Thursday, January 31, 2013

Images from sound files: new prints from Arnold Brooks

Brooks, untitled, 2012, 30 x 30"
That the senses are interconnected is not a fresh insight.  Kandinsky was dreaming of it back in 1913, at the birth of abstraction, and Rimbaud, with his derangement of the senses, had thought of it before him: once pure sound was divorced from scales, instruments, hymnals, it could become a tool of the modern artist, like the colors of the palette.  You could hear a piece by Stravinsky and then go to your studio and paint it, if your senses allowed for that.  Yet the problem in pictures was this, that for a thousand years we had thought not about time, the matrix that sound lives in, but about space.  Yes there were correspondences: we could depict sound as color if we were so inclined, we could even convince the public of that, but to find a depiction of sound as time was another matter altogether.  Space, capacious and accommodating, was for putting things into, like kings and queens, sun-washed cities, dwarfs, groupings of fruit on a table, naked bathers.  It had a physical reality you could touch.  You could put things there and they stayed there; you could return to look at them later.  Not so with time: you put something there and it was as good as lost, because time flowed, it was never the same again.  That B-flat chord on the piano - gone.  That Verdi aria - gone.

Kandinsky, A Few Circles, 1926
Toward the end of the last century, because of technology, this began to change.  Devices had been invented which preserved time as physical marks or tracks, as successions of instants, that could be played back - first the phonograph, then cinema, then tape recorders.  Later, the development of the computer and concomitant inventions in mathematics and signal processing ushered in definitive changes for the storing of sound, namely its digitization as strings of 0s and 1s.  You could write code on a piece of paper, feed it to a machine, and a string quartet would play.  What's more, with just a few different assumptions, you could make that same string of code produce a picture.

This is where Arnold Brooks, printmaker, sound artist, filmmaker, enters the scene.  When Arnold, quite by accident, first opened up a sound file in photoshop, the computer imaging editor, he was dumbstruck: here was an image that resembled a seascape or a desert, or the lovely meandering grain that you see in wood - but it was a representation of sound.  What relation was there?  Were certain shapes selected by the computer code?  What forces were at work to render these forms?  He pursued his investigations, terming the images of sound files 'transpositions'.  He found he could reverse the process; he could edit the sound to make other transpositions, or edit the transposition to make other sounds.  His original feelings of deep wonder never ceased.  As he says, "The static image and the time-based piece are literally the same file; in their native environment the files are one.  The transposed file can be manifested simultaneously in two different states while in the computer and is still the exact same file."  And what should we call this manifestation?  Well, if we listen to it it's sound and if we look at it it's a picture - nothing's changed there.  But incredibly, the two are made distinct by a process external to the event: a few mere symbols, more or less, in the computer code, or by running the same code through different codecs or software or ASCII editors.

Arnold is not happy with his transpositions.  He finds them "moribund" because their soul - sound - has been torn out of them.  They are lifeless, he says, they don't ring.  It was with great reluctance then that he showed several at Manhattan Graphics recently as sort of a research in progress, including the image above.  He wasn't ready for the overwhelming enthusiastic reaction he got from fellow artists, which must have surprised and caught him off guard: his transpositions were being compared to some of the outstanding works in the minimalist canon.  Still, if you ask him what really matters he'll say that's pretty hard, because that's asking how shapes are made. 

Arnold Brooks' email is


  1. Gotta love your translation of "Einige Kreise", which usually is done as 'Some Circles' or 'Several Circles'. You're given Kandinsky a veneer of 21st century irony. It's accurate though.

  2. Kandinsky is 21st Century. His 'equation'..."the greatest external dissimilarity becomes the greatest internal similarity has the potential to redefine sets in visual art. Grouping all hard edge painters because they look alike is a big mistake in my opinion.

    Kandinsky: "Thus,finally we see that if in the case of great realism the real element appears noticeably large and he abstract noticeably small, and if the case of great abstraction this relationship appears to be reversed, then in their ultimate basis (=goals) theses two poles equal one another. Between these two antipodes can be put an = sign."

    Kandinsky: abstraction=realism

    Perhaps Mondrian has more to do with narrative painters than other so called "hard edge painters".

    1. The paradox you introduce is, like most of them, very fertile. If followed with diligence it can lead to an understanding of what it means to be present in the world, and to the world: that you engage by creating. Theory then falls away. Realism, abstraction, are just words. And as Kandinsky memorably said, everything starts with a dot.

  3. Arnold Brooks connects the dots with vigor and complexity. He can be happy with the work. What do most of us do? Combine intention and serendipity. The secret is to know when the two marry and beautiful offspring emerge. Thanks for posting Doug.

  4. “Understanding” is only a word too. Can one understand with the only visual information?

    What is that line of data in the image above? Is it minimalistic as James Elkins understood the occular data? He read the image from a standard paradigm of what the eye informs.

    When Kandinsky places the = between abstraction and realism he anticipated the possibility of the anti-thesis of the equation. The image above is both abstract image and recorded voice simultaneously. It can take two forms, yet the intent for each form is different!

    Where does that place intent and interpretion? Is it imperative that the viewer of the static manifestation know of the time based potentiality to understand the piece?