The defining element or attribute of a work of art was once the human hand. Today, computers, prosthetic devices, SD cards, simulation software, sensors, graphical user interfaces (GUIs, pronounced Goo-ees), electronic signatures, speech generators, translation algorithms, multi-dimensional matrices, shaders and video games can now execute behaviors which were once the exclusive domain of human-beings. It is now possible to teach a powerful graphics API (application programming interface) named Vulkan to recognize, infer and extract the distinct features of Impressionist painting, and to reproduce its aesthetic qualities as a filter over any image. Artificial cities are simulated in CAD programs, translating strange software artifacts into the real world.
Hearing, seeing, perceiving, emitting, constructing, feeling and inferring are done in seemingly banal ways, through the quiet work of complex machines. What does this mean for the artistic impulse in today’s age? Is it really possible for art to be self-willing, self-executing? What reaction is provoked by these automatic architectures?
Adapting Thomas Kuhn’s definition of paradigm from his book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, it is possible to notice a new and slanted perspective from which computers and new technologies view, organize and construct the world. There is a fault line, or shift, between two modes of artistic thinking—one programmed, non-expressive and rational (computational), the other human, expressive and irrational (painterly).
The first mode is still common among the virtual class rising, to reference the 1990s essay The Californian Ideology by Richard Barbrook and Andy Cameron, embodied by Silicon Valley tech entrepreneurs like Elon Musk, who envision a planetary, urban network connected by vacuum-powered hyperloops, commercial space vehicles and electric transportation shells.
In contemporary art, and especially painting, reactionary movements to this celebration of technology employ colorful, childlike, raw and emotional techniques in painting, harking back to the CoBrA artists Asger Jorn and Constant. Others, such as the American conceptual artist Lee Lozano, have absorbed and embodied automatic thinking from their surroundings, using technical metaphors like ‘switch’ and ‘electricity’, regurgitating them in subversive and satirical ways.
Formal innovation in art, as in science, requires new discoveries. Employing theories of logic and color, painting and sculpture share aspects of symbolic representation found in everyday technologies—mobile phones apps, wireless hardware, software, emojis, screens, keyboards, lenses, graphics cards, game consoles, and other technologies. Phthalo blue paint by Old Holland has the alpha-numeric representation A679, while complex statements in painting must be conveyed through imagery and signs.
It is possible to turn off your device, your screen or game console, to disconnect from the grid, unplug; but what is the specific effect of these electronic and representational media when they are on? What spatial, symbolic, linguistic, and painterly transformations have they facilitated? What gestures, behavioral modifications, feelings do they introduce?
The painting in the studio can produce a sublime encounter. A fresh philosophy and aftertaste. Whereas the machinic image only inserts itself into the flotsam and jetsam of online media, without distinguishing itself from the stream.
Today, the artist must not only function as “quasi-provocateur”, as Jack Burnham laid out in his System Esthetics (1968) but also reflect the automatic impulse of today’s age. On a material level this might mean moving between software, and wet, messy pigments and materials. On the meta- level, it requires an understanding of the relationship between different technologies, colors, aesthetics, products and ideologies in our environment, and reconfiguring their relationship to one another.
Duchamp excelled at this, selecting mass-market, consumer products, and forging them together as hybrid objects, or Readymades. Yves Klein sought a hue of the color blue which could be represented by a number configuration. His color theory perhaps prefigures 256-bit computer color.
What Dada managed to establish quite radically was the abolishment of the retinal principle, as Duchamp once proclaimed, making way for an art which was “in the service of the mind.”
Art has, in its most compelling form, has a didactic quality. It teaches us something, whether about feelings, color, a moment in history, personal psychology, or about the external world. We might look at art works as vehicles to convey ideas, as in the extreme and investigative works of German filmmaker Harun Farocki, or the monochrome studies of Josef Albers. Art vehicles are important insofar as they communicate questions, and leave us with impressions.
Communicating in 2kxx often means typing text, shortened speech, recorded voice, and instructing computer algorithms across vast distances. How to counter a world in which value is placed not on the human hand, but rather on automatic architectures?
Claude Shannon, the American mathematician and engineer, defined the transmission of information as a function of three things: the size of the set of symbols, the number of symbols sent per second, and the length of the message.
In a sense, artists who use technology (which is everyone today), could retain one lesson from computers: how can art function as the least common denominator, a reduced set of ideas, which enables the viewer to interpret the work’s message? Which time-code or speed is needed to perceive the work, that of a video-camera, GPU, or that of pre-historic time, as in On Kawara’s One Million Years? What is the duration of the work: does the artist intend to bombard the senses as a flash of light, or to slowly acclimate or attune the viewer to another world, another conception of time which is possible?
The incorporation of automatic architectures into art is essential to consider for the future of art. Automatic architectures have given representation a digital counterpart. If we really want art to reflect our era, digitality should be embedded into the artistic medium, and irrationality and human expression into the computer.