I am investigating the converging relationship between non-linear theories of temporality and contemporary artistic practices that use interactive, generative technology and the moving image. My enquiry focuses on the intersecting relationship between philosophy and art practices through an examination of the concept of time and temporality.
I will illustrate how philosophies of eternal recurrence relate to the origins of the moving image through early devices of repeating cycles and generative content that presented moving image or sound as a cycle, loop, or generator. I am interested in how early modes of representing time relate to cinema, and in turn how cinema has impacted the presence of the moving image in contemporary projected linear and generative narratives. At the same time, I will examine artists who make technology, the moving image, interactive, and generative content a major part of their practice.
ETERNAL RECURRENCE is a concept that asserts that the universe has been recurring, and will continue to recur an infinite number of times across infinite time or space, in a self-similar form. The concept inherent in indian philosophy was also found in ancient Egypt. The scarab (or dung beetle) was viewed as a sign of eternal renewal and the reemergence of life... a reminder of the life to come.
In a section of the Litany of Re in the tomb of Ramses III is shown some of the seventy-five nocturnal forms of the sun god, including one called ‘Kheperer’. This is the dormant sun god of dawn who during the night was entirely black with a head like a scarab beetle, representative of the endless potential and inevitable spark of creation manifested in this being.
The infinitely cyclical nature of existence is also exemplified historically in the image of a dragon or snake eating its own tail.
It is a symbol that has itself been recycled by many culture but can eventually be traced back to Ancient Egypt (circa 1600 BC).
Friedrich Nietzsche resurrected the idea of eternal recurrence as a thought experiment to argue for amor fati (or the love of one’s fate) and Thomas Browne in The Garden of Cyrus said “All thing began in order, so shall they end, and so shall they begin again.” There are many more examples... however, the point is that with eternal recurrence, time is viewed as being not linear but rather cyclical.
REPEATING CYCLES / INFINITE LOOPS / GENERATIVE SOUND / MOVING IMAGES
So it would seem that the idea of self-generative systems is not something new….they have been around for hundreds of years. Wind chimes are an example. When the wind hits the chime, it makes a new and different combination of sound each time.
By looking at the history of visual culture and media we can find many strategies and techniques relevant to new media design. To develop a new aesthetics of new media, we need to pay as much attention to cultural history as to the computer’s unique new possibilities to generate, organize, manipulate, and distribute data. Artists, composers and musicians such as John Cage and Brian Eno have utilized generative art processes. They are interested in exploring the range of possibilities that could happen by chance and by accidental forces and with this in mind have created simple sets of rules to alter the original music in a random way. Generative art allows artists to define a set of rules or parameters which, once set in motion, can create works with the added impact of unpredictability and chance of the wind chime.
The launeddas is a typical Sardinian woodwind instrument, consisting of three pipes. It is polyphonic and played using circular breathing. An ancient instrument, dating back to at least the 8th century BC, Launeddas are still played during religious ceremonies and dances (su ballu). They are played using extensive variations on a few melodic phrases, and a single song can last over an hour. Circular breathing is a technique used to produce a continuous tone without interruption. This is accomplished by breathing in through the nose while simultaneously pushing air out through the mouth using air stored in the cheeks. The launeddas could be one of the first instruments to use the notion of a continuous loop.
The Phenakistoscope, the Zoetrope, the Zoopraxiscope, and the Tachyscope were all based on the same principle — placing a number of slightly different images around the perimeter of a circle. The parallel between early cinematic and new media technology highlights an older technique useful to new media – the loop. Characteristically, many new media products, whether cultural objects (such as games) or software (various media players) use loops in their design, while treating them as temporary technological limitations. I, however, want to think about them as a source of new possibilities for new media. Nineteenth-century pro-cinematic devices, the Zoopraxiscope, the Kinetiscope, etc. were based on short loops. As cinema began to advance, the loop was downgraded to the low-art realms of instructional film, pornographic peep-show, and animated cartoon.
if / then
repeat / while
The loop not only gave rise to cinema but also to computer programming. Programming involves altering the linear flow of data through control structures, such as “if / then” and “repeat / while”; the loop is the most elementary of these control structures. Most computer programs are based on repetitions of a set number of steps; this repetition is controlled by the program’s main loop.
Since the 1960s artists have been gravitating towards an increased use of moving-image practices and technologically based work. I am interested in how this has impacted contemporary art practice and modes of presentation. The pervasive convergence of art and moving images has led to film and video installation becoming a dominant form of contemporary art. For example in the most recent editions of the Venice Biennale and Documenta, large-scale cinematic modes of projection have quantitatively surpassed traditional forms of expression such as painting and sculpture. From projected celluloid film, to digital video projections, to multimedia environments, film based sculptural objects, net-based and computer installations, and interactive or generative works.
The increasing acceptance of the technologically based moving image is of interest to me. For example to the astonishment of many, Bill Viola’s The Greeting, the fifth of the video installations Buried Secrets was shown in 2000 at the Art Institute of Chicago in a room surrounded by Titians and Pontormos thus challenging the paintings that had inspired the technologically based work.
Other examples of work by contemporary artists who use circular narratives in their work include Christian Marclay’s epic 24 hour moving image installation, The Clock, in which Marclay created a montage of thousands of film and television clips with glimpses of clocks, watches, and snatches of people saying what time it is. Another work by Marclay, Telephones, includes hundreds of Hollywood film clips that form a repeating motif of dialing, ringing, answering, listening, speaking, hanging up.
Mat Collishaw's Skin Flick is based on the principle of cylinder anamorphosis. A video clip of a bullfight is used in place of a still and is presented on an LCD screen. A javelin, which appears to penetrate the screen functions as a mirrored cylinder and corrects the anamorphic distortion of the video clip. As the javelin sits at an angle, viewing of the work is not straightforward and walking around the cylinder becomes a game of seeing and not seeing, just as for the bull; taunted by a moving cape only to discover that it’s target is actually elsewhere.
Mehmet Akten’s Simple Harmonic Motion is ongoing research and a series of projects exploring the nature of complex patterns created from the interaction of multilayered rhythms. It is a video and sound installation, developed around the concept of creating complexity from simplicity and is inspired by the works of Norman Mclaren, John Cage, and Brian Eno – as well as observations from nature, physics and math. Through the use of custom software, a large number of ‘entities’ are generated, each follow an extremely simple repetitive pattern of movement and sound. On their own, each entity can be considered very monotonous, basic, mechanical, repetitive. The repetition duration, motion and sound of each entity is precisely tuned such that the collection of all entities moving together, creates a unique, evolving and complex composition – both visually and sonically.
British artist Nathaniel Mellors double-headed animatronic sculpture entitled Hippy Dialectics (Ourhouse) delivers a short schizophrenic dialogue that is both humorous and disturbing. The 'Ourhouse' in the title refers to a video work by Mellors. It’s a surrealist sitcom about an eccentric family featuring two central figures, Daddy and The Object. Hippy Dialectics features two versions of the 'Daddy' character (one blue, one yellow) connected by a ribbon of hair. Cast from the face of the film’s actor, the latex heads are brought to life by means of electronics and software. They deliver a looped pep talk, including a range of compliments ('god, you're looking buff. no seriously, you look great!' and 'cool, you are cool!') before concluding with an absurd back and forth of “yes” and “no” between the two heads.
I am an artist who is exploring the use of simple generative strategies that employ moving images and I’m interested in what sort of implications this has for my artwork. My interest is in using the moving image as a cycle, loop, or generator. How can generative strategies successfully be applied to aesthetic problems? Whether the aim is to provide a design solution or simply to explore the dynamic qualities of a given system, the process requires translating intuitive creative choices into rules and/or machine-readable code. What are the criteria for an interesting solution, what parameters and boundary conditions can be manipulated to produce satisfying results? These are some of the questions that I am interested in exploring through the process of creating my generative video installations.
My imagery concentrates around my own body integrations into naturalized settings that are depths of water along shorelines. I have recorded visual submersions of myself in distinct locations… Italy, France, Iceland, and Greece. I sought out specific locations that would reveal minimal, but absolute characteristics of the water conditions in each country. My research follows a vision whereby I utilize the waterous environs of the Adriatic, the Aegean and the Cote d’Azur as a means to camouflage the figurative self; a way of actually hiding myself in a skin that mimics the surrounding moss, sand, rock, reflections, or refracted depths.
I am looking at innovative ways to input, manipulate and output self-generative visual material that still retains its’ ethereal and lyrical qualities that are present in the raw photographs and video. By employing both human and technical intervention and utilizing some basic generative “rules” new image combinations are born with every permutation.
ACQUA VELLUTATA SOSPESA: INTERACTIVE VIDEO PAINTING
While the more primitive form of generative art easily maintains its’ lyrical quality, I sometimes feel that the one fault of the technological form of generative imagery is that it can often become mechanical in appearance thus destroying any subtleties, or appearance of aesthetic emotion. I feel that the generative examples that I have mentioned are successful in overcoming this problem. So perhaps for me the real challenge in working with generative processes in my work is to combine an interest in science and technology with a commitment to the lyrical and sensual aspects of my imagery. This is a combination that would seem at odds but when delicately balanced can hopefully support one another and serve to strengthen the work.
For the Acqua Vellutata Sospesa project, I shot video of myself underwater at Santa Marinella along the coast of the Tyrrhenian Sea, sixty kilometers northwest of Rome, Italy. In antiquity, Santa Marinella was the site of Aquae Caeretanae, a Roman bathing resort. The act of swimming underwater defies the sense of equilibrium the body requires: gravity, sight, hearing… balance. I place the viewer as voyeur, inside my shifting ground that contains both figure and water as one amalgam.
The open source programming language of Processing was used to create the project. The underwater video located in the sketch’s “data” directory was inserted into a chunk of simple Processing code. The code gives the command to load and play the movie in a loop and the drawing function allows the video picture to be used to paint using the mouse, track pad or other device such as the iPhone. By manipulating the tint or transparency as well as the image, the video leaves a trail or evolutionary history in its’ wake. Tint sets the value for the displayed video. The video can be made transparent by setting the alpha. For example, a tint of (255,128) will produce an image that is fifty percent transparent. For this project the fill value was set at (255,5). The image parameter specifies the image to display and the x and y parameters define the location of the image from its’ upper-left corner. The image will move when the cursor is moved.
Viewers receive an i-phone shaped instruction card when entering the installation. They may choose to download the MSA remote application to their iPhone or use iPads housed in the gallery space. The viewer begins with a blank black “canvas” and then “paints” layer upon layer of video to build a fluid image.
I have created a water environment that responds to viewer controlled movements and encompasses the viewer in the environment that I put myself into in my images. I want the viewer to experience the feeling of being submerged in and enveloped by the water and to be able to “paint” with the liquid video imagery.
Viewers who have experienced the interactive video painting have instantly become engaged with the activity and have rapidly gained skill and ability in creating their own composition with the supplied water video. The ever-changing footage provides a sort of brush for the painter to create with. Each participating painter has come up with a unique composition with movements, gestures, and signatures specific to them.
THE NARKISSOS PROJECT
While my previous work has related to my own body and image ... and the effect of the watery surroundings that I place myself in, The Narkissos Project casts the viewer as subject and seduces them into interacting with their own watery “reflection” through the familiar sensations of touch, vision, and sound.
Just as with my previous works, I place the viewer as voyeur and at the same time subject, inside a shifting ground that contains both figure and water as one amalgam. The point of view is from outside looking in and under, operating in a kind of lussuria ossidionale; as sublimations of unattainable acquisition, just out of reach by the nature of our imperfect vision into water. In The Narkissos Project the spectator's transition into another world happens through touching their own fictitious face and moving pebbles to disturb the water’s surface both visually and aurally. Touch is the interface into the virtual world and the mediator of different languages and perceptions. To touch a water surface, to influence a mirror, to make sound when moving something are reactions which correlate with reality.
As the viewer gazes at the pool before them, an image of their face is captured. As they begin to interact with the virtual watery pool by moving pebbles around on the surface of the interactive tabletop, the sound of water is produced. The viewer can create their own soundscape by moving a single pebble to another location or by sweeping a number of pebbles across the surface. The sound created by the participant is made up of recorded samples that I collected in caves and along shorelines in Greece. Drips, drops, echos, swooshes. The more pebbles in play, the more sound combinations created. Different motions and combinations of pebbles will generate different results.
The interactive water layer consists of video footage also shot in the Aegean Sea. As the participant interacts the placement of the pebbles will trigger a pooling action that will disperse the water layer in relation to the size of the pebble.
The pebbles collected along shore lines in Greece act as the tangible user interface for the sound and related visual effects. The pebbles will not have specific properties attached to each individual object but will however have general characteristics related to their size. Smaller pebbles will trigger softer and higher pitched sounds. Larger pebbles will correspond to louder and deeper tones and will disperse more water. The more pebbles in action, the more complex the sound. The sound emitted will be harmonious by default. Visual clues in the way of water dispersion created by pebble placement will relate directly to the sound.
Finally, the fascination of watching one’s self transform combined with tangible user interface controlled sound will entice even the novice narcissist into a brief trip into the watery abyss.
So when I am creating my interactive or generative works I am looking to the past and the history of early modes of representing time to inform me... the philosophies of the Egyptians, the simplicity of the wind chime, the mesmerizing quality of the zoopraxiscope... all of these generative loops can inform and bring their lyrical qualities to current day technology. As the practice of computer programming illustrates, the loop and the sequential progression do not have to be considered mutually exclusive. A computer program progresses from start to finish by simply executing a series of loops.