WoRD(&i)MaGeSouNDS in associative flux - a review of
Com <=> Space – The Architecture of Association, by Bill Seaman & Daniel C. Howe
by Marcus Bastos
Com <=> Space – The Architecture of Association, by Bill Seaman and Daniel Howe, explores generative arrangements of text, image and sound using recombinant databases. The piece employs artificial intelligence algorithms to organize groups of multimedia information on six sets of twin monitors. Controlled by six computers, the system periodically reconfigures these arrangements transforming the installation into a meta-text in which the meaning that emerges not as it is written but by constant rewriting.
The functioning of this mechanism depends on the relations between clusters organized by metadata. They emerge for a certain period of time and then dissolve. In Com <=> Space..., this emergent and temporary meaning points to the ephemeral nature of current language – both in terms of language that runs or flows, and language that form chains of meaning, as implied on the Portuguese word for “current” (“corrente”, that may also means “chain”). Seaman sees it as stimulating “thinking and reflection on key concepts poetically related with 'communication'.” It is therefore a concept-tbase that generates articulated series (as they slide from one monitor to another).
The practice of producing meaning by randomizing discrete elements goes back through the history of literature and the visual arts. One might add to classic examples such as Oedipus Aegyptiacus, by Athanasius Kircher, or the algorithms of Ramon Llull's Ars Combinatoria, Eisenstein’s intellectual montage, or the potential images of Brian Eno's 77 Million Paintings. This article does not aim to propose an extensive discussion of the topic, that has been thoroughly presented in Florian Cramer's Words Made Flesh ; Haroldo de Campos' “A Poética do Aleatório”; Arlindo Machado's “O Sonho de Mallarmé”, or in Seaman's Recombinant Poetics. In the context of dialog between languages in which Seaman operates, Eno's and Eisenstein's proposals are particularly relevant, as will be explained below.
Through a generative software program, the “painting” created by Eno makes textures and shades oscillate to create an almost infinite number of variations. A painter creating five works a day would take 42,000 years to finish 77 million paintings. Com <=> Space... is based on a similar procedure, with an important difference: instead of dealing with relatively open sensory variations, it moves towards the construction of a generative semantics. In addition, it operates on fluxes and interstices between chains of meaning in which boundaries between one arrangement and another cannot be specified.
Eisenstein always advocated montage as a means of generating audiovisual concepts. He saw cinema as a process of formulating thoughts with image and sound rather than just organizing a succession of scenes that duplicated (real or invented) worlds captured by a camera. Com <=> Space – The Architecture of Association poses this aspiration anew, in a different context. Seaman's project produces a conceptual machine, that is, a device which is capable of generating abstract configurations as it orders and re-orders the words, images and sounds gathered in its database.
Examining Seaman's Poetics, this procedure goes back to, at least, Exquisite Mechanism of Shivers (1994). The work is constructed from a 28-minute video segmented in 33 audiovisual fragments based on ten-word phrases, that results on the “poetic menu” of an application that produces 330 sentences. Dieter Daniels describes ex.Mech as “multimedia artwork in the fullest sense of the term,” since all its components were created by the artist himself.
Daniels sees the interactive version of the project as an attempt to examine “the mutual influences (of language, image and sound) on our perception and our construction of associations”; he notes that ex.Mech works with the superimposition of technology and content as a means to explore the ambivalence of meaning with the goal of building a kind of paradox generator. In Seaman's own words, it is a machine in which “words are to images as thoughts to the receiver / browser.”
This pursuit of ambivalence is an important ingredient in Seaman's works, since the greater multiplicity of meanings indicates greater complexity of the devices he develops. This becomes clear as his poetics evolves. In Passage Sets, 1995, Seaman implements one of his generative devices in physical space. The interactive installation, with programming developed by Chris Ziegler, is a triptych on which a video projector and two data projectors produce a panorama of layered images and texts that may be navigated by the interactor.
As described on the artist's website, “participants may navigate spatially over the surface of the images - left, right, up or down, on a grid shown center screen.” In this project, “the user can explore meaning in its relationship with interchangeable contexts; therefore both emergent meaning and experiential observation of shifting meaning are observed in the work “.
In The World Generator / The Engine of Desire (initiated in 1996 and still in development) Seaman worked with programmer Gideon May to create a system that “explores emergent meaning”, a topic that subsequently became central on his reflections in Recombinant Poetics. From this perspective, The World Generator is at the same time a first halt and a point of departure for future developments of Seaman's investigation on generative systems, of which Com <=> Space... is the latest Architecture of Association, the subtitle of the work, points to the artists’ attempts to build mechanisms capable of combining data by triggering semantic procedures. In this project, software algorithms use words (metadata), rather than sets of numbers (data) as parameters to join their parts in temporary wholes.
By producing a prototype of a conceptual machine (which poses the question: could a conceptual machines not be anything other a prototype?), Seaman produces texts whose ephemeral nature and mutability ?seems? to be based on the hability to layer meaning and speech about meaning - if we can understand in those terms the relationship between data and metadata which sets its clusters in motion. Despite the apparent passivity reserved for observers of its infinite progression of intellectual montages, Com<=> Space... depends on the viewer-user taking some action, even if only mentally. This is an exercise in which, beyond the reader plots described by Roger Chartier as capable of dismantling any supposedly static meaning, the artifices of intelligence simulated through increasingly complex algorithms seem to multiply the fluidity of language in innumerable directions. Although created at the frenetic pace of numbers in seamless movement.
Marcus Bastos holds a Ph.D. in communication and semiotics from PUC-SP, where he is a professor. He directed More Radicals (short film, 2008), Free Radicals (short film, 2007) and Shapeless Interface (interactive video, 2006). Bastos authored the artist’s book Cultura da Reciclagem (Noema, 2007) and articles such as Digital and Wild: Beyond “Generative / Emergent” and “Performative / Locative” (with Ryan Griffis, Leonardo Electronic Almanac) and O Grande Vídeo (Trópico).
5. Daniel, Dieter. Bill Seaman:Ex.Mech, in ArtIntAct2.Karlruhe: ZKM:1995.
 Words Made Flesh, by Florian Cramer, may be downloaded at http://pzwart.wdka.hro.nl/mdr/research/fcramer/wordsmadeflesh/.
 “A Poética do Aleatório”, in: A Arte no Horizonte do Provável, by Haroldo de Campos. Sao Paulo: Perspectiva, 1969.
Sonho de Mallarmé”, in: Máquina e Imaginário, by Arlindo Machado.
 Recombinant Poetics, by Bill Seamanis available for downloading at http://digitalmedia.risd.edu/billseaman/workRecombDis.php.
 Daniels, Dieter. Bill Seaman: ex.Mech, inArtIntAct 2.