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.

Theory of the Image is back in stock


Theory of the Image sold out in the first few days. Back orders are now shipping and the second printing is now available!

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Read the introduction here.

Read some selections on Cinema below.

A Kinetic Theory of Cinema

On the one hand, film is nothing other than a series of static freeze-frames moving extensively from point A to point B across a lens and through a beam of light. However, these discrete frames are also nothing other than images on a single vibrating and continuous strip of celluloid. The condition for the extensive movement of a frame is the intensive topological transformation of the whole reel. Furthermore, what seem to be discrete shots of different people and things extensively moving on the screen are also continuous flows of modulated light from the projector. The waves of light are continuously vibrating and changing in order to give the appearance of discrete persons and things on the screen. All perceived division and extensive movement are predicated on the intensive continuum upon which they are the topological regions, like boats bobbing on the ocean.

Bergson wrote that cinema was a bad description of perception, as if we perceive only snapshots of reality plus movement and get continuous reality. He is correct that this is a bad theory of perception, and it seems to be part of cinema from the perspective of the viewing subject who experiences the “illusion of movement” when people “move around” on the screen. However, from the perspective of the movement of matter itself, this is an inaccurate description of the cinema. The material conditions of cinema presuppose both the continuous intensive change of celluloid and flows of light and, at the same time, the extensive movement of relatively discrete figures on the screen and photos across the lens. They are two aspects or dimensions of the same motion.

Films like La Jetée (1962) and San Soleil (1983) by Chris Marker, for example, demonstrate this explicitly by filming photographs and for extended durations where there is no visible movement on the screen or any characters doing anything. In this case, the viewer sees a seemingly immobile photo whose very conditions of extensive “stasis” are the intensive motion of its material body (celluloid and light). By inverting the relationship between perceived extensive and intensive motions in film, the true material kinetic structure of cinema is revealed directly to the viewing audience.

All movement is therefore revealed as both extensive and intensive at the same time. The two occur as dimensions of the same process, but the former is always derived from the latter and not the other way around. Snapshots, for example, are aspects or dimensions of the material flow of celluloid and light, but continuous celluloid and light can never be the product of discrete snapshots. The two are present together when we watch a film, like the latitude and longitude of a kinesthetic cartography.

Cinema also uses long takes of relatively fixed scenes in order to render sensible the interval series that makes the frame series itself possible and mutable. In between every photographic frame is an interval, a difference that makes a difference between frames. While montage renders this interval sensible only indirectly through the decomposition and recomposition of the frame series, the still shot renders this interval sensible as a simple passage of time during which relatively “nothing” is happening in the dramatic action of the film or in the frame itself. Cinematic temporality is a temporality made possible by difference and differentiation in the frame and between the frames. Time passes, but only on the condition of a more primary differentiation or division between distinct images made possible by the continuity of the filmstrip and continuous movement of the film projector.

In Chris Marker’s La Jetée (1962), for example, the stillness of the shots and the use of photographs makes explicit the difference between the photographic image and the cinematic image. When Marker films a photograph, he renders sensible the duration and movement of the film itself as the kinetic condition of the relative immobility of the photo image. This is the great inversion of postwar cinema: only by filming something that does not move is the movement of the camera itself made sensible. The series of intervals between the frames is exposed as the condition for the frame series itself and the persistence of the immobility of the image.

In Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928), for example, the face becomes frozen, but as frozen the face exposes the implicit movement of the camera itself and the mobility of the dark intervals between frames. This invisible darkness is depicted visually in the black pupils of the eyes. The eyes are the black holes or intervals of the face frame. In Andy Warhol’s Empire (1964), the duration of the unedited film merges with the real-time duration of someone actually watching the Empire State Building. By merging the duration of the camera and the body, the kinetic condition of both is made sensible. The eye blinks just as the frames pass through intervals.

In Ingmar Bergman’s Persona (1966), the filmstrip burns and rips off the reel, exposing the intervalic gaps and their material conditions of celluloid, light, and motion that sustain the frame intervals themselves. The continuum of white light is shown as the pure kinetic condition of the film, but only on the condition that the actual film Persona remains intact, framed, and not burned at all, even if what it shows is burned frames and white light. It is still a white light divided by the frames of the celluloid film itself. Film cannot escape its own material conditions; it can only reveal them: light, motion, frame, interval. During the duration of this white light in which nothing happens and no one is there, the differential kinetic interval comes to the fore as the condition of du- ration (figure 13.4).

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Theory of the Image (Oxford University Press, 2019)

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We live in an age of the mobile image. The world today is absolutely saturated with images of all kinds circulating around the world at an incredible rate. The movement of the image has never been more extraordinary than it is today. This recent kinetic revolution of the image has enormous consequences not only for the way we think about contemporary art and aesthetics but also for art history as well.

Responding to this historical moment, Theory of the Image offers a fresh new theory and history of art from the perspective of this epoch-defining mobility. The image has been understood in many ways, but it is rarely understood to be fundamentally in motion. The original and materialist approach is what defines Theory of the Image and what allows it to offer the first kinetic history of the Western art tradition. In this book, Thomas Nail further develops his larger philosophy of movement into a comprehensive “kinesthetic” of the moving image from prehistory to the present. The book concludes with a vivid analysis of the contemporary digital image and its hybridity, ultimately outlining new territory for research and exploration across aesthetics, art history, cultural theory, and media studies.

“This is an engaging book with a fascinating argument. Thomas Nail stakes out new territory, building a theory from the group up of the image as kinetic” — David Morgan , Duke University
“Thomas Nail’s Theory of the Image is an ambitious and original attempt to re-theorize the material and cognitive dynamics of the image. In this respect, his model is kinetic as opposed to representational, mimetic, or hermeneutical. The book is eminently suitable for use on a range of undergraduate and postgraduate courses, in particular, philosophy, cultural theory, and art history.” — John Roberts , University of Wolverhampton

Read the introduction here.

Pre-orders are available from OUP (30% off code: AAFLYG6) and Amazon.

Material Ecology: Neri Oxman’s Generative Design

Oxman’s design takes seriously the ecology and movement of matter.

Designer and architect Neri Oxman is leading the search for ways in which digital fabrication technologies can interact with the biological world. Working at the intersection of computational design, additive manufacturing, materials engineering and synthetic biology, her lab is pioneering a new age of symbiosis between microorganisms, our bodies, our products and even our buildings.