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Reload the Canons!

This series of articles is an attempt to play through The Canon of videogames: your Metroids, your Marios, your Zeldas, your Pokemons, that kind of thing.

Except I'm not playing the original games. Instead, I'm playing only remakes, remixes, and weird fan projects. This is the canon of games as seen through the eyes of fans, and I'm going to treat fan games as what they are: legitimate works of art in their own right that deserve our analysis and respect.

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Medium Singularity

There's a concept in transhumanist theory called the singularity. The best definition I've come across for it is the point where any reasonable predictions of the future become largely moot because we have either developed transhuman intelligences (something like the human computers from Frank Herbert's Dune) or because we've developed some sort of artificial intelligence. This is the point where all bets are off.

I'm particularly interested in the prediction point. What if we apply the concept of the singularity to smaller areas? What would a singularity look like if it was essentially limited to a single medium?

Well, I think painting might be a field that has already hit its singularity. Consider it a medium singularity--the point where everything we could possibly do with painting while still remaining painting has been explored. Central to this idea is the assumption that media have tools, and these tools can be discovered, related, and used in different combinations. This means that a medium singularity is a little different from a technological singularity, but it still remains a point where the playingfield is effectively totally altered simply because there can no longer be a quest for new ways of expressing things with the medium. An alternate descriptive title could be "art at the end of time."

What makes it a singularity is the fact that once all the tools have been explored there is no way of predicting a future, because all the past is totally open. Once there is nothing left to discover, what emerges is an infinite range of expression and, by extension, boundless freedom.

It's a weird paradox of creativity. Restrictions really do breed creativity. Ever build something with a highly limited number of legos? Then you probably know what I'm talking about: often you arrive at some really interesting solutions when you're limited in what you can do. And what greater limitation can there be but the limitation that you can't do anything totally new? How do you express yourself individually when you can't come up with a totally new mode of expression?

But let's get back to painting. What is painting's point of medium singularity, and why am I so sure we've hit it?

I would pinpoint it somewhere in the mid 1900s with three basic movements. One is the randomized, pseudo-mystical abstract expressionism of Pollack:

Aaah Aaah AaahCH
One is the barren geometries and explorations of subtle color of Ad Reinhardt:

If you're having trouble seeing it, try tilting your computer screen.

And one is the oppressive and fallow ultrarealism of Edward Hopper:

This looks like a cheerful place, no?

These three artists to me stand out as exemplifying the deathknell of innovation in painting. Pollack and Reinhardt (and some of the incredible Russian Constructionist painters before him) pushed abstraction to its ultimate limit, one by embracing absolute chaos and the other by embracing absolute control and subtlety. Hopper, on the other hand, pushes realism to its limits, turning everything into a kind of totally constricted still life, all strangely flat and dry. Hell, Reinhardt actually considered his paintings to be the artistic end of the line, the last paintings possible. Arrogant to be sure, but looking at his abyssal black images one can't help but sense that maybe the medium has gone as far as it can. These three schools of thought pushed painting to its absolute outer limits.

And since then... well, what's really been done in painting that's innovative? We might make some room for Jasper Johns and his paintings of things like targets and flags, since they play around with the semantics of the medium (is it a flag or a painting and so on and so forth) but a lot of what he does is innovative because he uses techniques of sculpture in addition to his techniques of painting:

Cool stuff, but not strictly just painting anymore. And a lot of his other paintings are quite strongly influenced stylistically by Pollack and the expressionists, and influenced thematically by Duchamp and the dadaists. His stuff is brilliant, but a lot of the time it's not really that new, per se.

Johns is probably one of the first post-singularity painters. He's now branching out into other mixed media because, well, a lot of the techniques in paint are pretty well figured out. And when he does go into straight painting he plays around with subject matter that wouldn't typically make its way into paint--itself not necessarily an innovation (compare his typography work to people like the futurists, cubists, and vorticicicsts goddammit I can never, ever remember how to spell that movement) but still a clever way of finding something new to say with techniques innovated by others.

But perhaps I am unfairly judging this medium through hindsight. What if we compare this to an emerging medium?

Well, in comics there are still a few ideas that have yet to be really fully explored. Grant Morrison's layered panels in We3 have yet to be really explored, and there's plenty of space yet to explore with layouts and the building and breaking of patterns in the construction of panels. There's quite a bit of stuff coming out of late that strikes me as new and innovative, whether it be the blended east/west sensibilities of works like Scott Pilgrim or I Kill Giants, or the weird, claustrophobic collaged narrative/image effects of the truly mindbending Duncan the Wonder Dog (look them up, seriously. Torrent them if you can, then buy them). So, this is an area where I think there's quite a bit of room for exploration.

And what about games? Well, there, too, people are already talking about what to explore next, and how to push technology, style, and things like storytelling. There's all sorts of places that we can go in that medium, as Extra Credits and their fellow critics are almost constantly point out these days.

So, I honestly don't think this is just a historical perspective that ignores future possibilities. In fact, I would say it's the opposite: it's a historical perspective that revels in future possibilities. We've got essentially a wide open field now stylistically, and it doesn't surprise me at all when artists show up using totally bizarre mixes of styles. There are so many possibilities that I don't think anyone can really predict where painting will go. We now have--in no small part because of the Internet, one of the potential tools of the technological singularity--an entire history of art at our fingertips. We've created essentially a giant superhuman art historian online, and all bets are off as to where we're going to go from here. It's an exciting time to follow painting because nothing new is possible.

So everything is.

Of course...

I could be totally wrong:

Sorry for the missed week. It's already a hellish semester, and it's only just begun. Your homework for this week is: prove me wrong. You know I'm talking crap, I know I'm talking crap, so let's get out there and prove it.

As always, feel free to leave comments, complaints, or, best of all, your own interpretations, or e-mail me at . And, if you like what you've read here, share it on Facebook, Google+, Twitter, Reddit, Equestria Daily, Xanga, Netscape, or whatever else you crazy kids are using to surf the blogoblag these days.

1 comment:

  1. This is probably my favorite article you've written. I am reminded of it every time I listen to "Pink Beatles in a Purple Zeppelin" by Arjen A Lucassen (Its pretty much a song in a concept album about a future where music hit singularity)

    I thought of this article today and decided to go look it up when I found I was completely void of ideas to put on my new blog. While I was searching for it, my girlfriend asked me to tell her a story, and all I could think of are stories written by others, or cliche's and it took me an hour to come up with something not that original that I made up as I went and turned out completely lame. I find it hard to be unique and creative a lot of the time.

    So my question to you is this: Do you think there are any other mediums approaching singularity? Poetry? Novel? Music? I noticed there hasn't been much new in music since modern and electronic music. Sure, there have been fusions, but not much that's really new (not to mention that there haven't been any new instruments since the guitar got pickups). I want to hear your thoughts on this, if you have some time.


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