The data processing of a given society can be reconstructed by analyzing its artistic media.¹ (Friedrich Kittler)
In an age of screen-based mediation, there arises a desire for firstness — a sense of direct experience. This desire taps into the dreams of Web3, in which techniques to take away intermediary barriers are intended to close the gaps between oneself and others in a technological environment. The unstated mantra here may be to remove the middle — that which mediates — and you shall be free.
In media-based art practice, the desire for firstness sometimes gets equated with techniques that merge the worlds of the digital and the real by transforming the domain of the flesh into hyperrealistic, HD simulations, as if we all lived inside a cyberpunk video game. But this is not the only process artists consider when searching for a way to balance direct and mediated experience.
Another, more deeply haptic and historically considered, form of practice charts out new parameters of interaction through terms that oppose these sleek, polished, and smooth surfaces. Works by artists like LoVid, Travess Smalley, and Tauba Auerbach, among many others, integrate the analog with digital considerations to produce noisy, textured, and ornamental work that looks both handmade and algorithmically generative.
There are plenty more artists whose work fits within the scope of the condition I refer to as pattern anarchy — a phrase I’ve found useful for considering artworks that achieve a form of surface tension necessary for creating new modes of perception.
But hopefully, by noting this prevalent condition in art practice, other writers, artists, and curators can take up and add to this genealogy.
There is an element of disorder in these patterned compositions, recalling sci-fi author Bruce Sterling’s well-known invocation of the World Wide Web of the 1990s as a “true, modern, functional anarchy.”² But the informal and open-ended nature of cyberspace is not the only layer of anarchy in these works. There is a long history recalled by these patterns going back to practitioners of video in the 1970s, who played with both analog and digital synthesizers as a form of sound and image processing to expand one’s connections to the screen-based world through tactile interactions. This dimension of tactility expresses itself as a sort of surface tension between what media theorist Giuliana Bruno refers to as the immaterial and material relations of an image.³
For Bruno, an image is fundamentally a material surface, with unseen and textual relationships that bring it into being: it is never constant or known, as these relationships shift over time.
An additional social history plays out through these patterned surfaces that resonate with histories of gender, indigeneity, and technology, from the recruitment of Navajo women to work in semiconductor factories in the 1960s to video artist Beryl Korot’s descriptions in the ’70s of video as an extension of her own weaving practice. So, too, is there a seeming anarchy in the freewheeling play among sources past and present to render a more tactile, viscerally felt experience in the world around and the layers of social history woven into it. Firstness, then, may require many layers of mediation.
In what follows, I will describe some of the more pervasive dynamics of pattern anarchy. These dynamics include a self-awareness and indebtedness to older media formats and a focus on ornament as a form of perceptual pattern recognition that allows humans to make sense out of noise generated by both humans and other-than-humans in a common environment. Perhaps just as important to understanding pattern anarchy is how, as a condition particular to a certain time and place in history, its techniques cut across categories of age, geography, and materials. This corresponds to the appearance of works by several such artists on crypto platforms, where a leveling of intergenerational art-making takes place.
To participate in pattern anarchy is to be aware of an ongoing history of hybrid art-and-tech practices. LoVid has been making analog signal-based work since the early 2000s, with the physical, hybrid, and connective potential of handmade electronics at the forefront of their concerns. In recent work, they have enlivened their earlier explorations with the expressive, unpredictable weirdness of handmade tools in works suited for the Web3 age.
Their Hugs on Tape (2022) series of animations and fabric works emphasizes the tension between noise and signal across tactile image surfaces. The effect is transformative — bringing people into closer contact with each other and with their technical environment. For Hugs on Tape, LoVid remixes recordings of unfinished work produced on analog equipment with more recent video files of friends and acquaintances caught up in an embrace. The combination allows for the outlines of the humans (and at least one dog) to persist, while the background and foreground are covered all over in generative analog video recordings.
The effect is one of chroma-key special effects gone awry.
Despite remixing through techniques involving resizing, mirroring, and cropping, there’s no change to the original coloring of the files. According to the artists, “all colors are 100% analog-produced kosher.” By retaining traces of analog color, the newer works still call forth memories of personal importance to the artists. Sometimes these memories are as specific as knowing exactly which recording a clip comes from, but they can just as easily recall a general time frame when LoVid was working with a specific set of signal patterns.
Looking to the past, the tactile effects of video synths and processors in the 1960s and ’70s led to the generation of numerous and varied colorful images with a similarly thick, utterly wobbly presence. According to art and media historian Gregory Zinman, who has written extensively on these intermedia works under the rubric of “handmade cinema,” they are more than a purely aesthetic exercise. Rather, they have carved out “new audiovisual horizons and helped users and audiences envision a radical new sociality.”⁴
Other artists are also experimenting with analog and digital relations to achieve haptic effects, synthesizing new ways of perceiving and being in the world. Sarah Zucker’s process involves working in video — starting out digitally, then proceeding via “an analog ecosystem: vintage broadcast gear, modified devices, feedback circuits, camcorders pointed at TVs [...] to get different colors and explosions of light.”
For Zucker, her patterned surfaces are “explosions” that seem to revel in a space between order and chaos, without either winning out.
This tension is also evident in Andrew Benson’s generative series, Active Gestures (2021), which mixes hand-drawn forms with other material effects such as plumes of smoke and an apparent slowing down of time, which, when layered with the sleekness of the now leads to uncanny, shadowy effects. Another generative series, Travess Smalley’s Pixel Rugs (2021-23), gives the impression of digital circuit boards that have been covered over in too many generative layers. It’s difficult to distinguish where order ends and the entropy begins in this topology of melting surfaces.
The all-over patterning seen in works by Benson, LoVid, and Smalley is not restricted to artists utilizing generative techniques nor to artists with screen-based practices. Rather, there’s an overall sense of pattern recognition — that is, at a basic level, the ability to pick out meaning from an abundance of information, that takes place in a variety of aesthetic practices with media. Pattern recognition is an attempt to make sense out of noise regardless of whether that signal results in text or image.
For Shawné Michaelain Holloway, pattern recognition is a form of poetry. The artist’s i would’ve said goodbye if i thought you loved me back (2021), a multi-monitor installation and website, features endlessly looping text and images alluding to sex, love, and control. The sense of space is shallow, with objects encased in bubbles crowding out the narrative scrolling across the screen. The choice of Arial as a generic, sans-serif typeface that moves from the bottom register to the top edge of the screen recalls Richard Serra and Carlota Fay Schoolman’s canonical Television Delivers People (1973) while rejecting its didacticism.
Holloway’s installation severs any sense of screens as flat, neutral surfaces onto which meaning can be inscribed — it’s hard enough for the senses to find the flow of words.
For Holloway, the work channels an “aesthetics of accumulation,” built up through a “vocabulary of loss using poetry and 3D objects that pile up and overflow.” To find and mark meaning through poetry is, like pattern recognition, a process of making sense of noise as well as the relations between lonely nodes that “pile up and overflow.”
The poetic and signaletic can make bearable the restricted logic of 1s and 0s. While techniques of pattern anarchy can assist with the ecological reinscription of human bodies into a world of machinic and organic others. Tauba Auerbach and Anicka Yi are both well-known for works that consider the role of pattern and algorithm in different material sources, from algae — as in Yi’s Living and Dying In The Bacteriacene (2019) — to glass beads in Auerbach’s Auto Org series (2022).
Among Auerbach’s primary concerns is the physical revelation of the infinite. In Auto Org, this revelation takes the form of a physical analog for an abstract algorithm, stitched together by hand into an undulating, lively pearlescent structure that could go on forever. Similarly, Auerbach’s Heat Current (2020) series of infrared photographs depicting thermal energy flows are relatively low-tech models of seemingly advanced technological processes — the heat signatures traced by these bird’s-eye photographs were made in a bathtub.
The art historian Caroline A. Jones recently described how Auerbach’s work has “always been premised on inducing a visceral reaction to abstruse ideas” by engaging with “human consciousness in a universe defined not by computation but by ‘the cloud of possibilities’ driving matter and energy in a complicated world.” How we understand the world’s basis in the relationship between quantifiable and non-quantifiable entities matters.
But it is only somatic experiences — with both artificial and organic matter — that allow the fullest exploration of that which can and cannot be explained through computation.
The pattern anarchy taking place in contemporary practice intervenes in the present by providing an alternative vision with which to consider hyperreal environments. Work that considers the surface as a gathering of hybrid processes allows for the re g finscription of humans into a world of technical, organic, and otherwise composite forms that engenders new forms of affect. Instead of trying to fit into the already commercialized narratives of Web3, the shape of the world to come remains unknown, just as it did in the hopeful anarchy of the ’90s Internet.
Corinna Kirsch is a historian of post-war and contemporary art and design focused on conceptual and intermedia practices of the 1960s and ’70s and their afterlives in present-day forms of digital media. She holds a PhD in Art History from Stony Brook University, where she completed a dissertation on the conceptual artist Les Levine and how communications media helped shape art’s engagement with socio-political concerns around 1970. Her writing has appeared in both popular and academic publications ranging from VICE to the IEEE Annals of the History of Computing. As the O’Brien Curatorial Fellow, she curated exhibitions for the Weisman Art Museum at the University of Minnesota. She is also a recipient of the C Magazine New Critics Award.
¹ F Kittler, “A Discourse on Discourse,” Stanford Literature Review, Vol. 3, no. 1, Spring 1986, 159.
² B Sterling, “A Short History of the Internet,” Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, February 1993, Soda City.
³ G Bruno, Surface: Matters of Aesthetics, Materiality, and Media (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2014).
⁴ G Zinman, Making Images Move: Handmade Cinema and the Other Arts, Oakland, CA: University of California Press, 2020, 219.