A detail of a carpet by Thomas Ruff, titled d.o.pe.03 I, dated 2022

The Recursive Image

Duncan Wooldridge

Do our images—our paintings, photographs, films, scans, and parcels of data—reproduce the world, or produce it? Can we think of the image as a coming-into-being: an inquiry, a question, a speculative or generative emergence? Photographs are familiar to us because they trade in known and recognizable fragments, pointing or presenting to us the that-has-been, but an image, as any artist will quickly tell us, is made for an encounter that has not yet taken place: artworks, and photographs, are made in a future tense, for a viewer beyond the studio, for a world that is to come. In his book Into the Universe of Technical Images, the nomadic media theorist Vilém Flusser made a daring claim that photographs function not only as representations but also as models. In place of our expectation that technical images document and fix—which is not false, just reductive—Flusser presciently points us to their little observed consequences: what is made visible in a photograph becomes a mode of seeing, and what is chosen for recording or observation sets into motion further images. Technical images, then, are anticipatory, speculative, informing, and influential: we might say, after Moholy-Nagy, that they are both productive and reproductive, showing us what we have not seen, and stating that this is the world as it is or as we think it should be. 

The role of technology has been a core concern of Thomas Ruff’s project, with the photograph at its center. Ruff draws our attention to the shifting possibilities of seeing that imaging technology constructs. From our observation, nearby, of performed identities and bodies to our inquiring view, at great distances, into space; from historical artifacts and objects for archaeological study to an ever-changing process of technology, mathematics, and calculation, sped up by the pace of capital and industry, Ruff explores how technologies give rise to shifting realisms, with, in turn, distinct potentialities and limits. The invention of photography is one of his recurring concerns and interests, but in his periodic explorations of abstract languages, Ruff not only looks at the moment of that medium’s beginning, but also stretches our definition of what a photograph might be, reminding us that it participates within an industry of unstoppable development encompassing both popular photography and the experimental, nonfigurative imagery of scientific and technological inquiry, minerals, chemistry, and encoding. 

Flusser considered photographs to be exactly like blueprints (today we might add digital renderings and immersive environments), prompting and instructing, giving shape, whilst merging the physical world with technology and its spaces. Contemporary philosophers recognize this as an integral component of their program. Picking up from Bernard Stiegler’s mapping of technology’s integration into the functions of memory, Yuk Hui’s study On the Existence of Digital Objects concerns itself with the protensive, predicting functions of everyday technological interfaces, to observe that our smart devices attempt to preempt our behaviors, mapping and extrapolating patterns through machine learning. Hui’s follow-up, on recursive computation, describes new relationships of technology to nature, from which predictive functions and complex computational models base their operations. Computation studies the world intensely, drawing from it models of complexity to enhance its functions: models of nature are necessarily also overturned by their encounter with computation. 

Ruff’s d.o.pe. series (2022) presents a hallucinogenic field of recursive (repeating, but subtly shifting) patterns, spaces and terrains that immerse us in unfamiliar and seemingly unworldly landscapes. Luminous and strange, between a trip and a dive into the deep recesses of an aquatic underworld—a world of alternative intelligences and sensitivities, sublime images and art-historical echoes—we are brought into a polychromatic field of fractal forms whose structures produce intense repetition and variation, and a complexity that challenges our capacities to comprehend or know in full. Revealing as much variation as it does similarity—with forms moving from the hypnotic to the cartographic, from the celestial to the microscopic to the imagined—the series is also one of Ruff’s most heterogeneous, with no image truly alike despite its interconnected concerns and processes. This is the recursive in action: a creative irregularity in a system made for stasis. 

Proposing an alignment between the writer Aldous Huxley and the mathematician Benoit Mandelbrot, d.o.pe. bridges the chemistry of the body and the interior spaces of the black box. Ruff recalls Huxley’s interest, in his book The Doors of Perception (from which d.o.pe. takes its name), with an expanded attention and sensitivity to the objects of the everyday world, which he experiences under doses of mescaline. Huxley’s encounters, which included experiences of nature and culture—gardens, cityscapes, the world of commerce, and the reproductions of paintings in books and magazines—ultimately describe a collapse of the distance between the individual and beings in the world: a halt in self-obsession, and a sense of complex interconnectedness, at the beginning of its revelation. Ruff then aligns this to the advanced computational spaces of three-dimensional geometrical modeling and fractal geometrical sets—themselves seemingly fantastical, imaginary, but also both naturally occurring and transformed by human encounter—which he navigates as if on an exploratory journey, recording them as highly detailed captures with speculative yet familiar color palettes. Mandelbrot, who in his book The Fractal Geometry of Nature proposed that mathematics could break from its abstraction to speak to the world in its complexity, sought heightened understanding, too: “Geometry,” he said, “would finally live up to its name” as a kind of world-measuring that was not fixed but recursive, and thus, a creative praxis. Today, as computation vacillates between immersive alter-worlds and a programmed present, Ruff returns computation to its fundament as a mapping and modeling structure, where fantastic perception might not be divorced from the everyday.

Huxley’s celebration of mescaline and Mandelbrot’s studies of geometry find parallels in their concern for perception. Viewing the works in d.o.pe. begins a process of physical and optical recalibration. Perception is never a passive space, but one in which human agency is revealed to be continually at stake as encounters re-model our understanding of the world. The seemingly infinite scale of computational space blends spaces and times, allowing it to be hypnotic, familiar, sublimely terrifying, and strange, but also, Ruff reveals, ready-to-hand. If we project our imagination onto the image, Ruff is also doing so: his coloring of the fractal spaces we encounter provoke or encourage our readings of these spaces as hallucinogenic, biological, computational, or naturally occurring. Their polychrome palette returns the human and social to the seemingly nonhuman character of the machine. The selection of heterogeneous images in d.o.pe. uses the structure of the fractal to continuously shift our relationship to scale, leaving no fixed position for a viewer, who must navigate not only across the allover surface but also across a third axis that breaks with perspectival space, retaining detail and complexity at both the large and small equally. We are detached from stable positions of subject/object relationships, with the effect of being placed beyond singular roles of author or onlooker.

What are these images’ relationship to futurity? It is not the condition of a predictive or indexical claim to that which could only have been, or a limited confirmation of the that-has-been. It is instead a mapping of possibilities, placed into a discursive field: what we seek from our images, and what we do with them, is more significant than their familiarity or instant recognizability. Images test and propose, and what they seek and begin to bring into being is what we must measure and experience. As Ruff examines the historic and contemporary tools of technical images, he presents how images and computational technology subtly give shape to the world that is about to be: he makes clear that these images are tools for building worlds, and their roles—as disciplinary frames, objects of nostalgia, sites of possibility, and collective knowledge—depend upon our production and reproduction, recursively set into motion. They call for a capability that both Huxley and Mandelbrot sought: a perception of complexity in its conditions of interconnectedness. 


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