Vít Petrjanoš: Computer Art?

Zdeněk Sýkora answers: I don’t overrate the computer  

Epigraph: "All of man’s experiences are stored in his inner structure, from which then everything is created – whatever he does, whether speaking or painting a landscape. If you are working in any manner, you are always creating yourself." Zdeněk Sýkora

Painter Zdeněk Sýkora (b. 1920) is a leading representative of Czech post-war constructivism and a pioneer of Czech computer art. After the war he studied art education and descriptive geometry at the University of Architecture. /Ed. note: In 1945, ZS applied to doctoral programmes in art education and descriptive geometry, which at that time were taught at the Czech Technical University’s Faculty of Architecture and Building Construction. As both subjects were moved to Charles University’s Faculty of Education the following year, starting on 5 Oct 1946 ZS continued his studies there. He majored in art education and minored in descriptive geometry and geometric modelling. He took his final state exam on 7 November 1947. Starting in 1946 he was an assistant for several professors, and in 1966 he was named Associate Professor in the Art Education Department at Charles University’s Faculty of Education in Prague. He taught here and at the Faculty of Philosophy and Arts until 1980./ In 1966 he attained his habilitation in painting at the Art Education Department of Charles University’s Faculty of Education in Prague, and taught here until 1980.

His artworks are represented in the collections of numerous modern art museums in Europe and overseas. He has been displayed at a number of solo and joint exhibitions, the last time in Czechoslovakia being at the Nová síň gallery on Voršilská street in Prague (see Computerworld, 1991, No. 8). He lives in Louny.

Mr Sýkora was so kind to grant an interview to our magazine. His wife, Lenka Sýkorová, and our common friend, painter Radim Vejvoda, also participated in the discussion.

When and how did you use a computer in your work for the first time?
In 1962 I painted an abstract painting named Grey Structure, comprised of geometric elements placed in a grid. In it, where possible, I followed the rule that two areas of the same colour should not be adjacent to one another. When considering additional rules for creating the composition, I realised that it would be possible to use a computer to resolve combinatoric problems such as these.

So I contacted my friend, the mathematician Jaroslav Blažek. Together we set up a program for a small computer (a LGP-30, manufactured at the time under U.S. licence by the German company Eurocomp GmbH in Minden, North Rhein-Westphalia – ed.) and a set of elements that were created by combining half-circles in a square. Each element was identified with a specific code .

The program contained four rules for allocating individual elements, and these rules were created using a Boolean combination of two terms: continue in colour (the colour of the adjacent sides of the two elements is the same) and continue in shape (the half-circle in one element is complemented by a second element to form a circle).

Then we created the assignment chart into which I had already placed a few elements, and using plus and minus signs I marked the direction of increasing or decreasing the intensity of black. A pre-assigned coefficient that either added or subtracted from the basic level of intensity designated the change in intensity. The computer repeatedly skimmed over the individual lines of the chart and, according to the assigned rules, allocated elements to empty spaces until all of the positions in the chart were filled. /Ed. note: For more information see Sýkora, Zdeněk and Jaroslav Blažek. “Computer-Aided Multi-element Geometrical Abstract Paintings” Leonardo. Vol. 3 (1970): pp. 409-413./

How were you able to make it so that individual compositions were different?
By changing the assignment chart, the intensity coefficient and by prioritising one of the four rules, different combinations of elements were created.

Do you consider coming up with the conditions for placing elements to be a basic creative aspect?
Yes. The second creative aspect was coming up with the set of elements. All of this reflected my aversion to randomness at the time.

What led you to designate exactly that set of conditions and exactly that set of elements?
My art shifted from Impressionism to an ever greater level of abstraction, which in the end led me to create Structures. One can say that each path on that long creative journey led to the next logical path. It comes from the same spirit. Individual periods of artistic creation reflect my entire stance towards painting, my development.

At that time, I tried to get the creative process under control. I got as far as a basic rectangular element divided into several segments which I mechanically filled in with black, white and two shades of grey. This is how the painting Grey Structure was created.

The huge quantity of possibilities that are available would depress me.
Quite the opposite, the quantity of possibilities excites me.

What principle did you use in selecting the set of elements?
No principle was involved, it came spontaneously. When it started to become clear to me that it is possible to work this way, that it functions, I did not consider principles of selection at all.

Nonetheless, I think when you selected the conditions you must have prioritised a cetain aspect. Was it the mathematical or the visual aspect?
The visual one, of course. When I verified that the combinatoric principle works as an expression for painting, that it can be used, I judged the problem mainly from the visual aspect; only afterwards was the technical aspect used.

This was also because each completed work evolved from the previous one. It was possible to clarify further possibilities on one composition: one saw which way to continue, how to select the set of conditions, etc.

You did not stick with just one set of elements …
We created several of them, some by using right angles which I split further into triangular sections.

How did you reach your current creative phase – Lines?
I got the idea to gradually expand the semicircle elements and create cropped segments of individual Structures, sort of Macrostructures. At a certain moment the elements flowed into the surface, and the defining element of expression became the lines formed by the element borders. I started to become interested in the intrinsic nature of lines. I tried to construct them from the curves dictated by two points and the tangents that run through those points in certain directions. In doing so, I turned to randomness for assistance more and more.

Do you also use a program here that transforms input data into output?

Not at all. I only use a random number generator to prepare a few rows of numbers. I enter the range of possible numbers into the computer, such as from 5 to 5000, and the numbers it generates are the values I use for construction.

Everyone expects that when using a computer, a program automatically has to be created and the data have to be “sifted” with some artificial tool that adjusts it. I tried to use randomness in an absolutely pure form, directly.

What are all the things the computer determines? Does it determine the direction, thickness and even colour of every line?
The starting points of each line are determined by the coordinates on the xy-plane according to the size of the canvas – the computer generates these from whole numbers. If, for example, I have a canvas that is 150 by 150 cm, the start is selected from numbers between zero and 150. The next information relates to the width of the line and the colours; this is followed by the lengths and directions of the tangents – only even numbers are selected from 360 degrees, unless the selection is further restricted in some manner. The radius of the curve is calculated from the length of the tangents and their relative angles.

It does not have to be the case that just one number is selected for the colour of the line; most of the time, colours are selected from thirty base colours. The possible number of colours (mostly from 1 to 5) is individually designated for each line, and from these the resulting colour is mixed in a one to one ratio.

Have you ever considered conveying the same or similar output data into another form, either three-dimensional (such as sculpture) or one that changes over time (such as animated film)?   
I have attempted three-dimensional forms, but the completed objects I made from wire did not satisfy me. /Ed. note: Notes regarding the creation of this object can be found in the artist’s texts from the late 1970s (LZS Archive). The work has not been preserved./ At the moment I put a group of a few lines together, the entire thing became concrete in real space, it became a sculpture. It lost the mystery of an abstract multidimensional surface.

What importance do you place on intersecting lines?
This is a crucial thing that I do at the very end, when I am executing the picture. The description of intersections is not contained in the first computer output: this is an additional binary line that is only made up of the numbers 1 and 2. According to these values, the next value on the binary line is automatically assigned to the applicable line at the point of intersection and designates whether the line will go under or over the one it intersects.

But you probably can’t say to yourself: I’ll create, say, 40 sequences of numbers and from these (according to a certain amount of experience) I’ll select some that I’ll combine …
Absolutely not. I must take those that are generated, precisely one after the other.

Radim Vejvoda: Does it happen that already from those sequences of numbers you can tell which combination will be, say, more exciting?
In general, no, although occasionally I have a certain idea. I am able to tell what awaits me already from the combination of colours.

And despite this, you implement this combination.
Of course. This thoroughness is the basic principle of my work. Even a combination that seemed to be uninteresting, in the end can turn into something that surprises me. Randomness enriches man: it prevents him from falling into stereotypes. In the end I’m the one who is most shocked from each picture, even though I at least have a notion of what will probably emerge. I find the greatest analogy for this method of creation in music. For the composer who writes individual parts pretty much separately, it must also be a great experience when he hears the entire piece performed by all of the instruments.

And what about animated film?
I tried that too /ed. note: This is an approximately three-minute recording on the creation of Lines, recorded on 16mm film in 1976/, but the result was terribly boring and what’s more, it was horrible work. I painted one line bit by bit while individual stages were photographed. We then tried to show the film on a wide-angle screen. If all of the lines were to be made, it would have been tremendous work because all of them would have had to start at once, at the same moment.

And any music projects?
I absolutely hear it in music as well, but I still can’t get around to completing something. For fifteen years now I’ve been preparing for contact with a musical composer. I considered Eduard Herzog /ed. note:  Eduard Herzog (1916–1997), Czech music scholar, specialist in electroacoustic music, pianist, translator and radio content programmer/ (he doesn’t have a clue about it yet!), but it seems we are both so busy it isn’t possible quite yet. I imagine it as a joint work: a picture and along with it, the audio equivalent of the same computer output.

Do you own a personal computer?
Not yet, but we are definitely counting on it for the future – for other reasons besides my artwork. We need it in the family for documentation, addresses etc. The quality of the random number generator will be important; I doubt that I would change my creative method in any way right now. My wife Lenka will be in charge of the computer. She is much better in mathematics, as well as organisation, than me. No one would be able to organise my archive as quickly as she did.

How do you picture your assignment as Computer Ruler, Lenka?
Lenka Sýkorová: As you can see, my husband and I picture it together. I consider the personal computer to be a tool that can make work a lot easier, it does an excellent job at “extending” your memory.

Zdeněk Sýkora: Originally we did these things without a computer. We had a calculator, pencil and paper and created everything mechanically: we pulled numbers out of a canvas bag.

Did you have any limitations?
In the beginning we did because we only had 12 directions the tangents could go in. Later on it was more complicated: each line could change even in midcourse. But even now, a number of abstract things can be created completely without the use of a computer. I think that people grossly overestimate computers.

I am not very proud of the fact that a computer plays a certain role in my artwork; why, today it is a more or less standard thing in any type of work. In this country I still encounter awe similar to that expressed over the first locomotives – particularly among many artists and art academics who tend to take outright offence to it.

Radim Vejvoda: Something as strong as tenacious conservatism is buried deep down inside people. Merely the fact that someone finally created space on the surface, stripped of illusionistic tricks such as perspective and other prerequisites for evoking a sense of space, incenses people, I’d say so much that it blinded and deafened them. And the fact that we took our vision seriously just added to the sense of animosity.  

Zdeněk Sýkora: But I can understand that because, for example, when I did the Gardens cycle in the late Fifties, I abhorred abstraction.

If you don’t continuously monitor yourself, if you don’t stylize yourself but instead follow your feelings, you have no idea where you’ll end up. And people do not know themselves, they are used to either having completely mistaken ideas about themselves or they create a certain image that corresponds with reality. They think that this is their last, definitive appearance, yet there are so many external influences and opportunities where one can make inroads …

I like one of Renoir’s statements – when asked about his creative method, he answered: “I am like a cork thrown into a stream and tossed about on the current. When I paint I just let myself go completely” /Translator´s note: Vollard, Ambroise. Renoir: An Intimate Record. New York: Courier Dover Publications, 1990, p. 14 /. I think this is the right approach. In artistic work, you shouldn’t program yourself …

People object that my work method does not seem very creative to them if I complete something that has already been set out in advance (even though it was done by me). But bringing it to fruition is another great experience: it is comparable to writing a score and performing a piece of music. Some people are unable to imagine this; the painting seems like a sketch to them that anyone could complete without feeling anything.

And then others imagine that I trace my artwork from a plotter. At a debate with university students in Brno, one student asked why I don’t just leave the whole process to a computer that would simply create pictures faster and better.

It also seems almost incomprehensible to me (maybe because I’m more of the technical type). Why do you do it manually? Why, it must really be a terrible amount of work… ?
It is … It’s really wonderfully hard work.

And haven’t you ever got the feeling that a computer could help you, say, by drawing auxiliary output data that would show the starting points and tangents?
No way. It’s useless in the formats I use for expression. In addition, physical presence is absolutely necessary in art. I am first and foremost a painter, and the computer continues to serve me only as a mechanical bag full of numbers. That is all it means to me.

Only that moment, when after constructing all the lines I start to add colour and everything starts to become clear – that’s a huge catharsis.

People would probably be amazed if they could measure your excitement. I think that the person with one well-established art form that at some point in time held water with some group of people somewhere, in fact pretends that he misses that human touch, the brushwork, because this jealous person is simply terrified of the freedom and courage to use a computer.
The best minds humanity has available to it work in scientific fields. It seems to me that many artists are sometimes at variance with science, or even in direct conflict with it. It is difficult to understand. Developments in science are now far more dramatic than those in art.

Vít Petrjanoš: I agree with you. Contacts between art and science are not always the easiest. I recently walked through an IT and computer graphics exhibition. At each stand a person was ready to provide an explanation of the creative work and technology, and he was supposed to describe the options it provides, advise etc. I walked from one to the next, found out how it would be possible to achieve a certain artistic aim, and asked whether this or that computer would be able to help and how. All of those people were confused by my questions, they did not understand me at all. Even the actual people who initiated the exhibition were among them, and they all assured me that they don’t know about it working this way. In the end I only tried to find out if they don’t know about someone interested in doing this humble work with an artist. No such luck.

Only two of them knew the name Sýkora and knew that something like that was being created, but they contended that his was a completely different path and they approached it differently. They started to show me what their computer could do, they created aesthetic structures. I think that this art is mainly a beautiful and inspiring aesthetically-based game and it provides a certain optical experience, but it has nothing to do with your human will which has the most important impact on art; and this is not even considering the fact that you continue to strive for a complete and always entirely concrete form – which is the thing that sets every master apart from an amateur.

Have you considered the option of having a program created that would contain your experiences?
No. At this phase of my creative work, for me the computer truly just represents a tool for generating series of random numbers.

This will apparently be just the thing that differentiates you from other artists who use computers for their work.
That’s precisely it. I am acquainted with all of those people around the world, we are in constant contact. They all shake their heads at me at how it’s possible to achieve such results with such minimal means. They have the disadvantage that in most cases, from the very outset they have only used what a computer knows how to do – a process that does not develop much further. But they are very spontaneous and open people and I enjoy meeting them.

Do you think there is any other artistic way of expressing randomness?
There certainly are, I myself have subject matter for the next several years. Right now I’m concerned with the problem of colour spots created from closed lines. But the logic of getting the spot to close still escapes me … /Ed. note: Here Sýkora is speaking of paintings that were completed three years later./

Radim Vejvoda: I had a similar idea a few years ago that was influenced from your work. The idea was to generate random numbers that would designate points from which at a certain moment it would be as if life would unfold: colour (of course also chosen randomly) would start to expand in all directions at the same speed (as if with the same energy). At first it would look like the surface of the water after throwing a few stones into it. At the moment two colours would meet in a certain direction, the energy from that direction would be evenly divided to the other directions and the colour would start to expand into the vacant space even faster. With less and less vacant space, the speed would increase until the entire surface would be covered with colour. The final phase would probably occur unbelievably quickly and would be very dramatic. I see the result as either an unbroken “film” or a series of pictures that would capture all of the major phases of development. It certainly would be possible to improve this further.

Vít Petrjanoš: Of course, the more work you leave to the computer, the less control you’ll have over your artwork. And you can have it end up that the picture truly does become more of the computer’s work (and thus the work of the people who created the computer) than the work of the person operating the computer.

In your case though, Mr Sýkora, it is entirely clear because you only work with randomness and proceed from the elementary sequence of numbers. I consider that to be enormous discipline: from a certain time you have consciously resisted the temptation of leaving a certain part of the work to the computer. In terms of computer use, you are actually a pure minimalist.
Yes, that’s a precise definition. I am coming to even like the word “minimal” itself    more and more, and all of my work will have this character for some time. I am also minimising my means of expression. Since the greatest chaos in a painting I call “The Last Judgement” (Lines No. 24), my artwork has been continuously crystalising, becoming simpler, truly becoming minimal. This is the word really fuelling me. I see the next phase of my work in minimalism. It seems to me that even though there are fewer and fewer elements, everything that is important is contained in the picture. My path leads through integration and abstraction to synthesis. Or in other words, as you get older, you tend to hold your tongue a bit more …

Thank you very much for the interview and for the pleasant time we spent with you and your wife Lenka.

Published in PC World, Vol. II, 1991, No. 6, pp. 74-79.

Vít Petrjanoš (1957), independent journalist. At the time of the interview he worked at IDG Praha (International Data Group), the newly-established subsidiary of the Boston-based computer magazine publisher.

Radim Vejvoda (1964), painter