Where eldest Night
And Chaos, ancestors of Nature, hold
Eternal anarchy amidst the noise
Paradise Lost, Line 879. John Milton 1667-79
In myth, Chaos is the void. This unfathomable origin of everything gives birth to Erebus and Nyx; darkness and night.
Robert Fludd uses a black square as a simple, but conceptually radical, depiction of the absence that preceded Creation in his Utriusque Cosmi of 1617. At each edge of the square the words, ‘Et sic in infinitum’, extend the blackness infinitely to create the perfect metaphysical context out of which the universe could unfold. In ‘Paradise Lost’, John Milton followed Fludd in reversing the mythological order, so that darkness and ‘eldest Night’, came first. For Milton darkness was accompanied by silence. Chaos – ‘eternal anarchy’ – writhed to a soundtrack of noise.
As well as cacophony or disturbance, ‘noise’ is used to describe meaningless or irrelevant data picked up at the same time as desired output. Radio transmitters emit an incoherent hiss until tuned into particular frequencies – omitting all others – to produce recognisable sound. In the digital world of 3D scanning, ‘speckle noise’, created by random changes in light-wave frequency, has to be filtered out to allow clarity and legibility. Noise becomes visible as a freckled field through which the content emerges, like a galaxy from a star-filled night sky.
For Ovid, when he wrote ‘The Origin of the Cosmos’, Chaos was more a philosophical concept than a mythological deity. He described it as, ‘congested in a shapeless heap’, a ‘rude and undeveloped mass’…and again, suggesting noise, with ‘discordant elements confused’. Anyone involved in making things will recognise the creative process that pulls chaos into something meaningful, transforming the apparently random into order, drawing harmony from discord. In a brilliant act of imaginative creativity, Fludd illustrates Creation itself. After the black square, he depicts the profound and unimaginable as a series of concentric, monochhrome images: a storyboard of Genesis that verges on abstraction. Darkness is overthrown first with the concept, then the Word. With ‘Fiat Lux’, the void is pierced with light.
As mysteriously as order emerges from Chaos, a recent ‘digital accident’ hints at the vast unknown and invisible that surrounds us. The Lucida Laser Scanner was used to make a 3D and colour recording of Goya’s vast ‘Maria Louisa on Horseback’ of 1799 at the Museo del Prado, Madrid. Its surface is encrusted with paint – thicker and more active around the horse and sitter, but heavily cracked and undulating around the stretcher bars. The whole painting, over three metres tall, moves almost imperceptibly in the museum air-conditioning and the turbulence caused by visitors. This subtle motion was picked up as noise in the data produced by the laser scanner. Clusters of vertical parallel lines, 2.5cm high, and of varying widths, could be seen in the output. To remove them, a special algorithm was written that could identify their characteristics and separate them from the surface relief of the painting. The Lucida scanner captured sections of the canvas that measure 48 by 48 cm, with an overlap on each side so that they can be accurately tiled together. During the operation of data processing, and reconciling the outcome with the painting surface, there was a software clash that produced an unexpected artifact: a moiré or interference pattern that resembles sacred geometry, or a figure produced by a harmonograph. Curiously they also recall Fludd’s centrally focused representations of the divine formation of the cosmos where light radiates from a centre into darkness: geometric pattern as iconic symbol.
Chaos and noise represent ‘full potential’, where the creative act is one of selection, reduction and removal to reveal what is already there: the ‘essence’. Rather than additive, it is a process of removal. By implication, the filter of art allows a glimpse of the divine. Through creation, we have Paradise Regained.