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A year ago, we discussed the idea of QR Code and unreadable digital text - and this spring, we began work on a QR-based net.art project that uses the unreadability to retell a classic cryptographic mystery. Here is another aesthetic experiment in unreadable encoding - a poem often accused of illegibility, rendered in columns of custom binary.
Sai Sriskandarajah’s “The Waste Land” encodes T. S. Eliot’s famous poem as a binary wall-hanging, using small and large squares to indicate ones and zeros. The image was created using Processing, and is featured in NYU’s Interactive Telecommunications Program (ITP) Spring Show 2006.
One of the things that interests me most about this work is how the claims about visual art function in a literary context. Is this image artful in a way that a raw QR code or Shotcode isn’t? The indications are that, rather than a unique image of conversion, “The Waste Land” encompasses a whole conceptual set of possible representations:
The finished product has no set dimensions; the only requirement is that it should be printed and hung on a wall…. It may also be presented in a long, narrow format, like a tickertape, which may be displayed horizontally or vertically.
Rather than scale or aspect, it is the individual units of code and their rendering that is important - this is a form of writing. Particularly interesting when considering such artistrty is the decision to choose one’s own coding system rather than using some standard - Sai’s code, which he terms “arbitrary,” is reminiscent of Kac’s unique approach to encoding the alphabet in DNA - in particular, in the similar decision to remove spaces and punctuation marks rather than encode them.
Sriskandarajah arrives at this piece at the end of a series of experiments with binary encoding and DNA (quad) encoding in painting. In the background to his piece profile, he comments on the move from painting to Processing:
This piece is based on work I have done as a painter. In the past, the entire process, from selection of text through encoding and rendering with ink on paper or paint on canvas, was carried out by hand. Typically, a piece consisting of ten lines of verse took as long as 40 hours to create. The text-encoding program represents my first attempt to pass some of the work along to a computer, and in so doing to allow for generation of these code works on a much larger scale.
His earlier series, listed in portfolio simply as “Works on Paper“, includes:
- Sade I (2003)
- Symposium I (2004)
- Nietzche III, IV, IX, X (2004)
- Bowie I (2004)
- Jagger I (2004)
- Pale Fire 2004
- Bhagavad Gita (2004)
- The Waste Land (2005)
[A detail of the texture from each image accompanies discussion.]
Investigating each image in the series in turn reveals an interesting progression. Sade I uses a few green edge tiles, like a gilt picture frame, with tiles in blue and red that vary in intensity from light blue and pink to dark blue and red. In addition, some tiles mix light and dark treatment of a single color to better convey the underlying shape - which is photographic but I cannot entirely make out - a naked female torso wearing a helmet, perhaps? Each tile has the latter G, T, C, or A on it, representing the four genetic bases. Symposium I is similar, only without the the green tiles. The underlying image is a closeup of a face and perhaps a reclining form.
Nietche 1 uses a penciled grid numbered 12×22 and recangular daubs of paint in binary - predominantly red with some navy blue. The impression is of code and/or DNA gel. Nitezche III is the same only without the pencil lines, predominantly in light blue with some red. Neitzsche IV and IX are in tri-color - IV is light and dark green with yellow highlights, and IX is yellow and brown with grey highlights. Nietzche X is red with grey highlights, however the red is highly uneven in treatment, varying from thick to thinly streaked.
Bowie I and Jagger I return to the original technique of screening an image through the tiles. Each is a photo of the respective celebrity face (David Bowie and Mick Jagger). In Bowie I, mixed greens and olive forms the background, while yellow and brown is the foreground. The image cuts across individual tiles which may share two or three colors, and running throughout is a sparse pattern of grey tiles as in Nietzche I. In Jagger I, the entire image is conveyed in pinks and reds mixed across tiles, with the grey message pattern fading to pale blue in the background.
Sriskandarajah’s more recent works, Pale Fire (2004), Bhagavad Gita (2004), and The Waste Land (2005), begin to move more strongly away from painterly texture and towards a more austere abstraction - clean units, first monochromatic, and finally black-and-white. As the picture plane becomes less textured and ceases to screen an image, the status of the final image “The Waste Land” as art hinges on its unreadable yet readable nature. T. S. Eliot’s text cannot be read, but we know (because we are told) that the image is decodeable, and that, when decoded, it renders a work of literature. The literature occurs in the context and the paratext - the title and catalog statement. The artist freely provides the source text and the encoding algorithm - all that is left is for the audience to program a decoder in response.