Many Firsts

For my first post on this blog I am happy to announce that my first peer-reviewed article appeared online today in Fibreculture. It is entitled “From Representation to Sensation: The Transduction of Images in John F. Simon Jr.’s ‘Every Icon’.” This article is also the first chapter of my recently completed Ph.D. dissertation.

To give a taste of what appears in the article, I have included the opening section below.


     Perhaps the peculiarity of art is to pass through the finite in order to rediscover, to          restore the infinite.—Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, What is Philosophy? (Deleuze      and Guattari, 1994: 197)

Science and Art

When encountering John F. Simon Jr.’s software artwork Every Icon (1997) on his website, it can be difficult for viewers to know whether they are seeing the visual execution of a mathematical theorem or experiencing a work of artistic expression. This is because they are presented with a stark white and black thirty-two by thirty-two square grid on the right side of the website and three statements that read like a mathematical theorem on the left side. They state:

Given: An icon described by a 32 X 32 grid.

Allowed: Any element of the grid to be coloured black or white.

Shown: Every icon (Simon, 1997b).

But before viewers even take notices of these three statements, their attention is immediately drawn towards the upper left corner of the grid where a rapid flicker is occurring.

Once the grid’s flickering corner has captured the viewers’ gaze, they notice that a series of black squares emerge from this flicker, moving across the top row of the grid towards its right side. These black squares continue shifting to the right, column by column, away from the flicker until the leading black square stops moving. Then all the squares in between this now static black square and the flicker gradually change from white to black. Once all of the squares from the static black square to the flicker are black, the static black square then moves to the right, occupying the square in the next column and all the squares to its left suddenly change to white. At this point, another series of black squares emerges from the flickering left corner, which move towards the static black square.

If viewers continue watching Every Icon for a few more minutes, they will notice that the flicker occupies only the first five squares on the left side of the top row. Although these five squares seem quite chaotic, the orderly change of the squares from white to black is generated from this intense flickering. Viewers also experience a movement that seems to only be taking place in the top row of the grid. Change appears not to be occurring elsewhere in Every Icon. The squares in the lower thirty rows, which are all white, look to be completely static. The second row from the top has a few black squares on the left side, while the other squares in the row are white. [3] Like the lower thirty rows, the second row from the top also appear to be motionless.

Despite the fact that the top row of the grid tends to draw much of the viewers’ attention because of the flickering that is generated by squares oscillating between white and black in the left corner, it is not the only thing presented on the website for Every Icon. There are also the three statements on the left side. When viewers read these statements, the actions occurring on grid begin to make some sense. The first two statements set out the parameters for what is taking place on the right side of the website. The first statement mathematically describes the size of the grid as measuring thirty-two by thirty-two. The second statement establishes which colours will be found within each square on this grid: white and black. The final statement is a proposition that states this grid will present every possible icon using the parameters set out in the first two statements.

These three statements complicate how the grid is to be understood and perceived because these statements can be interpreted both mathematically and aesthetically. It becomes difficult to know whether viewers are looking at the visual execution of a mathematical theorem or the emergence of a work of art. Are viewers watching a sophisticated abacus as it slowly and successively counts out every permutation available to it? Or are viewers watching a rapidly changing abstract animation? Does Every Icon propose to visually represent a demonstration of a numeric theorem? Or does it propose an aesthetic experience? Simply put, when viewers encounter Every Icon, are they perceiving images that emerge from the work of science or, as Simon presents it, the work of art?

Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari state that when one discipline begins to interfere within the realm of another, the methods and techniques of that interfering discipline need to be followed. For them, ‘the rule is that the interfering discipline must proceed with its own methods’ (Deleuze and Guattari, 1994: 217). The methods and techniques that are used in one realm cannot be transposed onto the other. Accordingly, when art begins edging into the realm of science, it must proceed aesthetically. Deleuze and Guattari give an example stating that when discussing the beauty of a geometrical figure, like a square or a triangle, ‘so long as this beauty is defined by criteria taken from science, like proportion, symmetry, dissymmetry, projection, or transformation, then there is nothing aesthetic about it’ (1994: 217). Any scientific operation or technique used in or for the production of an artwork must be approached from the purview of art. ‘There are indeed technical problems in art, and science may contribute toward their solution, but they are posed only as a function of aesthetic problems of composition that concern compounds of sensations’ (Deleuze and Guattari, 1994: 196). If a particular work of art tries to proceed by scientific analysis, then the artwork risks being disregarded as art and instead could be deemed the work of science. Conversely, if an artwork is the object of scientific study or experiment, then it cannot be analysed aesthetically. Science must operate under its own standards and with its own methods and techniques, otherwise it could potentially be condemned as art.

There is a potential risk that the images viewers experience in the encounter with artworks that use or incorporate cutting edge technologies and work with scientific theories will be dismissed as the visual results of a scientific experiment, rather than producing something of artistic merit. Yet, without science, many innovative works of art may not have been able to generate the images that viewers experience today. Consider painter and architect Leon Battista Alberti’s development of linear perspective in painting during the early Renaissance, which used geometry as its foundation; or the pointillist painting technique developed by George Seurat during the 1880s, which was influenced by the optical and colour theories of chemist Michel Eugène Chevreul and physicist Ogden Rood; or finally, Woody Vasulka’s metamorphic video works from the 1970s and 1980s, which used some of the earliest digital imaging technologies (some of which Vasulka invented himself). When viewers encounter these past works or more contemporary artworks categorised as digital, internet, or software art, or under the ubiquitous rubric ‘new media art,’ such as Simon’s Every Icon, it is often the case that the images that are perceived cannot be clearly differentiated when it comes to art and science. Are they emerging from a scientific experiment or an artistic practice?

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1 Response to Many Firsts

  1. bobbyjgeorge says:

    Looking forward to reading your posts.

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