Monday, November 18, 2013

Aesthetics of entropy: a venture into process art

1 Engaging with entropy

Leonardo da Vinci was the first European creative thinker to write about the importance of making art by introducing random and chance events to create artistic patterns. He advised people to contemplate the walls, clouds, pavements, encountered in their everyday environment, with the idea of looking for patterns and images to conceptually blend with creative thoughts. He would gaze at the stains of walls, the ashes of a fire, the shape of clouds or patterns in mud. He would imagine seeing trees, battles, landscapes, figures with lively movements, etc., and then excite his mind by conceptually blending the subjects and events he imagined to embellish his vision.

It is said that Da Vinci would occasionally throw a paint-filled sponge against the wall and contemplate the random stains and what they might represent. In hurling his paint-filled sponge at the wall Leonardo was initiating a process governed by the second law of thermodynamics. Muscular energy is converted to the squidgy sound energy of impact and the kinetic energy of motion when the sponge's elastic structure is compressed and the paint is ejected. There is also a release of heat energy on impact, which warms the wall ever so slightly. The thermodynamic result is that the energy of muscle contraction has been irreversibly, and unpredicably dispersed into the environment. The outcome is measured as entropy, which is a quantification of how much energy has flowed from being localized, in this case within Leonardo's muscle, to several different forms that have become more widely spread out in the environment. Throwing a sponge provides a demonstration of the increase in entropy that accompanies all processes in the universe. It can be placed alongside other common examples; of hot milk cooling, balloons bursting, forest fires burning, skin wrinkling with age and water flowing down mountains.

John Ruskin, the 19th century art critic, was engaging with the latter demonstration of Earth’s impermanence, in the name of art, when he wrote of the 'frailty of mountains' as follows:

§ 9. "Perfect permanence and absolute security were evidently in nowise intended. It would have been as easy for the Creator to have made mountains of steel as of granite, of adamant as of lime; but this was clearly no part of the Divine counsels: mountains were to be destructible and frail; to melt under the soft lambency of the streamlet; to shiver before the subtle wedge of the frost; to wither with untraceable decay in their own substance; and yet, under all these conditions of destruction, to be maintained in magnificent eminence before the eyes of men.
Nor is it in any wise difficult for us to perceive the beneficent reasons for this appointed frailness of the mountains. They appear to be threefold: the first, and the most important, that successive soils might be supplied to the plains, in the manner explained in the last chapter, and that men might be furnished with a material for their works of architecture and sculpture, at once soft enough to be subdued, and hard enough to be preserved; the second, that some sense of danger might always be connected with the most precipitous forms, and thus increase their sublimity; and the third, that a subject of perpetual interest might be opened to the human mind in observing the changes of form brought about by time on these monuments of creation".

The argument was part of his theme of landscape painting in which the aesthetic and philosophical aspects of geology were major points of focus. This is borne out by his description of the Pass of Faido which was the subject of one of his etchings (Fig 1). In a modern setting the alpine pass would illustrate the ecosystem services provided by watersheds. Century by century its relatively small stream contributes ceaselessly to the planet’s ever-increasing entropy.
Fig 1 John Ruskin's etching of the Pass of Faido (

He writes, "There is nothing in this scene, taken by itself, particularly interesting or impressive. The mountains are not elevated, nor particularly fine in form, and the heaps of stones which encumber the Ticino present nothing notable to the ordinary eye. But, in reality, the place is approached through one of the narrowest and most sublime ravines in the Alps, and after the traveller during the early part of the day has been familiarized with the aspect of the highest peaks of the Mont St. Gothard. Hence it speaks quite another language to him from that in which it would address itself to an unprepared spectator: the confused stones, which by themselves would be almost without any claim upon his thoughts, become exponents of the fury of the river by which he has journeyed all day long; the defile beyond, not in itself narrow or terrible, is regarded nevertheless with awe, because it is imagined to resemble the gorge that has just been traversed above; and, although no very elevated mountains immediately overhang it, the scene is felt to belong to, and arise in its essential characters out of, the strength of those mightier mountains in the unseen north".
By writing in this way Ruskin had himself become part of the random and chance dynamics of the geological process which had produced the scene he depicted.
2 Randomness and art
Actually, for centuries, hauntingly beautiful water-worn 'viewing stones' had captivated the imagination of Chinese scholars with their randomness of shape and colour.They the have the power to suggest a scene or object, very much like looking at a cloud and seeing running stallions or angels, images unlimited by imagination (Fig 2).
Fig 2 Example of a viewing stone

The art of making miniature rock landscapes has an ancient history. Chinese emperors and noblemen created elaborate palace gardens, complete with streams and scaled-down mountains. In time, Buddhist monks and wealthy intellectuals began to introduce miniature trees (bonsai) and spirit rocks (gongshi) in their mountain retreats and city courtyards. The Chinese word for landscape, shan shui, means 'mountains and water': mountains, because of their height, were seen as a bridge between earth and the heavens.A Taoist story tells of an old man who accidentally fell into the river rapids leading to a high and dangerous waterfall. Onlookers feared for his life. Miraculously, he came out alive and unharmed downstream at the bottom of the falls. People asked him how he managed to survive. "I accommodated myself to the water, not the water to me. Without thinking, I allowed myself to be shaped by it. Plunging into the swirl, I came out with the swirl. This is how I survived."
As Chinese influence spread abroad, Korea and Japan adopted the practice of stone-collecting. Japan, especially, went on to develop the art in ways unique to its cultural ecology. In Japanese such garden stones are called water-rocks (suiseki.). Collectors of water-rocks are actually bringing disordered nature into the home and temporarily arresting the great entropic forces of the universe which stones represent by the application of miniscule forces of hand and eye. From this point of view, suiseki may also be taken as an example of the propensity of humans to create order in the environment. In the world of suiseki, "wabi-sabi," refers to the deep spiritual understanding of connecting with a suiseki. Prized suiseki are not replicas of natural objects. They merely suggest the object and capture its essence with simple visual gestures; awakening the imagination and inviting the viewer to complete the picture. They are simplicity, in accordance with Zen teachings. They are "less is more" captured in stone. For Zen Buddhists, they are a means of understanding humankind's relationship to existence.
Zen Buddhists believe that enlightenment is achieved by turning the eye inward through meditation and mindfulness of daily experiences and so maintain a close connection to nature. Perception and evaluation of complex sensory patterns is central to human cognition and awareness, yet the underlying neural coding mechanisms are almost completely unknown. The human brain is a spectacular pattern analyzer, able to make sense of the most complex images and sounds. Human pattern cognition is so rich, varied, and intense that it is a source of aesthetic pleasure and a ground for creativity.
Ruskin as a reasoning human, was well equipped to detect and create ordered structure in his mind, but not to arrange things at random. Human behaviour seems to stem from a strong "sense of order", a term coined by E. H. Gombrich to express how our drive to "regularise" artefacts is a fundamental aspect of human cognition, almost as basic as our sense of smell or touch. Art is therefore the placement of pigments and objects in an order unique to the artist. The poor ability of humans to create random patterns is a physiological limitation on human creativity. Process artists engage with the randomness of organic systems when using perishable, insubstantial, and transitory materials, but works of art based on deliberate random arrangements of pigments or objects are very rare. As an example, Gesche Westphal-Fitch and W. Tecumseh Fitch conclude that Victorian-era quilt-makers were exceptional in achieving a level of intentional spatial randomness that has never been documented in any other human artefact. This conclusion came from an analysis of "Crazy quilts", which represent an historically important style of quilt-making that became popular in the 1870s, and lasted about 50 years (Fig 3 ).
Fig 3 Example of a 'crazy quilt' (C") compared with a regular pattern (R8).

Despite the neglect of randomness in the application of artistic creativity humankind has always showed a predeliction for the decorative effects of random patterns. Examples are the use of polished stones, particularly veined marble, to furnish buildings, and the derived craft of marbling paper, which was used widely in 19th century book binding.
3 The language of skin

The study of human ageing which respresents the work of random biochemical process often begins with the skin by highlighting its loss of elasticity expressed in inevitable well-defined changes in physical properties, which include thinning, sagging, wrinkling and the appearance of age spots, broken blood vessels and areas of dryness. This is known as intrinsic ageing, also known as the natural ageing process. It is a continuous process that normally begins in the mid-20s due to intrinsic changes in the chemical bonds of the extracellular connective tissue of which collagen fibres are dominant. Collagen production slows, and elastin, the substance that enables stretched skin to snap back into place, becomes less springing. Elastic bands stored in a draw mimic the increased chances of death with the passage of time. These changes in skin usually proceed relentlessly at a rate that intrigued Rembrant who left more than eighty paintings, etchings and drawings of himself recording his facial appearance throughout his career. Effects of time and environment are already written on his face in a self portrait produced in 1657, age 51, where he explored the subtle colouring and textures of ageing skin with startling objectivity (Fig 4).
Fig 4 Rembrant self portrait age 51

4 Serendipitous abstractions

In is book, Happy Accidents, Morton Meyers, notes the risks of being stuck in established modes of inquiry; the answer, he writes, may lie in a different direction that can be seen only when perception is altered. Meyers uses the example of the Russian painter Wassili Kandinsky, known as the “father of abstract art,” who late one night, on returning to his dark studio, found that he could not make out the subject on his easel, but was deeply moved by the shapes and colours. It was only later that he discovered that the painting was resting on its side. Nevertheless, this experience led him down the path of emphasizing the importance of the placement of forms and colours and deciding that “depicting objects was not necessary in my paintings and could indeed even harm them” . Meyers then suggests that too-close attention to detail may obscure the view of the whole.

Randomness is a conception of non-order and directly associated with the concepts of chance and probability and so suggests a lack of predictability. There is no comprehensible pattern or grouping. Serendipity, as experienced by Kandinsky, is understood as an event that is an accidental discovery of something, especially when somebody is looking for something else and then making use of these chance encounters in a productive way. In his paintings created in 1912 at the height of his involvement with the avant-garde Expressionist group, Der Blaue Reiter, Kandinsky in a frenzy of randomness and serendipity floods the surface of his canvas with opaque and translucent colours. Amorphous forms appear to explode, overlap, and evaporate beyond the boundaries of the picture plane, alluding to the constant flux of energy and entropy at play in the universe. The goal of Kandinsky's art of this period, in the painter's own words, was "to awaken as yet nameless feelings of a finer nature." It is with these grand canvases, pulsating with colour, that the artist attempted to create a new aesthetic experience of 'otherness' for the 20th century. His highly personal colour theory was published in 1911 and meant to explain the painter's palette in two ways: the effect on the eye (person's physical understanding of the colour) and an unseen "inner resonance", psychological effect, when it effects your spiritual experience. He believed that the only way of depicting the unseen inner harmony of organic forms is through abstraction, which enevitably introduces an element of randomness in choice of form and colour and positioning in the picture plane.

He wrote in 1914 (Concerning the Spiritual in Art) that: "The inner need is the basic alike of small and great problems in painting. We are seeking today for the road which is to lead us away from the outer to the inner basis. The spirit, like the body, can be strengthened and developed by frequent exercise. Just as the body, if neglected, grows weaker and finally impotent, so the spirit perishes if untended. And for this reason it is necessary for the artist to know the starting point for the exercise of his spirit. The starting point is the study of colour and its effect on men. There is no need to engage in the finer shades of complicated colour, but rather at first to consider only the direct use of simple colours". 
In 1922 Kandinsky accepted a teaching position at the Bauhaus, the state-sponsored Weimar school of ‘art and applied design’founded in 1919 by architect Walter Gropius. The school's curriculum was based on the principle that the crafts were equal to the traditional arts and was organized according to a medieval-style guild system of training under the tutelage of masters. Kandinsky conducted the Wall Painting Workshop and Preliminary Course and taught at all three of the school's sequential locations in Weimar, Dessau, and Berlin until 1933, when the Bauhaus was closed due to pressure from the National Socialist government.

During this period geometric shapes came to play a dominant role in Kandinsky's pictorial vocabulary. He was interested in uncovering a universal aesthetic language and increased his use of overlapping, flat planes and clearly delineated forms. Geometrical elements took on increasing importance in both his teaching and painting-particularly the circle, half-circle, the angle, straight lines and curves (Fig 5). This change was due, in part, to his familiarity with the Suprematist work of Kazimir Malevich and the art of the Constructivists. Kandinsky's turn toward geometric forms was also likely a testament to the influence of industry and developments in technology. In his writings of this time Kandinsky analyzed the geometrical elements which make up every painting- the point and the line. He called the physical support and the material surface on which the artist draws or paints the basic plane, or BP. However, he did not analyse them objectively, but from the point of view of their inner effect on the observer.
Fig 5 Kandinsky Composition 8 (1928)

Fig 6 Computer model of Composition 8

In placing his lines and shapes Kandinsky, although adhering to a standard vocabulary of shapes, was really making a series of arbitrary decisions with regard to the choice and placement of shapes and colours. With the same vocabulary, a different maker would make different choices. This is evident from Fig 6 where a computer was programmed to make a picture in Kandinsky's style. This raises the general issue of the viewer's interaction with a work of art where he or she has access to only one of many possible compositions.
Kandinsky never made these comparisons but the creation of computer programmes, such as 'The Pattern Cognition and Aesthetics' programme now allows a scientific comparison to be made of the responses of different viewers to variations on an artistic theme . The PCA programme uses computer morphing technology to study 3D shape aesthetics. Experiments with this software are based on 3D laser scans of sculptures by the 20th century modernist Jean Arp from a variety of sources. The laser scans serve as the basis for arrays of Arp's morphed shapes in which geometric characteristics like surface curvature, axis curvature, and volume distribution are gradually varied (Fig 7). Subjects are asked to choose their favourite and least favourite sculptures in each array. The results are analysed to determine how these geometric characteristics influence aesthetic preference. Findings in this experiment are being used to design targeted tests of aesthetic responses in the human brain using functional magnetic resonance imaging.
Fig 7 An array of morphed shapes from the works of Jean Arp

5 Nature registration

Jacek Tylicki began his work with nature in 1973. Taking pieces of paper or canvas, he sent them blowing into the wind, under trees and rocks, and waited for a time until recovering them to see what the world had done to them. He ended up creating a startling amount of beautiful forms, colours, and patterns that, in all actuality, he hadn’t made (Fig 8). Tylicki began to make nature do something that all artists do as well-create forms. The results are an array of shapes and designs that are unique; full of movement and detail that a person could not ever hope to make on their own. He harnesses nature’s hand to make something more permanent than itself. 

 "Avoiding all control, I spread out sheets of white paper or canvas in the nature. For some time they stay in the grass, in the rushes of river, in the meadows or in the mountains. Nature registers its presence, covering the surface of the paper with colors, forms and tracks. This process is controlled by a number of agents; such as space and time, substance and causality. It is governed by nature’s intensity. It does not, depend on man’s interference. Nature is the greatest and most admirable creator, and unlike logic it doesn’t fail.The artist obligation is not to shape -handicraft, but to understanding the riddles of reality. In such conception of Art there lies, as in the Universe itself, an immense richness, and a countless variety of forms."

Fig 8 One of Jacek Tylicki's nature registrations

Fig 9 One of Jill Randall's nature registrations created in the Parys Mountain copper mine
Nature registrations were produced in 2008 by Jill Randall an Artist-In-Residence at the Parys Mountain Copper Mine and Amlwch Industrial Heritage Centre in North Wales. The Parys Mountain was once the world’s leading centre of copper production. It is an extreme environment, with its own “terrible beauty” of amazing colours, a toxic landscape where corrosion and time are accelerated. Beneath the skin of the landscape lie hidden voids, the vast underground network of abandoned mine shafts where peculiar life forms grow in the complete absence of light. The outcome of her residency was a series of 10 huge, brightly-coloured registrations created in and by the abandoned underground mine workings (Fig 9). Physically and practically very difficult to site and retrieve the colours were the results of on-going chemical reactions in the water percolating through the rock strata into the man-made caverns of the mine.

The stained registrations on the Randall’s art substrate reflect the mineralised colours in the walls of the mine. Both kinds of chemical interactions are also open to interactions with the concrete surfaces of the art works of Michael Deane which demonstrate that hardness can be deceiving.Despite its reputation for intransigence, concrete is a uniquely subtle, delicate material. The surface of any motorway flyover, housing block or city pavement reveals a spectrum of patinas through which concrete absorbs and reflects its surroundings. Metal fixings soak rusty stains into their concrete bases; shoes and rubber tyres apply patient layers of dirt and oil onto walkways and roads, and rainwater causes streaks of colouration to develop across walls. Michael Dean exploits this aspect of his material’s versatility in surprising ways. He makes objects that betray intricate records of their histories on their outer surfaces. Even the mineral content of tap water can dramatically affect the way concrete looks. It remains porous when hard, so oils from contact with human skin give it an organic quality. Some of Dean’s works have the uncanny appearance of elephant hide, dark whale skin or cured panels of leather; others resemble nothing so much as giant fossils, plant matter preserved and fractured beneath layers of peat bog. All of these associations are, to different degrees, ancient, and make us forget that the sculptures they cling to only recently came into the world through his efforts.

Fig 10 Concrete panels with surface texture

Michael Dean's sculptures are either the perfect size to be carried or quote their surrounding architecture where they are to be found propped against gallery walls. Made from cast concrete, the surfaces are veined and ridged, offering invitations to be touched (Fig 10). Tactility is an essential sculptural quality for Dean because he wishes us to first 'touch with the eyes, and then allow ourselves to touch with the hand'
6 Maintenance art

Meirle Ukeles' work is created through a process of participatory democracy that unites people in open dialogue about the characteristics of important community ecological issues. In 1976 Ukeles accepted an unsalaried position as artist-in-residence with the New York City Department of Sanitation. She proposed to do work that would incorporate a dialogue of community participation around life-centred issues, and ecological sustainability. Ukeles focused her creative energies on a series of long term projects to provide visitors with points of access to issues of urban waste management which is the 'material entropy' of consumerism.

Touch Sanitation was Ukeles' first project as the city's new artist-in-residence. She drew attention to the maintenance of urban ecological systems in general and the unjustified use of pejorative language to represent "garbage men" in particular. Ukeles travelled sections of New York City to shake the hands of over 8500 sanitation employees or "sanmen" during a year-long performance (Fig 11). She documented her activities on a map, meticulously recording her conversations with the workers. Ukeles documented the workers' private stories, fears, castigations, and public humiliations in an attempt to change some of the negative vernacular words used in the public sphere of society. In this way, Ukeles used her art as an agent of change to challenge conventional language stereotypes.
Fig 11 Meirle Ukeles hand-shaking performance

6 Complexity and entropy
Like throwing a paint soaked sponge against a wall, making a work of art is a process consisting of a series of actions taken in order to achieve a particular end when energy becomes form. The actions consume energy and it seems reasonable to assume that the entropy of making a complex work of art is more that that required to make a simple one. The finished work prompts a response from the viewer according to his or her understanding of the ensemble as a system of interrelated parts. The ensemble has properties more than the sum of its parts and the work holds the attention of the viewer or a listeners according to their understanding of its dynamic complexity. In this respect, there are three kinds of complexity, that based on the structure created by its maker, that perceived by the viewer or listener and that accepted as a cultural norm by society. An audience experiences the complexity of a painting through the patterns of paint marks mapped out across the spatial dimensions of a canvas. These patterns are static in the sense that they do not evolve with time. However, the audiences will experience a musical work’s complexity through the development of the pattern of sound as a function of time.

Any work of art thus finds it’s own audience by inviting them to make what they will of this or that idea as part of the relationship between objective, subjective and social complexity. Complexity can literally be defined as being “made up of a large number of parts that have many interactions.” This definition has been applied to many subjects, such as art, music, dance, and literature. In aesthetics research, complexity has been divided into three dimensions that account for the interaction between the amount of elements, differences in elements, and patterns in their arrangement. Furthermore, this characteristic in aesthetics consists of a wide spectrum, ranging from low complexity to high complexity. Key studies have found through the Galvanic skin response that more complex artworks produce greater physiological arousal and higher hedonic ratings, which is consistent with other findings that claim that aesthetic liking increases with complexity. Most important, several studies have found that there exists a U-shape relationship between aesthetic preference and complexity. In other words, the lowest ratings in aesthetic responses correlate with high and low levels of complexity, which displays an “avoidance of extremes.”Furthermore, the highest level of aesthetic response occurs in the middle level of complexity.

In a study of undergraduates’ ratings of liking and complexity of contemporary pop music reported an inverted U-shape relationship between liking and complexity. Other research, suggests that this trend of complexity could also be associated with ability to understand, in which obserevers prefer artwork that is not too easy or too difficult to comprehend.The research both confirms and disconfirms predictions that suggest that individual characteristics such as artistic expertise and training can produce a shift in the inverted U-shape distribution.

This relationship between objective, subjective and cultural complexity across the arts has been explored by Jean Pierre Boon, John Casti and Richard Taylor who focused on the spatial complexity of Jackson Pollock’s abstract paintings (Fig 12) and the temporal complexity of Johann Sebastian Bach’s music as well as about 30 music pieces by various composers. They measured the objective complexity using established tools of complexity theory fractal dimension ( D) to quantify the global dynamics and entropy (H) to measure the local dynamics. They found that over a period of ten years (1943-1952) Pollock refined his fractal construction process and appeared to be able to tune the D value and hence the objective complexity of his paintings. As a consequence, his masterworks gravitated to an objective complexity of 1.7. The researchers also found that the musical compositions of Bach have a similar level of objective complexity. They suggest that the D values of Pollock's work appear to be trademark signatures of his unique objective complexity, and might potentially help in distinguishing authentic Pollocks from imitations although this does not seem to be the case for musical compositions.

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