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Analysis out of the box

Code as structure: art from the electronic to digital age

Analysis out of the boxContemporary Art | The principle of coding is as old as humanity; from the Latin “codex”- a collection of laws - a term that itself comes from “caudex” which originally designated the trunk of a tree. This image illustrates the idea that memory is at play : any code implies written memory. All language is code, consisting of recording a memory so that it can circulate, musical scores are one example, and representational painting is another.

Robert Smithsom, 66 cryosphere © JMuseum
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Robert Smithsom, 66 cryosphere
© JMuseum

The work : contraction and expansion

Computer code is the contraction of a text or an image through its reduction into a binary chain of 0’s and 1’s, so that it may circulate and then resume its original form as image or text. Code works between contraction and expansion. The principle of computer encoding poses a stimulating challenge for many artists in the 1960’s : what would a visual artwork be that oscillates between a contracted, encoded form and a traditional physical existence?

Text : code and score

Several artists choose a type of contraction less reductive than computer encoding, working instead with textual formulations. Here, text acts as the contraction of an object or event, allowing for a physical redeployment of the work, following a long-existing model seldom used in visual arts at the time : the musical score.
The most famous example would be the wall drawings Sol LeWitt produces from 1968 onward. The written word acts as a musical score, providing instructions for the drawing’s execution. As with the musical work, the lasting and absolute form is the score (textual instructions) while the work’s spatial form is ephemeral and relative, “played” by different interpreters when exhibited. With each presentation the work unfurls, and, when over, the drawing is erased, contracting again, leaving only the score.
Robert Smithson also seizes on this principle beginning in 1966 with his sculpture The Cryosphere, exhibited in the Jewish Museum New York’s show Primary Structures, whose coded form could allow for a physical redeployment of the sculpture. Lawrence Weiner works with the contraction/expansion principle in yet another fashion. For a sculpture or an action that he executes in his studio, he only keeps the title, which can then be physically redeployed as a sculpture or action, or be literally exhibited as painted letters on the wall.

The digital artwork’s structure : absolute and relative form

The contraction/expansion principle has developed considerably since the end of the 20th century, with works whose coded form is a digital file made to be deployed in relative and ephemeral form in physical space : a photographic print on wallpaper or customized video projection. This is a continuation of different kinds of work begun by several artists in the 1960’s. We could call the contracted, permanent form of the work the “absolute form” (coded) and the spatial, ephemeral expansion the “relative form,” varying with each new expansion of the code.


This type of work’s contraction/expansion principle could be described as spiral in form, with a spiral’s movement oscillating between contraction and expansion, directed at once toward the interior and the exterior. Digital works are conceived to infinitely repeat such movements.

Maud Maffei
Publié le 09/06/2016
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Version française

Robert Smithsom, 66 cryosphere © JMuseum Robert Smithson,66 the cryosphere text © Jewish Museum Robert Smithsom, 66 cryosphere © J Museum Robert Smithsom, 66 cryosphere © J Museum Sol-Lewitt,wall-drawing 481 © Brooke Alexander gallery oct 2009- jan 2010 Lawrence Weiner, Regen project july-aug 2009 © Regen project Alexandra Gorczinski © Laffy Maffei Gallery

Robert Smithsom, 66 cryosphere
© JMuseum

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