The future is going to be better than it used to be – Happy New Year

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After having done so much work on my retrospective already, I’m relieved the world didn’t end in 2012. Strictly speaking, there is no end to the project, no end to a life’s work other than death itself, but it is highly productive to set boundaries and deadlines.

In case you missed it, I am cataloguing my life’s work in art, and will be celebrating my entire fiftieth year, from 24th Apri 2014 to 23rd April 2015. This will not be the end of my work, of course, but it seems like a sensible milestone. Having talked to a number of people about this, some said they wanted to “steal” the idea for themselves. I  tell them it’s not my idea, I already stole it from someone else.

The artist’s major retrospective is nothing new, but the unique element of mine is me. No matter how conventional it might turn out to be, no-one else made what I made, regardless of how recognisable its influences, and this is already such an important realisation. No matter how easily identified are my influences, my work is still my own, so let’s not get hung up on the similarities in practice. There is no such thing as a blank slate. Above is an experiment from sometime in the late 70s using absorbant newsprint and the cores out of spent felt-tip pens. The spirit of DIY, using what I had.

I have been very productive for many years, but most of my work has never been seen. I got the idea for mounting my own retrospective in 2004 when I saw “Paolozzi at 80” at the Dene Gallery in Edinburgh. I remember the BBC doing a “David Bowie at 50” retrospective, and Tate Modern has just had a major retrospective of Damien Hirst’s work. However, Tate cheated. Hirst is a year younger than me, but they were obviously worried that my own 50th would overshadow his.

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I was very much influenced by the do-it-yourself culture of the punk era and see that as a fundamentally formative time, although I don’t miss the 70s and 80s. I hate nostalgia and do not bear the past into the present with any fondness, although I do value my experience. When I was young I wanted to live in “The Future” although I only knew this place as a vague and idealised utopia based on the science fiction I read as a teenager. Now I am living in the future, at least in terms of technology, and I much prefer it to the past, despite the dystopian backdrop of global warming, potential pandemic biological catastrophe, greed-motivated warfare and the continuing threat of nuclear disaster.

Actually, we had all those things back in the 70s and 80s, but we didn’t have two of my favourite technologies of the future; the World Wide Web and print-on-demand.

And this is where I get to the point. If I haven’t already achieved it by now, I really don’t have much prospect of suddenly becoming a celebrated international artist between now and April 2014, or having any high-profile gallery shows. But what I can do these days is publish anything on the internt, available to the whole (online) planet, and I can print what I like, within the limits of my available technology, and without anyone else’s approval.

And this is what I’m doing, little by little. Realistically, the retrospective will primarily be online and in print; media that I can control myself. I am publishing texts, poems and catalogue entries as-and-when on Issuu here.

Some or all of these will also be available as physical print at some point, and I will be adding to this library continually.

Also keep an eye on Black Daffodil Press, my fantasy publishing house. This blog-site is a resource for links and resources relating to self-publishing, print-on-demand and DIY printing.

See you in the future…

Is World X really Planet X? – Apocalypse sooner or later

Retrospective graphics.065

This is just awesome! In 2008 I was asked to be a part of an event of, like, writing and spoken word about, like, technology. And it was to be called, like, “Life 2.0”. And I was, like, whoa that’s totally what I’m all about. And like, I wrote this awesome text, and it was, like, a total satire on technology and shit, and like how everyone’s like, totally worshipping technology, and nobody gets the the bigger picture, and there’s like this blind-leading-the-blind thing going on and governments are in on it, and the military’s in on it, and no-ones sees it and it’s, like, totally in plain view but, like, everyone’s been, like, brainwashed, and I’m, like, the only person who sees it.

And I called the text “World X”, and it was like about how history repeats itself, and how like no amount of technology is like going to save us and those guys who, like, want to live forever just totally don’t get it, and how death is, like, part of life, and how we need to totally make room for the next generation, and like everything. You know, and it references all kinds of shit from, like, classical literature, and movies, and like, popular culture, and religion, and, like God’s in there and Adam’s in there, and it like asks questions about religion versus evolution and stuff, and it asks questions about race and gender and stuff, and I’ve like, totally got way more of it that’s partly written and stuff, that like involves Lilith and all that stuff that’s mentioned by different religions and stuff, and God is like this God who could be, like, any religion’s God and, like, could also be totally man’s invention, but like it’s never made clear. And the original text ends like when the Fourth World is created at 9/11 (and I mean, like, whoa, don’t even get me, like, started on that one!).

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Anyway, it’s like, yesterday was the night of 20th December 2012, and like, I just totally couldn’t sleep, and I got up and starting, like, checking my emails and stuff. And I got this email, and it was like this email had been sent to me and only me, although, like, I thought I was just on an email list, but the guys at Prezi, like sent me this email with a link to an online presentation that was, like, packed with awesome info about the Mayan calendar and doomsday and how we’re coming to the end of, like, what they call the Fourth World and everything. And one slide is like totally about end of the world theories and mentions this planet that’s totally going to destroy the Earth and it’s called Nibiru or Planet X!

And it’s talking about this planet that’s, like, hiding behind the sun and it going to collide with the Earth and, like, totally destroy it, and it’s like a totally obvious metaphor for Mankind’s self-destructive nature. And I’m like, hold the phone! And its like after midnight now, and I totally wrote this “World X” without ever hearing about Planet X, and guess when I heard about it? 21st December 2012!


It’s like, too much of a coincidence. It’s like my whole world is aligned, and the cosmos is just, like, totally telling me that I’ve just got to write another section that’s, like, about the Fifth World.

And I totally had already written an extra bit where aliens land and bring us all this, like, cool technology and totally new ways of thinking about shit. And they’re, like, killed off by the Black Death. The Mayans really got this, and we’ve like, totally lost it. And they had all kinds of alien technologies that we’ve just, like, lost, or the government’s covered it up so they can use for secret weapons and shit.

And “World X” has, like, only been read a few times in public, and I’m like, I have totally got to get this thing out there and spread the word. So I’m like publishing it one page a a time, and it’s a PDF and you can read it online, and you can like share it and spread the word before the government stops it, ‘cause they, like, totally get it, and they can see that I, like, totally get it, and they don’t want, like, you the people to like, totally get it. The text is, like, finished, but there are, more chapters to come, but here are, like, some of the first few pages. Enjoy and spread the word. Is World X really, like, Planet X?

You can read it online here, or download a working copy of that bad boy here. World X – V4

And this cool site, like, told me all about the Mayan calendar.
And just totally look at the date counter at the bottom of the page.

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We Two Anoraks Together, Coding – The binary star of generative art

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HyperScape IV – Landscape / Portrait

There are two kinds of anoraks in the world. Those that keep the rain out, and those that are a fashion statement.

Recently I attended “Computer Art Pioneers On Making Art By Writing Code”, organised by Site Gallery, Sheffield, UK, to accompany their current exhibition of Ernest Edmonds’ work.

In conversation were Ernest Edmonds with Douglas Dodds (V&A), Roman Verostko with Francesca Franco (researcher), Frieder Nake with Richard Sides (artist) and Manfred Mohr with Alex May (artist).

Please feel free to correct me if I get any of the detail wrong. The talks were recorded and maybe Site Gallery will be publishing them. As it is, I am relying on the notes I took at the time, between live-tweeting, so I might have missed something.

All the speakers were good talkers, and all the in-conversation people did the right thing by taking a back seat and letting the speakers drive, although Richard Sides clearly hadn’t prepared at all. It didn’t matter as Frieder Nake didn’t need any prompting and was very playful.

So why was I there? Well, I’ve made a number of generative artworks in the past, but I am not from the same world. My own introduction to the concepts of generative / algorithmic art came very randomly from the desire to make art that was never the same twice.

For me, the thinking began sometime in the late 1970’s but my introduction to computers was in 1981 when my father, a secondary school teacher, borrowed a brand new BBC Micro over the six-week summer holiday, and that was my introduction to programming.

The very first thing I did was to make string pictures. When I googled “string pictures” this is what I got.

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Pictures of string, string bikinis and string theory. How the world has moved on.

What I meant was this kind of thing.

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Interference patterns formed a lot of those early experiments as they were easy to produce, particularly with a low resolution display.

I would have made music with it too, but the manual was new and incomplete, so the SOUND command was undocumented and I failed to guess the parameters.

This experience contrasts sharply with our named pioneers. In the 1960’s and 1970’s, computers were the almost sole property of universities and large businesses, and their graphics capability pretty much non-existent, hence the use of plotters and structured graphics, rather than the bitmapped visual display unit (VDU) which became universal later on.

In the 1980’s there was an explosion in the development and availability of small, domestic computers which could be connected to a television, and this is when I got involved. Even though these machines were aimed at consumers, and programming them was very much easier, there was still a large hurdle to overcome. My own experience makes me admire the pioneers in this field even more. Easy programming is not easy, and producing successful work with computers that were not designed for the purpose is a major achievement.

What is also contrasting is what led the different generations into the field. I am not a mathematician or computer scientist. I started with a desire to make art, and use computers to help me. My own motivation is primarily aesthetic, and this is reflected in my methods which are very simple, mathematically speaking. I studied A Level maths at school, but I use the simplest methods, given a particular goal.


Frieder Nake in conversation, 12th November 2012 at the Cantor Building, Sheffield Hallam University

I was particularly taken by Manfred Mohn’s early work, and also the plotter drawings of Frieder Nake, who claimed that it was “all random”. Nake was very playful and said a lot of provocative things, including “There [are] no masterpieces anymore.” With an attitude like that, it’s easy to see why Mohn talked about having eggs thrown at him, and referring to the computer as “real pornography” to some people.

I can see the Sunday magazine headline now: “Is this the end of painting?”. Well, no. I guess some artists saw computer-generated art as a threat, but like any new medium, it does not render all other media obsolete, it just provides additional choice.

Also, Ernest Edmonds’ first use of a computer was not the end in itself, it was merely a means to help him make a painting. Edmonds’ conversation was particularly coherent and my favourite quotation from the day was when he explained why he chose to study maths. Apparently, he was attracted by the fact that he could do that course in only 10 hours per week “which left plenty of time for painting.”

Nake’s claim that it was all random is simply not true, of course. It might be more accurate to call this approach “managed chaos”, and the famous image “Hommage à Paul Klee, 13/9/65 Nr.2” (above) shows this quite clearly, where the algorithm only allows a degree or randomness within aesthetically-informed boundaries, and hence the accessibility of the image.

Mohr’s early work is clearly informed by circuit diagrams and symbols, and is very graphic, whereas his later work is much more “pure” and mathematically informed, although still carefully composed.

Roman Verostko was particularly larger-than-life. I really don’t know what your average ex-Dominican monk should be like, but his Cyber Flowers, produced in his later life as a self-proclaimed “algorist”, are tangibly sensual.

As far as Edmonds’ exhibition at Site Gallery is concerned, I find the memorabilia, artifacts and background information absolutely fascinating, but the paintings and prints leave me cold. To my eye, not enough of that background texture is apparent in the work. Edmonds’ explanation of the constructivist nature of his work, as opposed to the composition, really expanded my understanding. However, the construction and methodology are much more apparent in the other featured artists’ work.

I think a lot of what is termed “digital art” is deeply misunderstood because viewers are alienated by their own perceived lack of understanding of the technology. However, the technology is only important if the method is part of the work.

Not necessarily these guys, but some artists working with technology are deeply suspicious and protective of their methods, and don’t like to explain how it’s done, but this threatens to render their work as no more than the art of illusion, rather than the communication of meaning.

My own work is graphic and aesthetically driven, and is both constructivist and traditionally compositional. My HyperScape series of works uses mathematics that is no more complex than arithmetic and simple algebra. I sometimes wander into trigonometry, but nothing hardcore. However, there are techniques and effects that I employ that overlap enormously with the early work of these pioneers. Synchronisation, repetition, variation, weighted randomness and an intuitive acknowledgement of traditional aesthetics are all present.

HyperScape I

HyperScape II

HyperScape IV

HyperScape V

In my mind this explains what I see as a polarization of approach into two camps. Some of this work is fundamentally concerned with its own genesis, and this is an anorak that is worn as a fashion statement. It is art about the digital world.

I was once telephone-interviewed for and the only stipulation I made was don’t refer to me as a “digital artist”.

The other work is that which uses technology, but is not about technology. It was interesting to talk to Alex May who, like me, learned the maths he needed in order to make the work he wanted to, rather than starting with the tech, and I guess we both wear an anorak to keep the rain out.

Surprisingly, the idea of the actual code being the art was’t mentioned until the final panel discussion. All of the featured artists in this day were more concerned with the result rather than the method, although the idea of constructivism informed the day.


Programmers Betty Jean Jennings (left) and Fran Bilas (right) operate ENIAC’s main control panel at the Moore School of Electrical Engineering. (Source: Wikipedia).

A female friend, artist and coder, expressed to me a slight concern that the event was very male-dominated. I pointed out to her that it is up to the girls to get coding.

In my teenage years I would have preferred the company of the opposite sex, rather than the various solo occupations in which I indulged at that time. This included teaching myself to program. However, teenage girls were not interested in the same things at that formative time, and certainly not interested in me, so I had to entertain myself.

I am not one of the pioneers of course, but I did have a quick look around at the audience and the gender split was about 60/40 in favour of the boys. This included digital pioneer Sue Gollifer, although she wasn’t one of the speakers. Also, Site Gallery is almost entirely staffed by women, and the day was chaired by Leila Johnston of Final Bullet, so I think the balance is being redressed somewhat.

It’s good to see generative art being shown in a mainstream contemporary gallery, and not part of a niche event.

Get coding. How hard can it be?