Sigurds Vīdzirkste: A Little-Known Contributor to Cybernetics in New York


While I was giving a talk in New York the other week I had the chance to see a preview of this incredible exhibit on Latvian migrant exile artists working in New York in the 1960s (thanks to Andra Silapetere). I was really struck by the mysterious work of one artists in particular: Sigurds Vīdzirkste. The patterns are clearly not random and yet no one knows the cipher for them. Oddly enough looking at his work one feels that something is being communicated at an almost unconscious level—just based on the material pattern and shape of the burnt lumps of metal bulging from the canvas. There is clearly a visual language of some kind but in the absence of representation it becomes irrelevant and one just feels the brute order and material pattern in its immanence. Looking at his work is like being able to look at one’s own language as if it had no representational meaning. So strange. That is, as a material, graphic, sculptural, textual, process. If you are in New York check out this exhibit at the CUNY gallery.

Sigurds Vīdzirkste: A Little-Known Contributor to Cybernetics in New York

The painter Sigurds Vīdzirkste is another example of an artist in exile responding to the environment of the New York City art world by developing ideas outside of it, while nonetheless participating within it. Vīdzirkste constructed his artistic language by reacting to the rising interest in technology at that time, and through that, bringing artistic production to a new level. After his studies at the Art Students League, he developed a unique style of painting that he called “cyber-painting,” in which he synthesized his interests in mathematics, chemistry, and music. He first exhibited this work in 1964, in a solo show in his studio at 148 Liberty Street, where, next to abstract compositions of circles and stripes, he displayed canvas with dot-like reliefs, callous clots, and metallic-powder compressions organized in different rhythms.8 This show was followed in 1968 by a solo show entitled Cybernetic Canvases, which, held at the Kips Bay gallery at 613 Second Avenue, was the first time Vīdzirkste publicly used the term “cybernetics” in relation to his work.9 All of the exhibited canvases were composed of relief dots on monochrome ochre or grey backgrounds, and they were untitled, undated, and unsigned; only a number was assigned to each work.


Sigurds Vīdzirkste in New York, late 1950s. Photo: unknown photographer. Private collection

After Vīdzirkstes’s death in his studio in New York, different pots with metallic powder and toluene were found, and after his paintings were brought to Latvia, a chemical analysis of one of his works revealed a mixture of pigments—metal particles soaked in a chemical substance and mixed with resin and resin lacquer.10Such combinations and experiments with pigments were most likely stimulated by his chemistry studies at the Riga State Secondary School before his emigration in 1944.

It is hard to trace a definite theory behind Vīdzirkstes’s dot paintings as he did not expand on his ideas in writing; but from sources available, we know that each work was created as an information system similar to that of punched cards for early digital computers.11 With each new painting, the artist organized dots in different rhythms and sizes and, as Voldemārs Avens (born 1924), another member of the Hell’s Kitchen group, remembers, he used precise calculations to create each system.12 As part of his process, he layered dot drawings done on transparent plastic sheets to create variations of patterns that could later be transferred onto canvas. This brings us back to his 1964 show, in which he also exhibited three drawings, which according to Vīdzirkstes’s letter written to his parents, formed the base of his information systems. Unfortunately, only one of them can be found in his archive, making it impossible to break his code.

With the development of technology after World War II, the use of cybernetics in art was prevalent in Europe,13 whereas in the United States, this was not the case. Even though one can map out early experiments linking art and technology, cybernetic and computational thinking in artistic production did not become widespread until the 1970s.14 Given this, Vīdzirkstes’s works developed in the 1960s, which demonstrate a unique and alternative system of visual signs bridging computing technologies and art, can be interpreted as a pioneering praxis that introduced the idea of programming to painting as a way to reconsider artistic production of the time.


Reposted from:


A Short History of Aleatory Art

There is a long, albeit minor, tradition in Western art of emphasizing pedesis and feedback to varying degrees. In A Deluge, with a Falling Mountain and Collapsing Town (1515; figure 16.1), for example, Leonardo da Vinci states that he used the appearance of humidity and condensation on windows and walls as an inspiration for painting landscapes, rocks, and rivers or unstable phenomena like fluids, smoke, or clouds.3


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Figure 16.1 Leonardo da Vinci, A Deluge, with a Falling Mountain and Collapsing Town (1515)


The pedesis of the hairs on the brush as they are mashed on the surface of the paper can also give rise to disorderly patterns on which disorderly images of the sky and earth can be figured, as in Alexander Cozens’s Streaky Clouds at the Bottom of the Sky (1786). Other techniques like frottage or rubbing use a pencil on paper over an uneven surface that produces a pedetic pattern to be elaborated on, as in Max Ernst’s Le Foret pétrifié (1929). The pedetic element here is the arbitrary nature of the rubbed object and the stochastic bouncing of the pencil over the surface.

The pedesis of the air itself has also been used as important way to increase the pedesis of the work of art. Marcel Duchamp’s Trois Stoppages Étalon (1913; figure 16.2), for example, uses the aleatory fall of a single meter-long thread to remeasure a meter. He writes, “If a thread one meter long falls straight from a height of one meter onto a horizontal plane, it twists as it pleases and creates a new image of the unit of length.”4 Since the thread is so light, the slightest bit of turbulent and stochastic air movement will cause it to fall in a slightly different configuration each time.

Painting can benefit from a similar aeropedetic method, like John Cage’sStrings 1-62 #45 (1980) inspired by Duchamp, or John Arp’s method of dropping cut-up pieces of colored paper from a height onto paper, Grand Dessin (1917). Or, more notably, in the work of Jackson Pollack. For example, Jackson Pollack’s No 31 (1950) relies on the effect of pedetic air currents on a liquid medium (paint) to pedetically reshape flung or dripped paint onto the canvas. Prereflective arm movements scatter the paint into the air, where the real painting is done not by the hand but by the air and paint left to itself in the air, and then the canvas as it shapes the splatter. Aerodynamic and fluid dynamic processes can be used together to introduce pedesis and material generativity into art. For example, Andy Warhol’sOxidation Painting series (1978) uses the pedetic flow of urine through the air to oxidize copper paint on canvas. The flow of liquid in air is subject to all kinds of stochastic turbulence and splatter, and the chemical reaction itself is subject to unpredictable shapes and speeds of oxidation.

In Francis Bacon’s work, we find paint splatter and rubbing combined.Figure in Movement (1978), for example, begins with splattering paint randomly on the canvas, painting with it, and scrubbing it out in a continual feedback loop of formation and deformation of the figure. Bacon’s aim is not to reproduce the photographic movement of the body (inspired by Muybridge) but, as he says, “the opposite of natural movement.”5 “I work much better in chaos . . . chaos for me breeds images.”6 And “The way I work is totally, now, accidental, and becomes more and more accidental, and doesn’t seem to behave, as it were, unless it is accidental, how can I recreate an accident? It’s almost an impossible thing to do. . . . [An accident]

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Figure 16.2 Marcel Duchamp, Trois Stoppages Étalon (1913)


out of which [the bodies] could move as though out of pools of flesh rose the images.”7 Images, for Bacon, are not something that preexist the material kinetic process of their generation. In contrast to the classical image of the eternal unchanging god which the artist copies, inspired by the muse, Bacon’s work shows how images emerge from the bottom up, through material pedetic genesis.

Not only in painting but in literature as well, pedetic methods have been used give agency back to the matters themselves. Tristan Tzara, for example, popularized the découpé, or “cut up” technique, in which a text is cut up and rearranged to create a new text from the random juxtaposition of the fragments. Brion Gysin and William Burroughs invented the similar “fold-in” technique, in which two pages are folded in half and stuck together to create a new page. B. S. Johnson’s The Unfortunates (1969) is composed of twenty-seven unbound sections, with a first and last chapter specified. The twenty-five sections in between, ranging from a single paragraph to twelve pages in length, are designed to be read in any order. All these techniques allow the image to be determined increasingly by the matter itself. The aim is not to force matters into predetermined patterns of action but, rather, to allow the matters to unfold and express themselves. The artist is only there to facilitate, not to dominate the process.

We also see similar methods at work in the history of Western music. Mozart’s Musikalisches Würfelspiel (Musical Dice Game) (1792), for example, is a minuet made by cutting and pasting together prewritten sections determined by the roll of a die. Following a similar inspiration, Marcel Duchamp composed Erratum Musical (1913) by randomly picking from a hat twenty- five notes ranging from F below middle C and up to high F, then recording them in the score according to the sequence of the drawing. John Cage, again following Duchamp, wrote Music of Changes (1951) to give musical performers the freedom to create unforeseen sounds during performance. Pierre Boulez did the same, but for the composer.

Boulez’s Third Piano Sonata (1955–57/63), for example, allows the pianist to choose different routes through the score, and in one of the movements has the option of omitting certain passages altogether. In Karlheinz Stockhausen’s Klavierstück XI (1956), however, pedesis is given to the ordering of the sequences of musical fragments. Even more radically, Morton Feldman’s Intermission 6 (1953) for one or two pianos begins with fifteen fragments with the instruction, “Composition begins with any sound and proceeds to any other.”8 In the same year, Earle Brown composed Twenty-five Pages (1953) for one to twenty-five pianists, in which the pages are to be arranged in a sequence chosen by the performer(s), and each page may be performed either side up; events within each two-line system may be read as either treble or bass clef.9 In all these cases, the composers have attempted to introduce a degree of pedesis and interactivity into the musical work of art.

Sculpture, in turn, has invented its own attempts at pedesis. Alexander Calder’s Mobile (ca. 1932), for example, balances various shapes that hang in the air to be moved by pedetic currents of air. In doing so, sculpture is given pedetic motions depending on the temperature and viewers in the environment. In fact, it was Calder’s Mobile that inspired the aleatory music of Brown and Feldman. All manner of kinetic sculptures have since

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Figure 16.3 Hans Haacke, Condensation Cube (1963–1965)

been created that use aleatory wind patterns to influence their motion, including various musical sculptures like wind chimes and fabrics like Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s Valley Curtain (1972), The Gates (2005), and Floating Piers (2014–2016). One of the most interesting analog pedetic methods, however, is Hans Haacke’s Condensation Cube (1963–1965; figure 16.3). Haacke took seriously Leonardo’s advice about humidity on the walls, but instead left the condensation to move on its own, heating, cooling, drip- ping ever new in its own enclosed cube. The stochastic patterns of water molecules give rise to unpredictable patterns of accumulation and dissolution on the sides of the cube in direct feedback with the season, temperature, and viewers in the room.

From Theory of the Image, 343-347.

The Migrant Image


How can we think of art history as a discipline that moves process-based, performative, and cultural migratory movement to the center of its theoretical and methodical analyses?

With contributions from internationally renowned experts, this manual, for the first time, provides answers as to what consequences the interaction of migration and globalization has on research in the field of the science of art, on curatory practice, and on artistic production and theory. The objective of this multi-vocal anthology is to open up an interdisciplinary discourse surrounding the increased focus on the phenomenon of migration in art history.

Buy here and here.

Here is an extract from my contribution to the collection.

You can read the full chapter here: “The Migrant Image.” in Handbook of Art and Global Migration, ed. Burcu Dogramaci and Birgit Mersmann (De Gruyter Press, 2019); 54-69.

Migrant aesthetics
The mobile image and the centrality of the migrant mark a new period in aesthetics. The digital image is not only mobile by virtue of its form but by the mobility of its content and author. Some of the most shared and viewed images of the past few years have been digital images of migrants, refugees, and the conditions of their travels, and even their death. The image of Alan Kurdi, the dead Syrian 3-year-old is now one of the most influential images of all time. The popular media has been saturated with migrant images and has thus been confronted in a new and dramatic way with the visible lives and deaths of migrants.

Furthermore, the widespread access to cell phones with digital cameras has also made it possible for migrants and refugees themselves to generate more images of their own movement and experience than ever before. The itinerant, grainy, handheld, and “poor” images of migrant cell phone cameras have become their own film genera: the “wretched of the screen” (Steyerl 2013). In these videos migrants are not silent victims but creators of new aesthetic forms, “an imperfect cinema” (Espinosa 1979) as demonstrated in Elke Sasse’s 2016 film #MyEscape.

Cell phones have also become literal lifelines for migrants to obtain travel information in isolated areas, to share videos, sounds and images with friends, family, and authorities. The digital visua l and sonic images produced by migrants have become the material basis of the aesthetic threads that hold together numerous committees across borders, not just refugees. Although it is most obvious in the case of refugees, these are the same aesthetic lifel ines that make possible sustained social and informational communities around the world. The migrancy of the digital image is what allows for community in a world of global migration, continuous mobility, and displacement. What would global migration look like without without the migrancy of the image and the images of the migrant,

The migrant image thus marks the limits of the previous century and the outline of a new one defined by the mobility and migration of the image. This requires a new approach both to the politics of migration and the aesthetics of the image. However, the advent of the present is never limited to the present alone. Now that our present has emerged, it has become possible in a way it was not before to inquire into the conditions of its emergence and discover something new about the nature and history of art. in other words, the present reveals something new about the nature of sensation and what it must at least be like so as to be capable of being defined by the primacy of motion and mobility as it is. At no point in history has the image ever been anywhere near as mobile as it is today in the digital image.

So, what does this say about the nature of the image such that it is capable of this mobility? lf the image is defined by the primacy of mobility today yet existing theories of it are not, then we need a new conceptual framework. We need to produce such a new conceptual framework based on the primacy of motion to better understand contemporary sensation and aesthetics, as well as the historical events from which it emerges. in short, the rise of the mobile digital image draws our attention not so much to its radical novelty, but to a previously hidden dimension of all previous images throughout art history that can only now be seen (Hansen 2004; Hansen 2006; Manning 2012; Massumi 2007; Naukkarinen 2005; O’Sullivan 2001; Gregg/Seigworth 201 0).

The research program proposed by this chapter is therefore neither a theory of the migrant image that applies strictly to the novelty of the digital image nor an ahistorical theory of the image that applies forever and all time to all images and media. It offers a different approach…

The Migrant Image