Analysis

Andy Warhol was probably the most famous pop artist in the world. (He was even involved in The Velvet Underground.) In particular he is popular for imitating mechanical and algorithmic techniques for his art works. Well, most likely this is not the first thing people associate with Andy Warhol. Nevertheless, it appears in all his works, techniques and statements: He was quoted as saying, “I want to be a machine.” Instantly and intuitively it might be suggested a human is not capable of being a or being like a machine. But this needs deeper investigation in order to get a better understanding of how humans think, how machines think and how Warhol was thinking as an artist.

The reason I’m painting this way is that I want to be a machine, and I feel that whatever I do and do machine-like is what I want to do.

For the Marilyn Diptych Warhol copied one photo over and over in two different styles. One series was screen printed in three very bright colours and black, the other series was printed in black and white. Each series consists of 25 prints. The original image was a publicity photo of Marilyn Monroe by Gene Korman taken for the film Niagara.

If Warhol’s concept really is algorithmic, it should be possible to write down a procedure as a kind of recipe for this piece of art. And yes, it is possible, supposedly:

image = new Marilyn();
int max = 25;

motive(image, color);

for (int i = 0; i <= max; i++)
{
  draw(motive); 
}

motive(image, blackAndWhite);

for (int i = 0; i <= max; i++)
{
  draw(motive);
}

Some interesting works by Warhol show different versions of similar objects. At first the pictures seem to be only copies of the same original, but there are actually small differences due to technical limitations, human limitations and the depicted topic. The most popular example for this concept is called Campbell’s Soup Cans. Sometimes this work is referred to as 32 Campbell’s Soup Cans, which implies the algorithmic idea of this work: iteration. Doing the same thing over and over, until a certain condition is fulfilled. In this case, Warhol painted all sorts of Campbell’s soup, until none was left. The result are 32 documented soup cans:

max = numberOfCambellSoups;
motive[] = {different soups};

for (i; i <= max; i++)
{
  draw(motive[i]);
}

Since these 32 kinds of soups are a capitalist product by one company, every can has the same branding and corporate design. But the design has also to be adapted to the particular kind of soup. So it says “Split-Pea” on the can because the customer wants to know he or she is buying split pea soup and not clam chowder or 30 other potential kinds of soup. The painting look all a little different because Warhol was a human. As hard as he tried to be a machine, he could never paint in a – in terms of accuracy – perfect style. Therefore one shape varies from the other. As Warhol knew, capitalism has some seemingly egalitarian aspects:

What’s great about this country is that America started the tradition where the richest consumers buy essentially the same things as the poorest. You can be watching TV and see Coca-Cola, and you can know that the president drinks Coke, Liz Taylor drinks Coke, and just think, you can drink Coke, too. A Coke is a Coke and no amount of money can get you a better coke than the one the bum on the corner is drinking.

This is the area of conflict between equality and differences in a capitalist, which makes Warhol’s technique suitable. Same with the internet: It has even more egalitarian aspects. Everyone using it can publish and receive content regardless of the person’s attributes like race and gender. There is the famous aphorism „On the internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.“

Homer Simpson likes Soup Cans
Homer Simpson likes Soup Cans

Warhol was an artist fascinated by machines and capitalist pop culture. He considered himself a “deeply superficial person” and was a creator at the edges of art, design and economics – and computer technology, although he never used it. Maybe we can consider the computer as the most superficial person. To the computer it doesn’t matter what it is doing. The purpose, never mind: Designing a racist poster, never mind. Launching nuclear missiles, never mind. Looking at cat videos, never mind. Not the computer’s business, just calculating. Not thinking about the purpose, the impact of an action, the deeper meaning: this is what a computer does, this is superficial. The computer cannot reflect on itself and its behaviour. The computer doesn’t even have feelings. In contrast to Warhol it does not know if it want to be a machine. Because: A computer does not know, it does not want. It is a technical device that calculates. Now that computers exist, Warhol can be simulated as a machine. What would Warhol have done if he was a computer? What would a computer think, well, “think” or think about Andy Warhol? And what is the answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe, and everything? Well, 42 is the answer, that was an easy one. Anyway. The goal is also to modernise Warhol. the machine should not only imitate Warhol; it should be an extension.

Conception

First Machine

It searches for images on the web and turns them into works using the same techniques as Warhol did. Copying, modifying, printing in a strictly limited amount of colours, staging the ready-made and putting these images on a canvas. All this will be done by a real machine using algorithms. Nevertheless Warhol’s works contain mistakes and flaws. Shouldn’t they also be depicted, a part of the concept? Yes, they should. But! Algorithmically generated mistakes cannot be as random and perfect [sic!] as human ones. In order to be recognisable as such these mistakes have to be designed – they even must have an excellent design. Since machines fail at failing. They are designed and determined to be perfect. At least the mistakes have to fit into the concept without disturbing the viewer. The mistakes have to be right, not wrong: mistakes without mistakes. What is this programme supposed to cope with? It will be able to place all processed image in a grid with a certain size and certain number of copies. The number of copies will be calculated using a counter:

int counter = 2;

void loop() 
{
  counter = counter + 1;
  copies = pow(counter, 2); // counter²

  int max = 6;
  int min = 2;
  if (counter >= max) 
  {
      counter = min;
  }
}

The image size results from the canvas size and the number of copies. As explained, Warhol liked reducing and altering the colours of an image. The Processing code shoud be able to posterise images and to reduce the colours of an image to grey scale values. These different kinds of transformation will be used sequentially. One kind of transformation for one image at a time. Every image will get its 15 minutes of fame. Once an image has been drawn, it does not change anymore. After 15 minutes a new image will be downloaded from the web by looking up the term “pop culture.” The old canvas will disappear as if it had never existed. The new Warhol is ephemeral and forgetful. The new Warhol is connected. The new Warhol is not modern anymore, he is postmodern. It is not important what will be depicted, but how it is depicted. Of course this crawling process cannot be programmed in Processing. But the actual image processing will be Processing code. The other programme is only responsible for downloading the image files and putting them in a certain directory. This bot is a little exhibition or even a little museum dedicated to Andy Warhol’s mind and thinking, which does not depend on a certain place or certain time. But there is nothing new: These are Warhol’s concepts and ideas, it is his implementation and his technique. It is only a copy of him. And it is not even a clever copy – more like a digital rip-off. Therefore this idea is simply to simple.

This was the bad boys’ first trick,
But the second follows quick.

First Idea
First Idea

Final Machine

But what if this machine would like to be a human being as Warhol wanted to be a machine. Both is impossible. Warhol failed at being a machine by making mistakes and working imprecisely. Machines cannot be human, since they have no feelings: They are able to compute very fast and always correctly, but that is their only asset. Nevertheless they can strive to be human – as Warhol strived to be a machine. Obviously a machine cannot decide to strive, but it can be simulated. It is not the Warhol bot anymore, but the Anti-Warhol. The Anti-Warhol does not collect images from the internet, he oberserves. Everytime a new image is drawn, he takes a photo using the webcam. Humans do not like to reproduce and copy things, though. They want to express themselves and show their personal stregnths. They do not want to draw the same thing over and over, but rather one perfect work. They cannot, though: Humans are not able to do perfect things. They always make mistakes, their products always have flaws. The expression of the human perfectionist thinking in making is craft, in forming concepts art and design and in thinking mathematics. The machine tries to create an abstract version of the original from the web. Therefore algorithms are needed, which try to imitate human thinking – which will fail obviously. This new version has to include mistakes similar to the ones a person would make. Some elements will not be drawn exactly, some colours will differ, it will be possible to discover conceptual weaknesses. The programme will generate colours, line-widths and shapes. A computer is ovbiously able to generate an image in less than a second. But when a computer tries to be human, the viewer can watch the computer generating the picture for hours. Once the image is finally completed, it will be erased and a new image will be drawn. Sometimes during the drawing process some elements will be erased and drawn again in another way like a human would do it doubtfully striving for the perfect form. Since nobody knows what perfect is, since there is no and probably cannot be a perfect thing, it can only be approximated. It can rather be called giving the best than doing something perfect. And still: Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. The Anti-Warhol needs to be as subjective as humans are. It has to follow certain styles and maybe even trends. It has to seem aesthetic. The Anti-Warhol is built to fail. Even at failing it will fail. But it might still produce interesting results like Warhol who failed to be a machine. But the machine, which will be developed, has to abstract from Warhol’s original method and abstract from his rough concept. Of course, this would be a rather speculative concept. What would a computer do if a computer could think and feel like a human. A lot of people tried to realise projects following this idea. Artificial intelligence might be a product of this thinking. But none of these results is really surprising or convincing. Maybe artificial intelligence is just the hope computer could feel and think one day. Thus:

This was now the second trick,
But the third will follow quick.

Final Proposal
Final Proposal

Final Final Machine

Probably idea number one is still cool, but it needs more internet culture in order to modernise the motives. What if a little 4chan was added, which is considered as the root of a lot of internet culture? Instead of searching Google for “pop” images, the bot will just take the latest posts from random board /b/ on 4chan: Lots of catz, a little Hitler, some titties and a huge octopus is all we need for our journey to internet culture. These pictures will not be modified in the usual Warhol way, posterised and just copied over and over. They will look like real n3t art. The contrast and saturation will be driven to the maximum. They will be scaled. They will be glitched. They will be destroyed. They will be calculated not drawn. They will be drawn way too fast to perceive them. They will be only the spirit of their original. It is not important what we can see and recognise, but what is happening, how it is hapenning and why it might happen. It is the stream of unfiltered human thoughts, which will be lost in the vast amount of data. No more repetition, no more designed colours and products, but pure internet aesthetics without a perceivable motive. This is a Warhol’s concept with postmodern content and maybe renewed techniques. But it still sticks to Warhol’s ideas very closely. It only modernises Warhol’s work on a superficial (superficial!) level. The work has to be deeper, to be really postmodern.

Real Net Art
Real Net Art

The Mistaking Machine

As pointed out in the concept for the Final Machine mistakes are an essential part of human existence. A computer has almost no possibility to make mistakes. A computer always calculates correctly. But there are some kind of voluntarily designed processes which are similar to mistakes. JPEG, for example, compression means information loss. It is used in order to reduce the file size of an image – mostly without perceivable changes. But when applied in a strong way and more than once, the image seems erroneous and distorted. There is an art movement working using digital and analog errors for their art called glitch art.

Databending and ciruit bending are parts of glitch art showing the disruption of computer logic on a low technical level. Glitch art might be considered the successor of pop art: The theme is not Western modern-capitalist mass production anymore, but global postmodern internet and pop culture. (However, although some movements like circuit bending have anti-consumerist tendencies destroying stereotypically capitalist products). A file is destroyed on a low level in order to get an aesthetic output on the higher level. Generally Warhol used the same principle. He used modern originals, adopting and arranging them in his special way of expression. Although he tried to imitate a machine, he made obviously mistake. In fact, this is what makes his works especially interesting. Maybe this is the main topic of Warhol’s works: mistakes. As an example for this technique, a file can be misused. If an InDesign file is opened as a raw image file in Photoshop, it looks like this:

InDesign document in Photoshop
InDesign document in Photoshop

The computer will calculate the mistakes deliberately. The computer won’t be forced to make human mistakes. The computer will do his own kind of mistakes – designed by humans. A machine cannot distinguish between good or bad, between right or wrong commands. It computes the input as it is told by humans. But humans – or developers – are not always aware of how the software can be used for other things. This leaves space for hacking.

The goal: Designing and programming a software that uses compression mechanism in order to apply errors to an image file.

The first prototype draws an image and saves it over and over as an JPEG with medium quality. The compression effects were supposed to add up in order to destroy the picture after a time. But the outcomes were not striking enough. In order to amplify this process, the image is altered. Stretching the image and saving it again creates more compression artifacts. In contrast to human mistakes, these mistakes are more or less predictable. This may be an aspects of the modernised Warhol: computable mistakes. Of course, there are a lot of different ways to stretch and modify an image. Therefore there are different approaches to this Mistaking Machine. Mathematical functions calculate the stretching and the movement of the image creating patterns. Reminding especially of industrial facilities and assembly lines, this depicts the machine in the work.

First tests with random photos – almost like the found footage technique – and different stretching algorithms had the following results:

Prototyp 1
Prototyp 1

After those tests, final programmes were developed using interesting mathematical functions to stretch the image. The code is hidden here or can be downloaded. The input image is always a photo of Marilyn Monroe taken from the film Niagara. Its origin is therefore similar to the photo used in the Marilyn Diptych. Marilyn is still a symbol of the Western capitalist culture especially in the United States, but also an important part of postmodern pop culture.

Marilyn Meme
Marilyn Meme

Marilyn will be processed by the modern Warhol machine adding mistakes showing the qualities of a machine.

Programme #1: ± 1

Stretching the image by one pixel each turn in width or height and saving it as a JPEG afterwards.

Input image

Marilyn
Marilyn

Code

Outcome

Phase 1
Phase 1
Phase 2
Phase 2

Comment

The algorithm affects in particular Marilyn’s face dehumanising her. Does Marilyn also become a machine?

Programme 2: Linear Growth

Calculating the position of the image on the canvas with the formula xPos, yPos = x2. The size is calculated is width = xPos + x and height = yPos + x.

Input image

Marilyn
Marilyn

Code

Outcome

Phase 1
Phase 1
Phase 1 in Bewegung
Phase 1 in Bewegung
Phase 2
Phase 2
Phase 2 in Bewegung
Phase 2 in Bewegung
Phase 3
Phase 3
Phase 3 in Bewegung
Phase 3 in Bewegung


By adding tint(255, 126); the opacity of each new image will be decreased.


By adding more values another colour than white and an alpha value to tint() it is possible to really tint an image. It is strikingly what Warhol did to his motives:


Comment

Looks like an assembly line. Marilyn as a mass product?

Programme 3: Modulation

Modulating two sinuses in order to calculate the position on the x-axis of the image on the canvas.

Input image

Marilyn
Marilyn

Code

Outcome

Phase
Phase

Comment

Very rhytmical. Like a motor or a an industrial hammer.

Programme 4: Sinusitis

This programme’s name is a bad pun.

Input Image

Marilyn
Marilyn

Code

Outcome

Programme #4
Programme #4

Comment

Very smooth. Like electric current flowing through a computer.

Programme 5: Fun with Tangent

This time tangent instead of sinus. The position of the image on the x-axis is calculated by a tangent function.

Input Image

Marilyn
Marilyn

Code

Outcome

Programme #5
Programme #5

Comment

Looks very broken. Like a crazy machine doing random stuff.

Summary.

The postmodern Warhol is a machine, it is processing Marilyn with a computer. Thereby Marilyn gets different functions, aesthetics and charisma.

Keno Westhoff
“The Algorithmic Dimension in Art”
Prof. Dr. Frieder Nake
Universität Bremen
2016