Brutalism in Digital Media

Introduction

The project was the result of a thesis study done for the conclusion of my undergraduate degree from OCAD U. The resulting installation was shown at OCAD University's DF Open Show 2019, as well as GRADEX 104, where it won the Digital Futures medal.

Brutalism started as a branch off of the modernist architecture movement in the 1950's. It promoted an idea of honesty in the design of buildings, and stripping them down to their bare materials in order to achieve this. The results were buildings made of bare concrete, which placed their function as the main aesthetic of the structure.

This project was an attempt to bring this idea to the process of creating digital media. Through examining the process, and final outputs of brutalist architecture, a basic framework for brutalist practice was created, and then adapted to fit digital media. This framework was then taken and used for the creation of an installation piece visualizing my experiences with memory distortion. An effect in which memories of the past are altered, and distorted by actions in the present, brought on by anxiety and depression.

Bare Concrete & Honesty.

Concept

Brutalism began its life as a school of architecture in the 1950's. While one of the goals of modernism was to remove the ornamentation from buildings, brutalism took this to an extreme. The aim was to tear buildings down to their bare materials, in an effort to make them as honest as they could be. Brutalist buildings weren't made with the intent to be ugly, they were made with the intent to show what they truly were. They were free from what was often seen as a false optimism associated with minimalism and modernism.

This honesty was the starting point for this research, as it informs what the bare materials are for a certain medium. For the building it was the exposed concrete, but for something like a website, it gets a little more complicated. The first thought is that the bare materials would be the HTML tags that make up a site, but that is not reflecting the sites intent in an honest light. The true bare material of a website would be the content. More information about my research is available here.

The reflection of honesty is something that doesn't just stop at the work either. In the same way minimalism inspired a way of living, I began to apply brutalism to my own life, in being more honest, and open about myself. I began thinking about my own struggles with anxiety, and depression. The topic is a difficult one to discuss, and is not made easier by the effects that a culture of toxic masculinity can have. But brutalism is not about easy topics.

In 2018, I created a series of pieces based on the distortion of photos, which are available here. I had originally created the series as an output of emotions that I could not properly explain. As I looked back upon the pieces through this new mindset, I began to see them more as artifacts and representations of my experience with memory distortions. Each of the photos that had been used were in some way related to a memory of mine that had been bent, or entirely lost because of trauma brought out by anxiety and depression.

This concept was key to moving the project and the research forward. While being important for any project to stay with in order to have a focused vision, it was even more important to have solidified to pursue a brutalist representation for the project. Without a vision and a concept for the project, it would be impossible to present the project in its most honest way.

Distortion of Memory.

Installation

The original pieces were created in Blender by using the image as both the colour texture, and the heightmap for the object. The heightmap operated by taking a single channel from the image, and using the values from it. The channel chosen for the series found here, used the saturation values. A colour in the image with a high saturation value appears further drawn out on the sphere, whereas one with a low saturation value will be moved far less.

While this technique is extremely fast and effective for creating a still frame, or pre-rendered animation, it is unable to take a live input. This inability meant that in order to turn the piece into a reactive installation, it would need to be moved over to a real time engine. The texturing technique was ported over into TouchDesigner, a node based, real time programming tool. Through modification of existing code, the project was able to take live camera input, and use it as the texture and height map of the sphere.

At this point in the project, it was proven that the technical details of the project were going to work, and thus the concept needed to be brought in. To represent this idea of memory distortion, the project was divided into two workflows, the colour feed, and the height feed. The first piece of this was to have the colour feed on a delay, with the height feed being real time. This was done to create the effect of events in the present changing and distorting the memories of the past.

The colour feed has a delay of roughly 1 minute applied to it, then goes through a stutter effect, flashing in brief moments from the past into the stream to reflect the sudden flashbacks that come from mental issues with memory. Following this it goes through an echo effect to make the feed feel more ethereal, and dreamlike, bringing more noise to the feed. It is then UV wrapped around a sphere.

The height feed has gone through a more intense evolution process. While it began being an aspect of the live colour feed, it was changed to use the depth feed from a Kinect sensor. This was done following prototyping and tests in which the users would move closer to the camera in an attempt to change the height of the sphere. The depth feed comes in with white representing the further away objects, so it goes through an adjustment process where its calibrated to the room its in, and inverted. After this it is altered to give a trail effect around objects that are close enough, to give a stronger effect to more significant events. Its is then wrapped around a sphere in the same way as the colour sphere.

Nodes as
Material.

The two are combined to create the final output of the program, being a sphere with the colour feed as a texture, and the height feed controlling the vertex heights.

With the program created, the brutalist process needed to be applied to the piece. Because of TouchDesigner being a node based program, when you pull the program back to its bare materials, the nodes are the backbone. The nodes are the material to which the installation should strip back to.

There are a number of ways of representing this, and many were prototyped, but the initial idea of showing these nodes as individual displays is the one that was used for the project. Within TouchDesigner, each of the nodes looks like its own display, and so the aesthetic of the final output is not far from what the function (or program) truly looks like.

The choice was also made to use old monitors for the installation, with a focus on CRT displays. This was done for two reasons; one being the impact that older technology has on my memory, being a person who grew up around it, and it being a large part of my early life. And the other simply being that CRT displays have a unique look that I personally enjoy.

Each of the displays is contained within a box to be able to stack the monitors on top of eachother. Each box is custom fit to the size of the monitor it contains. This was done to evoke the same kind of appearance that some examples of brutalist architecture have. As the construction of an installation is a form of architecture in itself.

While the displays are an interesting look unto themselves, the arrangement of them was the most critical part of how effective the installation would be. A number of experiments were done with how this arrangement would work, all based around the way the information would flow between the displays. In the end, the most natural flow was the one that followed (at least in western cultures) the flow of writing. So the nodes are arranged so the user can read them like they would a sentence.

But arrangment wasn't the end of the project either. As a way of pushing the project beyond its final installation which is large and difficult to move, a way of capturing the outputs was built into the program. While it runs, it periodically captures the output in a format that allows for a high resolution render to be created back in Blender. From this, prints were created as artifacts, which also open the doors to creating further artifacts using rapid prototyping processes.

As the construction of the installation piece drew to a close, ways in which to display the outputs of the piece came under consideration. Because of the size and weight of the installation, it has very limited mobility, and the complex setup and configuration requires me to travel along with it. However the outputs created from it are just as beautiful without the installation.

As with the pieces that inspired it, the output from UNMASK is strange, yet beautiful. The output captures a moment, and presents it as a distorted image of itself. These orbs are their own worlds, just as the memories that created them are, floating isolated and alone in space.

To allow the piece, and the project to live beyond itself, a series of prints are created from each install of the piece. The program will by itself, or at my command, capture the necessary images to render the orb externally. These files are brought into Blender to render at higher resolutions, and print for exhibition wherever they are needed.

The prints are part of a larger effort done to expand the project. Thought it is now a completed study, the framework created and the style of generative art will live on in further work that I create. The prints prove UNMASK as an ongoing effort, rather than just a single project.

In addition to this effort, the displays and their respective boxes create for the installation are to be constructed to each show a segment of the generated output from the final installation. The boxes will be able to run independently from each other, and will be distributed to different people and institutions that assisted with the project along the way.

Research

My thesis work began by taking inspiration from emerging styles within the realm of digital media, specifically within web design. Web brutalism has come into style recent, with sites like motherfuckingwebsite.com being on of the earliest examples (Smith). More have since followed, more closely attempting to take on the aesthetics of brutalism, but the original site captures it the best. Despite not being the intent during its creation. The site sparked a discussion of what is really needed to make a website. While the site states itself that it is not meant to be an example for all sites to follow, it serves as an example of all a website really needs to be. It conveys a message in a widely accessible format. It reaches back to the basis of what websites should be, just as the brutalist movement in architecture did. From here I began my research into how brutalism could be expanded into digital media practices.

While this gave me an inspiration for what to research, there was a level of definition I needed to do before I could move forward, specifically in defining what made something brutalist vs minimalist, or anti-design. Taking from the Nielsen-Norman Group's definitions in particular, I was able to target exactly what the goals of brutalism were in relation to the other two doctrines of design.
Anti-design shares what could be considered a similar look to brutalism, but the process behind creating it is what sets it apart. Anti-design has very little thought put into it besides creating something that is as obtuse as possible. Its aim is to create something that is ugly, and goes against all senses of what is aesthetically pleasing. On the surface, this can be seen as what brutalism does as well, but that is a common misconception. Brutalism has the aim to pull away any excess ornamentation from a design, leaving only the bare materials. It aims to put the function on display as a key component of the aesthetic. Where anti-design has an aesthetic value that is based on the opposition of the traditional, brutalism develops an aesthetic all of its own.

However this definition of what brutalism aims to achieve seems to make it fall into minimalism, as the goal of both is to remove what does not need to be there. The best way of defining the two from each other is to go back to their origins in architecture. Modernism often used many minimalist practices, featuring plain, box like buildings with flat walls and little in terms of external decor. However they were coated in a white wash. The buildings still used a level of ornament on them, hiding the building behind a layer of white paint. While a simple ornamentation, it is still an ornamentation. Brutalist buildings just had the bare concrete on display, with nothing hiding it from view. Minimalism is a painted concrete wall, while brutalism is the bare concrete.

Furthering the research, I attempted to further define this idea of what brutalism looks like in digital media by finding examples from outside of the two areas that I had already defined. The first that I discovered that fit the framework was the technology and devices that occupy the world of Blade Runner. The worlds created by cyberpunk follow many of the brutalist design philosophies, with aesthetics of putting all elements of function on the exterior, exposed and on display. Blade Runner 2049 even features a piece of soviet brutalism as the setting for one of the locations. (Villeneuve) These devices are interesting primarily from how they are interacted with, ensuring the inputs by the user are purposeful and direct, with nothing unnecessary coming in between the user and what is being done.
Expanding in to the real world, I found that modular synthesisers are very similar in their interaction and design (junkiexlofficial). The process of using them is very deliberate, with no ambiguity in the actions taken by the user. Their aesthetic follows the trends as well, putting everything involved in their function on display. The end result shows exactly what is going on, and how the sound is being created, with cables spanning each of the connections. It is easy to follow how the information is being changed and distorted from the first modulator, down to the final output to the speakers. This design would later go on to inspire the physical construction of my installation piece.

As a final stage of looking into examples, I looked into the workspaces and workflows of creators. Casey Neistat has designed his studio to be functional above all else, stating such himself. (Brownlee) While this could be seen as him not taking aesthetics into account in the space, the aesthetics are incredibly important. He has rearranged the space several times, and uses it as his primary set in his films. The space is not ignoring aesthetics, but putting the functionality of the space as the aesthetic, as is the brutalist philosophy.

Moving into the concept, and meaning behind the piece was a process that went alongside the research of brutalist philosophy, and eventually came from it. The start was reading about affect theory, a study into the retention of information in our minds (Massumi). The ideas in this piece apply to all forms of art, but especially in terms of brutalist design. Affect theory states that the level of importance placed on something does not relate to how well it will be remembered. Meaning that it does not matter how much a user or viewer is told the significance of and element, but to what degree it effects them. Because brutalism is about stripping away ornament, there is the tendency to want to label everything very clearly, and not hint at functions through prose, but directly state them. This gave me an idea of the importance of being selective in how the information is displayed.

As the final level of the concept building, I took the brutalist philosophies I developed and applied them to myself, and my own life. This is where the book Unclaimed Experience (Caruth) and the article on memory distortions (Berstein & Loftus) came to be a part of the research. Unclaimed Experience Is the reading that started me down the path of creating a piece based on my memories, or lack thereof. The book discusses the way in which trauma can push away our memories, and cause them to never be fully experienced in the moment, with more detail only coming in as we go through our lives. The sections of the book I read made me think about my own experiences with this that are still ongoing, and pushed me to think further with this, and through the brutalist philosophy, be open, and honest with them.

Memory Distortion was the final key in the puzzle. While Unclaimed Experience discussed ideas of memories being suppressed, this piece goes into how memories can changed in those with anxiety and depression, with the memory becoming unreliable, and entirely unrecognizable from the true event. This served as almost a confirmation of my personal experiences, and was the final push for the creation of a piece based on this psychological effect.

Special Thanks

While being the sole creator of the project, there were a number of people who contributed to the production. The completion of this project would not have been possible without their help and inspiration.

Special thanks goes out to:

Immony Men
Michelle Miller
Nick Puckett
David McIntosh
Kate Hartman
Marc Bergeron
Blake Cram & Lisa Clarke
Ethan, Enoch, Janelle, Alessia, and the rest of the 2019 Digital Futures cohort.