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Eric asked some provocative questions in his comment on my last post, a discussion of which warranted a new post.

[eric]:"If art exists in the realm of “messing around” (which I agree), than why code? I thought the benefit of coding was to be able to control more precisely what happens on the screen. If you are looking to mess around and randomly create images to find the one that “feels” right, wouldn’t it be easier to do this using a painting program or some other shortcuts that allow easier ways to mess around?"

Yes, it is easier to use a graphics application to “mess around” rather than having to write code. It is also (usually) easier to take a photograph of a sitter, rather than paint a portrait, or to buy pre-rinsed, pre-cut salad greens to prepare a salad, or to listen to an abridged book on tape or to get all your news off the Fox network. However, degree of ease may not be the correct metric in evaluating the creative process. In easel painting, gravity is an important factor; the viscosity of the paint and the amount of pigment load on the brush are directly dependent on it: Not enough viscosity will cause paint to run, but too much will cause clumping. The process of mixing and thinning is a perpetual balancing act between these 2 extremes. In addition, the treatment of the painting surface (the ground) affects the speed brushes can sweep across it. Larger weave patterns and textured gessoes increase brush drag. Per Erics’s question, these craft issues could be seen as inefficiencies in the painting process, and perhaps to be avoided (if possible.) However, these sorts of factors also provoke creative engagement, demanding a multi-modal response by the artist. Even the solitary creative process is therefore collaborative, through the artist’s relationship with her materials.

Writing code has similar inefficiencies and collaborative possibilities. Although, the inefficiencies are less literally material. Rather than brush drag, there is brain drag, as code abstraction remains a perpetual struggle. Code structures, often bundled as modular processing units, have input and output concerns, which can be conceptualized as brush sweeps, having entry and exit points. The issue of thin (running) vs. thick (clumping) in painting also has a parallel concern with regard to economy of encapsulated processing (a code module can do too much or too little). These inefficiencies in coding, similar to the inefficiencies in other creative processes, demand an engaged response by the coder. And focused engagement is at the heart of any creative process.

[eric]:"It also seems like stretching the definition of art to say plugging random numbers into mathematical equations is akin to a creative process. Ira’s process of creation here seems more similar to tossing a stone into a pond and observing the ripples. Yes, each toss would be unique and the artist can observe the ripples and decide which ones are most pleasing. But so what? This is not a human experience that is likely to touch another human being in such a way to be deemed a great piece of art. If it did work as art, it would be more aptly labeled a beautiful natural wonder of the world rather than a man-made masterpiece. Perhaps that is the role of this digital artform - to visualize the aesthetics of math. It reminds me of the artist who photographed the atom and other natural wonders."

The initial part of this argument, “...stretching the definition of art to say plugging random numbers into mathematical equations is akin to a creative process.”, I’ll leave for someone else to address. One friendly suggestion would be to consider when the definition of art is not being stretched and why? With regard to the stone tossing metaphor and a work of art’s relationship to a viewer, I don’t see these problems being distinct to code art. The pejorative tone of the tossing metaphor presupposes a lack of rigor behind the artist’s discernment. Matisse was supposedly able to generate very successful paper cut-outs, late in his life, with surprising alacrity; of course it took him a lifetime of rigorous work to develop this facility. Additionally, while stone tossing is a singular act, coding, as is painting, often is a time-based creative act, with historical layers of interconnected meaning that build up. While a simple random number generator may not produce an image of much interest, hundreds of such structures, twisted and tweaked, organized around an artist’s aesthetic interests, certainly could. And, as I think my protobytes reveal, such “play” doesn’t necessarily always yield geometrically based or mathematically illustrative work. This work has also been well received, which suggests to me that it might be possible to:"...touch another human being..." with code art.

With regard to “...visualize the aesthetics of math", most western art is, to varying degrees, a visualization of mathematical thinking. Whether dealing with perspective, the golden section, color theory, meter or cubism, artists have always incorporated the mathematical thinking of the day within their work. Lest we forget, a painting is most often based on a regular polygon (quadrangle) and most formal decisions within the painting are, at least in part, based on this fundamental mathematical structure. Code is arguably today’s math, but it is also an emergent creative medium. Thus the urge to explore it’s creative potential seems consistent with artistic historical precedent. In addition, contemporary society is hopelessly dependent upon code, storing our memories in digital photos, connecting us through the net, monitoring our health and wealth, etc. Thus it should also be no surprise that code and coding would be considered, by some artists (this one included), very, very relevant content.

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2 Comments

  1. I have a longer post brewing, but I wanted to say something about art and math. Maybe you all know about that French poetry movement called Oulipo, an acronym for Ouvroir de Littérature Potentielle, or Workshop of Potential Literature? Just in case you don’t: the people involved were writers and mathematicians. Raymond Queneau, I think, wrote the group’s principles. Here are two of them — I’ll give the original, too, because translating is so difficult (and welcome correction):

    # Proposition 7 : Le langage, s’il est manipulable par le mathématicien, l’est parce qu’il est mathématisable. . . .

    [Natural] language, if it is manipulable by the mathematician, is so because it is mathematizable**. . . .

    # Conjecture 1 : L’arithmétique s’occupant du langage suscite les textes.

    The arithmetic that concerns itself with language gives rise to texts.

    # Conjecture 2 : Le langage produisant des textes suscite l’arithmétique.

    The language that produces texts gives rise to arithmetic.

    — Math is as everyone knows closely bound up with music; Oulipo believes it is caught up with language as well, and not only language as a musical instrument, not only its sound. One example: Oulipo wrote a poem, and then exchanged every noun in it for the 7th noun following the original noun in the dictionary. It’s surprisingly good, as if our meanings were somehow calculable another way than by what we attribute to them via rational consciousness.

    [MORE DETAILabout Oulipo’s propositions IN CASE YOU ARE INTERSTED: here is the part I left out of Prop. 7, which is fascinating — I’d appreciate any translating help:

    Le langage, s’il est manipulable par le mathématicien, l’est parce qu’il est mathématisable. Il est donc discret (fragmentaire), non aléatoire (continu déguisé) sans taches topologiques, maîtrisable par morceaux.

    Language, if it is manipulable by the mathematician, that’s because it is mathemitzable**. It is therefore discrete (fragmentary), non-aleatory (continuously misrepresented) without topological tasks*, masterable by bits.

    *topology: a branch of mathematics concerned with those properties of geometric configurations (as point sets) which are unaltered by elastic deformations (as a stretching or a twisting) that are homeomorphisms.

    **I bet “mathematizable” means something other than “quantifiable.”]

  2. Eric asked some provocative questions in his comment on my last post, a discussion of which warranted a new post.

    [eric]:“If art exists in the realm of “messing around” (which I agree), than why code? I thought the benefit of coding was to be able to control more precisely what happens on the screen. If you are looking to mess around and randomly create images to find the one that “feels” right, wouldn’t it be easier to do this using a painting program or some other shortcuts that allow easier ways to mess around?”

    Yes, it is easier to use a graphics application to “mess around” rather than having to write code. It is also (usually) easier to take a photograph of a sitter, rather than paint a portrait, or to buy pre-rinsed, pre-cut salad greens to prepare a salad, or to listen to an abridged book on tape or to get all your news off the Fox network. However, degree of ease may not be the correct metric in evaluating the creative process. In easel painting, gravity is an important factor; the viscosity of the paint and the amount of pigment load on the brush are directly dependent on it: Not enough viscosity will cause paint to run, but too much will cause clumping. The process of mixing and thinning is a perpetual balancing act between these 2 extremes. In addition, the treatment of the painting surface (the ground) affects the speed brushes can sweep across it. Larger weave patterns and textured gessoes increase brush drag. Per Erics’s question, these craft issues could be seen as inefficiencies in the painting process, and perhaps to be avoided (if possible.) However, these sorts of factors also provoke creative engagement, demanding a multi-modal response by the artist. Even the solitary creative process is therefore collaborative, through the artist’s relationship with her materials.

    Writing code has similar inefficiencies and collaborative possibilities. Although, the inefficiencies are less literally material. Rather than brush drag, there is brain drag, as code abstraction remains a perpetual struggle. Code structures, often bundled as modular processing units, have input and output concerns, which can be conceptualized as brush sweeps, having entry and exit points. The issue of thin (running) vs. thick (clumping) in painting also has a parallel concern with regard to economy of encapsulated processing (a code module can do too much or too little). These inefficiencies in coding, similar to the inefficiencies in other creative processes, demand an engaged response by the coder. And focused engagement is at the heart of any creative process.

    [eric’s response to ira’s response] I think the problem here really goes to art’s role in our culture. If Art’s role is to push the sense of aesthetics and how people view the world, I would argue that art has evolved as the technology around it has evolved. While a photorealistic painting today is still art, it is less interesting and certainly a less important piece than something totally new. While artists of the past focused on photrealistic images, they move away from this as the camera was invented. Similarly, when computers were first invented and the only way to generate an image was through the code itself, this was important method and artform. However, as Hollywood has pushed special effects and abilities of computers, digital artists need to embrace the latest technology to continue to be on the cutting edge. The idea of using computers to generate art for art’s sake is interesting, but purposely bogging down in the details of code to create brain drain that could influence the artist’s view of things randomly generated seems too far fetched. Yes, the texture of the paint and canvas of paintings of old bring one closer to the master who created the art – but only because it was directly and physcially manipulated by the artist himself. If the paintings were done by machines that were programmed by the artists, I don’t think anyone would comment or be concerned with the texture of the brush strokes. I also don’t think people are going to look at the output of a computer program and be able to discern how the artist was impacted by his technical code writing issues.

    [eric]:“It also seems like stretching the definition of art to say plugging random numbers into mathematical equations is akin to a creative process. Ira’s process of creation here seems more similar to tossing a stone into a pond and observing the ripples. Yes, each toss would be unique and the artist can observe the ripples and decide which ones are most pleasing. But so what? This is not a human experience that is likely to touch another human being in such a way to be deemed a great piece of art. If it did work as art, it would be more aptly labeled a beautiful natural wonder of the world rather than a man-made masterpiece. Perhaps that is the role of this digital artform – to visualize the aesthetics of math. It reminds me of the artist who photographed the atom and other natural wonders.”

    The initial part of this argument, “…stretching the definition of art to say plugging random numbers into mathematical equations is akin to a creative process.”, I’ll leave for someone else to address. One friendly suggestion would be to consider when the definition of art is not being stretched and why? With regard to the stone tossing metaphor and a work of art’s relationship to a viewer, I don’t see these problems being distinct to code art. The pejorative tone of the tossing metaphor presupposes a lack of rigor behind the artist’s discernment. Matisse was supposedly able to generate very successful paper cut-outs, late in his life, with surprising alacrity; of course it took him a lifetime of rigorous work to develop this facility. Additionally, while stone tossing is a singular act, coding, as is painting, often is a time-based creative act, with historical layers of interconnected meaning that build up. While a simple random number generator may not produce an image of much interest, hundreds of such structures, twisted and tweaked, organized around an artist’s aesthetic interests, certainly could. And, as I think my protobytes reveal, such “play” doesn’t necessarily always yield geometrically based or mathematically illustrative work. This work has also been well received, which suggests to me that it might be possible to:”…touch another human being…” with code art.
    [eric’s response to ira] Very interesting response!!! Your process sounds much more like composing music than writing computer code or painting. What would your pieces sound like if the images were converted to sound? Is any musician composing music using mathematical equations directly?

    With regard to “…visualize the aesthetics of math”, most western art is, to varying degrees, a visualization of mathematical thinking. Whether dealing with perspective, the golden section, color theory, meter or cubism, artists have always incorporated the mathematical thinking of the day within their work. Lest we forget, a painting is most often based on a regular polygon (quadrangle) and most formal decisions within the painting are, at least in part, based on this fundamental mathematical structure. Code is arguably today’s math, but it is also an emergent creative medium. Thus the urge to explore it’s creative potential seems consistent with artistic historical precedent. In addition, contemporary society is hopelessly dependent upon code, storing our memories in digital photos, connecting us through the net, monitoring our health and wealth, etc. Thus it should also be no surprise that code and coding would be considered, by some artists (this one included), very, very relevant content.

    [eric’s response – I would be very interesting in hearing your pieces. I have seen a ton of visualizations of sound (ie. skin of media player), but I have yet to hear a painting.]


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