Exhibition concept

The program for the onsite-installation was written in C code. It runs on a plasma screen framed like a traditional painting canvas. Visitors are invited to stand and sit in front of the screen like they would stand and sit in front of an old master inside an art museum. Instead of letting the whole presence of one painting act upon them and studying every small detail, they can witness the programs attempt to construct one of those paintings. The longer they stay in front of the screen, the more details become visible and give a hint about what the source image is.

A database of digitized famous portrait paintings was chosen as source for the drawing agents. The selected paintings follow a timeline through the history of portraiture and give the data for construction for the drawing agents. Starting from old renaissance (Da Vinci - Mona Lisa) and baroque (Caravaggio - Young Sick Bacchus) masters, the collection features paintings from romanticism (Ingres - The Valpincon Bather), the later nineteenth century (Cezanne - Madame Cézanne in a Red Armchair), expressionism (Munch - Madonna), cubism (Duchamp - Nude descending a Staircase, No.2) and leads up to modern art movements like Pop-Art (Warhol - Marilyn) and photorealism (Close - Frank). The selection of paintings displays the journey from realistic to more and more abstract and expressive reproductions of real life throughout history. The artists’ freedom of reinterpreting what they see and composing real life out of glimmering dots, violent brushstrokes or geometric forms becomes mirrored in the computers struggle of reproducing visual information. The program in this installation displays what it is told to reproduce in its own algorithmic way. The original scanned art print transforms into the person posing for the artist – the program’s code relates to the artist’s subjective selection of colors and forms – and the visual output on the screen becomes the artists output on the canvas.

The installation, showing the construction and destruction of the famous art images in a traditional art museum setup, leaves the question of the ability to transport old art pieces into the digital domain. The digital agents in this installation are programmed to paint and they are fed with information about real world paintings. Nevertheless they fail in their attempt to reconstruct the same painting. Bound to their algorithmic behavior and their inability to actually ‘see’ a painting they construct their own version of it. Compared to the original the outcome of this program is of course highly different, because the code behind it is rather simple. But even a high quality digitization of art is also bound to code and algorithms. More advanced code will be able to erase certain errors and create better results, but code is still code and very different to oil and water. Converting something as material as paintings made of oil or tempera into something that can be understood by a computer seems to be impossible. Some information gets lost, some information gets mutated.


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