Vir­tual Re­sis­tance: A Ge­neal­ogy of Dig­i­tal Ab­strac­tion


Session Title:

  • Arabesque, Mandala, Algorithm: A Long History of Generative Art

Presentation Title:

  • Vir­tual Re­sis­tance: A Ge­neal­ogy of Dig­i­tal Ab­strac­tion



  • Panel: Arabesque, Mandala, Algorithm: A Long History of Generative Art

    Ac­cord­ing to one pos­si­ble nar­ra­tive, the his­tory of com­puter graphic imag­ing has priv­i­leged verisimil­i­tude, at­tempt­ing to achieve a vir­tual image that im­i­tates op­ti­cal re­al­ity as faith­fully as pos­si­ble. This ac­count posits an evo­lu­tion­ary tra­jec­tory for com­puter graph­ics be­gin­ning at rudi­men­tary pixel-based fig­ures and pro­gress­ing to­wards richly lay­ered, vol­u­met­ric vi­su­al­iza­tions of an al­ter­nate world whose prop­er­ties mir­ror our own. This his­tory may or may not hide the fact that this vir­tual world is often vi­su­al­ized as if it were cap­tured by a cam­era; the cam­era-based image is sim­u­lated  by en­cod­ing a math­e­mat­i­cal model of a pic­ture as it would ap­pear through a lens, with a spe­cific field of view and focal length[1] <#_ftn1> . So al­ready, com­pu­ta­tion­ally gen­er­ated pic­tures analo­gize and favor the vi­sual qual­i­ties of a world seen through a cam­era lens. Thus, they would seem to tend in­her­ently to­wards the par­tic­u­lar qual­i­ties of vir­tu­al­ity, and the vi­sual dis­tor­tions, pro­duced by a cam­era.  But there is an al­ter­nate tra­di­tion of com­pu­ta­tional ab­strac­tion that rev­els in the fa­cil­ity of the com­puter to ren­der vi­sual equiv­a­lents of ab­stract math­e­mat­i­cal cal­cu­la­tions. There are ex­am­ples of such screen-based ab­strac­tion that gen­er­ate im­agery based on for­mu­lae for phys­i­cal forces such as grav­ity, or painterly com­po­si­tions that emerge as a re­sult of in­putting ran­dom val­ues into an al­go­rithm en­cod­ing change over time.  This paper as­sesses whether or not there are a set of prin­ci­ples with which cam­era­less, com­pu­ta­tion­ally based ab­strac­tions are con­cerned, and what kind of “world” is imag­ined through this al­go­rith­mi­cally gen­er­ated vi­sual model. Tak­ing into ac­count the his­tory of ab­strac­tion in mod­ern art, it con­sid­ers whether com­pu­ta­tional ab­strac­tion fits into a mod­ernist nar­ra­tive or whether it en­vi­sions a new call to order dis­tinct from that set forth by 20th cen­tury mod­ernist move­ments.


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