In Search of the Correct Algorithm

In looking at the world, I have often wondered how things work, and at the same time I have understood that behind each painting, photograph, piece of music, writing or physical skill lie implicit rules that are being followed in order to produce such results. The search for these rules and the ability to reproduce similar results myself is a big motivating factor for me to invest myself in any activity. I don’t like to be ignorant or incapable, especially not simultaneously!

To my mind there must be implicit rules that are discoverable and reproducible, otherwise there would be no link between cause and effect and everything would be random. If this were the case we could never construct a foundation of knowledge that could be further built upon, and in short we could never improve. But as humans we excel in inferring rules, most of the time doing so unconsciously, so when we deliberately set out to uncover, retest and refine our theories for what these rules might be we push back against the darkness, the mystery and the incomprehensible that surround us in plain sight. The closer we come to defining the underlying mechanics of things, the more power we are granted over the state of the world and our place within it.

One of the reasons I like art is because of the mystery that surrounds art-produce. “How did they do that?” is a common question that arises when I am confronted by certain works of art, and strangely enough, I am sometimes able to experience this feeling with my own work if enough time to allow me to be in a significantly different state of mind has passed. This is perhaps the closest I can ever come to viewing my work objectively. The feeling of this gap between myself and the mind of another artist or past version of myself may account for a large part of what I find interesting about art. Being both human, we seem to at once be so near, and at the same time so far, as one has produced the work, while the other watches in awe.

Analysing photography made me realise not only how much context was missing from photographs, but also how important that context is. Now I realise that the same is also true, not just of other image-based media, but of all art, from dance to music and poetry. This lack of context seems to be the source of at least some of the mystery.

What do I mean by context? In the case of a photograph for example, the context includes further information about the physical space in which the photograph was taken – i.e. that which lies outside of the frame, who the photographer is, why they are there, what their intentions were etc. In other art-forms where the process is significantly longer than the time it takes to make a photograph, the context is wrapped up in time, with lots of thin layers all built upon one-another, as opposed to a single, split-second event that largely determines the final outcome.

Context includes information such as the specific tools used, and the length of time that was required to produce the work. Some artists provide such information in a conventional way: ‘oil on canvas, 40x50cm, 1995’ for example. In such instances the format or style seems less to do with restoring context, and more about following tradition.

The band Rachel’s once wrote in the accompanying notes to one of their albums, how much cheese was consumed during the creation process. As bizarre as it may seem though, this is very interesting from a contextual point of view, as it demonstrates very clearly that behind the scenes lies a great deal that we will often not even think about or be able to imagine, and more importantly, it restores humanity to the otherwise mysterious artist.

A great deal goes on in the process of making an exposure that is not at all obvious to someone else seeing the result later. This will never prevent art critics and historians from supplying their own interpretations, which may be extremely interesting but not necessarily have anything to do with the circumstances and intentions of the photographer.

– Michael Freeman, The Photographer’s Eye

This acknowledgement that an information compressing process has taken place is what causes me to wonder about what pieces might be missing, and how although the picture is complete, the picture is incomplete.

It may appear to contradict my own preferences, but what I would like to do is to de-mystify art, not just so that I can have the satisfaction of understanding and being able to do it myself, but so that other people can benefit from and appreciate the same too.

This idea of de-mystifying a mysterious subject seems to be a common motivator for me, and I believe its significance to be the same regardless of what the subject is.

From a distance, everything is mysterious, languages when they are foreign, music when we don’t know how to read or play, let alone compose, and so on. Unless you are familiar with programming languages you will probably see a meaningless jumble if you were to look at the code of any webpage, but for the initiated it all makes sense! It is not only understandable or decipherable, it is normal, and this is exactly how an artist sees his art. It is only during the learning process that we are granted the chance to experience that moment of enlightenment as you cross the boundary from the outside to the inside.

What I find though, is that modern art seems to deliberately go to lengths in order to keep itself and its context obscured, with artists themselves remaining behind an impenetrable barrier of banal convention. It is as if art were The Magic Circle, and all who wish to join are sworn to obey the code and never to reveal its secrets. In the case of technical skills, I have witnessed people refusing to share them for the purpose of maintaining their sense of self which would otherwise be diminished by more people knowing and doing the same. Everyone knows that once you show how a trick is done, the magic evaporates, and so does the crowd.

But if mystery is what makes art (and life) interesting, then why would you want to destroy such a thing? Shouldn’t we treasure mystery instead of poking it with a stick and shining a bright light in its face?

The short answer is no. In my own case, my curiosity is far greater than any leftover sense of mystery-worship that I might have inherited from my childhood, therefore I prefer to know how and why something is a certain way, or produces a certain effect, instead of just remaining content with the experience alone.

One of the reasons we shouldn’t content ourselves with mystery is because we may come to believe that mystery is part of the territory, instead of being a characteristic of the map. When we enjoy mystery we are in danger of celebrating our own ignorance instead of doing something about it. I’m not warning against feeling entertained by a magic show or getting swept up in the beauty of a performance, but rather, I am specifically referring to those moments when you find yourself saying “I wonder how”… and instead of following that initial curiosity to its logical conclusion, you stuff a sock into its mouth, place an old sack over its head and bundle it into the back of a dark blue Mazda to be whisked off to a faraway place called “I guess we’ll never know…“, where it will be greeted with not a handshake or the barrel of a gun, but a harmless and dismissive shrug of the shoulders.

Mystery is simply a specific case of a more general phenomenon, which is known as ‘not knowing stuff’. Some stuff you may not know, but which is unlikely to be mysterious includes: the time right now, how to successfully make baked Alaska, Rumplestiltskin’s name, what the weather was like on your first birthday, and what a bird’s penis looks like. Okay, that last one is quite mysterious.