Digital Art and Divination: If This, Then That

By JD Jarvis


During the course of life much of what we encounter seems determined by random occurrences and the vagaries of chance. This is as true for us now as it was for our earliest ancestors. Then, as now, our attempts to either control, out guess or, at least, understand nature have often involved certain rituals, performances or operations that serve to put us in the path of randomness. Scattering bones, reading the entrails of sacrificed creatures, tossing coins or dice, reading tea leaves are all actions designed to produce access to randomness. By performing these actions a randomized results or 'read out' is obtained and then it is up to the shaman, wizard, priest, artist or related fiction-worker to interpret, decode and ascribe meaning to whatever has occurred. Without this human mediation a pile of bones remains just a pile of bones.

In order to achieve this these seers must construct some sort of formula or rosette stone by which coded randomness becomes a clear understandable and actionable message. A sort of, 'if this' then that' relationship between the randomized arrangement of magical objects and the meaning that this arrangement reveals must be worked out. It is handy for this transcode to be understood by all, but it is also very important that this reading process be arcane and mysterious enough to allow creativity on the part of the fiction-worker. Without this interpretive 'wiggle space' the whole process risks becoming bogged down and perhaps even questionable since, let's face it, by definition one cannot know what randomness means.

The Art of Divination

Thanks to Modernism in general and Surrealism in particular the specific use of chance operations in the making of art has been with us for quite a long time. Predicated on the then newly founded science of Psychology and the attempt to codify our dreams as a means to illuminate the recently discovered frontiers of the subconscious; chance operations, automatic writing and drawing, trance and seance all became tools in the artist's attempt to come into contact with something outside themselves. Such contact was deemed necessary because of the sense that individuals had at that time that naturalism had run its course and new art demanded new vision and processes.

This feeling was also present in the later era during which I began to explore my own aesthetic frontiers. Included in this study was the very Zen-like approach that John Cage expressed in his writings and used for his sound compositions. I learned a valuable lesson while working on a chance directed video composition, which I had set to music created by John Cage as a sort of homage to his work. By virtue of all the chance operations that controlled numerous parameters a section of this 'kinetic' work of art simply stopped and just sat there while the music raced on ahead. I hated this segment, which seemed to ruin the piece in my opinion.

This brought me to the point where I was torn between sticking with the concept and putting forth a work that I, myself, did not like or 'tweaking' it to satisfy my own prejudices and thereby kicking over the Zen teapot. I decide, out of respect for Cage to let the project run as chance had determined. But I also learned that I could never do that again. My basic rationale for this conclusion is that I can not expect another person to connect to my work if I am not present or somehow actively connected to it myself. Without me actively engaged in what I am making' without some form of humanizing transcode' a pile of bones remains a pile of bones.

Digital Divinations

My recent work utilizing chance operations, like all my recent artwork, employs the use of a digital computer and, specifically, the 'Scatter' plug-in, one of my favorite filters within the venerable Kai Power Tools collection. I developed a selection of ten seed images I call 'the bones.' I use a ten-sided die to select a bone and then toss the same die to determine the settings to be used within all the menus accessed in 'Scatter.' Fortunately, most of these drop-down menus contain 10 variables. Once set, this arrangement becomes one layer in a Photoshop file. I have decided to use no more than three such layers as a nod to my faith in magical numbers.

Of course, I make aesthetic decisions all along the way. I reject settings that result in blank or totally black layers. I frequently override the toss of the die to adjust a scatter in order to accommodate a previous layer. And, once I have what I feel is a viable arrangement I use all the masking, channel chops and layer mixing parameters at my disposal. I paint in other elements and apply drop shadows and color tints wherever my artistic heart desires, defining shapes and pushing some elements back while bring other forward. I try my best to clarify and depict what the originally random composition 'means' to me, while maintaining a detachment with the results.

What I carry with me from my John Cage experience and his Zen approach is that while I may seek my own meaning and attachment to my work for the sake of conveying human presence to whoever might view the work; I do not insist that their story matches my own. I have never believed that art, today, is some form of journalism in which the artist communicates meaning or hopes to tell a specific story.

Chance vs. Randomness

Despite all the machinations that follow a scattering of my digital bones, I have found that sticking to the initial roll of the die that determines the three bones to be used is most important in terms of opening me up to compositions that I would never have imagined or worked out on my own. I use chance to get to a place freed from my internal dogma. I then exercise all the aesthetic maneuvers needed to inject human personality into the piece.

Some works require little or none of this, as chance often delivers results that we immediately respond to with no mediation. But, becoming a slave to chance is the same thing as being a slave to any other kind of dogma or formula. An artist must avoid at all costs the stultifying effect of dogma or even that which has become comfortable. This is the reason why we turn to chance and randomness in the first place.

As I proceed with more work within this series, I have come to consider that there is a difference between randomness and chance. It appears to me, now, that randomness is a true force within nature, while chance is how we humans perceive randomness in action. Chance like the color 'red' exists mainly within our mind. While the electromagnetic waveform that we 'see' as red is present in nature that waveform has no actual color. It is our combined senses and consciousness that makes it what we 'call' red. Similarly, chance is that small part of what we can touch within the greater scope of randomness. Chance allows us to come into contact with the random nature of existence and (particularly, for an artist) to come away from that experience enriched and open to deeper possibilities.

JD Jarvis
Las Cruces, New Mexico, November 2010
Dunking Bird Productions