From Panel Paintings to Computer Processing. Notes on the Phenomenon of Abstraction in Contemporary Art.

- Preface /

In the arts the term abstraction refers not to a single, uniform style but a wide variety of phenomena, all of which dispense with the reproduction of an external reality. In the 20th century a number of different -isms arose, all of which more or less radically went beyond the function of reproduction, instead striving to establish a formal autonomy and extend the possibilities of representation. In principle applying abstraction processes is possible in any medium, although the final results vary greatly. The artist can have innumerable motivations, even conflicting ones, that range from spiritual and meditative approaches and the desire for purely formal visualization to an interest in mathematical concepts and experiments with computer programming. Because of the wide variety of manifestations, providing a universal explanatory model for all non-representational forms of expression is neither possible nor would it serve any real purpose.

In the following essay I will attempt to explain a few terms that are relevant to various aspects of contemporary abstract art. This text has been organized into short sections on the basis of these explanations.

- The abstract image /

An image is a two-dimensional representation positioned within a certain specific flat surface. They are created with the intention that they will be seen. The manner of production (manual, mechanical, chemical, electronic or digital), the medium and any intended optical effects, such as illusions of perspective or apparent movement, are not relevant to this definition.

A representational image is professed to be more than just a reproduction of some external object’s appearance. This is in fact a kind of optical illusion. In contrast an abstract work is not intended to be an illusionistic reproduction of an object, which could be absent or no longer exist; it exists for itself and is for that reason always topical and necessarily self-reflexive and anti-illusionistic.

The theme of all abstract art is relationships, between individual elements within the image’s surface (color and form), between the individual surfaces and between the surfaces and the space in which they exist, in other words the viewer/user. In the case of an animated image (film, video, computer animation) this is joined by the factor of the image/time relationship. Generative, interactive and reactive computer programs represent a relatively new category in the field of abstraction and will be dealt with in greater detail below.

Non-representational static and animated images have the following in common: The abstract representation always references itself and therefore the circumstances of its own existence. In other words the conventions of and resulting states of representability in the various (visual) media are dealt with. The artistic techniques that are employed can be more or less original or universal. An abstract work is characterized by adamance concerning its object nature and it dispenses with all symbolic functions. In this context I must also mention that in the 20th century great efforts were made to overcome the panel painting in its traditional function.

- Reference systems /

As a result of its self-referentiality abstract art is also “art about art” and it has meaning in this context only. Furthermore cross references, quotes, etc. are made possible through the means abstraction provides. Neither a form of presentation nor a specific venue can be neutral, and the same holds true for the production process, the format, the material, the forms and their colors, etc.

The high point in the popularity of abstract art was dominated by the ideal of the complete autonomy of both the artwork and its means. All interpretations regarding history, psychology, content, etc. were rejected. A few contemporary artists are taking a different path by consciously attempting to create many-layered reference systems and associative spaces with abstract instruments. In addition to the work’s relationship to art history primarily mass media, the urban environment and the various user interfaces in digital technology are addressed and dealt with.

Undogmatically and with notable esthetic sensitivity and formal intelligence these artists turn to the canon of abstract art to thematize the relationship between the modern and the present. This is no longer abstract art per se, but “art about abstract art.” Accordingly abstraction represents both the method and the theme of these works. A past ideal path to non-representationalism was defining the visual “means to an end.” Through the contemporary deliberate contextualization of non-representational art described here, these means themselves become “means to an end,” or in other words “visual symbols.” Abstraction is therefore expanded by the moment of the intended interpretability, though on the other hand it also loses one of its original constituent pillars, namely the artwork’s absolute claim to autonomy, which is in no way symbolic. Instead of the work referring to itself exclusively (and therefore the conventions of reproducibility), a number of factors are added, factors not visible in the work itself that must be imagined for a reasonable interpretation to be possible?in accordance with the artist’s intentions. As part of this perfidious game the canon of abstract art is also employed for the purpose of criticizing institutions and representation. The strategic contextualization of abstraction described here?a typically post-modern tactic?is primarily utilized by visual artists and only rarely in the field of New Media.

- Machine esthetic /

While the avant-garde movements of the first modern period idealized the machine, mechanical dysfunction is now often the focus of artistic interest. This strategy involves both analog and digital technologies, both of which are expected to disappear eventually. The typical characteristics of the putatively authentic and material aspects of the mechanical and electronic?such as the crackles and pops of vinyl records or dust and scratches on film stock?were gathered for artistic use in an almost meticulous fashion. On the other hand the function of computer systems is far from error-free, so that the aftereffects of crashes, bugs in software, etc. have served as a starting point for many examples of artistic expression. The underlying code is inadvertently revealed in an error, and in an esthetically useful form. After these more or less randomly occurring phenomena have been localized and archived, processing can begin, depending on the artist’s intention and methods. No matter the nature of the results this approach implies criticism of the medium and its means, both from within the medium and with the aid of its means. In this case abstraction is an inevitable product of machine dysfunction and physical phenomena such as wear and tear and decay.

  The conceivable /

It is worthy of note that a revival of non-representationalism is taking place, in historical terms, at a point in time when digital simulation technologies have nearly been perfected. Hypothetically everything conceivable by the human mind can be visualized with the aid of digital technology. The area of technical practicability no longer contains any limitations, the only borders are posed by human imagination and intellect. In a single blow abstract art greatly expanded the limits of what could be conceived in an art context at the beginning of the 20th century. A comparable, and similarly radical, development would be welcome in the 21st century, but this seems improbable at present.

- Play / interaction / abstraction /

Play involves voluntarily submitting to a predetermined system of rules, accepting it as a blueprint for action, and engaging in an activity which has no specific short-term goals?at best it is considered enjoyable by the players. Play, especially for children, also represents a learning process and a method of processing reality. Playing implies a certain form of interaction which does not necessarily involve other human participants. A player can of course play against him or herself or against autonomous (analog or digital) sets of rules. Considered in this way, playing and art are related phenomena.

In itself playing is not the sole purpose of abstract interactive or reactive computer applications. This participatory method potentially involves an aspect of anti-individuality, in other words the idea of a universal artwork which does not include an individual’s signature. The artist produces formulas of possibility, and the work is made topical only after being used. Interactivity too can be considered the recognition in principle of modern art’s procedural character in the form of a concrete work. Non-representational interactive applications are in addition vivid and practical models for one of the constituent paradigms of the modern age according to which a work becomes a work of art only after being seen. The viewer is transformed into a user and at the same time practically and in fact a co-creator. Whether, when and in which state such a work is finished remains a question which can be answered only in connection with a concrete example and in light of the number of possible formulations.

The possibilities offered by interactive and reactive applications are in principle independent of whether their visual elements are illusionistic or abstract. As user interfaces are normally absent from non-representational applications in a conventional sense, navigation itself becomes a component of the composition. The existing conventions relating to the utility of digital data and the logic behind them are thematized and subjected to experimentation. The events and modulatory parameters that can be triggered as a result are often unpredictable for the user. Trial and error is the only way method available for eventually comprehending a complex work. The moment of the work’s intended mutability through the user’s input represents a paradigm change in artistic production. Artists now provide a certain framework for action and define the esthetic parameters within which the user can operate; the work itself is a variable.

- Generative programs /

The situation is similar with generative applications, though they do not require an input signal. Specific programs control themselves and therefore their visual output autonomously. In fractions of seconds innumerable updates of picture images can be computed. In many cases this involves applications that operate with calculated randomness, mathematical formulas, growth algorithms, etc. for the purpose of excluding all repetitions of images. In other words each fresh image presented to the viewer is unforeseeable and non-repeatable. The range of possible optical variations is potentially infinite, or at least wide enough that innumerable human lives would not be sufficient to see all possible permutations that such applications are capable of producing. These digital images are in constant motion and are subjected to a continuous process of generation. Despite the illusion of movement such algorithmic works are in no sense “filmic”; they are neither linear nor illusionistic; a time period has not been defined for them, and the calculated sequences of images cannot normally be repeated. The visual output of generative applications normally involves abstract tableaux vivants, virtual visual vitalities. The image has entered the status of an autonomous, self-contained process.

- Sound / image / movement /

At present animated images appear almost exclusively in combination with sound. Music is a special kind of sound, by definition the deliberate organization of sound over time?and in space?in the same way that an animated image is the deliberate organization of forms on a flat surface?and over time. Music is considered the most abstract of all art forms, and it would also seem to have the most immediate effect on the listener’s subjective state. Music has long served as an important source of inspiration for non-representational forms of portrayal, whether in the frequent attempts to translate sounds into color or the adoption of various sequential patterns and rules of composition, etc. The artistic act lies in the interpretation, the transcoding of the audible into the visible, the materialization of immaterial sound, the transformation of noise sequences into animated images. The visualization of sounds, acoustic characteristics and arrangements thereof normally results in abstract visual formations as products of a synesthetic process.

- Abstraction processes in media involving animated images /

The fact is well known that the art of animated images now involves a great deal more than the medium of film. The transitional medium of video, and digital technology in particular, has increased the possibilities for producing and presenting animated images exponentially. While the various media have changed, the principle problem has not in principle, namely structuring time through the arrangement of visual elements on a flat surface. I will attempt below to explain and categorize abstraction processes in the media that involve animated images, namely film, video and computer animation. Hybrid forms comprising combinations of the methods described below are quite common in practice. The order will follow the individual groups’ status of autonomy and refers exclusively to the method of production rather than aspects of the esthetic effect.

A) Photographic abstraction / abstraction as effect

In works of the first category real-life photographs are used as a raw material for various abstraction processes. (I use the designation “photographic” in reference to this raw material and am at the same time conscious the fact that primarily digital video and various algorithmic filters are employed in current works.) Both photomechanical, photochemical and photo-optical techniques and all kinds of electronic and digital methods are applied to animated images as part of a process of manipulation which creates abstractions. In this case abstraction serves to make something unrecognizable through distortion, in other words conceal, hide and mask as far as possible through strategies such as making an image unclear, geometrizing it, and so on. Optical special effects are employed for the purpose of producing abstract images intended to have certain esthetic effects.

B) Graphic abstraction / abstraction as end in itself

This method of abstraction involves graphic animations that are based on autonomous, amimetic visual elements and created in a conscious act. Regardless of the methods employed, the creator controls the final product to the greatest extent possible. The spectrum of suitable techniques ranges from drawing directly on film stock and the classic animation film to advanced computer animation programs. The visual elements and movements are already autonomous and are not based on photographs. At the same time the production process can be termed manual regardless of the fact that mouse and keyboard have replaced brush and pencil. Color, form and movement represent themselves. This method of abstraction involves calling attention to and applying universal formal laws.

C) Techno-syntactic abstraction / abstraction as machine language

This category involves production strategies that the machine code, unfiltered to the extent possible, translates into an event which can be perceived by humans. To function at all, analog and digital machines must follow certain rule systems and command structures that are normally not directly accessible to the user. Various interventions?most of them destructive?reveal these techno-syntactic structures and employ them artistically. A machine esthetic “on the inside” is involved: Rather than the superficial appearances and surface characteristics of machines, motors and similar devices being made components of artworks, the internal, “abstract” logic of information-processing devices is employed for artistic expression.

D) Algorithmic abstraction / abstraction as a program

This group comprises animated images created entirely with digital means which cannot be produced through any of the methods described above. In contrast to the category of graphic abstraction a computer program controls the esthetic output. Algorithms (mathematical formulas, random number generators, chaos simulations, etc.) produce visual worlds and forms of movement of a kind which humans would not be able to create intentionally without a computer. The programs involved are written specifically for this purpose (or existing programs are modified), as a result of which this method differs from those in the category of techno-syntactic abstraction. The artist, who in this case is also a programmer, develops an independent (visual and machine) language. The newest method in the group of suitable abstraction strategies is certainly the most consistent and progressive, as both the visual elements themselves and their production has become autonomous and abstract. Animations created with generative software represent for now the end and high point of the formal efforts to achieve autonomy in the art of abstract animated images.

Abstraction now /

Abstraction is considered, with good reason, one of the greatest intellectual achievements in 20th-century art. Thought and work processes have been initiated, and they are still in progress. Innumerable artists have explored the many formal possibilities offered by this phenomenon in all media, regardless of whether the particular style or movement is currently popular.

The “Abstraction now” project has supplied proof that the principle of abstraction remains significant and topical and that it is being employed with unchanging frequency in various media and with a range of techniques, and on the basis of a spectrum of motivations.

Norbert Pfaffenbichler, 2003

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