WORDS: HELENE FURJÁN & LEE NENTWIG | IMAGES: ADAM FERRISS
Digital media artist Adam Ferriss turns computer programming into a psychedelic artform. His kaleidoscopic work challenges the constraints of calculated machine language with images, forms, and entire abstract worlds of astonishing beauty and complexity. The computational equivalent to the practice that experimental architectural theorist Rachel Armstrong refers to as Black Sky Thinking, Ferriss’ experimental scripting embraces uncertainty and unpredictability. Creative coding enables him to push beyond expectations of computation, and generate alternative trajectories for digital invention and discovery.
Studying photography in high school and college, Ferriss developed an early interest in darkroom chemical processes. He enjoyed experimenting with various techniques of developing film and making prints. Towards the end of his college career at the Maryland Institute College of Art, he took a digital photography class where he was introduced to processing, an open-source software sketchbook and computer programming language for learning how to code within the context of the visual arts. Immediately, Ferriss was hooked. Picking up books like Daniel Shiffman’s Learning Processing and The Nature of Code, as well as Joshua Noble’s Programming Interactivity to enhance his foundation in the subject, he quickly became an avid member of the processing community.
While waiting to begin his MFA at UCLA, Ferriss took a day job working in the photography labs at Otis College of Art and Design in Los Angeles. During his downtime, the position provided him free reign to experiment with the photo lab’s equipment. Early on, Ferriss had preferred to use black & white film, but soon became tired of the limitations of grayscale. A professor explained the RGB separation technique that generates a colored image by overlaying black & white images treated with the separation process. Realizing that doing this with an analog camera was very expensive, Ferriss became more inclined to use digital equipment.
Eventually, he stopped using SLR cameras all together. He became invested in the shift from “taking” pictures to creating them, a shift less polar than it might seem. As Ferriss sees it, all images are mediated in some way, distanced from the real by the layer of their medium. While realist photography appears unmediated, it is not a direct re-presentation of reality. Photographic prints are as much simulacra as digital images, that is, copies without originals. The photographic negative and digital code are the origin-without-any-original of which the image is merely a manifestation.
While at UCLA, scholars like Erkki Huhtamo enriched Ferris’s appreciation for the history of experimental media. Huhtamo, a media archaeologist, is a collector of early image technology such as camera obscura projectors that generated phantasmagoric apparitions, and zootropes that spun image sequences inside carousels to create the illusion of the moving image, a direct precursor of cinema. Alongside this desire to make pictures move was an interest in the way static images could capture movement. French scientist Etienne-Jules Marey developed chronophotography, a technique to superimpose repeated exposures on the same plate using a revolver as a multi-shot camera. Marey found ways to visualize fluid dynamics using time-lapse photography and smoke, turning the still image into a diagram of dynamic movement.
“Everything has been done before but the colors get brighter and the resolution gets better.”
Ferriss draws inspiration from a lineage of many technically and conceptually investigative artists that came before his time. In the 1920s, Man Ray’s avant-garde ‘Rayograph’ experiments advanced the medium of photography into the realm of abstraction. With the arrival of animation film technology in following decades, artists such as Norman McLaren continued to press experimental visual art techniques forward by combining them with color, animation, and music on a cinematic canvas.
McLaren was an expert in “hacking” film, he scratched, painted, and drew directly onto the surface of the stock, developed pixelation techniques that superimposed multiple exposures, and techniques to visualize sound. Pas Des Deux, made in 1968, superimposes two ballet dancers performing over and over on the same high-contrast film stock, creating an almost stroboscopic visualization of movement similar to the still images of Marey and Muybridge, but with a fourth dimension. The film collapses reality and diagram in a mesmerizing exploration of the human body.
By the early 1970s, artists like Lillian Schwartz and her computer-generated artworks at Bell Labs took these experiments from the analogue to the virtual arena. Schwartz, a member of Experiments in Art and Technology (E.A.T.), helped transition digital film from the analog editing of computational images (literal cutting and pasting of film stock) to the development of digital editing suites, while contributing to the perceptual science with research on color and sound. Pixelation (1970) and Mutations (1973), made in collaboration with composer Jean-Claude Risset and others, combine the emergent forms of fractals, cells and crystals with hypnotic flows of liquid color, ethereal laser-generated forms, and electronic music.
Soon after Schwartz, Harold Cohen began coding artificial intelligence for applications in fine art and computer-controlled drawing machines. In the 1987 documentary, Art in the Age of Intelligent Machines, Cohen stated that the creativity was a relative term: “Clearly the program is being creative, to the degree that every time it does a drawing it does a drawing no one has seen before, even me. But I don't think it is currently as creative as I am when I write the program.”
“Being part of a conversation is key. Lineage is about that, not about originality.”
At the advent of the home computer revolution in the early 1980s, the demoscene transformed the computer art genre into a disruptive subculture. The movement was comprised of an international community of impassioned amateur computer coders, artists, and musicians that began passing along micro music videos and graphic sequences (demos) amongst one another as a way to showcase their creative programming, artistic, and musical skills.
Processing, and the creative coding culture more broadly, are direct descendants of the demoscene, collaborative by design. Developed by Casey Reas and Ben Fry in 2001 at MIT, processing was a direct outcome of the Media Lab’s Aesthetics and Computation research group, run by John Maeda. Processing is part of the open source movement in the tech world, which provides alternatives to proprietary software tools, encouraging community participation. This open collaboration is in turn vital to processing’s development.
Artists like Ferriss and his peers rely on knowledge sharing and the iterative development of technique that comes from this exchange. They forage through coding forums and libraries, sharing their findings to extend beyond individual limits of technical skill and imaginative capacity. They can download one another’s code and experiment with it, produce new images and scripts, and inevitably make something different that expands the dialogue and the field, opening possibilities for the collective community. The more participants involved, the greater the range of results. Ferriss is often spurred into making by this exchange of projects, scripts, and debate.
Creative coding requires a combination of intense technical rigor and focus with imaginative speculation. Ferriss approaches processing as a generative art-form, benefitting from the immediacy of code, and the rapidity of its open source sharing. He establishes a simple set of parameters for his programs to function and then surrenders control. The technique is less about telling a computer what it should do, but rather, seeding something and observing the endless flow of results that unravel. As Ferriss describes, “It’s like pulling the cord on a lawn mower, you hit go and it runs on its own loop and it produces completely unpredictable results.”
“There are always limits: your creative vision of course, but also your level of technical expertise--skill, technique, and knowledge base,” Ferriss notes, “we are always working within a framework. We are always standing on the shoulders of giants, and working within the constraints and biases of particular software.” Limitations provide form and grounding, testing possibility within a given set of parameters as a place to start, rather than the horror vacui of infinite potential.
Within this system, there is power in naivety and productive error. Mistakes and accidents often give rise to new possibility. Ferriss likes to know enough about a program to be able to break it creatively. Because artists learn code through hands-on practice, they are not afraid to tinker. Glitch art, whether analog or digital, deliberately exploits error, malfunction, noise, distortion, and degradation to produce effect. Glitch is about the breakdown of representation, and the alternative ways of seeing that the computer opens up.
“You are more able to create and invent through interesting mistakes when you don't know what you are doing. But once you know more, you have a developed way of working and fall into patterns. You may not take that interesting path because you know one way that works.”
For Zero Player Game (2013), Ferriss pixel-sorted an ocean scene from brightest to darkest (his program was a tweaked version of one written by fellow artist Jeff Thompson), then again pixel-sorted the greyscale version generated, rearranging the original scene pixel by pixel into an abstract image. Ferriss has worked on apps that make glitch techniques accessible to anyone, such as Gush and Located Graphics, generating errors and omissions in the source code of images, layering and aggregating, and evolving those images through each other in negative feedback loops.
These images are dematerialized--they live in the ether of digital space, moving and exchanging at lightning speed. One of Ferriss’ favorite texts, Hito Steyerl’s “In Defense of the Poor Image”, (E-Flux Magazine, Nov 2009) argues for a concept of the ‘poor image’ (low in resolution/high in compression) as the ‘popular image’: “images that can be made and seen by the many.” Steyerl writes, “Perhaps one has to redefine the value of the image, or, more precisely, to create a new perspective for it. Apart from resolution and exchange value, one might imagine another form of value defined by velocity, intensity, and spread. Poor images are poor because they are heavily compressed and travel quickly. They lose matter and gain speed.” Steyerl’s video project, How Not to Be Seen, examines how resolution defines what is visible (and by corollary, how that which has no resolution is invisible), using a calibration test pattern created by the US military in the Mojave Desert to set a scale for resolution. A recursive pattern is imaged by different vehicles from planes to satellites, and the calibration determines the focus of the camera and thus the resolution or scale of the image.
When Ferriss was still using SLR cameras, he preferred large format film because of the extremely high level of detail achievable. Those images could be printed at very large scale as a result. He likes uploading similarly high-res image files now, allowing the viewer to move in and out of the image, to explore it intimately as much as an overall effect. There is endless potential to move within the image. At each zoom more and more microcosms of detail reveal themselves. Some of his video works shift from an outer space to an inner space perspective, suggesting infinite resolution and access to ever more detailed viewpoints. Peach Cobbler (2016) is an example of this kind of work, where it is not clear if the viewer is moving through a world, or, at a higher and higher resolution, into a world.
Earth-mapping photography that transforms the landscapes of the earth into pattern influenced Ferriss as a kid. He saw these new ways of viewing the earth as shifting our expectations. In his more recent life, NASA’s Picture of the Day, particularly images of space from Hubble and other telescopes, fascinate Ferriss. These images are highly processed, translations of data into recognizable visualization, not the exact representations they claim to be. The colors and many details are generated by scientists as interpretation of data, not the camera, and are essentially visualization systems that appear photorealistic. He is interested in the beauty of such representations as a thing in themselves, as much the information they attempt to convey. From this came the idea to create the Hubble series, 500 Years Away (2012). Ferriss used a processing quicksort algorithm to manipulate the Hubble imagery in a two dimensional pixel array, run multiple times with different sets of parameters based upon brightness, hue, saturation, and RGB. The finished image has had it’s pixels rearranged dozens of different ways.
Showing just how hard it is to distinguish science from art in the world of space imaging, one of Ferriss’ 500 Years Away works was passed around the web as a genuine NASA image. Posted to Facebook in 2016 under the caption “the gates of heaven,” the image was claimed to have been taken by the Hubble Telescope, and that scientists could not identify what it pictured. Ironically, the image was treated by the public as real for months.
Ferriss became interested in the way these large telescope images were processing data at a huge scale, and started to experiment with his own processing of that data to generate new universes, using techniques like plateauing, which creates fictional mesas. He was particularly interested in scale, and in the relative relationship between one pixel and an entire universe, the idea that at its smallest a star is just a single pixel, but at its full scale it is a hugely complex dynamic system. What followed was the logical step of realizing that you didn't even need source images to generate worlds; simply math. The single image was a starter brew for whatever feedback system you were using, so why not generate your own starter? From this thinking developed 100,000,000 Pixels, a series of vast generated worlds whose exploration provides adventure and surprise.
Ferriss recently experimented with Google’s Deep Dream Generator, developed to help scientists visualize neural nets, and to begin to understand the way in which the human brain strives to see recognizable forms and patterns in the world. “Dream” is an algorithmic process of pattern-finding and intensification, weighted towards emergent, recursive and fractalized topologies, generating psychedelic and surreal images. He is especially interested in diagrams that are internal to computer systems but not necessary for us to see: the computer producing diagrams for the computer as a system to system communication, rather than visualizing things for the user.
“I like being in a space where I'm a little over my head and don't know what's going to happen, or what I'm going to do, working with a system that's more complex than I can understand in one gasp. I like being in the place where things can get away from you a little bit.”
Each series Ferriss produces is its own radical departure from the last, a deliberate strategy to test new ideas and techniques. The work develops as one giant feedback system. Every idea generates the seed of the next, even when they seem to be entirely different experiments. Ferriss believes in stepping out of his comfort zone to test different effects and search for new operations and processes, asking himself how he fills out the new process with something meaningful. It's a “searching with code” to find new tools and new interests.
Digital art reception has evolved. There is now a specificity to working on a screen that's interesting and valid. For a long time it was easy to make prints of the work or to project on a screen at certain kinds of shows. But now the immediacy and intimacy of the screen of a smart device is changing how we intersect with art--it can remain “inside the computer” and still directly reach an audience, in a much more resonant and impactful way. Ferriss is increasingly interested in the closeness people have developed to their screens, which are personal more often than communal, and which are so intimate people even sleep with their phones. This creates a literal “in your face-ness” that is exciting and powerful.
He remains in perpetual exploration for possibility within clouds of information, mining complexity in search of beauty. He has a very loose definition of “art” that is more inclined to include science than not. But he sees art’s roles as different from that of science, especially in imaging and visualizing. “From art I get a sense of my place in culture, what being human, being an individual, being me, means in this world," he once wrote, "For that I need more than a registration of reality, however scientific, complex or beautiful.”