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Impossible Nature: The Art of Jon McCormack

by Jon McCormack, Jon Bird, Alan Dorin, & Anne Marie Jonson
Australian Center for the Moving Image, Melbourne, AU, 2004
136 pp., illus. AUD$39.95
ISBN: 1-920805-08-7; ISBN: 1-920805-09-5 (DVD)

Reviewed by Rob Harle (Australia)


Zen cautions us not to mistake "the finger pointing at the moon" for the actual moon itself. Similarly I would caution the reader of Impossible Nature not to mistake this book for McCormack's art. One of McCormack's main areas of artistic investigation is the concept of "containment", that is, images bounded by the perimeter of the computer screen, paintings contained within frames and so on. It is rather ironic that not only does this book "contain" some of McCormack's images but further renders them somewhat impotent compared with his originals because they are without movement.

To address this unavoidable problem faced by all video, dance and performance artists, of having their art captured on a flat, 2D motionless book page, McCormack has included a dynamic DVD that brings us very close to the original impact of all of his major works. It's hard to find words to adequately describe these works, stunningly beautiful would be one phrase, eerily familiar yet somewhat alien would be another. These describe first visual impressions and say little about the purpose and philosophy behind them. This book helps our understanding of the art and has essays by McCormack himself and also Alan Dorin, Jon Bird, and Annemarie Jonson.

McCormack is a visionary and pioneer of "electronic media art", he exemplifies the Leonardo project of art-science symbiosis, as he is both an artist and a computer scientist. He has a PhD in computer science from Monash University where he still works. His art is all the more remarkable when one considers that he produced his first major piece in 1989 when many of us were just learning how to send emails on clunky old computers with 640Ks of memory!

The book is lavishly illustrated, mostly in colour and contains a useful Glossary and a good Bibliography. McCormack has four essays that describe his various artworks and discuss his reasons for creating works about nature—which could not be made without a computer—these have been called "sublime computational poetics". His philosophical position seems rather paradoxical in that by creating artificial natural worlds he forces us to consider the real natural world and how we are destroying it at an alarmingly disconcerting pace.

Jon Bird's essay Containing Reality discusses the previously mentioned notion of containment. He does so, not only in respect of various McCormack projects, but also from a computational perspective. In particularly the constraints of computer programming and the creation of algorithms to produce the artificial in a generative and perhaps emergent way.

Annemarie Jonson's short text discusses, Turbulence: An Interactive Museum of Unnatural History, a major McCormack work from 1994. She does so regarding the paradoxical nature of the work, "McCormack frames Turbulence as a meditation on nature: 'a lament for things now gone and a celebration of the beauty to come'" (p. 23). Jonson believes these dualisms are " . . . a preoccupation of our epoch, as the boundaries dissolve between the cybernetic and the organic, the synthetic and the natural, the virtual and the real" (p. 23).

Alan Dorin's essay discusses AL (artificial life), the computational and methodological basis for much of McCormack's work. This essay is a further paradox in that Dorin on the one hand helps us understand McCormack's work at a deep level. On the other hand, the centre section of his essay (pp. 78-81) does nothing positive to help this book at all. I found this section highly irritating; its tone is condescending, as though preaching to schoolchildren regarding the destruction of the environment and the total alienation from nature and animals. Gross assumptions regarding human society, nature and technology are topped off by suggesting that, "If we are to survive in the long term, the humanist view is preferred" to the "engineering worldview". The humanist view is precisely why we have destroyed as much as we have. Whilst humanism has quite a few philosophical meanings, it always regards humans as the pinnacle of creation or evolution, and as such, assumes nature is here for us to exploit!

This minor criticism aside, the book and the art presented on the accompanying CD is wonderfully challenging and pushes the viewer and reader to think deeply about the relationship of the natural to the artificial. McCormack's art " . . . simultaneously criticises and embraces our dependence on digital art" (p. 90). Just to confound the dualistic nature of McCormack's philosophy, I will leave you with his own observation: "If technology has one consistent feature it is that it promises long before it delivers (if indeed it ever does deliver)" (p. 74)! McCormack's art despite its reliance on technology does deliver some important and hauntingly beautiful art.



Updated 1st December 2005

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