Pattern Recognition

For the past two months, I’ve experimented with reproducing works of art that are based on algorithmic processes (most of them by artists who have a historical connection to Stuttgart, or whose work I’ve seen in local museum collections), such as Horst Bartnig’s 72 unterbrechungen, 72 striche in 3 farben (72 breaks, 72 lines in 3 colors), from 1995. Some might argue that in creating these reproductions (or copies), I violate a number of exclusive author rights held by the artists (or owners) of the works in question, governed by copyright and other aspects of intellectual property law. My project’s goal is to critically explore the validity, relevance, and usefulness of such assumptions in contexts of computer-aided art-making. I am also interested in developing reproduction technologies as analytical tools that open up new ways of seeing digital artworks.

'Close reading' Horst Bartnig's "72 unterbrechungen, 72 striche in 3 farben” (1995)
Recoded approximation of Bartnig's work (MZ, Processing, 2017)
Recoded version of Bartnig's original (partial; MZ, Processing, 2017)

My approach is to try to inhabit all steps and aspects of the reproductive process as fully as possible. I begin by contemplating the original artworks until I am able to recompose (from scratch) the algorithms on which they are based. This recoding takes place using freely available programming tools such as Processing. Then I use self-built drawing machines (you might call them drawing robots) to render new versions of the works I copied. Finally, I experiment with producing minutely (or radically) modified iterations of the originals. The process is so long-winded and elaborate that ultimately it makes little sense to say I am »copying« an »original.« And yet, in a way what I am doing is a very close (digital) approximation of the »original« way of creating »copies«: spending days upon days decoding and recomposing the patterns and mathematical logic underlying the chosen artworks, I feel pretty close to the scribes who hand-copied important manuscripts in the Middle Ages.

My work at Akademie Schloss Solitude begins with an interest in the aesthetic implications of legal problems related to digital art-making: What does »authorship« mean in contexts of procedural, process-oriented, and generative art? How is our understanding of the artist figure impacted when the labor of »creating« is decoupled from traditional ways of producing a work (such as writing a poem, or painting a picture), and when this labor instead becomes attached to the output of algorithms, which are involved in virtually all digital art-making (from interactive fiction and procedural composition to generative visual art)?

As a researcher of digital culture and intellectual property law, I have explored these kinds of questions for many years. A core tenet of my research-based work is that the digital is fundamentally characterized as reproducible, shareable, remixable, and modular; therefore, the digital provides a key context for raising difficult issues of creative agency and cultural ownership. From Dadaist collage to the appropriation-based work of Sherry Levine or Richard Prince, art has always played an important role in challenging traditional notions of what it means to create and own culture – digital art is no different, and may even amplify these issues.

My time at Solitude provides me with a unique opportunity to develop a practice-based dimension that expands on my theoretical concerns. What are the aesthetic, legal, and economic contours of generative digital art works? In digital contexts, does creative agency (as it is traditionally understood) remain with an »original« author/creator, or is a new kind of nonhuman creative agency emerging, embodied in the digital devices, tools, and platforms that we now use to express ourselves creatively? Additionally, what becomes visible (what can we learn) when we develop practice-based, experiential, or performative ways of seeing not only the artworks themselves, but the underlying tools and technologies? (For example, the video below reveals the paths chosen by the drawing machine in executing my recoding of Bartnig’s original.)

In trying to inhabit all aspects of digital reproduction as fully as I can, I produce images that are full of small (or large!) flaws, imprecisions, and glitches. My work therefore invites two interpretations, which are, curiously, mutually opposed. The first interpretation is that I create illicit reproductions of copyrighted works, an activity that violates the original creators’ authorship rights. The second is that the work of appropriating these images takes so much effort and introduces so many distortions and transformations that the law (or, at least, common sense!) can hardly recognize them as copies of the works in question.