11.11 am on 21.12.2012. This neatly auspicious time heralds, depending on your perspective, the rapturous end of the world as we know it; a vital change in planetary consciousness; or three shopping days left till Christmas.
Causal connections – patterns based on our perceptions of the passage of time, are linked in our brains, and experienced as true and meaningful narratives – even if they are not. A need to search for pattern effect and agency are basic human survival tools. This hardwired ability allows an infant to recognise its mother's face immediately after birth; helps us identify and avoid predators; and at a cellular level our innate immune system is enabled to repel foreign bodies. Recognition gives us a sense of safety and insight, but misrecognition gives us conspiracy theories and collateral damage.
Fascinated by the patterns, connections and tensions of prophecies based on the ancient Mayan calendar, pseudo-scientific theories and a good dose of fundamentalism, Anita Fontaine and Geoffrey Lillemon of Champagne Valentine have produced the engulfing Rainbow X Apocalypse video installation. Its endless loop asks the viewer to consider whether, in light of our imminent end, immersion into a completely digitally produced reality is the way forward for human consciousness?
Typing in my Hong Kong apartment with a multitude of screens atop colour-changing skyscrapers, clinging to the black harbour foreshores, it’s obvious that our everyday existence is highly mediated. We swim in data in the post-networked era. Those square QR tags on print advertisements open into dimensional worlds when scanned by smart phones, providing instant contact information, live web links, and even turn-by-turn directions to the business. Surpassing censorship and ownership, Augmented Reality apps use AR tags or GPS coordinates to situate virtual artworks and creative interventions into any public space.
Champagne Valentine’s complex, seductive, overlaid design aesthetic plugs into this contemporary media literacy as they slip between fine art museum installation, cultish web interactives and multiplatform design for clients like Versace for H&M, Diesel and the Tate Modern. Of course the hyper-real mirrored foliage of Rainbow X Apocalypse sits perfectly with an iconic 1969 Ford Capri pimped and patterned to look like a Mad Max beast hurtling towards damnation, while skeletal lovers embrace in the snow dome of eternity.
But there is order in the chaos. Amsterdam-based Fontaine’s earlier and ongoing CuteXDoom series also explores the themes of obsession and fanatical adherence to ideologies in saturated visual style. In its first iteration, the Game Mod and visually psychedelic, tactile wallpaper of gallery installs, focused on the cult of Cute. In the second iteration of CuteXDoom the sweet characters take on a predatory malevolence and the formerly benign landscape appears to become cruel and sinister. A slight shift in the visual and auditory qualities of the same narrative grid produces an opposite emotional experience.
This post digital weaving of media relationships and global styles remixes 3D and Videogame graphics and sound with the intertwined economies of fashion, first-world revolutions and planetary and environmental limits. Champagne Valentine blatantly manipulates the subjectivity emerging from information overload and media saturation. Their proposal that “technology stirs emotions” and “we feel ones and zeros” resonates with a generation for whom the analogue is a desirably vintage aesthetic.
As Nicholas Negroponte predicted in 1998, the iterative nature of computational tools of creation are no longer of interest in themselves. In our post-digital era they are an almost invisible means to an end. What we have now is the opportunity, without the hype, to explore the artistic consequences and the uncanny prosthetics of our transitional period in history. It’s time to ask if the proliferation of pattern and complexity in recent art is directly related to digital media’s reiterative processes.
Melbourne-based artist Peter Miller is engineering pattern, “sculpting” with maths, to create organic underwater worlds populated by complex gelatinous life forms in his latest project Watching Europa. Well-known as a composer and sound designer for films such as Rango and The Ring, Miller sees his work as a symbiosis between himself and the software he uses, rather than a linear process of cause and effect.
It is evolutionary rather than deterministic, as in the iterative process generations inform further generations. Software sets a direction for the narrative to take, but does not dictate a fundamental endpoint. This is digital nature where creative mutations come from uncertainty – happy mistakes and accidents produce mysterious beings, sounds grow from seed ideas into surprising sonic scapes.
The highly rendered Watching Europa is a multiple-screen video and audio installation which envisages the life that could exist in the vast oceans on Jupiter’s moon Europa. Randomly displayed combinations of strange creatures of unknown scale but undeniable beauty, emerge contemplatively from purple and blue-hued depths. Watching these mysterious creatures, swirling in dusty waters, communicating via harmonics, takes me to a poetic place deep within myself – at once still and connected.
Miller believes that the kinds of complex rule-based systems, enhanced by the computer age, are probably at work in the everyday world and that’s why there is a sense of familiarity with his imagery. Simultaneously, there is an unexpectedness inherent in the pulsating life forms – almost a mis-recognition of the alien other. Undeniably, the computational power to create reiterative life worlds is heady and seductive as Miller acknowledges, “playing with them is like pulling on the strings of the fabric of the universe. It’s a bit too addictive ...”
Generative software has enhanced human capacity to create subject matter, but it doesn’t dictate the fluid world of Watching Europa. In fact, Miller works intuitively, narrowing his software parameters to allow the mathematical algorithms to follow “plausible paths” in order to shape variants of new life. His complex computations don’t predict what we might find in Europa’s oceans, rather he hopes to evoke the sense of delight we may feel if we do encounter aliveness on another world.
A theoretical and artistic interest in artificially created life in generative systems led Mitchell Whitelaw to publish Metacreation: Art and Artificial Life in 2004. His latest investigations into digital materiality, data-aesthetics and data visualisation have had outputs into more tactile forms – data sculptures that operate on a visual, informational and metaphoric level.
Whitelaw works with generative ecologies – seeking out patterns in the relationships between growth, materiality, locality and the network. Several years ago he designed a Weather Bracelet – a functional wearable bracelet containing a year of weather data from his home city of Canberra. But the beautifully executed, 3D printed object raised questions of scaling and comparability between datasets. With different data, the same scaling might break a form while standardised scaling would allow comparisons between datasets, but may be less aesthetically interesting.
His latest output Local Colour (2011) uses generative processes and digital fabrication to investigate the paradoxes of digital media and networked culture, which at once flattens distance and enhances locality. Colourful produce boxes are laser-cut and layered into bowl-like forms, which are generated using a simulated growth process that refers back to the specificity of the boxes’ original cargo.
The combination of colour, shape and tactility with information makes for potent artworks. My Auntie Bessie always told me if I wanted to remember someone’s name, to trace the letters on a textured fabric, like a knitted cardigan sleeve, and the double sensory patterning and imprinting onto memory would enable easy recall. So too, the parallel rise of network culture and the new arts and crafts movement is not a coincidence – they are coupled, textured information forms.
By overlaying network structures found in communications, transport and ecological systems Whitelaw charts the actual cost of transporting food, predicting the rise of a utopian re-localised future. As the light but sturdy bowls exemplify, “our familiar hyper-connectivity disintegrates into localised islands”, I ponder the deep structural changes that have been brought about by the networked information environment. In our post-network era, as Whitelaw states, “the local (as in locavore) reemerges as a prized commodity.”
The breaks, distortions, and failures of the interconnected global network illustrate the complexity of digital art and culture. Part illusion, false memory created by mediated patterns; part unique sensory experience, the only certainty is that the art experience bears no relation to truth or falsity.
For many years Tracy Cornish has been working with the random and unpredictable beauty of failure, corruption, and distortion in digital glitches – weaving magical imagery from digital refuse, from the discarded and overlooked. In a technical sense a glitch is an unexpected malfunction, but these days the term is used to describe bugs in software, video games, images, videos, audio, and other data, as well as a genre of experimental/noise/electronica, and an assembly of visual art practices.
For purists, a glitch is only valid when it occurs naturally due to an error in hardware or software, while databenders intentionally induce glitches. Databending uses software to disrupt the information contained within a data file by three main ways: by incorrectly editing a file using software intended for a different type of data; by reinterpretation by converting a file from one medium to another; and by forcing errors by exploiting known bugs in programs to corrupt data.
In this, an almost entomological world, Cornish is seeking out patterns in the randomness by using cultural analytic tools developed by Lev Manovich’s Software Studies Initiative at the University of California San Diego, where she is currently based. Having collected more than 8,000 glitch images from many different users and associated metadata from Flickr, the images are processed to extract digital values such as entropy, hue, colour and saturation. These values are then plotted on x,y axis in the hope of discovering some patterns within the data set, rather than looking to prove a predetermined hypothesis.
For Cornish glitches exemplify the highlight levels of abstraction, risk and instability of digital information, serving to remind us of the subjective construction and transient nature of data. Her desire is to employ her as yet unknown data set conclusions as a critique of post digital culture. Quantifying the most random of digital artefacts indicates a deep faith in the almost supernatural power of the processor.
This follows Manovich’s proposal that, as data mining and machine learning in software societies determines knowledge and informs decision makers, software analysis should enable wider data literacy and the questioning of, rather than reinforcement of, existing social and cultural categories. Using pattern and complexity to question pattern and complexity can become an endless loop in itself.
What does it really mean to analyse large cultural data sets through computation? Does imposing new structures or creating statistical proofs change anything? Are we trying to order an unpredictable future through pattern searches? Or to make sense of our random present where the power of nature could wipe out human existence in an instant?
Shouldn’t the post digital age bring certainty in the logic of numbers? According to Champagne Valentine, if we are looking for predictability and security in the digital, we are wrong. Mitchell Whitelaw’s patterning reiterates the importance of local variants in networked relationships. Peter Miller is surprised by the alien-ness of his own digital progeny while Tracey Cornish is plotting the next generation of data.
Perhaps the question we could be asking is how patterns of collaboration, participation and interaction in local and global settings have been redefined by creative computational practices? Society itself has been structurally altered by the connectivity of the network as the physical boundaries between hard non-digital space and soft digital realities meld.
Yes – the world as we know it is ending. A swirling visual cacophony of floating trumpeters, clothed in flickering neon, herald in the digital romantic. New life forms spawn forth from subtly layered digital hatcheries. We randomly access interstitial spaces, complex dimensions nestling between logical structures where creativity is nurtured and blossoms. Jump into my Ford Capri, sit back and relax as we go on the joy ride of a lifetime!
Author note: All quotes are from email correspondence with the artists. Special thanks to Lizzie Graham for vehicle identification.
Melinda Rackham curates and writes on artforms emerging in new and traditional technologies. Active for over 20 years in the local, national and international media and contemporary arts arena, Dr Rackham is an Adjunct Professor of RMIT University and Partner Curator at the Royal Institution of Australia. In 2011 Melinda is reengaging with her own hybrid craft and technology practice.