The contemporary media landscape is fragmented in many ways, audiovisual communication is oversaturating our everyday lives through surveillance, data analysis and statistics, software based interfaces and daily routines. In this myriad of networked artificial environment, the role of new media art is shifting. Novel interfaces are not surprising anymore, innovative, disruptive, unusual solutions have been capitalized and monetized. It became clear, that the original legacy of artists working in fields of algorithmic procedures, critical thinking and performance (fluxus), unpredictable probabilities of nature, chaos and our very existence, goes beyond programmable artifacts, screens, and networked electronic devices. This writing tends to highlight the underlying concepts and possibilities within computational and algorithmic art, involving an introduction of the artistic practice of a recently discovered Hungarian artist, Peter Türk.
There were many of his contemporaries working in the fields of computational graphics, or computational art in general. But, after examining his intentions and procedural methods, as later on we will see, the works and techniques of Türk highlight those concepts in a really special and unique way. The underlying origins and components of computational thinking and philosophical attitude that influence computational art and its many forms of existence become almost tactile in his meditative “manual computation” sessions. Today, within our culture, a kind of post digital aesthetic seems to be unfolding, that integrates traditional materials, physical environment and situations that are not intertwined with specific technological solutions, rather it merits from the experiences we’ve had with the pros and cons of digital technology and its role in our society. The origins of this tendency are well defined within the works we examine in this article.
Survival strategies are created by the reuse of previous memories, and improvised reactions for unexpected circumstances, and the combinations of these. Each reaction for a new or already familiar situation or a solution for a problem might also be regarded as if we used known methods from an existing collection and combined and realized them in an order that fitted the procedure. The process of realization etymologically comes from the Latin processus and can be called procedure, which might sound familiar from everyday language, as well: procedures mostly mean formal realizations of already rehearsed and practiced steps, let them be those of an initiation ceremony or of a completely everyday context.
According to certain biological views, presence in the world is created by experiencing the entirety of these procedures,1 and living organisms are based on these, as well. Dynamic systems based on procedural principles became popular in the 60s. Processes generalized in this manner, as abstract systems, besides influencing scientific discourse, started to reach art, as well. It became more and more accepted that different operating systems can be “entirely” described with different formulas. This also raised the issue that a complete operation can be formulated even independently of its physical surroundings, as a combination of immaterial, symbolic forms (for example with the help of letters, languages and code). In conceptual art and in the case of order-based approaches, interpretation and its form became less and less important, and thus focus shifted towards the procedure, the series of code to be realized, as symbolic (textual, cryptographic) asset. Spirit and form separate, which separability is based on cartesianist dualism, originating in rationalism and enlightenment. In today’s culture this approach operates in an absolutely new, everyday level, because the software and the hardware, the intellect and the action, the body and the mind seem to be separable.
It is easy to say about processes observed around and within us that the human mind operates symbolic representations (linguistic elements, abstract systems, formulas) based on immaterial data, and carries out logical manipulations on them. Because of the above mentioned reasons, mental existence that is independent from the body, or artificially operated intelligence are popular notions in contemporary culture, according to which abstract linguistic systems operate, aided by different algorithms that can be separated from different touchable, physical means (biological and chemical body, or machine constructed of silicon): decision trees, sequences, cycles define human thoughts, reasoning techniques, or mechanisms built into software. As in the 18th century, in the light of rationalism, based on the available technological solutions, we described mechanisms of our world with clockwork models; today many think that social processes, human cognition, decision mechanisms work as a computer network of a kind, that gathers information from the external world that gets into an adapting system through perception, where action gets formed as an answer.
Péter Türk’s works help loosen this inaccurately fixed dualism burdened with zeitgeist. For him, algorithmic thinking is not solely mean following the rules in a way or running previously planned programs in abstract systems. In his attempts and series spiritual contents regularly appear that does not aspire to describe and depict reality but to essentially get to know it. Regarding his works, it is useful to ask the following from Janett Zweig’s essay, Combinatoria: What kind of strategies can be observed in the system of procedural thinking and algorithmic arts? Where are the boundaries that form between spiritual experience and approaches purely based on processes? When someone permutes letters of the alphabet, let it be the alteration of the branches of the ancient Tree of Life, the Sefer Yetzirah,2 or the use of the abstract binary symbols of Ji-King, are we talking about creative transformation or meditative activity?
Today it is hard not to consider Péter Türk’s photo montages as precursors of current digital image creating techniques in a sense. His photographs, resolved and turned into fragments by repetition and permutation (e.g Class Average, 1979), are combinatorial toys of multiplication on one hand, and analytical examinations of perceptual mapping on the other. He creates fractured dimensions in his kaleidoscopic pictures that are presented from several viewpoints simultaneously, or from several distances: he manoeuvres on the edge of creating spaces, on holistic cognitive reconstruction, and examines their possibilities. Besides having characteristics of mathematical fractal, displaying from several viewpoints in the same time has pictorial philosophical significance, as well: he already leaves behind canonized central perspective based on traditional plane of projection, distortions originating from being displayed through the lens and subjective transformations.
In the 80s the principle of autopoesis was born as a synthesis of system theory, cognitive sciences an biology, among others. This describes living entities to be composed of the causality of self-sustaining and self-reproducing processes. Founders of the theory (Francisco Varéla and Umberto Maturana) were great influences of the dynamic systems applied in subsequent scientific and artistic models.
Trees were used to portray spiritual universal world models in early cultures, but later they became desacralized and tree structures were started to be used as knowledge organizing systems. Today branches of trees are used in digital & binary culture, such as searching algorithms or version control systems.
Besides the individual space structuring, another interesting fact, which is also relevant in terms of contemporary science, is that several of his series (e.g. Constable Phenomena, Psychograms, 1983–1984) examine one in one the cognitive limit of seeing and perception. In these, he uses compositions of minimal tone interpretations, transitions, gradients, stain movements similar to blind spots and familiar from biological depictions, and volatile edges. For today’s observer these pictures resemble the hierarchical organization of machine vision, where a kind of semantic reconstruction of reality becomes visually perceivable.3 These semantic organizing principles, the points of examination balancing on the edge of perception, cognition and concept-formation are the reasons why these works differ entirely from the earlier, photo-based space examinations. The lens are left behind, we are at a deeper level, in the field of visual concept-formation. These experiments must have been connected to Türk’s temporary eye disease that he recovered from.4 This is a beautiful example to show that his artistic practice was ahead of its age, and how he asked questions science, and more extensively society, arrived to later, on a different path.
Artificial Neural Networks are used successfully for a few years in different fields of Computer Vision, primarily to recognize and categorize objects, spaces and people. In these networks on the lower levels the system usually only separates stains, colours, and forms; defined categories, semantic concepts only appear on higher levels.
We can come to a conclusion about the eye disease from → artportal.hu
Fig. 02: Feature visualization of a convolutional neural network. The lower layers in the network are looking for colors and simple shapes only, while higher layers in the hierarchy are looking for semantic content and more complex interrelations within the image. Image made by the author, using a network that has been trained on ImageNet dataset (Zeiler & Fergus, 2013)
This kind of perfectionist and reductionist approach in getting to know the world makes the artistic intention totally clear, where the ego moves to the background, gets washed away in a sense, and leaves space to the observation of natural processes, and to the things and incidents on their own.
The observation method is inseparable from the creation of the models describing them, and these can be created by applying different simulations in technological sense. The abovementioned approach, based on analytical, so-called scientific objectivity, later is combined with certain world creating approaches in a mathematical sense in Türk’s art, that is the method of computing systems intended to simulate the world (e.g. in “…gazing through the windows, peering through the lattice” series from 2003, or the Brick Images series from 2008). Even though Türk hardly or never refers to these mathematical models, the viewer unintentionally evokes the dynamically changing particle systems, visual languages widespread in natural sciences, related to artificial life. Direct associations are John von Neumann’s universal automata, John Conway’s Game of Life simulation experiments, or Stephen Wolfram’s one-dimensional cellular automata,5 in which biological, perceptual and cognitive functions are transferred into purely symbolic, logical spaces and into silicon-based computer models by the researchers.
Cellular automata are creations based on very simple formulas, in which each cell can be imagined as a pixel on the screen, and complex patterns are formed based on if a cell is born, lives or dies. Fate of each cell depends on the number of its neighbours.
The scientific paradigm and the artistic tendencies are in interaction, of course. These achievements are closely connected to Gábor Bódy’s6 behavioural studies in a Hungarian context and also, connected to many other international early algorithmic visual experiments by Vera Molnár, Charles Chury, or Manfred Mohr. Artists of the Fluxus movement, indirectly though, but, considering their nature, also connect to the abovementioned organizing principle because they also build their works and performances around instructions. These methods are referred to in different ways from the Sixties. For example they are called “experimental action” (John Cage), or “irrelevant process” (George Brecht), where human subjective decisions are ruled out of the process, and the evolution of events is left to the unintentional, incidental events, independent from the participants.7
The artwork (world) this way “represents its own creation,” in which not the final form or the completed, closed, crystallized picture-material is important but the process, the organizing principle of the algorithm, the behaviour of which is primarily not symbolic but performative: it unfolds during the creation (running of program, putting image elements together, or making sounds), where the creator gives in to the process, performs and realizes it, follows the rules set up by himself earlier.
As it was already touched upon, even a few decades ago we were right to believe that we can familiarize with the clockwork-like rules governing movements of the world, and as the determinable equations always lead to predictable behaviour, only our knowledge limits the accuracy of our predestinations regarding the future. One characteristic of nonlinear rules, found a few decades ago, is that a tiny alteration of the initial condition (the starting state) changes the result to a great extent. Barely differing initial condition results in an entirely different, practically untraceable, or unpredictable outcome in certain circumstances.
This peculiar sensitivity to the initial conditions creates such an artistic determination in which artistic intention is present already in the moment of creation. After the form the initial figure appear on the paper or in the space is decided, and the steps the algorithm operates, lists, builds is chosen, the artist only assists to the unfolding of the piece of art. By this he also becomes freed from the responsibilities of the subsequent decisions, he carries out the orders as a kind of ritual, he repeats, ranks, with the use of the spiritual comparison like people chant, repeat mantras, or make rosaries move in a changed state of consciousness.
Brick, as a universal building element is symbolic. On one hand it is well-known for all of us; it is present in the most different cultures. On the other hand, it may be seen as the atomic element of space structuring as a unit that cannot be further divided, from which systems of higher-level might form: walls, buildings, liveable human environment. Early forms of picture series built of bricks were drawn on graph paper with pencil, mechanical pencil, as blueprints, marking different sides of bricks with different colours. These picture structures had built themselves based on initial rules: by rotating the placed object spiral structures build from inside outwards, or labyrinth structures are formed from outside inwards. The labyrinth, the spiral, the self-building, generative set of rules indicate a kind of sacral aesthetic, in which countless mystical visual memories evoke from the South Indian procedural drawings,8 through different concentric, built sacred spaces, to Borges’ endless labyrinths. It must be added here that these concepts are not directly encoded in the works, there are no real references, rather the viewer’s cultural context and its prefigurations let the viewer see them. The detached, engineer’s minimalism, the abstract composition and the humbleness accompanied with exceptional accuracy, patience suggest getting freed from the ties of time, without ideology. We witness lengthy, slow picture creating processes, it is vertiginous even to imagine how much time it took to create even one system of lines in the picture. This protracted handling of time is not characteristic of Türk’s contemporaries and the art scene of the era. He creates these contemplative pieces in a period when human culture around him is exposed to exponential acceleration, together with image creation. He continued working on each sketch, program for four, five, or more years, and during the process hundreds, thousands of visual prints were born.
Gábor Bódy was a Hungarian film director, screenwriter, theoretic, and occasional actor. A pioneer of experimental filmmaking and film language, Bódy is one of the most important figures of Hungarian cinema. More on his art and legacy can be found online at Monoskop: → monoskop.org
In 1955 Cage described experimental action the following: “An experimental action is one the outcome of which is not foreseen.” These are aleatoric procedures that aim to abandon human recollection, and aesthetic decision, preconditioned taste. These processes are called metacognitive processes by Simon Perry, with which Fluxus artists criticize the predictive systems in a sense. (in Making sense, p. 376)
Beside the more well-known Indian sacral geometries (e.g. mandalas, yantras) primarily in South India the so-called rangolis are typical that have no sacral bearings, but are drawn on the ground with chalk or sand between daily routine activities, as pastime.
Fig. 04: Differences within initial conditions are causing large differences within the resulting image, including aspects of emergent behaviour. The differences between each image are the initial positioning (its side, which it lies on) of the first brick. Outputs from the original brick generator program, made by Gábor Acsai
It is an interesting change in the history of the Brick images that after the early drawings he created for a long time, the method of creating changed: thanks to C3 Centre for Culture and Communication Foundation9 Türk could continue generating his pictures with the help of a computer program specially designed for this purpose.10 The program’s method is the following: after choosing the initial conditions (size, position of brick, rotating algorithm) in a user interface, the machine generates the entire, laid out structure as a final picture. The use of the program greatly influenced the artistic practice because the slow, meditative composing technique was replaced by a kind of selection mechanism, in which a picture could be produced in a second, by pushing a button, this way thanks to the vast amount of iterations each algorithm and the behaviour of the associated parameters could be observed completely differently. In these systems besides local variations, global, emergent patterns come forth that could not be observed with a small number of units. These patterns return on a meta-level to the artist and the observer. This helps the examination of the complex behaviour of a system that is based on very simple rules, and not by accident: the science of complexity is exactly about this, where the organized elements (that are based on simple set of rules) interact with each other in such a manner that unexpected, higher level constellations or schemes arise. In addition, in this change it is also observable how it looks like when an artificial machine expands human’s possibilities and because of this, different, new relations of knowledge are born. With computer simulation time can be condensed, lengthy procedures can be reduced into seconds; by this such phenomena unfold that otherwise in nature would took years. These are in-depth extrapolation exercises that can be connected to the philosophy of Miklós Erdély.11
I got closely acquainted with the brick drawings in a peculiar way. László Százados, curator of the 2018 All is Not Visible exhibition in Ludwig Museum (Budapest, Hungary), asked me to try to create such brick picture reconstructions that illustrate how these structures are built, what organising principles Türk used in these works. Hand drawn pictures were available, and more than twenty thousand pictures generated with the program were found during the planning of the exhibition; the original program was available, as well. Since on today’s computer the code cannot be run, or only in an emulated environment, the main guiding principle of the work became a kind of a media archaeological reconstruction: to decrypt and rewrite the algorithms and drawing functions, so the algorithms the picture is built upon could be tested on today’s computers. Similarly to the early version, the initial parameters can be chosen, but they are completed with an animation and spatial illustration of the building process and the result.12 After careful examination of the pictures generated by the original program, the guiding principles slowly started to take shape, by which each composition unfolded. In every case the initial state already determinates the final shape. The images depend on three parameter groups: the size of the chosen area, the dimensions of the brick, and the “rotating algorithm.”
C³ is an open, not for profit institution, a space for innovative experiments and developments related to communication, culture and open society, its main focus the fostering of meetings and cooperation among spheres of art, science and technology.
Originally the program was written by Gábor Acsai for the artist, in PASCAL.
Miklós Erdély (1928–86), architect, artist, writer, poet, theorist, filmmaker, was an important catalyst on the unofficial Hungarian art scene during the 1960s, 70s and early 80s.
The new version was created with today’s new technologies, the interaction is adapted to the needs of the exhibiting space: since it was not built for the artist but for the audience, the setup options of the initial parameters are more reduced, and the created geometrical structures, and the building process can be rotated on a touch screen.
This latter one means that if a brick is put down then in the next step it is turned over around its edge and then it is further rotated around the edges, until it reaches another brick or the edge of the area. If the latter case happens the brick is turned over another edge in a direction where it can move along. The creator used several methods, for example the starting point could be varied: firstly, bricks were building up starting from the centre along a spiral outwards, second, they started to build up from the outside, the edge of the area, using a spiral inwards as the backbone of the structure.
These building spiral structures evoke strange, “inverse” labyrinths. The rules themselves resemble strongly to those “labyrinth resolving” algorithms like for example the classic method suggesting that if we are in a labyrinth we should always turn to the left, so – supposing that there are no isolated wall segments in the labyrinth – sooner or later we would get out, even if we make many redundant, unnecessary turns during our way. However, even if narrowly limited, repetitive areas are in question, contrary to the traditional labyrinth, there is no problem here to be solved. There is no need to find the way through the walls to get out. The way builds itself in its natural progression. The aim is not to get out (or to get in) but to be on the way.
To demonstrate spatiality, the reconstructed program uses three-dimensional graphics besides the two-dimensional plans, which also raised interesting representation methodological questions. Since the original plans (and the original program) are two-dimensional, i.e. they retain the blueprint function for the creator, using the third dimension meant a kind of visual responsibility in developing this system. This medial reconstruction demanded an approach that applied similar objectivity in spatial representation.
Fig. 08: Differences between central perspective and orthogonal projection systems. On the left (perspective) it is visible that depth distortion is a key element in the system. On the right (orthogonal) there is no depth, no differences between sizes of objects in the rear and objects in the front. Drawing is made by the author.
Illustrating three-dimensional spaces on a two-dimensional surface seems natural for the Western eye with the help of central perspective, but the distortions caused by the shortenings force the depicted content into the viewpoint of a kind of subjective individual, where the already mentioned cartesian dualism appears: the isolated dichotomy of the viewer (subject) and the distorted space (object) from his viewpoint. Since it was our object to keep the spatial illustration for the audience, after several experiments, we decided together with the organizers of the exhibition that the virtual brick works would be rotatable with orthographic mapping. In this illustrating scheme lines are parallel and there is no shortening. It resembles more to the axonometric drawings of the eastern engraves than to the European space-perception, but this cultural outlook helps to keep the image creation technique and its representation universal, clear from the subject.
It is worth to mention that more of the conceptual designs for the Brick Images series got to be realized with real bricks, as real, spatial installations. This is important because conceptual art, the generative, algorithmic approaches are usually satisfied only with the fact that the rules, the hypothesis exist, and for them it is enough if the concepts remain plans or written ideas, the physical realisation is secondary. Among others, this is the reason why we can safely say that Türk was not following the trends but his own path, he left time for planning, and saved time and energy for finishing pieces, and handled intention (concept) and action (interpretation) as a whole. While in his early works these two are not really separable, in the case of the bricks real architectures form beyond picture structure plans, in real spaces, with expanded context. Standing, being in these spaces, feeling the expansions of the mass is an entirely different experience than imagining and mapping these relations.
Length, Width, Height and Depth, Museum Kiscell, 2006 © Photo: Róbert Szabó
In addition, real bricks are heavy, dusty, and carry universal cultural traditions, burdens and possibilities. They have stories and histories beyond being geometric elements. In contrast with the engineered, counted, symbolic representations on paper or in the computer, during carrying and setting bricks one gets tired, his joints feel the effects of the physical activity. In a sense, during setting up the process turns into an instinct-choreography, monotony, repetition completes itself in its physical self; lines drawn on the plans get to make sense. Brick installations were realized this way in several places with the help of friends and helpers. In 2004 a labyrinth was built of almost a thousand bricks in Székesfehérvár (Hungary), and in 2006 in Óbuda (Hungary), Kiscelli Museum – Municipal Gallery a monumental raster of more than 4000 bricks was realized, entitled Length, width, height, depth. In 2018 the Székesfehérvár installation was recreated in Ludwig Museum Budapest, in Péter Türk’s retrospective exhibition.13 These installations can be considered as the actualizations of their own blueprints, in which picture and space build themselves with the help of the participants.
Translated by Eszter Greskovics.
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