Tim Morton’s Algorithmic Talk + aesthetics without meaning

Or “Everything You Always Wanted to Know about Animals but Were Afraid to Ask Vegetables

Not much more I need to add to this; like Tim’s ‘Hyperobjects’, obviously this is going to be important for my work, as Tim discusses the links between algorithms and creative practice quite a bit towards the end. He emailed me a draft of it back in October and I thought it was wonderful how he had already made the link from algorithms to literary tropes. Metaphors for example are algorithmic, they are a set of instructions that produce an end result. But note how the end result is not necessarily expression in the aesthetic sense. As Tim explains,

“How can we prove this? It’s easy. Think of any trope you care to. Let’s take metaphor. It’s easy to enumerate a set of instructions for turning a sign into a metaphor for another sign. Here’s a stab at it:

1) choose a word

2) choose another word

3) join the two word with a copula such as “is” or “is like”

Notice that this algorithm isn’t going to give you good metaphors. And notice that it isn’t about meaning—it doesn’t have to be. It’s just about performing a function with words, just as a computational language would.”

When I delivered my paper on algorithmic artworks at the AAH, one of the criticisms involved the suggestion that these works did not foreground a ‘nihilistic’, lack of meaning. As if, aesthetic practice is intrinsically human oriented and it can tell us something about whats going on, who we are and why we do it. The other criticism was that unlike algorithms, expression isn’t computation. The problem with the latter is that algorithms aren’t computation either, nothing is. In the same way that technology isn’t technical (as Heidegger knew) and nature isn’t natural. Morton gives an excellent indication of that by discussing The Algorithmic Beauty Of Plants.

This is where the good points of formalism comes in. Greenberg knew that when we studied a painting, we weren’t viewing a can of beans or a cat basket. All formalism sought was the addressing of the aesthetic thing itself. This is why Greenberg concentrated on the ‘flatness’ of the canvas and the process of how the artist has applied paint to it. These are things intrinsic to the painting as object, as variance is intrinsic to sport as an object. Formalism does not foreground human meaning, as if paintings are meant to be flat and hanging on a wall for humans, or sports are meant to be competitive and athletic for humans. It’s a ‘letting go of things’, embracing them for what they are and how they have been composed, whether they are sold as aesthetics or otherwise.

Expression and execution are often thought of as different processes in digital aesthetics. That is, if the artist builds software or develops the protocol code for a website, then that particular process is expression whilst what ‘the computer does’ is execution. Work has been done to establish some sort of equivalency between the two, that expression is execution, but more work is needed to show that expression really is just another determined output of a complex algorithm. I’m waffling here at the moment trying to match the words to my intentions, but I guess I’m suggesting that an algorithm just produces a functional output, there is nothing ‘extra’ with aesthetic works that are fronted as ‘art’.

Equivalent to tropes, algorithms are essentially functional, yet useless.

And yet, I think there is a fundamental tension within the algorithm itself, between the written rules and the intrinsic structure of the output. This is for another time I think, but for me, it makes sense to look at complexity as being intrinsic to the rules of an algorithm, yet entirely separate at the same time. Like the outward relations of an object are intrinsic to it, yet also separate from its Being. The next step for aesthetics would be some leap of faith in aligning it with causation, like Harman does with allure – that formalism takes a decidedly universal state of affairs. Formalism needs to become even more formal than before.

One thought on “Tim Morton’s Algorithmic Talk + aesthetics without meaning”

  1. Morton is interesting, re algorithm but what might be a useful thought is that the algorithm in its application becomes ‘surprising’ when it fails. I think this relates to Heidegger in our awareness of things – when they fail- as also in Harman. What turns an algorithmic process into art might be a specific point of failure, not just any failure, Harman again? (failure may be due to a bad copy or interpretation or a virus…) But its effect is ‘surprise’ and novelty. (Or failure all too often.)* Harman’s allure… I know your not that bothered with the artist but that moment of failure is typical of “hey guys see what’s happened here!” Which gets the canvas out of the studio and onto the gallery wall…

    *A good example might be Les Demoiselles d’Avignon
    a failed symbolist brothel scene, the African masks- failed primitivism
    – but the collapse of perspective and hence cubism….

    Just a thought…

    But it relates also to the metaphor generator, many will fail, some be clichéd – like most typically used, but an alluring metaphor is surely one which should fail yet does not.

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