Curated by: Camille Besson & Haydée Marin Lopez
Café des Glaces, Tonnerre, France
09.07 – 01.10 2022
Extreme Logic: Turing machines, ‘The large Glass’ and the paintings of Richard Nikl
You might think that using just your eyes is somehow unscientific. That you have to turn everything into numbers, but actually one’s eyes are useful. They have the highest data rate to the brain to tell us what’s going on, seeing things and coming to conclusions just with one’s eyes can be backed up with numerical and computational methods, but sometimes even they won’t get that far, and one’s eyes have it.
In contrast to the endless images that art is drowning in, Richard Nikl’s paintings feel ascetic. The current popularity of painting, and its voluminous supply chain, makes one long for it to be declared dead again. Richards’s paintings carry a bit of this sentiment. They are conspicuously full of imagery, but no images. Paintings by the way of omission, or compression.
Weird is an overused adjective, but the cyberpunk – art nouveau – pie chart combination is an unlikely recipe. Using vernacular graphic design and typography, cartoon tumours grow to form diagrams of parametric and archetypal objects. These are festooned with text written in Czech, which appear significant but also arbitrary sounding: ‘It happens on Sunday in a dream’, ‘Twisted lips’, ‘Tram’, ‘There are worse things’, ‘Vector’, ‘swing’, ‘hoarseness’.
Are Richard Nikl’s paintings made by a machine? Looking at the printed surface, there aren’t obvious clues which convincingly show otherwise. If a computer program did generate these works, at which place in the stack of software is the artist hiding? The morphology of trees, graphs, networks and grammar are recognisably computational ways to optimise information processing. They are less obviously tools to make painting. The truth is that, despite being made on a digital tablet, it is a painting practice in the historical modality (perhaps even secretly romantic). They are closer to concrete poetry than automated text generation. However, one can’t help but speculate, to what extent free-association is algorithmic?
Richard’s pixelated cell membranes act like a sponge, soaking up combinations of associations, causing little germs of meaning or semantic correlations to occur. A formal and symbolic representation of visual experience perhaps? Words can be the phoniest but also the most precise representations of the world, depending on one’s goals or purposes. Perhaps Richard is asking; can formal representations contain truths that are veridical with the world we live in?
The following explores some progenitors to this question and speculates about what is to come in the future.
Human history is the story of technology. The chapter of modernity is when machines escaped the dominion of God and became agents. In the fifteenth century the artist Leonardo Da Vinci recognised the heart is similar in-kind to an aqueduct, but still his pictures were full of vaporous mysticism. The subtleties of the alchemists still eluded explanation in Leonardo’s lifetime. Later on, Darwin, the heretical theologian, who also studied the flayed corpses of animals, was more destructive. All forms of life were interrogated as mechanism, and the god within dissolved into the machine within. From 1914 machines proliferated like parasites in the bodies of two devastating wars, creating the mythology that humanity and automatons are distinct advisories.
As Charlie Chaplain’s speech in ‘Modern Times’ can attest;
“Don’t give yourself to these unnatural men- these machine men, with machine minds and machine hearts”
Early modern artists were ‘Avant-Garde’ partly because they embraced the antagonism of machines and used them as tools in their art. Machines bullied their way into the visual field; they were obvious and distinguishable. The invisible dimensions of nature were captured by scientist’s equations. Hulking engines and chimneys transubstantiated out of the formulae of thermodynamics. The air melted, into a pig-iron solidity.
At the start of the last century machines were purely muscles, not minds. However, amongst this cacophony of physical effort, was the quiet birth of the computer. Its immateriality, and in some cases its literal secrecy, meant its impact on art was subtle. This was one of the last frontiers of nature left to be automated; thinking.
Let’s consider two hypothetical machines that could perhaps be interpreted as cousins. From the field of mathematic logic, the Turing machine, by Alan Turing. From Art, ‘The Large Glass’ or ‘Bride stripped bare by her bachelors, only’ by Marcel Duchamp.
Duchamp’s art often feels prophetic. The large Glass was finished in 1915, twenty one years before Alan Turing’s paper detailing universal computing machines. In a sense both fictional machines were thought experiments on how far reductionist thinking could go. Is there a limit or a horizon? Turing proved there is an edge to the map, and Duchamp depicted the monsters in the margin.
For readers unfamiliar with Turing machines: They are an imagined object that is the simplest possible computer, based on a tele type machine. In 1931 computers were humans, using their brains to crunch numbers. A Turing machine can in principle, given enough time and memory, perform any computation possible and is therefore described as universal, or ‘Turing complete’.
Turing machines were invented as a tool to demonstrate a solution to the ‘halting problem’, which itself was a variant of the Gödel’s incompleteness theorem. (see footnote below for more description)
One interpretation of these proofs is that there are limits to absolute truth. Furthermore, even if something can be known, the amount of time and energy needed to run some computations could be impossibly long (for example, until the heat death of the universe).
Gödel and Turing’s incompleteness was in many ways at odds with the self-image of modernity and the enlightenment. The unbounded optimism and confidence that everything that could be known would be and quickly. The idea that science and technology has the final say, and is the oracle of all knowledge, was thrown into doubt. There will always be truths that can’t be known.
This incompleteness is like a worm at the core of modernism. One could assert that it rhymes with sensibilities in much of modern art. A claustrophobia with no escape hatch into comprehensibility brings to mind Kafka or Becket. Endless rooms and corridors with characters resembling simulated bots or archetypes. A lexicon of formalised architecture.
Furthermore, Turing machines foreground materials, the language of artists, because they show that time and matter are necessary to implement formal systems and to compute information, one can’t ‘jump ahead’ and just know the answer to all scientific questions without a substrate. Information is welded to a body.
This implementation of ideas into materials, or materials into ideas, is what obsessed Duchamp.
Duchamp wasn’t only interested in the appearance of machines, he also played with the idea of methodology and experience as machine. If we got a glimpse into our own phenomenal instruction set, in some Turing machine type-way, what does it feel like? How would an artist represent it?
Duchamp arrives at a computational cosmology; in which logic, humour, meaning and material are all connected in novel configurations. His readymades demonstrate a constructive aesthetics. Art doesn’t need a specific form to host it. It is in a sense, software that can be arbitrarily applied to anything, even a urinal or shovel. In the spirit of a Turing machine, it’s substrate independent.
With verve Duchamp demonstrates that universality doesn’t have the flavour of apollonian equanimity, but is a Dionysian trickster. It’s a complex and fecund structure, replicating for its own enjoyment. Even if we got to the essence of arts instruction set, there wouldn’t be some ‘final equation’ of art like people search for in science or logic.
This is because art irreducibly and arbitrarily generates new goals and iterations; it is willing to destroy and contradict itself to continue. Duchamp demonstrates that past the horizon of the expected or enculturated norms of art, chance and double meanings will always rudely surprise us. The cracking of the large glass is a monument to this. Novelty is perhaps the deepest truth of art.
Duchamp’s computational monism describes human-made machines stemming from the tree of life. Motorcars, engines and aeroplanes grow out of the cellular electrics of neurons. They are the same family. For Duchamp there is no humanity vs machine, they are the same river of information, manifesting in different guises.
Duchamp of course saw his life’s work as one work, a family tree or information lineage. His Oeuvre arcs trough Adam and Eve (1910), morphing into the network of stoppages (1914) (the biblical tree is replaced with the electrical network) through the large glass (1923) and culminating in Étant donnés (1966).
As Étant donnés was being worked on, DNA’s double helix structure was discovered in Cambridge, England. Duchamp’s artistic impression of the desiring machines had been proven in molecular clarity. Elan vital was discovered to be a geometric and engineering phenomenon, it is software. The mystery of the erotic was shown to be an informational pattern. Implemented by Turing machines called ribosomes.
One obvious thing about making art in 2022 as opposed to 1930 is that the virtual Turing machines are now actual. Computational power is so voluminous and pervasive that a ‘Turing test’ will soon become quaintly obsolete.
Posthuman art-speak is often annoying in its fetishization of technology and the future, but It’s arguably hard to overstate the tidal wave that is coming from artificial intelligence. One could predict that it will be as impactful on art as photography was to painting in the 19th century. The deluge of AI authored images and video, not to mention audio and text is not far away.
One interpretation of Richard’s paintings is that they are a Pop Art 2.0. Pictures as a compressed file or token, waiting to be uploaded to an algorithm way off in the future, which will spin out millions of iterations based on its embedded information. The paintings are perhaps instruction sets or seeds as opposed to the thing itself, painting as dormant potential, ready to be actualised. This is of course already happening. GPT3, GAN’s, deep fakes and text to image generators like DALL E are scary glimpses of the indistinguishable realism rushing over the horizon.
There is a long running and fiercely contested debate about can computers become conscious. The details of these arguments are refined and wide ranging. Art, music and literature are arguably the most powerful demonstrations of conscious awareness we have, perhaps in their highest form as convincing (or more?!) than interacting with real people.
There is however, in this author’s opinion, a future where great art will be made by non-conscious computers (leaving arguments for conscious ones aside). One could argue the germs of this predicament are written into Richards work. What to do with authorless artefacts of beauty and resonance? Art that doesn’t come with biography.
Art that is comprehensible and perceptible to humans may only be a fraction of the total amount of artefacts generated, mediated through an elaborate chain of translation. At this point there may also be an expansion into the aesthetics of animals and the biosphere.
This is in some sense what the Duchamp’s work predicted, a great deindividuation (one wonders how he would have interpreted Deep Blue beating Kasparov at chess). Current trends in art are hubristically claiming the opposite, art is the industry of the personal. So too is all of political and civic life as it becomes symbiotic with social media.
Dictating where art should go or what it should do is pointless and arrogant, it’s for the collective to figure out. However, if culture continues to bury its head in the sand of nostalgia, the autopoiesis of technology will drag it kicking and screaming along regardless. We are not at the end of history.
To conclude, here’s a good Zen koan that might be a useful guide for art going forward:
‘If you see the Buddha on the road, kill the Buddha’
All of the constitutive facets of art which we value, may turn out to be localised anachronisms of history. Art may become much stranger than we can imagine, and in the fullness of time convene with some deeper non-human phenomena. Perhaps we should embrace this painful depersonalisation.
 Turing asked, can there be a program that can determine whether another program will halt (finish execution) or not (loop forever)? Turing proved that the answer to the halting problem is “No”, such a program cannot exist. This is a variant of Gödel’s incompleteness theorem which states for any such consistent formal system, there will always be statements about natural numbers that are true, but that are unprovable within the system.
Photography: all images copyright and courtesy of the artist and Café des Galces, Tonnerre