As technology advances, the human affinity for blobs has only grown stronger. Kate Gu, Producer, Digital Special Projects at M+ responds to Zachary Lieberman’s digital commission of creative coding, Atlas of Blobs (2022).
Bulbous, amorphous, phantasmagorical. Troupes of such beings trot over digital renderings in the trailers for SIGGRAPH 2022, the latest edition of an annual conference founded in 1973 for practitioners and researchers of computer graphics and interactive techniques. Whether visualisations of morphing sound waves, simulated swirling eddies, or fantastical film CGI, the visual language of the moment is permeated by a form that Zachary Lieberman, whose artistic practice spans more than twenty years in the field, readily identifies: blobs.
What exactly are blobs? A stable definition is elusive. They don’t share an ideal form: there is no such thing as a perfect blob like there is a perfect square. Blobs are enclosed, soft-edged, irregular shapes; dimpled here, bulging there, forever morphing from one state to the next. Each blob is different, made up of endless permutations: solid, hollow, coloured, tactile, digital. They are everywhere in visual and material culture: from prehistoric sculptures like the Venus of Willendorf to Baroque and Art Nouveau building facades to Surrealist paintings and Streamline Moderne cars. In the 1990s, advances of computer-aided design software, as well as manufacturing and engineering technologies, actualised curvaceous, blobular shapes. They were spawned in design and architecture, fighting for attention within a scenery of rectilinearity. They are part of nature—as clouds, puddles, and cells—and now crawl onto your dress, and into your living room and your software interface. It seems that the more tech-savvy we become, the more we like blobs.
Lieberman started creating blobs using computer programmes in 2016 as part of his daily sketches, which encompass multitudes of digital forms and shapes. His blobs inhale byte dust and exhale psychedelic and visceral flecks, traversing between 2D and 3D planes. Blobs fascinate Liberman because of their connection to nature. Moreover, they are nonsensical, reminiscent of child's play, and they can emerge unpredictably from computer programmes.
Influenced by art movements that advocated abstraction, like Constructivism and De Stijl, formal exploration has been interesting to those who experiment with emerging technologies since the beginnings of computer art in the 1960s. Scientists, technologists, and artist-programmers alike devised algorithms that were fed into available machines to draw lines, geometries, and colours. Blobs were prevalent among the results of this early experimentation, ‘visual analogues of algorithmic events’.
Fractals illustrated by initial machine computation contain endless blobs and became one of the most well-known blobby forms. They are complex and chaotic shapes commonly observed in nature, such as spiral shells, snowflakes, and river systems, made up of infinitely branching and repeating patterns at different scales. They can be expounded in mathematics through simple equations of recursive calculations. Visualisations of algebraic fractals like the Mandelbrot Set sparked zealous interest among computer artists from the mid-1970s onwards. The interplay of fractals, which probe disorder in nature, and machines, which articulate absolute order, insinuated the temperament of computer-generated fractals. The blobby forms are enigmatic and even mystical, inspired by nature but enabled by logical control.
One can see the same characteristics in Lieberman’s blobs. Here, however, the mysticism and ‘uncertainty’ as he puts it, comes not from nature but from the computational process outright. He purposefully introduces randomness into the algorithms he writes, based on which the computer decides the final outputs. This is not new to those who tinker with computers. For instance, in the late 1960s, artists such as Vera Molnár embraced randomness derived from computer visualisation of simple algorithms. She developed processes that leveraged the chance occurrences that constitute iterations of a work, to which she adjusted the parameters of the programmes to finally arrive at an ideal version. The trajectory of her creative process was modified by each iteration and propelled by interactions with machines—‘mathematical mysticism’ colliding with ‘formal aesthetic traditions’, with an injection of artist’s intuition—a formula still valid to artists nowadays and conspicuous in Lieberman’s process.
Lieberman incessantly experiments with lines of code, tweaking parameters until a bolt of joy strikes as an imaginary form materialises. These iterations are his playground for delving into the agency of computational language, the faculties of technology, and the serendipitous encounters of idiosyncrasy resulting from the change of variables in algorithms. He calls his daily sketches ‘short poems’ and this process ‘poetic coding’. A more widely used term is ‘creative coding’, which encompasses the use of computer programmes to seek new expressive possibilities. Stemming from the legacy of the pioneers of computer art in the 1960s like Lloyd Sumner, who interwove humanistic visions with an interest in machines, creative coding puts forth alternative approaches to conventional practices.
The development of computers was intended by industrial capitalism to precipitate the automation of manual and intellectual labour, and problem-solving and efficiency have long been guiding principles. As much as automation was idealised as path towards human emancipation, some of the largest tech companies today profit by tracking and manipulating consumer behaviours to deepen the grip of the ever-expanding markets, as exemplified by search platforms, social media, and online shopping sites. Automation also exacerbates the innate problems with algorithms, such as ‘garbage in, garbage out’, binary thinking, and the human biases of the people who create them. In this context, coding has become mostly functional and template-like, turning into a finely partitioned and labour-intensive field where coders’ responsibilities are confined to completing a slice of work detached from a whole, perpetually awaiting to be merged on the assembly line.
Against this backdrop of techno-infrastructural hegemony, creative coding is antagonistic. It diverges from shoehorned, myopic goals and merges with humanist considerations. Unlike the automated tech industry, creative coding widens the focus of computation by pushing its boundaries while also contemplating the social and cultural nuances that unfold through lines of code, investigating flaws and biases disguised as neutral algorithms, and expressing criticism of pressing issues. For Atlas of Blobs, Lieberman invited writers from the fields of art, science, and the humanities to form cross-disciplinary dialogues: a collective reflection on the signification of the form, collaborative working and sharing, and, most importantly, an enquiry into what sort of future and creative outputs teaming up with computers could lead us to.
The overtones of Lieberman’s blobs—these mysterious creatures—indicate not only a type of aesthetics, system, or message, but all of these in one. They represent the interest in formalism inherited from early computer art, the iterative exploration of the unpredictable that originated from the computational tradition, and the persistence of looking for alternative digital futures born out of the zeitgeist of creative coding. Blobs straddle different realms: art and science, logic and intuition, constraints of systems, and freedom of play. They are unknown, undefinable, the uncanny offspring of invisible code, constantly verging on the edge of becoming. Blobs symbolise creativity. Blobs want to be set free from the confinements of consumer capitalism, the rules of computation, the boundaries of human perception, and the limits of human societies. Blobs keep stretching out.
View the Project
Zachary Lieberman’s project is part of a series of M+ digital commissions exploring online creative practices that sit at the intersection of visual culture and technology.
Video on top: Video of the blobs by Zachary Lieberman for Atlas of Blobs (2022). © Zachary Lieberman
Luca Molinari, ‘Digital Architecture,’ in Architecture: Movements and Trends from the 19th Century to the Present (Milano: Skira Editore, 2015), 277.
Grant D. Taylor, When the Machine Made Art: The Troubled History of Computer Art (New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2014), 88.
‘Zachary Lieberman: Poetic Computation’, YouTube (YouTube, October 1, 2019), https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mtWI6OFheVs.
Grant D. Taylor, When the Machine Made Art, 129–131.
Matteo Pasquinelli, ‘From Algorism to Algorithm: A Brief History of Calculation from the Middle Ages to the Present Day,’ Electra, no. 15 (Winter 2021–22), 93–101.