Archives for the Month of October, 2006

Escher in the Palace

Escher in the Palace

A few Thursday’s back I decided upon a random stopover during a train journey from London to Amsterdam. A literal roll of the dice resulted in The Hague as the place of choice. A little research lead to a suprise find – Escher in the Palace! – A permanent show dedicated to the work of the Dutch graphic artist Maurits Cornelis Escher (1898-1972). The impressive collection provides a great chance to view some of the lesser known works, as well as the familiar, in the flesh. The accompanying gallery notes and film are equally essential material for those interested in Escher’s work.

I took the liberty of taking many pictures at the museum, some of which can be found in my ‘Escher in the Palace’ set.

Probably Escher’s most well known body of work is that which employs sub-divisioning of planes and surface tessellation. I was happy to discover, but not surprised, that Escher had visited the Alhambra in Grenada, Spain to study and make sketches of its elaborate decoration, and particularly the geometric artwork.

Escher was known to correspond with the Mathematicians of the time and frequently exchanged letters with Roger Penrose, famous for the influential and inspirational Penrose Tilings. More so, the Penrose Stairs will be immediately recognisable to Escher fans. Another contact was the Canadian mathematician Harold Coxeter known for his work with higher-dimensional geometries and hyperbolic tessellations. One of my favourite Escher series is the Circle Limit I, II and III all of which are based upon the hyperbolic mosaics produced by Coxeter. On a different note, its interesting to see that in 1960 an original Circle Limit III could be had for tidy sum of just 125 francs!

The synthesis of Math and Art lead Escher to such ponderances that those who have used maths or even code to make art may well identify with:

‘Finally, no matter how difficult it is, I feel all the more satisfaction from solving a problem like this (two, four, eightfold rotation points) in my own bumbling fashion. But the sad and frustrating fact remains that these days I’m starting to speak a language that is understood by very few people. It makes me feel increasingly lonely. After all, I no longer belong anywhere. The mathematicians may be friendly and interested and give me a fatherly pat on the back, but in the end I’m only a bungler to them. ‘Artistic’ people mainly become irritated.”

In 1935, Escher completed a piece called Dream (Mantis Religiousa) – it’s one I find particularly fascinating as it addresses an ongoing preoccupation with insects in dreams and/or altered states of consciousness, particularly within the occult tradition. If you delve a bit into this territory you will find that HP Lovecraft, Ramsay Campbell, Terrence Mckenna and Kenneth Grant have all written extensively on the idea of alien insect intelligence and hallucinatory Mantis gods! Why this recurring motif?

Other highlights, among many, include the immaculately drafted Tetrahedral Planetoid in which the artist imagined a small planet in the shape of a tetrahedron – a home to gardens, houses, trees, roads and people. Another is Path of Life, of which the artist said:

‘No single figure is exactly the same as any other…. It was only possible to make it after years of practice with regular plane filling…. The only reason for its creation was the challenge it presented.’

In all the ‘Escher in the Place’ is a great experience especially for the short film of artist’s life. The rooms themselves are Escher-esque, with strange chandeliers and large mirrors facing one other on opposite walls allowing expanded recursive views of the space which I’m sure MC would have approved of himself!

Data vapour 18.10.06

The Circle Project (detail) – Richard Sarson

The Circle Project is a set of process drawings using a compass and felt-tip marker pen. Richard Sarsons drawings are a product of the necessity to organize things especially shapes. ‘The appearance is determined by the coloured pens used, the amount of circles and distance between each compass point.’

Michael Wolf’s photography of Hong Kong’s architecture is not to be missed. The perspective in these pictures is often flattened revealing linear repetition and geometric patterns inherent in the structures. The multitude of surfaces, windows and balconies and their subtly differing colours, hint at the facades of early super computers.

Miniorgan is a shrine to rare and vintage electronic toys with a particular focus on 70s and 80s electronic musical instruments. The site also includes a listening area, where you mix the sounds of a few of the different machines together.

Elswhere in browserspace Vade teases us with his open source VJ application built with in Max/MSP and Jitter. He lets me know that ‘Its meant to be as close to commercial grade as possible, while still providing niche tools for performers to work on/with interesting approaches and to allow artists to facilitate creating their own unique workflow and aesthetics’. He hopes to make this modular framework available sometime in the near future.

Nervous States 2 – the DVD

left: Origami Butterfly Method – Jonathan MaCabe

Jonathon MaCabe has produced a DVD (PAL format) of his ‘Nervous States’ piece – a set of visualizations of the output states of small neural networks (recently featured here). John informed me that he will be giving away 10 copies of the work to the first 10 people to mail him at:

The terms could hardly be more agreeable and follow a generous and open philosophy. He grants the ‘right to copy and distribute the DVD, and to play it publicly and privately’

Elsewhere Jonathon has produced some other interesting work including his Origami Butterfly Method – a piece using genetic algorithms to search and “optimize” the space of possible fold sequences allowing for the generation of surfaces with textile like qualities with ornate patterns.

Jonathan McCabe is interested in theories of biological pattern formation and evolution and their application to computer art. He likes to write computer programs which measure statistical properties of images for use in artificial evolution of computer art.’

Bálint Bolygó – Drawings of Harmonic Motion


Bálint Bolygó makes kinetic machines that produce drawings, paintings and etchings. The machines, which are sculptural works of art in themselves, are composed in such a way to choreograph conceptual forms of movement with gradual transformation over time. The resulting The ‘Polycycle’ set of works recall the linear drawings of the Harmonograph and more recently the Spirograph – exotic hybrid species of Hypotochoids and Epitrochoids that fall into the family of Lissajous curves.

The ‘Lissajous Light Drawings’ are ‘gravity induced drawings’ where elliptical pendulums trace a steady harmonic motion. A connected needle then records the trajectory by scratching carbon from a sheet of glass. ‘S.H.M II Lissajous’ takes the idea further with the aid of an overhead projector – allowing the process to be encoded into live optical drawing.

In mathematics, a Lissajous curve is the graph of the system of parametric equations which describes complex harmonic motion investigated by Jules Antoine Lissajous. You can find an interactive javatronic Lissajous curve here.

Some of Bálint’s recent sculptures make use of new material called Nitinol wire. ‘Nitinol’s physical function resembles biological muscle; when activated it contracts. To activate Nitinol it is heated above its transition temperature. An electric current may be passed through the wire to heat it electrically. When the material cools it can be stretched back it its original length.’

“By revealing the workings of something a certain mystery is also created,” Bálint says. “With the use of new material like Nitinol, complex shapes can be made to change shape and form; sculptures could become interactive where the viewer will affect the shape of the object.”

Some more drawing machines and related trajectories (all previously mentioned at dataisnature ):

Hektor – Jurg Lehni and Uli Franke
Drawbot – Jonah Brucker-Cohen
Drawing Machine 3.1415926 v.2 – Fernando Orellana
Rapid Action Painters & Artbots – Leonel Moura
Meta-matics – Jean Tinguely
Harmonographs & Spirographs

Computational ornamentation

The Ruy Klein studio has some fine sets of computational ornamentation exploring tessellated symmetry. Series A remind us strongly of mathematical tessellation found Islamic art while some of series B evoke plans for ornamental gardens or even the patterns seen in stained glass windows. Series C sees a development of automata like entities forming crystal patterns through successive degrees of self organisation – hinting once again that simple code routines form the basis of many structures of natural world. Ruy Klein is a multidisciplinary experimental design lab based in New York spanning architectural, scientific and artistic territories.

On a related note Gervais Chapuis & Wes Hardaker’s ‘Escher Sketch’ was similarly created for the purpose of designing periodic decorations. While back in Sept 2005 Generator.x posted an articlette on ‘Tools for Ornamental Patterns’. The Grammar of Ornament collates patterns of repetition, iterative transformation, and subtle natural colour. Finally for those in search of a touch of theory today can check out Nikos Salingaros’ paper in which he argues that ornament is necessary for us to experience architectural forms in a positive way.

Nervous States & Thunderbolt Pagodas

Nervous States – Jonathan McCabe

Mitchell’s Teemingvoid alerts us to the work of Canberran artist Jonathan McCabe with a very interesting post – McCabe’s recent show, ‘Nervous States’ sees some liquid-meniscus visualisations of the output state of small neural networks. Specifically each pixel coordinate represents the network’s behavior as indicated by colour allowing for the generation of a convoluted surface map of the system.

The watery surfaces of Nervous States reminded me heavily of Ira Cohen’s work with Mylar (flexible) Mirrors in the late 60’s. A recent article in The Wire (Issue 271 September 2006) provides us with this snippet of how Cohen’s alchemical images and films using the mirror came about:

‘I put up these big sheets of Mylar and started to take some photographs, hamming it up by making faces or wearing costumes. I found that if there was a little ripple in it, you would suddenly get an image where all kinds of distortions happened and if the distortion was powerful enough then that was the key. I was always looking for something harmonious, where a beautiful face could be made somehow more beautiful by the distorted changes in the dimensions of the reflected Mylar.

Later when Cohen was given access to a Bolex movie camera, the photographic stills came to life and the shooting of ‘Invasion of the Thunderbolt Pagoda’ began under his direction.

Invasion of the Thunderbolt Pagoda (1968), is to be highly recommended if this kind of thing is to your taste and has been recently released on DVD containing lots of previously unseen footage and images, not to mention some new soundtracks aside from Angus Maclise’s delirious original – A short except of the film can be found here.

“It was in 1968, the year before Woodstock, between the giant bottle of liquid mercury Tony Conrad found in a doorway on 42nd St. and the Mylar chamber, we experienced a shared voyage conceived in three parts: The Opium Dream, Shaman and Heavenly Blue Mylar Pavilions, an alchemical journey born of out common consciousness — culminating in the akashic bindu drop swirling in the sky’s reflected azure. No minimalism here, but a maximalist adventure . . .” Ira Cohen continues.

It’s not just an aesthetic common ground these two sets of works share; process-based image creation is also at the centre of both methodologies. Further, McCabe’s dreamy visualisations are a formal product of computational analysis of neural activity. Arriving at similar destination, Cohen makes poetic use of the process of bending mirrors to bring to us alchemical dreams from the neuron itself!