On May 20th, 2017 I staged an art event called “Parallels.”
The artifice is now natural. We are entering the paralogical parallel of a parallax universe — a place where the traditional vanguard perspectives that have shaped our society are fading away, revealing new and often subjective views of reality — including the dawn of artificially created realities.
In this new world, things almost make sense. They begin to make more and more sense the more the nonsensical becomes normalized. This exhibit explores the exposition of these new worlds through the lens of surrealism digitally unmastered by supervised learning systems — how the irrational becomes rationalized through human social remixing. Each piece asks and answers: is there truth? There is truth — a random forest among the trees. It can only be realized through the paralogical machine, searching through possible futures — Parallels. The nature is now artificial.
Trees and persons were (and still are) my main subjects. My visual, experimental, technical and experiential work focused on exploring the extent of trees and the extent of persons and their relations. Such explorations require experimentation within and across mediums: the web, canvas, paper, bark, physical space, a tree itself, a person itself, virtual reality, light, sound, projections, writing, poetry, performance and structure/form itself. I sought to figure out what a tree is and what a person is and where those objects (and subjects) break down in their various transcodings and interactions across mediums. A simple set of questions emerges:
- What is a tree?
- What is a person?
- Is it possible to experience either fully?
- What is real? What is virtual?
- What are facts? What are alternative facts?
- What is our present sensory situation as persons?
- What might it become?
The answers are not easy and certainly not presented here nor were they at the art show. There are ideas and more questions and perhaps more things to connect over.
This essay provides long form written material that is not well suited for an artistic performance. The nature of the details and the depth of the background information require a different approach to presenting the explorations as well as creating the explorations themselves.
As far as the artistic performance goes, it was a one night only event. I do not generally stage long standing performances preferring the urgency of the ephemeral and the intimacy generated by the community that can attend that moment. While a lot of my work is visual and not short term ephemeral my art shows on the whole are very much live performances and improvisations. I will never stage the same event twice (even if I intended to it would not be possible.) The less ephemeral works live on in various forms. Some paintings and drawings already have collector owners. Others have only digital reproductions. Others are already remixed into new things.
For those unable to attend the live performance here are links to materials that were presented in some form. Some of these works are also used to illustrate points below within the larger essay presented here. Please note many of the works are best viewed using 3d anaglyph glasses.
The visual artworks still for sale (as of 1/2019):
Presented works, Extended studies and digital musings:
Projections presented at the event:
Consider The Tree
Begin with a tree. Just an average tree. Look at its shape. Follow a branch all the way out to its sub branches and their termination. Gaze at the movement of the leaves. Each twinkling in its own way. Bring focus to the skin or bark of the tree. Go into it and see the groves, scars, molt marks, under flesh. Follow it up and down, around and into the ground. Grasp the roots from their beginnings to their hidden, sometimes broken ends. Imagine the processes going on inside this tree. The dance of water and air and the insectual, bacterial and viral ecosystem teeming and teaming within.
This tree is average. This tree is infinite. This tree is unique. This tree is irreducible.
Figure 1: Part 1 of Triptych Trees №2–4.
Consider another tree.
Figure 2: Trees no. 11
Sniff the air for signs of sap oozing out. Sap sticking bugs trapping for eons (http://www.livescience.com/6316-life-trapped-amber-age-dinosaurs.html ). Imagine that tree becoming something else. An homage to lovers and their hiding space. The lumber and paper it will later become for houses and scripts. The glue and paint made from its sap (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gum_arabic ). Eventually the firelight and food it will produce (http://cleancookstoves.org/about/news/05-05-2015-women-spend-374-hours-each-year-collecting-firewood-in-india-study-finds.html ).
That tree lives in your mind, lives in your visual system, lives on that wood panel , lives within the parent of that wood panel (http://www.wood-database.com/basswood/ ), lives within the gouache paint made from its parents parent (http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/keywords/gouache/ ). You live because of this tree (https://www.thoughtco.com/how-much-oxygen-does-one-tree-produce-606785 )
The computer has trees too.
Figure 3: Screenshot from Trees no -1 irreducible, a vr experience
In fact, the computer is a tree. Tree of trees.
Figure 4: example b-tree from wikipedia
Part of a random forest.
Figure 5: example random forest from Google Images cc license
Within a connect web of forests.
Figure 6: graph diagram generated in WolframLang by crawling RobertHalf.com jobs site
But these computerized trees and trees of computers still cannot approach the complexity and beauty of a single analog tree.
The attempts to digitize trees are glorious and sublime and terrible and brilliant. A natural tree is infinitely complex in its twists, turns, growths, deaths, scars, branches, restarts. A natural tree of a reasonable age is under constant change within and without. It becomes through an intractable dance with everything around it. A tree cannot be rendered via short cuts and visual form alone. A tree must be experienced before it is transcoded into another medium.
A computer rendition of a tree is a finite process ultimately constrained by the memory and cpu of the computer, but more often limited by the patience of the programmer or designer.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2emVk-TFaXw here a cylinder modified by designer via a relatively small lattice and a simulation of natural cracks. Observe the result. Obviously not a tree upon a patient glance.
Here is an attempt to computationally observe a tree and computationally sketch a tree. https://www.cs.princeton.edu/courses/archive/fall00/cs597b/papers/plantsketch.pdf The results are lovely, but clinical. There are no happy or sad accidents — those events of nature and observation and transcoding — that signal life.
Trees cannot be rendered. Trees can only be interpreted. Trees can be danced with but not recorded.
Figure 6:Trees no. 12
Digitized trees of interpretive nature seem more alive than any attempt at realistic rendering.
These trees literally talk and vibrate with interpretations of their lives and relations. This forest is a forest you have been in, can be in and will be in again. The father of these trees has birthed many trees, all inviting and tangible, the digital naturalized through interpretation: https://www.dejan-radovanovic.com/works
The context and the essence of a tree cannot be separated. In 1993 this is the essence of a digitized tree: http://paulbourke.net/miscellaneous/plants/ and then in 2012: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pZ8NLfUJ7p0
Notice how many computer programming branches (literally branches of logic in the tree algorithm) one has create to get remotely realistic trees and tree context. Not a single one of these is convincingly an actual tree.
Sometimes the best one can do is simply do as we started in this essay, just observe — slowly, closely.
Figure 7: Trees no. 17
We find these natural and digital ways of life commingling forever. It was inevitable because of the nature of trees. The tree is not just “tree” — the object we turn into lumber. The tree is a structure of branches and nodes and decisions and time and categories. It organizes life: http://itol.embl.de/itol.cgi. It makes decisions:
Figure 8: decision tree from Google Images
Computers cannot work without trees.
Source control management is a tree.
Figure 9: programming code version control visual
The code of a programming languages and any program is a tree:
The more we wish to make computers practically faster more we turn to tree structures:
What is it about trees? What is their nature that is so fundamental?
Trees survive for a very long time. http://www.livescience.com/57941-what-is-the-oldest-living-thing.html
Trees are a self-similar, fractal anti-fragile ecosystem — the best developed living structure of long survival.
Figure 10: Trees no. 12
“These include the retention of stem-cell-like meristematic cells after each growth cycle; the ability to replace non-vigorous, lost, or damaged organs, both above and below ground, in the presence or absence of trauma; a sectored vascular system that allows part of a tree to survive where a whole one cannot; formation of clones; a mechanical structure that can react to forces tending to de-optimize it; a hormonal control system that coordinates the above behaviors; and synthesis of defensive compounds.” — RML http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1568163702000259
This structure, so well evolved, is also why trees are so hard to transcode into various mediums — trees outlive, out grow, out complexify anything humans and our machines have ever done. As we grow our complexity the trees are already millions and millions of years ahead of us and each individual tree is hundreds or thousands of years ahead of any one of us humans. We depend on the trees disproportionately than they depend on us.
To digitally model an actual tree with sufficient complexity to consider that model a reasonable clone would take more computational resources than humankind has or ever will invent.
Figure 10.5: Machine Learning Analysis of Visual Artwork presented at “Parallels”
Enter The Rift — Virtual Reality’s Obsessive Pull
We continue to try to model the natural world even though we cannot even model a single tree. Why are we so obsessed with this modeling? Is it an issue of control? If we model it we can control it? Is it lack of patience? We cannot stand to watch a tree grow so slowly? Are we just afraid of our own death? Nature and trees in particular seem to carry on well without us and this may serve as a constant reminder of our own mortality?
Figure 11: Trees no. 9
Our obsession, regardless of its causes, has led us to craft many a virtual realities in which to hide ourselves. Whether its mind altering substances or movies or immersive experiences and theme parks or video games or haunted houses or commercial realities we have sought to create alternative perceptions of the world. Some are more convincing than others in terms of the power of their immersion and our acceptance of those realities. Some exist to provide escape others to open up new ways of looking at the world and ourselves and others just as technical experiments. Often these VRs are the result of playful experimentation with the state of the art in science, tech and fine art.
Our cinematic and digital technologies evolved alongside our knowledge of human perception. Along the way in understand the nervous system, the brain, our visual systems we’ve built toys to exploit knowns and unknowns. Art has always done a dance with science and technology in this regard. So much of our movements in painting were driven by explorations into the science of chemistry, biology, mathematics/geometry, perception and the measurement associated technologies — cameras, rulers, scopes, spectrometry.
However we’ve arrived at a new place where rather than being content with playful or imaginative examples of our tech some people in society believe not only is VR a fundamental part of being human but may, in fact, be all there is. Some leading thinkers flat out state “we likely live in a simulation.” Such musings are not new but there are no longer coming from playful fringe thinkers — these ideas are being spotted by the richest and most powerful. These ideas are being reinforced by mass culture driven by addiction to online and mobile social media. A new social mediated literacy is occluding our older human perceptions and fueling the desire to move fully into VR.
And yet, we’re not yet committing to it whole hog. The illusion is simply not strong enough. The Virtual is too virtual, the drug too weak. The virtual cannot believably stage even a single tree with sufficient fidelity to trick a single person for long enough to make it enjoyable for more than a few minutes much less a life time. Even a single tree done well would not be sufficient — a world of forests would be required for you to believe the richness of the virtual as real.
Figure 12: screenshot from VR experience, Trees no. -1
Consider your daily commute. Have you ever counted the number of trees along your route? I have, I lose count after a couple hundred between my home and my studio. Try counting the number of branches and leaves? Thousands? Millions? Billions? A virtual reality should at least be able to reproduce a single boring daily commute, right? But it cannot. Our daily commutes, mathematically speaking, or infinitely not-boring. They are computationally irreducible.
The rebuttal to this argument is that artistic illusions do not contain all the details of the real world either and yet enjoy them and believe them. They do not contain all the details, but they contain enough detail, period, to be sufficiently interesting — sufficiently alive.
Figure 13: Persons 20 and 21 observing Trees no. 2–4
Interestingness is very hard to generate digitally. The discrete fidelity limited by a fairly small memory space (RAM and DISK) and computational pipelines (CPU, GPU, internet connection) does not provide enough bits to produce objects of human interest practically. Certainly large render farms can produce beautiful and interesting visuals but they do so at an extreme cost. Certainly not at a cost that would allow for the widespread experience. And furthermore the interestingness cannot be easily transcoded with sufficient fidelity to maintain interest. A rendered video of a VR experience is uninteresting to an external viewer beyond an initial curiosity.
One of the initial modern attempts at VR was the simple “3d glasses” effect.
Figure 16: Anaglyph “3d” Glasses
Figure 15: Persons 32 observing Trees 9–12 in 3d
Anaglyph effects are easy to achieve by using the nature of human vision. Our two eyes/stereoscopic approach to vision, particularly depth perception allows one to create visual fields differently for each eye. In the case of cheap 3d glasses you can simply use one lens with a chromatically opposite color of the other lense. Then if the visual scene in front an observer has sufficiently chromatically described forms offsetting the form with those lense colors each eye will see the scene slightly differently and the visual system will compose it all together in the perception of “depth” that the naked eyes wouldn’t necessarily see.
The experimental toying with this effect goes as far back as the 1850s but it’s fairly clear that artisans over many eons understood these phenomena of color, depth and stereo vision. Stained glass windows used this effect in churches and its likely even the cave painters understood aspects of it and were able to do animated 3d things by firelight. Van Gogh and Monet used these effects quite a bit to create the vibrating energy of their paintings.
Figure 16: Persons no. 2 anaglyph
Animated depth map glyph: http://www.worksonbecoming.com/parallels/l5mug4wspvfiuu327pcgzpyo2hcjzp
Human eyesight is very complex and of particular importance to these effects are the voluntary and involuntary movements of the eyes. The human apparatus cannot possible bring in all the information about a visual scene so instead there are several mechanisms at play that attempt to get key parts of the visual field more attention. These key parts are defined in a variety of ways — shifts in color, shifts in flow of the scene/direction of the scene, luminance and shadows to give us depth and form — all informed by our history of visual observation (some forms are picked out rapidly for their “keyness”). So anything in an artistic or digital scene that attracts and moves the eyes on can be used to create various impacts on the viewer — including anaglyph effects.
The bigger idea here is that the objects of perception are neither wholly contained within the object nor the observer. All human perception is a dance between the internal, external and observing apparatus. And optical effects are not wholly contained within “optics”. Just as we find a correlating link between taste and smell — there are correlating and enhancing links between all human senses. That is, there is no clean distinction between any of them. Sight is enhanced or hindered by sound, touch, taste, smell and other cues. And every combination in between.
And herein lies the breakdown of the believability of VR and the digital in general. VR and the digital cannot absorb or emit multi sensory information at a high enough bandwidth to immerse the human. The convincing optical tricks of high end VR technology only do so much work. Often they become nauseating after a short amount of time or lose their novelty. More problematic is the collision of contexts that happens with VR. While the optical and auditory contexts can mostly be controlled by the VR apparatus the smells, touches and tastes and social cues aren’t just disconnected but also at odds with the virtual cues. It grows more problematic the more convincing a singular senses illusion becomes. For example, when you’re in VR seeing a world around you and yet the real room you’re in has a bunch of people talking about some other scene you’re not seeing the entire reality becomes incoherent. This mixed reality without coherence becomes noise and exhausting.
Figure 17: Trees no 14 anaglyph
This tendency to noise and the path to coherence is not limited to technology and virtual reality. The same happens in single painting or a single art gallery or museum or book. If the sensory contexts start to diverge or conflict the believability of the scene goes down — this believability is the interestingness. Interestingness is this fine line between order and chaos — there must be enough connectedness to keep the human apparatus engaged and moving but the human cannot be whiplashed around in one or more senses. When the sensory whiplash happens the human grows exhausted and usually panics.
The Digital Panic
And that is the challenge of the digital — the alternative realities of mass media, social media, filtered selfies and digital optical senses. The low bandwidth, less than natural infinitude, digital of our x86 and smartphone world diverges our sensory coherence constantly.
First, our sense of time — the literal order of events — of cause and effect — in our world has been distorted by DVRs and social news feeds. These interfaces into our mediation re-order social events based on competing notions of optimal consumption. We’re all getting a stream of content in a different order and shape than those around us, even those right next to us. These disordering of social events decoheres our basic connectedness. As is seen above our sensory perception and interpretation of the world is as easy to manipulate as altering the chromatic orientation of each eye or juxtaposing complementary colors and different luminescence in a visual scene and/or throwing in mix-matched sound, taste and smells. Our sense of time is as easily manipulated simply re-ordering the incoming information and highlighting different objects and subjects (via clickbait titles, hashtags, header images and more). With enough exposure of these differing timelines and lacking grounding signings we all move at different cycles now — but most of us quite clear we’re the ones off or behind.
Figure 18: Trees no. 14 anaglyph
Second the algorithms doing all this remixing are not doing it with some evolutionary time scale training data set. These algorithms were all born within the last couple of years and have only learned from the information collected in the last couple of years with the occasionally useful context of old books and artworks. The algorithms do not have the millions of years of evolutionary learning the trees and forests have. The algorithms and their hosts do not have the anti-fragile structures the roots, barks and self similar leaves have. These algorithms have no sense of geologic effects. These realities they are serving up are not ones informed by multi-model sensory data.
For example, the photos being used to train so much of the machine learning all have a sensory bias. A point or pixel on a photo represents the light from a single point in a scene. A holographic image point, as a counter example, records the light from every point in the scene. The bias here is that a photograph is a dimensional reduction of a given scene in many different ways. It is a dimensional reduction of time, in another sense, in the actual light of the scene, etc. This dimensional reduction of a photo has been useful because it is cheap. It is cheap to produce photos, cheap to reproduce them, cheap to store them… it is cheap because it is low fidelity. Holograms are less cheap because of the requirements to record them and play them back. Paintings are also less cheap because they are far less dimensional reductions than even a hologram. In many cases of great paintings the dimensionality of the painting may actually be greater than the original scene it attempted to depict.
So here we have machine learning learning on the cheapest, most reductive media we have. And doing it mostly on data collected about the world in the last couple of years. All being served back out to human observers to be validated and further biased. Eventually all of this ends up informing the world builders of Virtual Reality and Social Media.
Figure 19: Depth Map Persons no 2
None of these machine learnings and digital and virtual worlds seriously consider the importance of the tree. If we cannot reasonably observe, record, model and replicate a single tree much less a world of trees why should we be building up dimensionally reduced worlds of decohering perceptions? Without the calm resolve of the tree a world is in a perpetual state of panic. Without the grounding of a slow growing, ever renewing tree provide shade, comfort, a spot for grief, a spot for love, the paint we need, history’s recording medium and everything the digital leaves us timeless, history-less and friendless.
It is not optics that will change this. Improvements to digital optical illusions — be it better VR goggles or colored backgrounds on Facebook feeds or inclusion of new filters on Snapchat or higher fidelity screens — will not alter the decoherence of the digital. There is no shortcut to coherence with the natural world. One cannot exist in the digital and perceive the natural. One cannot subsist physically on the natural but absorb only the digital information. Our panic is real. Our panic is primal. We see our fuel — our food — from the natural world — escaping us in the digital. It is not because the digital itself is flawed. The recession of our life fuel comes from our lack of attention to our coherence growing observational abilities. We are becoming illiterate to the natural world. The digital will not become sufficiently dimensional to convince us of its illusions but our perceptive ability may erode enough to begin to believe a more ragged virtual reality.
The trees and snow of this simple VR experience: https://un1crom.github.io/trees/ are not believable now. But with enough erosion of our sensory perceptions these simply geometric trees and blocky particles will suffice. With enough screen time we will no longer seek to find the rings of a tree and guess at what was happening around the tree when another ring grew. We will not see the bug stuck in the amber and attempt to decode its mysteries. The digital will not have learned to do that and so won’t be able to produce that illusion to stimulate the thought in VR observers.
The trees will keep treeing.
Where It Grows
This is not an apocalyptic clarion call to luddite arms. There is little value in such an effort.
Each person and each tree will make its own choices about what to pay attention to. Each person will find their own literacy. There are enough virtual worlds to go around.
Figure 20: Persons no. 29
Some of us will look to the infinite world of the trees, occasionally inviting others to walk in the woods with us. Some of us will paint what we see on panels made of trees and paints bound by sap. Some of us will write out a great story on perfectly pressed paper. Some of us will optimize b-trees and virtualize birds and the bees.
Figure 21: Persons no. 20
Ultimately, structures in the world and their various subjective forms (trees or persons) will converge and diverge exploring the edges of interestingness. The more interesting forms will continue to be renewed and will continue to be the structures that survive whatever the latest medium craze is and will be the object of which a medium must be able to handle.
What I Believe
The digital will not ever be convincing enough to a sufficiently perceptive entity, such as a literate human. As such we do not live in a simulation nor a hologram. While those are phenomena that are part of our experience, they are not the universe. Such dimensional reductions cannot even mimic a single tree even to a mortal, limited bandwidth human.
Analog art continues to renew itself because it is similar in form and structure to the tree. No piece of art requires the whole. Art is very efficient at cloning and replication. It is adaptive and lacks rigidity that keeps it from being vibrant in various conditions. Art has as many uses as the tree — its utility is anti-fragile and simple. Ultimately art is many things to many people and serves a social function as well as a therapeutic function. Art is a place for lovers, a place for dreamers, a place for the lost, for the tired. It is a source of fuel, and the raw materials of stories. Within art gets trapped the long gone bugs of history. Art fills our homes and our experiences just as trees are the structure of our living spaces and working spaces. Art and trees are where humanity actually lives — actually takes place and actually records its history.
The digital is fun and interesting and useful — but ultimately is a fragile technology, so ephemeral, so fast moving and so illiterate to the wider universe that it cannot be anything more than a toy and a simple medium of commerce and rapid, mostly meaningless, communication. I love the digital and enjoy it. But I need the trees and other people.
And that is a big difference.