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Abstraction and Complexity


Let us begin by thinking about abstraction in relation to its opposite. How did computerization of visual culture have affected the great opposition of twentieth century between abstraction and figuration? In retrospect, we can see that this opposition was one the defining dimensions of the twentieth century culture since it was used to support so many other oppositions – between “popular culture” and “modern art,” between “democracy” and “totalitarism,” and so on. Disney against Malevich, Pollock against Socialist Realism, MTV versus Family Channel. Eventually, as the language of abstraction took over all of modern graphic design while abstract paintings migrated from artists studios to modern art museums as well as corporate offices, logos, hotel rooms, bags, furniture, and so on, the political charge of this opposition has largely dissolved. And yet in the absence of new and more precise categories we still use figuration/abstraction (or realism/abstraction) as the default basic visual and mental filter though which we process all images which surround us.

In thinking about the effects of computerization on abstraction and figuration, it is much easier to address the second term than the first. While “realistic” perspective images of the world are as common today as they were throughout the twentieth century, photography, film, video, drawing and painting are no longer the only ways to generate them. Since the 1960s, these techniques were joined by a new technique of computer image synthesis. Over the next decades, 3D computer images gradually became more and more widespread, gradually coming to occupy a larger and larger part of the whole visual culture landscape. Today for instance practically all of computer games rely on real-time 3D computer images - and so are numerous feature films, TV shows, animated features, instructional video, architectural presentations, medical imaging, military simulators, and so on. And while the production of highly detailed synthetic images is still a time consuming process, as the role of this technique is gradually expanding, various shortcuts and technologies are being developed to make it easier: from numerous ready-to-use 3D models available in online libraries to scanners which capture both color and shape information and software which can automatically reconstruct a 3D model of an existing space from a few photographs.

While computerization has “strengthened” the part of the opposition occupied by figurative images by providing new techniques to generate these images – and even more importantly, making possible new types of media which rely on them (3D computer animation, interactive virtual spaces) – it simultaneously had “blurred” the “figurative” end of the opposition. Continuous developments in “old” analog photo and film technologies (new lenses, more sensitive films, etc.) combined with the development of software for digital retouching image processing and compositing eventually completely collapsed the distance which previously separated various techniques for constructing representational images: photography, photo-collage, drawing and painting in various media, from oil, acrylic and airbrush to crayon and pen and ink. Now the techniques specific to all these different media can be easily combined within the metamedium of digital software.

Article  2004