Rotating circles after Duchamp Man Ray Picabia

Offset Circles (after Duchamp, Picabia, Man Ray)

You’ve probably heard of Marcel Duchamp, Man Ray, and Picabia. If you haven’t, and especially if you have, and you happen to live somewhere near London, go directly to the Tate Modern to see their new exhibition of their combined works, do not pass go, do not collect $200. This exhibit is so chock full of major works that you can easily get lost, or worse, distracted.

From the Tate Modern exhibition website:

In the 1920s Duchamp ostensibly gave up making art works to play competitive chess. But he was fascinated by the idea of creating virtual forms. Helped at times by Man Ray, he experimented with stereoscopic views and built a number of devices that generated the illusion of seeing a drawing or design in three dimensions.

The devices that “generated the illusion of seeing a drawing or design in three dimensions” consist of what look like CAD drawings on circular plates; circles of increasing diameter nestled inside one another, filling the whole disc, or filling part of the disk along with the skeleton of a 3D cylinder, and other fractal-looking drawings composed of similarly nested, self-similar shapes. The discs (there are many of them) are aligned in a grid pattern, and each slowly rotates. Staring at them gives the impression of a 3D objects slowly spinning on an off-center axis.

I was a bit blown away by this concept, dating from not long after the invention of electrical machines. I’m not a great art historian, but a friend called this Op-Art and I agree with that classification. Now, the brilliant thing about having computers around to do drawings for us is that we aren’t limited to making a simple disc of optical illusions spin at a constant speed. First off, we aren’t even limited to a single version of that disc. I can make an almost infinitely variable sketch of rings-within-rings, and spin them at a variable rate based on a simple software program (Processing; source code included).

I showed this to a few friends the other night at one of our OpenLab OpenSalons (a fairly casual get-together where a few of us show some works in progress, drink, eat, and geek out), and Robert Atwood pointed out that there’s no reason to limit the sketch to rotating the entire disc – we can make every inner ring of it spin independently. As we discussed what it might look like, Claude quietly made this happen (using Pd/GEM).