The Ecphorizer

The Machine Seeks Nirvana For Its Artist
Hubert Hohn

Issue #47 (July 1985)

Experts tell me that computer hardware consists of thousands of minute physical locations which can be in either one of only two states — charged (with a low voltage) or not. The significant operations which this two-state hardware is made to execute [quoteright]include such remarkable

...I have landed in a two-state hall of mirrors...

feats as counting forward and counting backward. Programs consist of instructions which cause the hardware to simulate the behavior of other devices or human beings repeatedly at an extremly rapid rate.

Now what is an artist supposed to do with two states, counting and rapid repetition?

Imagine this. I am a photographer who is interested (naïvely, of course) in the conquest of dualism. I have discovered that locating and documenting the last surviving dualists is fundamentally a tedious and boring activity, and that most people, when looking at the pictures say things like "What lens do you use?" or "Look at his shirt" instead of saying "Now there is someone who should stop being a dualist. I am going to stop being a dualist and I will encourage others to stop."

Frustrated by my inability to make a socially meaningful difference with my good intentions, I turn in frustration and despair to the computing machine to relieve my misery. Beginning with a manageable problem, I ask the machine to draw a rectangle by plotting from one corner to the next on its Cartesian video grid.

HPLOT 0,0 TO 10,0 TO 10,10 TO 0,10 TO 0,0

Inspired by immediate success, I ask the machine to draw a cube inside the rectangle by plotting from one corner to the next in imagined three-dimensional space. Success again!

Since the machine is designed to count repeated executions of generalized  (algorithms, according to an expert), I ask it to draw as many cubes in boxes as will fit on the screen. More success!

It occurs to me that my drawing looks like the picture of a byte of information in my "How It Works" book, except that the one in the book had a "0" or "1" instead of a cube in each box or "bit."

Though I have always heard that programmers need to know a lot of mathematics, my drawing program has required only a modicum of expertise at "follow the dots," a field in which I once excelled as a photographer, where the number of dots is infinite and a camera helps with the following.

Here is the program:

1 FOR I = 0 TO 7
2 X = 32 * I
3 X0 = X+26
4 X1 = X+6
5 X2 = X+32
6 HPLOT X,0 TO X2,0 TO X2,42 TO X,42 TO X,0
7 HPLOT X1 +7,5 TO X1 +7 ,23
8 HPLOT X1+13,19 TO X1+13,37
9 HPLOT X0,30 TO X0,12 TO X1+14,19 TO X1,12 TO X1+6,5 TO X0,12
10 HPLOT X1,12 TO X1,30 TO X1 +6,23 TO X0,30 TO X1 +14,37 TO X1,30

Hmm... the program looks confusing, and there is something unpleasantly abstract about imagining points in a fictional space and creating algorithms... Could the machine be taught to allow me to draw interactively? At first this seems an impossible task for a beginner like me, but as I think about drawing on a grid, it would only be necessary to:

move on either one of two perpendicular axes,

move in either one of two directions on either axis,

make the current position on the Cartesian video grid either black or white, and

do this over and over again.

Three two-state conditions embedded within a repeating loop — perfectly compatible with the essence of the machine! The new program:

1 GET K$
2 IF K$ = "1" THEN HCOLOR= 3
3 IF K$ = "0" THEN HCOLOR= 0
4 IF K$ = "I" THEN Y = Y - 1
5 IF K$ = "M" THEN Y = Y + 1
6 IF K$ = "J" THEN X = X - 1
7 IF K$ = "K" THEN X = X + 1
9 GOTO 1

And it works! I have created a Cartesian pencil emulator with built-in auto-aliasing!

As you can readily see, the hand-drawn version is much more expressive than the algorithmic version. However, the pencil program method is extremely slow, subject to human error (I never could draw) and probably silly given the sophistication of the machine. Abandoning my nostalgia for familiar but obsolete technologies, I return to the use of algorithms.

If I exhibit my new drawing, it will need an appropriate title. The drawing looks like an eight-bit byte, and the cubes remind me of the necker Cubes in Gestalt psychology books. As each cube has two states (seen from above and seen from below) a Necker Cube works like a bit, only the "switch" is mental instead of electronic. Why not use "Eight-Bit Gestalt" for a title?

A piece produced in a variable state system should probably have more than one state, and this could be achieved with the addition of more titles. While contemplating the possibilities, the jagged lines on the cubes begin to fascinate me, and I am reminded that the whole drawing is lying within the dual axes of a Cartesian grid. Cartesian dualism! The new title must obviously be, "Cartesian Dualism Is All In The Mind."

Turning the title over in my mind, it dawns on me that if "All In The Mind" means "located in the mind" then the notion of dualism is true, but if "All In The Mind" means "a fantasy having no objective correlative" then the notion of dualism is false. The second title is a "Necker Statement" — the semantic shift is analogous to the visual shift in the Necker Cube — which seems to make it more fit than I intended. The new title can be used twice, once for each semantic flop, but then another title will be required to pair off with the original one. Let's see... a flop, either visual or semantic, is a change in consciousness of the object, or as a phenomenologist might say, a shift of intentionality. If a Necker bit byte changes state, the process is necessarily a flop in intentionality... ah... excellent... the fourth title will be "The Intentional Flop."

The drawing appears to be taking on a relationship to my abandoned concern with dualism, as well as turning the tables on the traditional mind/machine relationship. In artificial intelligence, machine memory is made to simulate the human mind, while in the drawing my mind is simulating machine memory. When I work at the machine my mind becomes its content, as the mentally driven bits make clear. I am interacting with myself. It will be necessary to call the drawing "The Ghost In The Machine."

I suddenly realize that I have landed in a two-state hall of mirrors with dualism extending into mental space farther than the inner eye can see. While seeking advice upon how to confront this dilemma, I am told by some that the way to overcome dualism is by embracing oneness, while others say it is necessary to embrace nothingness. This advice is puzzling and distinctively dualistic.

? = { 0 } OR { 1 }

Finally, however, I am informed by a sage that there is a well-tested method by which dualism can easily be conquered. Of course! I've been gathering silly opinions when I should have been seeking a method! Nothing brings more joy to heaven than the illumination of a fool. The method prescribed is simply to count repetitions of breathing for twenty minutes each day for fifteen years. Despite the simplicity, fifteen years is an excessively long time to be doing anything. But let's see... breathing... inhale  exhale (two states!)... count... repeat... the structure seems strangely familiar. The way out breaks over my simple mind as 1 envision a new program...

LET I = 1



1 LET 1 = 0
2 PRINT I". ";
3 PRINT "Inhale..."
4 PRINT "Exhale..."
5 LET I = I + 1
6 GOTO 2

Line # 1 - May the variable referred to as "I" become equal to the state of nothingness.

Line #2 - Show me the state of the variable referred to as "I."

Line #3 - Inhale.

Line #4 - Exhale.

Line #5 - May the variable referred to as "I" become equal to the state of itself plus the state of oneness.

Line #6  - Repeat the process.

There — the machine is running as I head for the TV to watch football. By half-time I should be close to Nirvana...

0. Inhale

1. Inhale

2. Inhale

3. Inhale

4. Inhale


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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