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Art and Technology: Strange Attractors

As coordinator of Washington and Lee’s IQ (Integrative and Quantitative Science) Center, David Pfaff is always keen to use the center’s advanced technology to work with other departments. But he was surprised and intrigued last year when he was asked to collaborate with Louis Markoya, artist and former studio assistant and collaborator of surrealist Salvador Dalí, to produce art. The mission of the IQ Center is to foster cross-disciplinary and quantitative approaches to inspire creativity and problem solving in teaching and research.

“I immediately looked at Louis Markoya’s website and saw that some of the areas he had worked in were pretty interesting and outside of what I had done in the past, but I was very interested in working with him,” said Pfaff.

The idea for the collaboration came from Elliott King, assistant professor of art history, and Clover Archer Lyle, director of W&L’s Staniar Gallery. King is an expert on Dalí and has known Markoya since 2007, when King worked on his Ph.D. and Markoya told him memories of his time with Dalí, giving insights into Dalí the man not necessarily depicted in books.

When King planned to teach a seminar on surrealism during the Winter Term, he invited Markoya to campus to interact with students and stage an exhibit of his own work (plus two Dalí originals never publicly exhibited) in the Staniar Gallery. The exhibit, “Strange Attractors,” took place in Feb. – March 2015.

Markoya had already developed an interest in fractals — a natural phenomenon or a mathematical set that exhibits a repeating pattern — and when he was given a tour of the IQ Center prior to developing the exhibit, he expressed an interest in creating art using 3D fractals.

King recalled that Dalí actually entered into surrealism as a film maker and continued to come up with different scenarios for film. “None of them really came to fruition very well,” remarked King, “but he was always really fascinated with film. So I cavalierly suggested that maybe Louis could produce a 3D film. I have to say, I didn’t realize the work that would be involved in what I was suggesting.”

“I immediately agreed,” said Markoya of the idea. “But then I started thinking that I’d gotten in over my head because I didn’t really know what I wanted to do.”

It took Markoya and Pfaff eight months to create the 12-minute film that was displayed simultaneously in the Staniar Gallery and the IQ Center during the exhibit. Markoya created stereo images and sent them to Pfaff, since the artist had no means of viewing them as 3D content, and Pfaff then sent Markoya comments about what worked and what needed changing. Later in the process, Markoya purchased a 3D monitor so he could see the images for himself. The Staniar Gallery also purchased a large 3D monitor so the film could be displayed in the gallery and that will be used to show future videos and other performances.

“Frankly, I think the film ended up being one of the key works in the show because everything about the show is brought together in that film, although I know it was a real chore to create,” said King. “Dave Pfaff has been nothing short of wonderful. Happily, he has also said that this is one of the most interesting things that he’s worked on all year.”

Pfaff described his work with Markaoya as a “true collaboration in the sense that when Louis first visited the IQ Center we really didn’t know what we were going to do. I learned a great number of tools and techniques that I hadn’t been exposed to before, and I think that will be very useful for students in the future.”

But for Pfaff, the most exciting thing was printing out a 3D chess set for Markoya’s exhibit. “It was so much more than just the individual pieces — it really looked beautiful together.”

Markoya said that when he started working on the chess set he knew that he wanted to make the chess board lenticular, a technology in which lenticular lenses are used to produce printed images with an illusion of depth or the ability to change or move as the image is viewed from different angles. “The squares actually go up and down in three dimensions as you go across the board,” he explained. “I had to use three or four different programs to tie it all together to make it into a 3D object. Then I designed an LED ring that would provide light beneath the board and give it a really beautiful aspect of color and add to the depth.”

As Markoya began to design the fractal designs for the chess pieces, he researched how the pieces would move in a chess game. “For instance, because the queen can move in any direction, I made her into a multi-headed killing machine: all those bumps on the top of her head can look and move in any direction and kill people,” he said. He also decided to make each castle in his chess set a Menger sponge, which is square and simultaneously exhibits an infinite surface area and zero volume.

“I worked with Dalí on a number of 3D projects and had successes and failures with them so I know how very much he desired to have his works represented in 3D,” said Markoya. “I am sure that he would have given a pound of flesh to have this technology while he was alive and would have used it extensively.”

Added King: “I think that there’s so much to be said about art and technology. There are contemporary artists working with effectively every technology available — 3D, but also genetics, nanotechnology… really everything. There are so many intersections between art and science, and the more we can make of them, the more informed and engaged our students will be when they encounter new art and ideas.”