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Ars Combinatoria: Mystical Systems, Procedural Art, and the Computer

Ars Combinatoria: Mystical Systems, Procedural Art, and the Computer

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Published by avitechwriter
Ars

Combinatoria

Mystical Systems, Procedural Art, and the Computer

Janet Zweig
with said DoctorWagner, "This is a slightly unusualrequest," restraint."As as I know, what he hopedwas commendable far it's the first time anyone's been asked to supply a Tibetan with an AutomaticSequenceComputer.... Could monastery you explainjust what you intend to do with it?" -Arthur C. Clarke,"TheNine Billion Namesof God,"19521 One of the Greekoracles, the sibyl at Cumae, used to write the separatewordsof her
Ars

Combinatoria

Mystical Systems, Procedural Art, and the Computer

Janet Zweig
with said DoctorWagner, "This is a slightly unusualrequest," restraint."As as I know, what he hopedwas commendable far it's the first time anyone's been asked to supply a Tibetan with an AutomaticSequenceComputer.... Could monastery you explainjust what you intend to do with it?" -Arthur C. Clarke,"TheNine Billion Namesof God,"19521 One of the Greekoracles, the sibyl at Cumae, used to write the separatewordsof her

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Ars
Combnatoria
MysticalSystems,ProceduralArt,and theComputer
JanetZweig
"This s aslightlyunusualrequest,"aidDoctorWagner,withwhat hehopedwas commendableestraint."Asaras Iknow,it's thefirsttimeanyone'sbeenasked tosupplya Tibetanmonasterywith an AutomaticSequenceComputer....Couldyou explainjustwhatyouintendto do with it?"-ArthurC.Clarke,"TheNine Billion NamesofGod,"19521OneoftheGreekoracles,thesibylatCumae,usedto writetheseparatewordsofherprophecieson leavesand thenlingthemoutofthe mouthofher cave. Itwasupto thesuppliantstogatherthe leaves andmake what orderheycould.-Charles 0.Hartman,VirtualMuse,19962
Boorges,
intheessay"Kafka and HisPrecursors,"suggeststhat ourperceptionof thepresentaltersourconceptionof thepast,thatwe can look at textsfrom thepastina newway,influencedby thingswe nowunderstand.3Bythelightof thecomputer,then,we canlook anew atalonghistoryofmysticaltexts andcombina-torialsystemsthatreach back toantiquity.Mysticalsys-temsinvolving permutationalproceduresthatpurporttorevealabodyof hermeticknowledgeorthat lead to areve-latoryexhaustionof allpossibilitiesprefigurehecomput-er'spotentialtopermuteand,givenrules,toengagein"creativemagic" byfindingmeaninginnewcombinations.Anumberof artistsinthiscentury,with orwithout thecomputer,haveexploredthis realmintheirwork.I have searchedforexamplesofthreespecifictypesofcombinatorialsystems.Inmathematics,thesethreetypesare calledpermutation,combination,andvariation.Eachbeginswitha limited numberofitems,a set ofthings.Inpermutations,hepositionsof thesethingsareshuffledwithin thewholeset,asin ananagram.Forcombinations,one cantake outanynumberof elementsfromthe setandputthemtogethernasmallergroup.Variationsarepermu-tationswithrepetitionsallowed;invariations,one canper-mutetoinfinity.Thecomputer,ofcourse,excelsat allofthesesystematicactivities.Duringthissearchforexamples,certainquestions,themes,andcomparisonsarose.Whyarepermutationsofabstractsymbolsso often linked tocreation,whetherdivine or artistic?What is it aboutpermutingletters ornumbers that leadstomystical experience?Is thisexperi-ence born out ofthe creative transformationhat occursorout of the meditativeactivity?Whatrole can thecomputerplayas a stand-in forthisprocess?Whatis thequalitativedifference betweenpermutationalsystemsthat areinten-tionallydriven,andthosesystemsthataremanipulatedwithchanceoperations?Amongthethemes that haverecurred s thenotion oftotalexhaustion;t is oftenhintedthat,if all thepossibilitiesofpermutationsreexhausted,heremightbe a revelationora transformationn alargerscale,oreven the endof theworld.There stherecurringdeathat the numbers1 or2or3cangivebirthtoeverythingthereis,tothe infinite.Thenumber1 is oftenparadoxicallyquatedwith theinfinite.Comparinghe historicmystical systemstotwenti-eth-centuryartisticpracticewitha similarsystematicbasispresentsotherquestions.Are therelarger,moretransfor-
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mationalsystems,andsmaller,more self-containedones?Whydoessomeproceduralwork seem morespirituallybased,whileotherwork demands to be takenforexactlywhat itis,pureprocess?Does the artwork resideinthemachineorinwhatthe machinegenerates?Whatissocompelling,acrosstheages,aboutcombinatorialactivity?What followsareseveralexamples,byno meanscomprehensive,ofarscombinatoria,orcombinatorialart.Theyarepresentedinroughlychronologicalorderwithonenotableexception,theIChing,whichis the oldestexampleof all andisplacedjust priorto a discussion of someworksbyJohnCage.Theexamplesbegininsteadwithanotherancienttext,theSeferYetzirah.TheSeferYetzirah,r BookofCreation,s amysticalHebrewtext. Itsoriginsareuncertain;but itmaydate as farbackas thesecondcentury
A.D.4
Itspurposeandmeaningareequallyunclear;tmighthave beenan instructionalextfor meditativetechniquesandcreativemagic,as well asanexplicationofthe book ofGenesis.Accordingto theSeferYetzirah,he worldwas fabricatedbytheInfiniteOne,theAin-Sof,out ofpermutationsof letters andnumbers:Twenty-twooundation letters:Heengravedthem,He carvedthem,Hepermutedhem,Heweighedthem,Hetransformedhem,And withthem,Hedepictedall thatwasformedandall that wouldbeormed.5Bythemanipulationofletters, then,the universe wascre-ated. Thepermutationalmethodthat wasemployed bytheAin-Softocreate the worldis described:How?Hepermutedhem,weighedthem,andtransformedhem,Alefwiththem alland allofthemwithAlefBet withthem allandallofthem with Bet.Theyrepeatnacycleand existin 231 Gates.It comesout that all that isformedand all thatisspokenemanatesromone Name.6This divine name istheTetragrammaton,orYHVH,accordingto the Kabbalists. The 231 "Gates"corresponddiagrammaticallyothenumberof lines that can connectthetwenty-twolettersof the Hebrewalphabetwhentheyareplacedin acircle,inotherwords,the number of two-lettercombinations that can be formed(fig. 1).7The tennumbers,orsefirot,aredivine,andtheyrep-resent ten divineemanations.Adiagramcalled theTree ofLife,derived from theSeferYetzirahandrepresentedinmanydifferent versions over thecenturies,shows how theten numbersareconnectedbyexactly twenty-twolines,correspondingto thetwenty-twoHebrewletters,whenplacedinaparticulararrangementfigs.2,3).The mathematicaldeasin theSeferYetzirah ontin-ue with anillustrationof factoranalysis:Two tonesbuild2 housesThreetones build6 housesFourstones build24 housesFive stonesbuild120 housesSix stonesbuild 620housesSeven stonesbuild 5040housesFromheregoout andcalculatethat whichthe mouth cannotspeakandthe ear cannothear.8The stonesappeartorepresentthe letters of thealphabet.The numberofpermutationshat arepossiblewith agivennumberof letters sthe factorialof thatnumber,xpressedasn! or1 x 2 x3... x n. Thepermutationsf the entire Hebrewalphabetare22!,or1,124,000,727,777,607,680,000.9Thisenormous number mustbe "that which the mouth cannotspeak/and the ear cannothear."Or,fthe seriesiscontinuedadinfinitum,he authormaybereferringo the infinite. Sothisidea isexpressed:romone comes an infinite numberofthings,or from he InfiniteOnecomes aninfinityof matter.The text of theSeferYetzirah an also be readintheimperativeasinstructions,suggestingtothereader ameansof creative invention.Permutingthesymbolscanact as an"operationalagent"that couldactually producebeingsinthe world.10The skilledmysticcan imitate God'screativeabilityon a much smaller scaleby usingthe tech-niquessuggestedin theSeferYetzirahas meditative andcreative tools.IntheTalmud,there is astoryabout tworabbis whopracticedcreativemagicone Sabbathnightandmanagedtoproducea smallcalf,whichtheythenate.11Themythofthe Golem has arisenout of thetechniquessuggestedintheSeferYetzirah. The Golem is a mutehumanlikecreature,arobot,whichmysticsfabricatebyusingamagicalmethod that includes asystematicmedita-tion on andpermutationof numbers and letters.TheSeferYetzirahwas studied andinterpretedinlater centuriesbytheKabbalists,who were scholars andpractitionersofJewishmysticism;theiractivityflowerednthirteenth-centurySpainand France.(Kabbalahliterallymeans"tradition.")AbrahamAbulafia was aSpanishKab-balist with adistinctively systematic approachtowardachievingecstaticmystical experience.He believed thatthe soul was "sealed" fromunitywith the Infinite or theDivine,andthrough specificmeditativetechniquesthatlead to ecstaticvisions,thesesealscould be broken.Manyofhistechniquesconsist of meditation on andpracticeofTemurahand Gematria. Temurahis thepermutationofletters,often with the Name ofGod,orTetragrammaton.
ART JOURNAL
21
 
FIG.2
One version of
theTreeof Lifederived rom heSeferYetzirahfromAryehKaplan,Sefer YetzirahYorkeach,Me.:
\Malkhut
SamuelWeiser, 1990],fig.19,
usedbypermission.)
Each letter of the Hebrewalphabethas a numericalvalue,so Gematria is the calculation of the numeric value of eachwordby adding upthosenumbers;therelationshipsofwordsare based on theirnumeric values. Abulafia's"sci-ence of combination" describes methods ofusingthesetechniquesto achieve aheightenedstate of consciousness.He writes:Thentakeink,pen,and a table tothyhand and rememberthat thou art about to serve God injoy ofthegladness ofheart. Nowbeginto combineafewormanyletters,toper-mute and to combinethem untilthyheart be warm. Then bemindful oftheir movements andofwhat thou canstbringforth by movingthem.And whenthoufeelestthatthyheartisalreadywarm and when thou seest thatbycombinationsofletters thou canstgraspnewthings... then turn allthytruethoughttoimaginethe Name.Later,as theprocessculminates,he writes:"Thywholebodywill be seizedbyanextremely strong trembling,sothat thou wilt think thatsurelythou art abouttodie,becausethysoul,overjoyedwith itsknowledge,will leavethy body."12And adiscipleofAbulafiawrites that histeacher tellshim,Myson,if youwould devoteyourselftocombining holyNames,stillgreaterthingswouldhappentoyou.Andnow,
FIG.3 Anothersephirotic
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myson,admit thatyouare unable to bear notcombining.Givehalfto this andhalftothat,thatis,do combinationshalfthenight,andpermutationshalfthenight.13ContemporarywithAbulafia,and not faraway,Ramon Llull was borninMajorcainthe thirteenthcentury.Llull was a Christianmysticand aNeoplatonist.Afterreceivinga visionon amountaintopin which he sawthe"Dignities"of God revealed tohimas elementsinall cre-ation,Llulldevoted himself todevelopingatrulyeccentricandoriginalcombinatorialsystemof letters andrevolvingwheels. WhatiscalledLlull's Art is a kind of self-containedlogic.He devised the Art toprovesystematicallytherealityof universal Christian truthsand to serve hismissionarypurposeofconvertingJewsand Muslimsby demonstratingthese truths.The Art isenormously complex,butputsim-ply,itemploysletters of thealphabetassymbolicnotationfor Divineattributes;the lettersareplacedonrevolvingwheels and can thenbemechanicallycombinedwith otherdatainorder to solveproblems.Llull believed hisArtcouldbeappliedto all fieldsofknowledgeand wastherefore atrulyuniversalistsystem.14InLlull's ownwords: "We haveemployedanalphabetin this art so thatit can be usedtomakefiguresas well astomixprinciplesand rules forthepurposeofinvestigatingthe truth"(fig.4).15Llull's Art has oftenbeen describedas aprecursorof
FALL 1997
22

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