Marius Watz: Drawing machine
Every day millions of people worldwide take part in the greatest revolution in publishing since the invention of Gutenberg’s printing press. Not that any of them pay it much heed. The idea of hypertext was first articulated in 1965, when Ted Nelson proposed an associative way of describing relationships between separate pieces of information. The utopian vision was to connect all published documents in a giant network of information. Today the World Wide Web is well on its way to become such a network, and hypertext is so ubiquitous that hardly anyone knows what it is.
Connecting separate documents by creating hyperlinks between them is a revolution in terms of the possibilities it offers to both writers and readers to connect and navigate a large selection of texts. But it is when millions of texts are connected over the Internet that the real magic occurs. A new space of pure information is created, with a topology given by hyperlinks. This space is virtual, electronic and hypertextual, yet its geography nonetheless appears real to users.
Odin is a public electronic information service for the Norwegian Government and Ministries of state. All statements from the Government, news from the Ministries etc. are published here - over 50 000 documents at the present time. Odin is visited by thousands of users every month.
Odin is a natural choice for a test project for art in public digital spaces . The large number of documents and users makes Odin the digital equivalent to a major public building with an important public access function. The challenge is to find a type of art project that will provide an extra dimension to this space, without getting in the way of its main function, namely the distribution of information.
Like all web sites Odin is in a state of constant development. New documents are added, navigational structures are updated and even the visual presentation of documents change over time. A project for this space must be able to adapt to a dynamically changing environment.
Drawing machines as art for public
"Drawing machine 1-12" is an art project that develops over time, continuously changing over the two years that the project will be online on the Odin web site. It consists of 12 drawing machines in the form of software that run on the Odin servers. Each machine draws a single picture over the scope of two months, and after 24 months all the machines will have drawn one picture each.
I use the term “drawing machine" to denote a virtual machine with a set of rules determining how it moves and draws in a virtual space. In reality the drawing machine is a piece of software. In contrast to commercial software that is used in the production of art, where the software is a tool used by the artist to produce a finished work, the drawing machine creates its images without interaction with the artist. The task of the artist is to “construct" the machine so that it creates aesthetically satisfying images, but once the machine is set in motion the artist is reduced to spectator.
Each drawing machine is based on different principles of movement and drawing strategies, and moves over a 2-dimensional surface. The dimension of this surface is set conceptuallt to 2x2 meters so as to have a physical reference for size. The machines work only with a local intelligence, and do not relate to the global composition of the image. In this way the global image is created through local movement, a bottom up process where complexity is created from simple rules. The rules are clearly defined, but utilise randomness constantly so that the image is unique each time the machine is run.
To exploit the aspect of a micro / macro duality between global and local composition, and to make sure that the image that is shown on Odin is noticeably different every day, two images are rendered for each day: One image of the micro level, showing the area on the surface where the drawing machine is currently drawing, and an image of the macro level showing the whole surface.
Users of Odin encounter the project as a visual element showing an excerpt from the daily micro level image, placed in conjunction with the menu navigation on the page. By clicking on this image the user can see the complete image, as well as navigate the archive of images that have already been drawn. The user can also se animations of the drawing machines in Windows Media format, so that it is possible to see an animated version of how the image has developed.
About art in public digital spaces
"Drawing machine 1-12" is the product of a pilot project where the National Foundation for Art in Public Buildings wanted to examine the possibility of placing art in public digital spaces, as well as what kind of projects would be suited to this kind of space. The process of developing the piece has been marked by this, and has gone through a number of changes before finding its final form.
The Norwegian painter Olav Christopher Jenssen was a conceptual partner early in the project. He contributed substantially to the idea of a virtual drawing machine, and his suggestion of using a surface with a real physical dimension was an important key to finding good solutions for drawing and composition.
An art project for a public space must always take into account limitations of the space in which it exists. As a major web site Odin naturally has a number of security measures. Instead of generating HTML on-the-fly from a database the pages are generated as static pages, limiting the use of dynamically changing images. In most cases a project for a public space is created for a space that is still being planned. Thus the project can influence the development of the space. Odin is an already existing space with established conventions, hence “Drawing machine 1-12" has been adapted these conventions.
In working on the project I chose to create a piece of software that did not require network access or have other technical features that would compromise security on Odin. The choice of presentation on the actual web pages was made so as to integrate optimally with the existing visual design. Potential aspects of the piece, such as interactivity or solutions that would affect the navigation, structure or visual design were passed over in favor of a solution that is self-contained, time-based and well suited for presentation on Odin.
The consequence of these decisions is that the project does not utilise the potential of a web site as an interactive space. Nor is it as tightly integrated to the structure and visual presentation of Odin as one might wish. I see this as a positive challenge for future projects, where the interactive nature of the Web can be explored more fully.
Future projects could also explore the duality between physical and digital spaces by bridging them – a digital piece could have physical manifestations or events in physical space could influence a digital work that is displayed online. The possibilities are many, and art in public digital space shows much potential.
The artist wishes to thank:
Olav Christopher Jenssen
Everyone at Odin, Lava and the National Foundation for Art in Public Buildings who have helped with the realisation of the project
Due credit should be given to the vision of Stig Andersen, who in 1998 as director of the National Foundation for Art in Public Buildings asked if such a project could be possible
Marius Watz, juni 2003