Automatic paintings

The heterogeneous work of the art collective BridA is widely diversified throughout the various fields of contemporary art practice, thus we are often surprised when we discovered their works in the unmarked territory between art and science. In their work we can recognise a number of clear thematic sets and media approaches that are often independent one from another. For instance, some video works do not formally nor through their contents discuss the issues that the collective poses in the new media works in which they deal with the possibilities of contemporary painting, the importance of information as artistic matter or with the visualisation of the systems of control in the public sphere. The three members of the collective operate as a single genius who covers the entire spectrum of tasks that a contemporary artist ‘has to’ conduct if one wishes to enable one’s own work. One has to work with a wide variety of media, from traditional to new media practices, successfully gain funds for the production of his work, establish social networks on the local and international level, etc.. In order to operate relatively independently and successfully the ideal contemporary artist would have to be one’s own manager, archiver, theoretician and technologist. Members of the BridA collective (Tom Kerševan, Sendi Mango and Jurij Pavlica) have these distinctive qualities that are interwoven and blurred at the same time. In opposition to collectives that strive for a monolithic visual language, manifestative statements and programmes as well as for an ideologically coloured operation, the BridA collective does not censor the creative impulses of its members, but rather assimilates them and adds them to the works they have created so far, thus making their opus characteristically heterogeneous: from poetic video works to technological installations, from organising group exhibitions to formal painting research.
This text will focus on the layer of their work that has been slightly inaccurately placed into the field of contemporary investigative practices due to the use of technological programme procedures. In these works the BridA collective is not primarily interested in the contents that emerge from the new media, nor from story-telling, but in the research of the formal possibilities of painting in the contemporary world, which is no longer possible without digital media or else it would belong to a different pre-information technology era. Their works Do it Yourself (DIY), Modux Datascape, Modux 1.0, Modux 3.0, Modux 3.4 and Trackeds 1.0 deal with the processes of automating painting and with removing individual authorship.
The central theme of BridA’s automatic painting will be opened by a series of painting impressions entitled Vedutas of Ljubljana (2004) that I present with a slight reservation as the series is a mimicry, for it does not at first glance reveal the central essence of the project that is hidden in their production techniques or in the final product. It was in this project that they started to consider the role of the painter in the contemporary society, who is still believed to be a creator or a genius amongst the plebeian public. However, in the information age the artist is no longer a creator but an organiser of visual data. In this statement we can hear the echo of constructivist statements and retrograde principles, the only difference being that the BridA collective does not understand its processes in such a declarative or performative way, but with much more humour, as characteristic for the subversive artistic statements throughout the last decade. The second lever that led the group to vedutas, was their thoughts as regards survival strategies. They ascertained that within the modest local art market impressionist paintings remain the best sold art product, simply because the public ‘likes them’. With this loose criterion of likability the members of the collective stepped up to randomly selected passersby and asked them what sort of paintings do they like: red, gold, with a cloudy sky. The instructions for painting were taken into account at the photorealistic depiction of the Ljubljana town scenes that the public accepted with tremendous applause. They exhibited these paintings in renowned local and international exhibition spaces and unbelievably successfully fulfilled their criticism of the art market that was based on the decorative democratic taste. As regards the survival tactics the series resulted in an important byproduct for the collective as they became recognised in that segment of the general public that is poorly acquainted with contemporary art or investigative practices.
As the essence of their work does not lie on the end product, they decided to focus on the transparency of the art process and the demystification of the alchemist process associated with painting. They asked themselves, how could one establish complex relations that would not be based merely on the literal reading of the visual message within a work of art, but reveal the structure of the systems that govern our organism, similar to the way software controls hardware. From the psychological aspect BridA has, with the participatory audio installation Do it yourself (2005), conceived an inversive automatic painting that is the exact opposite of what the surrealists were doing. The sound recording was conceived as a series of exceptionally rigorous instructions for creating a painting with four colours: red, black, light and dark grey on a surface of choice. The instructions were calculated with a mathematical formula that was translated into sound instructions without the artists ever seeing the original matrix. The creative process that was primarily in the domain of the painter was through this transferred to the publico. The dictation ruled out the original expression of the painting subject, although BridA knew that mistakes will appear, for they are an unavoidable part of any system: painting, legal, monetary, computer or any other system for that matter. If the conscious action was a mistake in surrealist automatic painting, the subconscious action is a mistake in the painting produced by the automatic painting programmes of the BridA collective.
As shown in the individual development phases of the Modux system the members of the collective gradually eliminated the role of the artist as the creator of the work of art and increasingly begun to work as constructors of systems for automatically generated paintings. The first development phase Modux Datascape (2005) originated in their affinity for formal art problems. This time they addressed the issue of realism in painting. How does one depict an environment or landscape and take into account as many of its variables as possible? In the past Bogoslav Kalaš dealt with a similar issue of realism when painting in the aerography technique and he found the answer in the additional transfer of the photograph onto the canvas. The widespread use of computer images has changed our view of the world. The basic technical procedure for representing reality is no longer a photograph, but the smallest particle of the digital visual information: a pixel. Perceiving the social environment as a network, something that has derived from the use of computer technologies, has also brought a redefinition of the relation between the artist and the object and the object and the environment, for these relations are no longer static nor hierarchical, but fluidly influence one another. In the project Modux Datascape BridA preserves the painting as a two-dimensional surface, however it no longer perceives the painting as oculus-centric, but as data-centric. The painting surface, on which a landscape is depicted, becomes a simulation of environmental data – measurements of humidity, noise, temperature that were gathered in selected locations. If people were included in the paintings they measured their blood pressure, body temperature, etc. They translated each measurement into a digital variable that was in turn translated by a computer programme into a data noise that defined the colour on the pantone scale – with the use of a special algorithm. The collective applied the layers of automatically selected colour to the canvas with the use of video projectors. The algorithm also defined the grid of the colour layers that was defined by square pixels and size. At this the question appears as to what is more real: the visual transformation of the location or the exact data as regards the conditions in a certain location. Even more important is the question, as to which paradigm are we more likely to believe and why. With the series Modux Datascape BridA created visible data landscapes that surround us every day as we look at the watch, monitor the level of nitrogen and solid particles in the air or when we trust our lives to the navigation system in an aeroplane.
A decisive turning point in the work of the collective, a moment that tilted the slider in the direction of contemporary investigative practices and science, was their guest appearance at the Department for New Media at the University of Maine at the end of 2005. In the Modux Datascape system precise measurements obtained from scientific laboratories using instruments for the geological measurement of atmospheric changes in the ice cores in Antarctica were used for the very first time. At the time they were already considering that they need to activate the painting surface and its variables. The first step in this direction was the next version of the Modux 1.0 (2006) system, in which they once again activated the public and set the painting surface into motion. They obtained the basic data on police documents, unemployment, marriages, deaths, births and similar from the statistic office in Maribor. The data was shown to random passersby and they were asked to read out one of the pieces of information and define a colour square to accompany it. The collected colour values were applied to a wall painting, at which the video projector no longer played the role of a matrix for painting but became a moving video-variable that kept moving across the graphic surface. Modux 1.0 obtained its typical of the Modux form: a long format painting surface with a generated sound and visual image that responds to the measurements collected within a specific environment.
During their residency at ZKM (Zentrum für Kunst und Mediatechnologie) in Karlsruhe they developed the Modux 3.0 system (2007) with the use of precise measurements and technologies, and this enabled them to create algorithms, precise data processing and generative automatisation of the painting process. In their work they included the measurements of gallery visitors who thus invaded the algorithm for the generated painting and the transfer of data from two geographic locations: the Ljubljana Modern Gallery and ZKM in Karlsruhe. The final painting also included a photographic base that was prepared in advance and that was recorded at the two locations. So far the most sophisticated version of the project is the system Modux 3.4 , which operates as an entirely autonomous object, even though it is also based on gathering environmental data. The system is composed of four photographs, all with a similar motif, but with a different view – ranging from microscopic to macroscopic: the microscopically enlarged image of a blood cell, a shot of a ciliate paramecium, a macro shot of an anthill and a photograph of the street hustle and bustle. A monitor slides along the painting surface, which is in this project built into a light object which dictates a generated change in the symbolically marked geographical points and retinas on the surface that translate the gathered data. The work is formally linked to the multimedia installation Trackeds 1.0 (2008) that registers the dynamic topographic structure of the town by monitoring systems and drawing curves that are reminiscent of the random structures created by Yon Friedman. In ideal circumstances the painting would generate itself, however this is not a totally autonomous process, as the visualisation of the work still depends on the decisions made by the collective. Whatever the case it can be said that it sufficiently breaks the hermetic structures of art production. The artists do not create a finished work of art, but a sort of semi-product that reacts to the environment. »Science is originally included in the Modux project as a real and comprehensible component that enables data manipulation and only serves as a tool for achieving sufficient dynamics for the production of an art act. However, when a process like this is being built, answers spring up to questions on verification, origins as well as pragmatism.« The scientific procedures have saved the BridA collective from the dictatorship of the individual’s expression and gave their paintings an autonomy that is relatively independent from the physical states of the artists. In the same way as utopic ideas announce the dystopic future, the Modux system includes the criticism of the data-centric society.