Saturday, May 12, 2007

Toys and grids

Over the past couple of months, I've been noodling with a lot of free software that doesn't have the common ingredients of gameplay. Rather, the object in each seems to be to allow the user to generate/explore/discover/compose pictures. Another thing these toys have in common is that they are marvelous demonstrations of the interplay between order and chaos. I can see how this could all look like screensaver fodder. My reply to such a jaded reaction would be that there are things in life other than points, frags, and money. The following is a short inventory of this software:

Celestia is a planetarium package. Everything is placed accurately in regards to time, space and scale. It's like a pinhole camera onto the yawning infinity of the universe. A good companion for dragging out a chaise lounge into your yard on a warm night. Versions are available for all platforms. Link.

Construo is a simple program that simulates forces on articulated structures. It seems to only be for Linux. Link.

Fyre renders Peter de Jong maps. It is also only for Linux. Link.

Xaos is a fractal navigator. After the mid-nineties craze surrounding the Mandelbrot set, I thought that if you'd seen one instance of fractal geometry, you'd seen it all. They are infinitely repeating, after all. Xaos, which has 23 different formulae, disproves this idea and demonstrates that the fractal phenomena is one of tremendous variety. No longer will I think of fractals as digital tie-dye. There are versions of Xaos for all platforms. Link.

I'm reading Rudolph Arnheim's "Dynamics of Architectural Form". In it is this idea that the universe is a series of nested spatial indices, with their delimitations based on scale, and each having an intrinsic level of chaos. So the shape of our cities are ameboid and strange, but our city blocks are simple grids. The location of a piece of art or architecture in this universal index is instrumental to its definition and effect. Architecture interfaces with the landscape and the city grid, on the large end, and people and furniture, at the small end. A painting interfaces with the space of the room and its other constituents at the large end, and a painting being a portal, it relates its limits to all its subordinate parts, at the small end. At any point, the work can skip several strata and point towards something of a vastly different scale or something not present or even extant. This is very common in paintings, but in architecture it is far less so. One dramatic exception is how architecture adapts to solar exposure, much like plants do, skipping several spatial-frameworks.
All this stuff about scale and universal context is why I see Frank Stella's new sculpture on the roof of the Met as a funky planetarium.

(pictures from Flickr)

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