The Turing Image

Paul Johnson

Independent Artist

In the spring of 2007, contractors working at the Clocktower Gallery uncovered a Sol LeWitt wall drawing dating from the 1970s. It was a timely discovery given LeWitt’s passing earlier the same year. As the news began to circulate, the LeWitt estate became alarmed, contacted the gallery and demanded the work be destroyed. According to the estate, preservation of a site-specific installation outside the timeframe of the original exhibition constituted fraud. Fearful of any ramifications, legal or otherwise, the Clocktower complied with the estate demands. The work was destroyed.

Today, the idea that an ‘expired’ artwork might constitute ‘fraud’ is reminiscent of a debate surrounding Digital Rights Management. Certainly, there remains a historical concern springing from ephemeral (dematerialized) conceptual art practice, which is frequently oversimplified. One may wonder, what is the relationship between conceptual art and intellectual property? More importantly, what insights might be gained by such a comparison?

We exist in a time in which we are, as ‘end’ users, frequently asked to comply with complex agreements. The ubiquitous opt-in checkbox linking to a twenty-page document is the gateway of every digital product. It is not just that these terms function to protect the liability and margins of the provider but, in an effort to outline total monopoly or absolute indemnification, they may ignore the features of the media itself. That is, they are unworkable. Commercial interests may perform a constitutive role, but a license cannot succeed unilaterally. For this reason, new formats, network protocols, and terms are evolved in tandem. Conservatively, within the industry, this back and forth is usually characterized as a willful ‘value exchange’ between the user and the provider. This exchange reinforces the narrative of a participation economy which represents a shift from a passive audience of consumers to active co-producers.

The aesthetic of the machine, touching both the digital economy and the art of high modernism, is at the intersection of this story. If conceptual art runs into information theory, it likely assumes Alan Turing’s foundational speculation on an ‘electronic brain’ in several capacities. The possibility of an algorithm as thought, like a LeWitt drawing, digitally codifies feats of intellect. Yet, Turing formulated his definition of the computer in relationship to an unsolvable or “halting” problem. Rather than arguing that the mathematical formalism of his Turing machine underlay all reality, he demonstrated where it failed catastrophically. This acknowledgement of a limit was not unambitious. Rather, Turing seemed less concerned about our ability to create consciousness than recognize it. The machine may be different than humans, but it would emerge intelligent.

Similarly, around this time, modernist artworks are thought to have a new kind of existential justification and ambition. That is, they are objects that emphasize process as being. In Ad Reinhardt’s famous How to Look at Art cartoon, a painting need not justify itself anymore than the viewer. While a typical argument for abstraction might claim historical forms were less ‘real’ despite pictorial space, the autonomous artwork is simply like us. No more responsible for being in touch with reality, whatever that may mean, than ourselves. The problem of self-reference, the halting problem, is common to all.

In conclusion, it is compelling that every locked device seems to be quickly broken, every format transcoded. Whether or not it is a naive belief that, as many programmers say, “data wants to be free,” the idea that there might be a right or wrong answer for the data itself persists. Both art and data may have its own “terms” necessitated by its format, but there may also be emergent interests, perhaps as an outgrowth of astounding complexity or even machine intelligence, we will find hard to anticipate.