Jessica Helfand | Essays

The Illusion of Certainty

Allan McCollum, Each and Every One of You, 2004. 1200 digital inkjet prints. Photograph courtesy Barbara Krakow Gallery.

Last fall, at a small gallery on West 22nd Street in New York, the artist Allan McCollum exhibited his new system for producing unique two-dimensional shapes. Developed using vector files on his home computer, McCollum organized a "system" to produce over 31,000,000,000 different shapes and has, to date, set aside 214,000,000 for creative experimentation.

But that's not all. McCollum aspires to an unprecedented scale with this system: his goal is to make enough shapes, assuming a population of approximately 9.1 billion by the year 2050, so that everyone on the planet can have one.

The shapes notwithstanding, what is it about systems that we love to hate — and hate to love?

Allan McCollum, Shapes, 2006. 144 unique monoprints. Photograph courtesy Galerie Thomas Schulte.

McCollum, who turns 63 this year, has a long-standing interest in formal replication, and his work frequently addresses questions of materiality and value. (His installations lead one to rapidly conclude that the lofty promises of modernism aren't likely to be fulfilled anytime soon: here in McCollum's orbit, more = less.) He also possesses the entrepreneurial spirit that has come to characterize a number of contemporary artists who think pluralistically about making work. His shapes, for example, can be used for many different purposes, "not only for fine art and design projects," notes his gallery's press release, "but also for various social practices: as gifts, awards, identity markers, emblems, insignias, logos, toys, souvenirs, educational tools and so forth."

The relationship between shapes and social practices is, at its core, an essential design conceit — from typographic identity to architectural megastructure, giving form to ideas is what designers do. But McCollum's project goes beyond mere morphology, embracing a kind of über-solution in its very claim. Endlessly permutable, teeming with indefinite potential, McCollum's strategic genius lies in his appeal to a culture hungry for the quick fix. The Shapes Project promises maximum gain with minimum effort: better living through geometry.

It also shares a kind of loose ancestry with a host of Nineteenth-Century modular systems — anchor blocks, Froebel blocks — once widely used as educational tools to teach the essential principles of geometry. At the same time, it offers a kind of 21st-century spin on the Tangram, an ancient Chinese dissection puzzle, which divides a square into seven pieces — five triangles, a rhombus and a square — from which countless variations can be produced. (Pieces can touch and connect, but may not overlap.) Like an alphabet, tangrams represent a system that's fundamental and fixed, yet allows for seemingly endless variation. But unlike the alphabet, shape systems like the tangram are essentially mathematical: anchored by numerical certainty, they allow for infinite permutation.

Which brings us back to McCollum's epic endeavor — and here, it's not so much the shapes themselves as the idea of the shapes, the very notion of a system of forms that's so captivating. And so unnerving. If I were to identify the one prevailing topical interest that has most surfaced in the last year — among students, in juries, at conferences and exhibitions — it would have to be this obsession with series and systems. How to identify them; how and where to introduce them; the question of whether, once a series is identified, your work is done. It's the illusion of certainty that's so mesmerizing — the idea that not everything is in flux, unfixed and mashed-up and dislocated. Systems by their very nature introduce an armature as well as a roadmap for their own completion. You look at one iteration, then two — then ten — and you get it. Once demystified, you can concentrate on other things — form, perhaps, or beauty. A glorious insect. A Trollope poem. Your lunch.

Or not. Which begs the question: does a system invite psychological repose precisely because it is so clear and comprehensible — or does it lead us to search for precisely its opposite — a kind of exotic deviation from the norm, an abstraction or glimmer of novelty? McCollum stresses that he laboriously created each of these shapes, and resists the notion that this body of work emerged from a kind of robotic (read "vector generated") process. Is artistry compromised if software is involved? Is design? Regardless of how and where he produced each variant, it's clear that The Shapes Project has defined parameters and a prognosis for growth: it may be dull, repetitive, or even inversely proportionate to what you think of as original, but to many designers, it's also oddly reassuring. (And oddly parallel to the design process, which by its very nature is systems-reliant.) And there's the rub: the rational side of our brains leads us to such solutions because they gesture to an odd kind of certainty. That tension — between structure and freedom, between form and its variation — is an essential characteristic of design thinking. That it took an artist to make it gallery-worthy is at once galling and brilliant. Better living through geometry, indeed.

Posted in: Arts + Culture, Education , Graphic Design, History

Comments [30]

Um, it's a faith system, isn't it? Religion is a system. Philosophy is a system. Even quantum physics are a system: an attempt to give logic to a meaningless void. With the pervasiveness of information systems, we've been able to undermine the rather simplistic systems that worked for quite a while. Massive systems, beyond the scope of either computational power, or simple cognition (no one has the time to look at 31 billion images) are evocative because they haven't been exposed and discarded. They approach the infinite, which is the binary opposite of death.

miss representation

I find Petrified lightning more interesting than The Shapes Project in which Allan McCollum writes an action in Adobe Illustrator to generate 31 billion shapes and calls it a system. Then he compares his project to the world population in 2050, which will be 9.1 billion and states that his system will allow him to make enough unique shapes for every person on the planet. That is as poetic as spitting into the wind and imagining a rainstorm.

Actuality as described by Kubler in The Shape of Time is the "instance between the ticks of the watch the interchronic pause when nothing is happening. It is the void between events."
Carl W. Smith

it's funny how the above poster takes a stab at this technique as a system. i'd be curious to know how HE defines system, if this isn't one. systems can be extremely simple, but simplicity or complexity are irrelevant in the definition of a system.

it's amazing how insular the design world is, that people don't even think about the fact that this concept is well worn in other areas of art, especially music. john cage, brian eno, terry riley... anyone?

what is great about this project is not the system itself, nor it's purpose. if anything those ideas inhibit the enjoyment of the system. what is great about this is that in the design of a generative system the artist has imprinted his subconcious into the work even merely in it's ideology and the result is beautiful. beautiful without the crutches of meaning or emotion that burden all art and make it imposible for the concious mind of the artist to ever produce anything as beautiful as a well worn stone, that nature in it's systems turns out so effortlessly.
chance opperator

Call it what you want, I call it compulsive. It's the art of being tedious. To bad it serves no purpose besides filling landfills and galleries.

any 'art' commentary that includes the words... "that tension between..." immediately turns me off.

is the idea groundbreaking? nature is full of uniqueness. a human being is literally infinitely more interesting than these 2d shapes will ever be. no matter how many 'art' critics say otherwise.

maybe art should always be written as 'art'.

Lame LaME lAME lame laMe LAmE LAMe lAmE

Feel free to use the above line in your own "various social practices: as gifts, awards, identity markers, emblems, insignias, logos, toys, souvenirs, educational tools and so forth."

I'm a little mystified by the hostility in the comments to this post. Perhaps people stop at the idea without giving credit to the execution. Most art begins with an idea that is, essentially, "lame" (I will paint clouds; I will dig a long trench; I will create 4'33" of silence, I will can my shit), or, god forbid, has been done before (I will paint clouds, I will photograph landfills, I will work with words) but as with all ideas it's the execution that counts. Personally, I think the shapes, all nicely framed and collected together are brilliant, and seeing them in person would fill me with both wonder and amusement (two things high on my list of art appreciation). The intent that there would be "one for every person on earth" could be viewed either as a further commentary on commercialism and its current obsession with "personalization" of product, or just plain sweet.

Whether it's a system, well, I'm unclear on how much technology is involved. If the artist actually draws each one on the computer, I would agree that it's not a system; but if the computer has been programmed to create the shapes, then the act of programming makes it a system (and, to me, more interesting).

I share this trendy interest in systems. I'm reminded of a talk I saw recently given by the type designer Lucas DeGroot. He was describing the various problems of creating kerning pairs, and then he talked about a mathematical system which he had programmed to handle thousands of kerning pairs. I leaned forward ... suddenly a tediously mind-numbing task was interesting. In fact, I dare say it was "art".
marian bantjes

It's a shame that some of the commentators here know so little about artist Allan McCollum's history that they miss the ingenious ironies that condition the purposefully poignant simplemindedness he often employs in his work. He's an artist who has spent his life supplying us with disarmingly simple ideas to counteract the standard high-mindedness and posturing of academics and connoisseurs alike -- ideas which only seem "obvious" after he has devoted such huge amounts of time and effort to make them real. Of course he knows "human beings are infinitely more interesting" than his littles shapes -- that's one of his points, for goodness sake. The "Shapes" project is about the sadness of wishful thinking, and our failures to really understand the human dimensions of quantity production, even as we try so hard to do so. His implicit invitation to collaborate with others in developing uses for the "shapes" is like a poetic figure, a humorous but touching reference to the underyling wish to do good that often underlies the entrepreneurial spirit, even as he recognizes the impracticalies involved, and the cynicism we often employ in discussing the modern commercial world. Allan McCollum is a complex artist, and this is one of his most interesting projects.

Okay, so one person's "lame" is another's "purposely poignant simplemindedness." And here, Marian is spot-on right about the hostility — so misplaced here, although passionate responses are both welcome and encouraged. I think maybe what's worth discussing, however, is the tension between replication and iteration, between the familiar and its deviation — between universal and unique. Somewhere in all of this lies the system, in all its oddly alluring glory.
Jessica Helfand

I too find it alluring, however, your closing statement struck me as right on, Jessica. That it took an artist to make it gallery-worthy is at once galling and brilliant. Galling is right, and especially so with Each and Every One of You. That a designer didn't make this gallery-worthy is unfortunate. Between typography and automation software, you'd think that at least John Maeda would have showcased this by now. (Maybe he already has.)

From a design perspective, systems are very much a spirit of the time---and not in the design with a capital 'D' way. Modern day computer users must organize thousands of digital images they capture and then store and sort them on either their computers or a public server. And when it comes time to share them through MySpace or Flickr, you create a systematic matrix of friends that tell friends that tell friends. Social networks are systems too. McCollum has succeeded in making something gallery-worthy because technology has brought us to the point of representing and replicating, without caring about making too much. As data storage devices increase their capacity, too much will never be enough. I look forward to seeing a scientist create an exhibition one day: where they use the largest hard disk known to humankind; catalog every cell that makes up every particle on our planet; visualize it with type; and allow users to individually sort them by alpha-numeral, size, shape, color, quantity, or age. The question is, will I be able to download the exhibition to my iPhone?
Jason Tselentis

As "systems" go, this doesn't seem particularly poignant or interesting - at least to me. Others too it would seem. However other than this article I know very little about the man's work, and I understand this may simply be an ongoing line of inquiry into something larger?

The thing is, the real world (i.e. outside the gallery space) is full of complex and interesting visual systems, some of vital importance, some completely impractical, and its simply not clear to me why this one should be "privileged". Perhaps I'm just missing the point. Been known to happen before!
Gary R Boodhoo

From wikipedia:

"A language is a system, used to communicate, comprised of a set of symbols and a set of rules (or grammar) by which the manipulation of these symbols is governed. These symbols can be combined productively to convey new information, distinguishing languages from other forms of communication. The word language (without an article) can also refer to the use of such systems as a phenomenon."

If youre a follower of Chomsky, youd agree that no thought occurs without language. We intellectually understand the world through the structure and forms of language; we also communicate to others our response to the world through the same structure and forms.

Its possible to say that the featured artwork is a language of forms. The presentation of the artwork stresses a universal structure in which those forms exist. The iterative nature of the forms themselves stresses variation, each iteration a unique utterance of the system of which it is a part. It's a very clear visual example of structure and play.

Are systems comforting? Is language? It's a useful tool in dealing with the unpredictablity of the world we live in, but it doesn't stop the world from happening. Music is a system of pure, meaningless forms that can be comforting. But from what I gather of the piece, its extremity also connotes a certain absurdity. Which I like. Because the forms ultimately mean nothing; a language of form only gathers utility as a tool of reference in a social context in which those references are agreed upon. An interior language with no relevance to the outside world is ultimately defined as schizophrenia, a dysfunctional interpretation of reality.

Or, perhaps it is a more optimistic message. A language dies because of lack of use, like Latin, or the dying native american languages of California. The frenzy and excessiveness with which McCollum is constantly iterating his system shows a faith in the fact that use (which includes style and inflection) can keep a language alive, and maybe at some point, someone else might be able understand and use it.

I wonder what the more dismissive commenters would think of the likes of On Kawara, or Tara Donovan, or Tom Friedman.

Jessica, do you find the students are as engaged in the critical issues of such shape making? I don't know McCollum's work as I do that of the artists I list, so I'm speculating, but all of them make evident (to me) the personal psychological issues that are still wedded to larger (systematized) issues: repetition, obsession, what would probably termed some sort of dementia or madness.

I went to the Martín Ramírez show at the Folk Museum yesterday. He was institutionally classified as mad, and though one might argue that his limited vocabulary might have been the result of a diminished worldview/experience, it might just be that he reused figures because he so no reason not to [BTW, for anyone reading this in the area, do not miss that show -- it's utterly amazing].

Infinite variety and infinite repetition aren't that far from each other when considering the process. Both posit pretty simple questions about being.

But I don't often see designers thinking about the why. They seem more interested in the plastic effects of the result. That is probably why they never make it into galleries.
miss representation

Miss representation,

Do you assume any or all art, genius, design seeks out recognition, publicity, and celebrity in galleries?

I would suspect the most ingenious designers guard their why with their life or at least go mad trying to. Visit an institution as an inmate on their level, not as a doctor or observer and tell me what you see then.

I think the obvious answer there is no, but then I reread your question. Any or all? Is there a logical answer to that?

I think it's presumptuous to think one can appropriate or approximate the experience of another's sense of consciousness, so living at 'another's level' is patently impossible. And I'm sorry for saying this, but any time one deploys that phrase, I fear I've entered a sort of junior league liberal identity politics black hole. Safe spaces and earnest exegetical discourses on hegemony are to your left. Step carefully.

The role of empathy in criticism, or simple humanism is important, and whereas fetishizing the 'madness' of another (witness the recent travails of Daniel Johnston) is problematic, I'm not sure obscurity or marginalization is any better.
miss representation

Between typography and automation software, you'd think that at least John Maeda would have showcased this by now. (Maybe he already has.)

Well, this is more like serialization(insert proper art catalogue term here), and I've never really gotten the impression that Maeda was much interested in that. He does use a lot of repetition in his work, but it's almost always to produce a larger, single piece. I don't think he's really dealt in multiples like this, in the sense that each of these shapes could theoretically be sold individually(or even in discrete chunks, as suggested by the number set aside for experimentation).

It's an interesting project. It reminds me (slightly) of this project by Foundation 33, only on a larger scale (and with a different intent).

In 2050, McCollum will be 106 years old. Who will disperse the shapes to each and every individual? Even if he's still alive, that's a lot of work for a man of that age...
mumbo jumbo

What I think he should do is create sets of two. Then ask everyone to go out and seek their match. They could have coffee or something. Or if they're infants, they could have crushed carrots. To me, as a social experiment, that would interest me. Shapes, while interesting to look at, not so much. I mean really... who's going to take the time to make sure McCullom doesn't get lazy and not throw a couple of duplicates in there anyways? Ha? Like around shape number 3,000,000,087 could totally resemble shape 64. I wouldn't know unless somebody pointed it out. I think that's his genius - to trick us all into thinking he made 9 billion when really he only made like 7 billion. What fools we would be...
mumbo jumbo

And I'm sorry for saying this, but any time one deploys that phrase, I fear I've entered a sort of junior league liberal identity politics black hole.

don't be sorry, but most of all: don't get bent out of shape, because mumbo jumbos artist reality tour would be recreated.

To be fools in an art gallery, now that would be genius. Though, you do get looks from the security guards.

I don't have a problem with the idea of McCollum's project (although I can imagine it getting pretty tedious for him after he's been doing it for a few years, and everybody else has lost interest). What I have a problem with are the shapes themselves. The examples on the site appear to be simply arbitrary forms - they don't communicate any integrity to me, don't exercise any resonance.

If someone is going to give me my own, unique shape (and I do find something quite appealing about that) what I would like is for it to have some kind of connection with me - as a portrait or a signature does. Fine for it to be abstract, but it needs to capture a spark or spirit.

Wouldn't it be better if he challenged everybody to create their own shapes?
james souttar

Hey James, I think that's already been done. God created your own personal shape thousands of years ago.

Of course, after my giant birthday dinner last night, I fear I may have changed it a bit ...

mumbo jumbo

If someone is going to give me my own, unique shape (and I do find something quite appealing about that) what I would like is for it to have some kind of connection with me - as a portrait or a signature does.

Perhaps the connection could develop, like the fact that our names don't actually have anything to do with our personality or outlook, they are simply assigned to us, just as these shapes could be.
James West

it may be dull, repetitive, or even inversely proportionate to what you think of as original

Brian Eno, in A Year With Swollen Appendices, suggests a recipe for artistic originality (I paraphrase): "Do something so boring or repetitive that no one else would bother trying." So Allan McCollum's work is original on that score.

That a designer didn't make this gallery-worthy is unfortunate.

That begs the question of how many designers want to be in galleries. People producing gallery art are addressing the very small amount of people who visit galleries and the even smaller amount of people who discuss their contents. Designers have a world audience, or at least a large local one, and a more diverse audience, at that. This idea of the gallery as some uniquely validating principle seems to hark back to the salons of 19th century Paris.

Maybe a designer didn't do it because designers have better things to do? And more people to communicate with. Just a thought.
John C

People producing gallery art are addressing the very small amount of people who visit galleries and the even smaller amount of people who discuss their contents. Designers have a world audience, or at least a large local one, and a more diverse audience, at that.

It seems that artists envy designers because their work is widely influential and useful and democratic, and can be seen all over the place, but designers envy artists because they are worshipped as heroic individualists and creators of unique, beautiful objects by a so-called elite group of society, and get huge prices at auctions. Yet, realistically, the vast majority of design is rote and superfluous and predictable and infinitely repetitive, and used mainly to market superfluous consumer products to people who can't afford them, just to make a few CEOs rich -- and the vast majority of artists can barely pay their rent, much less buy health insurance, and are not thought of as heroes or original by anyone, unless 1 out of 10,000 happens to stumble into the right crowd at the right moment, and even then, their good luck lasts only a season or two. It seems to me that McCollum pays homage to the dilemmas of both, and offers a serious (while obviously impractical?) speculation on how the dilemmas of the two disciplines might meet in the middle, and inform each other. What I especially like about the Shapes Project is that it challenges the artists privileged position as creators of rarities and uniqueness, while at the same time asking the question, Why, when it's so easy, hasn't the design industry ever produced unique works in this way before? It could have been done hundreds of years ago, It's not like mixing and matching parts requires a computer, high technology, or even high arithmatic. He accomplishes what we always SAY we want -- special, unique, objects -- by the tens of thousands, using techniques one-tenth as complicated as knitting a sweater. He suggests that we must have reasons for not doing this, reasons that perhaps we'd rather not think about: some things being made to be "special and expensive" for the people of the upper classes who are "irrecplaceable" and some things made to be "common" and "cheap" for the lesser folk who are not so important, who are "dispensible." Since he proves that it's really quite easy to make things cheap and unique at the same time, he reminds us of the class ideologies we live out, even as we all claim we do otherwise.

It is interesting to note that the Friedrich Petzel Gallery (535 West 22nd St, New York, NY) where Allan McCollum exhibited his unique two-dimensional Shapes Project is around the corner from Frank Gehry's three-dimensional Shapes Project, The IAC Building. Take a tour. If anyone can distribute 9.1 billion shapes to the world, IAC can.
Carl W. Smith

This seems to be an attempt to bring a resolution to one of modernism's inherent paradoxes: That production on a mass-produced scale—no matter the humanistic intent of the original design—becomes dehumanizing.

Modernism (as I understand it) is the belief that we can harness the power of machinery and automation to improve the human condition. For the most part we in 2007 are cynical of this concept.

This work makes the suggestion that we have not really even begun the journey.
Mark Notermann

Allan McCollum's "Shapes" is a multi-layered work offering a
revaluation of the different historical, cultural and social perspectives. From the beginning, the digital superimpositions restructure a series of paintings in relation to female body parts, positioning my viewing in a critical territory. The sensation of being overwhelmed by the amount of information makes me think of the constant bombardment of news. Suddenly, the image of a surgery offers the opportunity of detaching
from the avalanches of images, but the sounds of the shooting and the music direct me to a discourse of oppression. We are confronted with a reality of the "global" world: racial conflicts. I think of the thousands of Arab Americans who are now in jail only because of their ethnic origin and the so-called "war on
terrorism," and Malini's work crosses her national border to enunciate the irregularities of our historical times. If anyone has read this far, you'd have noticed that this passage was just copied and pasted from a random art review with a few details changed. It reads as most of the other comments on the site do. Hopefully it will have wasted as much of your life as reading all the other comments have.

This idea interests me. I can see how people may consider this project "lame" but to me, it's more of a way to focus on the things that we've lost sight of. The human body is definitely an intricate system that works almost robotically. We don't TELL our heart to beat. But still it's an amazing process -- a process we tend to forget about until artwork such as this start our tongues wagging.
Mike Perez

McCollum has a clever and unique idea in making artwork for the entire population of the world. He should be given credit for coming up with this idea... maybe its not original but I have never heard of anyone attempting such a feat. It makes me feel like I need to stop by and pick mine up...lol Mr. McCollum sounds like a very experienced artist who has made many successful works. This particular work separates itself from the rest by the extreme quantities of which he creates these geometric figures. I appreciate artist like McCollum who attempt to step outside the box with their work.
Jeremy Wallace

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