Chaos Theory and the Arts by M. Blair Ligon

My interest in chaotic and organic visual design structures began with the study of grid and non-grid systems in my typography classes. One exercise in particular fascinated me: the students began with illustrations of organic objects and then abstracted those objects into templates from which to execute a typographic design. Some students did still-life renderings of three-dimensional objects, such as bones or feathers, and then allowed the shadows and textures of their compositions to determine the nuances of the typography which followed them. Many students chose subjects such as leaves, branches, and trees and treated them in a two-dimensional, flat fashion to generate grid-like patterns from which to design their typographic compositions. My subject was the inside of a broken pomegranite. Like the branches of a tree, the pomegranite repeated its organic structure again and again, at smaller and smaller scales.

I began searching for an alternative grid stucture. I was certain that a grid based on tertiary relationships (not unlike one of Buckminster Fuller's domes, flattened out) would reveal the underlying geometry of my 'random' designs. Since people see in three dimensions, it seemed logical that there might be an innate mechanism which imposed the qualities of depth perception and the rules of perspective on any human two-dimensional design. This line of thought has been a dead-end. One could derive a set of rules /relationships for an organic design, but those rules would seldom hold for any other organic design.

There was, however, one recurring quality in designs which were judged to be visually pleasing. Whatever set of rules were developed for a particular design, tended to be consistent, regardless of scale, throughout the design. My third semester typography instructor said that he preferred to design the details first, and then let them guide the overall structure of a design. The thought behind the smallest elements became the model for generating the overall form. This method is intended to generate repetitive structure, designs which are consistent at different levels of perception. Years later, I learned that this process refected a phenomenon called fracticality and that a new area of science was being developed to describe the apparently random events which clutter up our calculated universe - chaos dynamics.

My original intent for this line of research was to use chaos dynamics as a comprehensive descriptive tool. The metaphor has its limitations: a temporal phenomenon such as chaos cannot be directly applied to an essentially non-temporal, 2-dimensional design without considering the filter of human perception. Whatever inherent temporal meaning a design may carry in its structure and relationship to biological processes (such as eye movement) are subject to a complex set of cognitive filters in the viewer. These cognitive filters impose a set of temporal values on the elements and structure of the design which are, ultimately, unique to each individual.

Chaos dynamics did provide a model for an optimization process, based on the premise that it is almost impossible and generally undesirable to purge all chaotic structure from a design. Non-chaotic structures and systems are exceptions to the rule in nature and in design. I hope that this paper will give the reader some insights into the use of chance in the design process. We can use chance process as a tool for optimization and as a means to overcome the human tendency to rely on old patterns of thought and structure.

Chaos theory has provided an intellectual structure for experimenting with non-deterministic process-- there are many parallels between the worlds of particle physics and digital images. Both may be thought to be constructed from indivisible units: pixels and atoms. Atoms possess energies expressed in quantum units which determine their structure as molecules, substances and things. Pixels possess characteristics which are determined by resolution to quantumly constitute colors, images and representations. An understanding of chaos is much like grasping the laws of perspective, the artist must choose in which way to implement these principles of nature, and should be aware of the communication attached to that use or disuse of natural law in a visual composition.

The computer allows the artist to implement chaotic processes at various points in a work, then choose which of those procedures are successful. Where Cage would not pass aesthetic judgment on his compositions, I am not always a theorist; I have a very specific agenda of communications and where the art and process do not further that agenda, I reject it. The use of non-deterministic process is one of many systems of thought that can be used to find a solution for a visual or thematic problem. Insofar as a non-deterministic strategy will create an appropriate image, it is a useful tool; where a Boolean or intuitive strategy works, it will be preferred. Chance process, then, is most useful when a solution might have several variations which are all viable. Chance process is least useful when no variation from the successful solution is a viable solution. Unfortunately, this difference is usually not apparent until the solution is found.

A key concept of chaos theory is fracticality: the repetition of a structural characteristic of a phenomenon across time, scale and topography. The use of digital filters is an act which increases the level of image fracticality by the application of a phenomena across a set of pixels. The act of sharpening or blurring reduces the amount of data in an image, and increases the fracticality even as we say that the image is degraded. The conscious exercising of that particular chaos paradigm is of great interest to me; the digital environment offers unique opportunities for self expression via these phenomena, just as drafting tools have exploited the geometry of space and film has exploited the physics of linear time.

In practical terms this means working above or below the final resolution of the image, and allowing unforeseen events to occur in the image, or working rapidly and blindly ahead of the computer's ability to render on the monitor... the art is not necessarily in executions of the hand, but in choices of the eye.

As we have seen from the writings of Poincaré and Cage, the possible range of solutions to a problem is often larger than the sets of solutions availabe to human intellect, logic, and intuition. There is a very strong human tendency to repeat and vary successful solutions. This tendency may be preventing a designer from exploring ranges of solutions which are, in some respect, superior to his or her current range of processes and solutions. An optimum solution may be passed over for one which is simply accessible.
Chance process is a tool to take the designer out of a predictable routine of problem solving. Cage claims that chance processes must reflect a natural aesthetic in order to establish a genuine emotional connection between the work and its audience.


copyright 2006, M. Blair Ligon, all rights reserved worldwide.