Norman T. White: a short autobiography and credo
Art as pure self-expression doesn't interest me very much. Self-expression inevitably creeps into art, but I would prefer that it sneak in through some back-door. For me, Art comes alive only when it provides a framework for asking questions. Science provides that framework too, but 'good science' is too constrained for me. I would rather ask questions that simultaneously address a multitude of worlds... from living organisms to culture to confusion and rust. Only art can give me that generality.
I remember, in my student days, discovering the notebook drawings -- studies of clouds and faces -- by Leonardo DaVinci . Though powerful as visual compositions, these obviously had for Leonardo a more central purpose. They were really inquiries into invisible shaping forces. Here truly was art-as-question, rooted in human ignorance, yet struggling magnificently toward understanding fundamental principles of existence.
Artistic inquiries often come down to a search for pattern, both pattern which can be seen and recorded directly through graphics, and pattern which can not. Like most artists, I began my studies with the former, absorbed in the dynamics of juxtaposed colour and form. Passionately curious about the fact that my mechanisms of seeing were a critical part of those dynamics, I found myself continually returning to studies involved with perception. An extended period of traveling in the Middle East brought me in contact with Islamic Art, which had a huge influence on me. Using interlocking visual pattern, Islamic Art talks about the logical interaction and geometry which lies at the heart of everything around us, be it visible or non-visible, energy or substance, organic or inorganic. It brought me back to thinking about invisible forces: Is it possible that all the seemingly random phenomena of the universe really derived from surprisingly few constant, basic principles interacting in a complex and out-of-phase way? Of course the "seemingly" played a big part in the question. How much does our perceptual make-up help us, or hinder us, in understanding those principles?
Only I wanted to explore invisible forces using those same invisible forces. Beginning in 1966, I began to build kinetic electronic devices, which I referred to loosely as "machines", deliberately contrived to have minimal visual appeal, yet a strong behavioral dimension. I was fascinated by the idea of a device which had an unpredictable "life of its own", a set of internal rules and cycles which gave it a characteristic behavior somehow accessible to onlookers. In various works up to 1976, this fascination found expression as moving light patterns on large grids of light bulbs. The generating system inevitably consisted of digital logic circuits, interconnected in a way which presented a logical question. These circuits would then go about answering that question, but the answer would be unpredictable and never complete. Individual light patterns might repeat, and the texture of pattern might be a constant, but the actual sequence of patterns would be non-repeating... as least as far as the human eye or brain could tell. I liked the fact that no photograph or video could record the full essence of the piece; one had to be present with the work to fully appreciate its behavior. By varying the logic circuits, I was able, from 1966 to 1975, to create ten or twelve machines which all generated complex behavior from simple principles. Then, in 1976, prompted perhaps by momentous events in my life (work on a major art commission, and the birth of my daughter, Laura), I suddenly became tired of generating disorder from order, and decided to attempt something much more difficult: artificially finding order within disorder!
The day my daughter was born, I celebrated by buying my first computer, a "Motorola D-1". It wasn't much of a computer (a little over 200 bytes of memory, no high- level language, and a slow, unreliable interface to an audio cassette recorder for program storage), but for me it presented a formidable tool for my new direction of exploration. Whereas before my questions were phrased in a permanent "hard-wired" way, I could now create situations where the machine could modify itself, since the old circuits were now expressed as inherently mutable software.
My first major project with the little D-1 computer was a perception machine, called "Facing Out Laying Low", or "FOLL" for short. The thing was a kind of robot, since it had a limited capacity for self-determined motion. It couldn't, however, move about in a room, but simply rotate itself on a vertical axis, and move a light-sensing scanner on a horizontal axis. The machine was programmed to learn the ambient light patterns of the space in which it was placed, and to look for significant deviations in those patterns. By remembering the coordinates of such deviations, it was able to learn the traffic patterns of passers-by within the space. Because it could only look in one direction at a time, it had to constantly re-scan the areas where it found activity in the past, occasionally checking inactive areas, "just in case". If a formerly active area ceased to live up to expectation, it was gradually forgotten. FOLL's only mode of output, other than motion, was its non-verbal voice. It expressed its "surprise" with a fluctuating trill, whose tonal patterns reflected its level of stimulation and excitement. Internally, the computer was continuously adjusting thresholds of sensory significance; it would just as easily tune out areas of constant high activity as low ones. Although the machine's behavior was generated by a fairly simple program, the combination of its present and past experience was inevitably unique in some subtle way, and FOLL's responses were seldom predictable.
I continued to work on Facing Out Laying Low, on and off, for a number of years, gradually expanding its memory and updating its internal computer. In that process, I switched from light bulbs to motors, pulleys, and gears, as principal output devices. I knew this would shorten the life expectancy of my creations, since mechanical parts wear out faster than light bulbs, and are much harder to replace. The fact was, I was discovering the beauty of wear and break-down. It was another aspect of loosening control.
I also decided I liked the sound of gnashing gears and clanking parts! I suppose it was a reaction to the way computer technology was developing around me at the time. There was this fascination with dematerialism, all in the name of speed and efficiency. As the 70's came to an end, artists were starting to use computers in a big way. But there was a boring aspect to this otherwise exciting invasion in that 99.9% of the art-work done on computers was limited to graphics! The essential aspect of the computer was forgotten in a rush to make the pixilated computer screen work as well as paint and paper. Rarely did artists realize that a computer's unique strength was its ability to play with such existentially-crucial forces as logic, neg-entropy, probability, introspection, and paradox. To my dismay, the standard saying among artists became: "Oh, the computer... it's just another tool."
Even to this day, twenty years later, very few artists have discovered that the computer is far more than a tool. A tool is a device designed to perform a set of very particular functions. On the other hand, the functionality of a computer is open ended. Its full scope is not, and can never be, fully understood, even by its designers. The entire notion of information processing is a cipher, expanding as consciousness expands, its fullest significance always remaining beyond our grasp. It is as though we have accidentally hooked ourselves onto the tip of a horn of the beast at the heart of the existential labyrinth. Part of the problem lies in the word, "computer", itself. The name implies willfulness and constrained result. It would be far better to call it "fun-house mirror", so that we are reminded how it can take our intention and throw it back to us as a surprising metamorphosis. Potentially, that metamorphosis provides a conceptual bridge to a wholly new pattern of thought and investigation.
Thanks to the "fun-house mirror" effect, my work has been able to liberate itself from tight human control and expectation. Another part of that liberation is a liberation of context. I believe that for too long, society has clung to the idea that art galleries are integral to art practice. The result has been the alienation of large sectors of a society who feel intimidated by the highly controlled, self-conscious aura of the average art gallery. My projects in the last ten years have therefore included strategies to bring art to all people of a given place, especially those people who would never enter a gallery willingly. Often, the most effective way to do this is by presenting the work in non-gallery settings, anonymously, without labels or explanations. In this way, the work, itself already released from strict control, is set loose into a social situation which is further open-ended. Hopefully, some form of the question at the heart of the work rubs off on the people which encounter it.
The above text was submitted to Arte No Seculo XXI,
a symposium held recently in Sao Paolo, Brasil,
for publication on their soon-to-be-released book and CD.
Re-printed with the kind permission of Diana Domingues.