A Manifesto for Radical Digital Painting

Can a digital painting made today be just as mysterious and magical as a Hieronymus Bosch from half a millennium ago? In his work, Jeffrey Alan Scudder, who writes his own software for drawings, explores the relationship between drawings, video games, paintings, and code through different mediums. For the web residencies by Solitude & ZKM he created Ten Minute Painting as an homage to the media artwork Eleven Minute Painting by Tan Lin, which reached him as a mystic and magic message nine years after it was created and has fascinated him ever since. An interview on the manifesto for Radical Digital Painting. Find the project page here.

Judith Engel: You describe your current web residency project Ten Minute Painting as an »homage and updated response to one of [your] favorite media artworks Eleven Minute Painting by Tan Lin«. What is Eleven Minute Painting about? How does it work, and what fascinated you about it when you first discovered it?

Jeffrey Alan Scudder: Eleven Minute Painting is a stochastic Macromedia Director program created by the poet Tan Lin in 2002. It was first exhibited as a computer program. Shortly after that a video recording was made, which I discovered online at PennSound about nine years later. To me the work is about the fluidity of media and genre, the dominion of language over human senses, and the ambient environments created only by things that run, like microwave ovens, televisions, or thermostats. Several times I have screened this work for my students. It has a magical power that changes the room by regulating the space sonically, visually, and semantically. I show it to them partially because it presents itself as an impossibility.

Paintings don’t have a duration, nor are they made up of language. However, this definition is reversed with digital painting, where the work begins as encoded information that is meant to be interpreted and displayed by some apparatus over a given period. How the work is presented, in concert with its content, affects the concentration of its mental impression. Eleven Minute Painting works by describing itself over and over in different ways. Sometimes, it tells a sort of anti-lie, such as »This poem is in b/w because b/w is more soothing than color.« Of course the image is not black and white, but blue. But what about the poem? Is the poem only the sound of the text being read, or is it the image also? What is the image that is presented to us, and how is it decorative or not decorative? Through these declarations and narratives, the piece dips into the reader/viewer’s imagination. It is like eating a media flavored ice cream cone, covered in synthesized speech sprinkles. It is rare for media-based artworks to have such mystique and magic, especially when the content is so technical. The formalism though, is a big part of what makes it fascinating.

Ten Minute Painting

My friend Goodiepal says that the longer a message travels across time and space to reach its destination, the more meaningful that message becomes. It took Ten Minute Painting nine years to reach me. I can only hope that in nine years, someone will be deeply affected by my response: Ten Minute Painting. Perhaps they will even encounter it as a video, in low resolution, subtitled in a different language. It has been made to both expect and welcome that kind of media transformation.

JE: In which way is Ten Minute Painting different and updated from the original piece that inspired you?

JAS: Because I had only experienced the video recording of Tan’s work, I wanted to write a new piece of software that was structured out of my understanding of that experience, both intellectually and emotionally. I’ve memorized the language of Tan’s Eleven Minute Painting over the years, often quoting it in dialogues. I don’t see Ten Minute Painting as a facsimile, sequel, or successor, but instead as a younger sibling. It comes of age by mimicking the original and playing around in its shadows. It is intended to function as both a pedagogical tool in my lectures and a manifesto for Radical Digital Painting. It’s also one minute shorter!

JE: You work a lot with different kinds of drawings, hand-drawn and produced with computer-based tools. In addition to this, references to poetry occur as implicated in the beautiful citation from Eleven Minute Painting: »Niagara Falls is just a kind of paint.« On the other hand, when watching Eleven Minute Painting the title seems kind of misleading as there is no »painting« in this work. In which way are drawings, poetry, and algorithmic patterns connected in your opinion and approach?

JAS: Two kinds of abstraction exist in painting today. The first kind is the one we are all too familiar with, and it is located in a painting’s visual content. Paintings by many modernists, such as Hilma af Klimt, Georgia O’Keeffe, Louise Bourgeois, Elizabeth Murray, and younger painters working today, Laura Owens, Dana Schutz, Trudy Benson, Sofia Leiby, Jamie Juliano-Villani and so on are examples of this kind of visual content abstraction, in which pixels (picture elements) are purposefully arranged to have multiple meanings and varying degrees of representation. Often these paintings have no perspective and do not adhere to the visual structure of, or use lens-based media. This is because modernist abstraction was developed and theorized in part as a reaction to the invention of photography and the common use of lenses to aid in painting, which you can read all about in David Hockney’s book Secret Knowledge. In his new book with Martin Gayford, History of Pictures, abstraction in painting takes a different turn, away from the visual.

The second kind of abstraction, the one that we’re developing today, is found in the media and techniques that we use to make pictures of all kinds. History of Pictures lays the groundwork for considering pictures themselves as abstract forms, and picture-making as a discipline that is not dependent on any specific material, similar to how we often think of programming, mathematics, poetry, and literature. For painters, it shifts the focal point from material arrangement to data entry. For collectors and the market, it means adopting blockchain-based systems of authentication. A digital painting made today can be just as mysterious and magical as a Hieronymus Bosch from half a millennium ago, but only if the pixels are plotted in mysterious and magical ways. Just as well, a digital painting, or a painting made within the aesthetic rules of, and with a focus on information, doesn’t require a computer at all. The whole discipline is abstract now, not just the image! It is thanks to computers, though, that we have been able to uncover this new form of abstraction in picture-making. I am an instrument maker and I often write my own painting software. If there’s one thing I’ve learned about both developing and using my own tools, it is that they tend to form feedback loops that produce the right energy for extending one’s intelligence and imagination to previously unknowable places.

»Tumpin is like a deck of cards. It is the same no matter how it is shuffled. The names we give to the constituents of a painting are more important than what they are actually made of. Paintings, like beds, are frames within which dreams are broadcast.« Jeffrey Alan Scudder https://tumpin.left.gallery

JE: I found it interesting to discover that your interest in drawing started from playing computer games. At first it seems surprising to see drawing as a kind of movement on a screen or even establishing a screen, but at the same time it opens up a new perspective on hand-drawing (which we could consider a slowly dying technique). Can you tell us a bit more about the relationship between drawings/pictures and computer games?

JAS: Video games are an evolution of the act of drawing. When you draw a picture, you establish a visual frame either beforehand or on completion, and use some kind of tool or instrument, like a pencil, crayon, or can of spray paint to change what you are looking at.

We usually think of this process as an act of production. When you play a video game a similar physical relationship occurs where you manipulate a controller or apparatus to change the contents on the display. Basically all video games are painting programs in this sense. The difference is that we usually think of playing a video game as an act of consumption. Perhaps this is because most games produce ephemeral and moving pictures as opposed to static ones. »Productive« and »creative« games like Minecraft or The Sims usually have rules in place where people make things that stay put, so objects on the screen don’t move around as much, but were placed there by the players themselves. These productive games are in many ways pointing backward in history, borrowing ideas from earlier plastic arts. Now, I propose that we take the act of drawing and point it forward, toward the future-thinking consumptive logic of video games, where images are more fleeting, meaning is more playful, and things never sit still for very long. Most people today would describe their activity of using a piece of software like Photoshop as one of producing imagery, rather than one of consuming a given set of functions and features. This is something that will surely be flipped around by the time I grow old. In essence, video games have revealed to us that drawing is an activity of making and consuming rules. It is the intertwingling of production and consumption. Drawing is the best video game, as I like to say.

»Painting today aspires to be understood through a set of abstract terms, similar to those which have been developed for mathematics and poetry. A painting is just a kind of picture message.« Jeffrey Alan Scudder

JE: One part of the call for web residencies on the topic »Fractal Horses« by Claudia Maté refers to patterns in relation to chaos theory: »Chaos theory is a dark horse of science. It teaches us to expect the unexpected and deals with things that are essentially impossible to foresee or control. It changes the view on our patterned existence. For it is chaos that permeates our lives, appearing from a tiny snowflake to the World Wide Web, which echoes the infinite complexity of nature. Any little shift can change everything«. I find it very hard to imagine an algorithm-based structure encouraging chaos. Are there chaotic patterns – even if this would be a paradox? What role does chance, coincidence, unpredictability play in your work in general and specifically in the case of Ten Minute Painting?

JAS: Algorithms are the rules that define a process, so that it may be repeated again and again. »Repetition is the only thing that makes something less random than it already is.« In a way they are instruments for both limiting (or defining) and exploring chaotic spaces. Some patterns or algorithms, like fractals or cellular automata, are chaotic because the scale of their repeatability is so vast that we only write software to browse and carve out those enormous spaces. Rudy Rucker has some pretty amazing videos from 1990, Chaos, and Cellular Automata, that illustrate this very well. All pixel-based images of a given size and color depth have only so many possible combinations. As a matter of fact, all digital formats follow this logic. It’s part of the medium. To quote Ten Minute Painting: »Similar to web browsers, [painting software] allows users to surf these vast but limited visual spaces through opinionated means, such as plotting individual pixels, filling large regions, and filtering the entire set of pixels at once. Each new painting program or feature that gets introduced into the ecosystem allows for more focused and opinionated surfing of these spaces. Surfing is always more fun than permutation. If scratching is a process by which hidden things expose themselves, then we can say that all paintings are made from scratch.«

When it comes to drawing and making pictures, I like to stay playful and cute, so I generally embrace chance, coincidence, and unpredictability in both my software interfaces and my content. It’s not without a sense of control, though. No Paint is a good example of this kind of cuteness in my drawing software. I make lots of digital paintings on my handheld, and the things I see as I walk around are often entering the stage, usually by coincidence. When I see a color, shape, texture, or message in the world that makes sense with the painting I’m already working on, I sample it immediately. A few seconds later it becomes part of the painting.

JE: You exhibit your work offline, but parts of it can be found online. Do you consider yourself a net artist or is there a more appropriate term you prefer to use?

JAS: I think of net art as a movement in the 1990s that defined some of the terms and made up some of the rules for artists my age to follow. For example, Rafael Rozendaal’s persistence made it possible for audiences to accept a domain name as analogous to public sculpture, which is the primary distribution mode that Ten Minute Painting uses. And artists from Olia Lialina to Casey Reas totally changed the game for software criticism and development in the arts. Of course these individuals are still in the process of refining their language, but plenty of great ideas from net art and Postinternet art have enough definition now for me to build upon in my practice.