Marc Lafia on Fri, 24 May 2002 22:04:20 +0200 (CEST)

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Re: <nettime> Optometry and the Topolgy of a Phantom City

Hey Paul 

Liked the paper very much. Sorry we havenıt had a chance to hook up. I
will be giving this paper, a new version of it, Œallegory and algorithmsı
at Œcybersonicaı held in London, June 5th through the
7th. You should come. Those of you in London should check it out. By the
way, I went to an excellent talk at White Box last night on Gertrude Stein
and Cecil Taylor by Ulla Dydo. I think Taylor is a performative version of
all the things in your paper. When's the last time you listened to Double
Holy House.

Algorithms and Allegories
Marc Lafia 

I was writing and thinking about the algorithmic and the allegoric. Iıve
been struck by how so much contemporary art practice has been informed by
the algorithmic. Having done work in information engines and various net
art pieces using algorithms for the display and organization of
information, I was equally intrigued by what we get after weıve deployed
all these little engines and are outside the event of instructions. Do we
start from outside or inside? Even though the boundary of these things
blur, from the outside I began to think of the idea of allegory. Allegory
isnıt really used much today ­ let me read you a definition.

ŒAllegory attempts to evoke a dual interest, one in the events,
characters, and settings presented, and the other in the ideas they are
intended to convey or the significance they bear.ı from Thrall, Hibbard,
Holman, A Handbook to Literature

Iıve become interested in the idea of the algorithmic that opens up to a
re-reading of the notion of allegory and so want to present to you the
pleasure of the play in the valence of these two notions.

So let me present a few examples of work, new examples that I hope can be
seen as visual topologies, that though visual, I can imagine as being
scores for computational music or sound.

Much contemporary art practice has been informed by setting up a structure
comprised of instructions for the production of certain kinds of events.
These may range from computational instructions for generative and
emergent music, or A-Life forms to instructions for visual works, written
works, participatory works to instructions for audiences in performative

Letıs start with the latter, for example a performance by Yoko Ono where
from a stage she passes a large ball of yarn into a seated audience, an
audience whose task it is to untangle the yarn and there by entangle
themselves with it. If this simple instruction were repeated again and
again, we can be certain, that each time, it would yield a different
visual topography. One toss might right away propel itself into a sort of
tight Œsı curve right onto the very rear of the auditorium.  Another toss
might quickly get entangled in the first few aisles and meander greatly
from side to side; it would be very wide but very short. Another might go
from front to back and back again folding in the center and appear as an
infinity sign or figure Œ8ı. Toss after toss would bring varying results
but within a range.

Now imagine this same toss being akin to a kind of augury, a toss whose
very shape were to tell us something of the future, something of an
allegory of the moment in time, or a predictive future. The figure Œ8ı a
long life, the meandering line, a short full life, and the Œsı curve a
narrow long life of few adventures.

One thing we can be certain of, is that the toss itself, its trace of
flight is only that, a traversing, a tracing, a point that becomes another
point. Once we give it a mapping, and see the whole view has shifted we
move from letıs say the algorithmic to the allegoric. From propulsion to
trajectory to flight, or should we say, flight pattern. Another way to
imagine this is as a continuum, from the discontinuous to the continuous.
But a continuum suggest a duration and I think duration adds a whole other
level of complexity, so letıs wait on that.

Some of you may be familiar with Mallarmeıs poem ŒUn Coup de Des Jamais
NıAboloria Le Hasardı, ŒA throw of the dice does not abolish chanceı. The
poem is a distribution of words emphasizing the blank space between
phrases. Imagine a sheet of paper where words do not run continuously but
are splayed in clusters across the page where emptiness is as pronounced
as text. This is another kind of visual topography, where silence and
emptiness speak as much as the letter forms. In Mallarmeıs work the sheet
of paper defines the field of distribution as much as the auditorium
defines the space of the event described in the Yoko Ono piece above. One
can imagine that Mallarme experimented with a great many variations of
placement and spacing of words on paper.

What would be the size of the page? Where would a word be placed as
distinct from a word inscribed? Would words make lines horizontally,
vertically? Where would one line end and the other begin? Would subsequent
words or lines cascade down? Or should they be placed trilling upwards?
Would lines constitute sporadic paragraphs or blocky clusters? What would
be the distance between them, the periodicity of their soundings;
proximate cousins, distant lands, foreign bodies or contaminations? As
markings, how would they sound the page, or is this time to be seen as
beats not to be measured or measured by the sound of its silences?

How do you score language? How do you score sound? What is the envelope of
its event? In Mallarmeıs case, the envelope was the sheet of paper.
Metaphorically we might say his throw was the algorithm, the dice his
computation engine. His throw of the dice, his placing of words on the
page, yet his intention did not eliminate chance. In fact, the fixedness
of the throw of the letterforms on the page was one particular throw. Is
it the perfect throw, or is it just a throw, one of many possible throws
or tosses? Itıs these questions that Mallarme pondered with each
placement. What does it all mean?

What was the sheet of paper ­ a universe, the universe, silence,
emptiness, calm, plenitude, void. In the empty page, what was Mallarme
seeing, what was he imagining?  I suspect some thing more than the
procedures of music concrete ­ he was thinking big things ­ he was
wrestling allegorically. He was thinking perhaps of the meaning of the
event. In fact his markings were a transcription of the event of the
universe and silence. He was in some sense playing with sound music where
words and meanings are not the same thing. I think thatıs what those words
in looking back to him said. That the names of things donıt tell us what
things are. They are only gestures, utterances in relief from the void.
This was all quite serious stuff.

All of this back and forth, letter forms reaching back to something prior
to codified meaning, the emptiness of the page, the silence, placing in
doubt any kind of representation ­ and I have not even spoken of any of
the words in the poem ­ the minatour and so forth ­ well this back and
forth ­ is, I think, this shifting of registers between the throw of the
dice, the algorithm, (not to say that algorithms are not more precise, but
certainly emergent and generative algorithms can be thought of as throws
of the dice) ­ well this shift from the throw to the meaning of the throw
- is this the movement between the algorithmic and the allegoric. The
place were the two meet. The allegoric is that standing back and listening
to what it all means ­ or writing a hermetic meaning into something, to
mean more than what appears to be said.

If the universe is just a set of varied instructions ­ why do we struggle
so hard with what it all means? Perhaps because we can imagine ourselves
at times, both inside and outside the event, the event of time, the event
of duration, the event of utterance, the multiplicity of all these engines
running there programs. What are they up to?  We donıt any longer really
like to think about this and in turn thatıs why no one talks about
allegory any more, just metaphors, metonymy and other rhetorical tropes.

A little more on time and duration, instead of a sheet of paper, imagine a
strip of film. Exposed at certain frames, and not others, varied pulses of
light flicker on the screen. Such a strategy was used by Peter Kubelka in
his short film entitled, ŒArnulf Rainerı. Just as blasts of light project
on the screen, sound markings on the magnetic tape produce a similar
effect on the aural track, where discontinuous bursts of sound pepper the
ears as a kind of sniper fire emitted from the projector.

Absolutely algorithmic, this simple set of instructions, applied to the
surface materiality of the film is a kind of time-based variation of
Mallarmeıs splaying of the page. But here all is reduced to darkness and
light, sound and silence. This configuration, the advent of structuralist
film making, this punctuating of on and off, through the duration of time,
time as the movement of film frames chugging through the gate of the
projector, at intervals whose periodicity is akin to noise, is an absolute
instruction set that could be varied and altered in any number of
permutations. It might also be read as an allegory. But never mind that.

Letıs move along and jump ahead to Sol Lewitt, the conceptual artist. Sol
Lewitt, as many of you know, works with varied lines, shapes, a fixed set
of shapes and lines become his repertoire, and these varied lines and
shapes are given to a number of artisans to cover entire rooms with his
algorithmic instructions. They act as a swarm, an army of ants, a mobile
factory. Sometimes the works are done in graphite pencil, sometimes in
wide swaths of vibrant reds and yellow. But the swarm need not pay
attention to all that, just set about and enact their instructions. They
are always inside the event. They need not step back and see how it looks.
The variations are narrowly confined but sprawl and no doubt could go on
and on and on slightly altering themselves giving forth greater and
greater complexity but not from the point of view of the artisans, not
even Sol Lewitt, he just sets the program to go.

In the tradition of minimalism, the lines are there own meaning, they
donıt map anything, they just are. The complexity is performative, a
rendering of instructions.  It does not illustrate anything; it does not
want to ­ it is simply mass and volume, repetition and difference, or
there-ness, here-ness. Here pattern is pattern. Itıs sort of like paint is
paint. It refers to and is itself. There are no other orders of
complexity. It does not relate or refer to anything outside itself. It is
not a map, it is a territory. Or its territory is its map.

Letıs move now from image to sound. What would be the sound of pure
instructions? Or how would one make the sounding of instructions,
something that wasnıt music, wasnıt noise. I guess this is something we
would simply call sound. Sound that just is. But is there any sound that
just is ­ or is all sound always a mapping, an index of a gesture, a

In the case of Sol Lewitt, a conceptual artist, though his thought is
instantiated in shapes, forms and color, he eradicates all gesture leaving
us with only markings, a kind of deadpan tracings. In a sense his work is
performance and what he leaves us is the execution of code compiled. In
relation to Mallarme, Lewittıs work is all about the spaces and the
markings without any of the allegorical angst. Or so we think. At least on
the face of it.

Conversely the improvisational pianist and poet Cecil Taylor negotiates
this space of instruction and meaning in a rather complicated way, moving
seamlessly between, sound, noise, meaning, sounds, vocables, audition,
allegory and algorithm. It is as if he traverses the universe and incants
his senses of sensing all of its sounding. His algorithms come from the
allegory he has made of the world, the world as spirit and magic and he,
the diviner of its movement.

To sum up and move to a close, as I am sure we are running out of time.
Out of duration. And as such maybe ask, well, whatıs it all mean.

Perhaps Lewittıs algorithm is his allegory.  There is the old adage about
history repeating itself. Why does history repeat itself? Itıs
algorithmic, its recursive. If the universe is a set of instructions, it
really doesnıt need to know its allegory. Or does it, I donıt know. In the
life of the algorithm there really isnıt any allegory. It is its allegory.
Or perhaps itıs that even older adage, ŒI am that I am.ı Five words that
could be varied and nicely move between allegory and algorithm.

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