Boolean Expressions: Contemporary Art and Mathematical Data

I am soon going to attend an exhibition called ‘Boolean Expressions: Contemporary Art and Mathematical Data’ at the Lewis Glucksman Gallery in Cork. This is to commemorate the legacy of George Boole, the self taught mathematician who originated Boolean logic, a lot of whose ideas are now seen to be years ahead of his time.

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There a piece called ‘Dunhuang’ by the  artist John Gerrard, an Irish artist based in Vienna, known for his sculptures which take the form of digital simulations displayed using Real-time computer graphics. He uses technology to remind us that we are living in an increasingly simulated reality, one that we have imagined into being and are continuously recalibrating. He regards realtime 3D as a medium that enables us to work with time in new ways, working with Virtual worlds which include time as one of their dimensions thus allowing time to become a sculptural component.

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His piece entitled “Exercise (Dunhuang) 2014” is a large-scale cinematic art installation that takes place in the heart of the Chinese desert. It overlays terrain, real bodies and sites using satellite data, intensive photographic documentation, 3D scanning and motion capture. It is “stunningly mounted, displayed in custom-made brass box frames that transform the frequently dissatisfying experience of viewing screen-based artworks into something akin to seeing an old master in in a gilt frame”. Christin Leach Hughes, Sunday Times. [1] and also addresses the issues of time and a strict set of rules dictating outcomes. As Christine Paul observes in her excellent book ‘Digital art ( 3rd edition )’, “This has strong connections to previous art movements, among them Dada, Fluxus and conceptual art…using formal instructions to create an artifice that resulted from an interplay of randomness and control”.[2]

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The piece ‘Dunhuang’ works on many levels. Denied access by the Chinese authorities Gerrard commissioned a commercial company to take a 10km square scan of the area from space, he then worked with a team of computer programmers to produce a hyper-real 3D virtual landscape based on the satellite photos. Into this world he places x 38 human characters who partake in a kind of knockout game as they move through the grid. The characters are virtual portraits of workers in a Chinese motherboard factory who he filmed. He later had these workers ‘played’ by real actors whose movements were motion-captured to produce three actions: walk, wait or sit.

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As the program runs, the characters actions are dictated by an algorithm, they must cross the grid using the shortest path. When two meet, the algorithm decides based on how far they have come, who will carry on or who will lose. The game ends when only one man or woman is left standing. Viewers follow the leader’s progress from three ‘camera’ angles on three screens as the game unfolds, with landscape, drone and satellite views. When a winner emerges, the whole exercise starts up again. So in a nutshell, a group of resigned souls walking though a bare landscape, endless actions unfolding in a virtual world based on a real place, populated by virtual characters based on real people played by actors!

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