Vladimir: We could start all over again perhaps.
Estragon: That should be easy.
Vladimir: it’s the start that’s difficult.
Estragon: You can start from anything.
Vladimir: Yes, but you have to decide.
Samuel Beckett, Waiting For Godot
“There is more happiness in allowing the unexpected to happen than in discussing it. Why should it worry me that chance often leads us along the wrong paths? At least these paths are new to me. I like casting dice for a beautiful idea, even though I risk making a thousand blunders.”
“A picture used to be a sum of additions. In my case a picture is a sum of destructions.”
“Like Picasso, I have a horror of artists who repeat themselves. To me they are so many insects who, imprisoned in the same fatality, endlessly recommence the same automatic action. Picasso, depending on his creative fantasy, can go from the highest classical tradition to the most hazardous new realization. Is not art a series of hazards?”
Take an object.
Do something to it.
Do something else to it…
Although I work digitally pretty much exclusively, and have done for a very long time, while making this current series I have thought in more depth and at greater length on the implications of digital art than I have ever done before. The title I have given this project is “Handmade: Variations On a Theme” and this was deliberately chosen to reflect my thoughts both on the concept of digital vs manually produced art and also because of the connection with musical “Variations”. To reflect, too, my conviction that the hand of the artist (and consequently the “tools” thus employed) are only one of the means available to “create”produce” art; neither better nor worse than any other. You can, if you so desire, make art by hand (a preference, however, not a qualitative judgement) but the mind is the true origin of all creativity and expression. So much is self evident (not to everybody maybe…) but we are still very much talking about art conceived and executed with the human mind. For most people the thought that art could be machine made is anathema, almost an abrogation of responsibility on the part of the artist. In fact this hasn’t been the case for a long time. It’s an argument long engaged and mostly settled but still, it feels intuitively that art thus produced is somehow “lesser”. But first, a look at the “process” involved in the creation of this current series…
The pieces in this series are the product of more or less complex layering and blending of “base” images. Moreover more often than not the actual images are nothing more than various edits of the same base image. There is, however, surprisingly little actual experimentation in this process. Through experience I have learned many of the intricacies of how digital layering and blending works; enough at least to be able to fairly reliably “pre-visualise” the various possibilities available. In actual fact to a large extent all the final pieces in this series have been meticulously conceived, pre-planned, pre-visualised… call it what you like. This has always been my preferred way of working; my accustomed method. This may be reassuring to some: I guess it at least indicates that this is serious work and not merely the product of idle play. But be that as it may it isn’t the only reason I work this way. I have, too, very real other reasons to prefer such a working methodology…
Even with precise pre-visualisation the process of digital layering and blending (not to mention pre-editing of the original images) involves a constant series of decisions (both major and minor). Basically digital blending of images is a purely mathematical process involving the application of various algorithms. Now I’m no mathematician (so, naturally, I’m extremely grateful to be entirely shielded from the algorithmic underpinnings involved!) and no doubt one could calculate just how many possible alternative combinations present themselves at each and every turn in the process, but to all intents and purposes one might as well view them as being infinite in number. Someone once likened the artistic process to a series of small “yeses” culminating in a big “Yes” but there is a limit and it may well behove one to restrict the number of small “yeses” required if only to preserve one’s sanity. So much for my sanctimonious “This is all pre-planned and I know what I intend to do every step of the way…”. It may be true but it is still a working method largely based on time and inclination (limited patience…) constraints. But what if it didn’t have to be that way?
One view of the artistic process may be that, essentially, it is a problem solving process. A human one that is. Computers, right now, as it turns out are actually not that good at it. In reality it’s still very much a case of “garbage in, garbage out…”. Conversely, it could be said that with humans it is a case of “limited possibilities in, limited possibilities out…”. One thing that computers do well, however, is calculate far faster and more reliably than any human. So… computers calculate and present possibilities at ever increasing speed thus removing one human limitation and humans make the final decisions to accept or reject them. Seems a marriage made in heaven to me. But nothing stands still… this could go way further. Basically, as I have said, computers don’t necessarily make good decisions when it comes to art (humans neither… but that’s another story) and even presented at speed too many possibilities aren’t necessarily compatible with human decision making and can easily overwhelm it. It is, however, conceivable that more intelligent systems may be developed that can, in effect, “learn” from decisions that an artist makes and present a limited subset of possibilities based on what would in effect be a mathematical “model” of that artist’s individual sensibility. A sort of computerised “second-guessing” if you like (a thought… how often do we “second-guess” ourselves in the artistic process anyway?) This would logically be just another tool for the artist to employ or not as the case may be…
For many, however, such a concept would be a nightmare scenario. Especially as such decisions are often made in a knee jerk fashion without completely thinking through the implications. Many artists completely reject the whole concept of digital art production anyway. Sadly many of these artists are exactly those one could wish were involved in its development. Meanwhile many who are involved seem to bring with them a, shall we say, “dubious” artistic sensibility. But consider this: it’s happening and will continue to happen and who knows what new directions and possibilities will become available. It remains the case, however, that, as with democracy, if you don’t vote, so to speak, you don’t get a say…
In some ways it feels a little strange that while considering and writing about digital matters, I should be listening as I am to Bach’s Harpsichord Concerti. Of course, in many ways, Bach was very much a man of his times, yet his music has always, paradoxically, felt to me at the same time “modern”. I have commented before on the relentless logic and mathematical precision, qualities that I (rightly or wrongly!) associate with the modern. In any case, it has always fascinated me that music, arguably the most expressive of the arts, is also the one, arguably too, most associated with logic. Must be all that Age of Enlightenment baggage Bach’s music brings with it! Enjoy…
Johann Sebastian Bach, The Harpsichord Concertos, Melante Amsterdam, Bob van Asperen