Research: Artists who transcode

Before delving into the world of digital art I thought it useful to look more generally at artists who transcode in their work. I set out to find historical and contemporary artists who take information and change it from one form of coded representation to another. Do not all artists do this without even thinking? Or is it a rare skill that only a few possess? What does it mean to transcode and what does it hope to achieve? These were the questions I was hoping to answer.

“Architecture is frozen music”

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

To start with I discovered that several artists are noted as being able to turn feelings or music into colour. A condition exists called synesthesia which is diagnosed as a crossing of the senses and has a meaning of ‘to perceive things together’. Some synesthetes hear, smell, taste and feel pain in colour. Others taste shapes or even perceive writing in colour. The most common form of synesthesia is coloured hearing: sounds, music or voices seen as colours.

The artist and theorist Wassily Kandinsky had the condition and is said to have ‘composed’ with colour and he explored whether music and painting were equivalent. He believed that he could hear colour and see music and created a large number of abstract paintings such as Improvisation 28 below, which was one of a large series of works – interestingly the title has a musical reference.

Improvisation 28, Wassily Kandinsky, 1911
Intersecting Lines, Wassily Kandinsky, 1923
Circles in a circle, Wassily Kandinsky, 1923

What I find fascinating about Kandinsky’s abstract work is that it prevents the conscious mind taking over the interpretation of colour and form. We can perceive loose forms that resemble machines, buildings and faces but nothing is clear. What we perceive is a pattern of mark making that has a rhythm to it, some of the marks are straight, harsh and strong where as others are curved, soft and gentle. Can we attach different emotions to these differences? I find that I can but it takes concentration to get familiar with the variety of marks being thrown at me. I need to create my own ’emotional key’ which I can then use to decode the work and make it speak to me. Personally I enjoy this challenge of engagement as the more I look, the more I see and I peel back layers of meaning as I go. However, I find that repeat viewings of the same work do not necessarily build on one another as every time I see new patterns and infer different emotions.

“Colour is a power which directly influences the soul. Colour is the keyboard, the eyes are the hammers, the soul is the piano with many strings. The artist is the hand which plays, touching one key or another, to cause vibrations in the soul.”

WASSILY KANDINSKY

So has Kandinsky turned his emotion into colour and form? In his eyes he did and as I can read emotion in his work then I have to agree. He developed his own visual language on his journey to help him do this. He recorded his ideas in his theoretical work On the Spiritual in Art where he assigned emotional qualities to different colour shades and considered how contrasted colours could be balanced against one another.

“In each picture is a whole lifetime imprisoned, a whole lifetime of fears, doubts, hopes, and joys. Whither is this lifetime tending? What is the message of the competent artist? … To harmonize the whole is the task of art.”

Wassily Kandinsky

Bringing things up to date we have Robert Dunt who is an abstract and pop artist whose work is inspired by music and he explores the use of colour in a contemporary context. His canvases are huge, meticulous and represent a deep visual metaphor for the music that they are inspired by.

“I was inspired by the alternative rock band The Jesus and Mary Chain, who wrote “pretty” Beach Boys style pop songs but then covered them with noise, distortion and feedback.”

Robert dunt
Robert Dunt at work

Looking at Dunt’s work gives me the impression of a very contemporary take on abstract expressionism. This really is a deep exploration of transcoding music into a new form. They look psychedelic and totally random at first glance but patterns quickly start to emerge. I can see bars of music vertically, ascending and descending notes and layers of different instruments playing together. But the speckles and trickles of colour shout distortion. It’s interesting to look at the two paintings below and attach songs to them. True blue has quite complementary colours so seems to represent quite a harmonious piece of music but Distortion Space (as the name suggests) has an energy level that is off the scale – it lacks the connections and repeating patterns of the first painting.

True Blue, Robert Dunt
Distortion Space, Robert Dunt,

It’s useful to compare the work of Kandinsky and Dunt in terms of the emotion that they convey. Kandinsky’s lines and forms have more architectural language about them as he uses regular shapes and perspective. Are we seeing the formality of classical music here? This is in contract to Dunt’s work, as here I see Nirvana or Radiohead. Both artists were inspired by the culture around them but both have created a musical energy in colour.

Condensing art to line, colour and form strips away the human capacity to consciously interpret it. The interpretation then becomes subconscious and primeval – calling on those emotional qualities that sit within us and that can’t control. This study has given me real insight into the power of abstraction and its potential to create deep rooted emotional meaning.

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