Systems Aesthetics: A Final System: mommy n me

installation view (1)

For “Art From Code” last semester, my conference project explored software mirrors and live video feeds. I realized early on in the semester that this piece was already a sort of system: 1) it never became an object as much as a process of becoming based on interaction of multiple parts––the participant in the live feed and the machine among others; and 2) glitches were an integral aspect to the piece and thus failures and disruptions created feedback loops that produced further glitches (thus systems); I was particularly fond of this piece more-so after realizing it had aspects of a system. Therefore, I decided to create a more cohesive piece with a system that I had and to go further with the interests that I already had started on, rather than start from scratch with new concepts I would have to get acquainted with.

my conference project from last semester

However, this is not to say my project itself did not undergo a particular metamorphosis throughout the semester. My ultimate project will have combined various other forms of systems. I began the semester with an interest in Strings and text. During the period that I planned on starting a new project, I found an obstacle in terms of my own creativity. For starters, a major reason I was interested in Strings was because I wanted to create a piece that was able to connect to the internet (which requires an extensive knowledge of Strings). Ultimately, it was for me to maintain an engagement with Strings long enough to bring internet into this. The aspect that I did leave with, however, was knowledge of String manipulation of a text file data: how to split and join Strings, and I used that knowledge to create a piece that rendered the text of my writing in a randomly generated order. That part will ultimately serve as the red rectangle at the fore of the piece.

I found this interesting as it served as an opportunity to combine two creative pursuits of mine––to bring writing into this seemed obvious with also the Chinese characters that have been present from the start. I was interested in the generation of meanings through the computer. Through a String array, the machine created a narrative that is not in my control but the computers, stringing together webs of sentences that are not quite coherent but seem to make sense at some deep, base level. In terms of the aesthetic of the text, I found myself inspired by the aesthetics of subtitles and karaoke, and also specifically from the works of Niloufar Emamifar and Kit Yi Wong who used the respective textual engagements in their works. This made sense especially with my interest in Asian American aesthetic, as both of them are sorts of cultural cornerstones for me: to find film with people that look like me required turning to foreign cinema (and thus I am constantly sitting through subtitles), and this stereotype that Asians love karaoke (and how do I reconcile this stereotype with the fact that karaoke was a big part of my childhood).

Niloufar Emamifar, The Impossible Theater, from
Kit Yi Wong, Uploading Consciousness to a Lotus Root, from

Following the integration of this semester with previous, I found myself most interested then in creating a sensorial piece overall––and thus sound was the obvious next point of exploration. Sound is perhaps the most analog of senses in the digital age, as one of direct contact with vibrations and thus direct contact with what is affecting us, while still with a capacity for digitization. I wanted to use the Chinese characters’ as generators of sound and decided ultimately for sine waves to ring when the character bounces from a wall, with pitch dependent on the x and y coordinate of the site of contact. This was inspired by Steve Reich and all of the sound artists who created chance-based sonic compositions that were not quite composed but rather scored based on devised rules as well as rules of the natural world. Ultimately I was able to get this vision to work, but it took a while and a lot of stress to be quite honest––I had to figure out how to work with Sound arrays as well as how to cut off the sound as to make sure it did not ring too long. In addition, I had to figure out the weary boundary between a chaotic assemblage of noise that would in fact render things even more distinguishable versus too much chaos which would then have everything blend together instead of what it is: disorder.

video of processing rendering, with sound

Ultimately, I am satisfied and proud of this piece simply because I was able to actualize a lot of the things that I had intended all the while creating a hypersystem perhaps made of various other systems: software mirrors, glitches, feedback loops, sound, randomized text. I also believe that it also conjures for me the specific cultural experience that I had desired (although perhaps this is simply because I have made it and thus have all of the knowledge of what the overall text and characters mean and their rationality). For me it incites a sort of nostalgia, in the Buddhist mantra written in Chinese and subtitle/karaoke-esque text; these for me are all motifs of home, childhood, and above all, my mother––though I cannot say that this was uniquely my childhood but instead are all the frequent motifs that have assembled other childhoods within the Asian diaspora. And yet there is also something eerie or alien about the background video which I know I am affecting but cannot pinpoint or control quite how, as well as the cosmic sounds that are being generated by the characters.

My biggest disenchantment would likely be the fact that it does eventually stay monotonous at some point: the thing that gives it the most longevity perhaps would be the text, which one would have to sit and watch continuously unfold, and yet at some point it will definitely falter. We had talked about creating multiple chapters (changing every few minutes) to spruce things up, each with a different relationship to the subject (perhaps temporal or perspective), as well as a different form in some way. Although I really liked the idea, I had both a technical and a personal issue with the execution. First and foremost, the code that I already had was quite large, and it revealed to me that I am not so aware as to how to code the most efficiently––I’m sure I could turn a lot of what I have into classes? An inelegant code makes tasks much harder to keep track of. But even more-so than that, I struggled with how to work in a timer as well as how to create different relationships and make sure that the code that had worked for (let’s say) chapter 1 works for chapter 2. The other difficulty is simply that I had trouble parting with what I had, as I wanted it to be able to stay and continuously unfold. That being said, I am glad this was my biggest issue as opposed to an aesthetic one.

Going further, I would probably execute the concept of multiple chapters in the form of a diptych or triptych / different forms of narratives. I think that would create an even more complex story while not having to worry about making things too narrative or linear with the edition of chapters 1, 2, & 3, and so forth. Furthermore, I would play with different sounds with each chapter, different grid styles, different foreground and text methods, and interplay between those differences. That being said, it did end up being an exhausting experience to make what I already have despite having all semester, and thus this all remains for now rooted in a fantasy of what will happen in a distant future if I were to return to this.

installation view (2)

As a post script––below is an example of one randomly generated sequence of sentences. It is interesting when the random sentences actually relate and allude to some kind of sense. For example, here I am amused by the motif of this something being there. This reminds me, of the fact that poetics can arise more-so specifically from an irrational incoherence, which in this case can only be conjured by a completely rational, so-arbitrary machine to create absolutely random decisions. Although of course things will relate, as the text is pulled from an essay of mine. But in the random sequencing, it reveals connections in thought that might not be so necessarily visible, where things said at the beginning or the end, will all happen to join together in the middle, in this newly generated version of my text.

Author: Tam Nguyen