Coding the Classical
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Coding the Classical

The word code is acquiring a new meaning for me; and as it shifts from generic associations like Morse code and dress code, in recent months it has been all about digital application: the building blocks of art work. Technology offers art limitless possibilities that connect to our lives in contemporary times and as hybrid artists explore altered reality, artificial reality, robotics and so forth, it creates an experiential form that engages with all the multiple senses.

In Projection Mapping, a complex version of projection, the artist/coder marks out spaces on the surface for simultaneous yet separate projections. I remember when I first saw it, possibly in a primary form, it was at the Contemporary Art Museum in Valencia in the 1990s; here projection mapping was used on an intimate scale to animate cloth doll faces. The engaging work, not larger than eighteen inches, made the dolls appear to be in conversation with each other, oblivious to the presence of the visitors.

When you step into a work of altered reality, the vision inside the goggles transport you into another realm where the visual, sound and touch can all come into play. My first moving experience was with Shehzad Dawood’s work on his memory of the American Center Library, Karachi, opposite Frere Hall which existed in the 1970s/ 80s. With it, I entered a virtual place of memory. I could navigate between the bookshelves, choosing my own path, even look at random book titles. In the end, just before you exit, it takes you into a chai-khana where a blast takes place and blows up everything. This piece about recent history of global polarization and changing scenarios was a strong evocation of nostalgia and loss.

Creating a seamless environment with projection, where the walls all melt into a formless space when you step into It, was a tech/animation work installed in the Japanese Pavilion at the Venice Biennale some ten years ago. I found myself in an animated narrative of dense black and vivid white characters and landscapes that moved around the viewer at a dizzying speed. Soon the person begins to perceive the space as formless and infinite. This was created by well stitched multiple projections, coded into one flow, to transport people into the fecund creative mind of its creator.

Technology is increasingly being used in art works to connect the audience with the global community in real time, to encourage participation in shaping the artistic experience that is both collaborative and universal. Some works do not start on the drawing board but with statistical data files; the big and small numbers are then visualized into patterns and shapes. Such data-driven art can tap into demographic information, for example like statistics of the annual use of electricity in a city; the variation in the data sparks concepts that turn into visuals. This direction has led to collaborations with statisticians, scientists and researches and cut across previous divides.

Hybrid art can combine conventional mediums like paintings and sculpture as a reference, and expand the experience through altered reality as it takes on a life of its own. Iconic works are re-interpreted for a technology-led audience experience; classical music too can be coded into a synthesis that retains the past as a part of the present. Shahzia Sikander’s Parallax, is an immersive animation piece where you find references to her previous work, all constantly evolving in a void that combines earth and the outer space into which forms fragment and regroup, held together by a stunning musical score. In Pakistan, Rashid Rana explored digital media with pixels by creating enormous collages of thousands of actual images; this experiment, in its later phase was coded into moving pixels to tease the eye with new illusions.

Illusion or sairaab has always been central to art, from the interpretation of three dimensional on the two dimensional surface or de-constructing realism with cubism. It has evoked the absurd with a single object in Dadaism or taken off into an unfolding dreamscape with Surrealism. At home Neo-miniature has pushed the aesthetic of Miniature Painting into inventive areas creating art that belong to the here and now with technology. The trajectory from the artist’s imagination to the coding software becomes a space of immense possibility where robotics, altered reality, artificial intelligence become a part of the ever expanding toolbox that links the known to the unknown.

Title image: Rashid Rana, Overt Covert (Transliteration Series), 2016, C Print + DIASEC, 350 cm x 225 cm


Niilofur Farrukh is a Karachi based art interventionist whose seminal initiatives have expanded the space for art publication, curation and public art in Pakistan. Her primary interest lies in issues of decolonization and as a writer/curator her focus has been on the excavation of lost interdisciplinary connections within the cultural matrix. She has several books to her credit and has been a columnist with Dawn and Newsline. The cornerstone of her curatorial practice underlines a more inclusive social dialogue through art in public spaces, something she is fully committed to as the CEO of the Karachi Biennale.

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