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Notes Towards a Roundtable: From Encoding, through Decoding, to Transformation

Ava Blitz, Anne Dalke and Elizabeth McCormack
"From Encoding through Decoding to Transformation"
"Science is a way of talking about the universe in words
that bind it to a common reality.
Magic is a method of talking to the universe in words that it cannot ignore.
The two are rarely compatible."
(Neil Gaiman, graphic novelist)

A Roundtable prepared for "Decodings," the 2009
Conference of The Society for Literature, Science and the Arts
3:30-5 p.m., Friday, November 6, 2009
Atlanta, Georgia

Our round table will demonstrate the curious process of encoding, decoding and transformation. Ava will initiate our public conversation by describing the process whereby she manipulates her digital images; Liz and Anne will discuss the ways in which their own processes of interpretation, in physics and literary studies, both resemble and differ from the encoding of the artist. All of us will join in an account that uses the dynamic of encoding and decoding to describe the kind of transformation that can take place when art, science and literary criticism are practiced without known outcomes: when no script has been written ahead of time. Disrupting the expectation that decoding will lead to clarity, we highlight here the production of mystery that inevitably occurs in this process.

I. Inviting the Audience to respond to several prints:
What do you see? What are you looking at? What are your reactions to these images?

(Call out words or short phrases)

II. Ava's process of "encoding":

These images express my fascination with our place in the natural world.  Blurring the lines between natural history and cultural history, and the present, past and future, my work expresses the dualities of the physical, sensual, elemental state of nature, and the spiritual, metaphoric, mystical and contemplative nature.

To explain my approach in creating these images, I can say that these are highly manipulated digital images that start from snapshots taken during my walks, mostly around the neighborhood. What begins as a direct perception from reality is transformed, within chosen parameters, into a wholly new and for me unexpected and exciting reality or unreality.  These images are embedded in a landscape tradition that is both universal and personal. My self-imposed imposed limits include tradition, the available information captured by the camera, the limits of the chosen frame or edges of the composition, and the tools I have used to manipulate the photo.  All of these parameters create codes. The coded "language" is a way of abbreviating the world in a frame or box, a shorthand to say something new about the broader world, to create a new way of seeing, a transformation, a mystery, synonymous for me with beauty. The result is something that I and hopefully others can build upon as a new code--an opening up of possibilities, rather than a pat solution and a clear conclusion. Hopefully elegantly concealed within the artwork, meaning is hidden through encoding, and revealed through decoding and interpretation.

I place all of my codes in a kind of map, net or matrix--as in a bird’s eye view of rivers and streets, fields and bodies of water, patterns and textures, and give it in this form to the viewer to decode.  While this work uses relatively accessible codes, it is not always obvious what you are looking at, therein the transformation. While there may be a similarity in how some people decipher the code, it can’t possibly be the same for everyone. Art, in my opinion, is forever mysterious. When the work is without mystery, for me it is a derivative sum of its parts.  Ideally it will create a new way of feeling, seeing, remembering, appreciating, questioning, exploring, responding to and existing in, the world.

Listening to your interpretations, I find that they mesh really well with the particular codes I've used in creating these images. An important one is precedent, the cultural history I mentioned above. These images are taken from a greater body of work that borrow from and recall conventions found in Eastern and Western imagery, from classical to popular culture.  Some of my sources are Japanese woodblock prints, Chinese painting, textiles, and advertising, English watercolors, American illustration, and visions from Maxfield Parrish to velvet painting to contemporary cinema.

For example, In the Garden of Good and Evil (the last image above), the high drama and sense of narrative imply a series of images that tell a story, and so relate more closely to film.

The prints also show how technology is both catching up and contributing to the history of art, using a kind of referential visual poetry. The images use digital technology as a creative and experimental tool, the camera and the computer as instruments to be used as a painter, draftsman, photographer, and printmaker would.  Pixels, halos, blurs, distortions (ironically called “artifacts” in tech lingo), and color and tonal changes are all intentional.  They add an extra level of texture, markmaking, and abstraction, and a visual surprise, especially when the prints are inspected closely.   (See the detail image above.) Such tools and processes create a new ‘contemporary’ photographic alphabet, a new way to encode the visual image. The use of repeated units, dense markmaking and texture, form true to process, and attention to honesty to material, has been a constant in all of my work and has always contributed in a major way to my final aesthetic. I experiment in this way in 2D as well as in 3D sculpture, installation, and public art.

What's particularly interesting to me is what the new "painterly" technologies, such as applications like Photoshop, can do when imitating traditional image-making methods. Using the crop, hue, and tonal levels tools made available by the software helps make image-making quick, direct, experimental, and playful.  At this point I prefer to use tools that are not derivative of other art forms such as mosaics, paintbrush, and pencil.  I have found that the use of cropping, a major artistic tool in both photography and Ukiyoe Japanese prints, has a very strong referential effect in Photoshop.  Although cultural references have always been part of the development of my work, I have noticed that they are particularly strong when I employ these tools, demonstrating again how important material, processing, and tooling are in directing my aesthetic.

My work is much less conscious, however, than you might expect. Ideas evolve through experimentation with material and process; the cultural codes evolve as I work.  For example, I do not set out to make a Japanese print--nor are they Japanese prints. But Ukiyoe, or Images of the Floating World, has influenced countless artists throughout art history.  I believe the Zen-like nature is within me, and as it appears in my imagery, sometimes quite magically, I work with it and draw it out. It provides a simple comfort and a peace through a virtual reality.  As a contemporary artist of our time, I, like all artists, build on what came before. Each of our works reflects where we are now, emotionally and spiritually.  The other cultural references I have mentioned are also within me, part of my language, part of my brain’s encoding.

II.  Liz's  “Rainbow Reality”:

First a story....
In August I travel with friends to camp on the shores of a particular lake in the northwest of Maine.  One recent year it rained; and rained and rained.  I never before had played so many hands of Gin Rummy or games of banagrams.  But I have to say, out of all that rain and mud a very accomplished design of tarps emerged for over our kitchen area—illustrating an important and well know precept:  necessity is the mother of invention.   Another memorable event relevant to us here today took place one afternoon when right over our lake the weather put on quite a show.  A cold front in the west collided with a warm front in the east.  

Do you know this phenomenon?  The high-pressure system wedges underneath the low-pressure system and squeezes the water out of the sky like a sponge. The surface of the lake came alive as it was pelted with rain.   All the wildlife took cover.  After about 30 minutes of this deluge, the sky was finally wrung out and the sun in the west poked through high cumulus clouds.  As the sunlight from the west illuminated a dense dark rain cloud still looming in the east a magnificent rainbow appeared.   We saw it sweep across the sky and complete its arc at the tip of an outcrop of land we call the Dragon because of its characteristic profile against the horizon. I was taken with how such a beautiful thing is created by light, water and air, the simple principles of wave dispersion and interference, and most importantly, by our looking. Seen in a different place by each of us, and in fact, appearing slightly different for each of our eyes, we each had our own rainbow to call our own, I was delighted to share this sight with my friends. 

This particular rainbow was remarkably bright and intense, enough so that a second bow with inverted colors was also visible.  As you may know, rainbows are formed by light refracting and reflecting from water droplets. The secondary bow arises from two reflections in the water drops, the primary bow from one. We also saw something I had never observed before--so called supernumery bows inside the main bow.  I was surprised by these repeated green and violet arcs that actually intensified and faded as we watched.  What are those?  How are they created? Why green and violet? I’ve witnessed many rainbows, including those in the rainbow capital of the world, Hawaii, but this one offered something new to me.

I tell this story because it illustrates so well the joy of discovery and mystery that comes inextricably intertwined with new knowledge.  Comprehending new things for the first time yourself, experiencing new phenomenon for the first time, captures our imagination, draws us in to know more and impels us to share it with others. When I got home I of course looked up the details of how those supernumery bows are created.  It turns out they are due to the fact that sun is an extended disk and not just a single point source of light in the sky.  The supernumary bows result from the collective interference of the multitude of rainbows produced from each point of light making up the disk of the sun.   The visibility of green and violet colors indicated that the size of the water droplets creating this particular rainbow were approximately one half of a millimeter.  It is kind of cool you can tell that. 

I e-mailed my friends to share the explanation.  Not surprisingly, some were more interested than others.  The ways of knowing a rainbow are as diverse as the ways of living in this world, as diverse as my friends.   While some were engaged by this explanation as I was, others much preferred to take away from the rainbow other more metaphorical insights. 

How is this related to coding and decoding?  Like all of its kind, this rainbow was a transient event, existing by our looking as much as the physical facts behind it, and as such, it was an object that possessed a peculiar reality.  Its existence was inextricably tied to our observation of it.  Something whose existence is local and contextual in this manner illustrates a type of realism made popular by philosophers of science grappling with the myriad possible interpretations of our modern theory of small things—quantum mechanics. Dubbed by Nick Herbert as “rainbow reality”—such an account of the world involves a “relational reality” that is local and contextual.

Note at the heart of such a framework is the problem of delineating the object of interest from its observation.  The notion of coding and decoding seems to call forth a similar challenging split.  In quantum mechanics for example, a small fundamental thing like an electron is known to exist.  But the notion that attributes such as position, velocity, spin orientation, etc. are to be associated with it at all times, attached and waiting, as it were, to be read, is not so secure.

An alternative view is that such attributes do not exist as properties of the electron at all, rather they are created in the interaction of the electron with a measuring device.  Through an act of measurement the attribute in question is determined. The familiar example is the seemingly incompatible particle and wave-like attributes electrons can exhibit, given a certain type of experiment.  The double-slit experiment is often used as an example.  While the facts of the matter are not in question—how the experiment will turn out, what the theory implies however for how the world really works, i.e., its interpretation, the nature of reality behind the phenomenology, is open for debate.  

“Rainbow reality” it turns out, is unlikely to be correct.  Numerous experiments over the last 20 years have been able to demonstrate that the world is not in fact “local.”  These experimental outcomes tell us the correct story of reality must be one that accounts for the possibility of “nonlocal” interactions, relational all the same, but nonlocal.  But that is another story.  Today it is the relational aspects of decoding reality that I’d like us to highlight.

Do art and science share some of the same rubrics of decoding?

Conventionally, we recognize differences between
artistic and scientific exploration and discovery.

For example, one usually thinks of science being about figuring out how the world works so that we can use that understanding to solve problems (curing disease, averting energy crises, providing national security).  But our inquiries are also concerned with discovering the way the world is, and as such resonates with artistic enterprises. There are many parallels between the practice of art and that of science, but importantly differences too.

Some questions and observations

1)  both processes involve the bi-directional duality of being physically intimate with the world, and creating abstract meanings out of those experiences; both are processes of discovery by observation and (following from that) the creation of theories (comparable to the map an artist’s work might be described as) that in effect abstracts a set of observations into an explanatory scheme.  Through both we “make sense” of the world both around us.

2) both employ and are shaped by their techniques and tools;

As Ava has beautifully shown us, new technologies provide new experimental tools to expand our modes of creativity, interpretation and meaning-making.  Such modes are in full expression in the use of technology to explore the world around us as well as in the conception, design and manifestation of a new technology itself.  E.g., the advent of cheap memory and fast digital circuits have given rise to an entire third realm of scientific exploration—experiment, theory and simulation…

And, when we use a technology beyond its original design functionality, another cycle of discovery and invention can be expressed.

3) scientific and artistic discoveries and creations take place in cultural and historical contexts, which shape their processes and development;

Exploration, its outcomes and its processes, are shaped by two contingencies: what nature offers up to us to interact with and observe and our personal and communal cultural histories.  The enterprise of science may be interested foremost in the first—discovering the way the world is and how it works, but as a human activity it must grapple with the second as an inherent component of the practice of science.

Typically we understand that scientists attempt to decode nature by using the code of nature itself.  The self-referential connections cycle iteratively to build a coherent and inclusive web of understanding—the shape of which emerges from the constraints of a physical world.  While the landscape of science is as such fundamentally bounded, those boundaries have yet to be found and scientific exploration remains full motivated by mystery and awe.  New tools allow a different exploration of our respective landscapes.

In science, sense-making abstractions, theories, are deemed successful if they are predictive, and also generative of new questions to seek answers to. The only credible scientific theories are those that pose their own challenges, that bring us to the edge of our understanding and that set us gazing at the remaining mysteries.  The artistic and scientific processes of exploration and explanation have in common acts of contemplating, uncovering, and connecting with new mysteries; and both are always evolving, by raising new questions, and answering them w/ new explanatory theories.

What of the differences between the artistic and scientific enterprises?

What of their purposes and value?  Do both practices have "directions," associated with them? Science thinks of itself as being of utilitarian value, directed toward solving specific problems; moving towards “better” explanations.  How do we conceptualize art as having a direction?  What, if any, is the sense of progress in artistic enterprises.

Is there a shared sense of the value of change in either of these areas (is it positive or negative)? That is, is scientific or artistic progress value neutral?  Can they be?

Is the landscape of artistic exploration unbounded in contrast to the "binding of a common reality" science is subject to?   Is it the historical/cultural context that provides the constraint that gives shape to artistic achievement?  And what of literature?

Both as return to my opening story, and as
segueway to the "literary" portion of our presention,
this poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins:

It was a hard thing to undo this knot.
The rainbow shines, but only in the thought
Of him that looks. Yet not in that alone,
For who makes rainbows by invention?
And many standing round a waterfall
See one bow each, yet not the same to all,
But each a hand's breadth further than the next.
The sun on falling waters writes the text
Which yet is in the eye or in the thought.
It was a hard thing to undo this knot.

III. Anne's explanation of how the "slip" that occurs between
encoding and decoding might result in "transformation":

I think that literary critics also focus on the "loopy," interactive,
iterative process that both Ava and Liz have described:
the way in which each of our attempts to make the world clearer
result inevitably in the production of further mystery.

I want to illustrate this process by talking about
the earliest Modernist literary group, the imagist poets, who
employed the most condensed, direct language possible,
in order to describe the "luminous details" of "the thing itself."

Ezra Pound, the spokesman for imagism, actually said that
these poems were "scientific forms," and compared them
to "geometric equations." Great works of art, he said,
can be "lords over facts."

In reaction to the Romantics, the imagists wanted to strip away
all the emotional interpretations that images evoked. But already
built into their process was the ideal of the "luminous," of a meaning
beyond what IS. Their very title contradicts their intention:
an image implies a lens, a representation, a mystery.

Like Ava, the imagists modeled their art, in part, on Japanese forms;
in their attempts to isolate a single thing in order to reveal its essence,
they copied (for example) the verse patterns of tanka and haiku.

They also followed the Japanese masters in using concrete images to
express abstractions (Ezra Pound defined an image as presenting
"an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time").

As I was reminded by Andrew Logemann's wonderful paper
on HD this morning, Ezra Pound's poetry didn't always exemplify
the qualities of imagism he laid out in his own manifesto. But
"imagism's enabling text" is (nonetheless) generally taken to be
Pound's 1913 haiku-like poem, "In a Station of the Metro":

The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.

What do you notice about this poem?
What do you think is encoded, what decoded here?

What I notice is that Pound here gets rid of the explicit comparison,
and so "paints the picture" of the faces as (if they were) petals.
He makes an encounter in the subway visually arresting.
But of course that metaphor is also not-quite-right:
faces ARE NOT petals. The metro is NOT the branch of a tree.
Being underground is NOT being out in the woods.

In eliding "like," Pound not only condenses language,
but uses a concrete image directly to evoke another concept.
The key idea that I'm trying to represent here
is that the correlation between the  written word
and its meaning--even (or especially?) in
poems that attempt to describe "the thing" as concretely
and directly as possible--is always unreliable, productive of
meaning, evocation, and mystery.

One of the interesting dimensions of this process,
which Ava, Liz and I discussed as we were preparing
this sessions, was whether images or words are
more productive of imagination.

Are images--because they evoke a larger range
of sensory modalities--more directive, and so
less generative? Are words--because they are
sensorily more "deprived"--more productive
of new meanings? That's something we might
want to look @ together during our shared discussion...
Certainly, as they tried to encode a one-to-one
correspondence between the world and the words
we use to represent it, the imagists evoke in us,
as readers decoding the poems,
new associations, unreliable references.

As T.S. Elliot says in "The Hollow Men,"

Between the idea
And the reality
Between the motion
And the act....

Between the conception
And the creation
Between the emotion
And the response

        Falls the Shadow

...and it's there that the possibility for transformation falls too.

IV. Ava's Response:

Ezra Pound's beautiful haiku-like description of petals on a bough, and the very poetic theory in physics of light and electrons possessing the qualities of both particles and waves, relate very personally to my own vision.

This image, for example, evokes the essence of both particles and waves, both water and snow, flowers or fruit on branches and avalanches. It is a metaphor for Liz’s quantum description. As another example, my public art installations which use repeat sculptural units instead of pixels reflect similar meaning, but with very different codes.


Beauty and the Beast is an encoded three-dimensional virtual reality in the real landscape that you can enter and experience with the whole body.  It also lends itself to multiple interpretations. The title refers to my enthusiasm and love for the oddness, humor, mystery, beauty, obsessiveness, color, beastliness, and ambiguity, of forms and systems in the natural world.

Both the scientific and literary thought we’ve discussed, and the artwork we’ve shown, create artificial constructs and codes to express aspects of the real world, but conclude with ambiguity and mysterious transformation that leads to new directions.  On a more philosophical level, our discussion illustrates well my own artistic philosophy, which is a desire to express the mysterious, finally unknowable, but intuitive understanding of and belief in the interrelationship of all things, the amazing similarity of structures in science and human endeavors.

What is your reaction to what we have said?
What have you heard that rubs up against what it is you thought you knew?
Where do you want to push back against what we have said?
What new questions has this session generated for you?

The Participants:

Ava Blitz is a visual artist who divides her time between studio work in sculpture, works on paper, photography, and public art. Her work can be seen @ and she can be reached @ .

Anne Dalke is a literary critic interested in emergent pedagogies, feminist theory and narrative traditions, revisionary work in canon of American literatures, and the intersections between science and literature.

Elizabeth McCormack
is a physicist and dean of graduate studies. Her research uses techniques in nonlinear optical laser spectroscopy to study fundamental characteristics and excited state decay dynamics of small molecules.


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