I was eight years old when Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey came out. It changed my life... or, more accurately, steered its direction in some ways, as Star Wars did for the generation following. That gateway sequence... I saw music. I wanted to create visual music like that.
If one's going to create something, understanding the nature of the medium can go far towards helping one achieve the creative ends one is seeking. The more one understands the medium, the more one understands the effects one can achieve by working with the medium, or against it. Great works can be produced in both cases. Baroque artisans, for example, working against the medium of wood were able to produce remarkably delicate and intricate traceries with it.
I couldn't create the art I wanted because the medium didn't yet exist. Yes, Douglas Trumbull produced some amazing stuff, but the medium he used didn't click with me. Then I discovered computers in eighth grade. Now this was before the Apple Macintosh, so my first computer was a PDP Dec 8 that used reel-to-reel and paper tape. I had to wait some years before I could apply what I learned to the creation of images.
The problem is, how does one create, visually, a temporal piece that has a satisfying structure?
If one agrees with Schopenhauer, as I do, that "The effect of music is so very much more powerful and penetrating than is that of the other arts, for these others speak only of the shadow, but music of the essence", what hope is there for a visual music? And how is it that music is "so very much more powerful"? Schopenhauer ties the experience of music to an immediate experience of the essence of the world as will because music operates in an immediate now over time that bypasses other forms of cognitive conditioning.
Music also operates on us viscerally, its rhythms and beats having biophysical effects on us as if we feel a heartbeat outside of us. Such rhythms almost feel as if they're compelling our body to move (dance; tap along; bounce our legs; etc.). Images don't produce such immediate biophysical effects on us (even disgust or fear, which are cognitively mediated experiences).
So not only does music have immediately visceral effects on us, it also possesses a powerful sense of aesthetic closure with the cadence. If a song suddenly hangs on the tension of the dominant in a perfect authentic cadence, we yearn — almost physically — to hear the tonic put closure on that tension. Is there any kind of visual equivalent to this?
Music has so many inherent ways to structure time, because time is its medium. One could argue that narrative also uses time as its medium, and they'd be right, but narrative ain't music: narrative requires cognitive interpretation to follow its storylines. Narrative is a cognition medium — we must process the story at some level through thinking; music is a visceral medium, we feel it, even if we analyze its deeper, more mathematical structures.
So how do we approach images in this situation? How do we create a visual music?
There are certainly laws of art: we can know intuitively (if we are sensitive to visual aesthetics) if a composition works or not. But static images, though they can (and must) have their own tensions and resolutions to succeed compositionally, do not engage us temporally (in the sense of using time as the medium). Can we experience with vision the same sort of tension and resolution that music foists on our body?
If music, then, is a temporal medium that invades the body with sound, what kinds of visuals exert that kind of power over us? Can they?
I would argue that yes, they can indeed. But the ear and the eye are two very different senses that interpret information in very different ways. Sound invades the body; images are observed out there.
Thus each medium will have its own way to aesthetically compel us to let go of our ego and enter its realm:
- Music affects us viscerally over time through rhythm.
- Images scintillate the pre-cognitive mind through spectacle.
Dazzle the mind with spectacle: fireworks, mandalas, kaleidoscopes, optical illusions, mazes, labyrinths, tunnel flythroughs, projection mapping, "warp speed", Hollywood explosions and catastrophes, enormous vistas, the Roman circus maximus, the Nazi Rally... there's a reason these are so popular. If music bypasses the mind to sway the body, spectacle hypnotizes the mind to distract it from the ego. (Malign powers intuitively understand spectacle — especially savage spectacle — as a powerful force of political misdirection to aid social control (eg: the Roman circus; the Nazi rally; the Super Bowl; Fast & Furious; etc). Our interests (for now) are purely aeshethic.)
What is required are temporal strategies that structure motion, rhythm, symmetry, color, and scale. Without such strategies an attempt at visual music will be nothing more than eye candy. We may never achieve, visually, the same visceral anticipation of the cadence; but it is possible to create a feeling of aesthetic closure that is very satisfying.
Algorithms provide a strategy to give temporal structure to spectacle by creating a sense of anticipation: of, for instance, expectation thwarted for tension, and satisfied for resolution.
If you watch the early visual music pieces by, amongst others, Hans Richter, Viking Eggeling, Walter Ruttmann, Oskar Fischinger, Len Lye, and Norman McLaren you notice that each of the artists intuitively understood the need to create visual themes using the vocabulary of visual elements (color, shape, scale, etc.) then added another kind of theme, a motional theme. There was a structure in their pieces that repeated and evolved these themes. One could say they intuited the need for an algorithm to unite these elements into intelligible structure.
The essence of the computer is algorithms. The computer is an algorithmic medium. It is the perfect medium for the creation of visual music since images need to be algorithmically structured in space and time for them to be aesthetically satisfying, and computer code — which is the nature of the medium — is inherently algorithmic.
Working with the computer as an artistic medium means using algorithms to create visual/temporal algorithms in the creation of an artform unique to the medium.
... vs CG Photorealism
Thus using the computer to create photorealistic images is working against the nature of the medium. In fact I was so convinced of this I didn't think it would ever succeed in creating artful works.
But the computer is a tool, of course, that can be used for all sorts of things, even creating astounding works of photorealism. My mind was instantly changed when I interviewed at Tippett Studios and saw the work they were doing on Starship Troopers: those bugs were real, and they were in the frame!
So I have since softened my stance: I have seen many beautiful photorealistic images that could only be created on the computer.
Nonetheless, in terms of visual music, I still approach it as an essentially abstract medium that — in working with the medium of the computer — must be algorithmic, both in process, and in result.
Thus, as a purist, I generate my images entirely through code.