The Canadian Art Database

Joe Bodolai

Norman White

The Vancouver Art Gallery, Sept. 26 - Nov. 2, 1975
The National Gallery of Canada, Dec. 5 1975 - Jan. 11, 1976
Owens Art Gallery, Sackville, New Brunswick, March 10 - 31, 1976

artscanada #204/205, April/May 1976.
[ 1,031 words ]

Norman White's electronic art is confusing. Oddly enough, this is exactly what it is all about. It is a product of White's feelings about, and observations of, the confusion and order in nature, and how one becomes the other. This is a very important thing.

In a simple spring shower, raindrops can create countless patterns as they strike puddles and make pleasant noises on the roof. Or out of all the hundreds of billions of snowflakes swirling about in a winter blizzard, we are told that no two are alike. And nearly everyone has imagined forms and pictures flitting about in a fireplace blaze. Nature and human consciousness are truly awesome.

Things move around in nature all the time. That is their natural state — motion. Every now and then these myriads of things swirling about come together to form peculiar configurations and relations which we consider meaningful.

The electrons, protons and neutrons which vibrate purposefully in our bodies will eventually return to the rest of the cosmos from which they came. Dust to dust, as they say. Others will eventually group into that peculiar configuration of matter and energy that makes life, and another being will be born. In this great process of matter and energy transfer lies life's greatest mystery. What, pray tell, is exactly the nature of consciousness?

Norman White's art simulates some of the ways things interact in nature. Someday he hopes to build a machine whose workings mimic the behaviour of the human mind. He would like to build a thing of plastic and metal ganglia at the threshold of consciousness. It would be a work of art a heartbeat away from life. He seeks to induce the spark of life into 'lifeless' matter.

On these questions White reminded me that 'inanimate matter already has so much life in it. The way electrons pulse through wires is not really so different from the way they pulse across our nerve membranes. Life in its strictest definition is really an electronic phenomenon. And who's to know just where, along the spectrum between man and rock, consciousness ends?'

To create, or to simulate, intelligence also happens to be a dream of thousands of computer scientists and inventors since long before Dr. Frankenstein. Needless to say, their technological abilities are still a long way from this goal, despite the number of computers playing chess.

Where electronics are White's tools, basic laws of motion and logic are his medium. It is this logic, 'the way things work', that is at the heart of his work. He could easily make his machines out of, say, plumbing equipment, but he finds electronics most suited to the interpretation of abstract logical relationships.

Logical patterns of motion are the patterns by which most of his machines behave. White, like a composer, works with rhythms. Some are highly complex, others basic and visceral.

White's first electronic work of note, First Tighten Up On the Drums, was built in 1968. And although in some ways it is the most logically complex of his major works, it is a perfect example of how he juggles and controls the forces of order and confusion. The machine consists of a hundred or so small amber neon lights mounted on a smoky but transparent plastic screen. The electronic circuitry is visible behind the plastic and lights. The lights blink and flash in no apparent order, other than seeming to flow in the same direction. But a few moments of careful watching is needed for the mind to sense what the body has somehow already perceived. Finally it becomes clear that instead of hundreds of unrelated activities occurring, there are really only a few simple variables. A deliberate but unpredictable pattern of motion is at work. The rows of lights do, in fact, behave similarly, just at different times and at different speeds. Consequently, the motion looks infinitely more confusing than it really is. It is random, but by no means arbitrary. That is an important distinction. It is the difference between noise and music.

The meaning of this work is difficult to grasp as an idea. It is more readily — and intelligently — understood as a feeling. The body, any normal body, feels rhythms. This physical sense of things changing and moving in time is what Norman White calls 'drum intellect', as opposed to the cerebral realm of 'book intellect', which he says is 'something far less primal'. We display this physical sense whenever we tap our fingers, dance, or physically communicate. It is a large and important part of consciousness, no matter how much 'book intellect' one acquires.

The body's organization of feelings about time and space, and other things not so abstract, is clearly evident in music and dance. Norman White's visual displays provide 'readouts' of feelings and ideas in much the same way that music does, especially 'primitive' music. The feeling becomes form. It blinks right there in front of you, a visual messenger of feeling and ideas in the same way that music is meaning borne in tones and sound.

This is 'abstract' art. At its best it is like good music, touching feelings that cannot be put into words or symbols. These feelings can be described, but genuinely profound art does not merely describe them. It recreates them. It becomes equivalent to them, congruent.

The meaning of Norman White's art is not to be found solely in the cold, calculated, cerebral realm evoked by his materials. Computers and electronic instruments, it is said, are cold and indifferent. They have no feelings; they are for the mind. But Norman White's art, as has often been said of all art, is 'for the soul'. Logic is life as well as thought.

This is art that is as earthy as magnetism, and just as mysterious. It does not expound specific personal referents or the idiosyncrasies of personality. It does manage to reach a part of life that is sharable, collectively human and as universal as a heartbeat.

artscanada #204/205, April/May 1976.

Text: © Joe Bodolai. All rights reserved.

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