Software artist Casey Reas says a viewer shouldn’t get hung up on how his images are made, and that’s good advice. After all, you don’t need to know how your computer works — or, for that matter, your television, car or washing machine — to appreciate what it does. Similarly, in his exhibit titled “Process,” at the BCA Center in Burlington, Reas’ abstractions can be enjoyed even if you can’t define the word “algorithm.” His organic shapes, whether constantly evolving on giant screens, captured in chromogenic prints, transferred to wallpaper or in relief sculpture, are provocative and often beautiful.
Reas, a new-media professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, is the creator of Processing, an “open-source programming language specifically for visual artists,” informs the BCA website. Anyone can download it on Reas’ own site, and see examples of what other people are doing with it. “He’s probably the main person in this world of algorithmic and software art,” says curator Chris Thompson. “Casey is kind of a rock star in this world.”
Aesthetically, Reas’ creations are akin to abstract expressionism, Thompson suggests, but the works’ seemingly random patterns are in fact created according to a set of mathematical rules. “Our lives are so affected by algorithms,” Thompson points out, “whether you’re getting a mortgage, whether the FBI thinks you’re a terrorist…”
Reas, in Burlington last week for the show’s reception and workshops at Champlain College, says that he follows rules when he makes the software — using open-source tools — “but then I break the rules.” And therein lies his art.
Statistical formulas are not what come to mind when you sit in the BCA’s darkened back gallery — a couple of benches have been provided for this purpose — and gaze at the two wall-size screens. On them are projected two different patterns created by what Reas calls “Process 16 (Software 3).” If his titles are dully numerical, on-screen the patterns are animated and organic; it’s hard not to anthropomorphize them. If you observe Process 16 from the beginning, you’ll see little spurts of color dart into view all over the white screen. More and more spurts join in, elongating, until the entire 15-by-9-foot rectangle is filled with a writhing mass of vermicular shapes. Sometimes streams of white swoosh in, erasing what came before them, only to be filled in again. The colors are muted and off-primary: salmon, mustard yellow, periwinkle, gray.
The screen is too wide to see all at once, creating a constant impression of movement in the corner of your eye — movement that the human brain is hardwired to detect for survival. And so absorbing this “process” can be unsettling. The speed at which it changes and grows evokes words such as “metastasizing.” On the other hand, you could consider it a painting taking shape as you watch, the computer less like HAL 9000 and more like, say, the mind of Sol LeWitt.
Our synaptic search for meaning finds more reassurance in the adjacent screen, this one black with white, bursting images. The patterns immediately suggest fireworks, also dandelion puffs, albeit formed of rectilinear segments. Unlike the screen filled with colored worms, this one doles out lacy white explosions that briefly reproduce and then disappear altogether. It’s mesmerizing, calming and really quite pretty.
The rhythms implied on both these screens almost beg for musical accompaniment. Reas concedes that he’s thought of working with sound. So far, though, his focus is on “continuous process — things that are in constant motion.” His primary interest, Reas says, is in “emergence.” And that can mean so many things.
If the artist likes motion, how to explain the diptych sets of “Process 18” prints in the BCA’s front room? “If you are a filmmaker, you are also a photographer,” Reas suggests. “Looking at the prints gives me a glimpse into the future of where my software might go.”
In these paired stills, the ordinary viewer might see something as mundane as white and colored feathers, tossed in the air and caught in mid-flutter. A closer inspection reveals that these seemingly identical pairs are not, quite, and you find yourself studying this algorithmic micro-universe like it’s a spot-the-difference puzzle. You wonder what Reas’ attention to detail will conjure next, what his software language will find to say.
“I’ve authored my own world,” he says. “I hope to make things that are curious and enigmas.”