:: Article

The game of (not) life

[Image: Cornell Math Explorer’s Club]

By James McGirk.

There is no better analogy for contemporary art than Conway’s Game of Life. This is not the same thing as The Game of Life, which is played on a board and simulates the education and subsequent useful employment of a human being. Conway’s Game of Life is a math game, an evolution simulator simple enough to be played on a checkerboard, but most often encountered on a computer. In the game, three rules govern whether or not an individual “cell” lives, dies or reproduces. The operator places pixels on a grid. Each turn the pixels either disappear or reproduce, gradually linking up and evolving into complicated patterns. After hundreds of generations these patterns begin to exhibit remarkable behaviour — some oscillate like machines or glide around the board depositing seeds, but no matter how many generations pass, no matter how infinite the number ofpermutations possible, Conway’s creatures are a constrained infinity; their patterns will never rupture the protocols that created them, for example they will never tip over into another dimension the way Jackson Pollock did when he tipped his canvas over and began dribbling paint on it from above. The problem with contemporary art today is that like the writhing patterns of Conway’s Game of Life it is snarled, hopelessly snarled, in the protocols of a larger, more insidious system.

Art feeds off of disposable income. Money may be delivered directly to an artist or as is more often the case in the professional art world, the money will be mediated through galleries or fellowships or institutional support. The collapse of Lehman Brothers and subsequent implosion of the economy in 2008 evaporated a great deal of disposable income. Yet according ‘How to Make it in the Art World,’ an article published in New York magazine, the art world is thriving, albeit in a “weird moment of equipoise, as the Art Death Star and the Rebel Forces [battle] to the quick.” New York’s art critic Jerry Saltz and his fellow New York writers trace a “billion-dollar unregulated market” with “case studies” that include Sarah Sze, whose massive billowing bricolage mobiles suggest networks and systems; Kehinde Wiley’s sumptuous portraits of marginal others in luxurious garb that are so in demand by wealthy collectors, the artist has partially outsourced his production to China and Senegal, and myriad other collectors and gallerists and artists who, according to Saltz and his crew, hew to “impish contradictions” with “everyone act[ing] like they’re overthrowing the system by thriving in it.”

To Saltz the art world has fractured into thousands of interdependent cliques that are evolving in little clusters, dribbling currency and cross-pollinating one another. He is giddy about the carnivalesque atmosphere, and after a meltdown at Art Basel now sees “art fairs as cultural-biomasses: survival mechanisms where galleries act like great schools of fish, banding together in like groups that allow more to thrive, confusing and eluding predators.” But if you squint at the dozens of artists producing what would charitably be referred to as exploded Cornell boxes of artfully arranged garbage, the discombobulated videogames, and all the howling neons and punky scrawls that pervade contemporary art they will all seem suspiciously similar. If there were a single thread connecting all of these disparate forms it is the ability to snag an intriguing lead from a lazy writer/blogger and extract strands of quivering quasi-academic snot from the agar of the artwork.


Art takes time and effort to produce. To paraphrase Walter Benjamin’s The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction this meant art was once a ritual activity, a sort of sacrifice of productive labour on behalf of a deity or a monarch, and for millennia this relationship meant that images had an inherent sacredness built into to them (doubly so because images themselves were so rare). This aura gradually eroded as images became more common, first through the patronage of the merchant class, and later at an exponentially faster rate through the advent of technologies like the printing press and photography. To repel the onslaught of all these cheap imitations, the work of art had to dig a niche for itself, which meant recognising itself in the context of all the art that had come before it. Art was authentic, more than a mere product, an intellectual achievement, a delicate soufflé of the eons of history that had come before it. Each work of art became a piece of intellectual property, like a master tape, no different than a scribble of expertly produced code. Authenticity lodged a fungible, wordy void within art that connected it to the rest of art history. Discourse about a piece of work and artist’s statements became as important as the work itself. How else do you justify a painted plank of wood or canvas being worth more than its materials and labour?

This squib of text within, however, like an undefended wireless Internet connection, left the work of art vulnerable to hijack by sinister forces, and that is precisely what happened. As context became increasingly important to the discourse about art, to the point where it began to influence the artists creating it, the emphasis of the work began to shift away from appearance and form to the work of art’s position within a network of interdependent intellectual and historical constituencies, and the work of art became something you read rather than looked at.

This was not a good thing. Vision is a far stranger and more complicated process than language. What we see is extremely subjective. The light absorbed by our rods and conesis just one feed of information in an assemblage that more closely resembles The Terminator’s LED augmented vision than the output of a video camera. Imagine a uniform white surface suddenly descending on your field of vision. It would be intensely threatening if it were unexpected, yet perhaps less so if the signal were received in a Bed Bath and Beyond than while walking over an icy crevasse, yet depending on factors such as knowing that you are at risk of a stroke or an accompanying reek of chloroform, one might still be compelled to shriek for help.

Viewers project layers of meaning onto what they see, and like language, some of this is coded and contextual, and consists of logic and syntax that can be learned and manipulated with language. (A famous demonstration of the sort of subterranean optic education we receive as technologically adept Westerners occurred in Africa in the 1950s when anthropologists working with tribesmen discovered that a viewer had to understand that film was a two-dimensional representation before being able to interpret footage of their surroundings.) But there are also countless numbers of unconscious and semi-conscious subroutines at play. By allowing language to hijack interpretation, the work of art pushes code into the foreground and ignores the dank, potentially gorgeous mysteries of vision. The work of art is then no different really than the glider guns sputtering across the board of Conway’s Game of Life.


Visual art that relies on historical context and academic discourse retards itself. That said, in the heyday of poststructuralism, between the 1970s and early 1990s, there was a lot great work produced that explored and exposed the relationship between language and image. Cindy Sherman staged scenes, creating phony film stills that recalled just enough of the iconography of cinema, itself a fusion between language and vision, to almost but not quite, invoke narrative. Her work unpeeled provocative insights into how much of narrative is unconsciously transmitted, and how pigheaded and strange those unconscious chunks of narrative could be. But once you made that connection, once you read Cindy Sherman’s beautiful work as another way to épater le bourgeois, it seemed thinner. The way that walking home from someplace new will always seem less exciting (and shorter) than it did on the way out there.

Sherman’s contemporary Peter Halley refined the rupture between language and reality with a near mathematical precision. He used the protocols of both post-structural criticism and geometric abstraction to reveal the relationship between code and visual representation. He fore-grounded his paintings with syntax, using a severely restrictedpalette of forms, usually just two, cells and conduits, skinny blocks of colour representing conduits and fatter ones representing cells, to create paintings that look like circuit boards. He paired these schematic-like images with an intensely precise and absolutelycrucial title. Revolver (2009), for example, is a triptych, with each of its three panesshowing a series of nested rectangles (four of them, then five, then only three) that convey the chemical and mechanical innards, the heft and the firing mechanism of a revolver. The colours, a combination of black with metallic tones and textures, the series of shapes (the symmetry of four ruptured into five and then left with only three) all refer back to the title; without the word “revolver” these shapes and colors would be meaningless, yet the colours and textures reveal how arbitrary and categorical the word “revolver” really is when compared with the vitality of the thing itself. That is if you reassure yourself that the painting is about handguns exclusively and not, say for example, The Beatles album bearing the same name. And yet for all this sophisticated interplay the work is bloodless and academic. This may well be intentional, a rebuke to the increasingly clotted and academic art world, but because of his reliance on language, when placed beside a painting that brings the full resources of the artist to bear on his medium, Halley’s work is wanting.

Mark Rothko worked at a similar (i.e. gargantuan scale) to Peter Halley, yet by choosing to dwell within the darker, unknowable realms of vision, Rothko’s work achieved an effect far more transcendent than Halley. Simon Schama describes the moment he first encountered a Rothko in BBC’s Power of Art, taking a wrong turn in the Tate Museum and walking into a dimly lit room: “Something in there was throbbing steadily, pulsing like the inside of a body part, all crimson and purple. I felt I was being pulled through those black lines to some mysterious place in the universe.” Rothko used light, size, colour and a larger-than-life scale to swallow his viewers and put them through a spin cycle of optical effects. He didn’t need academic discourse to achieve his ends. Where Halley methodically combined post-structuralism and the techniques of geometric abstraction, Rothko used the more ambiguous but powerful vocabulary of his medium to communicate. And that is where the power of art resides. A work of art that relies on its affiliations or an artist’s statement to ground its viewer hobbles itself.

[Image: ‘Bang Goes Theory’, Waddington Custot Galleries]


Grounding is also known as quilting, suggesting that one is stitched into a patchwork of associations. Or, to recall Conway’s Game of Life, placed onto a checkerboard and subject to three evolutionary rules. Both “grounding” and “quilting” are an elaborate way of saying: “to prime.” How a viewer is primed to approach a work of art is crucial to its interpretation. A work of art is a bit like an electrical circuit. Without a viewer to complete the circuit, a work of art can do nothing. Not only does this make the experience of interpreting a work of art an inherently subjective one, it also tips the balance of power away from the artist. If this seems hyperbolic, on a micro scale it is. An individual work of art can always snag someone’s attention and obliterate whatever flimsy strands of context the viewer is screening the work through. But consider for a moment how artwork is actually distributed to a viewer’s optic nerve.

The relationship with the viewer has flipped. As a glance at deviantART or a ramble through any open studio night anywhere will prove, there is now a practically unlimited supply of artwork to look at. An artist must seek out his or her viewer. And there now exists a bureaucracy mediating who gets to see what art where and when. To extend the circuit analogy, when people talk about the art world they mean something akin to an electric grid, a system which connects works of art to a scarce supply of viewers. Like the utilities, which mandate certain conditions in exchange for a steady supply of electricity (namely that you pay your bills on time and that your appliances do not feed electricity back into the grid), the art world is dominated by an oligopoly of a few powerful tastemakers who, like the utility companies, will only supply viewers to those who conform to their standards. Which is why the secondary economies of galleries and museums, and tertiary economy of tastemakers and critics are so important: viewers need somebody sift through all of that art and tell them what is worth looking at.

This is not a conspiracy. While most of the people involved in the business of distributing viewers to works of art, particularly those who work in the non-profit sector, likely consider themselves to be working in the service of art, even the most noble among them are dealing with a different set of agendas than the artists are. Artists no longer define what art is, institutions and auctioneers do. Art has allowed itself to become restrained by the marketplace and the academy. These are both systems which ultimately shunt artwork beneath the protocols of something else. They both attempt to quantify and restrain artwork through systems of logic.

An artist’s labour only provides a sliver of value to their work in the marketplace. The rest comes from exchange. “The relationship of money to any individual piece of art is very simple,” writes critic and former art dealer Dave Hickey in Air Guitar: Essays on Art and Democracy. “There is none. Since relative economic value can only be assigned to sets of things (to works of one artist, one period, one style, et cetera), and since even one-of-a-kind objects are valued within the set of “one-of-a-kind objects” (Catherine the Great’s dildo as compared to Louis the XIV’s bedpan), any work of art is both worthless and priceless because it is unique… Everything you pay over [a culturally ascribed minimum value of approximately three hundred to one thousand dollars] is the consequence of previous external investments taken at risk.”

In a perfect marketplace, where all consumers and suppliers have the same information, which is to say all suppliers are capable of delivering the same product to all consumers, and all consumers are capable of buying the same piece of work at the same time, a work of art might do well to preserve its autonomy and stand out from its peers. But the art world is anything but fair. There is no equivalent of the Securities and Exchange Commission. Certain galleries and collectors have far better access to work than others do, which leaves the marketplace for art deeply crooked. Unscrupulous galleries often collude with collectors to inflate prices. Considering how easy it is to anonymously purchase art worth millions of dollars and transfer it from person to person, it is an open secret that many use the art world to evade taxes and launder money. This corruption actually affects the way that the work of art is made. The marketplace assigns a qualitative value to sets of art, and by extension ascribes value to certain techniques or images or styles within art, and by establishing a hierarchy of forms encourages others to adopt the same stance, creating pastiches of art, near-art more approachable to salesmen and collectors than real art, which in turn crowds out the potentially unique and presumably better real stuff.

Institutions and not-for-profits are more insidious still, at least galleries and collectors have a lot of autonomy in their decision making, which although it may privilege certain forms and inflate the value of some awfully crappy artwork, at least allows for a fair amount of creative destruction. This is not the case within the academy. “In institutional cultures there is neither failure nor success, only the largesse or spite of one’s superiors,” writes Hickey. “We continue to presume honest virtue in those art functionaries who receive salaries, ideally from public sources… Through the exquisite logic of Protestant economic determinism, virtue is ascribed to those who can afford to live nice, regular middle-class lives as a consequence of their submission to whatever authority dispenses their salary.”

For art to pass muster it must be vetted through multiple layers of professional bureaucrats (some in the guise of grant-holding artists and professors) and what the industry refers to as stakeholders, constituencies either real or imagined within the institution that are thought to care about the decision. These range from donors who must be appeased, to boards of directors to the press, to the public, to peer institutions, to other decision makers and to more abstracted stakes like the institution’s mission or the director’s boneheaded attempts at social engineering. Few people enmeshed in a gigantic, conservative institution will gamble on an extreme piece of artwork, and more often than not will attempt to mitigate risk and facilitate their decision-making by looking forsignifiers of success such as affiliations, other shows, pedigree or a familiar socioeconomic background.

Remember those impish contradictions, those effortless juxtapositions of high and low that Jerry Saltz and his team applauded? The young artists “breaking barriers between genres,” the cheeky suggestion that to succeed one must: “Join the establishment. Cling to your street cred… Pretend you’re an outsider even when you’re at the center of everything… Get born into it.” Jamming between discourses (“radical egalitarianism”) is characteristic of today’s “new elite,” writes Prof. Shamus Khan in Privilege: The Making of an Adolescent Elite at St. Paul’s School. “Privilege is not an attempt to construct boundaries around knowledge and protect such knowledge as a resource. Ironically, exclusivity marks the losers in the hierarchical, open society. From this perspective, inequality is explained not by the practices of the elite but instead by the character of the disadvantaged. Their limited (exclusive) knowledge, tastes, and dispositions mean they have not seized upon the fruits of our newly open system.”

After running simulations for many millions of generations, Conway’s Game of Life evolved the ability to create miniature games of life. And that is precisely what institutional art does – it cowers behind the protocols of the marketplace and institution, and like a virus mindlessly replicates itself and its practitioners. Too much more of this and the art world will calcify into another beaux-arts academy, or worse yet, for those of us who still believe in the radical potential of the image, art may become fixed, becoming something akin to Kabuki theatre and not budge from its forms and function for centuries.


Contemporary art has become a heat sink of associations and affiliations, so much so that barely any representation can resist being drawn into a preexisting framework of interpretation. Yet there are pockets of resistance.

Lynton Wells has developed a visual language that is toxic to logic but so technicallyprecise and exquisitely rendered it forces his viewer to rely on other senses. He paints realistic, yet anthropomorphic, frogs and fishes and other icons of western myth (such as nude faeries and trees) and places them into colourful, complex backgrounds that faintly recall Gerhard Richter. Fish, James (2010-2011), for example, features an arched rainbow trout clutching a fishing line that curls into a swirling filigree of plant-life and an abstract churning pattern against a background as strange and ominous as a prairie sky before a storm.

Dan Flavin and Mark Rothko dimmed the lights to defamilarise their viewers. Lynton Wells defamiliarises his by using imagery so saccharine it resists interpretation — even as kitsch. There are no cues to pop-culture for even the most generous viewer to ground him or herself onto. These aren’t Disney characters or even cartoons, but something more primeval. If anything, the trout in Fish, James recalls an illustration in a high-end children’s book from another era, perhaps Edwardian, but then there is the hallucinogenic background to contend with. Attempting to contextualise the fish draws the viewer’s eye away from the creature and into the tendrils of the plants and churning surfaces within the painting. The work is also so well crafted it demands attention to detail. Wells uses layers of raw pigment he works directly into his medium for an effect as lustrous as a Dutch master. Fish, James is beautiful and hard to look away from, bewitchingly compelling despite the pulses of anti-intellectual energy emanating from the fishing fish. And then it dawns on you that you have been indulging in Wells’ strange loops and stacked surfaces and colors and optical effects both subtle and glaringly obvious that you have been forced to spend seconds swimming in the piece. The net effect is arguably as sublime as anything Mark Rothko or Dan Flavin ever produced.

There is an intellectual component swirling among Wells’ myriad layers as well, one that hints at a new philosophical approach, one straddling the multiple channels nested within sight, but difficult to explain with words. The closest analogue might be Robert Coover’s writing. Coover takes the opposite approach to Peter Halley. Instead of forcing colour through the protocols of geometry and logic, Coover takes myths and narratives and fleshes them out as far as language will allow him to do so. Multiple timelines, entire books devoted to genres, even the CAVE, an experimental chamber that allows storytelling in multiple of dimensions simultaneously. Somehow Coover’s work always seems to accept its limitations and feel at risk of slipping past the protocols of language into nothingness. Wells seems to be plumbing the same raw substance of human thought but coming at it through a far more robust medium than Coover. Instead of surrendering to it, Wells is just beginning to burrow in.


Early in his career, Lynton Wells was a successful artist, but at the peak of his fame he abandoned it all to make work the way he wanted to. To return to Conway’s Game of Life Wells is the pattern that used its flippers to pull itself onto the beach and start breathing air. But there is plenty of art that has never been connected to the grid. Beyond the nexus of professional art and artists there is another realm, a larger one encompassing everything from doodles and children’s scrawls and fairground portrait artists to people like the late Thomas Kinkade and the legions of sculptors and painters who ply the tourist trade on the coasts. There is absolute freedom out there, but it comes at a terrible price. By losing the attachment to history and academia, a work of art surrenders any claim of being different from any other product and has no protection from the whims of the marketplace. Art in this realm no longer has a culturally ascribed minimum value.

Oil paintings go for as little at fifty dollars in the convention halls at the airport Hyatt, scruffy Salvation Army rescues go for single digits in flea markets – to compete in this environment with art that takes as much labour, time and emotional pain to produce as anything on the grid is madness, yet one artist, after becoming disgusted with her two dealers and the hypocrisy and greed run amok in the art world decided to slough all of her affiliations before gaining any critical traction whatsoever. Not only is she concealing the prestigious institutions she attended, erasing her exhibition record and has severed her personal connections to the professional art world, she actually adopted a sobriquet, effectively erasing herself from the grid. In December, Amy Marrs will set up a stall in an artisan flea market and sell her work, in three or four sizes, priced the way any other product is – as a small fraction over what it cost her to produce it in materials and time. Her work is geometric and abstract, patterns and optic effects distilled from subculture so as to reveal its connection to the original ethos of modernism – as a grasp toward a new form of spirituality in a mad, violent and unfair world, of new forms that are so clean, crisp, cold and honest next to the hideous indulgence of elite art that she hopes to blow it to pieces.

Perhaps, if there is a lesson to be taken away from all of this, it is that art should not be relegated to a simulation, that art is not a game of life at all, but a component of life that deserves to be exposed to the world beyond its bindings, no matter how fragile it might seem.

Peter Halley: Paintings 2012-2013, 11 April-3 May, Waddington Custot Galleries, Cork Street, London.


James McGirk has a BA and an MFA from Columbia University. He writes a monthly column for 3QuarksDaily and his bylines have appeared in TIME, Foreign Policy, More Intelligent Life, and other publications. His short stories has been published by Fence and The Drum.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, March 27th, 2013.