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  • Performance & Science
  • Marc Downie (bio), Paul Kaiser (bio), Pauline Oliveros (bio), Matthew Ostrowski (bio), Anne Bogart (bio), Warren Neidich (bio), Linda Mary Montano (bio), Phillip Stearns (bio), Maximilian Goldfarb (bio), Marianne Weems (bio), and Kristen Haring (bio)

The Physics of Drawing Gives the Art of Drawing Much of Its Expressive Power

It has been said that today’s avant-garde is the world of science. The development of perception, speech, and emotion, and the experience of space and time have been reconstituted in the vocabularies of the new discoveries. Contemporary approaches to performance and the study of audience perception naturally link to an investigation of the brain and consciousness as do many technological explorations.

Taking neuroscience and physics as a starting point, in what way does your thinking about artistic process or creation of work now reflect new frontiers in these areas? Is it an important concern in your work? [End Page 69]

Marc Downie and Paul Kaiser
The Physics of Drawing Gives the Art of Drawing Much of Its Expressive Power

Pencil in hand, you have to channel your vision and impulses through the material laws of the medium; under the varying angle and pressure of your hand, your marks emerge from the crumbling of the graphite against the grain of the paper.

Looking at the finished drawing afterwards, viewers sense the prior interplay of your hand and eye with pencil and paper, for they themselves have had the experience of drawing pictures before and in any case live in worlds and bodies ruled by the same physical laws as these.

The mastery we admire in drawings by great artists comes from their ability to wrest meaning and expression from the physicality of the medium, a medium that always preserves a trace of the effort taken, an effort we instinctively grasp, almost as if a ghost of ourselves had held on to the same pencil as it inscribed the lines before us.

In digital art, it’s a challenge to forge this kind of deep connection of viewer to artwork. With the computer, we’re creating simulations of things, constructs; we’re not bound by the intricate consistency of the natural laws of physics and biology.

Instead of laws we have rules—algorithms. These give digital artists the freedom as well as the curse of arbitrariness. At their worst, digital artists indulge in the shallow exercise of such arbitrariness, encouraged by software tools that make it virtually effortless to connect various inputs to outputs (“patches”). The automatic visualizations and interactions they generate may be flashy, but they are thin. They don’t reward much more than a superficial glance.

To do better, we code what we call a “false physics” into the visual worlds we create. We have to make rules that are so richly intertwined that they achieve the consistency and structure of an actual environment—an environment that pushes back when we try to master it. There should be nothing effortless about it, either for us as artists in shaping the artwork or for our viewers in perceiving it.

(This is not to say that such worlds must ape the real one, for what would be the point of that? Even when it mirrors the world, drawing doesn’t ape it; in looking at even the most realistic sketch, you remain conscious of the medium as distinct from the depiction, in fact marveling over how the likeness has been conjured out of such unlikely materials, black marks on white paper.)

For the recent 3-D work Into the Forest, we encoded a distinct visual physics into our custom stereoscopic renderer. Here’s how one of our rules works. Normally you would sort objects in a scene from background to foreground so that closer objects occlude more distant ones, just as they do in the real world. Here we deliberately mix this up by sorting the objects in the scene in the normal fashion, but then [End Page 70] reversing this order in depicting motion. So when a background object moves, it is visible in its movement, painting itself onto objects in the foreground in an uncanny superimposition. This is an unreal but perhaps psychologically true way of...


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