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.

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The city of dreaming books

I read this one a long time ago. I can still remember it vividly, filled with fantastic beings and locales. This book is a sort of crossover between creative fantasy and fairytale, though when I think about it practically every single creative writing can be said as a variation of the two categories. The style of the book is very reminiscent of the free-form fantasy /anything-goes style that seem to be all the rage these days, and the general scenery is sketched down in very imaginative and carefree manner tied together by meticulous storytelling ability.

Majority of the book really does revolve around the city of dreaming books, Bookholme, which is said to be inspired from the used books stores from the East Coast USA. Bookholme is an ancient city built upon giant network of caves and dungeons originally dug up to store precious and/or dangerous books away from prying eyes. As the time passed and the city got larger, people began dumping more and more books into the underground, which led to the formation of people called book hunters. Somewhat different from the book hunters we are familiar with from works like the Club Dumas, the book hunters of Bookholme are hunters first and book readers second (if they even know how to read), capable of dealing with giant monsters and blood sucking insects nesting in the subterranean book dungeon, as well as the ‘dangerous books’ created by book alchemists of the old.

As you can probably realize, this book is a real treat for the little bibliophile in all of us. Illustrated and light on tone, there is no mistaking that this is a children’s storybook, although I must say that the book is never childish like some of the forced children’s literary content out there. I’d rather classify this as a family content rather than a book aimed straight at children. Nothing beats a sunny afternoon, a good cup of tea, cute pastry, and a chapter or two of the city of dreaming books for relaxation.

The humanity’s obsession with information containing medium had been around since the beginning of history, and it might even stretch further than that, into the primordial side of us as life-like constructs. I’ve always been curious about that. Why would there be such mysterious appeal to information containing medium in nature? Books, monoliths, codex,and drawings, the signs are a plenty. Will it be too much to understand them as an attempt to create some sort of artificial life through the means at hand? A layer of translation between the world and the human psyche, perhaps?

Sketch-Videodrome, ipod, and etc.

A little something I wrote last night when I couldn’t fall asleep. I think it might be interesting to some of you.

Does anyone remember the movie videodrome? If you haven’t watched it, I suggest you do. It’s an old movie but it still rides on the bleeding edge of the prophetic. The phrase ‘Death to the videodrome, long live the new flesh!’ will ring in your mind for a long time after you finish watching it. I believe I can still see the phrase being repeated in many places throughout the net and other media.

The prophetic vision of the betamax era movie had come and pass, but the poignant insight into the fundamental relationship between a mass-media society and humanity still rings true today, and it might still tell us many things when we view the lessons in the context of the abundance of mobile mass-storage media player such as the ipod.

Unlike some people out there, I do not view the popularity of the ipod as the popularity of the apple. The way I see it, ipod is the modern vellum that are capable of storing pages after pages of ‘moving information’ and ‘audible information’ in form of music and movies. The popularity of the ipod is in fact the popularity of a notion of being able to create a localized collection of information/media that connects us to not the physical network of electricity, but the emergent network of the cultural zeitgeist wherever we go. Even in the times of actual vellum information, the truth of the matter being written about was never the focus of the author/creator’s mind. There are numerous examples of medieval vellum codex beginning as something as innocuous as a collection of prayer texts or certain dispositions on the bible, or even a collection of herbal remedies, that gradually turns into a wild text concerning the supernatural, the arts, the philosophies and etc., anything and everything within the zeitgeist of the era capable of reflecting the thought of the author/creator of the codex. The fact is, a long collection of any media, text or music or herbal remedy, requires heavy choosing on the side of the creator. No matter how hard the author tries to keep things in objective light, the ‘objective’ facts being written on the pages are chosen among millions and millions of ‘objective truths’ out there in the sea of information (and yes. I do believe that some form of the sea of information existed at all stages of human history, far before the advent of electronic networks). The ending result must inevitably reflect the state of the author as well as the signs of the times, gradually turning the most mundane collection into something profound and fantastic (the Codex Gigas probably had a very humble beginning, but it’s now surrounded by legends of demonic deals of the monk who wrote it. Who’s to say that something like that can’t be true of some of our ipods a century later?), a little graffiti drawn at the corner of the world that turns the whole scene around (I just love the graffiti analogy. Maybe I’ll do a full post on this later).

The success of the ipod is, in fact, the success of such mindset. The success of web logging and podcasts are not in that they act as easy gateway to reach out to others (although it is a fundamental and integral part of the medium), but in that they might build up within the cultural zeitgeist (think penny-arcade. Those guys would never have drawn/written so much and so well within isolation, but it would be shallow to think that they began drawing and writing simply to show it to others) and have a connection with the sea of information at a very instinctive, almost Jungian way. As it was metaphorically suggested in the movie videodrome, this movement of human civilization goes beyond the physical brute-force way of ‘uploading’ a mind onto other medium (as is frequently depicted in pulp fictions). It is about the something within the basic fabric of human psyche that can only be fulfilled through meaningful activity that allows one to connect with a sense of humanity at a collective level, the something that dreads meaningless activities and drives people to despair or unreasonable act in defense of something one might consider meaningful. The collection of movies and songs within ipod gradually grows to encompass the footprint of the collector’s mind, and the pod itself, through sound and vision, recreates a strange world for the collector to immerse him/herself in at any moment, anywhere.

Where do we go on from here? If the appeal of the ‘ipod concept’ was about being able to immerse oneself in a world through a cascading medium, what would be the natural progression?

Sketch-Alife and Art

I’ve been trying to write a post regarding the parallel between the art and sciences, only to come to multitudes of conclusions and thoughts all contrasting against each other. So I thought I would write them all. Sort of collected sketches of my thought regarding the issue. Maybe I would be able to see some pattern in my divergent thoughts should I carry on doing it for a long time.

The subtle parallel between the art and the sciences are readily available everywhere I see. Modern practices of art, such as some of the experiments of the abstract expressionists from coincidences and random outcomes of color and pattern to Tara Donovan’s styrofoam and foil constructs, the similarities in goal and practices of the medium abound everywhere. The fetishes and gods emerge out of their woodwork and stony silences frozen in their attempt to walk and talk among their worshippers and creators, the blotches on canvases look as if they would soon drop on the world into an ever spreading smudge. All pieces seem to be wanting to walk out into the world and speak of things in their hearts, but what really is life in the eyes of their artistic creators? Is the life-like qualities of the results and practices of art wholly intentional or something merely accidental, an evolutionary dead end in pursuit of something else? What is the trait of life that ties itself to the art in so many fields and actions, regardless of their truth?

I’d say the artist’s description of life is a system in eternal transition without destroying self. Constant change while maintaining unique characteristic that defines itself is the universal trait of life-like things most closely related to their artificial cousins. Tara Donovan’s pieces are formed of simple elements repeated ad nauseum, a process that begins to turn them into something different, while still maintaining and even exploring the nature of its components, to the extent that the new forms begin to act as a strange extension to the nature of the original components. This is a process startlingly similar to some of the approaches taken by artificial life students and certain schools of modern music. Such characteristic is instilled in the basic fabric of the modern art. Take a look at Hans Hoffman. The powerful brushstrokes and colors lend weight to the painting and the energy and form are coalesced into something powerful, and yet soft and almost random while being able to maintain certain thematic vision, a quintessence of the painting capable of metamophosise the colors and the masses into refreshing waterfalls and flowers of a ravine.

The significance of the life in art as being a system in endless state of transition while being able to maintain itself is in the meeting between the medium and the definition such interpretation can provide us. Modern arts, through its tireless search for form and beauty, have provided us wit an understanding that certain things are able to maintain the illusive trait of ‘self’ while going through a total disembodiment of its usual medium and composition. The integrity of the medium combined with the definition, the ‘being’, at the horizon between a thing and its definition lies the concept of life from inanimate.

Now, think of such a construct, not drawn on canvas but beating and breathing, walking among us. A graffiti on the fabric of biosphere.

Observation and comparison

Below is a note I wrote while walking through a Metropolitan gallery one day. This is a note on art written by a physics student, so… Keep that in mind 🙂

The Greek visions of what makes an art piece life-like is well embodied in the myth of Pygmalion and Galatea. I believe the Greeks tried to find the most concentrated and abstract combination of lines and figures (while maintaining human shape) in order to form the most aesthetically pleasing, idealized life figure possible. While such classical arts can be regarded by many as boring, in the sense that if you’ve seen a few you’ve practically seen them all, it does provide us with interesting food for thought as to how the ancients went about creating life-like things in devotion to their vision and religions. Maybe it is possible to hypothesise that the practice of dividing the reality into certain perceptible and universal patterns and then recombining them into fully developed forms is a practice inherent in an intelligent mind. Such explanation might help in explaining certain traits displayed by humanity that were often relegated to a specific cultural zeitgeist or (god forbid) racial trait. Within such cultural environment it is easy to see how art and mathematics must have grown together hand in hand, to find the most ‘beautiful’ combinations of shapes and lines distilled into a axiom, a sort of unifying principle beyond human perception and the urge to create.

However, when I think of Greek sculptures, I can’t help but to think of the Egyptian sculptures at the same time. The Greek and Egyptian comparison is a most peculiar and interesting thing in my eyes. The geographical proximity is one thing, but the strange amalgamation of similarities and differences, almost as if they were fully aware of what each other were doing at one point but took pains to ignore it, is simply intriguing.

While Greek sculptures featured prominently the beauty of lines and shapes into certain idealized format, the Egyptian sculptures are unique in their combination of writing and art, to the point that it is often difficult to tell where one ends and the other begins. It is possible to say that the vast majority of Egyptian sculptures almost seem to act as a background provided for the ‘story’ of the writing written on the sculpture, like how medieval monks illustrated their beautiful manuscripts with figures and strange designs to act as a backdrop for the written language. I thought at one moment that I could attribute such difference to the unique nature of Egyptian religion, but as I learned more I began to notice quite a few similarities between the Greek and the Egyptian methods of faith, and that in the end about the only difference I could attribute to religion came from geopolitical structure of the times, with the Egyptian empire under single rule and single ‘state religion’ of sorts, while the Greeks remained as a collection of city-states (more or less). So religion by itself could not have been the deciding factor in the difference between the Egyptian and the Greek approach.

I consider most forms of art to inherently desire to be born into the world. As such, I view both the Greek and Egyptian sculptures as a serious practice at some form of metamorphosis, and I consider that while Greeks found relish in geometric nature and relation of forms themselves, Egyptians found attribution of meaning in inanimate things to be the straightest path to bringing their sculpture to the most life-like state possible. It amazes me how we don’t have any knowledge about ancient Egyptian practice of writing fiction, albeit in some hieratic form.

Common practices of metamorphosis might be upon oneself (masks), or the others (ceremony), or the inanimate (sculptures and such). Shaping god into sculptures represent at wanting to communicate directly with these natural/inanimate things by giving them a human face (interface) and worshipping them (controllable environment). In that regard there is one key similarity and difference between the Greek practice and the Egyptian practice. The similarity is that natural forces are often represented in combination of an animal and a human. The difference is in how the animal and the human come together in each of the cultures. In Greek sculptures the metamorphosis of the natural into human occurs by giving an appropriate animal a human face. In Egyptian sculptures the result is somewhat opposite, giving animal face a human body. What is the true difference between the two? I can’t say I have an answer at this moment.

Thought flow, from Jackson Pollock to Animism.

I had to wait for a long time for some of my test results to come in yesterday, so I thought I’d spend the day in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which is only about 20 or so minutes away from my lab at the most. I sat down in front of the modern arts exhibition and began to jot down notes on everything that came into my head, ranging from weather to what to have for dinner, and etc.

And then somewhere along the line I began to have some interesting ideas regarding some parallel between the idea of metamorphosis, artificial life, art, music, and writing etc., so I jotted them down and decided to share it with you. The note was organized in rather chaotic manner (with drawings and other silly things) and written in a foreign language to boot, (as is my frequent habit when making personal notes) so this might end up not making much sense.

Some of the practices of art are very reminiscent of the practice of distilling the random pieces of lines, lights, and shapes to subsequent psychological and philosophical response of the human being and the world around the art object. The distilled ‘atoms’ of art objects are then reconstructed as the artist sees fit, into something breathing and constantly struggling and reassessing, something that is part of the world that is alive. Such practice can also be observed in the scenes of artificial life, where random bit of numbers are distilled into certain crystals of flexible pattern and form, which are then reconstructed into whole systems for the express purpose of turning it into, or at least get a hint of, a life. Will it be immature to suppose that certain seemingly random arts of the modern age, such as that of Jackson Pollock pieces, follow similar philosophy and goal?

If the parallel can be drawn between the medium of visual art and that of artificial life, how about music and writing? How can they come closer to a singularity without being confined by their characteristic medium? Modern classic seem to offer some glimmer of understanding for me, as they find a few simple yet poignant tunes and form them into simplistic yet most profound patterns of rich meaning and tapestry of metamorphic perspectives. As for how writing can achieve such an effect, I have no idea…

That is the problem. The art of Kandinsky can easily be visual, musical, and living. Yet how to translate a symphony into a writing? How to write a portrait of abstract thought and feelings? The subtle melodies to echo in the readers minds?

I do not believe I am mistaken in seeing some sort of commonality in the artificial life and arts of various format. Yet what is common between them is rather complex to define.

Perhaps the similarity between a life and an art is in their inherent intentionality to be given birth. The paints and the pieces struggle to come out into the world and walk among us. And when inanimate things created by human hands try to walk among us, we step into the realm of anthropological religion.

Modern religion came from branches of Animism in that religions generally try to imprint human face upon things that are usually inanimate and inorganic, like the winds and the water. In a foreign world the first approach of a human being is to humanize her environment, turn it into something that can be communicated with, albeit in some obscure and strange way that would defy normal human habits. Simply put, gods are created in order to control the world by human hands. The act of worship is really an act of communication. Just as we don’t yell at our computers to turn on and calculate the billionth place of pi like we would at living mathematicians, complex rituals are formed to translate human intentions into a language volcanoes and storms can understand. Inanimate forces and phenomena of nature are considered to have their own consciousness based on human understanding of humanity. Remnants of such way of thinking is apparent in still present sex division in the modern world, as we would often jokingly refer to men or women as unreasonable and pedantic about meaningless things. Perhaps current form of glorifying the object of one’s worship as one’s master became fashionable as the politics and religion became intermingled with each other at around the time of Mesopotamian civilization. Maybe the uneasy relationship shared between the fields of sciences, religions, and the arts reflects this complex web of intentions and commonality formed in the deeper recesses of the human psyche.

Perhaps the one ideal dreamed by the ancient and modern artists, from Pygmalion and African reliquary makers to Auguste Rodin and Mark Rothko is the world itself gaining intentionality, something so close to even the conventional notion of a deity. In the end attempting to create something like a god, when the form of the said god is very close to a human spirit, a god created in shape of humanity.

Creativity

If there is one question I’ve consistently thought about past six or so years, it’s the nature and origin of creativity. Isn’t it wonderous and mysterious? All logic dictates that I should be eating and thinking about or participating in sexual reproduction right now. But I’m not. I’m participating in a creative work (regardless of how meager it might be), thinking about the nature of some abstract concept, while listening to a music I’ve sought out on the web. Activities that have so far eluded conventional attribution to genetic codes inherent in biological beings.

Sometimes I look out the window, toward some endlessly delicate and beautiful pattern of light and lines drawn by air and planetary motion. I can actually feel some kind of strange emotion I am not enough of a writer to describe in words. Time to time I look around myself in everyday life, only to discover that by some coincidental play of time and motion, something beautiful had passed by. And I feel a strange urge to describe it, to capture the moment in a medium that isn’t as ephemeral, to understand the essence of what made the moment what it was.

Such behavior doesn’t seem to be limited to human beings, although human beings might be the ones most eloquent in putting such urge and curiosity to the motion and the act. I can think of a few animals capable of displaying more curiosity about the world than their owners (as strange as it sounds, it’s true). Such observations lead me to believe that curiosity and creativity may be some inherent characteristics of all life forms with certain physiological feature, such as a brain stem. Maybe there is something within how the brain is structured that leads all sufficiently complex life forms to pursue their own visions of Pygmalion?

Something is here to be described, yet how it is to be done is unclear. The only understanding between the object, the moment, and the human is that all things she sees in front of her is in this world, arising naturally from the chaos of the world itself. So she sets herself to recreating the world in her own vision, to capture the indescribable she witnessed for the fleeting moment. The world thus created is formed with a question, with an urge. The world thus created has a directionality, a philosophical intentionality. A whole world with an intention, temporary or otherwise, is disturbingly similar in its description to life. Perhaps she has created a life. Perhaps arts and writings intend to seep out into the world. Perhaps in the future, the art will come alive, breathe with us, and stare back into our eyes.

Impressions and expressions

There is something I’ve been wanting to do for a long time. A drawing in writing. I am not only referring to some whimsical positioning of letters so that they might physically resemble letters.

I think I might be able to truly draw in writing, describing some still life and give it a true world and vision to breath in, so that readers might actually be able to see the drawing by reading, a single moment frozen in time yet open to so much possibilities, so much poignant musings. A photography of writing, a fogged window panes of Mark Rothko. I think it might prove to be a much amusing exercise. Just imagine whole galleries filled with writing, symbiotic with the world around itself like other visual medium, yet containing a whole new world within itself, frozen in time into some profound moment within that world, yet pregnant with all sorts of possibilities and outcomes. A portrait, written/drawn in letters to capture the emergent world beneath the skin.

Now I wonder, how I might be able to pull such a thing off.