What is Generative Art?

Art by Gwendal Tsang

We live in the age of the digital image not only because of its powerful hybridity and power to order material reality but also because of its powerful pedesis, interactivity, and power to disorder reality—to create new kinesthetic processes. The beauty of contemporary generative art lies not in its “random” number generators and the sublime affirmation of chaos against the orderliness of contemporary reality. Rather, it is in its capacity to create new kinesthetic processes that play in the complex region between highly ordered and highly disordered images. It gives a high degree of kinetic agency to the matters at work.

The primary question for contemporary generative art is thus how to harness a degree of pedesis in whatever way it can, enter it into an interactive feedback loop, and see where it goes. Humans are just along for the ride. In contemporary generative art, the kinesthetic process itself becomes primary. Subject and object, input and output are folded back over them- selves in an interactive feedback loop to be modulated as a whole, continuous process. This has always been the case in all art to varying degrees, even though most arts have tried to block it and confine it. Today pedesis and interactivity have become a primary and dominant focus of the most cutting-edge aesthetic experiments.

Generative Visual Arts 

In the visual arts, pedetic computer algorithms can be used to produce thousands of iterations with numerous parameters, like color, line length, width, thickness, rotation, texture, distortion, noise, brushstroke, and so on. The artist selects parameters, type of algorithm, and degree or type of pedesis—Perlin noise, loops, iterative variance, and so on. Pedesis can be introduced from the input, process, or output. An incredible variety of stochastic naturalistic processes can be animated, with different results each time. 

In a rapid series of such animations, Maxime Causeret’s Order From Chaos (2016) shows the pedetic patterns of raindrops hitting a surface and spreading, pedetic branching patterns of plants, swarming behaviors of insects, soap-bubble patterns, cellular bifurcations, coral meandering patterns, and more. The images generated are not meant to be copies of natural products but, rather, their own visual expressions of how stochastic algorithms can produce ordered patterns just like nature can, but this time with new resulting organisms. 

More disordered still is Maurizio Bolognini’s Programmed Machines (1988–), composed of enclosed computers generating flows of continuously iterated pedetic images. In the 1990s, Bolognini programmed hundreds of these computers and left them to run ad infinitum. Most of them are still working today. Of these works he says, 

I do not consider myself an artist who creates certain images, and I am not merely a conceptual artist. I am one whose machines have actually traced more lines than anyone else, covering boundless surfaces. I am not interested in the quality of the images produced by my installations but rather in their flow, their limitlessness in space and time, and the possibility of creating parallel universes of information made up of kilometers of images and infinite trajectories. My installations serve to generate out-of-control infinities.12 

In another work, Collective Intelligence (2000), Bolognini used similar machines to project random lines of light onto public surfaces and allowed mobile telephones to interact with them, changing the patterns in real time and creating “generative, interactive and public art.”13 Bolognini thus introduces pedesis and feedback at every level of the aesthetic process. The input is interactive and collective from the population, and the computer processing then randomizes the input, resulting in a highly pedetic and interactive output. 

Radicalizing this idea even further, Scott Draves’s Electric Sheep (1999–) is a computer screensaver that runs iterative fractal flame patterns with a number of different animated parameters. The screensaver is what your computer dreams of while it is asleep, a reference to Philip K. Dick’s novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Users can interact with the process by liking or disliking various iterations. This input then reprograms the genetic algorithm as the process mutates to become more interesting to the viewers. Users can also program and upload their own fractal processes whereby they “breed” or mix with the others to produce more iterations. There are currently about 500,000 active users a month.14 Again, pedesis and feedback are incorporated at every level with the aim of finding the most beautiful middle ground of complexity between too much order and too much disorder in the image. 

Generative Literary Arts 

Contemporary generative literary works go beyond the cut-up and fold-in methods of the Dadaists to produce much more pedetic and interactive works than previously possible. Philip M. Parker, originally an affiliate of the Fluxus group, used a mathematical algorithm named “Eve” to produce digital poetry based on graphic theoretical relations between words in the dictionary. He has produced over 1.3 million poems in this manner. He has even used similar algorithms to produce entire books—200,000 of them.15 

More recently, Jason Nelson has used generative methods to create digital and interactive hyperpoetry. His famous “Game, Game, Game And Again Game” (2007) uses flash media to create an audiovisual mashup of text fragments, sounds, and video in an interactive video game format. “I made this. You play this. We are Enemies” (2009) develops the same idea. His “Uncontrollable Semantics” (2006) creates a series of words on the four corners of the screen, each with its own sound and image. As one clicks on the different words, new word–image combinations are created. Poetry becomes a series of continually modulated feedback loops. A similar feed- back loop of interactive options occurs in Neil Hennessy’s “JABBER: The Jabberwocky Engine” (2000), in which randomly floating letters are connected to form new combinations of neologisms that produce pro- nounceable English words, but with no dictionary definition. These are then incorporated into poetic works. 

Jean-Pierre Balpe has even produced stochastic and interactive novels such as Trajectoires (2000) and Fictions d’Issy (2005) by using algorithmic and interactive methods. The stories are continuously generated sentence by sentence, and readers can shape the outcome by using their phone’s keypad. Balpe’s work and many others are contained in the first volume of the Electronic Literature Collection (2006) and they represent an amazing diversity of generative literary works.16 All these give the materiality of words a maximum of pedesis and interactivity by tying them to the kinetics of the digital process. 

Generative Plastic Arts 

With the advent of 3D printing, generative algorithms can now be modeled directly into plastic media. Although the technology is still in its in- fancy, some of the initial creations are incredible. Among the most amazing examples are the sculptures and architectural columns made by Michael Hansmeyer (figure 16.4). Hansmeyer is an architect and programmer who uses algorithms and computation to generate unique architectural forms using a simple feedback algorithm of topological folding. Hansmeyer begins his designs with a single cube and then begins to stretch and bend the cube, applying his folding algorithm to different parameters such as depth, curve, and line. The results are incredible—forms so complex that the “artist” could not possibly have “an idea” of them. The whole matter-form distinction collapses onto itself as matter becomes morphogenetic and semi- autonomous. According to Hansmeyer, 99 percent of the algorithms end up producing noise. Only those with certain modulated parameters produce the most complex forms. In addition to the Doric, ionic, Corinthian, and undulating orders of columns, Hansmeyer has produced an entirely new architectural order: the generative order.  

 

Figure 16.4 Michael Hansmeyer, Columns (2010)
Source: From artist’s website, © Michael Hansmeyer, http://www.michael-hansmeyer.com/projects/columns. html?screenSize=1&color=1#1. 

Nervous System, a generative design studio, uses algorithmic and stochastic code to create unique sculpture, jewelry, light fixtures, and even clothing using 3D printing. Their Floraform sculptures are similar to the biomechanics of growing leaves and blooming flowers. Their Xylem (2D) and Hyphae (3D) sculptures use algorithms that produce structures similar to those found in the veins of leaves. These patterns are used to generate jewelry, lamps, sculpture, and even architecture. Their Kinematics sculptures add a fourth dimension to 3D printing by creating a design system of hinged panels with a simulation strategy of folding and compression to produce customized designs that can be fabricated efficiently by 3D printing. The structure is printed as one part, but has thousands of interconnected pieces that require no assembly. The result is kinetic dresses, lampshades, jewelry, and more. 

Additionally, their website includes interactive software that allows an- yone to design his or her own sculptures and print them. Nervous System’s designs thus use hybridity to physically transcode binary code into 3D and 4D sculptures. They use pedesis in their stochastic algorithms, and they use interactivity in the user interface which is sensitive to its initial and continuous conditions. The purpose is not simply to maximize noise or feedback or to copy natural patterns but also to produce new patterns through the modulated use of noise and feedback. The purpose it to give the electromagnetic field its maximal kinetic and material generative agency. 

Generative Sonic Arts 

It was Brian Eno in the 1970s who first coined the term “generative music,” but the scene has expanded dramatically since then. Today, generative music has vastly outstripped Mozart’s dice throws, futurist noise music, and even the later modernist aleatory music of Cage, Feldman, Boulez, and others. These earlier works relied on comparatively simple pedetic parameters and limited feedback systems, and they remain but modest precursors to the much more hybrid, pedetic, and interactive works of generative music today. 

Some of the first works to introduce a higher degree of pedesis and feedback were Stockhausen’s Kontakte (1958–1960), Terry Riley’s The Gift (1963), Brian Eno and Robert Fripp’s No Pussyfooting (1973), and Eno’s Discreet Music (1975), the latter which used a new tape-loop feedback system combined with an echo unit and a continuously modulated graphic equalizer to change the timbre of the sounds. This allowed sound to turn back over itself in an ever-expanding and interactive modulated feedback pattern of sonic images. Similar modulated tape-loop feedback systems continue to be used today by various ambient music artists, such as Ous Mal, Taylor Dupree, Tape Loop Orchestra, and William Basinski. For con- temporary musicians, the tape-loop process also introduces a new focus on the pedetic sound of the tape noise itself. 

Although present in Eno and Riley’s early work, and emphasized in works like Steve Reich’s amazing Pendulum Music (1968), which swings microphones over speakers generating patterned yet chaotic feedback, contemporary artists have turned increasingly toward the stochastic noise, feedback echo, and hiss of the tape itself—amplifying it, looping it, and dramatizing the noise of the electromagnetic field. This is part of a much wider trend by contemporary generative musicians to seek out pedetic sounds like tape hiss, noise, vinyl-record crackle, CD skipping sounds, microphone feedback, FM radio static, and other irregular, pedetic and traditionally undesirable musical sounds created by the pedesis of the EM field. The aim is not simply to reproduce these sound images but also to work with them and use their stochastic patterns as the basis of new feedback loops and patterns of their own. 

In The Caretaker’s An Empty Bliss Beyond this World (2011), for ex- ample, vinyl crackle is amplified and echoed to the point where it equals the volume of the looped vinyl melodies. In a slightly different vein, Burial’s Burial (2006) uses the static crackles and pops reminiscent of those that occur in maxed-out speakers and loose or old audio cables, or the static electricity pops from the audio mixing equipment and microphone itself. These crackles become the sonic milieu of his hyperdub loops. Glitch albums like Oval’s OvalDNA (2011) combine various melodic audio feedback tones with CD skipping noises, as if one had taken a knife to a CD’s surface and then stuck the CD back in the player. The use of FM static in Olli Aarni’s Pohjoisen Kesä (2012), or his use of field recordings of underwater insects in Vesiä (2017), or Mileece’s interactive bioelectrical feedback sounds gathered from plants all accomplish the similar aim of introducing pedesis into the audio feedback loops for sonic modulation—to give noise “a life of its own,” to paraphrase Pollock.

Even more dramatic, however, is the use of numerous types of digital pedals, oscillators, tone generators, and computer software to produce highly diverse and numerous loops of sound that can all be modulated in medias res and with more technical precision than any tape-loop audio noise. The famous Japanese noise musician Masami Akita “Merzbow” has produced particularly pedetic and abrasive albums such as Pulse Vegan (2014), using both granular synthesis software and numerous digital sound boxes or pedals. In his most recent work, the software transforms his sounds into “clouds” or flows of micro sounds that can then be modulated continuously and generatively as a whole, according to a number of different parameters and computer algorithms. 

Curtis Roads, a media arts professor and composer of Point Line Cloud (2005), describes the process in fluid dynamic terms: 

Beneath the level of the note lies the realm of sound particles. Each particle is a pinpoint of sound. Recent advances let us probe and manipulate this micro acous- tical world. Sound particles dissolve the rigid bricks of musical composition— the notes and their intervals—into more fluid and supple materials. The sensations of point, pulse (series of points), line (tone), and surface (texture) emerge as the density of particles increases. Sparse emissions produce rhythmic figures. By lining up the particles in rapid succession, one can induce an illusion of tone continuity or pitch. As the particles meander, they flow into liquid-like streams and rivulets. Dense agglomerations of particles form clouds of sound whose shapes evolve over time.17 

Granular or pulse software thus introduces into music a new fluid dynamics of flows to the sonic image, letting it pedetically meander into periodic densities or folds that are then woven into a larger sonic texture like a fabric. However, the term “grains” of sound is misleading because each micro 1- 50ms sound sample or “grain” is buffered by an amplitude modulation or “envelope” that connects the grains in a sonic continuum. Wave-scanning techniques can also eliminate the need for the envelopes by having the grain boundaries always meet at the zero-crossing point of the respective signals. The resulting composition is thus sonically continuous and has a highly fluid character to it like the sound of rushing water, crashing waves, or a turbulent dripping faucet. Barry Truax’s Riverrun (1986), for example, is a direct statement on the fluid dynamic nature of micro-sonic generative image composition. 

“From the smallest rivulet to the fullest force of its mass, a river is formed from a collection of countless droplets and sources. So, too, with the sound in this composition which bases itself on the smallest possible ‘unit’ of sound in order to create larger textures and masses. The title is the first word in James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake.”18

Such modulation was impossible with the instruments and techniques available before the late twentieth century. For the first time ever, it is possible to modulate noise-pitch-rhythm as the complete sonic continuum that it is, at the smallest possible audible levels of the waveform, thus introducing an incredible new range of pedesis. Recent works integrating granular synthesis also include Ian William Craig’s Centres (2016), Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith’s Ears (2016), and Multicast Dynamics’s Scandinavia (2016). Mixing various higher degrees of pedesis into the digital input, pro- cess, and output produces numerous genres and subgenres of electronic, electroacoustic, and experimental music: glitch, drone, ambient, postclassical, noise, tape music, field recordings, found music, circuit bending, sound sculpture, vaporwave, chopped and screwed hip hop, and many more. 

Additionally, contemporary generative music introduces a new level of hybridity and feedback never before possible in music. Brian Eno’s latest album Reflection (2017), for example, is a brilliant mixture of pedesis, hybridity, and feedback. The album uses stochastic algorithms to determine the parameters of the sounds.

Because everything in the pieces is probabilistic and because the probabilities pile up it can take a very long time to get an idea of all the variations that might occur in the piece. One rule might say “raise 1 out of every 100 notes by 5 semitones” and another might say “raise one out of every 50 notes by 7 semitones.” If those two instructions are operating on the same data stream, sometimes—very rarely—they will both operate on the same note . . . so some- thing like 1 in every 5000 notes will be raised by 12 semitones. You won’t know which of those 5000 notes it’s going to be. Since there are a lot of these types of operations going on together, on different but parallel data streams, the end result is a complex and unpredictable web.19

Second, the album uses an interactive process of modulation as Eno “tweaks” the parameters during playback over and over again.

Pieces like this have another name: they’re GENERATIVE. By that I mean they make themselves. My job as a composer is to set in place a group of sounds and phrases, and then some rules which decide what happens to them. I then set the whole system playing and see what it does, adjusting the sounds and the phrases and the rules until I get something I’m happy with. Because those rules are probabilistic (—often taking the form “perform operation x, y percent of the time”) the piece unfolds differently every time it is activated. What you have here is a recording of one of those unfoldings.

Third, the album uses a hybrid transcoding of the music into an audio-visual- haptic software application that allows users to touch a colored screen and modulate the endlessly looped stochastic patterns for themselves.

REFLECTION is the most recent of my Ambient experiments and represents the most sophisticated of them so far. My original intention with Ambient music was to make endless music, music that would be there as long as you wanted it to be. I wanted also that this music would unfold differently all the time— “like sitting by a river”: it’s always the same river, but it’s always changing. But recordings—whether vinyl, cassette or CD—are limited in length, and replay identically each time you listen to them. So in the past I was limited to making the systems which make the music, but then recording 30 minutes or an hour and releasing that. REFLECTION in its album form—on vinyl or CD—is like this. But the app by which REFLECTION is produced is not restricted: it creates an endless and endlessly changing version of the piece of music.21 

Reflection is thus an attempt at mimesis of neither natural products nor natural processes but, rather, a way of becoming what it is: matter in motion—pedetic, hybrid, and interactive. Just as the flow of matter has no beginning and no end, neither does Reflection. The three creative stages Eno describes for this work match up directly with the kinetic ones laid out in this book: (1) pedetic material flows intersect at a constellation, (2) fold into a distribution of affective loops, and (3) are continuously modulated as a whole woven field of sound. Eno writes,

The creation of a piece of music like this falls into three stages: the first is the selection of sonic materials and a musical mode—a constellation of musical relationships. These are then patterned and explored by a system of algorithms which vary and permutate the initial elements I feed into them, resulting in a constantly morphing stream (or river) of music. The third stage is listening. Once I have the system up and running I spend a long time—many days and weeks in fact—seeing what it does and fine-tuning the materials and sets of rules that run the algorithms. It’s a lot like gardening: you plant the seeds and then you keep tending to them until you get a garden you like.22

Numerous other efforts to increase the interactivity and hybridity of music abound. Media artist Scott Snibbe, for example, has created a number of such interactive music album applications, like Bjork’s Biophilia (2011) and Metric’s Synthetica (2013). Snibbe’s app Motionphone (2012) integrates sound, kinetic motion, and visual animation. As users move their fingers across the screen, their movement is animated and looped. These can then be shared and interact with other users’ kinetic sculptures online.

Read more from Theory of the Image

The Nature of Digital Image: A Conversation with Thomas Nail (transcript)

B.A. Gonczarek

I’m here with Thomas Nail,  the Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of Denver and author of recently published book Theory of the Image, welcome Thomas.  I must admit I was really looking forward to our discussion. When preparing to our conversation I did my research online and I was taken by how well you’re received by your students. You students describe you as very knowledgeable and approachable. Your openness is something I experienced myself, so thank you for the opportunity of doing this podcast together. And to explain to our listeners  – what we’re trying to do here is to (possibly) bridge the gap between abstract thinking and acting, between thought and execution by an exchange between you, as a philosopher and me, as digital toolmaker on a topic of digital image.

My main goal for today is to hear your point of view on the future and possibilities that technology gradually unlocks.  Now, I’m aware that the digital image is only a short chapter of your recent publication but I believe that limited scope of our discussion is enough to inspire our listeners. After all, we’re all users of digital devices don’t we.

To begin, describe to us, if you will, your way of working. What is New Realism and what is your method of approaching problems?

Thomas Nail

If I had to sum up main findings of the book that guides the whole project is that the image we often think about as a mental representation, something as in our brain (in our minds) which is a copy or resemblance of the world outside. I think that’s not right, there’s definitely something going on but that’s a very narrow way of thinking about what an image is.

An image is a real thing, it is something that happens in our eyes and in our brains, that is related to the external world, but that is a tip of an enormous iceberg. That’s the part that we see on the surface.  Below the surface of the water is this enormous process of the rest of the world, of the enormous processes that we don’t actually see which are part of the fabric of the world and forms and media that we use, and it’s very active. What we have in our brains is not a copy of the world, it is the world itself just by other means. It is a continuation of the world inside of us just. It’s not a question of resemblance but interactivity, of performativity. We are interacting with the world when we see, although we often experience vision as a passive thing that sort of happen to us, but that’s actually very active both in our bodies (in our eyes the way they seek out, move and follow and respond to the world). One of the main takeaways was to think about much larger context what an image is but also what the world does. Whether are humans there, or not, there are images, as they sort of they engage each other. The way we interact with the world those images interact with themselves and that interaction is what produces an image. That’s a broad definition of an image but the shift is from thinking about images as representation to thinking about images as processes with their own habits, cycles, they sort of interate and respond to each other to produce meta-stable states. They are flowing and moving, but they are also stabilized, so they look static. If you look at an object on a table – it looks like it is just sitting there but it’s not. And even when we weren’t looking at it, the image is still because the image is real and material whenever we think about that. We’re part of it when we view it.

B.A. Gonczarek

As you describe in the book the image is a process by which matter twists, folds, bends and reflects itself into sensations and affections. What was the inspiration to arrive at such viewpoint on the image itself?

Thomas Nail

It’s an old inspiration actually, it goes back to the Rome and poet Lucretious. We only have one book of his philosophical poetry – De Rerum Natura. In the book, inspired by Epicurus, who said that the earliest Theory of the image as a material process that we have in the history of the west and it’s since been transformed by other ideas, but I do think there’s something to go back to. For me the inspiration was his poetry and ‘Simulacra’ – Everything in the world is radiating out images. Images are bouncing off each other, eventually they get to the exterior and fly off to collide mid air with other images. Some people interpret it as there’s ghosts flying off of things, but that’s not what he says at all, it’s actually closer to modern physics and light. He didn’t use the language of photons, he used language of simulacra but that’s essentially what it is  – that things inside of themselves are vibrating with photons. Photons are heat, photons are light, they are constantly vibrating and release waves of photons, and photons collide in mid-air. And for that reason at every stage they actually are making something, they performing and producing. There’s no resemblance, but no genuine copies, no originals, there’s just these singular processes that refract  (like you drop two paddles into a pond and the ripples would key each other and make a new pattern – at every stage you’re always looking at some specific pattern of the photons  interact with each other. So it’s a very materialist way of thinking about what an image is as opposed to the idealist way, which is – it’s an idea I have in my brain. And if that’s what you think an image is then only humans have them, only humans can sort of talk about them and they always will fail in representing the original image. There will always be some poorly construed copy of what’s out there. If you think of an image of a real, material, singular process, then it changes the way you think about what an image is. What an image is is what an image does. It doesn’t represent anything, it moves, it does. So the question is – what are the patterns? That’s why I think the visual aspect makes a lot of sense because to understand what images are you need to have an interactive and visual tools to map out what that image is doing.

B.A. Gonczarek

And I believe that’s also applicable to the digital world. I found it actually fascinating of how you’re shifting perspective here.  You name three features of mobile nature of the image and I’d like to ask you about hybridity that you list as one of those defining features. You call it a pinnacle of fragmentation, I’m curious what opportunities fragmentation opens`?

Thomas Nail

When I say fragmentation I don’t necessarily mean complete isolated fragments. They are little knots and pieces of strings, always related and connected with another pieces so that the pieces are never fully cut off from one another. This is the way people tend to think about digitally as just fragmented bits and bites, ones and zeros – but there are no fragmented ones and zeros that are fully cut off. That sounds opposite to the definition of what we think of binary. The truth is if you just dig below that level – is a signal on or of (basis of digital communication) and look at the material structure of transistor – it doesn’t work like that. There is a constant flow of electrons and photons moving through that transistor and they do not always stop at the gate when the signal is supposed to be off – they jump the gate. It’s a quantum effect called tunneling in which electron movement actually passes the barrier. The smaller technology gets, the more data we can store, the tinier the gates get. And the tinier the gates get the easier it is for the flor of electrons to pass through the gate and then you get an error, and your computer crashes. And these are happening more often than used to because of the technology. When your computer crashes there’s a good chance that’s because of the quantum effects of the material movement of the electrons. So thinking about all these pieces it really draws your attention to the creativity and the agency of the matter itself that we’re dealing with. We try to represent things of ones and zeros but what we’re often encountering is this very fascinating resistance of the matter itself and that opens new possibilities of working with that matter as opposed to trying to dominate it and trying to stick it into a binary code. Oneinteresting question for the digital age and XXI century is what new things might we discover? What new visual or communication aspects if we let the materiality, if you will, to play a role and speak instead of trying to silence it or make it your bidding. What might it say to us? How might we use it by working with it as supposed to trying to master it.

B.A. Gonczarek

Absolutely. I remember from your book when speaking of hybridity you touch the digital foundation of the image saying that

Anything that can be coded can be transcoded and then turned into a hybrid of something else.” So the beauty of transformation and allowing for new thing to arise from something that preexisted before opens a lot of new possibilities. 

The other defining feature of Digital Image that you write about is the Kinetic feedback. The way I ready it, is that the matter interacts with itself to form of a feedback loop. I kind of understand that when thinking of computer software opening greater degree and range of aesthetic transformation, but what about a kinetic feedback when, let’s we say passively consuming content, by looking at a paining?

Thomas Nail

One of the interesting things in the book that I figured out by researching material structures is that some of the features of the digital images are common to the analog things, there not really this absolute division. If you think about digital culture as immaterial, in the cloud, virtual – it’s not. It’s fully material. A “cloud” is a huge building filled with hard drives. This vast Internet infrastructure all have material basis and in that sense it is still very analog. And in that sense analog still has many of these features as it has aspects of hybridity. An collage is an instance where you can break things up and reassemble it. You have a kind of hybridity in analog things. But as just in your example in looking at a painting there’s a feedback that happens, but we don’t often think of it as a feedback. We think of it as a noisy signal on a digital level, a negative feedback loop where we don’t want it to go. But that’s partially what interesting in analog and digital feedback is that it is taking us somewhere. There’s a feedback happening between two systems where both are sort of in control but neither are in total control, and the result is something genuinely unique (kind of simulacra experience, simulacra are meeting, refracting and making something new. When we think about looking at a painting we think of that as a passive reception of an external object. But the viewer is participating in that work of art just by being in that room, even if we’re talking at basic photodynamic level of photons radiating off your body as heat, and they are heating up at a very small level that painting. Light is reflecting off that painting and degrading it. By looking at a painting with light we’re destroying that paining at a very low level and over time it ends up totally destroying that painting and that’s why we have curation. Curators are in this unique position to really see and feel and understand the materiality of works of art. That’s a lot of what museum goes don’t think about. They feel like these are preserved work with ethereal structure to them. But the preservation process never ends, it’s ongoing. It has to constantly struggle agains the effects of decay, heat, and light-destruction of the painting. So I think they realize that the paining is more of a feedback loop that you think it is. And it’s also affecting you that you’re not fully aware either. Its light and coloration is making you more sensitive to subtle differences in light and coloration. Even if you think that you’re thinking about the symbolic meaning of such and such. A man by a river or something like that, or narcist looking at himself in the pond were thinking about symbolic representation of the paining yet there is a material basis that is also working on you that you might not be even thinking about, but it’s affecting you. And it is the same way with digital culture and the studies are now accumulating on that for sure. What is the Internet is doing to our brains? What is digital culture? How is it changing us? We’re using it for symbolic and representation purposes, but there is wast iceberg of material consequences to the environment, to our bodies, to our brain. To undergo the performance and the feedback that we enter into when we look at the screen and use some kind of digital device.

B.A. Gonczarek

When speaking of affecting and changing us by exposure to images, you see I’m in a business of supporting understanding, you can call it knowledge communication with the use of interactive whiteboards. And I have a front seat view on feedback loops and transformations of the content. I see how those work as a key to unlock human understanding.  In the past the knowledge or concepts were conveyed by text paragraphs and static slides. Now those turn gradually into more visual forms, animation,  ad-hoc drawing, into whatever works. So the way I see it, is that we’re on a path of getting away from the rigid, formal representations into a realm of smashing bits and pixels, so to say,  to form new perspectives and gain new insights. I guess that’s in line of your thinking?

Thomas Nail

I think that’s right, I think that communication has significantly changed such that it is absolutely much more about feedback and with that feedback comes novelty. Feedback isn’t always what you want it to be. And with that what is interesting to me is that when images and words and material structures of how those are communicated – when you get all of those mixed together, when you have text, with digital speed of social media and users – when you get all of that together you’re getting some serious feedback transformation in which all of those are kind of pulled out of their original context and make possible new ideas that aren’t necessarily what we originally planned them to be. I think the feedback, even being explicitly interactive process, the interactivity makes us realize that we’re performing, that we’re doing something, not passively consuming. Even if we think that we’re passively consuming you’re actually generating something to. I think it makes us think deeply about the participatory nature that has always been the case with communication, visual or text-based that we’re involved in it, and that makes us responsible for intentionally shaping it, and not thinking that it’s this big structure and we cannot do anything. The mutability of communication is higher and more diverse that has ever been.

B.A. Gonczarek

Absolutely. The way I see feedback is that we always thought of the feedback on the cognitive level what worked? What triggered understanding? Was it a (so called) picture superiority effect where visuals work better then words, or spatial processing evolved in understanding of a concept or visual metaphors. But I guess thanks to your insights, I see that it’s possible to go deeper, beyond sensations to see the inner-working of three distinctive features of the digital image that you list: kinetic feedback, random motion and hybridity.  So I wonder, from your perspective, do you see technology a one-directional enabler that gets us closer to the understanding of reality? Is it so?

Thomas Nail

That’s such a great question. On a one hand I want to say – it just depends on how you define digitality? But I think that the other definitions are typical ones of binary structure, so let me give you two answers to that question:  Yes, digital world gets us closer to objective knowledge, more communication, transparency, more accuracy. Our pixels get so close now. The term ‘Retina’ it’s such a great term because that’s the limit where they eye can no longer distinguish the pixels. So what you could say on that front – yes, we’re definitely getting closer. Look how small the pixels are now, we are getting higher resolution and better accuracy on the world. If that’s a description – I disagree with that, i don’t think that’s why digitality is getting us any closer to reality or anything like that.

My answer would be – yes, I do think that it actually is but not in that way. I think that the thing that getting us closer to really thinking about reality in a different way, is that it’s forcing us to realize something that always been true about the nature of the image (whether analog or digital). The closer we get the closer we drill down to that binary structure of ones and zeros the more non-binary processes we start to discover. That’s what’s interesting about digital. It’s the actual conclusion that if we push it far enough we see it break down and see that below that it’s actual continuous fluctuation of quantum processes that are not under control. And this reveals to us something novel about matter itself. Something that always been novel, but we haven’t comforted it in that precise way. The history of art and media is typically Humans trying to control the world and make it look their way, and do it certain something. There is a minor history to be said there, but for the most part the western history of media and use the technology is to control the nature. But what’s interesting to me is that we’ve reached limits of that control and we’re forced to realize that it is impossible project and what we’re really have been doing is not successful domination to completely get access to objective reality but that we’ve been engaged in this kind of feedback look where materiality of media has shaped our bodies, our senses, our brains just as we’ve been shaping the world thought all of this media – and that’s what I think the truth is to be realize in the digital age. It’s not the superiority of the digital image but precisely what the digital image is exposed to us explicitly. So we have to confront that fact.

B.A. Gonczarek

It’s certainly getting our thinking less infantile, but do you see any risks that we might not be aware on this path?

Thomas Nail

For sure, the risk is that we will keep trying to find the ultimate way to bypass material processes and the performative act of interpretation. What I mean there is that if you think you can break down the world into totally discreet bits and bytes – that’s the danger, because it will drive you absolutely mad trying to produce a clean-cut distinctions between ones and zeros and not realize that there is this material process that will always spoil this effort. The danger is to use technology and media to try to control and essentially dominate meaning and leave out interpretation. Some philosophers that really herald the digital age they imagine – oh, we’ll just put jacks into our heads and we will just communicate with binary code, and that we’ll bypass all of the messiness of the language. I said this word that might mean something different to me than it means to you and we have base for this messiness which is, in truth, the beauty of poetry and literature. We can just get rid of all of that and just have purely objective truth with binary code. And I think that is the danger, thinking that you can avoid the material and what we call ‘an interpretation’ but it’s essentially performative, collective feedback that is generating something news not understanding some objective state of the world

B.A. Gonczarek

Before we close, what you see as a possible outcome of increasing software capacity in transforming digital images? Given the nature of digital image, what do you expect to happen in the near future?

Thomas Nail

Guess this depends how pessimistic or optimistic I am.

B.A. Gonczarek

Give us your best shot.

Thomas Nail

I’ll give you both. What I expect when I’m feeling pessimistic is that we will continue with quantum computing to try practically to keep pursuing to break world down into ones and zeros and master quantum flaws and erase any errors, any noise, any fluctuations which we don not want to happen in electron flow. That we will keep on that path and try to continually break things down in an attempt for absolutely non-interpretive objective reality. To think that we’re getting closer to that is to me absolutely the danger when I feel pessimistic.

Optimistically I think that technologies that emphasize and take seriously the materiality of the media that they using, (not just as a neutral media to facilitate communication, but as itself a creative thing, something that is changing the world).  To recognize the changes that it’s having both on the environment, on material world, but also changes that it’s producing in us, in our bodies – and to take that seriously and ethically to treat it more as a work of art. The sharing of images, the sharing of text is not neutral communication, it’s transformative, it’s doing something to us. I think that if you think that’s its neutral communication that’s subjective you’re going to miss that ethical moment. So you’re really need to think about that ethical moment. We’re responsible for what we’re doing to ourselves and what we’re doing to each other, and what we’re creating. So taking ownership of that essentially and we supposed to be being serious and intentional of what that is the optimistic outcome

B.A. Gonczarek

And I join you on this optimistic end. Listen Thomas, it was a great pleasure to talk to you today. It certainly helped me in my exploration of verbal-visual field of communication. But I also believe that your perspective is fresh to anyone that is trying to understand the direction that technology is taking. Many thanks for sharing your insights with us today! And good luck shaking off human’s immaturity of perception!

Thomas Nail

Thank you.