Patchwork Hedrons

Playing Icosa is like running my hands down the aisles of a fabric shop. Everything is so neatly aligned and carefully proportioned, and then I start pressing buttons, moving my mouse around, fucking up the neat display and making a mess of colours and textures. Sometimes it’s more deliberate, an attempt to collect disparate fabrics into a single tapestry. Sometimes I’m mashing buttons, draping myself in silk and pashmina and PVC like a cat that got into a ball of yarn.

Andi McClure’s new art creation tool, following Scrunch and Become A Great Artist in Just 10 Seconds! (made with Michael Brough) expands on her previous efforts to combine the spontaneity and mystique of glitch art, the chill aimlessness of exploring space without much narrative or ludic constraint and the sense of authorship and dialogue with a system that’s implied in an art creation tool. Much like Great Artist and Scrunch,Icosa presents to the player a relatively clean computer-generated visual to manipulate. But while the previous titles offer up relatively static 2D images (with Great Artist delivering far more diversity in that regard), Icosa invites the player into a three-dimensional virtual cathedral based on its namesake, the icosahedron.

Where Great Artist conceals the function of its buttons prior to the player going in and playing around—thus deriving play from discovery of the actual tools—the black start menu of Icosa straightforwardly tells me to control with keyboard and mouse, and lets me apply specific settings to the “faces” of the space (whether appearing as tiles, wires or as a smooth, blended colour-scape), the general colour palette, the internal shape the walls of the space reflect (be it an “inner” or “outer” icosahedron or a stretched out, rectangular “flat-screen”), and so on. What this does is suggest greater personal control on the player’s part to how the initial space will appear, while not making what everything does immediately self-evident. (Yes, I can use arrow keys, but figuring out what WASD does, or what E or Q do, is up for discovery.)

Or, as the start menu counsels, if the player is feeling overwhelmed by the panoply of options, they can treat the game just like an FPS, where the “S” may stand for capturing print-screen snapshots of one’s exploits. I think there’s always something of the photograph present in art tools like this, but that’s another essay on its own. Nonetheless, I think the fact that the player is largely controlling the camera view— there’s no on-screen avatar, so the perspective feels a lot like spectator mode in traditional FPS games like Killing Floor helps create a feeling of disembodiment and optical illusion and evinces Icosa’s themes of entropy and change and movement that I’ll be discussing later on.

Playing with the "Mirror Brightness" setting while using a dark palette can create optical illusions, like this bird in flight.

Playing with the “Mirror Brightness” setting while using a dark palette can create optical illusions, like this bird in flight.

The addition of the z-axis and the changes to user interface result in an altogether different kind of aesthetic experience. On the one hand, the controls fetter me with greater constraints in the sense that I have fewer buttons to work with than in Great Artist, and it’s easier to figure out what each setting and button ultimately does. On the other, this facility of control mastery allows me to create more deliberate designs, exploring the limits of perspective, proportion, depth, focal point, geometrics, texture. I’m pleased to find that these elements aren’t substituting the preoccupation with patterns and colour contrasts that I find in Great Artist—it only builds upon them, giving them, for lack of a better word, more dimension.

That being said, it’s very easy to find oneself button-mashing in Icosa as much as it is in McClure’s other creative tools, to lose sight of any purpose, to run rudderless through the walls of the space, watching shapes expand and colours bleed. I’m a little afraid that I might eventually hit a wall, since being aimless rarely leads to powerful imagery and being deliberate can cause me to slip into relying on conventions (zoom out and hit Q to make a spiral, for instance). But so far, Icosa’s capacity for variation has outdone my expectations.

This doesn’t leave me with nothing to parse, however. That neatly-lined fabric store aisle, presented to me in Icosa feels like this otherworldly, weightless, celestial stained-glass dome. Or at times it feels like an ever-refracting window; a sunlit hallway; a dark galaxy of floating debris; wire sculptures hanging in space; or however else I’m able to set my parameters of this diverse yet relatively low-poly world—all of that reminds me of the decay inherent in the glitch aesthetic, and the growth and opportunity inherent in decay.

A broken icosahedron with "tile" faces and a "flickering" outer wall. Palette reminiscent of a Patrick Nagel painting.

A broken icosahedron with “tile” faces and a “flickering” outer wall. Palette reminiscent of a Patrick Nagel painting.

In Lital Khaikin’s superb rundown of “glitch” as a mode of representation in Redefine, “The Radical Capacity of Glitch Art: Expression through an Aesthetic Rooted in Error,” we’re introduced to an impressive range of professional “glitch” artists whose goals with the craft range in process and thematic preoccupation, but a handful of motifs keep coming up. The first, of course, is morbidity. The second, I think, is tactility. There’s a suggested relationship here between mortality and feeling, and with death and rebirth as tangible and expressible through technological corruption. In the piece, Argentine artist Tom Cabrera observes:

“Glitch makes somber pictures even more dramatic. My pictures are already on the verge of life and death, in a kind of limbo where reality is diluted and constantly deformed, flooded with violence. Glitch enhances elements that are already present in photography, opening new ways of seeing that questions what is figurative, making it more complex. Lines break forms, opening wounds that don’t heal, and emotion comes festering out.”

It makes sense that glitch art would, in general, occupy itself with ideas of brokenness, death, corruption, disembodiment, mutilation, chaos, irrationality, sensation, stream-of-conscious, pure feeling, pure energy. I don’t just mean as a matter of process, but as a matter of history: the Fluxus movement, exemplified perhaps the best by Korean artist Nam June Paik, has roots in Dadaism (it is otherwise known, in fact, as “Neo-Dada”), which itself was a strong philosophical and aesthetic influence on the punk movement. We may even draw connections between “glitch” as a sensibility, perhaps, and “punk” ideology, in terms of the repurposing and deliberate corruption of materials, impropriety, declarations of radicalism, of systemic dismantling or at the very least interrogation, and so on. I think it’s no accident that “glitchpunk” is generally understood as a modern aesthetic, a DIY and “fuck the system” attitude as applied in the digital age.

Great Artist encourages chunkier, messier textures and brasher colour contrasts than Icosa.

Great Artist encourages chunkier, messier textures and brasher colour contrasts than Icosa.

Perhaps Great Artist better fits this description than Icosa, which is altogether more composed and gentler, but more tightly-controlled even in what it lets the artist-player create than the former ever is. Icosa— and I may be reading too much into this, but I can’t help but feel that the start menu displaying the word “Isoca,” a corruption of the game’s title, hints at this— is nonetheless rooted in the refocusing, rearrangement, reordering of well-placed things. I think it’s worth noting, though, that it’s a reordering of what’s already there, of the elements already provided. And I would even take that idea a step further and argue that because the artist-player is in control of the camera, there’s a tension implied as to whether one is distorting the space itself or the image of the space, and therefore only one’s own perspective of it. Am I shattering the faces of a polygon or does it only look like I am? When I capture a visually interesting configuration, I want to possess and immortalize the moment, the precise way I saw the moment. I know the next time I smack my mouse with the side of my hand or press an action button, I’ll change the angle of the camera and the orientation of the shapes. The game needs my movement through it for the space to become active, but that also means things invariably blur, twist or change in some way.

As a sandbox constraint, the more I play with Icosa the more I feel this is a statement, perhaps, suggesting a conservation of energy. I can sometimes reproduce the same icosahedron, but I can’t add anything more than what’s already there. Instead, the art is coming not from an addition of things, but a breakdown of things.

I’m reminded of only a few weeks ago, in late September, when I attended the latest Pop Montreal visual art exhibition. I sat in a small audiovisual booth tucked away on an upper floor of Pop Montreal’s ancient headquarters while THE POWERS by media art duo Justice Eruption (Katherine Kline and Emily Pelstring) played, projected on a white wall. The video installation, which the Pop Montreal program describes as exploring “the materiality of the electronically generated image by reducing it to its physical core: pulses of energy in the form of light,” consisted of three-dimensional polygons in space expanding and collapsing upon each other—shapes twisting and perverting and breaking to reveal new shapes and perspectives, while hues bloomed and faded in a mercurial prism. An audio track playing some new age ambient music looped along with the video. A single, deep-voiced narrator slowly uttered affirmations about being powerful and capable as the music swelled and the visuals warped indifferently to them. The whole thing felt like a very beautifully chopped-and-screwed old IBM commercial.

I found the venue provided for the looping video was a touch too small. I think the piece would have benefited from a more panoramic projection, or perhaps projected on each wall as if the viewer were trapped inside a cube. (Actually, I think that would have felt like being inside Icosa’s walls, as unsettling a prospect as that is.) But having sat and watched the video play out no less than three times (it’s only a few minutes long, so I can’t be accused of bragging), ideas of entropy, growth, energy, shape, become clear to me.

The program blurb also opens by describing the piece as a “transcendental journey/psychic baptism” in its trippy recontextualization of early video experiments (perhaps a little reminiscent of Paik) and meditation on digital processing. Of course, unlike Icosa, the system unfolding lacks a directly interactive dimension, but it does, if you stare at it long enough, create many of the same feelings of depth, of astral, ethereal flux, where you feel yourself looking out of your dash through space and time. In these sorts of pieces, where we see “decay” in motion, what we’re seeing is the possibility of change. We’re seeing energy transferred from star to future lifeform, from debris to galaxy, from circle to triangle to square.

In something like a video installation, this can only be suggested but not really enacted upon. I rarely enjoy games with pretensions of the “player-as-god” but the ways this is hinted at in creation tools like Icosa, there’s at least a quasi-religious dialogue taking place between player-artist and tool, between the way things can be arranged and the various ways in which those arrangements can be torn apart and made anew. There’s at least something cosmic in that, where the cosmos is always in flux and that the fluctuation of things always implies the necessity of a thing’s death so that it can become something else. And where, in the spaces in which we see our own flawed mortality—either in a pure physical sense or in a more existential sense, where old selves “die” so that new ones can flourish—those spaces are the most tactile, the most embodied, the most sensual.

I see this when I set an action button to “interlace” the mirrors, or facets, and then watch them get cut into thin spaghetti-like rows, eventually blurring if I persist, making a sort of snakeskin texture if I zoom in at just the right moment. I see this when I set another action button to “mutate inner” and watch those same facets of the icosahedron shatter into suspended shards, held aloft in a stasis without gravity until I act upon them again.

A snakeskin-like or leathery texture achieved using the "Mirror Interlace" setting.

A snakeskin-like or leathery texture achieved using the “Mirror Interlace” setting.

Whether I’m using Icosa or databending an image from raw data in a wave editor; or Liz Ryerson is creating prints of her richly textured, intensely vibrant Great Artist creations; or Dataerase is printing their lush colours and chunky textures onto clothing; or in that same Redefine piece, artist Phillip Stearns is quite literally mixing glitch art and textiles on a loom, there are some competing impulses taking place, ones I’m still trying to reconcile. The first comes this need to test and push and even break the limits of systems, of processes; to both understand ourselves within them and what they can say for us, but also our need to disrupt, dismantle, reorient or reclaim those same processes, be they technological or social or economic, which do not by their own devices make space for us.

Then, on a more personal or maybe even spiritual level, there’s this fascination with imperfection as something human, natural, tactile and necessary. There’s something about textile converging with ethereal flaws of the machine that’s so innocent, like we need to wear our mistakes proudly because owning them is beautiful and affirming. It’s like how cracks imply that pottery has a history and give it unique character. There’s this need for mortality to make things urgent and impactful and have weight and be touchable. There is a need for spontaneity, but within parameters that make that spontaneity feel intelligible and meaningful. We can’t just start with void: there needs to be a screen, or an icosahedron, or a roll of felt, there for us to tease and reshape and make meaning with. Something that we can look at from all angles, all perspectives, to give us new appreciation about our place in the spaces we occupy. We are made of patchwork, and so that’s what we make of things.