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  by Rachel Clarke

Designed as a simulation tool, the 3D medium can accurately simulate the real-world physics of light and shadow, texture, specularity, and movement to create highly realistic post-photographic images and cinema. Using a non-representational language, artists working with digital abstraction completely undermine the mimetic system of representation, building hyperreal spaces, objects, and atmospheric effects that have no reference to any physical reality that the software was designed to emulate. In different ways their works make the viewer hyper-aware of the mechanics of the technologies being used, presenting 3D spaces, objects, simulations, and procedural processes stripped of any layers of indexicality. Their engagement with form is underpinned by philosophical positions informed by the history of avant garde modern and contemporary art practice. In addition, they address contemporary content relating to the place of art within post-digital culture, where rapidly changing technologies offer up new ways of manipulating data.

For these artists the form that arises from their use of data is plastic and fluid, and its materiality is constantly transmuted by moving it between physical and virtual realities, not settling in one state. Multimedia and interdisciplinary approaches that facilitate diverse ways of making, performing, and realizing the work lend themselves to such hybridized physical/digital explorations of materiality and form. In an ever-changing media landscape that feeds a model of mass-consumption, and where infotainment amplifies political confusion, this contemporary engagement with form becomes critical practice. While the shape-shifting nature of consumer technology is designed for entertainment, monetization and distraction, holding true to an artistic vision across media and across different states of reality subverts that model and becomes a position of resistance. In this daunting post-Trump world of political instability, where what is real is always in question, and where the difference between basic fact and fiction is constantly muddied in the media, digital abstraction becomes a way to formulate alternative virtual and physical models that re-assert humanism, freedom of thought, and individual expression.

Artists of the 21st century who work with simulation technologies build their work in ways that follow the trajectory of conceptual formalists like Sol LeWitt. LeWitt’s modular wall drawings are executed based on sets of procedural guidelines. Different combinations of line, shape and color produce different permutations within the system. The adoption of a system of rules to implement work is shared by artists working with software systems. The procedural and proscribed algorithmic processes that drive 3D software programs are used not only to create formal abstractions, but also to formulate the conceptual intentions that drive them. Process art becomes procedural art – a digital LeWitt.

Brenna Murphy, Lattice Creaser, still from 3D animation, 2016

In Lattice Creaser Brenna Murphy depicts an RGB 3D object deforming, stretching, collapsing and rotating in different 3D views. The piece illustrates a translation of LeWitt’s process art into a procedural deconstruction of the 3D object and the x,y,z Cartesian space.  

In this work Murphy combines rendered and screen-captured output. Through the screen captured output - complete with polygon wireframe, Cartesian grid, and 3D transform tools - the viewer experiences the workflow, drawing our attention to the visual mechanics of simulation. As Murphy says: “I consider the work-spaces to be a valid window to regard the objects in their "natural state", so it feels right to record this viewpoint in addition to rendering out more slick versions. Layering these states of being builds a juicy dissonance that can reveal a more full existence.”

Brenna Murphy, Lattice Creaser, still from 3D animation, 2016

In revealing the underlying architecture of the program and presenting models and processes in their raw form Lattice Creaser doesn’t conform to the mimetic system of representation of the 3D CG system. Instead it represents itself, a virtual enactment of the the minimalist concept of “what you see is what you see.”  Brenna says this is a way for her to understand and reflect on her own living experience. She has developed a techno-psychedelic ethos for her practice, that embraces digital, virtual, physical, metaphysical: “Models can be studied to reveal the form of their maker even more than the form they are meant to convey...focusing on enacting a series of transformations to a pure form is an exercise of meditation, a tuning in where your mind is at sensual play with the universe.”

Engaging with a new set of formal and technical possibilities within the 3D medium that are freed from their original purpose, some 3D CG artists use a formalist methodology to focus on a sci-fi aesthetic made possible by the hyper-realization of a trompe l'oeil approach to simulation. In his work, Birch Cooper creates fantastical, synthetic sci-fi objects. With their intricate ornamental detail, gorgeous iridescent surfaces, and odd movements they seem like an other-worldly apparition.

Birch Cooper, preview of upcoming show Convolution Weave Structures at Upfor Gallery, 2017

Birch is inspired by post-human civilizations in the writing of hard science fiction author, Greg Egan. He says, “The totally virtual life experience and environments of the characters provides an imagined context for virtual sculpture that I find compelling. Maybe someday my work will be experienced first hand by fully digital post-humans.” He relates to Egan’s utopian vision of a disembodied human consciousness: “Human consciousness becomes digital and everyone exists as an avatar within digital societies. The rules of what it means to be an embodied human are completely different. It’s really lovely! I would say my work has a utopian vision.”

As much as Birch is a visual artist, he is a sound artist, and these two artforms are interwoven in everything he makes, “my virtual sculpture has always been very influenced by electronic music, and my electronic music has been informed by my work in virtual sculpture.”  He draws a lot of inspiration from classical electronic composers like David Tudor, Maryann Amacher, Pierre Schaeffer, and Morton Subotnick, as well as more recent computer music by artists like Yasunao Tone. The physicality of sound is something that drives his practice, informing his sound installations and virtual sculpture. As he says “If you’re in a room with a generative sound system that sound is a hyperdimensional sculpture because it has a spatial aspect and a physical aspect, it’s invisible and you experience it through time. Because it’s generative it has aspects that are outside of time but are still part of its existence. I think of sound as being a sculpture, but I think of sculpture as being similar to sound.”

The other-worldly pure form of Birch’s virtual sculpture can be understood through this relationship to music, which influences the process and the form. “My initial interest in doing digital sculpture was that I thought I could represent or mirror the types of forms I was interested in in electronic music in a spatial way. I approach virtual sculpture in a parallel way to how I approach electronic music...I think of my sculptures as being aleatoric - not in the sense that they are exclusively the result chance operations, but in a broader sense that refers to procedural, algorithmic and generative processes, working in combination with improvisation.”

The musical work combines algorithmic systems and human intervention in the form of improvisation, and Birch describes his approach to sculpture similarly: “in different proportions the sculpture is the same. There is this inherently algorithmic aspect in working with this type of sculpture and these types of forms, and the processes you use on the material to extrude it, shade it, etc, so they’re similar in that regard. In relation to early music I like to think of Morton Subotnick or David Tudor’s studio with a simple set of oscillators and signal processors, recording to tape. I think that would be a pretty similar process to what I’m doing - choices building on each other in a linear way.”

In Threshold Release Ornament, the sound and visual elements work in correspondence with each other. Birch described the process whereby the forms were created by extruding cubes at 0, 45 and 90 degree angles. The resulting shape was then often doubled or tripled and overlaid on itself to create a cohesion and rhythm in the overall form. “As I'm doing this I try to amplify forms that appear biological or classically sculptural. I have a tendency to reflect ‘natural’ or ‘universal’ forms with highly synthetic materials.”

The virtual objects in Threshold Release Ornament are ornamental in appearance. They are glassy and fragile-looking, with lots of detail and intricately interconnected parts. They’re usually set apart or rotating on pedestals. Birch does this to place them in a dialog with traditional sculpture, “It's a way of making the comparison between sonic systems and sculpture more explicit, and it's also a way of lending virtual sculpture the cultural weight that physical sculpture enjoys.”

Birch’s work is both interdisciplinary and collaborative. He continues to collaborate with Brenna Murphy in MSHR, the duo make a wide range of work: images and prints; virtual, physical and fabricated sculpture; and installations and performances that have generative or interactive musical systems. “I like it as a social model and its exciting to have input from something outside of yourself in the creative process. When I work by myself I also create situations where there’s input from outside of myself, or I’m collaborating with a system outside of myself that will surprise me in some way”

His approach to making the sculpture is modular, and carries through into other art forms “I see it in building blocks. Often when I create a sculpture, I copy it several times, so it also becomes a module in a larger sculpture, but also those sculptures are expressed in different ways: video, print, fabrication, musical instruments, etc....I have a rhizomatic practice where there’s lots of inputs and outputs, and the inputs get reconfigured to produce lots of different outputs. Virtual sculpture is just one of the parameters in that larger system. I’m trying to have an aesthetic world and a creative process that takes place over all senses and as many media as it needs to.”

Birch Cooper, virtual installation, Upfor gallery, 2017

In addition to conceptual art and minimalists like Le Witt, the methodology of a contemporary process painter such as David Reed can also be evidenced in some artists working with digital abstraction. Reed has described his work as a decoding of painting; his works are based on the process of making strokes as “thing, action and image,” an abstraction without nostalgia or expression. The simulated gesture that characterizes process art like Reed’s is linked to the simulated gestures of digital abstraction. The digital abstraction of artists in the show represents a simulated painting experiment, a real-fake painting.  

In Keith Tolch’s work, representations of the digital collide with the physical world of paint: imagery of computer processes is combined with process painting. This collapsing of boundaries is at times chaotic, and at others the imagery coalesces into a new unity. As he says: “narratives, information and language are always changing and transforming. They have a tendency to be used in an authoritarian manner where power defines the trajectory, but that's not always the case.”

Keith Tolch, Bury the Ground, 60” x 60”, Oil on Canvas, 2015

Computation underlies the choice and use of imagery: the strokes and forms are often modular, and repeat in different combinations. Painterly build-up and fragmentation simulates the effects of datamoshing and other glitch errors, and compositional elements are arranged in a dense, multi-layered, but shallow space. I asked Keith about the relationship between digital representation and painterly processes in his work. He talked about the influence of video games and operating systems, “I've always drawn from that reservoir/databank/repository while building a painting unit by unit” The way he articulates his painting method suggests generative computational process, “I have a vernacular that's continuously building, mutating and evolving.” As he says, “the paintings I make are a simulation of the process of a system undergoing a transformation...the 'picture plane' is the Alpha Channel and so on...” While his painting approach is rooted in formalist abstraction “...subverting 'failure' and pushing through into new spaces where one can only get while painting...” he wants to reframe painting, relating processes and ideas of the digital age to it to maintain “...painting as a breathing relevant entity.”

The aesthetic of Keith’s 3D animations is strongly related to that of his paintings, but also extends its possibilities. 3D animation enables him to work outside of the spatial constraints of the picture plane - the virtual camera can move the viewer through different dimensional spaces and visual events: “I build a proscenium where a drama unfolds.” The spaces he creates are multidimensional and inconsistent - he jumps between different viewpoints and environments. Modular elements recur and interact, and patterns emerge and collapse. Elements move, morph, appear and disappear. Error returns as glitchy forms that are in constant, maniacal deformation. The compositional flow is fragmented like in his paintings, but now through cinematic montage. Temporal fragmentation creates a different experience of chaos and disorientation, unfolding alongside passages of visual unity.

Keith Tolch, FINISHED//Transformation, still from 3D animation, 2015

I asked Keith if his animations are real-fake simulated paintings. He responded that his paintings and animations are separate explorations, but are related through similar perceptual intentions: “I want these [animations] to be entered through the lens of someone who looks at or makes paintings. Animation is similar to painting in that once someone is looking, a simulated experience begins, so they're experiencing something outside of themselves that's made with something very specific in mind.” He finds the dimensions of space and time possible in 3D animation to be distinct from painting “it gives me the chance to manipulate the flow of time in such a different way...the element of time in painting is extremely concentrated and doesn't have the capability of playing out from one point to the next, it kind of happens all at once.”

Snow Yunxue Fu’s hyperreal spaces simulate the light, shadow and atmospheric effects of landscape painting. Simulation technology accurately mimics environmental phenomena like rocks, ice, fluids, clouds, etc., but is used to create models of a parallel nature -- landscapes that can't and don’t exist. I asked Snow about her intentions: “the motive is to draw that parallel relationship, to observe what’s happening in nature, and try to understand and perceive it.” She discussed the importance of the sublime, “In my work I’m interested in human perception - an event that’s larger than us that we’re trying to wrap our heads around. That process of experiencing our limitations is really interesting to me...” She likens it to a childhood experience: “I was about eight when I first saw the ocean, and I recall the experience of trying to wrap my mind around such a vast body of water.” In her work the digital model becomes an intermediary - a way to try to encompass what is beyond our comprehension, “there is impossibleness in the heart of my work that I feel strongly about. The model becomes its own entity. In a way I think it’s real, this is going to be the thing we end up having instead fully understanding what the reality is.”

She sees the internet as an extension of this - a digital sublime - whereby the vast repository of human knowledge similarly confronts the limits of our understanding “what we create and put there there is neither alive or dead. It is are there forever. And with artificial intelligence there’s this conversation about what is life. It offers a complicated relationship to mortality I guess.”

Snow Yunxue Fu, Pi, still from 3D animation, 2016

Snow talked about her recent animation, Pi, and the importance of the mathematical symbol of Pi in her entire process:  “Pi is the core concept of the piece, something that is infinite but non-repetitive. In nature it’s all-encompassing, but because it’s non-repetitive it provides an element of surprise. In the history of art, the idea of pi is tied in with beauty, unity, and proportion.” For Snow the idea of pi links digital models and physical reality, “Pi is very precise: 3.1452...a particular number, but then looking at the number itself, and there’s so much randomness to it. Using mathematical algorithms you can determine what is (for example) the 20th digit of that number. So there’s this idea of complete randomness, complete abstraction, complete disorganization that’s also very much in our world, in life, and it is also something complete, and unavoidable!”

Snow talked about the influence of earthwork and land art, particularly Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty, which uses pi/the golden mean. Smithson placed the completely abstract, geometric spiral jetty in nature. “It will erase, emphasizing of the force of nature, as well as embodying a paradox. The structure is a very organized one, yet entropic in that it is also structurally self-degrading.”

As with the use of pi, she’s very aware of the underlying structure of all aspects of her work. For example, aspect ratio. On her use of unusual, narrow aspect ratios she says: “it’s about not taking the pictorial space for granted. In contemporary image practices a 16:9 aspect ratio is the known and accepted opening into the image. We automatically read that as the whole view, but it was very weird to me coming from a painting background to understand this. Why do we feel so comfortable with this awkward rectangular shape when we know that our eye doesn’t function like that? So I am really questioning the notion of the edge. And I’m not allowing you to see as much. In a lot of my animation work you see the video through a narrow gap, as a way to explore limits.” Her grandfather was a traditional Chinese landscape painter, and she acknowledges that this has indirectly influenced her work: “Chinese landscape painting or folk painting utilizes the scroll format; the narrative is read from one side to the other. The image doesn’t move but the viewer moves across and processes time.” She thinks of time as another limit to emphasize in her work, “time is another abstract concept, so back to the idea of mortality, it’s about the limits of the time we are given or get to experience.”

Snow Yunxue Fu, Tunnel, still from 3D animation, 2015

In her animations Snow wants to create a contemplative space. That again could be seen as relating back to Chinese traditional landscape painting traditions, such as Daoist painting. “Western moving image culture is narrative and goal-oriented. The hero has a quest, has to go somewhere, and do something. They have to fight something to define themselves, and that’s who they are. There’s little just “being”. I’m interested in being, and being still helps you to see who you really are. That being is the definition of who I am. A lot of my work is about that - I want people to just be. In my work every second counts, is beautiful, is subliminal. It’s all there, and even the visual interruptions are somewhat beautiful”


“A Painter of Post–Modern Life” by John Yau. Extracted from on 11/6/16

“Sol Le Witt.”  Extracted from on 11/6/16


Rachel Clarke
Terra Incognita, 2013


Birch Cooper
Threshold Release Ornament


Snow Yunxue Fu
Pi, 2016


Kristin Lucas
Sick Waves, 2015


Sara Ludy
Spheres 1-20, 2013


Gerhard Mantz
Apodiktische Gewissheit, 2015


Rosa Menkman
Where are the newer media?, 2016
video screencap of slide of powerpoint ported inside an unity environment


Brenna Murphy
Lattice Creaser, 2015


Sabrina Ratté
Built-in Views, 2016
HD video

Soundtrack by Roger Tellier Craig
Commissioned by the Toronto Animated Image Society (TAIS)


Keith Tolch
FINISHED//Transformation, 2015