Simply Choose an Algorithm

“A team of technologists working with Microsoft and others have produced a 3D-printed painting in the style of Dutch master Rembrandt. The portrait was created after existing works by the artist were analysed by a computer.

“A new work was then designed to look as much like a Rembrandt as possible – while remaining an original portrait. It was then 3D-printed to give it the same texture as an oil painting.

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“We really wanted to understand what makes a face look like a Rembrandt,” Emmanuel Flores, director of technology for the project, told the BBC.

“After they had been digitally tagged by humans, data on Rembrandt’s paintings was gathered by computers which discovered patterns in how the Dutch master would, for example, characteristically shape a subject’s eyes in his portraits.

“Then, machine-learning algorithms were developed which could output a new portrait mirroring Rembrandt’s style.

“To limit the many possible results to a specific type of individual, the computer was asked to produce a portrait of a Caucasian male between the ages of 30 and 40, with facial hair, wearing black clothes with a white collar and a hat, facing to the right. “We found that with certain variations in the algorithm, for example, the hair might be distributed in different ways,” explained Mr Flores.

“But humans didn’t decide the final look and feel of the final portrait – they simply chose algorithms based on their efficiency and let the computer come up with the finished result.

Text: Computer paints ‘new Rembrandt’ after old works analysis, BBC News

Image: Rembrandt van Rijn, Self-Portrait, c. 1636-38, Dutch, 1606-1669. Oil on panel
panel: 24-7/8 x 19-7/8 in. (63.2 x 50.5 cm); framed: 32-1/2 x 27-1/2 in. (82.6 x 69.9 cm)
The Norton Simon Foundation © The Norton Simon Foundation

“A research panel has exposed 50 paintings as falsely attributed to Rembrandt van Rijn, the 17th-century Dutch master, the group announced Friday. Among the exposed paintings are a 1637 portrait of Rembrandt, on display in the Norton-Simon Museum in Pasadena, Calif., and the 1635 “Landscape with Carriage,” owned by the Wallace Collection in London.The Norton-Simon Museum acquired the portrait, which the panel attributes to Rembrandt contemporary Carel Fabritius, for about $3.8 million in 1969, the Amsterdam newspaper Het Parool reported. A spokeswoman with the Norton-Simon Museum said the museum was unshaken by the finding and the portrait would remain on exhibit. “We are going to leave the Rembrandt on display. We don’t endorse the methods of the research project,” said Vicky Rogers, reading from a prepared statement.”

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Heliocentric Reality

“In the hidden heart of science fiction had always been the hope that the moon and the planets promised some personal adventure akin to [a] sudden encounter with the Pacific – a transitory, enchanted moment when man, like Fitzgerald’s Dutchmen, would hold its breath before the fresh green beast of some radiant new world. At that moment, descending Christlike into time and space, the cosmos would become a place. This was the promise of [Chesley] Bonestell’s beaches – that those peaceful points of light in the night sky were places, that virgin rocks, asleep for a billion years, await my touch no less than the cup that sits before me, that there is a “transcendent mundaneness” abiding in parallel time and space, one that somehow merges the cosmic and the personal. Like the seashore, a Bonestell moonscape is a scared place at the edge of the known world – an altar set before the barrier, a piece of the mundane bathed in oceanic mystery.

“We think of the boundaries of the known, the outer rim of our reality, as somehow harbouring the answers to our “Why” questions. Whether it be Aristotle’s geocentric spheres, Columbus’s ocean-sea, or our own space-time continuum, we conceive of this Larger Context as ultimately separate from an and alien to our everyday experience simply because it is assumed to mask the unknowable, the meaning of all meaning, as inaccessible to us as cosmology to an ant. To encounter the blue skies of Bonestell’s Titan, or to find that the reddish, rock-strewn desert of Mars looks like the American Southwest, suggests that the near edge of the Larger Context is a reality as familiar as my own backyard. Just as the beach is perceived as the edge of infinity out of the abstract and into the realm of direct experience.

“The two realms, abstract and direct, are quite different. In one, red is a designated wavelength of light; in the other, red is a colour. In one, the earth rotates on its axis and revolves about the sun, in the other, the sun rises and sets. The photographic realism of Bonestell’s cosmic beaches brings the two realms together at the point of tangency, allowing one experience to experience the heliocentric reality from a geocentric perspective, giving the Larger Context a tactile immediacy. The paintings had a disorienting effect similar to seeing the earth from the Moon. Standing there under the blue swirl of of Earth, said the astronauts Gene Cernan, “I had to stop and ask myself, ‘Do you really know where you are in space and time and history?'”. To believe, with one foot in each world, that one can retain an earthly reality yet stand on another ground under another sky, has the transforming impact of an out-of-body experience, or an encounter with a Doppelgänger, a duplicate self.”

Text: Wyn Wachhorst. “The Dream of Spaceflight: Nostalgia for a Bygone Future”, The Massachusetts Review, Vol. 36, No. 1 (Spring, 1995), pp. 7-32.

Image Top:  Saturn as seen from Titan, painting by Chesley Bonestell, 1944.

Image Bottom: Huygens Probe, view from Titan’s Surface, 2005. Credit: ESA/NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

Big Box Office

“Beneath a tempestuous sky, the army of the heathen Amorites seethes like a swarm of ants about to be exterminated. The Israelite leader Joshua stands on a jaggedly upthrust rock – the first of many such violently shaped peaks and crags to be found in the agitated geology of Martin’s imagination – surveying the scene with triumphant complacency.

“With a single raised hand, spot-lit against glooms of immense depth, he urges the conquering hordes of his own army to go for the kill. Exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1816, just a year after Waterloo, this depiction of God’s chosen people defeating the forces of evil may have been patriotically intended to evoke parallels with the present, and Britain’s defeat of France. Perhaps for that reason, it proved extremely popular.

“Martin followed up with The Fall of Babylon (1819), another apocalyptic crowd scene, painted with a theatrical scene-painter’s relish in archaeological fantasy. Vast crowds of Londoners flocked to see it, drawn by Martin’s spectacular vision of a great city’s sudden destruction, much as audiences are drawn to the latest disaster movie.

Belshazzar’s Feast was an even bigger hit. The astonished tyrant is shown at the moment of his demise, together with his fellow-decadents and the cautionary figure of Daniel, in a pink palace of inordinate size painted in rushingly vertiginous linear perspective. John Constable’s biographer, CR Leslie, noted rather sniffily that Belshazzar’s Feast “made more noise among the mass of people than any picture that has been exhibited. The artists, however, and connoisseurs did not like it much.”

“The ambivalent response to Martin’s work – loved by the public, mostly hated by the critics – was also an index of his disconcerting originality. His closest contemporary was Turner and Martin himself could be seen as a coarser version, an artist who took Turner’s philosophical melancholy, his fatalistic belief that all civilisations inevitably end badly, and made it big box office…”

Text: John Martin: Andrew Graham-Dixon, Apocalypse, at Tate Britain, Seven magazine review, The Telegraph, September 23, 2011.

The Moon As It Should Have Been

“By the mid-1960s, NASA’s Surveyor and Lunar Orbiter spacecraft had provided close-up views of the lunar surface. The photographs revealed a landscape that was far removed from the craggy scenes [Chesley] Bonestell had been painting for decades. The moon was softer, with rolling hills and mountains that appeared more Appalachian than Alpine. ‘The Moon looks for all the world like the Berkeley hills,’ Bonestell grumbled:

“I thought how wrong I was! My mountains were all sharp, and they aren’t on the moon. They’re all round, battered by millions of years of meteorites. I knew an astronomer, I can’t remember his name. He did a model of [the crater] Copernicus about four feet across, and he had the mountains softly rounded. I was just a kid, and I said, ‘Why did you make them so round?’ I expected them to broken and sharp. And he just laughed and walked off. It made me angry, and I never did go near him again. Why wouldn’t he tell me?”

“The matter of the Bonestellian depiction of the Moon raises an interesting issue: why did he paint the moon the way he did? So utterly convincing were his paintings that few if any people – scientists and astronomers included – ever questioned their accuracy, any more than one would question the reality of a photograph. Indeed, so compelling are his lunar landscapes that one feels it is somehow the Moon’s fault that it doesn’t look the way he painted it. Bonestell’s Moon was as it should have been. There is considerable argument in favour of the idea that we would not have been so anxious to land on the Moon had we known it looked as boring as it does – that his romanticized landscapes helped encourage the development of the lunar landing program. Bonestell himself was aware of this, saying that ‘even if they’re wrong, they did influence young people and got them interested in astronomy, so they at least served that purpose…”

Text: Ron Miller and Fredrick C Durant III, The Art of Chesley Bonestell. [London: Paper Tiger, 2001]. p 93.

Images: Top: Chesley Bonestell, Exploring the Moon by Earthlight, from Man on The Moon, 1961. Oil on board, 36x38cms. Bottom: The Apollo 15 lunar module “Falcon” with the moon’s Apennine Mountain Range in the background.

Earth Is Just One Planet

“…I can show you what I go to space opera for with a single image…

“That’s the Alexanderschlacht (The Battle of Alexander at Issus) by Albrecht Altdorfer, which was commissioned in 1528 by William IV, Duke of Bavaria. Altdorfer’s conception of the painting was almost certainly heavily influenced by the defeat of the Suleiman the Magnificent at the Seige of Vienna the next year, and his execution of the commission epitomizes what I look for in space opera…”

Alexanderschlacht portrays the victory of Alexander over Darius III in a battle that was the beginning of the end for the Persian Empire, which fell in 330 BCE with the death of Darius and Alexander’s assumption of his title as king, assuring the Hellenization of the Near East. The work’s composition is thought to echo the four-kingdom eschatology of the Book of Daniel—Babylon (note the distant Tower of Babylon at the left side of the painting, under the crescent moon), Persia, Greece, and Rome), with Alexander’s victory representing the triumph of Greece over Persia, and echoing the hope that the relief of Vienna represented the triumph of Christendom (i.e., Rome) over Islam.

“The description of the painting in Wikipedia starts by noting the “impossible viewpoint” of the painting, but that’s precisely what the Alexanderschlacht shares with space opera, and why it can serve as the picture-worth-a-thousand-words definition of the genre. Rather than “impossible viewpoint,” I’d call it the “archetypal perspective:” a close-up and even intimate view of heroic characters against a highly-detailed yet sweeping background meant to illustrate the fundamental struggle between good and evil, light and darkness. That’s what I go to space opera for.

“Look at how Altdorfer laid out the action: the incredibly-detailed foreground that highlights the two antagonists: Alexander sweeping in from the West (out of the Sun) at the head of his Companions, pursuing his defeated enemy Darius on his chariot fleeing to the East (towards the Moon), all surrounded by a swirl of cavalry and foot soldiers. All this is portrayed in a physically impossible perspective that rises up past the chaos of battle to portray the Mediterranean Sea, Cyprus, the Nile, the Red Sea, and eventually encompasses three continents (Europe, Asia, and Africa) and reveals the curvature of the earth at the horizon, with an apocalyptic sky dominating the whole. (And if you tilted the suspended description panel at the top of the painting back away from the viewer…Star Wars, anyone?)

“The painting is dense with symbolism and detail, ranging from unrealistic ones like ladies in court dress at the edge of the battle, to highly-archetypal ones like the Sun and crescent Moon. It’s a visual feast that invites zooming in and out, one that you can return to again and again, gaining something new each time, just like re-reading a big, chewy space opera (or epic fantasy, for that matter: check out my co-writer Sherwood Smith’s blog post on that subject). And really, one need only change a few details in the painting, add some spaceships, substitute blasters for lances, pull back a little farther so the Earth is just one planet in an even bigger panorama, and, voila: space opera…”

Text: Dave Trowbridge, Space Opera and the Siege of Vienna: the Archetypal Perspective, Davetrowerbridge.com

Image: Albrecht Altdorfer, The Battle of Alexander at Issus (Alexanderschlacht), 1529. Oil painting on panel, 158.4×120.3 cm.

The Rapture of Science

Sydney-based artist Sam Leach has curated Extropians, a new show at Sullivan & Strumpf Fine Art. The exhibitions brings together a group of artists whose work suggests ambiguous science fictional narratives. Leach spoke to Science Fictional about the ideas and themes behind the title.

What is an “extropian”?

Sam Leach: Extropians are people who believe that progress in science and technology means that humans will soon achieve some kind of immortality. The term derives from extropy – not quite, but almost, the opposite of entropy – it refers to the idea that life and intelligence will expand in an orderly way throughout the universe. The extropian view is sort of an extreme optimism about the future. I’m not totally convinced they are right, but I do like technology and I really like the optimism.


Tony Lloyd, Unique Form of Continuity in Space Time, 2009.
Oil on linen, 23x30cms.

Perhaps you could talk about the selection of works for the show – what were you looking for when you selected the artists and their paintings?

SL: I wanted works which addressed the relationship between humans and technology and I tried to think about that in a broadest sense. So there are paintings which have technology as their subject matter, as with Tony Lloyd and Giles Alexander. There are paintings in which painting itself is represented as a transformative technology as with Stephan Balleux. The show really emerged after seeing some works by Topologies (Donna Kendrigan and Chris Henschke) and, quite soon after, a show by Charles O’Loughlin. Topologies create objects which seem to appeal to a nostalgia for an historical form of futurism – beautifully crafted wood and brass instruments which present quite sophisticated optical illusions with scientific themes. Their works do not unreservedly celebrate science but they do set up a very romantic view of technology. In O’Loughlin’s work data analysis based on his own social interactions is used to generate charts which the form the basis of his abstract paintings. Ultimately he aims to gather enough data to be able to forecast his own life. I could sense some connection between these works and when I came across the extropians it began to fall into place. O’Loughlin’s wildly ambitious plans for his data – not to mention his use of his entire life in the cause of data collection – was related to the scientific heroism hinted at in Topologies’ work. The final piece fell into place with Michael Graeve and Toshiya Tsunoda. In their works technology is already being used to extend perception beyond the limits of “natural” or un-augmented human abilities.

It’s interesting looking at the contrast between the works seen individually and then as a group. Taken individually, the paintings work in a realist mode and might suggest an ambiguous narrative, together they have a very science fictional feel, as though the exhibition works together as an overall narrative – was that your aim?

SL: A proper geek would prefer the term speculative fiction. Yes, I do think the paintings and the especially the piece by Topologies have that feel. I love science fiction so it is probably not a coincidence that the art that appeals to me has some hint of that too. I did try to create the possibility for narrative by including works which hinted at history (Lloyd, Topologies), works which engage the viewer with the present (Graeve, Tsunoda) and works which hint at futures both near and distant (Lloyd again, Balleux, Alexander). Many of the works cover several of those at once, of course, so it is not as though it unfolds like a comic strip. In the best traditions of hard science fiction, multiple realities and timelines co-exist.

The term “speculative fiction” is credited to Robert Heinlein, who liked to call it “spec-fic” – but it seems the term has been subsumed back into the greater generic name “science fiction” – do you see a difference between the two terms? And how does that relate to the show?

SL: The term has drifted in and out of use for quite a while. Fans of this genre do tend to be enthusiastic so there are many thousands of internet pages devoted to discussing the nuances of these terms. For my two cents, I tend to think of speculative fiction as a slightly better description of the genre and a bit broader than than science fiction. Some of the most interesting books do not really go into science at all but look at alternate histories or social structures – Hesse‘s Glass Bead Game, Philip K Dick and Neal Stephenson spring to mind. In this show, with one or two exceptions, there is no reference to any actual science. The works deal with the relationship between humans and technology without getting too bogged down in the actual gear mechanisms.


Charles O’Loughlin, September, 2009.
Gouache on paper, 49x45cms.

The imagery of science fiction tends towards a decidedly realist mode of image making – yet you’ve also included abstract works such as Charles O’Loughlin’s mandala-like ‘September’. Was there something in that juxtaposition that interested you?

SL: Absolutely. In the same way that I wanted works which specifically addressed the future, present and past I also wanted to look at artists who used a wide variety of modes in their work. O’Loughlin’s practice verges on performance. His works are really charts which present information, month by month, about who he meets, where and how often. When a painting of a graph is shown, or even several of them, it is really only a tiny fragment of his overall work, which presumably won’t be finished until he is dead or gives up. Or both. The paintings are presented together with books of coded data. Literally thousands of pages of the stuff. They hint at what these apparently abstract paintings represent but they are absolutely no help at all in recovering any kind of meaningful information from the charts. Where the realist paintings have a science fiction feel, O’Loughlin’s work feels closer to the way imagery is actually used in contemporary science – mostly for the graphic display of statistical information (and mostly unintelligible to all but the authors).


Joanna Lamb, High Rise 8, 2009.
Acrylic on canvas, 170x120cms.
From the companion exhibition High Rise.

Joanna Lamb’s latest paintings are also on show at Sullivan & Strumpf and seem like a very natural continuation of what you’re talking about. The title of her show Highriseseems to be a direct reference to J.G. Ballard, whose spirit is very much present in your show too. Was putting the two exhibitions together intentional?

SL: Funny you shoud mention that because I spent the weekend installing a rainwater tank and Ballard was never far from my mind. Sullivan and Strumpf will have to take the credit for bringing the two shows together. It is a really great juxtaposition. Ballard consistently asked questions about the way that technology and especially urban development might impact the human psyche. The extropians themselves seem pretty unconcerned about the possible psychological implications of extreme longevity or technological augmentation of the human. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that they are optimistic about the implications. The image of the highrise perfectually captures the moment of transition between utopian vision and dystopian delivery, especially as it is shown in Lamb’s paintings with their idealised clean, hard edges and disturbing acidic colours. Since my show is upstairs from the highrise, maybe it could be thought of as a sort of tech version of the blood garden!


Giles Alexander, 1180 AD, House of God, 2009.
Oil and resin on canvas, 65x105cms.

You’ve often included technological objects in your own painting – how do you see your own work relating to the show?

SL: To be honest the show is a massive indulgence for me. I love the aesthetics of science and technology and to some extent this show could be subtitled “ideas I wish I’d had” or “works I wish I’d made”. The themes of nature and technology are important for me but the relationship between humans and animals is of equal importance. This show allowed me to really get stuck directly into the human/technology relationship via the entertainingly extreme position of the extropians. The other thing is that my own practice is primarily painting – trying to paint well is a very time consuming process and doesn’t leave a lot of room to engage with other modes of artistic production even though I am very interested in them. So it is great to be able to look at the themes and ideas I am interested in using objects, installation and sound works. Even if someone else made them.

Extropians, curated by Sam Leach, and High Rise by Joanna Lamb are at Sullivan & Strumpf, Paddington until December 13.