Photographer and vortex-flow sculptor, Mark J. Stock, creates artistic imagery with a scientific purpose. Of his work, Stock says:
My research focus is vortex particle methods for flow simulation. In the last decade I have created a number of Eulerian, Lagrangian, and hybrid vortex methods in both two- and three-dimensions. In addition, I am interested in GPGPU (general-purpose computing on graphics processing units), parallel programming, computational geometry, cellular automata, and high-resolution image rendering and display.
Clearly from Stock’s artist statement, his interest in visual art originates from a place of deep scientific intelligentsia–contemplation. And yet like other science technologists–Eric Heller–Brian Piana–Don Relyea--who have been featured @ AD Mag, the bottom line is that the work is beautiful. Sure, it can be described in neck-deep laboratory verbiage, but again and gain one still arrives at the same place with the same impression…Wow This Rocks!
Mark J. Stock : Algorithmic Art
An interview by Max Eternity
Hi Mark, welcome to AD Mag
Thank you for your interest in my art.
Would you take a moment and tell us about yourself. Where did you grow up? Give us a bit of background information.
I grew up in a variety of towns across the Midwest, but mostly in Michigan. I had always been an organizer, and good at math. When home computers came onto the scene, I immediately started using them for science and art. My first computer art piece was probably an image of Moire line patterns from 1983.
Now as I understand it, for you, being an artist came as a consequence of being a scientist?
Somewhat, yes. While I had casually appreciated the arts for most of my life, the first time that I considered myself an artist was during my first job out of college. I was debugging some particle-system code, and to get an idea of why the results were going bad, I rendered the digital geometry with a computer graphics program called Radiance. The resulting image not only helped me find the bug, but it was so beautiful that it planted the “art bug” in me.
Did you grow up in an artistic household? Any scientists in your family?
No, and no—unless you count an uncle who teaches at a SUNY branch. My parents, both high school teachers, recognized and nurtured my inclinations toward art, math, and science. I owe them a lot for the freedom that they gave me in choosing my own path.
Since we will be talking more about science, I guess I should ask, are you college educated? Where did you go to school and what was your major?
I spent more years than I’d like to admit at the University of Michigan. When I applied, I didn’t even know what engineers did; but after my first term, I realized that engineering was the field for me. Engineering is a wonderful blend of math, science, and practicality. I took degrees in Aerospace Engineering and Mechanical Engineering and enjoyed most of my classes.
In a moment I’d like to talk about some specific art/science projects that are featured on your website, but first I’d like to ask what (as it relates to your career field) what your title is, and what that might mean to the layperson?
Right now, I am simply a “Research Scientist.” To an observer, I appear to be a programmer. I write computer programs to simulate fluid dynamics. I frequently write papers and present my research at technical conferences. One of my professional goals is to create what could be called a “digital wind tunnel”—all the science of a real wind tunnel, but done completely on a computer, with no physical model or tunnel.
I ask that question, because I’ve found that when I attempt to speak about the more technical aspects of what I do, it sometimes becomes a real challenge to clearly say what I want to say without it being too academic or self-involved. In other words I try to be informative, while also avoiding as much “nerd talk” as I can. Do you find that to be a challenge as well? Does this concern you?
It is absolutely a challenge, and probably my greatest challenge. Traditional artists who use surprising analog techniques also have this problem—viewers first ask “how?” Their answers are sometimes easy: “I cross-develop the film in different chemicals” or “I bury the pot in a hole with some straw” or “I heat up the wax layer and then peel it off.” The extra challenge posed by creating science-based art is that our tools and techniques are more intellectual than physical, and often opaque to the casual observer. Even more so if you earn a PhD in the process of creating the work. Yet they still ask how, or sometimes even “what?”
I still don’t know if “how?” is a result of an observer’s honest interest and curiosity, an indication that the piece cannot stand as a work of art by itself, or simply a response to the fear of not being conversational.
Perhaps, though I think your work–for all its complications–remains pretty straightforward. In so far as you are basically using the science of movement and energy flow to create tactile imagery; providing a visual element for something otherwise unseen. Yes? No? I mean for instance, when I look at your piece entitled “Red Streamlines”, which I must say is quite beautiful, is that not what I’m seeing…an artistic rendering of energy streams sculpturally suspended in motion?
Without going into vector field calculus, yes it is. Again, your words have distilled my work to its essence.
Moments ago you talked about the Moire Pattern, I’ve heard of it, but I’m not quite sure. Isn’t it some type of optical illusion?
Yes it is. It appears when a large number of nearly-parallel thin lines overlap, or when two layers of repeated parallel lines overlap. It manifests as higher wavelengths and patterns absent in the single layer. In a way, that is the theme of much of my work: where many small and simple elements act in each others’ presence, complex forms often emerge.
Getting back to the “Streamlines” you also did a piece called “Green Streamlines.” This work is similar to “Red” but it’s also different; reminding me of driftwood floating on the sea. Which makes me wonder, do you find that others see things in your work that you had not intended?
That happens all the time. In fact, very few people see the same thing in any given piece. Because so much of the natural world is formed or influenced by fluid flow–air, water, lava, even dirt and rock flow. And humans seem innately tuned to the patterns in their environment, viewers almost always see some familiar natural pattern in my work. A recent piece, “The Trouble With Algorithmic Art” specifically pokes fun at those unintended interpretations.
I would imagine that you have been compared to Kenneth Huff? But earlier in a prior email conversation you said that you identified with another artist that I interviewed earlier this year, David Hull. Though I would have to say that the artist whose work I think yours parallels the most of the artist that I am aware of, is Eric Heller, a physics professor at Harvard. Your thoughts?
Eric Heller is one of the few artists who uses science and computational physics to create art. Of those, he is the only other one whose art is based on his own published research. While I admire scientists who create art, and artists who are influenced by science, it is a very tiny group of people whose art and science are one in the same. I feel honored to follow in Prof. Heller’s footsteps. I also owe a debt of gratitude to Ken Huff, for working to get digital art accepted as a valid art form. In addition to Huff and Heller, I have been influenced by the work of Jared Tarbell and Kent Oberheu. Their grasp of color and form is leaps ahead of mine.
So let’s talk about “Dynamo.” It’s a work that’s meant to represent the energy flow of our sun. And I like the description that you give on your site, saying:
“The words “fluid dynamics” may bring memories of the swirling patterns in coffee, the smoke rising from a candle that has just been blown out, or the chaotic motions of rice grains in boiling water. None of these, though, can hold a flame to the largest (and frightfully close) mass of constantly convecting, active fluid flow that we know of– the sun.”
This work is fabulous!
I am glad you appreciate it. I am intrigued by the sun. It is this constant reminder that no matter how square my room, how manufactured the tools of my trade, or how linear my thinking, my life is owed to fluid dynamics, and its understanding will be my life’s work.
There’s so much I could ask about, like “Droplet #7 Revisited” or “Extruded Simplices B.” But let’s see, why don’t you tell us about “Inside the Bomb.” Now that’s intense!
“Inside the Bomb” stems from a frustration that I have with movies. Have patience, I’ll get back on topic soon. Explosions in popular culture are these very visual, flame-filled bursts that the hero always seems to be too close to, and yet he always survives. Actual explosions have relatively little flame, are over in the tiniest fraction of a second, throw out deadly debris at supersonic speeds, and are quite dangerous. Most people outside of the military have no concept—no intuition—of the speed and power of an explosion. When I was working on this piece, another bus bomb had just killed dozens of people in the Middle East, and I was reflecting on whether the dead had even a small moment to consider their fate. After recalling my studies of combustion and detonations in graduate school, I concluded that many did not. There must be this zone of awareness around a bomb’s burst inside of which a human cannot mentally react. “Inside the Bomb” is a rendering from inside of a turbulent fluid geometry, and is meant to capture the chaos and spatial warping apparent to a disembodied observer inside that zone.
Mark thank you so much for taking the time to chat with me. I’ve really enjoyed it.
The pleasure was mine. You made me think about my work in ways I hadn’t yet considered. Thank you.