The Ecphorizer

Ceci N'est Pas Une Cigare
Hubert Hohn

Issue #51 (November 1985)



It was Thomas Riley Marshall who said, "What this country needs is a good five-cent cigar." I have often considered the idea of making an eight-bit cigar, but I am aware that an artist can't hang a cigar in an art exhibition without it being seen as a joke. As [quoteright'/>Leonardo often explained, "A great work of art is somewhat less than a giggle."

As I puff my pipe, Magritte's cigar paintings come to mind... the ones that are used as bicycle stands. Although a cigar in an art gallery may well be a joke, the rendering of an idea about a cigar is obviously a more serious matter. What is called for here is a serious title that invokes the weightiness of intellectual sophistication. Perhaps it will suffice to establish a clear distinction between a joke and what might only seem to be a joke, to make certain it is understood that a computer-generated cigar is no laughing matter. Ceci n'est pas une... What is "joke" in French?

Let's see...  join... joint...
Here it is... joke n. farce or blague.
What's blague?... blah-blah... blafard...
This is it... blague I  f (tobacco) pouch.
And again?... blague II  f hoax, trick, joke, humbug.
Ceci n'est pas une blague! A binary title!

If the idea of the cigar is mistakenly seen to be funny, despite my efforts to turn off the joke, then the way to save myself is by turning off the idea of the cigar by emphasizing its lack of identity with the real thing. The title "Close, But No Cigar" is probably a necessary cover.

As I puff my cigar, Magritte's pipe paintings come to mind... the ones captioned "Ceci n'est pas une pipe" to differentiate the physical object from its painted rendering. What is called for here is a serious title that invokes the weight of art historical precedent. Since an image of a cigar is neither a cigar nor a pipe nor an image of a pipe, Magritte's caption should work well here, although it does considerable abuse to the meaning of his distinction. Perhaps I shouldn't use it after all.

The idea of the cigar is beginning to simulate the state of being a work of art, but if I am really going to use it, the issue of smoke naturally arises. Magritte used smoke with his cigars, and not to be outdone I try to draw smoke with my cartesian pencil emulator software with built-in auto-aliasing. The smoke looks awful, but more significantly, it lacks a logical relationship to the eight-bit cigar. I will have to be more clever... smoke is a wiggly line and isn't a sine curve... both a wiggly line and an early convention in the history of computer art? Who am I to pass up a significant art historical reference accompanied by the painless perfection of an algorithmic plot? But then who am I to know how to program a sine function and graft it onto a cigar algorithm?

After several unsuccessful attempts, using trial and error methods, I recognize the lack of utility in cleverness, but recall having once written a program to see what the sine waves for an octave of notes in a tempered scale might look like. As the program begins to draw I immediately notice that a plot of the frequencies of the notes is a perfect simulation of cigar smoke.

Eight bits in a byte of cigar and eight sines in an octave of smoke... I have surely achieved what mathematicians call "elegance." My ego soars like a hawk, and my list of titles gets longer. "The Law of Octaves" will underscore this newly-discovered structural and conceptual unity.

Now for the bits. Something has to go into all those little boxes. I could fill them with cubes (the cube is also a convention from the early days of computer art; in fact, it's the other convention — they only had two), thus making it a "Cube 'n Cigar," but it would look too much like "Eight-Bit Gestalt" and sound too much like a fashionable coffeehouse. Since a bit is twelve and a half cents, it makes more sense to set the cigar equal to 100.

100 = (0x128) + (1x64) + (1x32) + (0x16) + (0x8) + (1x4) + (0x2) + (0x1)

100 =      0             1            1             0           0          1           0          0

There, the eight bits now equal $1.00, which seems about right to account for the inflationary change in the price of a cigar since the life of Riley Marshall.

Despite the brilliance of the process and the rigorously consistent digital logic of the result I have been the object of no end of unfair criticisms, not for making a joke, nor even for putting a cigar in this exhibition, but for using a computer to make art.

Although this criticism is based upon a grossly mistaken assumption as to the true nature of what I am making, almost everyone seems to object. There are no apparent limits on the set that includes all objections. Some of the more reasonable members of the set are:

The He Would Have Been President Of IBM Theological Objection

The Ethics Of Aesthetics How Could You Possibly Do It Objection

The Very Silly Turing Extrasensory Perception Objection

The No Angst No Art Inadequate Suffering Objection

The Computers Are Too Predictable To Be Neurotic Objection

The Computers Aren't Neurotic Enough To Be Obsessive Objection

The Short Term See How Stupid It Is Objection

The Infinitely Regressive But It Can't Do Such And Such Objection

The Computer's Mind Is No Laughing Matter Biological Objection

The Lady Lovelace Lack of Originality Objection

The Luddite Stop Technology Before It Gets Your Job Objection

The Marcel Duchamp Not Unless It Puts An End To Painting Objection

The Rene Descartes There's No Ghost In The Machine Objection


Now there are definite limits to the abuse that even an artist can bear, and given a simple binary choice between indeterminate guilt and indefinite repentance, I will seek a third option. It occurs to me that I am not responsible for making the stuff I've been putting on walls. The execution of commands by the machine is causing all the fuss, and it isn't my fault that the computer lacks aethestic judgment, civic responsibility, and moral integrity.

Although this is a workable rationalization, it disturbs me that the machine is now suffering the guilt which I am so artfully dodging. Feeling somewhat awkward at having made it the target of all those well-intentioned objections, I begin to wonder about the possibility of teaching the machine how to repent. Despite the great advances which have been made in the field of artificial intelligence, it is obvious that it would be impossible to simulate the complexities of remorseful behavior with machine skills as limited as counting and repetition. I have no choice but to leave the machine to its own inadequate devices.

 


Contributor Profile

Hubert Hohn

Artist and philosopher HUBERT HOHN recently exhibited a wall-sized printout of the contents of all 49,152 memory cells in an Apple II computer, for a computer graphics show in San Francisco. He lives and teaches in Canada.




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