You could say we’re living in an Age of Algorithm Anxiety. I can’t recall exactly when it began, but after two decades of the commercial internet and a decade of Facebook, many of us who live our lives online are at least aware, if not deeply suspicious, of how much algorithms, artificial intelligence, and machine learning dictate what we encounter and experience everyday. The ads that show up in our search results and social feeds and pages we visit. The recommendations we get from Amazon or Spotify. The Twitter bots programmed to spread actual fake news. Against the drumbeat about robots stealing our jobs, it can feel like we’re on a fast train to Terminatorland. And it’s why I’m grateful to artist Mark G. Taber for challenging us to reconsider what we think we know about algorithms and what these mathematical functions have to do with art.
In The Physible Universe, his new exhibition now on display at the Society for Domestic Museology, Mark presents a collection of abstract paintings based on designs generated by algorithms. Combining the automated determinism of computer programming with the vagaries of aesthetic judgment and the human unpredictability of artistic technique, these so-called Tychist Objects in Mark’s exhibition are visible meditations on the nature of creativity and art itself.
I first met Mark online, when a mutual Facebook friend shared an article about home art galleries and tagged me. After we exchanged comments on the post, I invited Mark to one of our openings and he showed me some of his early figurative experiments in using computers to generate variations on a given design.. When we reconnected months later, those early experiments had evolved into the colorful and intricate geometric forms that make up the current series and I knew they would make for great conversation at SfDM.
Excited at the prospect of exploring the intersection of math and art, I made sure to invite my favorite numerical types to the opening, including Joe, a statistics professor and proprietor of his own SfDM gallery uptown, and Abigail, whose startup uses customizable remote-control cars to get kids — especially girls — into STEM subjects. (Sadly, our friend Daniel, a history of science scholar, was unavailable). In keeping with the math theme, the centerpiece of the hors d’oeuvres was an edible representation of the Golden Ratio — an array of carrots, radishes, zucchini, and boiled potatoes around a pot of aioli that covered nearly the entire table. (The Andalusian gazpacho and Victorian gin punch helped to cool down a hot July evening.)
In his artist statement printed for the event, Mark acknowledges the incongruity of using algorithms in making art. “The use of an algorithm to generate a work of art may appear at first to be a hopelessly lifeless and mechanical procedure to create an art object,” he writes. But an algorithm does not necessarily automate the entire creative process; it is merely a recipe, “a set of fabrication instructions.” And as Mark described his own creative process, the discussion became a fascinating exploration of the essential interplay between determinism and intervention that underscores the creation of art.
The notion of “physibility” originated in discussions on file-sharing hub The Pirate Bay, where programmers mused on the capacity for 3D printing to turn data into physical objects. Applying this idea to art, Mark began to write algorithms to generate and manipulate geometric forms in digital Euclidean space. After entering randomly generated number values into the algorithm, he simply clicked the ‘Run’ command to generate infinite combinations of angular and parabolic lines and colors based on the RGB model. And here is where the automation of the algorithm collides with human, artistic intervention. Just as the number of iterations is infinite, so is the function of the algorithm — until the artist intervenes, pausing the run of the algorithm to arrive at a unique visualization of a moment in time and space. After a painstaking process of selecting and discarding possibilities, Mark chose a series of images to render in acrylic on board. And here is where the notion of Tychism comes in.
Tychism is the doctrine, posited by philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce, that “absolute chance” plays a crucial role in the unfolding of the universe. The interplay between determinism and indeterminism, or chance — the fundamental dynamic of creation, both in nature and in art — is the very thing Mark’s work explores. A random number plugged into a fixed mathematical equation begins an act of creation. An aesthetic choice intervenes to arrest the process and render a design. The design provides a template for the artist’s self-described “shaky, twitchy hand” to transform what began as pure data into a physible form. And the results are exquisite.
Set against backgrounds of white space, nearly diaphanous fields of silky acrylic lime, magenta, turquoise, and other gradations build layer upon layer, blending where they intersect and hinting at a third dimension within the paintings. (Indeed, Mark, a sculptor by training, is exploring the possibility of creating 3D fabrications of his designs.) Apart from their delicate beauty — and accidental harmony with the color scheme of our apartment! — Mark’s paintings inspire us to reflect on the metaphysics of art and nature, creativity and creation, programming and intelligence, order and chaos. What a privilege it’s been to reflect on these things during the past week, when the alignment of mathematical predictability and astronomical chance resulted in awe-stirring beauty.