In an attempt to better articulate my working practices today, a brief overview of my methodology from the last 25 years might provide some meaningful context.
Early work :: Geometric meter
From the mid 90s to about 10 years ago my art was entirely constructed using simple euclidean geometry. The geometry was not used to structure an additional arbitrary layer of art, but the geometric systems I evolved formed the very fabric of every transition and boundary within the art composition. With this method I hoped to create a metered system to order my compositional space in an equivalent way to how tempo and harmonics structures the abstract world of sound in music composition.
Semi generative art
Because my pre-genererative work was so constrained and metered by a definable compositional rule set and grammar I call it semi-generative. The randomness in this system of creation was my own intuition. Each new intuitive starting point is iterated over using the ruleset and a composition is born, not unlike a purely generative output using a script. In one sense, I do not feel there is such a large distinction between what we might call scripted generative and more conventional methods of making art. An artist who evolves a style and subject over many decades is essentially creating a visual grammar and vocabulary of primitives to express their subject. Crafting an algorithm for me at least is the same process.
New generative investigations
During the last 10 years my focus has shifted towards creating art from code and at the same time building visualization tools to explore a particular geometric object that’s fascinated me for over 20 years. The primitive building block of this object I call the Protofield.
Layering and changing the harmonic properties of these fields give rise to quasi periodic interference patterns. When the results of these investigations are visually rich and intriguing I often build new algorithms to explore the visual properties that excite me.
The primary goal of the work is not always to make art, but sometimes just to build better intuitions about the nature of the geometric objects and the requirements of the tools I need to build to explore them further. Like this, sometimes the geometry informs the art and sometimes the art informs the geometry. Because I cannot always call it art or an academic study I feel like I’m exploring an undefined space with an undefined goal. When I pause and look at my complete body of work through the lens of a single discipline I always find it lacking, but when viewed as a journey that weaves between disciplines and a synthesis of ideas and practices I am always intrigued and artistically rejuvenated by the strange territory I have traversed. Simultaneous to this is always an intuitive movement, born from silent meditation and an impulse not to know where I am going or where I have already been.
Visual language :: Subject - March 10th 2022
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.
Finding meaning in the Protofield primitive
My interest in finding visual ways to represent infinity began in art school. I had heard people talk about how difficult it was for them to get-their-heads-around the idea of infinity and I even heard a friend say the idea scared him on some level. For whatever reason, for as long as I can remember, I felt more comfortable with the idea of infinity than the notion that anything could be assigned an arbitrary finite value. Looking back I wonder if I had or have a kind of hyperbolic dyslexia (That’s a joke). Something like hyperbolic geometry seemed a more natural way to articulate the world of inner experience, and even from a young age I felt the number line as it is conventionally known was, well, ugly. I didn’t like the fact it had a hole in it and that it could never fully be represented on a piece of paper. That was my intuitive sense anyway. Of course I am not arguing that the number line is not a very powerful and useful construct, but as a starting point to build language to describe our inner world of experience and consciousness it seemed like the wrong primitive. And as an artist, that was my lofty aspiration.
I actually remember the day I first sat down with pencil and paper and consciously started to think about ways to visually represent infinity. It was Easter day 1995. I started by drawing a line with a zero in the middle to represent the conventional number line with positive and negative infinity at either end.
Next I thought if I could go back before the big bang into absolute nothingness and tossed my pencil into that void, relative to that void my pencil would be infinite. Relative to nothing all things are infinite in a sense. n/0 = infinity. So I drew a line to represent a one dimensional line in the void with zero at either end and infinity in the middle. Keep in mind, here I was just thinking about finding very basic primitives from which to build something less abstract and ultimately an artistic expression.
Next I thought about how best to represent change or difference along this line. I wanted a way to do this in a purely visual way so numbers were too symbolic and also numbers would bring us right back to some kind of arbitrary value system. Instead I thought of using circles because on some level they seemed to express infinity. So the radius of each circle can represent something that can change. Through the middle I drew a straight line like a y axis. This represented a circle with infinite radius, this was my upper limit. At the end of my infinity line were the two zeros. Here we have two points which could also be represented by circles with zero radius. It turns out that there is a natural geometric continuum of circles between these extremes that do not intersect. Intersections I felt would just add an additional level of complexity and at this point I was just looking for something pure and simple. I call this set of circles the protofield wave set.
This simple distribution pattern of circles is commonplace in geometry and is produced using Möbius Transformation. The structure also describes the distribution of electromagnetic fields.
For reasons I will discuss later I call the red circle the origin circle. This circle is orthogonal (intersects at a right angle) to every circle in the protofield wave set. We can also draw any number of circles (examples in blue) that intersect the two zero points and they will also be orthogonal to the protofield wave set. Notice the original infinity line is a circle of infinite radius that belongs to this second orthogonal set of circles. I call this second set the orthogonal set.
Typically, in most of my artistic constructions the protofield wave set intersects the origin circle at regular intervals around the origin circle. I call the angle that defines that interval Alpha. Generally when the wave interval is regular, as opposed to being exponential or random, the result when the protofield is rotated and combined (in the next step) is clearer and more crystalline.
Flatness vs illusionistic space ~ An Historical primer
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
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?
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.
A few concepts relating to Photon's Dream that need to be fleshed out
Waveform plotting and color modeling
These outputs are plotted pixel by pixel in a single nested loop. All calculations are derived from wave functions including all color values. Thus far I have avoided using libraries to render preset elements or arbitrary preset palettes. I would never say never, but generally I prefer the directness and rawness of knowing precisely how the values of each pixel is calculated. Nothing apart from maybe the determination of the aspect ratio is created independently of the related set of waveforms that are represented in a given output. This method, for me, seems to be more in harmony with my subject and produces a homogenous and integrated result that is authentic to the original artistic vision.
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.