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Hébert’s aesthetic

I was interested to know how Hébert first conceived of an idea for a drawing or sand etching. Did it begin as a visual notion of what it would eventually look like, or are was he so familiar with algorithms that he could formulate one in your head with an idea of its eventual effect? Because so much depends on the final quality of the rendering and the unpredictable effects of ink or sand, the image could not be determined exactly, but there must be a guiding idea that gave rise to the initial sketches.

Jean-Pierre explained to me that he had two ways of working. For the most part, he would build the combination of algorithms to match his visual expectations of the image. Sometimes, though, he played with algorithms to test what he could do with them. Often he used the two approaches in turn, both planning and experimenting, to the point of being pleased by the results. Hébert said that experimentation, controlled recycling of previous efforts and intuition played as important a role as theoretical thinking. Both the final form and the underlying algorithm can evolve, either to reach his initial goal, or to perfect it.

Thus Hébert collates his knowledge of algorithmic results and deploys it to create new images; unless he feels he can gain new insights by experimentation. This dual conception of the image, as both intrinsic form and the component algorithms necessary to achieve it, is characteristic of the Algorists. It demonstrates how the computer’s separation of image and material can be approached in a different way; one that takes account of the necessary programming and the eventual external realisation of the image. By concentrating on the image as (essentially) a linear form, expressed as algorithms, the Algorists take advantage of the computer’s power to organise, replicate and develop image elements in an abstract form that also recalls natural processes. When the process is animated, as with Ulysses, then the parallels between organic life and moving physical pieces become even stronger.

Hébert’s work belongs in the realm of pure abstraction and is perhaps as close to “raw” Computer Art as one can get, with two-dimensional figures described with complete accuracy. It works on the contemplative level of much geometric abstract art, though the computer adds the essential qualities of movement and dynamic change

Music theorist Lydia Goehr notes the distinction between the temporal structure of works, existing simultaneously, and that of their performances which unfolds over time. The temporal and spatial element in the works of Jean-Pierre Hébert  is also most important. Hébert contrasts the necessity of controlling the exact shape executed by the plotter or steel ball with the imperfections that occur when the ink spreads on the paper or the sand creates an obstruction. Thus, though the program encodes the instructions for creating an exact shape, the uncertainties inherent in the physical execution are part of the final, physical artwork; indeed, Hébert aims to include them through his choice of materials and rendering process.

The sand-pieces, Sisyphus, Ulysses, and Telemachus are potential solutions to the physical/digital dichotomy. Because Hébert found a material that lent itself to be endlessly inscribed and wiped clean, he managed to replicate the essential transience of digital images in a physical form. But the viewer’s fascination with the ball moving on the surface, apparently unaided, points to a quality in the work that is all its own. Instead of conveying “life” through animation, as does some Computer Art, Hébert’s pieces have a tangible and organic sensibility which is quite contrary to expectations about computer imagery. There is a magical quality to seeing a ball start moving, apparently unaided, and watching as it sketches out a pattern.

Hébert has come close to resolving the paradox of Computer Art. He manages to remain in touch with the essential algorithmic nature of the digital image without sacrificing the intrinsic interest of a physical form. The somewhat disembodied nature of computer graphics tends to affect our perception of the artwork and reinforces our expectations of a flashy graphical tour de force instead of a subtle meditation on the development of algorithmic form. Hébert emphasises the linear and generative properties of computer graphics without once making it a dry exercise in geometrical transformations. Rather, he uses materials that enhance the viewer’s interest in the linear form through the tactile qualities of his materials.

The physicality of Hébert’s work is shared with Verostko’s prints and Fergusson’s sculptures. The Algorists do more than just programming a series of visual outcomes; they also allow for the qualities of the materials they choose for the realisation of the work. This union of digital form and material substance goes against the grain of what one normally expects from digital images; yet in itself it is as transient as they are. The program contains the directions needed to achieve the linear form of the Algorists’ art, but the artists also conceive of it in terms of its material nature, making a qualitative assessment that is as yet beyond any computer. Even Harold Cohen’s AARON only operates independently within the limited context of its virtual canvas, and has its roots in a line-drawing program. It has been expanded to include concepts of shape, depth and colour, but all these are referenced internally with little input from the external world, except for the initial conditions of its program.

By contrast, Algoristic art uses a computer to execute results in a physical medium chosen by the artist based on their knowledge of both the abilities of the computer and the characteristics of the materials they choose. They conceive of their work both formally, as a visual structure expressed as instructions, and qualitatively, as physical surface with a certain appearance and feel. In this way, the Algorists make art which is computer-driven but not computer-based.

Cuba points out that an algorithm isn’t purely mathematics, since the process one simulates is more like a recipe because it is behaviour you are simulating, which amounts to a sequence of events or decisions. Cohen, for instance, postulates that drawing a straight line for an artist is about heading in one direction and constantly correcting it. Goal-directed activity is not mathematical but behavioural.

Hébert’s raison d’être for using the computer is that he can exercise deep control of form as expressed in algorithms. He believes the best way to work is through programming, because of its exactitude and the ability to work with a range of images. Line and composition are very important to him and he feels that drawing through a GUI does not actually offer such fine control of the results. As a pen-and-ink draughtsman myself, I can appreciate this sentiment: not until screen resolution and graphics tablet sensitivity are greatly improved will this finesse come to the GUI. Yet, as Hébert notes, even an improved GUI would not present itself as a solution to his work, due to questions of accuracy of the hand guiding the cursor and the drudgery involved:

a perfect GUI will still imply more time, patience, resilience and accuracy than I could muster for most of the pieces I have done.[1]

As Hébert remarked to me, the combination of sand resistance impeding the magnetic movement of the ball produce imperfections in the design he find artistically necessary. The depositing of ink from the plotter’s pens also has a similar effect: one can trace variations in the overall inkflow across the surface of his larger pieces. He doesn’t want it to be too perfect, which is interesting for a computer artist. This is why he prefers not to use the Iris printer which uses inkjet technology to spray the image onto the page: the pens and impact of the plotter, as a drawing device, are much more interesting to him. The Iris prints are “the transient output of what the work could have been.” Although he has produced series of Iris prints with a specific objective, JPH feels they and the laser prints do not have the “life” of plotter drawings: the physical, organic quality created by a pen moving on the surface of a sheet.

Hébert also produces direct Postscript images from imagesetters, by translating the HPGL instructions into Postscript and driving them directly (which is distinct from printing a raster image). In this way, what they do is analogous to the plotter’s output, in that they are following similar instructions. He has used this to produce short runs of prints and etchings by laser printing onto mylar. The output of his pencil plotter is also very distinctive, and the quality of line in the etchings is such that JPH intends to make more use of this technique if he can get a proper transfer from the plotter – i.e. by having it engrave the plate. At present, very fine lines do not transfer very well, or at least produce a variable output.

Harold Cohen seemingly prefers his images not to look too “perfect”. When writing the latest version of AARON for PC, he had it reproduce the physical effects of paints puddling together, and the gaps left by the original plotter in its colouring process.  However, Cohen has moved away from using a “painting machine” to produce works on canvas because he believed too many people mistook it for AARON as the program. [2] Hébert’s concerns remain fixed on the physical outcome of Ulysses.

The critical importance of physical realisation in Hébert’s work marks a change from the often ephemeral forms associated with Computer Art. He makes use of the computer’s power to render algorithmic images and previews the results on screen, but he favours fixing them permanently on paper or transiently in sand. He pointed out to me that physicality can be a drawback because his sand device requires transportation and installation so it can function in situ as a work of art. The digital form generated by the computer is a preliminary to the sand device’s operation: it is only a schematic for the final work. The physical form is the true realisation.

However, the two-dimensional images he makes are “portable” in another sense. They are amenable to production on various surfaces in different ways – sand, paper and also engraving plates. The engravings can then be reproduced a limited number of times in a format equivalent to that of the original, but of the plotter pieces and Ulysses drawings, only photographic reproductions can be made. Hébert’s interest in new materials and their effects has led him to collaborate with a printmaker, Elaine Levasseur, so that the plotter images can be etched. Currently, this is done by plotting onto mylar sheets and then transferring these to etching plates. Levasseur also plans to work with him on lithographic prints, where the important qualities are fine lines and the translucence of colour, especially when trying to get white lines on a solid background. Elaine noted the experimental phase was one of finding a colour and paper which could express the image without becoming notable in itself. For instance, a type of Chinese paper advertised its presence through its distinctive texture. This she felt would detract from the effectiveness of JPH’s images. They require an even spread of colour, keeping the surface as free from artefacts as possible. [3]

Eventually, Hébert hopes to construct a plotter which can accommodate not only pens but brushes, pencils and burins as well, using experience gained in making Ulysses. This will enable him to make etchings directly onto plates and work with a wider variety of media than his present setup allows.

Part of the reason for this is that he faces a problem with existing plotters. This is because plotters have been made obsolete by large-format inkjets, which (as Hébert sees it) are faster but do not have such high quality output. The plotter’s main clients – CAD users in the main, who needed large-scale plans and drawings – now value the speed of inkjets and care little for the durability of plotter prints. Supplies of plotters, spare parts and pens are steadily dwindling. Hébert said he had bought some of the last remaining stocks of pens for his HP plotter, and that he has no backup for his pencil plotter (a rare item in itself).

Hébert has also considered a possible, slightly interactive improvement to Ulysses, which would be to use imaging software and a mounted camera to recognise the position of rocks on the surface of the sandbox. Currently, these are added after the design has been completed, but if their position could be recognised, the ball could modify its course to avoid them, hence making the design dependent on their positioning.

Outside plotters and sand drawings, JPH also makes images with cellular automata, which follow their own paths to create dense stochastic images, and symmetry studies which he prints on a laser printer or Iris, though as mentioned he does not attach much value to this output, seeing it as a sketch compared to the one-off plotter drawing.

Hébert’s partly physical, partly digital work could also be seen as a metaphor for Computer Art as a whole, touching on Art and Science; partly a visual art, partly an exercise in programming; using a form of composition to generate new shapes through the computer.

This intimate involvement of the machine in the creative act might be abhorrent to some artists, who prefer a tactile medium to these mutable shadows. Seen on a screen, the digital image fascinates us yet we know we cannot touch it, cannot appreciate it except through this glass intermediary.

But when we see the physical traces of this process, held in stasis for our inspection, then we may begin to appreciate the subtleties of Computer Art. For Hébert, the computer is effectively a channel for his physicalised art.

Finally, Hébert’s exhibitions in association with the Computing Commons Laboratory at Arizona State University point to ways that digital artists may find outlets for their work. Instead for striving for years to convince existing galleries, or working as academics in order to support their interests, digital artists should be exploring partnerships with similarly-minded organisations and individuals in the technology industry.

This would certainly include academic bodies, but other sources of funding would also arise. The more that digital artists strike out in new directions, the more likely they are to move away from traditional art models – even art prizes and competitions – and find new ways of distributing their art and supporting themselves.

[1] Correspondence with JPH, Nov 2002

[2] Interview with Harold Cohen, Solana Beach, California, August 2001.

[3] I met Elaine Levasseur whilst I was visiting Jean-Pierre Hébert at Santa Barbara in August 2001.