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If Then Else

Exchanges between Gregory Lang and LAb[au], 2019


At first view, your works appear as simple abstractions, often geometric and minimal, with an aesthetic that evokes concrete art. Yet, when observing them more closely, and seeking to describe and understand the elements that constitute them, one sees a logical link between your concepts and your proposed forms. A first linguistic approach to LAb[au]'s work, based on an analysis of decomposition into significant elements, allows us to question your use of signs as well as your link to semiotics and immanence. The idea is to understand to which extent these two dimensions of general perception and analytic methods allow us to fully understand your artistic production.


Indeed, it is interesting to make the difference between "abstract" and "concrete" since we consider our work as being the expression of a concrete language, in the sense that Theo Van Doesburg explains in his manifesto: "Nothing is more concrete than a pencil line on paper or a colour".

We do not make abstraction of a subject since we explore the terms, processes and elements that constitute a work of art such as the monochrome, painting, colour... Our interest in terminology leads us to differentiate between "abstract" and "concrete" and extract from their definitions the subjects of our work. This is obviously not new, the works of conceptual abstraction of Sol LeWitt and Frank Stella, for example, focus on establishing a formal language and addressing how to implement it, such as with the use of instructions, statements and methods.

With regard to colour, it is interesting to see how the understanding and perception of colour continue to evolve as technology offers us today a whole new palette of possibilities. To mention only two, the one of programming and that of nanotechnologies, both are redefining the way we think colour, colour as information.


Many times you have created programs based on parameters of both: colour and time.


For example, a work like the chronoPrints is based on the relationship between colour and time, and more precisely the one between the three primary colours of light - red, green and blue - and the basic units of time - hours, minutes and seconds. From this assignment emerge chromatic gradients that evolve according to the twenty-four hours of a day. When we see them one next to the other, we see the extent of this colorimetric progression. Even if this set-up is one of pure mathematical logic, the vibration of colours gives the work a pictorial dimension that appeals to us beyond this rational principle by giving the subject a symbolic and poetic dimension. These optic effects are not of our main concern but we remain interested in them since they offer a broader and not necessarily contradictory reading and experience.

We like to put this work in relation to Claude Monet's paintings which bring us back to the opposition between “concrete” and “abstract”. When Monet paints the series of Waterlilies he paints the same motif at different times of the day and in different seasons of the year in order to capture the vibration of colour; he abstracts the motif to set time to colour, an impression. The chronoPrints capture time through the means of colour, but without relying on an external subject. We are not dealing with an impression but with a concrete formalisation the accuracy and finesse of which can only be achieved through programming.

The notion of time is recurrent in all of our work in form of a concept, a parameter, or a structure. These three very different levels of reading express once more the way in which we intertwine time and language.


We can therefore consider that the colour of an object reflects, at a given moment, the way in which we perceive the relationship of this object to the light that surrounds it... When working on these relationships between perception and interaction, is it LAb[au]'s intention to research optical phenomena and is there a link with kinetic art?


Let's take the series origamiPermutations as an example. The project was initially conceived as one dealing with a formal grammar, but once realised, we discovered it created optical phenomena. The spectator’s eye starts to recognize different shapes and patterns and literally begins to travel over the surface of the work. The conception of the work thus evolved involving shape recognition in combination with this invented, coded language, resulting in a form of writing between perception and cognition. 

Many of our works combine these two aspects, which is why our work can sometimes be related to optic or kinetic art. But if we compare our work to that of an artist such as Victor Vasarely, an emblematic figure of such art in motion, we are less interested in the exploration of optical phenomena than in the research on what he called his ‘alphabet’. It is more in the methodology, which is also that of language, that we approach these concerns.


'Concept Art', was first introduced in 1961 Henry Flynt entitled his essay “Concept Art” and stated this term meaning an art where the material is the concept and the beauty of which is similar to that of mathematical formulas. This differs from the later term “conceptual art”. Could your approach be related to the meaning of Henry Flynt's original term?


The mentioned works are the result of an idea that we translate into a program, a logical language. We often see the results only at the end of this process, when the program is executed. The phenomenon of serendipity is part of our work which focuses on the process rather than the realisation of a predefined output. At this stage, we are approaching Flynt’s notion, even more since our work is auto-referential reasoning investigating what art is and the processes that make a work of art. 

Programming involves logic, for example, the origami series employs mathematical formulas and principles such as "tessellation" and "permutation" which require algorithms that we develop. But unlike Flynt, we do not believe that mathematical systems are an expression of truth or of any universal beauty. With regard to this analogy, we perceive beauty rather as being related to time, the essence of a very specific period in time. As such, we approach aesthetics from the angle of linguistics, at the level of a metalanguage that incorporates the signs, codes, and thinking of an era. Consequently, for us ‘beauty’ is not an absolute notion but the expression of a Zeitgeist.


It becomes clear that you bring us to the field of semiotics. Your projects tend to explore signs and systems of meaning, employing logic, if not mathematical, then at least systematic. Are they all based on programming?


Linguistic reasoning is the basis of our artistic work. We approach it in different manners such as through the exploration of the relationship between code and text, the creation of a formal language, terminology, or even the question of sign-forms. These different aspects have already been addressed in the 60s in conceptual art and concrete poetry as they are at the origin of the communication design developed at the ‘Ulmer Schule’. They are the roots of our artistic thinking, combining information and communication theories (Max Bense…) with system theories ranging from cybernetics to phenomenology to the philosophy of language (Wittgenstein…). 

If we pursue this reasoning, we note that technologies always have modified signs, and as such, it is useful to explore them in order to anchor them in our actual world. To illustrate this relationship between signs and technology, the work modernTimes juxtaposes two clocks. The mechanical one, invented in the 14th century, is put alongside the digital one, invented in the 1960s. What is important to us in this juxtaposition is that the way these objects are made shows more than just time; they are icons of their time, of a conception/perception of the world rooted in a specific time. 

In the project Good Luck, the genetically modified clover field results in the elimination of luck. The lucky exception loses all its value since these programmed plants produce mainly four-leaf clovers. It is fascinating to observe the public's behaviour faced with this loss. These two projects render the relationship between technology and sign visible and further place the argument in the field of art.


This brings us to the title of the exhibition: If Then Else, extending logic to language.


We have chosen this title because it employs a common expression in programming within an artistic context. The words If Then Else hang as a neon sign in the exhibition space, inviting the viewer to complete the conditional phrase with his own conditional clauses. 

The work is inspired by Wittgenstein's philosophy of language, analysing such conditional phrases as a form of logic in our language, i.e. how language incorporates logic with the Boolean operation - true/false. The title of our show allows us to draw a connection between the abstract world of logic and the concrete one of language. Moreover, this work underlines the link we can make between conceptual and algorithmic art through language, a relationship that characterises our work.


Through this relationship between program and protocol, your sculptures become modular structures: constructions that repeat and order the same unity by following principles of progression or geometric variations, as with Sol LeWitt.  For you is the work of art only an illustration of an idea? An idea, freed from its material details and its limits in space that could develop infinitely?


There are two elements that we extract from Sol LeWitt's work. On one hand, there is combinatory logic. In “The Variation of a Cube: he shows all the combinations of the edges of a cube. It is extremely systemic but also process-oriented, even if it does not employ computer programming. On the other hand, there is the principle of instruction; in his Wall drawings, the written description defines the realisation/execution of the work. 

LAb[au] clearly sees here the beginning of programming principles in art. Today, we initiate processes through code, a method used in the project origamiLexicon. Every single page of the series is a step, iteration, of a program that describes the transition from a blank white page to a filled black page by following a given rule. Each new rule, each new attempt, becomes a chapter in a shelf. Over time, the whole project becomes a kind of library, a lexicon, of all the possible manners in which to achieve the simple task of filling a page.

This project follows in a way the concept of inverted logic: deducing from programming logic written instructions by simultaneously showing the outcome as the operations which led to it. The work places a simple and elementary artistic gesture - drawing - and the blank page, as being the starting point of any artistic work, at the heart of the artwork. As such, we address the ability of language to describe the pictorial, thus indirectly addressing also the limit of language to embody artistic work.


One wonders if your interest in seriality aims to demonstrate the extent of the system's logic. Most of your pieces result from systemic thinking, explored either through a set of combinations or via a protocol. And, if they always seem to be based on computer programs, and not on a daily practice linked to routine, is it in order to explore machine language?


In general, seriality results from combination, variation and permutation in the field of art, deriving from systemic thinking but often hiding another aspect that characterises many artworks from the 60s: the ritual. Sol LeWitt’s "Wall Paintings", Hanne Darboven’s immense series, and Opalka’s infinite chains of numbers all incorporate this extreme ritualization. Such asceticism, which remains fascinating, could also be seen as the opposite of logic or linguistic principles, and rather as the performance of obsessive figures. 

In the age of microprocessors, it is the procedural development of a system and its logic of calculation that stimulates our artistic work. This no longer involves an obsessional practice but uses the means of technology to explore time, progression and repetition however without losing authenticity or substance. 

In LAb[au]’s practice, seriality results rather from the wish to document all the intermediate steps of a process, which is necessary to its understanding. Consequently, the number of iterations is an important aspect of our work. We use the binary and hexadecimal systems - 4, 8, 16, 32, 64 - to translate numerical logic into visual language. It is a consequence of understanding and coherence, presenting the work of art as an object communicating through logic and signs.


More fundamentally, we understand through this exchange, that your approach revolves around the question of language, like Joseph Kosuth or the Art & Language movement, for whom Conceptual Art is circumscribed by the means of logic focused on the tautological assumptions defining art and nothing but art. The purpose of this artistic activity is to reject any metaphysical consideration evolving only in the field of finite systems.


Our approach is a semantic and semiotic reading related to aesthetics, always operating at this metalevel of language. Approaching art in this manner leads us to the codes and structures of the system ‘art’ which operate between the signified and the signifier. But by declaring what we already know and see, conceptual artists introduced ‘tautology’ into the discourse which operates within a defined and finite system, that of language. Combining both approaches, we deconstruct meaning; this post-structuralist reading, this field of linguistics is part of our vocabulary. 

For example, one of our recent works is a painting that alternates between black and white but uses only one pigment. Is it then still a monochrome? This question is just one of definition, perhaps purely rhetorical, but which allows us today to revisit this tradition of painting, the monochrome being a well-established practice in the art. This re-contextualisation plays on this tautological assumption and as such it allows us to address the changes that technology is bringing. The painting, being one and it's opposite at the same time, also allows a more associative, poetic reading. As such, our approach oscillates between structural thinking and personal interpretation, a duality that is fully acknowledged.


However, even if this distinction may seem subtle through the opposition of the two conceptual directions evoked, between the sign and the tautology, it is the choice of the infinite or the finite that is at stake. It looks like your work slips from one to the other.


As mentioned, the processes we set up involve a series of iterations with which we can play almost infinitely, but which take place in a finite system fixed from the beginning. We are therefore in between an infinite number of combinations and a finite one of a logical system. It is essential in this relationship that the two directions appear in our work. 

This positioning would be best illustrated with your work One of a Billion Years.

The work One of a Billion Years uses a well-known device, consisting of a 16-segment display. This technology dates back to the beginning of the information age and was developed to dynamically display alphanumeric symbols. We discovered that the display can create 226,000 combinations and only a small number of symbols are recognisable, whereas the other combinations are only glyphs but belong to the same system. In order to display all the possible combinations of the system, it would take billions of years. We decided to plot all the random combinations that the display can produce in one year when generating a unique combination every hour. The result is a wall 10 meters long and a pedestal showing a set of 100 books, placing the plots of time within the scale of a century. The title One of a Billion Years formalises this relationship between scale and time. 


The title and scale of this work obviously evoke that of On Kawara, “One Million Years”...


Yes, our work can be related to On Kawara’s if we abstract the artist as a medium/subject and his daily routine, which is crucial in the understanding of his work. The title of our work refers more to the immensity of a system, to its vastness. When the viewer stands in front of our installation, he has to decipher its meaning and when he grasps it, he realises that he is facing a tiny fragment of an almost infinite set of combinations. From a simple point emerges an enormous complexity.  Introducing the parameter of ‘time’ allows a philosophical dimension, essential when researching the notion of ‘meaning’.


Rather than producing a fragment, wouldn’t a statement or a setting have been enough for this piece? What are you researching in this spatial and temporal dimension?


The vastness of the work is important because we are dealing with measurements and their experience. It is important that the viewer walks along the wall so that it takes him ‘really’ time to experience it. The system is able to produce combinations in an amount that goes far beyond what could be experienced in a century, over a lifetime. The title thus puts into perspective the duration of a day or an hour in relation to the existence of the universe. Behind these glyphs are numbers, just zeros and ones, the vastness of information and its reception, both intrinsic to the perception and the semiotics of the work. This recalls Borges’s ‘Library of Babel’ and has even motivated us to publish books, in order to approach the scale in another format. Our objective is to set up a series of shelves, a library of time, in order to connect the finite with the infinite.


LAb[au]'s work researches signs and is clearly situated between semiotics and aesthetics. Some works, such as “365”, a work in a public space, address the relationship between the viewer and the artwork through perception.


The title of public artwork 365 refers to the number of days in the year, which defines its temporal frame. The project consists of a large display installed on a building facing the train station in Charleroi, Belgium. It has the scale of an urban sign and produces a random 8-character word every day. The displayed word calls citizens to make the link between the word and the urban context, whereas the system itself is solely based on combinatory logic. It randomly generates a first letter, and then a second letter until it finds an existing word. The work also refers to the gap between the signifier and the signified, hopefully disrupting the citizens’ mundane routine of “metro-boulot-dodo”.

The permanent artwork "Zäitwoert" on the facade of the Casino de Luxembourg continues this principle. In this work, the random word generator apprehends combinatory logic and plays on the meaning of the word casino, that of gambling and probability.


If this undermining of meaning and double reading, and the relationship between the signified and the signifier, is intrinsic to your work, what role does programming play?                                                                                                                                                                        


These works illustrate our interest in autopoietic systems and concrete poetry, in which meaning is conveyed through the format or the process of writing. The viewer has to put aside traditional, literal reading and instead look for the meaning in the setting. Our interest in means of displaying information is further motivated since this places art in the field of communication and allows us to explore their sonic information, besides the textual or visual one. 

For example, the installation signalToNoise consists of 512 split flaps formerly used in train stations and airports. These mechanical devices allow us to experience waiting time in a very particular manner. It takes time for the information to be updated, accompanied by the noise that increases the sensation of the formalisation of information.

In this work, the installation devices constantly rotate at a variable speed due to the computational limitations of the algorithm, which generates letters and must identify from the maze of letters the appearance of a meaningful word. The constant flow of random words confronts the viewer with an infinite number of meanings and invites him to immerse himself in a sonic concrete poem, to be right at the centre of the calculation process of an autopoietic machine.  There was a very particular moment when the machine displayed the words "Why God Dies". This instance was in a way evidence of the relationship between the machine and ourselves as individuals/humans. From the random logic of the system emerges what we had never imagined. Fortunately, we managed to take a photo when this happened to freeze that Nietzschean moment. 

The installation pi in the exhibition follows a similar principle, taking the infinite string of numbers of Pi and translating it into letters to look up words. The decoding of Pi, often referred to as a universal number, becomes the metaphor of an absurd attempt at decoding the universe, of a rational understanding of the world. 


Wouldn't LAb[au]’s assimilation to concrete art or, better, concrete poetry, ultimately not be research on coded language? An analytic exploration of machine language?


With the arrival of the computer, an essential shift has taken place with regard to semiotics. Computing is based on binary language which, one must remember, is merely a series of zeros and ones. It is just data that can be decoded in any form of information such as text, colour, or sound. All forms of media are reduced to a string of numbers. This questions both the taxonomy of media and the relationship that can be established between them.

Recently we realised a project called Deep Blue.  It is based on this principle of transcoding. Here, we start with a colour and encode it into binary numbers and then decode it as alphanumeric characters. This transcoding is no longer based on analogies but is on a structural link. The term ‘transcoding’ belongs to the technological field but has turned into a new cultural paradigm and triggers our interest in its relevance to the language of art dealing with our contemporary state/world.

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