Artistic inspiration sometimes finds me in unlikely places. In the case of the present work I’ve completed as a part of a Mercedes-Benz commission, I found myself increasingly fascinated by the kinetic tension quietly whirring away in the margins of certain music videos. Though I haven’t been a particular aficionado of the automobile growing up, I have always loved and been inspired by music. My tastes are quite varied and voracious and as I thought about this commission I found myself increasingly drawn to hip hop videos where often high performance cars play a central role as aspiration, inspiration, and sometimes as alternative protagonists. The ways in which hip hop stars and music video directors have used cars and their accessories is as varied as the genre itself, but I became particularly interested in the strange visual kinetics of the ways in which tyre rims would sometimes behave in these videos. As a car appeared to accelerate, for example, glittering spinning rims inside the wheel would often appear to slow down and move in an antagonistic direction. The image worked as visual paradox, but also as physics puzzle.
My background in computer science has often brought elements of advanced mathematics and other scientific fields into my range of influences and reference, and in this case the hub-and-spoke structure in which rotating projections spin at the edges of an essentially stationary hub, creating an effect defined by both stillness and motion. Physically, the concept is easy to describe, but visually it can produce a number of interesting effects, especially when combined with advanced technologies. In conceptualising this work, I thought about the ways in which a spinning image could create sites of tension or apparent paradox. In my own works in general I have largely focussed on the nature of the 2-D image and how technology could facilitate engaging visual dynamics in an intrinsically illusory space. Advancing technology, and my own sense of restlessness in pressing media to, and beyond, certain limits meant that I became curious about the way 3-D imaging and 2-D imaging could work together to create effects that were not simply immersive ‘environments’ which, though increasingly sophisticated, rely on familiar expectations which make it difficult to avoid cliches or established visual tropes.
I built on the idea of rotations and counterrotations as seen in the music videos but ultimately I found the notion of the spiral - as a fundamental form - more interesting than any particular manifestation of it. The spiral form is not merely a visual structure, it is also an informational structure; one may think of the groove in a vinyl record, or the spinning of a hard drive in a computer’s housing as other ways in which information, spirals, and aesthetic relationships combine. With this dynamic in mind, I felt I had a way into the project that was both material, conceptual, and emotionally weighted. I began the work of producing images by taking photographs of the rims of various models of Mercedes-Benz, perhaps to the bemusement of the workers who let me into the storage rooms, and I sought a method and a lineage for making the resulting images less about the physical reality of a car or its accessories, than about the spirit that cars often signify in our culture.
A technical note about the production of the work is valuable here. In producing the works, I considered the ‘realistic’ qualities of the 3-D image and sought ways to challenge the expectations such imaging-making evoke. Specifically, I created an effect that would produce a kind of tracer in the 3-D image which would leave behind a trail of light as the image rotated. This visual effect recalled, for me, a more 2-D aesthetic in which the ‘realism’ of the work is less about visual fidelity than about conceptual fidelity. The spinning wheel in a painting spins in our minds; in a 3-D version, the wheel just spins. I sought a way of weaving these two regimes of seeing together so that the work contained elements of 2-D aesthetics and 3-D aesthetics. Later, I explored the ways in which different materials produced different iridescence and light fracturing under the effects and I arrived at a sense of how the works could proceed.
Musical reference points recurred to me again once I had a sense of my approach for the images. I began to develop something like a visual synthesiser. Rather like the infinite possibilities that emerge from a musical synthesiser by way of recombinations of three essential parameters (filtering, amplification, and signal oscillation) I produced a simple set of visual parameters I could adjust to alter the images. The scale of the project however, producing 1000 interesting images for the commission, was beyond my physical limits, and so I turned to another technology for help: neural networks. My work regularly engages with forms of machine learning, but instead of sophisticated algorithmic dimensions, I used a kind of ‘off the rack’ neural network consisting of only three layers (an input, a single ‘hidden layer’ where operations take place, and an output layer), and submitted the images to the network with parametric input from me regarding which images I preferred.
The results astonished me. Not only were there now thousands of powerful images, but the effects created were often surprising even to me. An additional appeal for the computer programmer inside me was to think of the neat irony of using a GPU to run the graphics on the computer as well as a GPU to train the neural network. Efficiency can emerge from the strangest places.
As I was producing the images I thought of how they fit into both an aesthetic lineage, and how they could be situated within the cultural understanding of Mercedes-Benz. In the case of the former notion, I recalled the work of an early pioneer of abstraction, Frantisek Kupka. Kupka’s works, rather similar to the works of other early abstractionists including Hilma af Klint and Wassily Kandinsky touch on themes of transcendence and divinity, an escape from earthly strictures. This longing, and its frustration, became touchstones for this work, particularly in light of the ways beliefs about technology and its capacity to liberate have played out over the last century.
Movements such as the Futurists or the Vorticists, inspired as they were by early technological advances in the 20th century, embraced a one-sided approach which fed into the grotesque political viewpoints which have come to define their legacies. To believe such mythology about the capacity for technology to liberate was naive in the extreme then; today it is simply fatuous. Technology may well move us forward, but it may also move us backward - perhaps even at the same time. These are the kind of contradictions that animate my work. Nevertheless, there is an evocation that speaks to people in the potential for advanced technology to empower, and to liberate. Mercedes-Benz has often expressed these themes in their creations, combining precision engineering with narrative. I am grateful for the opportunity to have explored these ideas and relationships as a result of this commission.
– Harm van den Dorpel, as told to Habib William Kherbek