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.