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Beyond the Algorithm | Towards the Infinite

­Laura Davidson | Catalogue Essay for From Centre (2015)

This essay first appeared in the From Centre catalogue for the exhibition jointly curated by Saturation Point Projects and Slate  Projects.

©Copyright Patrick Morrissey and Clive Hancock  All rights reserved.

September 1993 is an important footnote in the social history of the internet. Referred to as ‘Eternal September', it is the date when AOL first began offering internet subscription services to the mass market. Early adopters of the web were a tight community and this sudden influx of new people changed the dynamic of the net; it had begun as an intimate place.  When the amount of people connecting to the internet consistently grew, month on month, it was as if September had never ended.  For this group cyberspace quickly grew into an intricate sprawl. As the amount of people connecting to the internet is still growing, we are still living in the moment of ‘Eternal September’.  After this juncture our realities rapidly shifted towards a culture of mass information and ubiquitous computing, where infinity became lived rather than just conceptual.

Just like the constant stream of new users to the internet during September 1993, our computational structures are not designed to contain quantities, which reduce or remain static. We are governed by calculations that are designed not to cease, and are in fact predicted to accelerate rapidly, with no conceptual end. Instead of getting rich from mining minerals, we discuss the vast wealth of data we can mine. And unlike finite materials, data can rapidly be found, regenerated and moved. Ubiquitous computing has allowed what was once immaterial to become valuable material.  Algorithms are often generically articulated as the filtering architecture of this new gold.  A rational agent setting parameters around data streams with limitless horizons. The algorithm has become a modern myth; a buzzword for the zeitgeist whilst governing our lives like a monotheistic deity we don't really know well enough to disrupt.  To attest to this using an example from the art world: Artsy capitalised on the significance of algorithms in popular culture by hosting the world's first algorithm auction in March this year.

In all honesty, using 'algorithmic' as a descriptor has become that person at a private view you want to gently remove yourself from. Luckily it seems like other people are heading for the exit too, leaving the tedious algorithm alone to parse water into all the wine it wants. At the conference 'Governing Algorithms' in New York in 2013, three insurgents wrote a manifesto asking for more specificity when using the term. Governing Algorithms: A Provocation Piece(1) continually incites the reader to consider what they actually mean when they are discussing or referring to algorithms. The authors appear to be asking us to seek out alternative terms and concepts to interrogate in reference to the popular interest in computational culture. Reductive, geometric and systems practices have indeed been described as algorithmic. This is not in itself an incorrect judgement; set parameters are very much articulated within working processes and aesthetics.  However, there is a need to push beyond this - to consider the new space of enquiry that ubiquitous computing has enabled in the contemporary context. We need to turn the algorithm inside out and examine what is happening in its interior.

With infinite data the algorithm becomes a space defined by an interior material that retains spatio-temporal qualities. Process no longer has to be limited by parameters predefining the variables of a space, action, duration or form (for example). Perhaps, then, the current challenge emerging for artists working with a reductive approach is negotiating a culture governed by machines capable of processing computational data to infinity.  Reductive art has to negotiate its own 'Eternal September' where a culture of mass information commands that there are inputs without end. The endless and the infinite define our epoch; algorithms are merely the bystanders enabling constant generation of material.

There are glimpses of the infinite in From Centre; in Patrick Morrissey's painting In Awe of Industry (2011) a black square flutters across a white background into a space beyond the surface. The static canvas becomes self-aware, while the iterations of the square fly off its parameters, conscious only of its place within its own internal logic. Similarly, paintings by Charley Peters contain geometric iterations, demonstrating variables concerned only with infinite self-generation beyond the surface. In particular, the introduction of colour gradation in Configuration #31 (2014) and Configuration #32 (2015) suggests an intricate infinity with ceaseless potential for the tonality of colour. Additionally, the titled angle by which the iterations are presented in Configuration #32 (2015) define the static surface as capable only of narrating a cross-section of the shifting geometric system. Whilst the configurations present in both Peters' and Morrissey's paintings propose infinite fluctuations of geometry, the linear is not (yet) generating anarchic forms.

Across Guilia Ricci's Order/Disruption Painting no.2 (2012) an elaborate mass of blue and white triangles reform to spawn shapes within the surface that are not themselves geometric. It seems implausible; the geometric pattern has become wild and uncontrollable. The mutating forms push against the defined linearity of the neighbouring triangles, and what the viewer is seeing is only a screenshot of their regeneration. Instead of having fixed parameters, the triangle in relation to other triangles has endless potential. The disruptive forms ripple out across the patterned surface, as if they have the potential to constantly wobble. Martin Church's painting Definitions (Study No.3) (2009) moves beyond this, with a heaving muddle of geometries, mutating forms and contrasting colours. There are way-points marked around the bursting geometric shape, containing frenzy within. These lines prevent the painting from becoming entirely entropic. Distinct boundaries remain, despite the forms apparent on the canvas holding unlimited probabilities.  There is a metaphor here that is not alien to our lived existence, even if subconscious, to attempt to navigate through a contemporary culture that is shaped by the multitude and infinite possibility.

1.  Barocas, S. Hood, S. Ziewitz, M. (2013) 'Governing Algorithms: A Provocation Piece' [Accessible here:]