Paul Gauguin once recorded a salty exchange with an art critic who had the audacity to ask to see his sketchbooks. “My drawings?” the painter replied. “Never! They are my letters, my secrets.” One wonders what Gauguin would have made of the new media artist and programmer Zach Lieberman. Unlike his furtive precursor, Lieberman has gone out of his way to share his secrets, developing open-source tools for creative coding.
“Future Sketches,” Lieberman’s exhibition on view at Artechouse in Washington, D.C., through March 1, uses drawing as a guiding motif. He declares in an online interview with the gallery, “this installation is like my sketchbook and I’m inviting people to come inside.” He goes on to describe the sequences of code he composes daily as “sketches” or “short poems,” with their own texture and lyricism. To those unfamiliar with computational art, these statements might seem far-fetched. The exhibition succeeds—and it does not do so uniformly—when it renders this proposition plausible for audiences, suggesting that the clickety-clack of keystrokes may not be so far removed from the sweep of a brush across a canvas.
In Sketch Lab, as the first room in the exhibition is called, visualizations of Lieberman’s daily “sketches” of code bounce around the walls as projections. Some are tubular formations, like Léger paintings rotating in space, while others—overlapping geometric shapes—recall Man Ray’s “rayographs” from the 1920s, in which the outlines of everyday objects produce abstract compositions. At times, seeing the rapid succession of these short, rainbow-colored animations feels a bit like being trapped in a nineties screensaver. The pulsing soundtrack may augment the experience at the mezzanine bar, but it does little to enhance the poetic qualities the artist describes. Down a hallway and wedged beneath a stairwell, a short documentary plays, in which Lieberman speaks movingly and insightfully about his process, leading one to wish clips from the piece could have been interspersed with the “sketches” for context.
The next room, the Code Lab, features projects Lieberman made with students at the School for Poetic Computation (SFPC), an initiative he and Taeyoon Choi founded in 2013 to offer intensive classes on creative coding. These works invite viewers to engage intuitively with computational systems. In one piece, set up like a diptych, participants rotate dials to adjust numerical values. Doing so alters a visible stream of code on the right screen while, on the left, the changes to the code take visible shape, creating fresh permutations of historic works of art. Some of the source images, like the Op art paintings of Bridget Riley, appear almost destined for these interactions, which seamlessly extend the logic of the original works. Turning the canon into code becomes an act of radical generosity, which invites any viewer to participate as co-creator, potentially changing not only spatial coordinates but symbolic values and associations as well.
This interactive dimension is accentuated in successive installations. Audiences are invited to use analog devices seemingly plucked from old classrooms—overhead projectors, magnetic poetry, megaphones—into which the artist has breathed new, digital life. When they move physical objects, mapped and recognized by a sensor, animated images dance around these shapes with audible plinks and plonks. Singing or shouting generates hypnotic waves of color. The more uninhibited the viewer, the greater the reward. Little kids loved it.
In the final room, entitled Face Lab, art historical in-jokes abound. In a series of digital wall pieces, cameras enabled with facial recognition technologies capture viewers and re-present them with live alterations, turning their features into everything from Arpian blobs to Suprematist squares. It is a sign of the artist’s commitment to collaborative practice that the algorithms behind some of these interventions are composed by Lieberman’s colleagues at the SFPC. And it is clear that even some of the ostensibly simple visual effects achieved by the designers represent precocious achievements in coding. Younger viewers especially, schooled in the solipsism of selfie culture, seem to love this room. There is even a sort of mise en abyme effect as visitors snap photos on smart phones of other viewers taking selfies, as everyone is captured by facial recognition software.
Still, for all this jouissance, there is something darker at play in an era in which facial recognition has become a favored surveillance tool of law enforcement agencies across the world. Two display screens present a video essay by Jessica Helfand, reproducing the creepy illustrations of early phrenologists, who believed they could unpuzzle the secrets of intelligence, criminality, and mental illness by studying cranial variations in their (often unwilling) subjects, categorized by race. Unfortunately, with so much activity in the surrounding area, hardly any viewers lingered to absorb this material, missing an opportunity to draw deeper connections between the horrifying mis- and disinformation of the past and its reverberations in the present.
While amusing in the context of this exhibition, it is not hard to imagine a future for such technology that delivers on the dreams of twentieth-century eugenicists. It was unsettling to observe how many parents were delighted to watch the glowing screens of Face Lab map their children’s countenances. Such unfiltered faith in art is rare. But should art place so much of its own faith in technology? Lieberman seems to wager that artistic interventions may demystify and democratize such tools before they become fully integrated into the culture by less transparent and accountable corporate and political forces. But the danger remains that even well-intentioned artists may end up normalizing such technology in the very attempt to reconfigure it.