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Random is as Random Does
JD Jarvis

When considering the "distinction" between randomness and mastery consider the possibility of being a "master of randomness." Indeed, during my video art days of the mid 70's, I became attracted to the work of John Cage, Merce Cunningham and Robert Rauschenburg. Their work both apart and together, created about a generation previous to me, embraced randomness and laid some of the ground work for Post-Modernism. Part of their intent in this work was to use chance operations to foster an environment in which unplanned but, often, beautiful moments could arise. So, if your intention is to foster unintentional beauty, then those results remain, at some level, intentional. Deciding to make no decision is a decision.

I decided to make a video composition using chance operations both as a personal experiment and homage to John Cage. In brief, I set about creating what we would call today an abstract video animation in which size, color, texture, direction, speed, duration and layering order of several fields of moving parallel lines would be organized by tossing dice. This video composition was accompanied by a random generated audio piece by John Cage created for harpsichord and electronics entitled "HPSCRD." The results were more instructive than beautiful, because at about the mid-point of the video, while the music continued to race ahead at a frantic, and cacophonous pace, my video at the bidding of the dice simply stopped moving. On all levels, it just died and sat there. I hated it.

So, I was faced with an aesthetic dilemma. Was I to succumb to my ego and manipulate the results or stick to the concept I had established for the work and let it be something that I, myself, could not appreciate aesthetically. In the end, I let it be, just in order to remind me that the paradigms you choose, even if they embrace freedom and surprise, can become dogmatic if you cling to them too tightly. And, on a more personal note, to confirm to myself once and for all that I am much too much of a sensualist to keep myself out of my own work. In short, if I am not personally involved with the artwork, how can I expect someone else to be?

Today, I work digitally. Everything appearing on a digital screen is preceded by an immense list of rigidly controlled and encoded instructions. So at that level, nothing digital is ever truly "random." At the same time, since I did not directly write this code and can only manipulate it indirectly through the proxy of a cybernetic connection, I must say that some of the results I see in my work are total surprises to me. Sometimes I envy traditional painting methods in which pouring, splattering, or throwing paint at a canvas yields dramatic results. Whether or not these results can be called "random" has to do with one's own mastery and manipulation of viscosity, rates of absorption, gravity, and here again… intention.

I say "envy" because when I want the same looseness and spontaneity to appear in my digital work I have to work very hard to make pixels appear to drip and run. Without gravity or materiality to play off of I have to work very intensively to digitally create a look that, in traditional painting, happens in a split second. How often have you worked long hours with displace maps and layering effects to create a look in your digital painting that could have been done on a canvas in a few moments with sand paper and a palette knife? This is just one reason why I flinch at the idea that working digitally is so often criticized for being too easy. In comparison splattering paint is easy and far more outside my control than achieving the same visual results digitally.

Let's be clear. People do not find digital work lacking because it is random. They criticize it because they fear that the artist has turned control of making the art over to a machine. They sense that no human hand (or eye) has been involved with creating the composition before them. Ultimately, they think they smell a rat. Magazine art and films have told them often enough that what they thought was a real situation was "actually done on a computer." They fear being fooled again.

Certain types of digital art seem to support this "tricksy-factor" more than others. You and I know that fractal art and images generated by running filters and plug-ins require careful manipulation of controls, these things do not actually happen by themselves. Are we in control? …sometimes. Are we surprised by the results? …often. But, does surprise within the process of making art negate the role of the artist? Not in traditional art making. So, why does surprise, and turning some of the art making process over to random results receive criticism in digital art making?



I suspect that this has a lot to do with our culture's love/hate relationship with technology. Also, in a world that has become increasingly willing to accept, even expect, to see the textural evidence of the materials used to make art that the super-flat and technologically clean surface of a digital print or electronic screen seems somewhat unworldly. How ironic that the aspirations of historical French academic painting, those ideals of creating a painted surface which revealed no hint of a brushstroke; the same ideals that Modernists fought so hard against, are now reviled and unappreciated at a time when we have the technical means to achieve those ideals to an unprecedented degree.

Fractal Art is patently beautiful. We are attracted to those patterns because in them we sense the underlying mathematics of nature itself. We glimpse the order and perhaps even the intelligence beneath it all. But, just as Modern Art has deemed that it is often not enough for art to simply copy nature, similarly it is probably not enough to simply present a visual representation of the math behind it. Without the materials or the hand of the artist readily evident in art made digitally, we are left only with the proof of our eye and the strength of our ideas to convey the warmth of our hearts. 

In the end, the only thing I can see that can be done is to take to heart the lesson I learned many years ago. I must keep in mind that no matter what set of tools I use, or how much of the process I turn over to the machine, I must remain an active, feeling, critical part of the art I make and present to people. If I do not feel present in the work… I cannot expect anyone else to be. Just as beauty does not often say much for the worth of a person, beauty, in and of itself, does not make for the strongest art. Somewhere along the line the beauty must speak. The "mastery" in digital art is exactly where it is in any traditional art. The thing to master is your self.

My acknowledged "masters of randomness" took themselves out of the composition by adopting chance operations to organize the work. That was their intention, from which they never wavered. But, it was the power and humanness and skill with which they applied their human selves to this intention that kept them in the game. Once their audience understood their intention what they experienced was not randomness, but rather the work of human beings, being human. This is what is essential in art, no matter how it is made.

JD Jarvis

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