Abstraction- Engines of Art

The update at this blog had been intermittent for a while due to my personal circumstances, with moving to a new apartment, and the need to write up bunch of papers happening all at once. Now that I am a bit more settled I should be able to write here regularly. At least I hope that is the case… I do not think I can handle as much workload for a while.

I have always been interested in writing things. Writing is something that comes natural to me, in that while I am certainly not good at it, I can always pick up a pen or sit in front of a keyboard and scribble/type away as I drift away to a state of reverie. It is the same as with reading a good book. There is no need to force myself to concentrate. The process is quick and natural like playing an old instrument while intoxicated by its melody, a sort of self-reinforcing phenomena.

As such, it was only natural that I would try to fulfill my predilection toward the ever vague idea of beauty. I have always been puzzled by the nature of beauty since young age. I can tell for sure when something is beautiful to me or not, yet it is quite impossible to pinpoint the specific quality of the thing/person/situation that makes it appear/smell/feel beautiful in my senses. There is no consistency in the things that are capable of displaying the traits of beauty, as a garbage can and a work by Michelangelo might display the similar sense of sublime, that strange trait that we can only refer to with the vague term called beauty. And this *beauty* appears quite immaterial. I do not believe there is a single thing in this universe capable of appearing beautiful to all observers for all lengths of time. The trait of beauty can be highly subjective, and is bound to fade away after a period of time (when in view of a single observer) regardless of the hardiness of the physical material that radiates the feeling of beauty in its observers.

Would such traits suggest that the beauty literally is in the eyes of the beholder? There is no evidence to think that inorganic objects in this world is capable of reacting to certain objects in a way that an organic, conscious object would react to a thing of beauty. So it would be possible to assume that the ability to perceive beauty and react toward it in this world is limited to complex life-like systems (this is an assumption based only on what we know about complex systems and the physical relationships within the universe at the moment, of course). Yet the problem does not quite end at that point. Prokaryotes are complex life-like systems, yet can we possibly assume that such microbiotic systems are capable of feeling the thing we conscious human beings refer to as beauty? I have never talked to a prokaryote culture before, so I would not know. Let us re-examine the trait of beauty and beautiful things in this world for a moment. From what I can tell, beauty requires significant amount of neuronal resources in terms of sensory organs and processing units, aka the CNS. Would that mean that the ability to perceive beauty must be limited by the capacity of the senses? That external catalysis of sorts is always required in order to perceive/imagine beauty? It might be tempting to say yes to such an assumption, but I think we must remember that there are plenty of things in this world that are considered beautiful despite having no physical counterpart. Beautiful ideas. Beautiful future. Such are more or less information based constructs that might be represented by certain physical objects and situations in this world but not tied to the specific characteristics of the material. If beauty is intimately tied to its nature as a construct of information, then it is possible that the ability to perceive and react to beauty is intimately tied to the information processing capability, like the brain, which is in itself a vast complex adaptive system.

I think we might be onto something here. If the things I have outlined above have even a modicum of truth in it, the illusive nature of beauty might in fact be tied to the informational structure of the brain and its interaction with the external world, within which learning and memory themselves might act as catalyst between the world and the brain in perceiving and reacting to beauty…

Here is a million dollar question. If the immateriality of the concept of beauty and its acting in concert with innate mechanisms of brain and memories are true, would it be possible to write a finite-length work capable of giving persistent impression of beauty by conjuring up any and all images and ideas that can be felt/perceived by the readers mind? Would it be possible to write a piece that can simulate almost infinite gradient of human ideas and feelings within the readers mind by the virtue of ever changing yet persistent nature of human memory and innate information processing capacity of the human brain itself, using only limited number of imageries and terms that can be utilized in a single work of writing? The idea behind such a writing would be similar to the idea behind the evolution of natural language, of how limited number of alphabets are capable of composing rich vocabulary and astronomical variety of written, spoken works and ideas born from those works. Instead of alphabets, however, the work would have to discover and utilize certain archetypes of ideas, patterns and imageries as to make it possible for the reader to create something entirely new every time he/she reads it, the only characteristic shared between the infinite variety of reconstructions being the persistent presence of the indescribable beauty.

The ideas of artscience and artificial life takes on an entirely different perspective when viewed in such light. Artificial life would no longer be static art, but rather an *engine of beauty* in a persistent yet ever changing universe. Just as Kurzweil proposed the universe of meaningful information, artificial life might as well be the first step in a whole universe of sublime beauty.

Giorgio de Chirico- Ariadne to artificial life

painting ariadne

On my recent excursion to the Met, I’ve had chance to sit in front of Giorgio de Chirico‘s painting Ariadne. On days like that I enjoy strolling among the vistas of my thoughts, sightseeing in my own mindscapes. Sometimes I reach some interesting idea, and I’d like to share this particular one with you. I start with the first hand observation and speculation on the painting, and goes on to the social contexts and perspective on the relationship between art and artificial life. Of course, I am in no way educated in matters of art, so what I say about the painting is purely personal and speculative. If you want proper information about the painting itself, I’d suggest the official Met description and associated sources.

Ariadne awaits outside the labyrinth, frozen cold as a statue. The towers and progresses of the world slip by outside, unnoticed by her and the observer locked within the wall. Ariadne is a statue, but as I look closer she begins to resemble a stone cover of an ancient sarcophagi. It would fit with the melancholy atmosphere pervading through the painting. Theseus walked into the labyrinth ages ago with the thread of Ariadne, and he is yet to emerge from its dark paths. Or perhaps he has left the empty husk of the labyrinth a long time ago? Defeating it of the ferocious monster inside, leaving it as an empty dark corridor. Only the desolation remains and shadows haunt the dark corridors of the labyrinth.

When did Ariadne pass away? What had happened to Theseus? Perhaps he met the same fate he would have met within the dark corridors of the labyrinth, as a desiccated corpse. The activity of the world surrounding the walls begins to throw an ominous hint as to the fate of our hero and heroine. The heroic and dramatic gives way to the tides of the mundane.

The sense of timeless waiting and longing, intermingled with the thick taste of isolation and desolate serenity fill the whole of the canvas with strange attraction, and makes it stand out among the numerous canvases displayed in the white halls of the modern art exhibition of the museum. As I stare into the painting the position of the observer becomes uneasy, as I begin to wonder whether to apply myself to Ariadne, Theseus, or even the bustling activity of the world outside the wall.

Depiction of Ariadne as a sculpture provides some interesting insight into the world of the painting. What was the fate of Ariadne? In the state she is in now she has become a symbol in the lexicon of the consciousness. As I consider the matter of Ariadne and the rich symbolism of labyrinth in human history, I feel as if the world of the painting is being spread from the mind of the artist to my own. Perhaps the inside of the wall (though it might be argued that the stage is set outside, there is no way to tell) can be understood as the collective unconsciousness of the human world. Maybe it is a desolate, timeless place buried within the waves of zeitgeist. Perhaps the place within the wall is an ancient, timeless place in our psyche, waiting for some sort of resolution that we know for certain will never be found.

It is no secret that the mythical labyrinth associated with Ariadne held a minotaur within its dark corridors, and is a frequently visited theme across variety of cultures depicting the primordial passages of the human psyche. As such, labyrinths of almost any cultural significance is a path to some sort of resolution, guarded by difficult ordeal or mythic beast that must be overcome. Even within the labyrinth depicted in the painting, quite clearly devoid of all life, one cannot help but to think that some sort of secret still lurks inside, throwing an overwhelming curiosity toward us that soon borders on obsession. In fact, beneath the veneer of timeless desolation and serenity, one cannot help but to perceive of certain intense quality of questioning, as our eyes drift toward between the archways of the entrance to the labyrinth. The whole painting begins to metamorphose into a question in the back of the observers psyche, isolated from the world yet longing for something, some kind of attainment.

Here is where the conventional notion of the classic and the modern splits. Being classical or modern in this case has nothing to do with timeline in this case, of course. Classic and the modern are mindsets, values impressed into the very fabric of our social consciousness. The classics are obsessed with the idealized patterns, the equation of the human with the superhuman, contemplation of the nature of superhumanity and underlying human pursuits, and so on. A kind of peculiar disdain toward contemporary human condition and urges to metamorphose is a common universal sentiment among the arts and ideas commonly referred to as classical. The prevalent attitude encompassing almost every single work of art and ideas considered classical, all superhuman, not because human is, but because the human strives to be.

Yet certain indefatigable essences of the modern runs directly contrary to such sentiments. Consider the works of Gustave Courbet and his realism. Gustave Courbet and his realism is widely considered to be the first step of the true modernism in painting, in a twilight zone where the classical begins to turn modern. The most conspicuous feature of the modern is the depiction of the human wants. No more hero becomes the motto of the day, either by making everything heroic or denying the concept of the heroic. And as the process continues the art increasingly becomes the depiction of the art rather than depiction of the human of art.

It almost feels as if there is some sort of cycle, propagating through the stages of Middle Ages-Renaissance-Baroque-Rococo-Neo Classic-Empire, which are not as clearly defined as they would appear on paper but still retains certain zeitgeist that is apparent to a methodical observer. They all seem to revert back and forth in the relationship between the art and the human. Is this a primarily European (thus Christian) fluctuation? I am beginning to doubt it, for many other cultures like those in the Far East, show similar fluctuations of the relationship between the art and the human.

Such fluctuation is interesting in light of the oncoming possibility of artificial life. What will the art of artificial life be like? Idealized pursuit or depiction of the basic principles of the life? Life-like physical system treated as an art is a valuable opportunity to clarify some of the dilemma facing the issue of art and art’s relationship to the world and the human, though the precise form it would take is difficult to predict at the moment. Art, real or ideal, is quite discontent to be sitting on canvas and velvet lined pedestals. The art will inevitably flow out into the world (in some sense it already has) and walk and talk with us. Perhaps the divide between the real and the ideal, the focus on the art of art and the art of the human would manifest as a debate on the form of artificial life in human world. Perhaps it will be a debate on whether the human should BE artificial life.

Why my ongoing interest/obsession with the artificial life and the art? Why do I believe in art as life and life as art? Why my belief that the science and art should, and will, become inseparable from each other?

There was an interesting accident a few years back, when a young child stuck a chewing gum on a priceless painting of modern art, and gave an excuse to the horrified museum authorities that he did not think it was art. It is true that art in modern times seem to be an acquired taste, which is very peculiar to me. Isn’t art, at its naked core, a search and depiction of beauty? The nature of beauty might remain as illusive as ever, but for all intends and purposes it is universal. And if the social conception is in such a way that capacity to feel beauty must be educated into someone’s head, we have a problem. This might be the root cause behind today’s absurd separation between the field and practices of arts and sciences. Art in its inception should be universal to all of us, and that means it should be universal to all senses and all brains, something fundamentally integrated into the human system’s architecture that might even be replicated in non human life forms. The true nature of the origin that powers people to perform art and the true nature of the beauty that cativates us and evokes things and ideas that we never consciously thought of before, must in someway be related to our own physique, for life and consciousness cannot manifest without a body.

If the existence of the physiology and metabolism of life is essential to the process of art and aesthetic fulfillment, we have a pressing need for artificial life, both as scientists solving the great and observable problem of the human phenomena and as artists searching for the manifestation of art. The art will walk and talk among us, and no child will dare to stick gum on their faces. Everyone, even those without the art education and art sensitivity drummed into their heads will be able to intuitively grasp the presence of beauty and revel in the process of aesthetic fulfillment, since, in the end, human beings best understand things that resemble them. And what better resembles us than life, staring at us in the eye?

The videogame art

Today’s my day off, so I have a bit of time for some contemplative rambling about nothing.

Does anyone remember the game Vagrant Story? It was a game for the PSX that came out at the end of lifecycle of the system. I happened upon it by chance and was completely captivated by its unique brand of aesthetics and gameplay. I’ve always been curious as to what kind of real world inspiration was drawn for the Vagrant Story universe, so I did a little bit of researching while on one of my excursion to the Met.

Overall, the general aesthetics prominent during the gameplay is definitely 15th~16th century Italian, the period of high Renaissance on verge of crossover to the Baroque, another primarily Italian movement. However, being an artificial construct designed to represent a thematic world, the Vagrant Story and its version of Ivalice show certain interesting qualities while depicting the chronological changes within its own world using the subtle hints in architecture. The 15th~16th century Italian flair of the Vagrant Story universe is used in depiction of the ‘present time’ of the world from the player’s perspectives, against which the story of the forgotten city of Lea Monde and subsequent search for the Gran Grimoire are set. However, as apparent from quite a number of architectural stylings of the older part of the city of Lea Monde, like the Kildean Temple at the center of the city (which is told to have been built at the height of the city and the cult of Mullenkamp’s power, which in terms of the Vagrant Story timeline would possibly be ancient) shows distinct and unmistakable influence of the Byzantium art and architecture. The structure of the deities of the more ancient part of the city, the tiled backgrounds of the inner Kildean Temple, the majestic yet definitely not European or Middle Eastern arches of the walls, towers and ceilings, and the exquisite structure of the central dome of the Kildean Temple where the climatic battle between Ashley Riot and Guildenstern Rosencratz took place shows distinct Byzantine milieu, most likely taken from the real world example of the Hagia Sophia in the city of Constantinople, present day Istanbul. Indeed, the vast underground network of crypts and libraries beneath Lea Monde shows certain unusual Roman influences, putting it squarely within the timeline of the real world Byzantium.

It is somewhat interesting to note that surrounding public quarters of the Lea Monde, unlike specialized constructs like the aforementioned Kildean Temple, displays consistent central and southern European themes, reflecting their real world counterparts where magnificent architectures of old are preserved while the ‘normal’ housings surrounding them change with the times.

The most unique characteristic of the composite civilization of the Vagrant Story, the one that made the study of the real world influence on the Lea Monde architecture so appealing to me in the first place, is the novel use of lighting through out the changes of scenery surrounding the architectural works themselves. No doubt a technical decision was made at the time to compensate for the aging hardware of the PSX, it nonetheless proved to be a genius decision that made the world come alive to the player (thought the music and sound effects also had great part in it).

Within the engine utilized by the Vagrant Story, each scene is placed within a world with its own lighting and default color cue, a sort of universal ambient lighting saturated into every single texture within the scene. It means that for the most part every single cityscape/building in the game was placed within an even greater box of light. This gave each physical locale within the Vagrant Story universe to possess incredible range of lighting effects, each area becoming living and breathing worlds unified by architectural themes. The undercity has the atmosphere of the Styx, and the perpetual sound of running water and shades of bluish darkness accentuated by light sources of different, yet suitable color and scale. The lower Kildean Temple is perpetually basked in burning glow of yellowish crimson sunset, looking out into the violently crashing oceans formed during the violent earthquake of the past, while the red sun hangs suspended in the sky. The upper Kildean Temple makes extensive use of the contrast between the opaque red permeating through the sky and the deep darkness between the falling columns and crumbling extremities, giving us the profound feeling of holiness intermingled with the unspeakable decadence. It clearly displays the theme of eternally dying cathedral for a forgotten deity.

The psychological impact of such brilliant yet low tech use of lighting, and design decisions made to accommodate such lighting condition made profound impression on my then young mind. I still can’t forget the bleak, opaque red sky seen from the upper edge of the Kildean Temple, perpetually bathed in ominous sunset without gradient, the sun itself nowhere to be found. Only the darkness leading to the depths below in stark yet harmonious contrast… It had the ominous qualities of the best of Clifford Still paintings, and it still retains certain nostalgic quality for me.

In terms of realism, Vagrant Story is lacking. Yet I still remember each memorable scenes vividly, enough to draw and write about it despite not having experienced the game in six or seven years. Quite clearly, physical replication of the real does not equate the mind’s perception of the real. There seem to be a few immutable essences of the world that makes an impact of the mind’s eye to perceive that specific information as real (in such light, I am beginning to feel that many of the works of ‘modern art’ to be severely anemic in terms of true contemplature of the real and the simulacra of the real). If true, human perception of ‘beauty’ should be intimately linked with the perception of the outside world by the human cognition. Human cognition, physiology, and the illusive ‘human psyche’ are all interlinked with each other when in light of the aesthetic fulfillment of the self. Mind and body are inseparable when in observance of the world it seems. Beauty might be the brain’s way of propagating through the material world.

Writing this post made me think about a few things of art I would love to see (or, provided that I have the time, do myself). Painting of cityscapes. Just as the artists of the Bohemian era wandered the world painting landscapes (Gustave Courbet comes to mind. Interesting person. I should do a post on him someday), people of today should wander the world and paint cities at its most unexpected and beautiful/hideous moments in time (being that both are aesthetically fulfilling). Or even, take a cue from the Eastern landscape painters. Draw beautiful pictures of imaginary cityscapes, the ones where the viewer can walk through and dwell, perhaps learn a thing or two through the mind’s eye. The artists of the Renaissance were truly genius in this regard, as they succeeded in formularizing geometrically sound yet surreal drawings of buildingscapes that have almost psychological impact upon its viewer, like the ones for the panel at chapel La Bastie D’Urfe. It is rather strange to see no one capitalizing on such style in this age of digital arts.

Twilight bones

Thinking of Olin Levi Warner’s Twilight.

The sky outside my room-size balcony is in the thoughtful shade of blue. The field of trees extending into the horizons are shimmering in the last rays of the sun, already sinking into the other end of the land. I can see thin lining of clouds turning violet just above the tree line.

I love the twilight. This is my favorite time of the day, neither light nor dark, everything feels so calm, and everything feels as if they are thinking. At this time everything seem to regain their true shape, lost and twisted during all the happenings of the day, and will be lost in the opaque obscurity of the night. In this hour, something seem to reach out to my being beyond the veil of the world, scattering strange, indescribable feelings. It’s a feeling that reminds me of all the beautiful things I’ve ever seen in my life.

In this hour, I feel like I’m truly alive, and the mysteries of the universe brushes silently against my windowsill.

I wonder how the ancestors of human beings felt at times like this. Does the impression of the world surpass the ability to articulate it? Is there some primordial phenomena purely composed of ‘feeling’ without involvement of intellect or consciousness? If so, can we understand the phenomena of the holy moment (anyone remember the Waking Life?) as innate to all complex and cognizant life-like systems? What is a cat thinking when she stares into the deepening twilight? Did my languageless ape ancestor stare into the twilight with a piece of bone in his hand, surrounded by indescribable feeling like I have?

People can teach art and science separately, but that doesn’t mean they reside in different worlds. Someday we will be able to explain beauty to our children without any nonsense.

Brain Simulacrum

There is a semi-community project to simulate human brain using spare computing cycle in the works.

The members of the projects seem to be looking at eventual commercialization of what they achieve using this project. I assume that it might turn off some of the more devoted advocates of GNU philosophy among us, but I still think this is project is interesting enough to devote some of my unused cpu cycles to the cause… Since, well, what’s the point of letting the spare computer time go to waste? Right?

Science is fundamentally specialist and will never be able to achieve the kind of 2.0-everyone pitch in- status afforded by larger community web services today. However, the systems such as BOINC (the system used for the simulation project as well as a number of other worthy, non-commercial projects) gives us a glimpse of what ‘open-science’ in the future might be like, in that it allows concentration of necessary energy and resources to make the research come to fruition, not through any large scale departmental bureaucracy but through a sort of grassroots recycle programs of the commonly wasted byproducts of our civilization. Indeed, I’d refer to it as making full use of the machinery of the human civilization itself.
I’d like to urge anyone even passively interested to visit the BOINC website and participate in a project of your choosing. They have a number of projects in progress and the list is likely to grow in the future. Who knows, our little contribution might make the future a bit more interesting place to live.

Videodrome again…

I couldn’t sleep last night. I rustled around the house until four in the morning until I decided to watch videodrome again, a habit I’m suffering from since about four months ago. The cycle is simple. I can’t fall asleep, so I search for something to do. When I’m looking for something to do something inevitably falls in my hand. Usually that’s a copy of videodrome. The cycle had been repeating itself with unusual frequency these days… Of course, there are other things to do, and other things to watch/read when I can’t fall asleep. Yet when I’m doing something other then watching videodrome while in the kind of semi-insomniac state, there’s this odd pressing feeling that I should be dong something else.

There’s this strange atmosphere about the movie that makes it very fitting to watch while half-asleep, dead tired and in dark. Some people watch horror movies and some people read mythos novels, I guess my thing is watching videodrome. What is it that makes people have these rather unusual kinks activating under specific conditions? Is there any parallel that can be observed in behavior of other animals? Chimpanzees and monkeys come to mind, but what about dogs and cats? Bacteria perhaps? Is brain necessary for such behavior? It’s really no surprise that Hitchcock was so interested in the obsessive behavior of human beings… Is it a coincidence that first human subjects that gave the idea of universal archetypes to Jung were patients suffering from severe cases of megalomania and obsessive compulsive disorders?

And what would all this mean when applied to the concept of the human network, wherein the physical brain, changing universe and the simulacra of the real interact with each other in complex web of interactions, positively and negatively reinforcing each other.

Beauty, memory, brain, all jumbled together.

Nature of nostalgia suggests a few profound things about the true nature of human recognition and memories. For example, sometimes I feel an almost irresistible nostalgia to the days I can objectively say as one of the worst humanely possible conditions one can encounter. The horror, the anxiety, the sadness and the utter feeling of powerlessness. All is subdued within certain lights and certain strange winds, the quiet swaying of trees and the touch of cool twilight wind which turns the whole horrible experience into a perverted romance, making me long for the day even for a single moment. As such, the nature of memory and nostalgia is quite peculiar. I think except under very limited circumstances the nature of memory might as well have only a superficial resemblance to the conventional ‘copy of reality’ sense we get from the analogies comparing human brain and its functions to that of computers. In fact, first hand experience with a human brain (I have one in here, I assure you) makes me think what we consider to be specific and clear-cut functions of brain might not be as clear cut as usually believed, although I do not quite believe that the structure and function of the brain is entirely holistic as some proponents of the theory seem to suggest. It is more like one function complementing each other in a sort of linked reaction, one thing always verging on the territory of the other, physical and mental reaction accompanying the other (physical pain and memory?) for no sound physiological reason. In such perspective, it is not that memories and processing capabilities come together to build a conscious system, but the conscious system forms aspects of memory and processing ability as the original system gradually becomes specialized with time/evolution.
If certain quality of emotion and reaction can be expected regardless of actual physical situation being experienced, such as an aesthetic thrill or a dramatic flair in situations of distress or sadness, then what does that tell us about the nature of human experience on the more profound and general level? Would that mean human perception and reaction is entirely separate from the physical circumstances we subject ourselves to? Wouldn’t that mean that the sense of beauty exists separate from the ‘beautiful thing’ being observed at the moment, and that while certain quality for evoking a response may be present in objects, there is no staying power in such evoked responses since the response have nothing to do with the quality of the physical object, its ‘being’ in the first place? If that is the case, then it is impossible for things in this world to remain beautiful forever, in the eyes of everyone, of everything. It would basically limit the quality of this strange thing called ‘beauty’ strictly within the realms of cognisant system, biological or not.
However, even if that is the truth, what can I make of it in connection to certain philosophies behind the beauty of photography and abstract expressionistic art, where certain moments or (rather hazy) units of human response in front of the object-world are sought out as sort of atoms of human experience and thought? And even human brains and manifesting trait we refer to as consciousness is basically a physical system. As a would-be physicist, how should I understand certain strange quality that is receptive only to a special type of system, despite having originated from same materials? Would this be a sign of a nonergodic universe?

It is a relatively simple matter to debate the nature of beauty on purely artistic or even physiological level because we lack a profound understanding of it. Humanity had been practicing the things of beauty for as long as anyone can remember, but no one seem to be able to tell what exactly we are practicing to what end, and each debate have boiled down into arguments decided on the merit of logical infallibility rather than physical evidence, which is quite distressing to me on so many levels. This complex switching between the realms of the physical and the not-as-physical in the sense that it cannot yet be explained from the traits of its original component, is the quality of beauty that I cannot help but to compare to the ever illusive nature of life, how it began and how it is to be replicated.

So many questions questions… And no answer, not even a clear distinction between all the tangled knots of the questions, all seemingly tied together to some strange end.