Some ideas regarding contemporary art composition

I. There is an increasing disconnect between language and emotion. Contemporary digital language promotes functionality at the expense of emotion, sympathy and affect as a result of the increasing acceleration of cyberspace and the mediation of social relations.

Franco Berardi’s latest book takes us through a formidable tour de force in analyzing contemporaneity from this perspective: “with the digital we have reached the end-point of the process of abstraction, and an apex in the increasing dissociation of understanding from empathy”1.

While resistance to technological innovation is futile and reactionary, by vindicating the figure of Malinche as a symbol of subjection but also of emergence of a new world, Berardi proposes that only by recognizing that our old world has collapsed and will never come back we can start imagining a new one.

These considerations are of the utmost importance for anybody involved in the artistic practice as they directly point to four questions that haunt art production today:

How to address the confusion, disintegration and fracture so characteristic of our times? How to resist the deconstructive, defeatist drive prevalent in post-modern thinking? Which are the deep implications of digitalization and, more broadly, the mathematization of the world? And, finally, how could art contribute to the imagination of the new forms for empathy and affect?

II. Composition has always been a key structure upon which art builds coherent meaning. In the last two decades composition seems to have been set aside as deconstruction, post-medium discourse and relativization, coupled with the tacit acceptance of the market as a final authority, dominate the artistic landscape. It is a fair question to ask whether under a semio-capitalist regime composition is relevant anymore.

Some years ago Bruno Latour proposed “compositionism” as an alternative to the modernist world: “From universalism (compositionism) takes up the task of building a common world; from relativism, the certainty that this common world has to be built from utterly heterogeneous parts that will never make a whole, but at best a fragile, revisable and diverse composite material”2. And in a recent text he adds: ”Composition may be a plausible alternative to modernization. What can no longer be modernized, what has been post modernized to bits and pieces, can still be composed”3.

There are many evocative concepts contained in these two brief paragraphs.

As with many other issues, by addressing composition of an artwork, we should perhaps start by thinking about the material forces that underlie the transformations of our social beings. These transformations are today unquestionably led by science and technology (including financial technology, which prioritizes and allocates economic resources). By surveying how science and technology are changing its paradigms in specific areas of concern we might gain inspiration about how to start working on the four questions raised above.

In this brief text I would like to propose the possibility of thinking about contemporary art composition by reviewing some advances of Material Science and in particular the conceptual underpinnings of Composite Materials. In describing some of their most salient characteristics, I will try to underline which elements may be helpful tools for art composition today.

III. Composites is an extremely vigorous area of research with the potential for thoroughly transforming our physical world. It’s latest advances point to the creation of robotic composites (materials that integrate sensing, actuation, computation, and communication)4 and, at a deeper level, to the digitalization of matter.

Neil Gershenfeld addresses new ways of constructing our physical world: “The metrology coming from the parts, detecting and correcting errors, joining dissimilar materials, disconnecting, reusing components – those are the things Shannon and Von Neumann taught us. They are digital fabrication. But the crucial distinction is that the code is not in the computer, it is in the materials themselves. It’s digitizing physical reality5.

While our social life seems increasingly confused and fractured, engineering is being revolutionized by integration and composition. Disregarding the search for an optimal, single solution, Material Science is focused on the efficient identification and correction of errors by being the component parts themselves the agents of improvement. It is a dynamic, decentralized, revisable, networked structure that allows envisioning a new physical world.

At a very basic level, Composites could be defined as several materials with markedly different physical and chemical properties combined in a way that they act in concert, yet remain separate and distinct at some level because they don’t fully merge or dissolve into one another 6.

New properties emerge as a result of the combination of dissimilar components to make a new entity. While retaining the individual contributions of the materials, it is the properties arising from their interactions that predominate.

Built on pre-existent materials, a new object is created not through fusion but through interaction. Diverse materials work together through linkages and connections that spread and change with time and through space. While recognizing the contribution of each component, it is the predominance of conjunction the determinant element in the construction of new objects.

The component materials of a composite are categorized as matrix or reinforcement. Composites may also include fillers, additives and core materials.

A multiplicity of diverse components, extracted from a saturated world of material and immaterial objects, are rearranged as temporary configurations to perform a particular function, to resolve a specific physical problem. Composites are non-universal as they are designed for the particular and are non-relativist as they are constructed for optimization.

The matrix acts as a homogeneous material in which the reinforcement system of a composite is embedded. It serves two main purposes: binding the reinforcement phases in place and deforming to distribute the stresses among the constituent reinforcement materials.

The matrix binds and deforms. The matrix creates a connective space by binding heterogeneity into a system in which its components can coexist and work together. Such coexistence is achieved not by the components’ dissolution but by deformation. Deformation has to occur if conjunction is to happen.

When organic and inorganic components are combined the resulting objects are called Hybrid Composites. Hybrids have found the widest applications in engineering today as provide significant advantages to traditional composites 7.

Hybrid comes from the Latin word hybrida, originated from the Greek word for “outrage” and is also related to the meaning “mongrel”. It refers to the unnatural, misbegotten pairing of extremely diverse elements. The combination of organic and inorganic, the co-existence of analog and digital, the pairing of manual and cybernetic,…, might be successful hybridizations that point towards a cyborgian model.

Genetic algorithms are being used to design and construct composites. They are search procedures that imitate biological evolution, working on populations of designs and evolving them towards improved performance. Genetic algorithms employ the binary code to design variables and deal efficiently with combinatorial problems, producing a multitude of alternative solutions 8.

The use of mathematics to address artistic compositional problems had a long history beginning by Agatharchus up to De Stijl 9. The contemporary coding and algorithmic creation of images is an unavoidable step towards the digitization of the physical world in which art should actively participate 10.

The attributes that define a particular genetic algorithm include coding, selection, crossover, and mutation each having many forms of implementation, resulting in a nearly infinite variety of possible outcomes.

While mathematics seemed to infer a deterministic understanding of the world, its developments of the last century have established its probabilistic, indeterminate fundamental nature. Qualifying chance, randomness and uncertainty as intrinsic features of the physical world has resulted in intense debates about agency and free will 11. Digitization is a driving force in the transformation of our world.

Hybrid nano layered composites represent the latest advance in Materials Science. MIT researchers announced in 2016 the creation of composites containing hundreds of layers of atomic dimensions 12 13. Engineering has already reached the technology for elementary particles manipulation. Quantum physics is being used as a tool for the understanding of the nature of consciousness and the relationship between mind and matter 14. It is also being used to refine our understanding of compositionality by utilizing formal frameworks developed for analyzing composite systems in quantum theory 15.

Science has long established the intrinsic instability of complex systems, the workings of entropy in undermining order. It also has established the physical impossibility of identical reproduction. Through the layering of diverse material and immaterial elements, contemporary composition does not submit to an established order nor searches for coherence. Art composition might illuminate the necessary glitches of a future technological totality through which empathy and affect survive.

  1. Franco Bifo Berardi, And Phenomenology of the End (MIT Press, 2015).
  2. Bruno Latour, An Attempt at a “Compositionist Manifesto” (New Literary History, 2010).
  3. Bruno Latour, Some Experiments in Art and Politics, The Internet does not Exist (Sternberg Press, 2015).
  4. McEvoy & Correll, Materials that couple sensing, actuation, computation, and communications (Science  347, Issue 6228, 2015).
  5. Digital Reality, a conversation with Neil Gershenfeld (Edge, 2015).
  6. American Composites Manufacturers Association (, 2017).
  7. Drisko & Sanchez, Hybridization in Materials Science (European Journal of Inorganic Chemistry, 2012).
  8. T. Haftka, Genetic Algorithms for Optimization of Composite Laminates; Mechanics of Composite Materials and Structures (Springer, 1999).
  9. Lynn Gamwell, Mathematics and Art: A cultural History (Priceton University, 2015).
  10. Max de Esteban, Cyborg Art: Art in the bio-cybernetic era (, 2014).
  11. Ted Honderich, After Compatibilism and Incompatibilism (, University College London, 2016).
  12. Kim, Lee, Yeom, Shin, Kim, Cui, Kysar, Hone, Jung, Jeon & Han, Strengthening effect of single-atomic-layer graphene in metal–graphene nano layered composites (Nature, Article number 2114, 2013).
  13. Chandler, Method to stack hundreds of nanoscale layers could open new vistas in materials science (MIT News, 2016).
  14. Atmanspacher, Quantum Approaches to Consciousness (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2015).
  15. Bruza, Kitto, Ramm & Sitbon, A probabilistic framework for analyzing the compositionality of conceptual combinations (Journal of Mathematical Psychology, 2013).