Published as “Random Rules” in Chaos, a catalogue accompanying Tauba Auerbach’s exhibition “Here and Now/And Nowhere” at Deitch Projects, New York, September 3–October 17, 2009. The book also features essays by Will Bradley and Chris Jennings.
In 1961, meteorologist Edward Lorenz discovered the sensitive dependence on initial conditions now popularly known as the “butterfly effect” while attempting to simulate the weather through computer modeling. The year before, French mathematician Benoît Mandelbrot revealed that seemingly unpredictable fluctuations in the price of cotton conformed to larger sequences, and that these cycles held true no matter the scale at which he analyzed them: curves for daily price changes and curves for monthly price changes matched perfectly. Lorenz and Mandelbrot’s observations, along with the work of other pioneering researchers, quickly cohered into the study of what is now called “deterministic chaos”—a subset of the larger field of chaos theory. Contrary to the connotations the word chaos carries in the nonscientific mind, chaos theory is in fact devoted to discovering organized systems, albeit ones for which the organizing principle is difficult to discern. As research in this field has progressed, an increasing number of physical processes have been shown to conform to chaotic patterns.
Another term used to describe phenomena that seem complex and unrelated yet submit to physical laws is “self-organized criticality.” It is said that something about the intrinsic dynamics of such phenomena—the way they organize themselves—allows them to achieve the critical point at which they radically change their behavior; they don’t need an outside prompt to undergo a drastic metamorphosis. The quintessential example of self-organized criticality is the pile of sand that spontaneously forms an avalanche once a certain unpredictable number of grains is dropped onto it. Tsunamis, forest fires, and the water dripping from a kitchen faucet are all characterized by self-organized criticality, and can in some way be accounted for by mathematical models. But however great a swath of the world we are able to fit into discernible patterns, the desire to find truly random phenomena, events that cannot be explained by formulas, persists.
This broad impetus animates many of Tauba Auerbach’s recent artworks. Auerbach has expanded her range of inquiry from an early focus on the semiotics of written language; now she frequently devises small-scale experiments in unpredictability to be carried out in the studio. She carefully designs criteria for these operations, disciplines the variables under her control (most of which are identified with artistic subjectivity), and then carries her investigations to their logical conclusions. That the resultant artworks do not always match up to the expected results—what should be truly random often in fact follows chaotic patterns—raises fascinating questions about chance, circumstance, and intention.
The most direct and seemingly rudimentary of these experiments involved making hundreds of photographs of television static. Friends and colleagues in the fields of science and mathematics had suggested to Auerbach that the cosmic background radiation rendered on television as static might be one of the few sources of true randomness. Yet in making her photographs, Auerbach quickly discovered patterns: coronas of bright light; concentrations of shadow; striations of color; and, most surprisingly, arrangements that closely resemble her earlier “50/50” series of black-and-white drawings. But if static is a depiction of radio energy that the television draws out of the air and tries to turn into an image, are these patterns simply the result of the mind’s own attempt to discern an image where there is only “background”? Or is the imperfect nature of Auerbach’s process itself the source of the repetitions she discovered? How could she be confident, for example, that there was no signal intermixed with the noise? Though her concern is primarily experimental and her inspiration scientific, these photographs enter into dialogue with such chance-based Conceptual photographic series as John Baldessari’s attempts, in the early 1970s, to discover with a camera patterns formed by red balls he tossed into the air. More obliquely, the distance between Auerbach’s avowed intent and the resultant images brings to mind similar gaps in many of Douglas Huebler’s “Variable” photographs, such as his ten-image “documentation” of birdcalls he heard while walking in Central Park in 1969. (It is as difficult to observe static systematically as it is to create a visual record of sounds.) Like these precedents, Auerbach’s photographs, despite their empirical bent, possess an affective charge. Some of that power may be rooted in the fact that analog television has just been succeeded by its digital replacement, depriving us of our most common window onto the cosmic radiation that surrounds us—and therefore onto randomness itself.
The questions of perceptual bias and methodological rigor that haunt Auerbach’s recent photographs are also inscribed in her new paintings depicting shattered glass. To make these works, Auerbach places large glass panes on top of a panel and covers them with a sheet of cardboard. She is unable to see the fractures created when she strikes them—ostensibly creating random designs in the glass’s surface. Removing the glass fragments one at a time, she fills in the area beneath each shard with a uniform gradient that ranges from black to white. Like her earlier “50/50” series, these images contain a perfect balance of light and dark tones, though their highly irregular, bulbous forms hint at the inexact nature of Auerbach’s process: working by hand, she may apply the gradients imprecisely or may accidentally skip over a cell altogether. But, as Mandelbrot’s price studies and scientific investigations of natural phenomena remind us, even the seemingly unexpected can be governed by rules. Were Auerbach to continue the series indefinitely, it is safe to assume that errors distorting the compositions in one manner would be countered by others that redress the imbalance.
There is an indeterminate territory where chance and intention meet; Tauba Auerbach’s newest artworks navigate this domain and benefit from the ambiguity. Recent research fascinatingly suggests that these gray zones extend to gray matter: the human brain itself appears to occasionally move toward the edge of anarchy. “In the 1990s, it emerged that the brain generates random noise, and hence cannot be described by deterministic chaos. When neuroscientists incorporated this randomness into their models, they found that it created systems on the border between order and disorder” —an instance of self-organized criticality, notes science journalist David Robson. In the last few years, researchers in the United States, Germany, and England have confirmed that “neural avalanches” follow patterns that likewise describe mountain avalanches, and have speculated that inhabiting the boundary between order and disorder is what makes the brain so adaptable. One wonders, unscientifically, whether there is a connection between the brain’s inability to create true randomness and human inability to perceive it in the world. Auerbach is particularly fascinated by scientific research that pushes toward unexpected convergences, and the artworks she creates evoke speculative thought that, in a quest for synthesis, borders on the mystical or spiritual—and effaces the distinctions between science and art.