“I'll never be what you call a programmer. I surely need technical skills to do what I do, but it is not the goal at all.”

The promise behind this limitation may be the underlying formula to Clauss’s success: if technology is not the actual aim but a means to express ideas and feelings, technical and aesthetic intelligence bind together toward a promising unity.

About the End of Painting and Paintings as Text by Roberto Simanowski

1. Skilled Workers as Artists

The arrival of software set an end to complaints about the end of art. Engineers have provided artists with new material to work on and to exhaust themselves with. Whomever had been tired of conceptual art found a new field to devote their energy. Learning programming honours the artes mechanicae again, on which popular definitions of art are based such as “Kunst kommt von Können” (art evolves from skills). Some already consider the programmers the actual artists to be ranked over the pure “idea givers”, who do not know how to materialize their concepts: Claus Oldenburg as windbag, his carpenter as genius? Triumph of the hands over brains, technical over aesthetic intelligence? Or will both once again unite?

The Frenchman Nicolas Clauss is an example of someone who shifted from painting, photography, and video to programming and digital multimedia. His website – which opened in spring 2001 appearing as its own gallery with almost 50 pieces by the end of 2002 – introduces Clauss as a: “Paris based painter, who stopped traditional painting to use the Internet as a canvas”. Since this end of being a traditional painter, Clauss’s work has found worldwide admiration (flyingpuppet.com/press.htm). Viewers and critics especially love his dancing stick figures in a surrealistic landscape, which one can move on the screen with one’s hand on the mouse, brushing them against each other, hence initiating another dance and another sound line by Thomas Le Saulnier or Jean-Jacques Birgé. Here users graduate to being choreographers and composers; and if they are competent with computer games they may manage to have all figures dancing and all sound lines playing at once (see "Legato" or "Cellos" or "Moontribe" or "Roundabout").

In view of such magical, hypnotic use of software one hardly believes that Clauss “[is] not interested in code", as he states in an interview with Jim Andrews, and does not consider himself to be a programmer at all, as he declares in an interview with Randy Adams: “I'll never be what you call a programmer. I surely need technical skills to do what I do, but it is not the goal at all.”

The promise behind this limitation may be the underlying formula to Clauss’s success: if technology is not the actual aim but a means to express ideas and feelings, technical and aesthetic intelligence bind together toward a promising unity.

Clauss’s specialization is interactive choreography and interactive image perception. Of course, here interaction means more than what normally happens as inner dialog between the viewer and the work. Since the rise of electronic media, paintings have been created which are different not in content (therefore they do not need new media, just a new era in art history), but in presentation. Clauss calls it the “gestural dimension,” which pulls the viewer into the painting.

2. Crumbling Paintings

The perceiver’s immersion in the image is to be experienced as early as in "Zerseher" (“Disviewer”) by Joachim Sauter and Dirk Lüsebrink in 1992. Here the visitors destroy a painting by looking at it. The parts of the picture they look at fade under their gaze. This effect is produced by presenting the painting on a monitor and by a computer, which pinpoints the viewer's eyes and erases those parts of the painting the visitor is looking at. And of course, in such a digital environment the painting can easily be reset again.

Such eyetracking technology can be applied to every painting. The fact that Sauter and Lüsebrink chose “Boy with a child-drawing in his hand” by Francesco Carotto may have justified even more why the installation "Zerseher" was awarded with the Prix Ars Electronica in the category of interactive art. For with Carotto’s painting, the impressive technical effect accompanies an appropriately meaningful frame of associations. One can understand this installation for what it is: it changes the impact the images normally have on their perceivers. This change could be understood as freeing the perceivers from their passive role of perception. However, such a perspective would be as shortsighted as it was in the hypertext-debate of the early 90’s in which the mechanical involvement of choosing links was described as an “active” position and ranked over the intellectual involvement of pure perception as a “passive” position. Sauter’s and Lüsebrink’s installation has more potential than such an approach would allow one to see. One has to reflect on the physical action in its entire complexity.

"Zerseher" is meta reflexive in showing its viewer a person looking at a painting. Such mise-en-abyme – which is readily found in the cinema or the novel [1] – is as popular as it is irritating. Since it is a child looking at a children’s drawing, the allusion is doubled. It thematizes an innocence of both drawing and viewing which has been lost long before the destructive "Zerseher" by Sauter and Lüsebrink. We (at least in the western world) are “adults” in the history of looking and painting. Our eyes have seen everything not only impressionism, which caused scandals once, but even the most abstract presentation seems flat to us. Rescue lies, once again, in the environment of painting, in focusing on presentation of presentation. Since the readymade and the white square on white canvas all have been done already. A technology to “disview” paintings appears just in time – and to “disview” a child looking at a children’s drawing seems to be the right symbol to express such a situation: The "Zerseher" is not as much the disviewing of a painting as a view of painting and viewing.

At a phylogenetic rather than an ontogenetic level, such disviewing of the innocent view can be read as a comment on the evolution of our own perception. The fact that the observed disappears in the process of our observation can be understood by the way that we lose the objects in approaching them. In bringing all our acquired concepts and perspectives to these objects we only read ourselves into them – in contrast with children, who may still be open to the world. The theory of constructivism claims that our perception is governed by our self-referential, rather closed cognitive system. Constructivists must love a piece like the "Zerseher."

There are other types of destructive images, like Wolf Kahlen’s self portrait "Selfless", an installation of a photograph which materializes selflessness in three steps. First, one sees the negative of a portrait of Kahlen from 1969, which looks like a mosaic missing a lot of pieces. These pieces have been taken away every time a visitor came to the site. On a second, blank page the visitors then find their “personal pixel” at its original position within the photograph. This image is numbered and signed by Kahlen to be printed out; here the numbered, signed, and printed copy is not without humour. On a third page all the pixels taken away by visitors add up to the positive version of Kahlen’s portrait. The transfer from the first to the third involves the disappearance and reappearance of Kahlen’s self, his transformation from the negative into the positive print. The viewer’s view (or rather, their click) “disviews” the image only in order to reset it in its proper version. "Selfless" is a romantic project, which (re)creates the author’s self as a result of a collaborative user action.

Both versions of interaction in the "Zerseher" and "Selfless" share a common trait; the perceivers do not “own” the moment of perception anymore. Their observation is observed either directly, resulting in image destruction, or indirectly in the process of image reconstruction. The viewer is within the image; the freedom and peace of contemplation, which was possible even in front of the most abstract, irritating painting, is lost. Thus, a very different end of painting has arrived than what has been declared in the course of art history so far. Nicolas Clauss dedicates one of his first digital paintings to this very aspect.

3. Writing Images

Clauss, as well, plays with the idea of the self on his biography page. He offers a multiple of portraits, which on mouse contact are layered with several different versions of hair and beard styles. The disconnection of mouse contact allows the last version of this layer to run-through so that finally the piece has turned into a series of variations on the same portrait. This is already a funny though suggestive comment on Clauss’s own identity. Part of this identity is that Clauss replaced the canvas with the screen.

The end of painting is verbally expressed in Clauss’s "Mechanical Brushes". This piece displays the tools of traditional painting, Clauss’s own well-used brushes, palette knives and spoons; all still full of paint as if they were in the middle of a job. But the subtitle says: “A moving still life with used brushes (a provisory goodbye to painting)”. While these brushes may have a glorious past, they do not seem to have any future (though the adjective "provisory" leaves room for hope). Indeed, they only serve as background for a handwritten text. The text itself moves like a brush back and forth over the page, rendering itself invisible over the black background color around the actual brushes.

"Mechanical Brushes" could easily have been a bold statement with static text: as a presentation of painting tools already useless for their own representation as a photograph. In this form, "Mechanical Brushes" could very well be exhibited in a traditional gallery as a traditional image reiterating the impact of photography on painting. Of course, the animation requires the digital medium, as do the interactivity and sound (if one moves the mouse over the image, the brushes begin to rotate to a mechanical sound). The painting tools have become a mechanical construction, which visually and conceptually are reminiscent of Futurism. At the beginning of the 20th century, materials were used in a similar manner – that is, in ways they were not intended to be used. Elements have been animated, deconstructed and strangely rearranged. The work of Picasso or Braque comes to mind. Fernand Léger’s "Ballet mécanique" serves as an equally good example within the film medium. As Clauss points out in his interview with Adams, he already (as a “conventional” painter) used found objects “in the tradition of Duchamp with ready-mades, Schwitters with collage, or Rauschenberg with »combine paintings«.” Is Clauss’s brush-mechanism a revisitation of a Futuristic gesture?

"Mechanical Brushes" is undoubtedly comprehensible as a glorification of technology. Similar to Léger’s "Ballet mécanique," this glorification takes place in terms of content and method as well. Clauss’s old tools are not only nailed (of course just virtually—the real brushes remain untouched for the promised return to painting) and misused as reading background. The new medium shows the new possibilities already in action. The statement is performative; the manifesto is its own artifact. The message is already to be found in this artifact’s subtitle: "a moving still life." The encountered animation explains the contradiction: digital painting is painting in time; it is not just a fixed moment of the past, for it inhabits future moments to be revealed in the interaction with the viewers. Digital painting is potentially kinetic. As the “still” life under discussion shows, such painting in time is not silent either. As a consequence of such a constellation of painting, the brush no longer embodies the appropriate tool. It can only serve as a symbol of its own lack of necessity. The brush of digital images is the code; painting, in its materiality, has become text.

The digital painting contains several layers of text governing its appearance on the screen, its performance in time and its reaction to user inputs. Since at the end everything is text (colors, line, sound, action, even nailing the brushes), the paradox of such an interactive audio-visual painting is that one can transmit it (its code) easily via letter or phone, meaning one can write or speak the painting. How should one not announce the end of traditional painting in view of such conditions? How should an artist – and real artists are always challenged to push the limits of their medium – not get excited in view of such new prospects and say goodbye to painting, with a Futuristic sensibility.

4. Sign and Design

The nostalgic feeling in Clauss’s Futuristic sentimentality is revealed in the fly (and the fly flap), which one hears if one spends enough time with "Mechanical Brushes". This seems to announce the ideal of a summerhouse atelier flooded with light in contrast to keyboard and mouse at the desk in a generic information-age office. On the other hand, the fly could also be understood as a quote from Pink Floyd’s "Uma Guma," where the chase of a fly is to be heard from loudspeaker to loudspeaker thereby showing the new captivating possibilities of generically producing natural sound on a keyboard. In this view even the fly in Clauss’s manifesto would embody the Futuristic gesture.

However, why not imagine the computer at the porch of a summerhouse target for one or two flies? The summit between fly and computer is equally possible as the summit of technology and idea in digital media, which only creates something like art. Whether the latter is as probable as the former still has to be proven. Nicolas Clauss, it seems, is a good guarantor. His “deceptively simple piece,” as Adams appropriately describes "Mechanical Brushes", demonstrates the marriage of technical finesse and conceptual depth one hopes to see. This holds true for many pieces of his work as varying as "Sorcière" with the interactive burning of a witch and "Loup" with the bewildering and mystifying interactive film sequences in the attic, to name only two. Randy Adams conclusion is enthusiastic but fitting: “If you’re looking for an artist whose work successfully embraces the computer medium - look no further.”

The most fame Clauss gathered however, was for his ballet dancers. It is certainly a delight for the eye and ear reconnected to the fingertips. In "Legato" and "Cellos" only the user’s skills keep all dancers moving and all sound files playing at once. The choreography happens spontaneously on the mouse bed: if the users do not try hard enough, they will, as in Cello, neither hear music nor see dancing. Such pieces fit into an aesthetic of interaction, which fulfills old utopian agendas of viewer involvement. Therefore such pieces are often applauded quite categorically. However, they also always risk combining physical activity with cognitive passivity. One feels involved, considers the piece fascinating and certainly will recommend it – but sometimes this is all one has to say about it. When Adams asks about the playfulness of many of his pieces Clauss declares:

“Legato is cute, but far from me now. I was experimenting with tools and interactivity. But slowly, and especially for a year now, I have returned to things more in tune with my real concerns. Probably more foreboding as you say, more deep I hope …”

This statement may surprise. However, it responds to the flaw of the new medium, in which spectacle and contemplation wrestle for predominance.

Then again, Clauss, as a painter, is not only interested in concepts and contemplation. This becomes clear in the further course of the interview:

“I like playing with ideas and concepts but I see them as bonus. I believe in the depth of matter, I believe art –for my concern, I respect other approaches– is something which takes you in another dimension far away from rational ideas, right into emotion, poetry, magic and probably some kind of truth. I like improvised music such as free jazz and find that people expect much more conceptual work from artists than from musicians.”

This perspective, which avoids basing art on meaningful signs, reveals that “Clauss’s attention to subtle detail,” as Adams notes with respect to "Mechanical Brushes", does not aim to give deep meaning to all possible details. As the enquiry proves, in "Mechanical Brushes" Clauss did not use a significant quote from art history but an accidental text “only used [...] as a pictorial element with its pictorial qualities”. One may bemoan such an approach, considered that a quote by say Cezanne or Picasso concerning new ways of painting would have strengthened the complexity and depth of the announced “goodbye to painting”. However, it reminds us that not everything in art refers to something other than itself: what may be received as a sign sometimes is meant to serve only as design. It is reminiscent of the debate of formal aesthetics in the 1910’s when the sign in painting (as well as literature) [2] was no longer meant to represent something else (a real object, a concept, a myth) in the production of meaning. The visual sign was considered self-valuable. It was no longer subordinated to a meaning-bearing role, but freed to the “pure visual”. Such liberation from dependence on the figure, from illustration of anything else than itself, makes painting similar to music, as Michel Seuphor notes (Abstract Painting, New York: Abrams 1965, 157f.). This seems to signify the break from conceptual work to musical improvisation, the step from rational ideas into “emotion, poetry, magic” (and thereby “probably some kind of truth”).

In this light, the accidental text in "Mechanical Brushes" may be seen as return to the avantgarde aesthetics in painting, which once solved the crisis caused by photography’s much better representational capability. What, however, would be the “pure visual” [3] in the realm of digital media? The text as pure pictorial element in an interactive work such as "Mechanical Brushes"? The code as self-sufficient presentation on the screen? The autonomous technical effect?

These questions open a new field of more general and more complex discussion, which is to be undertaken elsewhere. Here, it was only to point to this broader horizon – and to suggest we should understand the moving text in "Mechanical Brushes" as the aesthetic remainder above all explanation; like a fly meeting a computer on the kitchen table of a summerhouse.



An example from pop culture is Woody Allen's movie The Purple Rose of Cairo. In avant garde film, see Michael Snows’ Corpus Calossum. A famous example from literature is John Barth’s novella Lost in the Funhouse about the narrator Ambrose writing a story, called "Lost in the Funhouse," about the character Ambrose who is lost in the funhouse.


See Johanna Drucker: The Visible Word. Experimental Typography and Modern Art, 1909-1923, The University of Chicago Press 1994.


For the term pure visual see Johanna Drucker: The Visible Word, and Lambert Wiesing: Die Sichtbarkeit des Bildes.Geschichte und Perspektiven der formalen Ästhetik, Reinbek: Rowohlt 1997.

About the End of Painting and Paintings as Text by Roberto Simanowski
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Co-Published February 2003, New York, Rio, Berlin, Toronto