Skype Chat 4.5: Andy Lomas


On Tuesday we had a visit from Andy Lomas, a former mathematician turned creative computer artist. His work stems from an interest in dynamic systems simulating biological growth. An interest stemming from his encounter with the work of Darcy Thompson, particularly his pioneering book Growth and Form, became after a period in the film and television industry, curiosity in what can be done that could not be done before. Lomas works on the edge of control and predictability wanting to be surprised rather than being in control of algorithms whose outcomes are directed by the exigencies of the film industry.

He sees himself more as influencing than controlling events when setting up his algorithmic simplified systems, which while not trying to replicate nature, bear strong correspondences with biological rules of growth.


The systems he works with are bounded in themselves and do not relate to an outside environment. The parameters or rules of engagement between cell entities are contained within and between the cells rather than communicating with an exterior world even though some simulation, such as how much light falls on a cell try to emulate real life conditions.

Something that struck me during the talk was how the artistic domain gives him the freedom to experiment and play with mathematical models and their aesthetic outcomes. However, it does seem to stay within that sphere, the personal perspective. His relationship with the work is more that of a craftsman than an artist. He is curious about his methodology, he extends the limits of what he is doing, he controls the material with mastery. However, the work itself says little about the person than made it other than their obvious skill. Little of him comes across in the work as algorithms do not in and of themselves depend on any particular person or thing that either generates them or uses them. They are autonomous abstract entities depending only on being implemented in some way to have any meaning. Taking Margaret Boden’s idea of creativity, the results are certainly creative, as for artistic, perhaps that is in the gift of the viewer.

What does this tell me about the work and the worker. The work can certainly be viewed as art, but is Lomas working as an artist or a craftsman? All depends on his intentions and when asked what these were, we were left wondering if he himself knew. He enjoys making the animations and work arising out of them, and he does appreciate their aesthetic appeal, but I for one would want to look more into the content itself of the work. What does it say about me, the world, society and how does it function in different contexts?

All these questions were left mute by virtue of Lomas’ immersion in the process itself, often by necessity. I feel that it is not enough for something to be art simply because it is creative. And if context is everything, perhaps what happens is that the work is taken up as art by others, leaving its maker behind so to speak, personally, as a creative rather than artist.

If all this seems rather harsh, I am only applying the same criteria I have applied to myself. As someone who studied sciences, I have often been frustrated, no infuriated, by how artists all to easily append the label, art science to what they do, appropriating the domain of science without really understanding what they are dealing with. That is why I made the decision not to do scientific art, i.e. appropriate techniques and methods, illustrate ideas, pretend to be doing science that in some way turns into art. All an artist can do is draw inspiration, be influenced by, illustrate yes, the scientific. Likewise, a scientist cannot be an artist simply because they make something aesthetic or useful to artists or illustrates some artistic trope. A scientist can be influenced by, borrow from, be contextualised by art, but that in itself is not enough.

For a scientist to be an artist, they must think as one with every fibre of their body and likewise if an artist wishes to be a scientist they need to fully understand the paradigms that govern the scientific mind. The two domains work so differently that one has to give way to the other. You can be a poet and a scientist, a scientist and a painter, but you cannot be both at once. Science relies on being replicable and independent of personal input, art conversely is deeply personal in terms of the ideas and relies on an element of uniqueness, aura. Artists that attempt to remove any trace of the personal and make an idea or method doable by anyone, still function under artistic paradigms and do not fall within the scientific. Likewise, an electron photomicrograph of a pollen grain, however beautiful, cannot be a work of art unless it is transformed to say something other than what it is. In neither scenario is there a transformation from one paradigm to the other. They both enter the sphere of the other but cannot be the other. It is a nuanced view that can be argued with, but nevertheless, is serves to illustrate the point that science and art are separate, yet have an entangled relationship.

This places Lomas’ work in somewhat of a no man’s land, albeit a comfortable one. The renderings of the algorithms can be seen as art just as Blosfeldt’s photographs are considered artistic photographs. However, in the case of Blosfeldt, the images were made for a very practical purpose, as source material for art students. The fact that they have entered into the artistic canon does not necessarily make Karl Blosfeldt an artist at the moment of making them but more of an artisan. The art resides in the way the photographs have been received and experienced. Similarly, Lomas’ renditions are a search for the limits of what certain algorithms can do and how resolved the animations can become. They are visual illustrations of mathematical curiosity, how they are perceived is another journey towards an artistic conversation which does not necessitate knowledge of their maker. This in some way is what he said adding that he would be only too happy to explicate their genesis to those interested.

Perhaps one day Lomas will consider the wider poetic implications of what he has done and engage new poetic criteria which will undoubtedly alter his process and conceptual horizons.

Skype Chat 4.4: On Focus and Attention Span

This Skype chat had a very practical aim, probably aimed at those of us easily distracted by social media and the demands the internet and web make on our attention. Attention, concentration and focus are key when making art works.

Jonathan presented recent evidence that suggests our way of thinking, our brain architecture, so to speak, is being altered by the way we interact with computers and the internet; how the ever increasing processing speed with the commensurate increase in our responses. He also presented a quote regarding how this effect can hide in plain site:

People will come to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think.
Neil Postman Amusing Ourselves to Death 1985

This was said early on in the context of the world wide web. The difference between this and other technological innovations in the past is the speed at which it has developed and proliferated.

A recent paper “the ‘online brain'” comes to three conclusions:

Internet is becoming highly proficient at capturing our attention, while producing a global shift in how people gather information, and connect with one another.
…found emerging support for several hypotheses…
…Internet is influencing our brains and cognitive processes…
3 specific areas…

1. …multi-faceted stream of incoming information…

[Attention switching and ‘multi-tasking, rather than sustained focus]

2. …ubiquitous and rapid access to online factual information…

[outcompeting previous transactive systems potentially even internal memory processes]

3. …online social world paralleling ‘real world’ cognitive processes…

[possibility for the special properties of social media to impact on ‘real life’ in unforeseen ways]

Firth, J., Et Al. (2019). The ‘Online Brain’ How The Internet May Be Changing Our Cognition. World Psychiatry, 18: 119-129

This speeding up of things occludes the spaces where subliminal, independent thought can take place. I feel that it could be seen as a form of indoctrination which uses the malleability of brain architecture.

Jonathan then went through the conclusions to unpack what all this might mean.

conclusion 1 – important to note that most experts agree there is no such thing as ‘multi-tasking’ – it is only possible when one this is ‘automatic’ like walking and talking at the same time – the walking element is automatic…
therefore we are creatures of very fast attention switching.

…they found emerging evidence that the online brain is bombarded with so mush stuff that fast switching means it is increasingly hard to sustain focus.

… that is the sort of evidence that is emerging – but they are not saying it is positive or negative – just that there is evidence for this — we have to decide what to do about this ourselves.

…the challenge is – does the very medium of the web demand this reduced focus – or has it just been hijacked by commerical forces!

I feel that this may be so, but the highjacking may not always be commercial, there are also attention seeking forces as well as lobby groups. I guess the major influences, however, can be traced back to some commercial motivation.

there is clear evidence that when we switch attention quickly – it means nothing is deep and concentrated – we have to decide if that is doing us harm or not (more likely there are times when fast switching is incredibly useful and times we need sustained attention but we may need to work harder to develop the sustained focus skills?)

There is competition for attention and space for information of whatever sort.

The point made here is that making is a great training for sustained focus skills. Particularly hand-eye making with material, not computer based making. We are physical beings and so need physical, and not just mental,  interaction with the world. This means that focus needs time and computers, ‘steal’ time from us.

2. …ubiquitous and rapid access to online factual information… outcompeting previous transactive systems
potentially even internal memory processes
this point it more subtle but equally important to the first point
transactive knowledge – idea developed by Daniel Wegner 1985 – groups collectively encode, store, and retrieve knowledge

I feel that this point is about our being rewarded by fact acquisition, ‘fact gluttony’. This satiates our curiosity but leaves us with a diminished sense of wonder… and wondering again is about have the time to engage in it. We are exchanging information for our time. This makes me think that we need to be more discerning about the information we seek.

This idea regarding factual information posited by Jonathan is very much about collective memory…

on transactive memory – Wegner suggested – transactive memory system can provide the group members with more and better knowledge than any individual could access on their own

This collective memory is vulnerable to political and commercial forces which can influence it. This is particularly the case with social media. However, social media can also be used by counter movements. It could be argued that propaganda in the past was more effective because it was the main source of information for the population at large. Today, there are many sources of information… it is a constant struggle between competing positions.

so their conclusion is that the online brain having so much access to instant ‘factual’ information means there is evidence now of it changing the way our brains function  and maybe even our internal memory systems —
whatever we think of this we need to be aware of this emerging evidence

What might we lose with we engage less in transactive memory – the building of memory by exchanging memories and ideas between individuals? Intelligence but above all wisdom. And the challenge in today’s society is that transactive memory is difficult to sustain when people leave disparate, asynchronous lives.

Finally we came to how all this might affect our work as artists

as artist does our work suffer with the instant access to the ubiquitous and rapid online factual information?
or are we enabled like never before because we have access to the ubiquitous and rapid online factual information?

I feel that too much information can lead to a form of artistic paralysis. The availability of so many paths and directions can be confusing and preclude one from entering into work with depth. In addition, some skills require many years to acquire. However, Aristotle did mention an interesting idea: T-shaped skills arrangement where a main skill is formed in depth over time adding other minor ones on top of it.

There is one physical problem I see with the growth of computers as sources of information in the future. Computers are highly sophisticated and cannot be easily made with simple tools and technologies as books and printing presses can. Also, computers are needing an increasingly large amount of electric energy. What will happen when everything runs on electricity as is being proposed? These two points make us very vulnerable to technological catastrophes.

3. …online social world paralleling ‘real world’s cognitive processes…
possibility for the special properties of social media to impact on ‘real life’ in unforeseen ways

3rd conclusion is less certain and is more speculative – they are aware of the growing impact but importantly there are many unforeseen ways that might impact on us

‘The problem with the internet,’ Firth explained, ‘is that our brains seem to quickly figure out it’s there and outsource. This would be fine if we could rely on the internet for information the same way we rely on, say, the British Library. But what happens when we subconsciously outsource a complex cognitive function to an unreliable online world manipulated by capitalist interests and agents of distortion? ‘What happens to children born in a world where transactive memory is no longer as widely exercised as a cognitive function?’, he asked.

the Guardian newspaper, article

The outcome to this conversation was an awareness of the need to develop response strategies as artists to the emerging evidence that the online brain is changing us

This conversation was useful in terms of raising my awareness of the influence of the computers and the web on my workflow and ways of thinking and how I need to be vigilant.

The following are some of the strategies I have adopted:

Use the computer as a tool to making, documenting and communicating during interludes in making. This interlude creates a space from the physical, material activity which changes the mental space and refreshes the mind. I find myself stepping from making to writing and post-producing photographs in a constant cycle of production with my brain engaging in two forms of function linked by the same activity. This physical workflow is a conversation between the outer and inner-world interacting physically. I feel it is dangerous to ignore the fact that we are physical beings, symbolic life is not actual life.

Jonathan introduced Doug Belshaw’s response:

Doug Belshaw who writes a lot about ‘digital literacies’ has 3 initial thoughts on how to respond:
1. seek other networks
2. look for voices you want to give attention to
3. avoid constipation!
1. deliberately look for networks to engage with – eg this course right now, or more decentralised online networks – where money making is not the main issue
2. look for interesting people – not just on social media – look for newsletters, zines, blogs, podcasts – slower forms of online engagement?
3. horrible metaphor!! but — massive info consumption – gets stuck – need better throughput! — careful reflective writing can really help – extract the nutrients from what reading listening to etc.

Jonathan ended the chat with the same statement he started with:

our attention is sovereign
1. we decide where we put our attention
2. in acknowledging this – we take responsibility
… where we put our attention
… past and future

Skype Chat 4.3: A Philosophical Interlude

Tomorrow is the deadline for the Research Statement submission which probably explains why there were fewer of us online today. This meant that we had a more free wheeling discussion taking a philosophical direction towards the end.

We also talked about the blog curation process. How it can help to highlight repeating patterns, continuous thread of thought, and the provenance of apparently spontaneous ideas.

But first we were asked a few questions regarding the structure of the course in relation the Research Statement. The main benefits I have experienced have been, the ample time frame allowing flexibility to develop, change and mature ideas.

Although it has affected the time available for making, it has broadened my horizons within a focused beam of 4000 words. A limited number that has meant I have had to pare away to get to the core of an idea; this core bearing many buds for future thoughts: an exercise in prioritising ideas.

It also helped to focus the aims and objectives of the project proposal and given me a framework for formulating a new artist’s statement. The RS can also be adapted to essay form for publication and is a starting point for further academic studies should I wish to pursue such a direction.

The statement also moved my centre of interest squarely onto my practice rather than focusing on hobby horses and peripheral concerns, which is my tendency. These are still embedded in the RS but in the background and not as principle notions.

Jonathan said: “Alexis – yes the essence of the content can easily be restructured to other contexts, for example if you were applying for funding and needed to write a section of ‘rationale’ you might use a couple of paragraphs from the research paper?”

Another thing pointed out is that 4000 words equates roughly to a 20 minute talk which is a standard time allocation in conferences.

Writing a research paper is possibly the most ‘critical’ way of developing conceptual and abstract skills than might be useful in the future helping to: formulate and articulate and argue ideas.

The philosophical discussion centred on the existential idea of purpose.

A PDF of the whole dialogue can be read here.

Skype Chat 4.2: Making Sense of the World

Jonathan presented a video split in four parts, looking at William Kentridge describing aspects of his methodology. Full video

Kentridge is one of the few artists today that makes sense in that what he says matches with what he does, yet he leaves things open to the imagination and does not close his argument. His very straight forward description of how he works is refreshing and authentic, telling us how his work has arisen out of his own shortcomings. This reminds me of what Delcroix once said, (I have mentioned this elsewhere in the blog) make your weaknesses your strengths).

Kentridge’s work arises out of the process of its own making, finding its purpose in the moment. Not withstanding this, his videos and animations are carefully planned, they could not be otherwise. He works with contingencies that arise out of his process, not as one might think uncertainty.

Whereas contingency is about events that can not be predicted, uncertainty is the psychological state of anticipation of contingent or uncertain events. Kentridge allows contingency to direct his process, certain of what he is doing but unable to predict the outcome.

His working process for the animations gives him time to reflect in action between takes and therefore develop a narrative that evolves spontaneously under his direction. This last aspect is very important because he is in full control of what he does but allows the material to e itself from which he infers his direction. This also produces discontinuities that subliminally offer interpretations that become more concrete as moments in the narrative accrete not to mention surprising aesthetic moments.

We talked about our respective speeds of working and how that impacts on our work. How time is needed to reflect and think about what we are doing and next steps. Also using process surprises as a source of inspiration and ideas. How the unpredictable is a source of creativity. This brings to mind Margaret Boden’s idea of creativity being something surprising, novel and of value. What value means in this context is an interesting question, one I shall leave for now.

The fracturing of narratives and of objects could be seen as a reflection of contemporary society. And his fracturing of time and coalescing dialogues in conversation over different time frames in one scene to me is like the reformation of the self. An internal dialogue made external in the work. It holds up a mirror to how we think and act. Kentridge to my mind is attempting to express an order out of chaos, bring to light evanescent correspondences. He is rediscovering the world.

 ‘make sense of the world, rather than an instruction of what the world means’

What Kentridge appears to be doing is to reform his perception of the world in an act of reconciliation with it. He is coming to terms with the world as it is rather than trying to explain why it is like that at all. He is perhaps saying that one does not have to look for meaning, for purpose; rather just wonder at it and discover how marvellous it is; how subjectivity is important in our perception of the world.

Jonathan asked me, Alexis in your working process are you ‘making sense of the world’?
Me: I suppose I [am] by embracing the world as it is and responding to it in some way.
Jonathan: Alexis through the material first and foremost?
Me: I suppose I a materialist in the way I work
But material without thought is inert
material can be moved by the imagination and flexed into different modes

Another thing Kentridge says is that looking for certainty is futile. The future is a question of probabilites, and that way of thinking is counterintuitive for us humans. We are programmed to seek certainty: if you are certain that that tiger will eat you, you live on to pass on that idea. Certainty is how we try to make sense of the world, but uncertainty is the way the world works. The two concepts are at odds. The former is comforting, the latter disquieting.

However, what Kentridge is getting at is perhaps more socio-political. Certainty leads to being dogmatic, being uncertain more likely to engender exploration. He describes how dogmatic individuals raise their voice and assert they standpoint loudly as though to counteract the quiet voice of uncertainty, of questioning.

Jonathan always bring things back to artistic practice, which is so useful:

certainty can be dogmatic and arrogant but often the perceived certainty is not very solid and the reality is much more uncertain – the value of art can be argued is in that it actively engages with uncertainty in order to discover new possibilities, ideas, surprises etc etc

Another notion briefly alighted on was that of undertainty and purpose being entwinned but decoupled, not necessarily causally related. This is the point where I thought of the term used in quantum theory, entanglement. 

The final video clip catalysed a discussion about self criticism of one’s own practice. How fragile one can be in the moment of observing one’s own work. Jonathan left us with these quotes:

‘The sane human being is satisfied that the best he/she can do at any given moment is the best he/she can do at any given moment…

Making art provides uncomfortably accurate feedback about the gap that inevitably exists between what you intended to do, and what you did…

To all viewers but yourself, what matters is the product: the finished artwork.

To you, and you alone, what matters is the process: the experience of shaping that artwork.

The viewers’ concerns are not your concerns (although it’s dangerously easy to adopt their attitudes.) Their job is whatever it is: to be moved by art, to be entertained by it, to make a killing off it, whatever.

Your job is to learn to work on your work.

Skype Chat 3.3: Four Assumptions


Over a week ago I was travelling back from Cluj Napoca, sitting at the Chiorean’s dinner table with laptop next to me trying to follow the conversation as it transpassed me online. The framework around which the chat revolved were four sets of assumptions taken from Art and Fear: Observations on the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking by David Bayles and Ted Orland.

The following assumption can generate highly personal and interested arguments that can contradict, overlap and synthesise. I have put them below to reflect on. Much of what is said is self evident in the light of experience but to those new to artistic practice they may help to clarify the confusion that can come from  lack of knowledge and experience, ambition, received notions and the weight of art history. These writings largely confirm what I have come to know over years of hard work, triumphs and disappointments. The essence of these notions, after they are made one’s own, make the act of making, of creating, of art so much more authentic. That is why I say, each to their own, art cannot be canonised but for one’s own eventual authority in what one does.




The conventional wisdom here is that while “craft” can be taught, “art” remains a magical gift bestowed only by the gods. Not so. In large measure becoming an artist consists of learning to accept yourself, which makes your work personal, and in following your own voice, which makes your work distinctive. Clearly, these qualities can be nurtured by others. Even talent is rarely distinguishable, over the long run, from perseverance and lots of hard work. It is true that every few years the authors encounter some beginning photography student whose first-semester prints appear as finely crafted as any Ansel Adams might have made. And it is true that a natural gift like that (especially coming at the fragile early learning stage) returns priceless encouragement to its maker. But all that has nothing to do with artistic content. Rather, it simply points up the fact that most of us (including Adams himself!) had to work years to perfect our art.

Creatures having only virtues can hardly be imagined making art. It is difïcult to picture the Virgin Mary painting landscapes. Or Batman throwing pots. The flawless creature would not need to make art. And so, ironically, the ideal artist is scarcely a theoretical figure at all. If art is made by ordinary people, then you would have to allow that the ideal artist would be an ordinary person too, with the whole usual mixed bag of traits that real human beings possess. This is a giant hint about art, because it suggests that our flaws and weaknesses, while often obstacles to our getting work done, are a source of strength as well. Something about making art has to do with overcoming things, giving us a clear opportunity for doing things in ways we have always known we should do them.

The sane human being is satisfied that the best he/she can do at any given moment is the best he/she can do at any given moment. That belief, if widely embraced, would make this book unnecessary, false, or both. Such sanity is, unfortunately, rare. Making art provides uncomfortably accurate feedback about the gap that inevitably exists between what you intended to do, and what you did. In fact, if artmaking did not tell you (the maker) so enormously much about yourself, then making art that matters to you would be impossible. To all viewers but yourself, what matters is the product: the finished artwork. To you, and you alone, what matters is the process: the experience of shaping that artwork. The viewers’ concerns are not your concerns (although it is dangerously easy to adopt their attitudes.) Their job is whatever it is: to be moved by art, to be entertained by it, to make a killing off it, whatever. Your job is to learn to work on your work.
For the artist, that truth highlights a familiar and predictable corollary: artmaking can be a rather lonely, thankless affair. Virtually all artists spend some of their time (and some artists spend virtually all of their time) producing work that no one else much cares about. It just seems to come with the territory. But for some reason of self-defense, perhaps artists find it tempting to romanticize this lack of response, often by (heroically) picturing themselves peering deeply into the underlying nature of things long before anyone else has eyes to follow.
Romantic, but wrong. The sobering truth is that the disinterest of others hardly ever reflects a gulf in vision. In fact there is generally no good reason why others should care about most of any one artist’s work. The function of the overwhelming majority of your artwork is simply to teach you how to make the small fraction of your artwork that soars. One of the basic and dificult lessons every artist must learn is that even the failed pieces are essential. X-rays of famous paintings reveal that even master artists sometimes made basic mid-course corrections (or deleted really dumb mistakes) by overpainting the still-wet canvas. The point is that you learn how to make your work by making your work, and a great many of the pieces you make along the way will never stand out as finished art. The best you can do is make art you care about – and lots of it!
The rest is largely a matter of perseverance. Of course once you are famous, collectors and academics will circle back in droves to claim credit for spotting evidence of genius in every early piece. But until your ship comes in, the only people who will really care about your work are those who care about you personally. Those close to you know that making the work is essential to your well being. They will always care about your work, if not because it is great, then because it is yours, and this is something to be genuinely thankful for. Yet however much they love you, it still remains as true for them as for the rest of the world: learning to make your work is not their problem.

Through most of history, the people who made art never thought of themselves as making art. In fact it is quite presumable that art was being made long before the rise of consciousness, long before the pronoun “I” was ever employed. The painters of caves, quite apart from not thinking of themselves as artists, probably never thought of themselves at all. What this suggests, among other things, is that the current view equating art with “self-expression” reveals more a contemporary bias in our thinking than an underlying trait of the medium. Even the separation of art from craft is largely a post-Renaissance concept, and more recent still is the notion that art transcends what you do, and represents what you are. In the past few centuries Western art has moved from unsigned tableaus of orthodox religious scenes to one-person displays of personal cosmologies. The term “Artist” has gradually become a form of identity which (as every artist knows) often carries with it as many drawbacks as benefits. Consider that if “artist” equals self, then when (inevitably) you make flawed art, you are a flawed person, and when (worse yet) you make no art, you are no person at all! It seems far healthier to sidestep that vicious spiral by accepting many paths to successful artmaking; from reclusive to flamboyant, intuitive to intellectual, folk art to fine art. One of those paths is yours.