I Byte

It all started with a little black box, staring at me defiantly. The box arrived with a keyboard, and little else. There were no menus. There was no mouse. There were no icons: those came three years later with the Mac, after the Lisa had imploded. Then Windows, the billion-dollar mimic, followed suit.

It was 1981, and I had bought a bit of naked technology. With no rules, and no one to guide/exhort me, I started poking around, hitting erratic keys. I discovered that I could talk to folks around the country using a primitive program called The Source. I struck up a textversation with an exterminator in New York, and since we didn't know if we could reconnect we stayed up until all hours. Our messages came garbled: at that time, satellites used batch transmission, so parts of his sentences were scrambled with parts of mine. Someone figured out that hitting command G would ring a bell on the other person's computer, signaling that you had finished typing. The personal technology rocket had blasted off.

But I was an artist: how could I create, using this jumblebox? I bought a math program from the National Center for Supercomputing in Illinois. I think it had to do with thermal properties. I know it was based on equations. And the last equation I had romanced was in high school. So I distorted the equations. (My father used to say, if you want her to use a fork, insist that she use a spoon.) If the instructions said to enter a number between 10 and 30, I would enter 73 and -124. If it said to multiply I would divide. Most of the time I got a fairly blunt comment from the not-so-humble box about my lack of competence. But occasionally a graphic would appear and I had found Nirvana. My software engineering friends were anxious to know the equations. They were dismayed to find out that I had not saved them: I did not want to repeat myself.

As early graphics programs began to appear, I bought one or two and kept them -shrink-wrapped - under my desk. It was important for me to know that I controlled the bumble/jumble box, not the other way around. I understood that I had entered a black hole of vision. Science tells us that most of the universe is in fact dark; without that blackness neither stars nor galaxies would have formed, and life would not exist. Dark matter need not be inert, however: new findings suggest that it interacts with itself. It is also unlike anything physicists have measured or studied in a laboratory. As a corollary, artists work in the dark holes of creativity, an infinitude of chaos and discovery. We certainly interact with ourselves. Can we be measured or studied in a laboratory?

I felt like an astronaut of some kind of inner space. I loved the fact that no one could tell me what to do, since no one knew. There were virtually no rules to follow. Imagine: a world with no rules! As a child I had a piano teacher who hit me on the knuckles if she was displeased. As an artist I was all bare-knuckled and bold in this new visual space. It appeared empty, but particle physics insists that there is no such thing as empty space; microscopically it is filled with quarks and leptons. You haven't encountered a lepton recently? How about muons, and tau? They haven't met you either, but they exist and they matter, just as you do. It was exhilarating to realize that Ansel Adams did not sit on one shoulder, Picasso on the other. It was also terrifying.

At about the same time, NASA was receiving black and white images from space. Their engineers constructed a giant sphere. Inside the sphere they pasted the photos sent via satellite. Entering the sphere they were immersed in an "out-there" environment. That immersion turned our world-view upside down. Until then, we thought the world revolved around us, with planet earth at the center of space. Suddenly we discovered that we were an infinitesimal dot in an ever-expanding universe. As Carl Sagan wrote, our planet's niche in the universe turned out to be "a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam". Suddenly up and down were meaningless, as were under and over. There was no discernible starting point, and the vanishing point was of such magnitude that it was all but illusory.

That was the visual shot heard 'round the world. Renaissance perspective suddenly seemed archaic. Perspective involved a starting point and a vanishing point, a system for creating depth on a flat surface that first appeared in Florence, Italy, during the young 1400's. It was an architect named Battista Alberti who first taught the rules of perspective to other artists.

But now, a new way of visualizing was revealed, requiring a new language. We had stumbled upon a space that seemed "ubiquitous, elusive, and full of surprises". Those words describe neutrinos, invisible particles that pass through our bodies by the trillions every second without leaving a trace. We needed new words, to describe this "Big Bang" of vision. So I invented a language called Eskaloop, with words like rashtafolli, skiffledump, and gwynncher. I invented another language called Zoberflux, in which all of the pieces had titles starting with the letter Z to reflect the end of vision as we had known it. I still loved Rembrandt, but I had unearthed a Rosetta Stone of seeing.

No rules. Total freedom. Total chaos. What a glorious time to be alive!

It still is. At least, it can be. Turn your thinking upside down. Wear two different shoes, as I frequently do. Paint each wall in your home/office a different color. Make a recording of yourself gargling, coughing, snickering. Think of it as Music. Dare to be glorious. You'll find that it is infectious. (My mother wouldn't let me date an artist, because they were insane and it was catching. So I caught it, whatever "it" is. I had caught my spoon.)

I Byte. So can you.

c. Corinne Whitaker 2015