come in, sit down, sorry about the mess
I am not a great writer (an auspicious start, I know).
I don’t mean that my writing is bad – my words and sentences are adequate for what I need them for. I am, however, bad at writing. It does not come easy to me. When I sit down and try to write, I fail more often than I succeed. One of the reasons I left academia is the horror I feel when I’m asked to produce text to a deadline.
So why start a newsletter? Why commit to producing text to, if not actual deadlines, then at least some vague sense of a schedule? I’m asking myself this question, and I don’t have a full answer. Do I believe it will make me a better writer (in either sense)? Maybe.
One reason is that over the past few years, I’ve withdrawn from a lot of public social media. My Facebook account is a sad ghost town that I can’t quite bring myself to delete. My Instagram had ten posts in 2019, up slightly on the year before. My social network of choice was always Twitter, but these days it’s become a place where I post announcements, rather than somewhere I want to express opinions or share ideas. I no longer have a place where I can gently rant about whatever is occupying my thoughts.
In short, I need an outlet. A place where I can say things that come to my mind, where I can put the words that don’t live anywhere else. I don’t know yet what those words will be about. I’m looking forward to finding out together.
what is generative art for
Recently I’ve been working with Robbie Thomson on a project of his involving soft robotic sculptures made from natural materials. Over a few beers, we got into talking about using generative methods to design forms for the sculptures. Robbie was keen to experiment with some organic forms, and we went back and forth about using generative methods, versus more traditional designs rooted in observation of nature.
The whole conversation left me thinking a lot about the purpose of generative methods in art. I make a lot of generative stuff, and honestly I don’t spend a lot of time analysing why I do things that way. What’s the purpose of it, why not just draw something the old-fashioned way?
Sol LeWitt is really interesting to me on this. I truly love his work, but have a viscerally negative reaction to the way he talks about it. LeWitt was a true modernist, making art “to engage the mind of the viewer rather than his eye or emotions”. He believed that by planning an artwork completely in advance, setting out procedures to be followed, you could eliminate subjectivity from the work.
This, to me, feels like both a ridiculous goal, and an obviously doomed method. What would art without subjectivity even look like, and why would you want it? And yet, it’s an opinion that was clearly strongly held by LeWitt and his cohort, who were all clever talented people. It’s a rough edge that I keep snagging on – what am I missing here, what meaning have I misunderstood? And if I’m going to reject this rationale, what do I put in its place?
In my practice, I often play with recreating complex phenomena, trying to create a representation of process. Something like Metropologeny is interesting to me both in how it clearly reflects something of how cities work, and in how it fails at capturing all the tiny details. Generative art as an attempt to be simple, holding up a mirror to complexity.
Another idea that resonates with me is Allison Parrish’s comparison of a computer program to a space probe. Both are machines which explore areas of (conceptual or physical) space which are too harsh or alien for humans to spend long in, looking for interesting things to show to their creators. This is where randomness always comes in, making decisions that no human would make, letting us imagine other possible worlds.
There’s something in the combination of these two ideas – building machines which burrow into the gaps between the world and our understanding of its processes – which I think is fruitful. Working with computers always produces a simplification of the real world, and it’s only by pushing the limits of that simplification that we can understand where it’s letting us down.
Also, probably more than I’d like to admit, generative art is about wearing a mask, creating something which insulates me from my work. If the work is less than perfect, then it’s the result of an imperfect machine, not my fault. This is obviously an easy way to dodge criticism, but it’s also massively liberating. I can do what I want without fear of censure, because in some sense it’s not me doing anything, it’s just a machine. How does this interact with the idea of masks in theatre, as a ritual way of changing ones character? Thoughts to think about.
I’m trying to both read more, and to keep better track of what I do read. So far this year I’ve finished three books:
Amal El-Mohtar, Max Gladstone, This Is How You Lose The Time War
A fairly short novel about two opposing agents who fall in love through their letters: Cold War vibes and light time travel shenanigans. I wanted to like this more than I did. The book alternates between short vignettes of the characters, and their letters to each other. The letters are written in the characters' voices, full of show-off puns and references. Unfortunately, this doesn't let up in the narrative sections, so the whole thing is kind of exhausting.
That said, I did enjoy it. The show-off writing is well done, and even if it does grate after a while, the book is short enough that it doesn't really matter. There's some nice world-building in there too.
Ameet Hindocha, Constructing Semi-Regular Tilings Of The Plane With Ruler & Compass
Are you interested in semi-regular tilings of the plane? Would you like to be able to construct them with a ruler and compass? Then you should get a copy of this short pamphlet, available for eight English pounds on Etsy.
Honestly, this is exactly what it says it is. If the title interests you, so will the contents. It's geared towards the sort of person who could probably work this all out on their own, but appreciates having it worked out for them (e.g. me). If you're not very comfortable with ruler and compass construction, maybe give this a miss. It's very light on hand-holding. Most of the pages are simply (very attractive) diagrams of the relevant constructions.
Greg Egan, Initiation
Did you know there’s a new Greg Egan short story collection? It’s self-published, so it’s a) not very expensive, and b) not very well publicised. This is mostly his “plausible near-future dystopia” mode of writing, rather than his more famous “physics textbook with weird alien sex scenes”. Less distinctively Egan as a result, but I think this stuff works better for him in the short form.
This is a good moment to mention how great Greg Egan’s website is, it’s just the most Greg Egan thing, I love it.
I’ve also got four books on the go right now, which might be excessive.
Jenny Odell, How To Do Nothing
Started this last year, then I put it down on my desk and it got covered in papers. I just unearthed it today, need to get back into it. A gentle resistance to capitalism, punctuated with stories about crows.
Ursula K. LeGuin, Always Coming Home
I picked this up last year after doing some work with Duncan Speakman and Tineke de Meyer on a piece (very) loosely inspired by it. LeGuin describes it as an archaeology of the future, and I’m not sure I can do better. I’ve been savouring it, not letting myself read too much at a time.
Francis D. K. Ching, Architecture: Form, Space, & Order
I think I got this based on Robert Yang’s blog, but I can’t find the actual post. It’s an architecture textbook, all about the relationships of forms in space. I’m working through it in chunks, letting it steep.
Lord Dunsany, The King Of Elfland’s Daughter
This dropped into the public domain this year, so I nabbed a copy from Gutenberg. One of those genre-founding novels that feels a bit weird to revisit nearly a century later. It’s fun, pompous and rambling in a good way, but the “main character” (the prince who woos the titular elven princess) is a boring plank of wood.
I should stop starting books and start finishing some.
I finally went to see Knives Out, Rian Johnson's new murder mystery film. If you haven't seen it, I'm sure you've had it recommended to you several times by now. Please let me add my voice to the choir singing its praises. It's a perfectly constructed movie, made by a group of incredibly talented people who were clearly having a whale of a time. An absolute joy.
The same day I saw Knives Out, I made a trip to the Baltic, nominally to see their Judy Chicago retrospective (which was fine). While I was there, I had a look round the group show they have running, Animalesque/Art Across Species and Beings. In particular, one piece from it has been haunting my dreams ever since, Ho Tzu Nyen's 2 or 3 Tigers.
It’s a video installation, with two opposing screens showing a growled duet between a creepy CGI tiger, and an equally creepy CGI figure of George Coleman, the chief architect of the British colony in Singapore. Both figures are dripping with menace, and this cuts wonderfully against the slightly ridiculous words they are singing: “We're tigers / Were-tigers”.
In the same exhibition, I also recommend the video piece Tupilakosaurus: An Interesting Study about the Triassic Myth of Kap Stosch by Pia Arke, which combines palaeontological reconstruction of a strange proto-reptile creature, with a story about East Greenlandic ritual magic. This is extremely in my wheelhouse, maybe it’s also in yours?
Last, but very much not least, my pal Kit Buckley has started a newsletter about the 1982 World's Fair in Knoxville, Tennessee. The first issue is about the fair, but also about encountering postmodernist thought as a young engineer. If this appeals, then you should subscribe for more of Kit's gentle wisdom.
My Domain Name Pricing Game was in a British Council exhibition in Belgrade this month, part of a demonstration of the breadth and variety of the UK games industry. The guys at We Throw Switches, who curated the exhibition, also built a nifty arcade controller for it, to an aesthetic they describe as "hackspace gameshow". I think it's pretty neat! This does also mean there's now a festival-ready version of the game, so if you've got an event that you think it would fit with, let me know.