The Brooklyn Rail

SEPT 2020

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SEPT 2020 Issue

The Game of Life - Emergence in Generative Art

Manolo Gamboa Naon, <em>Mantel Blue</em>, 2018. Courtesy Kate Vass Galerie.
Manolo Gamboa Naon, Mantel Blue, 2018. Courtesy Kate Vass Galerie.

On View
Kate Vass Galerie
The Game of Life - Emergence in Generative Art

Curated by Jason Bailey
July 14, 2020 – October 30, 2020

On April 11, 2020, the mathematician John Horton Conway died of complications associated with COVID-19. He is known for his work in various areas, including number theory and game theory, as well as his invention of the Game of Life, which was first published in Scientific American in 1970. Game of Life is an automaton or zero-player game in which every cell on a two-dimensional, rectilinear grid responds to the behavior of its neighboring cells—the development of the system varies only according to the initial configuration provided by a player. At Kate Vass Galerie, the curator Jason Bailey honors Conway’s work with an online exhibit that features four international artists’ approaches to the Game.

The gallery page dedicated to the show introduces artists Manolo Gamboa Naon (“Manolo”), Jared S Tarbell, Alexander Reben, and Kjetil Golid, and includes an essay by Bailey that explains how the Game works. Simple rules launch the evolution from an initial pattern as each cell responds to the eight cells surrounding it. A cell is either alive or dead; a live cell remains so if it has two or three live neighbors; a dead cell turns alive if it has three live neighbors; all other dead cells stay dead and other live cells die in the next generation. The activity suggests cellular agency, though cells are entirely rule-governed. The artists included in this exhibition take Conway’s rules and work with them, coding new systems that produce color, choosing initial patterns, and adding other drivers that allow a computer to generate the great variety of designs on display. At the bottom of Bailey’s essay, a horizontal bar allows viewers to scroll through the works of the show. For those interested in learning more, links earlier in the text lead to each artist’s page on the gallery site.

Kate Vass founded the gallery that bears her name in Zurich, Switzerland. Her focus is on art and technology, and she aims to cultivate greater fluidity between the physical and virtual qualities of computer art. Accordingly, many of the works in The Game of Life are available both as physical and digital objects. The works of Norwegian artist Kjetil Golid, for example, can be purchased as prints or non-fungible tokens on SuperRare, an online marketplace for collectible digital items. The gallery works with buyers to guide them through the unfamiliar process of buying, accessing, and maintaining such digital works, whose unique value is secured by the same blockchain technology that underpins the scarcity of cryptocurrency. Golid designs his grid-based automata to focus on how lines change direction. While some of his works look like loom designs, others distort graphic consistency through the introduction of a “noise function,” an input that produces a pseudo-random fluctuation in the data. His Curvescape VI (2020) is an outstanding example of a grid-based work whose final visual form “steps out of the grid and joins the discrete and the continuous,” as the artist says, taking on the illusion of plateaus in a landscape. Other works in the exhibition have no physical manifestation at all. Manolo’s time-based works, for example, stem from his sense that the passing of time is crucial to the Game of Life, and his 40-second animations “live” only on the blockchain as crypto-collectible digital items. Each work layers several versions of the game to produce colorful, complex pixelations that feel like population density trackers. The imagination leaps from Manolo’s bold pixels to ideas about humans and ecosystems.

Kjetil Golid, <em>Curvescape VI</em>, 2020. Courtesy Kate Vass Galerie.
Kjetil Golid, Curvescape VI, 2020. Courtesy Kate Vass Galerie.

Alexander Reben is an artist and roboticist who was trained at the MIT Media Lab. Reben’s prints always include a QR code and digital script, reminding viewers that the work is a visualization of a specific computer process. You can copy the code for each particular work into a web browser bar and see it rendered, or simply scan the QR code, which encapsulates the script text to be copied and rendered in the browser. The computer code that generates a work includes a personal ID and passcode that allows Reben to authenticate it; he includes the title and a seed number that launches the pattern, while the rest of the script designates production and design effects. Despite their distinct appearances, 14167891 insipid_scheme (2020), which looks like an elegant black-and-white tree centered on the page, is generated by the same basic code as 27764153 pretrial_beaver (2020), an asymmetrical image in which the left side is dominated by a collection of colorful, narrow lines and thicker “branches.” Jared S Tarbell’s Substrate.GZB (2019) stems from one of his most popular algorithms, and though its rules vary from the Game of Life, it has a similar sensibility. It is also quite beautiful, evoking a minimalist Braque. Tarbell’s color comes from transparent pixels at 1 or 2% opacity laid down thousands of times to create a watercolor effect, in a palette suggestive of the soil and sands of his native New Mexico.

Aristotle proposed that art acts as a thought experiment. Moving past familiar questions about art, machines, autonomy, and authorship that have been around since the invention of photography, the generative artworks on view through Kate Vass’s website offers a chance to think about our respective starting points, the steps we take, and how rules apply in this game of life. More broadly, digital art exhibits can help us explore human-computer relationships, how computational practices influence our lives, and what kind of society emerges from those designed interactions. As we have all been immersed in computer landscapes by current circumstances, these questions take on a particular urgency. To enable the sort of reflections and judgments that make art meaningful, galleries and curators committed to digital art need to harness their astute design sense to help us differentiate these particular engagements with screens. If Silicon Valley has 50 years of user design experience, the art world has centuries of cross-cultural aesthetic practices it can use to illuminate our current window on the world.


Charlotte Kent

Charlotte Kent is Associate Professor of Visual Culture at Montclair State University, an Editor-at-Large for the Brooklyn Rail, and an arts writer.


The Brooklyn Rail

SEPT 2020

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