sexta-feira, 4 de junho de 2010

Mental thing

Universal Automata are sculptures printed in plastic from a 3d printer. The sculptures explore the creation of volumetric space through progressions of cellular automata algorithms. Andre Sier.

“Seeds rather than forests”

In the second half of 1997, I conceived an interactive, geo referenced map of my country that would connect a virtual navigation of a map of the territory to websites then exponentially popping on the Internet. The project would finally be presented at EXPO’98 under the name Portugal Digital.

For this purpose, I consulted and brought together several Portuguese institutions: the Instituto Superior Técnico, the Universidade Nova, the Centro Nacional de Informacão Geográfica and the Instituto Geográfico do Exército.

To compile and program the project, I received the help of Joaquim Muchaxo, one of a cluster of IT engineers who made the project viable in time for the big exhibition.

To calculate and visualise in real time all the processes that called up and compiled the data, it was necessary to buy a Silicon Graphics supercomputer, the SGI Onyx2 Reality Engine, with 4 GB of RAM and a 195 MHz processor.

In 1998, the cost of this machine was around 600,000 euros! Today, 13 years later, the same computing power costs no more than 3000 euros, i.e., 200 times less!

Measuring this technological revolution from another angle, for example, that of the virtual population of the Internet, we can confirm that there were 147 million users in 1998 while today the number has risen to 1,966,514,816, that is, it has increased 13- fold.

In little more than a decade, the technological revolution that was underway has led to a cognitive and sensorial fabric that is hybrid, digitally interactive, half-human, half-machine and whose degrees of freedom grant it an enormous linguistic and visual elasticity and a growing, even invasive, ubiquity. From a triangulation of communication satellites, this new superhuman skin is covering the planet with a film of wholly unexpected and transformative meta-reality.

Curiously, in 1999, one year after the presentation at EXPO ’98 of the unknown prototype of what, in 2005, would emerge as Google Maps (the fruit of another venture), André Sier, then a student at AR.CO, was presenting his first computational art project, 0 0 255, which, although inspired by the first-person shooting game Unreal, clearly deviated from the game’s ideology.

While computer and video games follow iconic and narrative models that stem from the imagination and from popular urban culture, not infrequently arising from the vast world of cartoon adventures, animated cinema, and sci-fi literature, the typical stripped-down nature of André Sier’s interactive worlds, while taking maximum advantage of computational engines, algorithms, libraries and available programming languages, clearly point to another cultural tradition: that of the essentialist and analytical aesthetics of one of the most important areas in nineteenth and twentieth-century modern art: the tendency towards abstraction.

Unlike the Jodis’ fantastic deconstructions of games such as Wolfenstein 3D, Quake, Jet Set Willy and Max Payne 2, André Sier follows a more constructivist approach. His distancing from what could be called entertainment, popular culture, commercial art, or the creative industries does not take place under a regime of divergence from this sort of alienated reality, which the Jodi’s hacker ideology so thoroughly distorts and scandalously exposes. Rather, it occurs as a construction of new possible worlds using the same genetic tools that industry uses for purposes as varied as warfare and popular agonistic culture.

Observing Sier’s work, as I have done for many years, I know that it is in itself a progressive record of sedimentation and generative expansion, accumulating strategies, algorithms, possibilities, designs, grammars, libraries, actors, environments and narratives, whether constituted or potential. The pieces evolve in series, precisely because they are worlds of autonomous possibilities which can iterate and gain in complexity, depth, definition and colour by way of automatic, aleatory, genetic and interactive processes, both endogenous and/or exogenous.

What makes the immersive worlds ordered by André Sier so fascinating is the intimate correlation, as it were, that exists between the intuitive drift of his oneiric constructions and the purely mental and logical techne that is rigorously pursued by someone who, in the circumstances of his own conscious creative process, cannot fail to be considered an artisan, or a technician, committed to master a language discipline to better tackle this matter, which invariably resists not only modelling but also the word and the final gesture that heralds the birth of a great work of art. In this case, the mass of the creation consists of zeroes and ones, or more precisely, binary combinatorial processes based on series of 8 bits, 16 bits, 32 bits, 64 bits, 128 bits, etc., the activation of which depends on a bang — the discreet echo of a primordial “big bang” [Mark Whittle: Big Bang Acoustics].

Não Newtoniana (8x) from Andre Sier on Vimeo.
André Sier: continuum

The genetic revolution of products arising from instructions followed and algorithmic possibilities depends, from the start, on a strategic design, or, from the Deist perspective, a demiurge, or rather, that which is between God and the Realised Thing.

During the last century, the long analytical trend in modern art arrived at two apparently antithetical critical movements from which, it was then supposed, Western art would move inexorably towards a phase of revivalist and academic decadence (which was the case). These two movements were known as minimalism and conceptualism. They were two sides of the same coin: the phenomenological reduction of art as an object, or a thing in space-time, and as language.

Finally, a cosmopolitan cultural experiment, oscillating between logical mysticism and the voice of rhetoric, was born out of this dilettante phenomenology. However, things went well until Carl André, Donald Judd, Dan Flavin appeared in the minimalist camp, and Sol Lewitt, Joseph Kosuth and Dan Graham appeared in the conceptual camp. Tragically well!

In some sense, we can now say that the general trend towards abstraction that accelerated after analytical postimpressionism (particularly that of Monet and Seurat), cubism, suprematism, neoplasticism and abstract art at large, reached its end during the 1960s and 70s with the emergence and decline of minimalism and conceptual art, both of which were prisoners of a reductionism that was more metaphorical than genuinely intellectual.

However, they left a legacy which, today, artists like André Sier can legitimately revisit by invoking the philosophical and aesthetic acuity of European art’s inestimable heritage that the renaissance undoubtedly started, and which rationalism, positivism, and German idealism subsequently raised to levels of complexity and metaphysical robustness from which there could be no possible return to the religious narratives that dominated the sentiment and procedures of art for hundreds of thousands of years.

During the twentieth century, literature, fine arts and philosophy itself reached the degree zero of their respective constitutive and cultural paradigms. With forms being stripped to the most radical abstraction – the sort of return to geometry and logic that dominated the spirit of European and American intellectuals and artists from Monet to Roland Barthes – there remained the time in which to anatomise the processes by which several languages, authorial psychoanalysis, and the sociology of reception were generated. 

In 1936, the mathematician, logician and cryptologist Alan Turing had already published his description of a “mental experiment” called the “a(utomatic)-machine”, which would subsequently become known as the Turing machine. A “universal Turing machine” (UTM) is a machine that manages to simulate any other Turing machine (1948), and the Turing test is a way of assessing a machine’s ability to display intelligent behaviour.

During the Second World War, Turing was recruited by Winston Churchill to help the British Intelligence to decipher the coded messages from the German Navy, the encryption of which was carried out by two rotor-based electromechanical machines, the Enigma and the Lorenz (the latter being used strictly to encrypt the messages of the German high command). At the time, German submarines were responsible for sinking thousands of ships, particularly civil vessels which transported people, provisions, equipment and various materials (particularly for the war) between the American continent and wartime Europe. The German encryption machines, the origins of which dated back to the First World War (1914-18), seemed impossible for the Allied human cryptologists to break. It was then that Alan Turing, a member of the team of cryptologists working at Bletchley Park, also known as Station X, and his theories about computational numbers and automatic machines left an indelible mark on the procedures that led Tommy Flowers, the Post Office Electronics Engineer, to design and finally build a machine that was capable of emulating the coding operated by the rotors of the Lorenz and thus to decipher the messages of the German high command on the eve of the Allied landing in Normandy, known as D-Day.

Colossus Mark I and Colossus Mark II were therefore the first two electronic machines designed to digitally process information that were ever built for practical purposes, as well as being the absolute pioneers of modern day computers. This brief historical incursion is important if we are to understand the founding epistemological leap taken by what can properly be called the start of the postmodern era. In other words, the moment from which the understanding and human manufacturing of possible worlds moved, at least partially, from work that was merely human, physical and intellectual to the work of intelligent machines. Rather than painting forests or building worlds as Brian Eno said in a particularly elegant and poetic formulation, the postmodern creator, a sort of agnostic and post-industrial monist, devotes himself to sowing generative principles from which he expects new harmonic constellations to emerge – “seeds rather than forests.”

John Conway’s cellular automata (developed by Bill Koster and Stephen Wolfram, among others), Karl Sims’s genetic algorithms, and Craig Reynolds’s swarms are some of the paradigms of the new emerging culture in which André Sier is clearly located, along with many other contemporary, or rather post-contemporary, creators (to the extent that their creations are not “actual” but potential, incorporating past, present and potentially future states). Being among the youngest of the cognitive and computational Portuguese artists, André Sier is one of their most serious, original and remarkable representatives.

There is still a learning curve to be climbed regarding the dynamic reception of generative and interactive works that have been created outside of the strict disciplines of music, environments, and installations aimed purely at the ear. Responsibility for this cultural delay primarily falls upon the conservative inertia of the museum and gallerybased world of so-called “contemporary art.” While popular electronic culture has progressed at an exponential rate, as incontrovertibly attested by the sociological, economic and strategic importance of the games industry, the generative and cognitive arts in general remain encapsulated in a sort of “pre-artistic” limbo, as if they were strange beings which were not yet fully entitled to enter the “adult” world of art. This institutional delay will be overcome, probably after a big bang, which I believe lies around the corner. When we least expect it, the cognitive and generative arts will enter our neurones with the same apparent naturalness, speed and irresistible impregnation as an algorithm as revolutionary as that which led to the birth of Google. The preparatory work has been underway for a long time and the philosophically possible worlds of André Sier are surely part of the swarm that will produce the next big change in the τέχνη (techne).

Finally, in this brief introduction to the exhibition that André Sier had at the Museu de São Roque (Lisbon) I will leave you with some notions to remember when we see, hear, feel, perceive and interact with some of the pieces that make up
  1. The perceptive environment is multi-modal: space, object, sound, image, interaction, retroaction, ghost, connection, network, sharing, suspension, interval, continuation, potential.
  2. is not a finite world but a cosmogony of possibilities, computationally generated on digital foundations with various (32-bit and 64-bit) extensions. In this case, sentences like “I went to see André’s exhibition”, or “I liked Siers’s installations”, are incomplete and describe only the memory of a highly incomplete and ephemeral perception of the potential reality inscribed in the works of art on offer, the apprehension of which actually requires the apparently infinite time of games.
  3. Creatures imprinted and taken from the digital world of possibilities, inscribed or unleashed by human-machine interaction — a game, individual or collective, whether aleatory or built, shared, or simply an accumulation of possibilities — are the perceptive, sensorial and physical proof of a real emergence that is therefore much nearer to us than the merely fictional or simply virtual worlds of the prehistory of cognitive art.
Copyright © 2011 by António Cerveira Pinto

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