The poetry of algorithms

In Milan, the media artist and designer Joachim Sauter, founder of Art+Com, told us about how he uses algorithms to reveal the poetry of unseen and unforeseen sides of reality.

Joachim Sauter
Proclaiming to want to make poetry with algorithms might seen an ambitious, unrealistic endeavour, but the German media artist Joachim Sauter (1959), founder of the Berlin-based studio Art+Com, proves that it is a practicable road. His work has given extraordinarily artistic results. For a recent event organised at the Istituto di Design in Milan, in collaboration with Swarm Hybrid Design Lab, Sauter illustrated the main projects that have marked his long career, embarked upon in 1988 with the birth of Art-Com, right at the beginning of the large-scale diffusion of personal computers – not to be considered a coincidence.
Joachim Sauter
Joachim Sauter, Pendulum, Mexico, 2015
“What led to the birth of Art+Com?” commences Sauter as the screen shows the first Macintosh, 1984. “We started using personal computers as a simple tool, but soon realised that we were looking at a new means of communication.” In those years it was not yet too clear how a computer could be used to communicate and produce art, but some people in Sauter's entourage saw enormous potential. So a group of informatics experts, university professors, designers and computer technicians at the Chaos Computer Club in Berlin united to start an experiment that is still alive and well. Currently, Art+Com has over 70 members who explore with great dedication and rigour the new perspectives open to the combination of art, communication and informatics. Their motto, as we read in an Art+Com book that came out a few years ago in celebration of its 25th anniversary, is a quote from the 1970s by Alan Kay, a pioneering computer scientist: “The best way to predict the future is to invent it.”


The first phase in the existence of Art+Com was focused on interactivity, occasionally straying into virtual reality, which came onto the scene in the late 1980s. “If we look at the properties of digital means, there are three aspects,” says Sauter, “The first is interactivity, meaning a dialogue between us and objects or installations; the second is Internet, meaning connectivity, the infrastructure that connects things to one another; the third is calculus, meaning the possibility to generate shapes and experiences with algorithms. These are the three pillars of our work. Although interactivity remains important to us, since several years now we have been concentrating our research on calculus, in particular how algorithms can govern the form and behaviour of physical objects. This is where we see great potential. It’s a largely unexplored ambit.”

Così quando, nel 2008, la BMW chiede ad Art+Com un progetto per il suo museo di Monaco, la proposta è una scultura cinetica programmata al computer. Kinetic Sculpture BMW vuole raccontare il processo del design di un’auto secondo una modalità del tutto inedita. Sfere di metallo fluttuano nello spazio obbedendo alle istruzioni di un software. Inizialmente il loro movimento sembra casuale, nessuna forma emerge. Ma lentamente, con una sorta di danza che risulta ipnotica per il visitatore, dal caos iniziale prendono forma i modelli di quattro auto tra le più rappresentative della storia della BMW. Si percepisce una totale armonia fra reale e virtuale: come se i pixel di un’immagine al computer fossero usciti dallo schermo per ricomporsi nell’ambiente fisico.
“With this piece of work, we began using choreography to tell a story,” continues the German artist, “When we proposed it for the first time, they thought we were crazy. But the results were great, and we have found this same idea in many installations since then around the world.” The project Kinetic Rain for the Shanghai airport is based on a similar concept: metal drops of rain move to a musical rhythm. Virtual qualities are transferred to the real world, out of the omnipresent screens that attract our attention like magnets. The result is bewitching; we could contemplate these works for hours. In no way do we feel that interactivity is missing.
The next phase in the existence of Art+Com was the involvement of the user, who is not simply called upon to interact with technical devices, but also to attentively observe the installation to find what is hiding under the surface. “We are working on what we call social narrative surfaces,” explains Sauter, who teaches media art at the Universität der Künste in Berlin and at the University of California, Los Angeles in the Design Media Arts department. “This is an entirely new field. We no longer use algorithms to generate movement, but to embed information in the objects and create a kind of narration that can be deciphered by the person exploring the work.”
Inspiration for this is the technique of anamorphosis, a distorted projection that appears normal when viewed from a particular point or by means of a suitable mirror. For the Deutsche Bank in Frankfurt, Art+Com created Anamorphic Mirror , a faceted surface that appears chaotic, but that shows the company logo when visitors find themselves at a certain point in the room. Programming here is an instrument with which to inscribe something on the heart of the work, hidden beneath normal appearances.

River is... was built in South Korea. It transports us to the surface of a river with a chromed sheet of metal that reproduces the wavelets on the water. With the help of a flashlight, words from Korean poems appear like the reflection of the sun on the water. “I was inspired by my experience of contemplating the water of a river as if it were trying to communicate something to me by means of its reflections,” say Sauter.

Here, algorithms go from being abstract formulas buried in the memory of a computer to becoming a way to discover unseen and unpredicted aspects of reality. “You need to make your audience want to decipher what the work contains. Be more poetic!” he concludes. How? By looking better, more attentively. How ironic that precisely algorithms, the prime culprits in getting us lost in virtuality, are reminding us of this.

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