This notion I hope is also expressed in the project name. Because the Photon travels at the speed-of-light, time in the sense we understand it does not pass. The big bang was less than an instant ago for the Photon and yet it has already traversed the cosmos. Scale and space to the Photon is what? Its hard to say. The word non-dual comes to mind.

Flattening through emphasizing boundaries - Photon's Dream
Spherification function creates more illusionistic space in the middle panel

The aristic challenge of the ArtBlocks model, as I understand it

For the artist wishing to design for the ArtBlocks model we are presented with what appears to be new creative challenges and also new creative opportunities.For as long as there have been computers artists have made art from code, this is not the real challenge here. The challenge for theArtBlocks artist is to craft an algorithm that is able to construct 1000+ consecutive outputs with a high degree of distinguishability; without making outputs with compromised artistic integrity and all expressing the same unified artistic vision. This challenge in terms of medium and technical methodology is a new one, however it is also a reconfiguration of the age-old artistic challenge of creating variety within unity.

In the 7th century when oil paint was first adopted it radically changed the way art was made, the way it looked and the way it was sold. It also changed what subjects artists could and wanted to express. NFT and art from code, may have a similar degree of transformation of the way art is made, sold and perceived. It strikes me that the ArtBlocks model is creating a sub genre within that general movement that will nurture and facilitate and to some degree force a new type of artwork. An artwork that’s an expression of a greater whole. The greater whole being the algorithm and ruleset that created it.

For reasons that I hope will become clear I ask the reader to hold the coming analogy lightly and also imagine that in 3000 years the Ethereum block chain has been erased.An archaeologist at this time could potentially reverse engineer a digitally fossilized generative Art output in a similar way that a physicist today attempts to divine the laws-of-nature. Maybe even, future people time do this as a hobby and watch shows called Ancient Algorithms.

This, of course, is a little absurd, but flipping the process might give us some insight into levels of artistic sophistication presented in an ArtBlocks artwork set. In the future I wonder if there will be a perceived correlation between the difficulty and steps needed to get a sense of an algorithm from the outputs and the artistic sophistication of that algorithm. I say this because nature shows us the greatest beauty contains the greatest mysteries. So I guess I’m saying that there is a sense in which the generative artist is playing God. They are crafting their laws of nature and letting the universe run. How rich, varied and harmonious and maybe unexpected the result will point to the true creativity and inspiration that went into the genesis of those laws.

Some of the straight monochrome outputs are compelling, but the quality density of this simple approach is not great. There are many substandard outputs without additional processes and a large set would be monotonous. Including a small number of unprocessed monochrome outputs is also problematic as it’s difficult to tell just from the input parameters what ones are going to be interesting. It seems in the process of developing an algorithm for the ArtBlocks model there are a lot of good things I’ve had to discard, but then if we are only discarding crap methods this could be an indication that our direction lacks a truly rich potential. I feel you need some gold even in your trash can. There is a story about Matisse who would ask his students what their favorite part of their painting was. He would then proceed to erase it. The implication being that if we are precious about a single part we lose sight of the whole.