Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Art as Life

Ah, spring in the NW, where the sunsets emit a warmth and subtly that hints at the better weather to come. As I stare at the sepia-toned dusk, rain dropping instead of crystals, I think on an event that happened a long time ago, in the brittle air of winter. It was an odd event, and one I would rather forget, but light has a way of evoking certain moods/memories, doesn't it?

This memory and mood circled around a woman. I'm not sure how we met, but there was a sparkle of hate between us. You simply know when you don't care for another person's worldview. Nevertheless, this made for a lively and contentious discussion. I think it started on go vs chess and which game well-played was the best indicator of a sharp mind; we moved on to the possible misquote of Kissinger's (that our enemies were playing go whilst the Americans were, at best, playing chess). And from there we debated the "merits" of the Bolsheviks. Hard to debate historical "what ifs" but we tried.

I must admit that I hadn't talked in such riddles since college, and I was glad to find a partner in crime—even though the mutual hate continued. She was an artist trying to make it and simply wasn't. And I was a writer who wasn't making it—though I was and am naive enough to think that making it isn't the main point of the whole endeavor. So she invited me to the building where she was squatting. How appropriate.

On the way there, a long walk punctuated with slaps from a cruel wind and garbage-stench on the streets, she divulged more of her situation. She was at a sort of crossroads. She had found that the art world was not what she'd expected, and she now created works (forgeries) for a famous gallery. Meanwhile what originals she created gained no traction.

Her building was surprisingly hollowed out for a midtown structure, and when we climbed the stairs to her place, it was easy to see that rats owned the place, their feces forcing me to hold my breath. By some grace, her apartment had heating, and she flipped on a few lights while taking me immediately to her studio room(s). I must admit a tinge of jealousy at the size of the place, even though it smelled like a civil war battlefield.

She walked me through a few pieces from her youth, when in middle school her talent was plain for all to see. The realism in some of these paintings was nothing short of amazing; the people were all in motion, all full of life. Yet even looking at these pained her. I went on and saw that she'd moved on to more abstract works as she grew older. Finally, we came to the room she wanted to show me all along.

Here, there were paintings after paintings of what I took to be edge and nodes. All black circles connected by lines. All different. At first I scoffed, but the more I stared, the more I was taken in by these well thought out series of circles and lines. After a few minutes of being mesmerized, I sensed that something in the air had shifted. I dared not look in her direction for I could sense something of a force invading me. I asked what they were meant to represent.

"Different things," she said, annoyed. Some were the grids of certain cities that she enjoyed strolling through, at one time or another. Others were representations of cities (streets=edges, intersections=nodes) of her imagination that she presumed would be great to walk through, if only their streets were laid out just so. Others still were stories about city planners gone mad; they tore down old sections and created new highways over them. Or some indicated a history of a city with a specific grid system that eventually broke down by way of cars or another city planner who simply wanted to make their presence be known with white elephant projects. Some of these were true stories, some were in her mind.

I especially liked some of the grids which were representations of specific neighborhoods she'd loved for how they pushed people together, forced humanity to confront one another and from that a certain beauty grew; thus one canvass was the specific grid system of a combination of all these neighborhoods, for she was sure that such a design would create a utopia of meetings for the likes of her and other artists. Yet another one represented a design of her own which would best bring people together, and inspire artists.

In the corner, on pallets, sat a cat with canvasses of nodes and edges hanging from the ceiling representing human connections in life. One was a representation, 2D-wise mind you, of a section of reddit; how the subreddits interacted, or how the users interacted. Moving the cat revealed another canvas with what she'd esteemed to be the most natural breakdown of any group of human beings (meaning how they were connected and so forth). Yet another was meant to be millions of people in Dar es Salaam. When I say a million nodes were represented, I mean it; though I certainly didn't count them. She used a tiny paint pen for many of these paintings. This required from her a harness for her hand and arm, so that no tremor would result in a mistake.

Behind a large concrete barrier (what was that doing there?) were paintings of hierarchical systems that showed a certain paucity of connections, as well as more well-connected ones representing democracies. At times it was like staring at the night sky through on a Montana mountain. 

I chased the cat when it scratched some paintings which were piled in a heap next to the litter box. These were without edges; she'd attempted to use either different shapes or colors or position on the canvas as an attempt to represent these subsections of the world. I thought they were worth saving, but she thought otherwise.

My head spinning, she handed me a glass and a bottle of vodka. We took turns drinking out of it as we made it to a room with a draft and a mattress on the the floor. I took this for her bedroom since it smelled like perfume—the subtle flowery kind. Leaning against each other on either side of the mattress, making a sort of hallway, stood paintings, stretched out and mounted on frames. The cat perched itself on the mattress, stared at me like it was considering ending my life, then started to lick itself.

One set of paintings was supposed to be about "my pure expression" she said, while taking a swig of vodka, and on these were nodes with edges pointed in certain directions, usually the same angle (or general quadrant or pi/2 rad). Except there would be a curved line, here or there, that was the exception. I asked why and she smiled and said it was an algorithm, or rather a Turing machine joke. I looked harder, feeling stupid. She said if one followed the initial node through all its possible turns, the joke, or the statement about life, would be easy to see. Some, she claimed, said more than any novel could. I sensed that she didn't like my questions and was attacking my own vocation. So I praised her and she smiled, as if she'd always expected it.

While she settled on the mattress, stroking her cat, I rummaged through the paintings and found another set of canvasses in a pile on the floor which were designed to represent war—with red nodes being those slaughtered. The one on France during WWI was especially heartbreaking. The set on the Iraq civil war was also moving for an Iraq War vet such as myself, as she had five canvasses for a six year breakdown. Each with millions of nodes on it. Each with a million stories. I could see a few nodes—red white and blue for us occupiers—and I noticed what could only have been my node. She must have been a hacker, for how could she have known about those top-secret connections? I held my tongue, wondering if I were truly in the presence of a modern day witch. I glanced at her, and could see her following me with her eyes, studying my every move while pretending to pay attention to her cat.

We moved on to another room, this one a decrepit bathroom with bold rats staring at us from holes in the walls. I realized then that the cat must have been lazy or scared. On the floor, in the middle of the room, next to the broken tub, was a computer with several screens. Between canvasses she mentioned  how she used data, manipulated it to create the mold for what she wanted to paint. That even with a fast computer, few processors could handle placing so many nodes and that perhaps she would one day get a node edge system to represent the history of the world. I remained silent. In my gut the idea that she was nuts tickled me. It grew and became a full theory. Then she started to ramble about the need to paint, that she only painted when calm, or under duress, or when bill collectors were pounding on her door, or when she had just made love, or when a date night did not work out. I think I understood. I let go of my doubts, though I started to wonder about my own sanity as well.

I was possessed with her artist's vision, and even thought of giving myself up to her. But when I asked why she didn't become a statistician, as she certainly had the aptitude for it, all the air in the room was sucked out by her stare. I left before I was brought to my knees for an execution that surely awaited me. And that was the last I ever saw of her. I remember walking away from the building and watching as a sepia light leaked out from the top floor's window, her silhouette appearing, a red ember for a cigarette, and she waved goodbye.

Update 23Mar 2015: Thanks, everyone, for your points made. I've since googled and found out this artist. Her art popping up in many places. I've also seen her explanations about some of these new pieces of art and it's safe to say that if she was smart when we first met, her intelligence has only increased since she's taken her art in a new direction.

That I can now find her on a simple Google search proves the success of her idea. Turns out that her work has become something of a hot commodity among the techie crowds. They call it algorithmic art. I mentioned her Turing Machine art. Some of her recent works are even more complex than the ones I saw in her studio apartment on that fateful night. I've seen these recent creations and have been even more enthralled, mesmerized than ever. Starting from one point and moving in a random or preordained direction in the next number in the value of pi (or some other scientific number or function—a number plugged into that function—of great importance). Color also being subject to some random variance.

Some others were novels or short stories; each word of the alphabet assigned some number in the random scheme (1-26). But all of these new styles, I imagine, she only did to pay the bills, to move once and for all from the clutches of a slum lord and paint as she wanted to. She was smart, as I said, and once was quoted as saying, "serve a master? Yes, her name is Art, but apparently she has minions, idiotic minions she expects me to kowtow to as well. And I suppose I must." Nevertheless, I could tell the above art (her newer art) was very different than her earlier pieces. Yet, I've still grown to love them.

She has a few where the edge of classics (or the center) are painted to a forgery perfection, then somehow, perfectly naturally, these would turn into edges and nodes, still a part of the painting, before traveling in some odd direction, growing, never stopping until off frame. Some say that these edge-nodes are meant to speak to said painter's or his/her subject's relationships, as told from a study of letters from that time period.

One of my favorite ones is some odd juxtaposition: six algorithms growing from a single node, each one simple search algorithms, some more common than others. She did this for re-sort, closest pair (geometry), computation of pi, and alpha-beta pruning. I'm not sure how exactly these were represented, but people who are in the know are reluctant to talk about it, merely saying it's what you get out of it.

And yet none of these compared to a simple node-edge she painted, colors denoting her mood (or lack of cortisone, dark blue for a lot of it, light red for less of it) and how that beautiful 100'x100' canvas grew, branching, collapsing, representing her creative process, but also humanity in that painting. I trembled when I saw that, feeling an ache inside me, as if I were reliving her rejection all over again, and seeing her smoking and looking out the window (though I still felt joy for seeing her succeed so, to have her ideas soar—oh my, what a feeling). I suppose I do like paintings that represent things that I can understand.

Of course, being that she has finally "made it", and since the buyers, techies, have a tendency to minimize the past (or co-opt it), she is creating pieces to their taste. So while her algorithmic edge-node paintings were original, they didn't say enough. Now she paints edge-nodes over forgeries of old masterpieces. She also hides them in lines of these masterpieces. One has to look closely at a Les Demoiselles to see that there was no facture on the green breast but the number pi represented as above, in minutia. Some other paintings have a classic forgery created in a small size on the canvas, the nodes all around it.

There are some copycat artists out there (a veritable cottage industry, now) who are so crass as to have the node edges penetrating the masterpieces. These sell, though they may lack subtlety. Others have that node explode into 1-0s of machine algorithm explaining the correcting function of a drone missile, or face recognition algorithms and so forth. Simplified to some extent, but those in the know understand it. They are likening it to art for the literate (machine literate) and are further saying that those who don't understand will be left in the trash pile of history (imagine, they say, the first people who didn't understand scratches on a rock and thought it silly?).

But even though these paintings sold very much as well, they seemed to me like horrendous derivatives. Edges and nodes with no particular rhyme or reason, let alone any feeling. To me they looked like connect the dot abstractions. Some were, like hers, classics forged, and a pseudocode for, say A-B pruning when it made no sense, like on a Rembrandt dissection class painting. Even worse, some would just slap codes found on wikipedia on the master paintings, or the start of the code filled in by the classics.

Of course, some people have gone the entire way and manufactured the process, creating algorithms and what not for print or robotic arms. One was so obviously trite; views of our galaxy from different angles, each node equalling each star, then the edges filled in at random. Yet others merely did outlines of classics and filled them in with clusters of hectic node-edges. Only people in the art world, people selling, were enthralled with such oddities.

As for our original artist, I can imagine her smoking, staring at these paintings, disgusted at the crassness of it all (though she has signed over the rights for an app that would allow people to paint  edge nodes on their phones). But I've heard she's retorting with more and more political art. I think that would suit her better, for I do remember some parts when we talked, those shields coming down as they naturally do, when the chemistry is just right, her leaning in to say, "beware if you're not brave enough, you might live longer than you want."

Update May2015: There have been several accusations over whether or not the paintings with a billion node-edges is even possible for one human being to create. Or even a few working on the limited space (for the humans, at least) canvas. So the explanation now is that the said artist didn't paint and in fact, used a robotic arm with a pre-configured program to paint all those edge nodes. Though the rumors have neither been substantiated nor denied, I am not sure what the big deal is. The idea was still the artist's. Who's to say that the advances of a robotic arm, which would allow for paintings humans couldn't possibly complete, isn't the right way to move forward in art?

Update Jun2015: What we have here is art imitating life. Nevertheless, I want to tout another, more flesh than the above, artist who has created some amazing grids, abstract art of city maps and more. Check him out today.

Update Feb 11th 2016: Check out this edge node map of Star Wars. Fun fun. Life following art and vice versa, one would suppose

Also, to note, that there are many places to find original art and not only partake, but help out artists.
Here's one place with some great paintings. Some of them are even more innovative than the one I mentioned above. Some even go so far as to paint on camera lenses (I imagine a filter on it, since no one artist is that rich), then take photos of landscapes and what have you. Others—some of my favorites—have that realism with paintings of the dispossessed (slums, ISIS and so forth) rather than a kowtow to the elite.
Here's a list of more places to buy the art (add more if you can think of any):
Print Process

While I'm at it, read this article on the possibility of such networks to free society from its current constraints.

Update March2016: A most interesting article on art in China. Some very beautiful work.

Update Aug 2019: Here's another article on how art is used in a high-end pawn-shop manner (given to such places as collateral for $$).

Another article over at LRB speaks of how there is such a thing as the love for art as well as the money that has flowed into the system and corrupted it (yes, it's a money laundering scheme, for the most part).

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  1. Sounds like you dodged a bullet, m8. I likes the internet, in that you can find the art out there. You get all sorts of stuff on deviant art and all sorts of art, good art, elsewhere. Why you'd obsess about some node edge girl is beyond me. People are creating some great stuff, though. The abstract stuff is for the birds or those who want to think they're better than the rest of us or enjoy being smug. Don't sweat it, I can be smug about enjoying good art that looks like something you need talent to do.

  2. uwotm8?
    Not exactly smug when it's a story. And though I'm sure we could argue the merits of art as realism vs art as whatever you get out of it, I don't think that what the story looks at is merely abstract art (the kind that needs more and more specific information which leads to a sort of, as you say, elitism, since that information is rarely easily accessible to the public). It is, however, a new kind of art. Appreciate it or move on, I suppose.

    Also, if one wants to take the route of only appreciating realistic art (and to that end, the realism they want), then one (read you) should see that this too is a "smug" imposition. One that wants nothing to do with history or how the art world (in the West) decided to move away from that which is realistic (not that it's dead).

    That's not to say that when I walk into the Dia Beacon in New York, or the fifth floor in MOMA, I am not out of my element. I truly don't understand or appreciate some kinds of art out there (and I do wish there were some explanation as to what it's about).

    But that doesn't mean I'm in complete agreement with some people who think the move to abstraction is simply some elitist movement meant to take meaningful art from the people. Thus no realism about social issues. I may sense that to some level, but since I cannot even begin to find a reason, I'll continue to hold it as a personal prejudice. Though moving to the complete abstract presupposes some non-political art, of which we know there cannot be any.

    I would, however, want realistic depictions of the dispossessed in this world (the slums, the hypocrisy etc) and so far only street art seems willing to do so. I still cannot try to denounce some other art for social art, for it reminds me a bit too much of the Soviets.

    1. perhaps we should focus on the artist?

  3. Seen these paintings. First thought it was the surest sign of madness. Then I got caught in the network. A life changing experience to be certain. What got to me was how there would be huge clusters here and there, then that one person between them (not always one, but usually one), and seeing how easy it would be to sever the two groups from each other. This would be what we call the prophets, no? What is is a prophet, and what about those people who could or would manage some level of bridging the gap between two worlds? Who are the real life people we know who are these prophets? Food for thought.

    1. You stuffy folk make me sick. Beautiful? We're talking about network theory, right? This is what this is. So someone sees big data and decides to map it with paint. A computer can still show more (I'm calling bull that anyone can paint millions of nodes. Do you understand that a million seconds is more than a week. Just dashing away at the nodes, not to mention the edges?)

    2. Scram, you.

  4. another artist has taken the edge node idea (first? I'm not certain who came up with the artist take on the whole network theory as art) to use the edges and nodes to come up with a myriad of paintings (somewhat the same as using pixels, but with nodes and edges, or using pin point painting) of different things (I've heard, representing the network of node edges shown)


Please comment to add to the discussion. Be kind. But let the democratic ideal lead you. And no spamming!