On a recent Sunday afternoon I was in my office on the third-floor of ENGR, the engineering building, on the Boise State University campus stretching the last few paintings for the upcoming exhibition of art from the ANA project. As I finished stretching each one, I leaned it against the wall on the other side of the hallway from my office door. As I was preparing to stretch the eighth, there was a knock on the doorjamb. Looking up, I saw what appeared to be an undergraduate engineering student, gesturing behind him to the paintings lining the hallway. He asked, “…did you do these?”
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“Yes,” I answered, as I straightened from leaning over the flat file in my office that I had converted to a work table, and turned toward the door, “…or, really, a computer program I’m writing to autonomously make art, made these.”
He continued. “’Cause I was wondering… with modern art paintings… what they’re supposed to mean? I mean, not just these, but any modern art?” — a frisson of something in his voice.
SETTING THE SCENE
“Well,” I started, stumbling over the litter on the floor as I moved toward him, “I can’t speak for everyone who paints, but I can tell you a bit about these things.”
“Yeah, okay. So what do these mean?”
Just at this point I remember taking a long inbreath as I surveyed the paintings lining the hallway. I don’t know if he noticed that pause. When I looked up at him, I found that he had been sharing my gaze at the paintings.Based on a real conversation that occurred with an undergraduate electrical engineering student in and outside my office as I was stretching paintings for the exhibition.
“The program I’m writing to make these things is a tool I’m using to investigate what, for me, constitutes art, and what I do when I make art by hand, using a conventional set of paints and brushes. Each painting you see here is a test for a particular algorithm or set of algorithms that are — or were — supposed to approximate something I think I tend to do when I’m making decisions about a composition, or actually applying paint, in a painting. Those algorithms are an attempt to translate what I know I’m doing consciously, but also what I am doing without really thinking about it, or without thinking about it at all — my habits — when I’m working up to a painting or working on a painting.”
“So…,” he prodded.
“If when I run the program, these algorithms produce what I thought they would produce, then I have more or less accurately translated what I do — or think I’m doing — when I’m doing art-like things. Most of the time it doesn’t actually work like I thought, and I have to go back and re-examine what it is that I’m actually doing when doing art, and then re-examine the code to figure out what I didn’t incorporate and how I can get the program to do something that approximates what I would do manually.
This process of abstracting my way of thinking about and doing art — this back and forth, this conversation with myself and my aesthetics and my own art-making practice, and with the code — at least as far as I understand any of those things — is the meaning for this art.” I waved my hand toward the paintings in the hallway, and then at more paintings hanging on the walls inside my office.
“This means that the art you see here — and the art that goes into writing and tinkering with the programming code — is an example of what is called Conceptual Art — it’s the concept that is represented in the physical artifact that is what I consider to be most important.
I’m trying to get at the inside of art — or the inside of my art — by forcing myself to re-examine — or sometimes to examine for the first time — what is inside my own aesthetic and intellectual and physical process that plays out when I do things on a painting with brushes and paint.”
Exhibition: Making the Familiar Strange
The author’s “Making the Familiar Strange” exhibition opens April 20, 2016 at the SUB Gallery on the Boise State University campus and runs through May 22. It features art generated by a software program named ANA that Winiecki is writing as “an art-making device and a platform for researching both the physical and intellectual process of making art” as he lives it. A small grant from Boise City Department of Arts & History will pay for the materials and professional quality printing of images for the exhibition.
This is the third of three articles that will appear in The Blue Review to describe the ANA project. In the first article, Winiecki gave some background on the project and its components. In the second he described the software itself in more detail. This third article describes aspects of the philosophical component of the research that underpins the ANA project and throws a pitch forward into the future of the ANA project.
My conversation partner paused — committing his own long inbreath as he scanned the paintings in the hall. “The inside of art? I mean, isn’t this just… sort of… you — the artist — expressing himself (sic)?”
Without much of a pause I replied, “Hmmm. I can’t speak for all artists, but all the artists I know are trying to communicate something through their work. It’s not just slapping paint on a surface for the sake of slapping paint on a surface.”
“Yeah” he said, quickly running into the next statement, “…I’ve seen art that looked like it was just colored or black and white slashes on a canvas. What’s that supposed to mean?”
(Paint slashes on a canvas. He could be describing Leroy Nieman or Franz Kline, or any number of other artists. I walked over to the computer on my desk and quickly searched for Leroy Nieman — an abstract expressionist painter notable from his gesture-ful paintings of athletes in motion.) Pointing at the images of his paintings, “see he’s capturing the motion, the physical expression of motion in athletes in action. What you might see as slashes and blobs of color are attempts to capture the dynamism, the fluidity, the grace, power and the event of an athlete in action.”
I quickly searched for Frank Auerbach, another expressionist painter known for portraits and for his paintings of the reconstruction of London after WW2. Pointing at some images, “here the artist can be seen to be layering the paint — heavily layering the paint — over time to literally construct a physical image, as much as paint a picture. The layering is metaphorical for the layering of the past, the destruction of the war and rebuilding on top of all of this.”
“But”, as he leaned over to look into my computer screen, “…how would I know that? I mean, I’m not an artist.”
“Like everything else, understanding art and what it might mean requires us to learn a little bit — or a lot. You can’t expect someone who hasn’t been trained as an engineer to understand engineering to know what you’re doing, or to understand the inside of what you’ve done when you were designing or building something. You might be able to appreciate the well-engineered product without understanding the engineering — and most of the time that’s enough — but to really understand it, you have to learn a bit.”
I watched him for a few seconds. “It’s the same with art.”
Before letting him respond, I restarted “but a lot of art is very representational — some artists are trying to paint very realistic images. Sometimes I think they’re just trying to show off to me, to show me what skill they have — but there is usually another meaning in there — if you’re willing to learn and work for it.”
“Yeah,” he said. “But who does that?”
Shrugging, I replied, “people who are interested in art; people who are interested in engineering.”
A few long seconds of silence, a glance at his watch, “I’ve gotta get to the lab.”
“All of this stuff will be on display at an exhibition at the SUB starting mid April. You should come see it. There will be placards on each painting to try and explain what I was trying to accomplish in each one.”
“Yeah. That might be good. Bye.”
Thinking in terms of conceptual art, what does it mean to try to get at the “inside of art” — or the “inside” of anything?
Getting to the large and the small of things is familiar to me. When I was a technical illustrator, the goal of art was to represent a process or a set of relationships that were necessary to understand a mechanical process — the way part of a machine moved, or how to accomplish setup and maintenance of some industrial equipment, or how a particular production-line process occurred. For example, I did a lot of work for a large manufacturer of breakfast cereal. The production processes for even those products that seemed very plain and simple spanned several floors of a building that was more than 50 acres to a floor. To represent the whole process I started with one that was inspired by the work of Antebellum aerialist artists — drawings and paintings that took a birds eye view of a landscape. This showed the whole factory building in a cutaway that located and exposed the main pieces of equipment in a general view, and how they fit together into a process.
Then, smaller drawings that took a closeup perspective on each main subprocess were arrayed around the large aerialist cutaway, with lines connecting the closeup to the applicable part of the overall cutaway.
Then, more detailed drawings to show important parts of each closeup were produced. Where needed to communicate the important concepts and processes of the overall production process, more and more detailed drawings were made.
The whole set of drawings allowed the viewer to see and conceptualize the whole production process and its important parts and subparts by starting at large scale and then zooming in to more and more detailed images where necessary. As a whole, the drawings were a static version of what Charles and Ray Eames accomplished in their breakthrough film “Powers of 10,” but rather than being a film, my drawings required you to do the ‘zooming’ intellectually as opposed to passively.
The illustrations were neat to look at not only for this conceptual property, but that conceptual property — guiding the viewer to ”see” something that was physically impossible to actually see — a massive and highly detailed production process — was the actual reason for the work.
It was even more impressive to see this hand-drawn and hand-inked art reproduced 20 feet wide and on display in the main lobby of the main offices for this company! Now, the panels are installed in the company’s private museum, more than 30 years after I drew them.
Rendering a physical process in this conceptual manner was straightforward. I could quite literally see each piece even if I couldn’t see it all at once. However, getting into the inside of a process that is already conceptual — the thinking about and the doing of art — presented a whole different set of challenges for me.
BUT WHY CREATE ART?
But perhaps I am getting ahead of myself. Why would I want to get to the inside of what I think about and do — and what I do without necessarily thinking about it — when I make art imagery?
For me, what most people consider to be mundane is the most mysterious and miraculous thing in the world. From the highest of high-tech to the affectively-nuanced, the stuff that makes up the foundation or the background of everyday doing and everyday accomplishments is interesting. Perhaps this is because I am such a klutz at so many things that others can do effortlessly, or that I have to work so hard to do things that others waive off with panache, or that I am just flummoxed by their fluency such that I want to know how they do what they do — and that I can’t do so well.
In the beginning I approached this as a technician — I thought there had to be a trick, or a skill that once I learned it would make me able to do what those others did. When I got to that point of mastering the skill, I was almost always disappointed because that trick, or that skill, was still not enough to permit me to own the fluency I saw in others.
The mysterious and non-technical stuff that seemed objectively elusive was usually beyond my ability to understand as a technical thing. It was — and is — that non-technical stuff that I am now calling the “inside” of doing something, of fluent performance.
Perhaps because it is beyond my usual technical-orientation to things, it is interesting! As an artist (or maker of things one might consider art), I consider myself a technician. From an academic standpoint, I can make things that look art-like. The image below was the third actual painting I ever accomplished. This was done in 2008, nearly 30 years after I left the field of technical illustration. While I will not claim authority on what constitutes goodness with respect to art, I’ll suggest that — from the standpoint of academic technique — this is a fair (and perhaps only fair) example of painting process.
But what constitutes Art is not simply technical — it is conceptual. What makes something Art is what I was trying to communicate to the engineering student in the conversation I described above — the thing it communicates and how it communicates.
And how it communicates is — I started to see — caught up in the process of composition, color choices, overlapping and layering of color, blending color, rendering edges of objects, and so on.
For example, in “양반 (Yahngbonn),” the presentation of a very shallow physical space is accomplished in the positioning of shadows and highlights, but also in how those shadows and highlights are presented with particular colors and visual density. In fact, the shadows are a major part of the painting and they themselves suggest that the concept of “양반 (Yahngbonn)” (the traditional Korean concept of “educated gentleman”) is itself — like all forms of social status — not just the trappings that make it visible, but more importantly the things that make those visible things, visible.
In this painting, the mask is an artifact of traditional Korean theater that represents the generic individual with that status. The graduation tassels and the photo of two people in graduation gowns are artifact of artifacts of the accomplishment of some educational process. The window frame is an artifact standing in for how traditional Korean homes were designed. The photo of the hibiscus flower (the national flower of South Korea) is an artifact holding the place of national values. All of the artifacts represented in the painting are arranged as if on display — the display itself is an artifact of some of the things that — as a set — represent the status of 양반 (Yahngbonn).
And each of these things is posed and rendered in a very flat style to conceptualize the surface but not the structure of what constitutes the inside — the substance — of 양반 (Yahngbonn) — the being of an educated individual in a deeply complex and dynamic society.
For me, this inside of 양반 (Yahngbonn) is much more interesting and rewarding than those artifacts — though looking at those artifacts has its own set of pleasures.
But none of this was actually planned in a technical way. The ideas and ways of depicting each of these things as I describe them above was accomplished in a sort of conversation with the artifacts, and the materials and tools used during the technical accomplishment of the painting.
And for me, this inside of the inside of the painting is the most mysterious part, and that sort of thing is what started my thinking toward what I have tried to accomplish with ANA. Namely, how do I do the things that enable the concepts in art to be made visible. This is a form of conceptual art because I am focusing on the way concepts are conceptualized and accomplished in art.
HOW AM I DOING THIS?
As I have noted in the previous two essays in this series, the philosophical foundation for my work with and on ANA is phenomenology. In particular, I am keying off of several concepts from the phenomenological philosophy of Martin Heidegger, who himself built upon the foundation of work by his principal teacher, Edmond Husserl. While Heidegger is primarily known for his landmark Being and Time, of all of Heidegger’s writing, the pieces that have the most importance for me in this project have been those that are colloquially referred to as “the country path conversations” (Heidegger, 1966, 2010) and his critical analysis of technology (Heidegger, 1977; Rojcewicz, 2006). Supporting this has been the work of sociologist David Sudnow, who wrote a trenchant phenomenological analysis of his own becoming an improvisational jazz pianist (Sudnow, 1978).
Sudnow’s work is important principally because he studied his own process, rather than that of others. (It is much more common to find researchers who claim to be able to study the “inside” of the experience of others… something I think a bit odd — how can one actually come to know the nuances of another’s experience? Wouldn’t this necessarily involve translating and perhaps adulterating it through one’s own ideas?).
Heidegger’s critical analysis of technology exposes the idea that the essence of something powerful like technology is not actually visible in the technology itself, but rather in the thing that makes the the technology possible.
Heidegger’s “country path conversations” are fictitious conversations between an academic and a scientist and a teacher as they meander along a quiet country pathway, talking about the nature of being and experience itself. The fact that Heidegger represents these as conversations between three different individuals with different — but related — professional interests, is critical because — as Heidegger demonstrates — it is through this interactive and inter-responsive conversation with each other and with each others’ ideas about a similar topic, that a more complete understanding can be approached.
Not insignificantly, the emphasis on conversation as a metaphor for working through ideas and accomplishment is something that I have also learned in the courses I have taken on painting. I recall vividly, talking with Dan Scott (my first painting instructor at Boise State) and having him describe to me how he figuratively talks with the paint, and the brush, and the canvas, and the subject matter of his painting as he works out the details of the content of that painting. This conversation with materials and ideas is accomplished through his deep knowledge of what those materials can do, what he can make them do, and what he wants to do with them. That is, it’s not just knowing certain things, it is using that knowledge — and what knowledge one creates along the say — as tools to think with, that enables one to get into the inside of what it is one is doing when one is creating art.
Considering what I have learned from Heidegger, Sudnow and Dan Scott, I got the idea that I could use their various examples and intellectual tools to accomplish a more detailed analysis of what I am doing when I am doing something one might call art.
SO WHY PROGRAMMING? WHY NOT PAINTING?
Heidegger and Sudnow both make clear through their examples that accomplishing the sort of analysis that is required to get to the inside — perhaps the essence — of accomplishing something cannot be done by thinking and doing things in familiar ways. If we think the way we have always thought before, we end up with what we might properly call commonsense understanding. Depending on what and how one’s commonsense thoughts allow one to think, one’s analytic results might — and probably will — be unenlightening. Instead, they make it apparent that we have to find a new language for interrogating and rendering things. Both Heidegger and Sudnow are known for producing a unique and uniquely complex vocabulary and way of describing what it is they are trying to describe.
Heidegger, M. (1966). Discourse on Thinking: A Translation of Gelassenheit. (J. M. Anderson & E. H. Freund, Trans.). New York: Harper Perennial.
Heidegger, M. (1977). The Question Concerning Technology. In W. Lovitt (Ed.), The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays (pp. 3-35). New York: Harper & Row, Publishers.
Heidegger, M. (2010). Country Path Conversations. (B. W. Davis, Trans.). Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.
Rojcewicz, R. (2006). The Gods and Technology: A Reading of Heidegger. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.
Sudnow, D. (1978). Ways of the Hand: The Organization of Improvised Conduct. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Since I have acquired some technical familiarity with the tools and materials and processes of painting, attempting to analyze my art-making process using conventional painting tools and materials and processes puts me at risk of falling into my technical fluency and a sort of commonsense that I have acquired using them. Consequently — and as Dan Scott had in fact suggested at one point (see the two previous essays in this series) — I would benefit by putting something in my way that would prevent me from thinking and acting commonsensically.
As described in the second of these essays, I chose computer programming in Common Lisp as my painting tools.
SO HOW DOES THIS WORK?
By forcing myself into a situation where I always had to translate my ideas into an unfamiliar system (and computer programming is still unfamiliar to me in many ways) I could never rest on familiar and commonsense understanding and processes as I tried to think through what it is I am doing when I am making intellectual and affective choices, and when I seem to be just allowing random processes to lead the way. I describe some of this in detail the second essay in this series.
Because I am attempting to manipulate ideas and processes I know from painting in a conventional way, but in an unfamiliar manner, I am quite literally forced to hold ongoing conversations with my own understanding of (for example) color, pigment transparency, line quality, as I try to use that understanding to render them in computer programming language and logic. As I have tried to demonstrate, this has led to new ways of knowing and understanding what I know and understand from a technical sense from physical painting practice.
For example, when attempting to render my knowledge of artists’ oil paint into a form that I could manipulate through computer programming, I made a database that encoded the actual color in two different digital structures (HSV, RGB), each color’s HSV (hue, saturation, value) or RGB (red, green, blue) composition, my estimation of its transparency, color temperature, hue and the label I use to reference that color-data in the program itself. Part of that database is shown immediately below.
As I developed this database, I actively tested it by using it in paintings generated by ANA. When the colors and color mixes matched what I thought would happen with physical oil paints, and in actual physical mixing of actual physical paints in my studio, I knew that my ideas were successfully translated into this database for use. Most of the time, some (or a lot) of tinkering was necessary to adjust one or more of the variables I had included for any given color.
I found that while when used alone or in a mix of only a few colors, things came out predictably. However, when mixing more than about three colors, the resulting blend did not match what I thought would happen or in fact what did happen with physical pigments. When this happened I quite literally had a conversation with my knowledge of the colors, their primary and secondary hues, temperatures and transparency.
For example, I found that a cool red like Cadmium Red actually has color qualities exceeding what I commonsensically considered should exist in red! Similarly — Cerulean Blue — one of my favorite colors for mixing cool sky blues with oil paint, has such a broad spectrum of what I now call “back-colors,” that I can now think through color mixes that use it with a greater degree of fluency on account of newly-acquired sensitivity to what constitutes the color. The result is that I can think about and with color, with greater complexity. This complexity suits the conceptuality of my work with ANA, and recursively, as Dan Scott likes to say about art, “complex ideas require complex colors.”
A phenomenological approach to art-making through computer programming has presented me with a means to more deeply investigate the inside of the inside of art-making. There is much more to be done with ANA in order to investigate even more aspects of the knowing and understanding and doing of art. What you will see at the exhibition is just the beginning of the beginning!
The views and opinions expressed here are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of Boise State University, the Center for Idaho History and Politics, or the School of Public Service.