How an antique Persian carpet can be an example of automatism

The above Persian rug is of course completely human in origin both in its design and its manufacture.  There is absolutely nothing automatic about it.  It is the antithesis of automatism, being conceived in the human mind and formed by the human hand.  This is what is called the Plastic Arts and as a category becomes a perfect label to cover everything that isn’t automatism.

However, art being what it is, a phenomenon of the human mind, unexpected and unintentional things can happen.  And the concept of intention is central to understanding automatism.  Automatism can be described as art without intention because it’s self-forming and therefore not made by a person.  Only people have intent, a feature of human consciousness, what is called intelligence.

The rug shown above is a collage of somewhat unrelated ornamental subjects.    It’s a bit like a musical chord, a multi-note sound, another collage of sorts, of musical notes.  What springs to mind when one hears a complex chord is sort of what springs into my mind when I see a multi-image thing like this rug: a new singular sound, a sum of the parts.  Unlike a musical chord, however, a large collage like this is viewed in parts and connected, like dots, bit by bit.

Consider the “disembodied” pillars that nicely form a border on either side of the central palace images.  And then there is the purely ornamental, Klimt-like patches of shapes flanking the central palace image which combines ornamental abstraction with ornamental realism.  Top and bottom middle borders have scenes with people doing things and interacting while all four corners are nature scenes of silence and passivity.  The people patches are historic events?  Moments in time beside scenes without time.

The beauty of the carpet seems to increase the more I look at it instead of decreasing as I become more familiar with its simple pictures.  I think this comes from the combinations and recombinations that the assorted images can form in one’s mind, assuming that one’s mind feels inclined to form such things.  The carpet is older than the Rene Magritte painting below but contains the essential ingredients of that surrealist masterpiece below.  The ingredients of the carpet I am guessing were not intended to evoke a surrealist impression but my main point is that a collage is like a set of visual dice which the viewer’s mind rolls and plays with like an artistic board game.  The artist creates an environment rather than a static work of art; a form of visual creativity similar to the richness and variety of a kaleidoscope . This complex interaction and variety of interpretation is the automatic quality to the carpet and works like one of those startling Magritte paintings that feature normal things in odd contexts just like, in music, the discovery of a new, mysterious chord.

The Annunciation, 1930 Rene Magritte

Realism, symbolism and pattern; who would have thought they’d go together like this?  But doesn’t the Persian carpet have all those elements, in the form of a do-it-yourself surrealism kit.  One other element: dis-proportion.  The pattern is bigger than the trees and the pillars are even larger; this of course is a standard surrealist style but the carpet (and really any similar type of collage) at least suggests this sort of perspective although keeping each element in its own little container instead of allowing them all to jump into the same image together as Magritte has done.

Freaky, eh?  Automatism in a hand-made artwork.  One could follow this concept to all sorts of wild outcomes.  Accidental human actions could introduce variations, say in a painting or a craft-like creation like a collage or carpet that in the final outcome have a startling creativity to them.  They would be like working out new permutations of variables like color, shape or pattern that are like computing all the possible arrangements or variations of elements in a design.  When people try to work like machines their mistakes can be creative and since they’re unintentional they’re the product of an environment rather than conscious thought.  I wonder how many of Paul Klee’s strange shapes were the result of things he discovered while working rather than things he imagined or consciously designed?

Red Balloon by Paul Klee 1922

What came first?  The design or the artist’s reaction to their rendering of their design?  The painted image becomes a sort of machine that reacts to what the artist attempts to do with it and in turn which causes the artist to respond to what has happened.  Leonardo didn’t paint like that but I’m sure many impressionists and whatever category Klee is from must have painted that way.  How their ideas would appear on canvas were too hard to predict and thus the “artist” became a critic of their own work who could correct and improve upon it.

Automatism, when examined from the perspective of creativity –who made what– becomes a principle and ingredient in almost all artistic works because the physical properties of a medium can influence an artist’s creative process and way of working.  Furthermore, in a collage, like the Persian carpet above, the artistic effect, or what goes on in the mind of the viewer, is hard to predict because a collage is really a medium itself from which the viewer creates meaning and adds their interpretation.

Mutation, Mutationist and Mutationism

Automatism is all about creativity; expanding the source of new things by adding to what human imagination and artistic skill alone can produce.  The surrealists believed in the existence of sub-conscious human thought and this was what they primarily focusing on when they talked of “automatism”, a sort of non-conscious, mechanical expression of a deeper part of the human mind.  I don’t consider that subconscious expression stuff to be automatism, I just consider it to be careless conscious thought, a kind of artistic brainstorming which might be a useful creative technique in other ways.  That kind of automatism, “pure psychic automatism” as Andre Breton called it, is just an attitude, and a conscious one, too.  Subconscious thoughts don’t draw pictures; I’m not even convinced that the subconscious mind exists in any meaningful way except as a purely conceptual construction used by psychoanalysts for explaining why people have mixed feelings about things and to rationalize our commonly irrational behavior.

Automatism is all about creativity and that creativity works in all cases by the same principle, mutation: the transformation of a pre-existing object.  Mutation rather than creation of a new and original object.  This is also why automatism is such a fun and easy method to work with: you create by reworking what has already been made and just watch and react to the results of the self-operating process.

Max Ernst produced something he couldn’t imagine in the painting, The Entire City.  And it wasn’t some amorphous “abstract” piece of junk, either, that critics could find “serious, technical merit” in.  Ernst used an automatic method to make something most viewers could relate to and marvel at.  He did it by taking imagery that was made by natural and mechanical sources (surface textures) and through experimentation with it (trial and error) seized upon the one that “made art”.  That is the process all “automatists” work with: experimenting with altered variables until they see “art” happen.

The Entire City by Max Ernst, 1936

Ernst added to the automatic imagery and accentuated the effect it suggested and inspired him with.  But without the freaky, wafer-cookie boards resembling ascending streets of gold built into a single, monolithic, towering hillside, the painting would be nothing but a selection of garden herbs beneath a full moon.  In fact, Ernst would never have bothered producing a work with only those hand-painted embellishments.  What would be the point?  It’s always hard to say exactly how a piece of art works and how it makes the impression it does, but some degree of analysis is fairly obvious.

So visual imagery can be reduced to two different creative origins and sources:

1. The human imagination

2. The variability of automatic processes

Ernst employed both sources in his painting, The Entire City, but as I mentioned, the automatic imagery is the focus of the painting just as the person in a painted portrait is obviously the main artistic element there.  In fact, I read something about the authorship of the Mona Lisa that said that although da Vinci painted the famous portrait, he quite likely did not paint the accompanying elements that form the background to the figure.  Such secondary elements were commonly left to students and assistants because weren’t considered crucial to the painting’s effect and impression.

They’re all Kaleidoscopes

Human creativity is much more complicated than automatism since it revolves, obviously, around the human mind and what is called human “consciousness”.  Who knows how our mind’s work? Automatic creativity however, revolves around nature and technology; natural processes like clouds in the sky or frost on window panes, or around mechanical processes like fractal software or something more simple and conventional like a kaleidoscope.  Non-human creativity (which is just another way of saying automatic creativity) always involves some unthinking physical process like the physical environment that creates clouds or frost patterns, or a mechanical environment like a series of computer instructions (algorithm) or, in a simple example: the lens, mirror and colored pieces of a kaleidoscope.  Change occurs in human creativity because of deliberate, conscious thought, while change occurs in automatic processes through variations initiated by the process itself or human intervention.

Simple Kaleidoscope

Everyone understands what thinking is all about and how it works because we are all thinking beings ourselves, but the formation of new things through mutation requires some explanation because, not being natural processes or machines ourselves, we don’t intuitively understand how they work.  It’s easy to relate to an artist, but hard to relate to a cloud or a computer program.

Mutation is the changing of variables that control the expression (operation) of a static and stable system of parts.  The best example is genetics and that’s why the term, mutation, comes from it.  All forms of automatism can be described and explained as genetic systems and they quite often are described exactly as that using terms like “genetic art” and “genetic algorithms” in the area of computer automatism.

The way I think of it is all automatic processes (self-operating) are like machines.  Those machines are made up of static parts with variable settings.  For instance,  a kaleidoscope is made up of a set of static parts: a tube with a lens you look through; mirrors at the end of the tube; glass pieces on the mirror; translucent background at the bottom of the tube.  Only the mirrors and the glass pieces however have any potential variation.  The other parts of the kaleidoscope machine are fixed.  The position of the mirrors and the position of each glass piece can vary in a way that describes all the possible combinations and permutations of what one sees in a kaleidoscope.  Every different image you see, each being a different “condition” of the kaleidoscope “environment”, can be expressed by the coordinates (x,y) for each piece and the rotation in degrees of the tube moving the mirrors.  There are an enormous number of possibilities, but there are also a limited number.

Think of each colored glass piece as a gene and the mirror rotation as a gene also.  The image they collectively create is the organism, so to speak.  The values that go with each of those genes create the variations in the image seen and so the kaleidoscope image changes by changing those values by shaking the pieces around or turning the tube that holds the mirrors.  One could easily create a computer program to simulate a kaleidoscope and each different “organism” created could be described by a long list of values for each glass particle gene and the mirror rotation gene.  This is in fact how the amazingly complex imagery of fractal programs works.  For every detailed fractal image there is a short parameter file consisting of nothing more than a bunch of number settings and menu options.  That little parameter file will reproduce the exact same image in every detail on another person’s computer running the same program.  The parameters are the DNA of the image.  So when we play with a kaleidoscope (or a fractal program) we mutate the genes of the glass pieces and the mirror setting to create an new organism, the picture we see.

Clouds in the sky are no different.  The genes are  everything that makes up the system that produces and influences cloud formation and appearance.  Things like: moisture content; temperature; atmospheric pressure; turbulence; wind direction; and so on.  A cloud filled sky is a kind of very big, natural, kaleidoscope.  Changes in the appearance come from changes in the variables for each three-dimensional part of the sky.  It’s a machine and it’s self-operating and continually undergoes mutation of its settings but without any changes to the process itself which remains stable.

This is how automatism works and while it’s a simple concept it can yield complex results because cloud-filled skies, frost covered window panes, and fractal computer programs contain a large number of moving (variable) parts.  But in principle they all work like a kaleidoscope, just as much more sophisticated  kaleidoscopes.

The person who works the kaleidoscope then would be more accurately called a mutationist rather than an artist since their art work is created entirely by their skill of mutating the kaleidoscope image rather than by drawing or painting.  Fractal artists similarly work as mutationists when they’re only adjusting the variables of the fractal program.  Many fractal artists do other things to their artwork but those are not mutationism.  Mutationism being the creation of artwork by mutating pre-existing imagery rather than creating something completely original and unconnected to anything pre-existing.  Even the work done with distortion filters and other effects in a graphics program like Photoshop could be described as mutationism because it alters the genes of the organism (a photo) rather than create a wholly new organism (ie. take a new photo).

The concept of mutation, the role of a mutationist and the category of imagery it leads to called mutationism, quickly separates the creativity of the human mind from that of the automatic device and helps greatly to understand how the art works and what to expect of its medium.  Furthermore, for those who create works that use automatism, the concept of mutationist will help them to work more effectively because they will have a better understanding of what they’re doing and can focus more effectively on what they can do.

Automatism explained

Automatism is self-governing phenomena; something that happens on it’s own –things that happen automatically.

In the context of graphical imagery, automatism is self-creating visual phenomena; the imagery happens on its own, automatically.

In the context of art, automatism is a little more complicated because art is a little more complicated than mere “graphical imagery”.  In art, automatism is the use of self-creating imagery.  Here’s a good example of automatism in an art context:

The Entire City by Max Ernst, 1936

The automatism in this famous surrealist painting is only the gold, brown, orange, patterned wafer structures that make up the wall imagery of the image.  It was made in the manner of a pencil rubbing but using paint instead of a pencil and canvas instead of the paper.  I think the imagery is that of floor boards and other textured surfaces.  The effect of the imagery inspired Ernst to develop the whole work around it to accentuate that surreal, iconic sensation of “the entire city” that resonated from it.  Ernst used the automatically created imagery; it was a collaborative or symbiotic relationship between the hand/mind creativity of Ernst and the mechanical creativity of the processes that made the rough, patterned textures.

In art, automatism never works alone.  To compare Ernst’s example of automatism in art with automatism in a more general, untouched “graphical imagery” context then just look around at any unintentional, mechanical, non-hand-made thing you see.  Clouds in the sky are automatic imagery; natural automatism.  Frost on windows, cracks in concrete, or any naturally or mechanically occurring visual manifestation of color, shape and pattern is automatism.  Most of it is not anywhere near as appealing as Ernst’s refined automatism, but it was such raw, uncultivated imagery that inspired Ernst’s artistic mind and set the refining process of his painting skills to work.  Automatism is all about creativity and it’s the ability of self-creating imagery to come up with startling new scenes, or the suggestion of such new scenes that makes it exciting and gives it its artistic potential.  But it’s only artistic potential until an artist or someone with an artistic sensibility recognizes that artistic merit and captures it and then presents it.  Just the act of selection or capture is significant, artistically.

Photography is automatism.  But photography, like all art, is also more than automatism.  My definition of automatism, or, my extensions to the conventional definition of automatism come from the understanding I’ve gained at what automatism essentially is all about and then spotting that much simpler factor in many more places than the more complex and conventional definition would fit.

I contend that automatism is also the results of human actions that are unintentional.  People can create artistic objects without the intention of doing so by creating something intended to be merely decorative which in turn has a much deeper artistic impression to it.  Persian rugs composed of collages of ornate images can do this.  For that matter, portrait photography can easily be seen as automatic imagery because really candid and unique portraits can portray expressions and poses that neither the photographer can prompt or coach, and neither the subject can produce at will.  What creates such imagery?  Who creates it?

Sports Illustrated’s many incredible freeze-frame photos that capture a brief instant in time of a fast moving and energetic athlete –are automatism.  They are the creation of unintentional and involuntary (mechanical) actions and not conscious human thought and action.  Furthermore, most of those frozen in time sports photos owe their eye-catching effect to the fact that they feature sights that we’ve never seen before, something which is new and very creative.  They’re a whole new view of something as incredibly commonplace as a football or baseball game and yet they are scenes even the audience and players who observed the real time events did not see.  Split-second photography is creative and it’s not human creativity.  Or at least, the imagery isn’t hand-made although the taking of the picture was.  But if the photographer doesn’t know what the photo is going to look like until it’s developed (or with today’s digital cameras –reviewed afterwards) then what creative skill or contribution have they made apart from just hoping for a successful random event to occur?

Anyhow, a study of automatism takes one through a lot of interesting things and ideas because, as you can see, it opens up and leads us into all sorts of situations that cause us to rethink what art is and what role the mechanical and natural world plays in it.