Le Pixel Blanc – The White Pixel
Antoine Schmitt 1996
Computer, white pixel, behavioral algorithm. Not interactive.
Installation, designed to be videoprojected on a wall, or shown on a screen, in the context of an exhibition (online or off-line). The duration is infinite, there is no end.
Created in 1996, as part of the series called Jalons 8/96.
Reworked in many versions until 2000.
Exhibited for the first time in the “Ouverture 3” exhibit, in the Château de Bionnay (FR), in July 1998.
Downloadable on the teleferique web site, as a standalone version since 1999.
A white pixel wanders enlessly inside a rectangular space, leaving traces that disappear. Its movements are low, with sudden accelerations. It does not draw anything, it moves. Its mode of being, its way of moving result from the functionning, in front of us, of the underlying algorithm, modelized from a personal interpretation of the freudian model of the Conscious/Unconscious. The quality of its movement tends to question us on the cause of its movement. We are in the presence of a minimal artificial presence embedded in the present time. One follows it with the eyes.
The first version of the Pixel Blanc is dated 1996, it is one of my first pieces, and to this day probably the strongest. There has been a few versions of the Pixel Blanc, depending on the computers on which I showed it, or on the conditions of the exhibition, but the principle and the shape remained the same.
While working on the idea of using the computer as a medium of creation, I came to think that the fundamental characteristic of the computer was to be able to execute processes. This is when I decided to concentrate on algorithms as artistic matter. Algorithms describe processes and the computer makes them work. With this I had a new matter, very rich and very new at the same time.
In the meantime, and it went in the same direction, I felt a great defiance towards the power of the images. I felt that working on an image and on a process at the same time would in a way hide the work on the process. But the power of the image intrigued me.
I thus decided, in a very greek and eidetic way, to oppose essence and appearance, and to consider the image as the appearance of something more primordial, of something that would be the cause of the image. I wanted to make something that almost did not appear, but that still would be “there”. Something extremely minimal, but still non-innocuous.
So I chose the smallest possible image, that is, on a computer, the pixel. And I wanted it without any other information than itself, that is white. So I had a white pixel moving. I provided it with a trace, so as to palliate to the deficiencies of the human perception: without the trace, one does not see it move. This trace lasts a certain time before vanishing.
I still had to make it “appearance” of something that would be there, that would “be”. And this, not by considering the pixel as an image, but as the effect of a deeper cause.
I came to consider the movement. I started to create a random movement, but I felt that whatever I did, this randomness lacked shape. It did not have any presence. I looked for what gave a shape to randomness. I though that in Nature, some movements look random, but are so only in appearance. If one looks at then long enough, one finds some very peculiar quality: they become intriguing. I asked myself what was the difference between a movement and a strange movement, between the movement of a cloud and the one of an animal. And this is how I crossed an important threshold in my artistic work : I thought about what gives a shape to the movements of the very special objects that are the beings (human and other). I though I had to look in this direction. So starting from the movement, I climbed higher in the causal chain, from the movement to the behavior, and from the behavior to the cause of the behavior, to the being, in a way. This is what I came to call the point of view of the creature.
For some time, I had taken interest in various (human) theories about the being: philosophy, psychology, psychoanalysis, neurology, etc.. For the Pixel Blanc, I chose the one that was the most familiar at the time, that is the freudian theory about the human psyche. Freud introduced twodifferent ways of looking at things, what he calls “topics”, both of them constituted of three dynamic instances, complementary and conflicting. The first topic consists in the Id, the Ego and the SuperEgo, the second one in the Conscious, the Preconscious and the Unconscious. In some works, one sometimes includes the Preconscious in the Unconscious.
I chose the second topic, in its simplified form, as basis for work. It goes without saying that I did not try to reproduce a human psyche, but only to construct, using an algorithm, an equilibrium between two processes that would be analogous, in my point of view, to the one existing between the two instances of Freud: the conscious and the unconscious. I freely took inspiration from this topic, and by structural and functional analogy, I built what one calls a computer model which I wrote as an algorithm, which I then simulated on a computer.
I thus separated the program in two processes: the first one, corresponding to the unconscious, and the second one to the conscious. The relationship between the two processes is the following: desires are emitted from the first one, which are received by the second one, which itself tries to satisfy them in an outside world. One sees that my model is a drastic simplification of the second topic: for example, the “conscious” process has no effect on the “unconscious” one.
The pixel being itself only a dot in a rectangular planar screen, having no memory, its desires can only be relative to this incarnation, that is “being somewhere”. The desires emitted by the unconscious thus take the following form: I want to be near the top left, I want to be in the inferior right quarter close to the center. To be precise, the desires take the form of the coordinates of the point where the pixel wants to be, that is two integer numbers.
Just as for us, human beings, the desires are not questioned, that is when we feel a desire, we do not consider it as alien to us, on the contrary, we consider that it is part of “us”, et even, we consider sometimes that it is the intimate essence of ourselves, what allows us to say “I”: “I want”. And even so, we do not know where it comes from. It could well just come from something that is outside of us, without us knowing it. And in a way, it comes from outside, as, according to Freud, it comes from the Unconscious, which by definition, is unknowable. So, according to Freud, and we feel that this is not unfounded, the source of our intimate self is a thing that is part of us, but remains unknown. Even so, we accept all the desires that come from it and we make them ours.
In the same way, in the Pixel Blanc, the process corresponding to the conscious receives desires coming from another part of the program which is totally unknown to it, and it tries instantly to satisfy them, because it is programmed this way. As I plunged the pixel in a physical universe, that is a computer simulation of physical laws such as inertia, viscosity, turbulence (the wind, random), the pixel cannot go directly from one point to another: it must push. It thus pushes in the direction of its desire, but as it has a mass, it goes to far, it thus pushes in the other direction, and as there is wind, it misses its goal, and so on. It also has problems of coordination: it has small impulses of movement, random and uncontrolled, in a random direction, which it then tries to correct. The whole of these semi-random physical conditions are the cause of the chaotic character of the movement of the pixel, without which it would simply go in a straight line from one goal to the next one.
Finally, remained the task of defining the structure of the process corresponding to the unconscious. Knowing that, for the human being, the functioning of the unconscious in unknowable by the conscious, by pushing things to the limit, and in a very theoretical way, the way the unconscious functions could be absolutely anything, and even more or less random, the conscious would not realize it. Note that Freud would not agree with this point of view, he even attributes a very logical structure to the human unconscious. This is nonetheless what I did for the Pixel Blanc: the program corresponding to the unconscious contains a random basis, which means that it generates desires chosen at random, at moments themselves chosen at random. These two randomness are carefully crafted, which means that they have rules that I have given them: they are random within a certain margin. But they are random. And this does not take anything away from the principle, as for one thing it is not about modeling a real human psyche, and also, seen from the “conscious” process, it is absolutely the same whether the “unconscious” process is random or not.
The Pixel Blanc is thus constituted of a semi-random process, which generates desires, which are accepted by a totally deterministic process, itself immersed in a universe of physical laws some of which are random. Going back to my initial random movement, one could say that in a way, I pushed back the randomness, on one side to a deep level of the causal chain (the unconscious process) and on the other side to the outside world, the middle layer being totally deterministic.
All these processes depend on numerous parameters (frequency of the desires, viscosity coefficient, strength of the push force, amplitude of the involuntary movements, and many others). Along with the construction of the Pixel Blanc, I tuned these parameters, more and more precisely, so as to obtain in the end a movement, and more than a movement, a behavior, a mode of being that I would like, that would correspond to this form of presence that I had been looking for since the beginning. Something that would catch the attention, that one would follow with the eyes. Something that would take us to what lies behind. To the incarnated process. Something non-innocuous.
When one sees the Pixel Blanc for the first time, one sees a drawing. I think that after some time, we do not see the drawing any more, but we see the act of drawing. We see this thing that draws. And finally we see this thing that moves. We see the movement of the pixel, we see the shape of these movements. We anticipate them, we follow them with the eyes. We see an intention, we see a form of being. Through the drawing, the ephemeral trace, this is what I would like to be seen in the Pixel Blanc.
I think that the Pixel Blanc is accessible without knowing its inner working. The knowledge of the “how” and the “why”, elaborated in this page, gives it a new dimension, but “it works”, in the artistic sense, as is. And this is what, I think, gives it is strength.
One should note that the Pixel Blanc works while we are looking at it. The computer simulation of the processes that I have described works inside the computer in the exhibition space (or inside your own computer if you look at it on Internet). Nothing is prerecorded, everything happens in real time, here and now, in the same time as the one of the spectator. This, in my sense constitutes the fundamental characteristic of the computer as a medium of creation, which confers it a richness, both new and radically different from the other mediums.
Antoine Schmitt – September 2000