ARTIST’S STATEMENT, FEBRUARY 2010
The Ancient Greek mathematician, philosopher, and mystic Pythagoras and his followers held that the universe was rational and ruled by mathematical relations. Yet, at the core of this ideal world lay geometric relations that they were not even capable of expressing in their number system. It was almost unthinkable that the patterns they perceived around them in nature could be described by mathematics and yet contain numbers that can only be approximated. Numbers like Pi, the golden ratio, and even something as harmless as the diagonal of a square with sides equal to one, represented profound mysteries which they swore on their lives to keep secret.
I have been making paintings based on mathematical rules and algorithms for some time now. Although the rules vary from piece to piece the basic process is the same. Starting from some initial input (perhaps a few random drips of paint on a canvas) I employ a function to determine the output (e.g. more paint), that output then becomes the next input until either the function or myself are exhausted. Up until now I had always performed this work by hand.
The notion of creating an automaton carry out my work for me has interested me for some time. Yet, I have been hesitant to seemingly abandon the human element of my work. The process of designing, and building this machine has helped to clarify many questions that had been troubling me for some time. In particular, what is the difference between when I follow a mathematical rule to create an artwork and when a machine does the same? By allowing the algorithm to dictate my response to various sensory input and perceived patterns I am in many ways behaving much like a machine. Much of the creative process involved in my work consists in the choice of materials, how they are applied, and what rule to follow. Although some surprises may occur along the way, and I am never quite sure what to expect in the end, all that remains is an act of endurance. One obvious difference is that I have a choice whether or not to continue to follow the rule, whereas the machine simply does so until it needs to be wound up again. But, assuming I am resolute, what then separates us? Will a painting that I make be different from a painting that machine makes using the same rules and materials? The kind of painting I make might posses a different “style” from that of the machine owing to the fact that I have hands and a profoundly complex sensory feedback system. The work each of us makes will bear the signature of our physical form. We are both prone to error because of our physical make up. For instance, as a result of my terrible handwriting I might mistake a 4 for a 9; likewise a the machine might slip a cog, or indeed similarly “misread” it’s input. However, I can perceive when an error has occurred and choose whether or not to correct for it, the machine just keeps going.
The machine does not represent its actions through language, much less mathematical abstractions. It is the embodiment of a ideal mathematical function, but because it is physical it is not quite perfect. The design it creates may be related to the original mathematical ideal, but what it is really drawing is the exact shape and interaction of its constituent physical parts. Do humans too, the product of billions of years of evolution and chance, simply trace the shape of their physical being only in much larger complex arcs? If mathematics is one of the products of the evolved mind and the peculiarities of our physical make up then what does that mean about our understanding of the world as governed by mathematical principles?
I have attempted to make the functioning of the machine as apparent as possible so as to emphasize the surprising complexity and pattern that emerge from a relatively simple process. Where possible nearly all of the components were made from re-purposed and reclaimed materials. Utilizing reclaimed parts gives the machine its own unique kind of “life cycle” and further stresses the nature of the relationship between the mathematical ideal and it’s somewhat idiosyncratic physical construction.