Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Video in Ballarat Art Gallery "Project Window"

My video Dissonant Particles is scheduled for the "Project Window" of the Art Gallery of Ballarat, in January 2012. The Project Window is a projection window, part of the front of the Gallery on Lydiard Street, and the projections run in the evenings.  The Project Window opened in 2011 and has shown works by some high-profile people, including Daniel Crooks and Jill Orr.

Where: Ballarat Art Gallery, 40 Lydiard St (North), Ballarat VIC 3350. Tel: 03 5320 5858.
When: 5th - 27th January 2012.
Info: http://www.balgal.com/ and http://www.gommog.com/video/diss_part_video.html.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

"Bagdad, 1000: The Origin of the Pixel"

I have been looking at a recent book by Laura U. Marks, Enfoldment and Infinity: An Islamic Genealogy of New Media Art.  Chapter seven is entitled "Bagdad, 1000: The Origin of the Pixel".  Did the pixel really originate in Bagdad around the year 1000?  Well, no.

From about the eighth century to the thirteenth the Islamic world was the place to be: the arts, the sciences and philosophy flourished in a manner not matched in the Christian West.  The West indeed learnt from the Islamic world: "algebra", "alkali" and "sugar" are Arabic words, as are the names of some of the prominent Northern hemisphere stars such as Algol and Betelgeuse.  One of the first mathematics books printed with movable type was Euclid's Elements (Venice 1482); the text was in Latin, translated from the Arabic, as a Greek text did not become available in Western Europe until after 1500.  The contribution of the Islamic world to Western civilisation has been under-appreciated, and attempts are now being made to better recognise this contribution.  Enfoldment and Infinity is a very well-informed addition to this discussion.

Marks's book compares two bodies of art, Islamic art and new media art, especially that based on computer algorithms; she calls both "aniconic": the perceptible image is not the most important part of the art.  Islam generally prohibited the use of images of people or animals in religious contexts; in some places (though by no means everywhere) the prohibition was extended to secular works as well.  An extraordinary aniconic art arose as a consequence, based on calligraphy, geometric forms and plant motifs, incidentally giving us the word "arabesque".  Marks's book makes numerous and striking comparisons between Islamic art and art of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, including cinema and new media art.

How does the history of the pixel come into this?  In Chapter seven, Marks discusses two constructs in Islamic art and philosophy that might relate to the pixel.  One is an architectural technique based on the repetition of a single cell-like form and used to construct remarkable domes.  The other is an atomistic philosophy holding that the created universe consists of indivisible atoms, developed in the ninth century by philosophers known as the Mu'tazila.  At least one writer conceived of these atoms as square or cubical.  But this tells us nothing about the genealogy of the pixel, and Marks does not make any historical link between these developments in the Islamic world and the pixel as we now have it.  Nor does she discuss a much more obvious predecessor of the pixel, the mosaic tile.

So, let's make up another origin of the pixel.  A fundamental property of a pixel in a raster display is that it is addressable: I can specify a pixel with a notation like (2, 21), meaning a pixel that is two along in the horizontal direction and 21 down in the vertical direction.  Iannis Xenakis considered coordinate geometry to be a gift from music to mathematics: on a musical staff time is measured horizontally and pitch vertically.  Furthermore in Western musical notation both pitch and time are discrete; time is measured in multiples of some small unit (the semibreve in older music) and pitch in semitones.  I can specify both coordinates with a phrase like "the G (or, the note on the second line of the staff) on the first beat of bar 17".  So we have a two-dimensional addressable array of discrete entities.  I conclude that the pixel originated in Western musical notation of the thirteenth century.  Except that it didn't.  (And I don't think there is an Islamic link here.  Some Western musical instruments derived from Islamic sources, but the notation is indigenous to the West.)

In fairness, Marks warns us that her genealogies may be fictitious.  In the first chapter she says "I exploit ... unsought connections perversely, to behave as if there were a historical continuity where at times there is not".  Indeed she tells us that Islamic atomistic philosophy was not transmitted to the West.  She goes on to say: "if someone puts down this book believing that the Mu'tazila atomists invented the pixel ... that is fine by me".  A strange attitude for a scholar and teacher, but one that is necessary to bear in mind while engaging with the book; and it is an engaging book.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Analogue Swallows Digital

Last week I attended Impact7, billed as the "international multi-disciplinary printmaking conference", at Monash University in Melbourne.  This is the seventh in a series of conferences that began in England in 1999.  The core subject-matter of the conference was traditional printmaking: woodcuts, drypoint, etching and so forth.  However, there were a substantial number of presentations referring to digital media, and presentations exploring links between print-making and artists' book, zines, photography and graphic design.  There was also considerable discussion of education in the visual arts.  In the four days there were nearly 150 presentations (talks and demonstrations) and a substantial number of exhibitions.

I was curious to know how the traditional print-makers have reacted to the invasion of their field by Photoshop, inkjet printers and so forth.  The answer appears to be that the new methods have simply been incorporated into print-making practice: there were repeated references to the new technologies as providing just another set of tools, and discussion of the "expanded field" of print-making.  Analogue has swallowed digital.  Whatever debate there was in the printmaking community about digital media is now over, though occasionally concern was expressed that the "hand" of the artist might be missing.  I did hear a response to the effect that the mind of the artist is more important.

My own presentation argued that the computer can be more than a tool and that having outsourced the work of the artist's hand to machines, we are now starting to outsource the work of the artist's mind to machines also.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Visual Music Films, Multimedia Performance

Brigid Burke has organised a multi-media night at Loop bar in Melbourne. One of my abstract videos will be played, along with works by Dennis Miller and Grayson Cook, and there will be a live performance by Brigid Burke and Adrian Sheriff, playing clarinet, trombone, shakuhachi and laptop, with live video projections.

Where: Loop Bar Back Room, 23 Meyers Place, Melbourne. (Meyers Place is on the south side of Bourke Street, between Exhibition and Spring Streets, near Parliament Station.)
When: Wednesday 5th October, 7pm.
Info: http://www.brigid.com.au/performances.asp and http://www.looponline.com.au/.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Impact7 Conference

There is an international conference at Monash University coming up called Impact7. It is billed as the "International Multidisciplinary Printmaking Conference" and is held every two years. The core topic is traditional print-making, but many other areas are involved, and there is a substantial digital media stream. I will be giving a presentation as part of a session on "Digital Media: Aesthetics and Materiality" in the morning of Thursday 27th September.

The conference website: http://impact7.org.au/.

In association with this conference half the art galleries in Melbourne are putting on exhibitions of prints: there is a list at http://impact7.org.au/mofp/index.html. The Art Gallery of Ballarat (where I live) specialises in works on paper, and it is putting on a substantial exhibition of prints from its collection, from the colonial period on.  The Gallery's website is at http://www.artgalleryofballarat.com.au/.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

St Patrick's College Ballarat Art Prize

My work Tree Circle has been selected for the St Patrick's College Ballarat Art Prize.

Where: St Patrick's College Ballarat, Old Collegians Pavilion. (Entry from Wanliss St.)
When: September 7 to September 11 2011.
Gala launch: Wednesday September 7th at 7pm. Entry by ticket from the College.

More information here (go to "Community" and then "Flanagan Art Prize").

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

London and Home

I spent a week in London before heading home.  The riots there erupted the night before I left, but not in central London, and I only found out about them from a TV in the airport as I was waiting for my flight to Australia.

In London I spent time at the Tate Modern and Tate Britain, but I also looked at the Science Museum, the Natural History Museum and the British Museum, all wonderful institutions.


Ai Weiwei, "Sunflower Seeds" (ceramic), 2010

The Natural History Museum, as well as having some spectacular displays, is a great research institution and holds hundreds of thousands of so-called type specimens.  A type specimen is the first specimen of a species to be described scientifically, and acts as a reference for all subsequent work on that species.


Spectacle: the entrance to the Earth Sciences display in the Natural History Museum

And the Science Museum has a range of material from Stephenson's "Rocket" locomotive (1829) to the Apollo 10 command module, that flew round the Moon in 1969.


Diagram in the Science Museum showing the geometric construction of one of the elaborate illustrations from the Lindisfarne Gospels manuscript

I saw the Lindisfarne Gospels manuscript itself in the British Library (though of course it was only open at one page, which wasn't this one).  The manuscript dates from 700 AD or shortly afterwards, so to see it at all was astonishing enough.

 So ends my grand art tour.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Multi-cultural Paris

My trip is drawing to an end: Rome, Paris, London, home.  I'm now in London.

I spent most of my time in Paris in the Pompidou Centre, looking at the wonderful collections of modern art, contemporary art, and new media; also Brancusi's atelier, which is packed full of his sculptures. 



František Kupka, "Disques de Newton, Étude pour fugue à deux couleurs" (1911-12)

I also saw three exhibitions from or involving non-Western cultures.  The first was a special exhibition at the Pompidou called "Paris-Delhi-Bombay".  Work by Indian artists, and by some European artists responding to Indian culture.  
Subodh Gupta, "Ali Baba" (installation) 

The second exhibition was at the Bibliothèque Nationale, of illuminated Islamic manuscripts from the Bibliothèque's collection.  The accompanying text pointed out something I certainly hadn't appreciated.  Islam spread to cover three main language areas, speaking Arabic, Turkish and Persian.  Religious texts generally did not show animals or humans, so there were some wonderful examples of calligraphy and geometric patterning in the religious works.  But only in the Arabic-speaking area was the ban on showing animals and humans applied to all (or almost all) texts.  Thus there are Turkish and Persian illustrated manuscripts showing warriors and heroes, animals, the constellations represented as people or animals (as the West did also), events from legends or fairy tales, gardens with princes in them, and so on. There was even an anatomical treatise.  Sorry, no photographs, but there is an exhibition website at http://expositions.bnf.fr/islam/.

The third exhibition was of Vodun (Voodoo) objects from West Africa, and claimed to be the first exhibition devoted entirely to these objects.  These are not primarily artworks, but are considered to have magical properties, to ward off harm or to cause harm to one's enemies.  Most of them consisted of a small wooden human-like statue (often with two heads) with additions such as bones, pieces of metal, padlocks and pill bottles, very often bound around with twine.   The exhibition was very well laid out (by the Italian designer Enzo Mari) and ended with a funeral chariot placed in a small pond with black water.  Again no photographs, but there is a website on this material at http://www.vaudou-vodun.com/.

And finally a non-human culture: I went to an exhibition at the Palais de Tokyo that consisted essentially of a large ants' next, filled with large leaf-cutter ants.

Robin Meier and Ali Momeni, "The Tragedy of the Commons" (detail)

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

MAXXI in Rome

My trip included some days in Rome; I visited several contemporary art galleries, including the newest of them, MAXXI (Museo Nazionale delle Arti del XXI Secolo, or National Museum of the Arts of the 21st Century).  It is in a stunning building, designed by Zaha Hadid, based around sweeping parallel curves.  When it opened it attracted mixed reviews for its suitability as an art gallery, with one reviewer describing it as "tyrannical", and people I know who have visited it have described it as completely overpowering the art.  On my visit I didn't feel this, at least with respect to the main exhibition, a massive retrospective for Michelangelo Pistoletto, about whom I knew nothing.  Since there isn't a lot of 21st century art yet, the gallery condescends to show 20th century art, and the Pistoletto retrospective covered the years 1956-1974 (though I think Pistoletto is still active).

One of our lecturers at Prato commented that in Australia we tend to have an Anglo-American-centric view of art after World War 2, and my trip has borne this out: Pistoletto is one of four significant 20th century Italian artists whose work I have encountered in the time I have spent in Italy.  The others were Marino Marini in Pistoia and Giorgio Morandi in Bologna, both thanks to the Prato program, and Bice Lazzaro in Rome.  I should say that others in the group knew about at least some of these people - I shouldn't generalise too much from my own ignorance!

Pistoletto's work as shown in the MAXXI exhibition covered a wide range: his figurative paintings on mirrors were notable, but he also made works in the 1960s relating to both conceptual and minimal art, was a leader of the Arte Povera movement, made works using industrial materials such as Mylar film, and also had a performing group that held events both in galleries and in public spaces.  My favourite "conceptual" work in the show was "A Cubic Metre of Infinity", six mirrors lashed together to form a cube with the mirrored surfaces on the inside.  From the outside it is just a grey box, and of course you can't see the inside.

The exhibition contained an interesting timeline showing events in Pistoletto's career in parallel with events in Italian politics, ranging from postwar bitterness and reconstruction (Pistoletto was born in 1933), through to the student unrest in the 1960s and the sabotage and kidnappings carried out by the Red Brigades.  The work shown was not political in a sloganeering way, but was certainly related to the spirit of the times.  Another lecturer in Prato said that according to an Italian artist friend of his, Florence was the hardest city in the world to be a contemporary artist, and surely Italy must be one of the hardest countries.  Pistoletto, who lived in or around the industrial city of Turin rather than the history-of-art-laden tourist magnet of Florence, nonetheless found a way.


 No pictures of the works inside, unfortunately, but this is the entrance to MAXXI.


And this is MAXXI's foyer.  The building is pretty well unphotographable!

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Leaving Prato

Today is the last day of the program at Monash's outpost in Prato, Italy.  There have been numerous highlights.  The Venice Biennale was certainly one.  I am not going to try to review it - I didn't see all of it, even in the three and a half days I spent looking at it, and there are plenty of reviews on-line.  My favourite work was the installation by James Turrell, one of his "Ganzfeld" series.  I also enjoyed the Greek pavilion very much, a beautifully quiet space.  The official Chinese exhibition was tasteful and restrained, but the less official Chinese work tended to be big and brash; maybe it is the successor in this respect to American art of the post-war era.

Not quite part of the Biennale, the exhibition in the Palazzo Fortuny had an eclectic mix of very interesting works in a wonderful setting.  We also visited the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice, with numerous significant twentieth-century works.  I was interested to see some Italian Futurist work in a separate collection, including a painting by Giacomo Balla representing the transit of Mercury in front of the Sun, from 1914.

On the way to and from Venice we visited Ravenna, to see the Byzantine mosaics, and Padua to see the Giotto cycle in the Scrovegni Chapel.  Both of these visits were highlights for me as well.

I have also seen some more things connected with the history of science.  I visited the Palazzo Poggi in Bologna which in the 18th century housed a scientific institute and now contains an eclectic museum representing the diverse interests of this institute, ranging from optics to map-making to anatomy to fortifications; there is also a room with remarkable models of sailing ships.  Some of the material is from collections going back to the 16th century.

Detail of navigational map of the known world from 1556.

An unexpected find was the International Museum and Library of Music in Bologna, providing a connection between art and science in the form of Renaissance tuning theory.

Keyboard with 31 notes to the octave, from 1606

I also visited the Museo Galileo in Florence.  Not only do they have the only two telescopes ascribable with certainty to Galileo, they also have relics in the form of some of Galileo's fingerbones!  Both the Museo Galileo and the museum of the Palazzo Poggi brought out the connection between geometry and warfare; Galileo had a business making and selling "geometric and military compasses", a multi-purpose instrument designed by him and intended for aiming cannons, among other things.

I have seen one museum of present-day science, the Museum of Planetary Science here in Prato.  It is an active centre of research, and has the best collection of meteorites I am ever likely to see.

A Martian meteorite, ejected from Mars, and found in the Sahara desert in 1997.  It weighs two kilograms and is the largest specimen of a Martian meteorite on display in Europe.

My next stop is Rome.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Monash Prato

All those people who post about their wonderful overseas jaunts - now it's my turn!  I am taking part in a postgraduate art program at Monash University's outpost in Prato, near Florence.  Prato is a town with an attractive mediaeval core and a historic cathedral with frescoes by Fra Filippo Lippi, Uccello, Gaddi and others.  We're staying a stone's throw away from the cathedral, and the sounds of bells of the cathedral and other churches are quite prominent.


The cloister behind the cathedral in Prato.

Prato is a short train ride away from Florence, and we have made several visits there, including a rather strenuous tour of the Uffizi gallery yesterday, which was fairly astonishing: Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Botticelli....  Perhaps the highlight for me so far was our trip to Siena, but shortly we're off to Venice for several days to visit the Venice Biennale.  All this is very exciting, and will take a long time to assimilate.

I've been looking out for things relating to Renaissance science, and was interested to discover that in Florence both the Duomo and Santa Maria Novella have inbuilt astronomical instruments in the form of a small hole high up in the structure to let in a ray of sunlight, and markings on the floor of the church.  Among other things they were used to determine the length of the year precisely.  I bought a small book explaining all this, but unfortunately it's in Italian.


The circle of sunlight on the floor of the Duomo in Florence.  It is supposed to coincide with the marble circle at noon on the summer solstice - this photograph was taken a week before the solstice. 

"Odyssey" at Space 22, Ballarat

The artist-run gallery Space 22 in Ballarat is having its last exhibition for a while. The lease is ending and the landlord wants to do something else with the space. So Space 22 is having a final group exhibition with all the people who have been associated with the gallery (which includes me).

Where: Space 22, 22 Main Road, Ballarat, Victoria, Australia.

When: 16th June to 3rd July, 2011.

Gallery hours: Thursday to Sunday inclusive, 12 noon - 5pm.

More information here.

Let's hope Space 22 is able to re-emerge in some form, as it has been a great thing for the artistic community in Ballarat. The committee have put in a huge amount of hard work, and deserve our heartfelt thanks for what they have achieved for us all.

Monday, April 4, 2011

"Shaping Evolution" at Pigment Gallery, Melbourne

I have an exhibition coming up at Pigment Gallery in Melbourne.

"Shaping Evolution" shows digital prints and a short video of imaginary creatures evolved by a computer program I have written. Each creature has "DNA" (a small amount of data in the computer) that generates its image. The creatures were evolved from random starting DNA by processes of "breeding", "mutation" and "survival of the fittest", carried out automatically in the computer. I am showing the "DNA" as well as the generated images.

Where: Pigment Gallery, Level 2, Nicholas Building, 37 Swanston St, Melbourne. (Enter via Cathedral Arcade, which is on Swanston Street, just before the Flinders Lane corner.)
Opening: Thursday April 14th, 5.30-7.30pm.
Exhibition dates: April 13 to April 30, 2011.
Gallery hours: Wed-Sat 12 noon - 5pm.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

What’s in a name? (What is computer art?)

(Long post)

On my website I have called myself a “digital media artist”. I don’t like that name very much; I would like to call myself a “generative artist”, but that would require an explanation. What I have not done is call myself a “computer artist”.

This is on my mind because I have been reading a short book called A Philosophy of Computer Art, by Dominic McIver Lopes (Routledge, 2010). I agree with much of what is in this book: there are interesting discussions of various topics, including “What is an artwork?”, and a vigorous defence of computer art against various attacks; the discussion extends to computer games. My biggest problem with the book is with the title: it should be called A Philosophy of Interactive Computer Art.

Lopes makes two central definitions, of “digital art” and of “computer art” (more precisely of the “computer art form”).

Digital art: An item is a work of digital art just in case (1) it’s art (2) made by computer or (3) made for display by computer (4) in a common, digital code. (Lopes p. 3)

(Here “display” has a broad meaning, so it includes sound and other forms of output.)

Computer art form: An item is a computer art work just in case (1) it’s art (2) it’s run on a computer (3) it’s interactive, and (4) it’s interactive because it’s run on a computer. (Lopes p. 27)

If Lopes had called this the “interactive computer art form” I would have little quarrel with it. As it is, I have two main problems with this definition. Firstly, it is too late. For most people, “computer art” brings to mind works made using programs like Adobe’s Illustrator and Photoshop; indeed this is why I don’t call myself a computer artist. Lopes’s book will not change this.

Secondly Lopes’s use rules out works that are computer art under any reasonable definition. Black Shoals by Lisa Autogena and Joshua Portway (http://www.blackshoals.net/), which is not discussed by Lopes, is a work that has virtual creatures breeding and evolving, feeding on real-time stock-market data. The work would be inconceivable without a computer, it changes in real time, and it is unpredictable, but according to Lopes’s discussion of the term “interactive” Black Shoals is not computer art, so by implication is lumped in with Photoshop collages and the like under “digital art”.

The difficulty arises because Lopes wishes to identify computer art as a new art form, as different from (for example) photography and painting as they are from each other. For Lopes, an art form is an appreciative art kind, defined as follows:

Appreciative art kind: A kind [of artwork] is an appreciative art kind just in case we normally appreciate a work in the kind by comparison with arbitrarily any other works in that kind. (Lopes p. 17)

Lopes goes on to argue that digital art is too broad a category to be considered an art form in this sense, which is surely true, and that (interactive) digital art is an art form in his sense; here I think he has drawn his boundaries too narrowly. Black Shoals can surely be appreciated by comparing it with a work like A-Volve by Christa Sommerer and Laurent Mignonneau (http://www.medienkunstnetz.de/works/a-volve/), which also involves virtual creatures breeding and evolving, but where visitors can specify “DNA” for the creatures and interact with them once they are “born”. Yet for Lopes, A-Volve would count as belonging to the computer art form and Black Shoals would not.

If there is an art form that Black Shoals and A-Volve both belong to, what is it? I approach this via two more questions:
  1. What is the most important characteristic of the computer? My answer: the computer autonomously carries out complex calculations and data manipulations. Interactivity is certainly not the most important characteristic; interactive computing only became widely available at least 20 years after electronic computers were introduced.
  2. Is there an art form that has complex processes carried out autonomously as a defining characteristic? Yes: it is generative art.
Philip Galanter has given the following widely quoted definition:
Generative art refers to any art practice where the artist uses a system, such as a set of natural language rules, a computer program, a machine, or other procedural invention, which is then set into motion with some degree of autonomy contributing to or resulting in a completed work of art. (Philip Galanter “What is generative art? Complexity theory as a context for art theory”, available at http://www.philipgalanter.com/downloads/ga2003_paper.pdf)
Two generative artworks, then, can be compared via a discussion of the rules or “procedural inventions” involved in the work. Black Shoals and A-Volve use very similar rules: they both make use of evolutionary ideas concerning breeding, mutation and survival of the fittest; altogether clearly they are similar works and are appreciated as such. The fact that one is interactive and the other isn’t is a relatively minor consideration in this case, and surely does not make the works so radically different as to force them to belong to different art forms.

Not all generative art is computer-based: for example Sol Lewitt’s wall drawings made according to systems of rules are generative art under Galanter’s definition. But the ready availability of computers has lifted generative art to a new level and, in my view, has made it visible as a distinct art form. (I also note that Lopes concedes that theoretically a work of computer art in his sense could run on a human brain rather than a silicon machine.)

Most unfortunately, Lopes does not discuss the concept of generative art at all. If one is looking for an art form that makes essential use of the characteristics of the computer, and that has been given both an enormous expansion of possibilities and recognition as a distinct kind of art by the availability of the computer, generative art is a strong candidate.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

"Orbit" at Space 22

I have a piece in the "Orbit" group exhibition at Space 22 in Ballarat.

Space 22 is the only artist-run space in Ballarat. It is celebrating its first anniversary with a group "30 x 30 (x 30) cm" exhibition: works have to fit into a 30 cm square or a 30 cm cube.

Where: Space 22, 22 Main Road, Ballarat.
Opening: Saturday January 22nd, 3-5pm.
Exhibition dates: January 20 to February 6, 2011.
Gallery hours: Thu-Sun 12 noon - 5pm.