Oscillons & the art of Oscillography.

ALH84001 - Oscillator artworks
AN07 – Eric Archer

Eric Archer’s (ALH84001) Oscillator artworks operate on a number levels – on one hand they are calligraphic gestures of a robot mind that never gets bored with repeating her own autograph. On another, they come across as pure Op-art surface, black and white patterns that are a time-space mapping of a deterministic harmonic process. They also have a decorative aspect and would make excellent wallpaper, although each of the motifs in these generator tessellations are slightly different. The symmetry in some of the outputs is very reminiscent of Rorschach’s inkblots too, and so tease the viewer into a kind of scrying or pattern recognition. One of my favourites is ‘Enclosed by Golden Rectangles’ which could be one of John Cage’s experimental musical notation systems but is in fact ‘Fifteen analog lissajous figures modulated by 8-bit ASCII character diads, spelling the title of the piece’! Many of the pictures have intriguing descriptions and well as technical specifics, here’s a capture:

‘The process is like this: compose image on the oscilloscope, then slow the oscillator down about 1000x, and record it on paper with a modified analog plotter.

Analog plotters were once common in research and engineering laboratories. It’s basically a voltage-controlled Etch-a-Sketch, for capturing experimental data on graph paper. Paper is held down electrostatically on a flat bed, and analog servos position the pen in real time.’

Inspired by Eric’s Oscillography set I dug up a few pointers to Scope Art, of the past, notably the work of Ben Laposky who specialised in this kind of work from the early 50’s right through to the late 60’s. He came up with the word ‘Oscillon’ to describe his work as documented in ‘Oscillons: Electronic Abstractions’ an article featured in the book ‘Artist and Computer’ published in 1976. An aside – this book cover is quite rightly described as ‘scary’ by Joost Rekveld in his blog entry ‘Artist, computer and radiant roots of ray tracing’.

From the chapter:

‘I got into oscillographic art through a long-time interest in art or design derived from mathematics and physics. I had worked with geometric design, analytic and other algebraic curves, ‘magic line’ patterns from magic number arrangements, harmonograph machine tracings, pendulum patterns, and so on. The oscilloscope seemed to me to be a way of getting a wider variety of similar kinds of design and with controlled effects to produce even newer forms not feasible with previous techniques.


‘Oscillographic art might be considered as a kind of visual music, as the basic waveforms resemble sound waves. I used sine waves, saw tooths, square waves, triangular waves, and others in various combinations, modulations, envelops, sweeps, etc. Oscillons usually are not accidental or naturally occurring forms, but are composed by the selection and control of the oscilloscope settings and of varied input circuitry. I used especially modified oscilloscopes for this work, as well as some of my own specifically designed electronic instruments.’

The method for capturing the oscillations were quite different to way Eric obtains his, Laposky manipulated electronic beams across the face of an oscilloscope’s cathode-ray tube and then recorded the abstract waveforms using high-speed film.

Another well know computer artist pioneer who used oscilloscopes to produce art is Herbert W Franke, who made monochromatic Oscillogramms and Lightforms during the mid 50’s. Yet another is Mary Ellen Bute, of whom Inbetweennoise has uncovered some interesting notes regarding her Abstronics:

‘for years i have tried to find a method for controlling a source of light to produce images in rhythm. i wanted to manipulate light to produce visual compositions in time continuity much as a musician manipulates sound to produce music… on january 31, 1932, we (Bute and Leon Theremin!) gave our first demonstration of “the perimeters of light and sound and their possible synchronization”. this was an early use of electronics for drawings…dr. potter (of bell labs) designed an electronic circuit for such an application of the oscilloscope… by turning knobs and switches on a control board i can “draw” with a beam of light with as much freedom as with a brush.’

Of course we can go back further than the oscilloscope for examples of this kind of harmonic line art, think Harmonograph for example. A related post of interest is also Drawings of Harmonic Motion.

5 Responses to “Oscillons & the art of Oscillography.”

  1. Ramsay Stirling II writes:

    perhaps the the recent work of ray sweeten is also worthy of mention in this! his work is time based, and the beautiful pulsing tension he creates in his videos is incredible!


  2. sroden writes:

    hello, thanks for the link to my blog, i think mary ellen bute should be way more well known. you’ve got quite a nice blog here yourself. i like the connections to early things and analog approaches. all of my work is rooted in systems, self invented approaches to using data to determine scores for the making of things by hand – paintings, drawings, films, and even works with sound (here of course the use of technology is unavoidable…:-). there connections to much and also disconnects to what here, but it’s a blog full of goodness and i’ll definitely add a link.

  3. paul writes:

    Hey Ramsay, yeah i checked out Ray Sweetens oscilloscope works and they are quite incredibile, particularly Altercations which is amazingly varied as it progresses through various transformations while always visualising the sound. Thanks for sharing the link with us!

  4. paul writes:

    Steve, thanks for the reflect, from your description of the approaches you use – your works sounds interesting, i look foward to checking them out in due course!

  5. Paolo Manzelli writes:

    Oscillons are a building bloks generating from a spntaneous simmetry breaking between different forms of energy structure based on a transition of spatio temporal regimes. Paolo Manzelli :

    See entanglement theory in http://www.edscuola.it/lre.html or in http://www.wbabin.net
    very cordially Paolo Manzelli
    01/DEC 07 Firenze (IT) pmanzelli@gmail.com

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