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Wreck a man

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Date Minted: December 14, 2020

Artist Description: An homage to Recamán’s sequence, a well known mathematical sequence defined by a recurrence relation, and the subtle curves of artist Loie Hollowell. Both hauntingly beautiful. The system that created this work is generative and was coded using javascript and glsl shaders. The seed for this particular output is '833216'.

CohentheWriter’s Commentary:

Recaman’s sequence, named after its discoverer Bernardo Recaman Santos, is a numerist’s wet dream: a newly-theorized sequence of integers following a predictable, though semi-chaotic, pattern, one which nevertheless displays an odd harmony when elaborated to 100 or 200 examples. It’s really not necessary to explain the sequence in any more detail than that, but it’s important to emphasize that Recaman’s Sequence is a relatively modern construction —Pythagorean Theorem this is not— and it’s relatively low-stakes —it’s frivolous fun and does not have implications on gravitational relationships or anything like that— and is often visualized or audialized into shapes and sounds analogous to the numbers which make it up. When synced to piano keys, for example, the resulting melody is discordant but strangely soothing. When demonstrated with circles and swirling lines, it has a simple, entropic beauty to it, like a series of crop circles, or like many different corn mazes set one after the other.

Wreck a man by Dmitri Cherniak is a professed ode to the Recaman Sequence, displayed here not as a point-by-point recreation of the sequence, but as a series of multicolored sunrises inspired by the gentle arcing and sloping of the sequence when drawn out, its propensity towards circular surfaces, its hypnotic blend of harmony and chaos. 

Wreck a man does not display any obvious internal logic. And since its many half-circles and squares are not set along a numerical axis, it’s hard to tell if the piece obeys any internal rationale either. It’s AI generated, so presumably it was borne from some amalgamation of inspirative examples, but this is what was spit out, a washed-out and brightly-floral sequence of pleasing shapes, set along a vertical white horizon, all discs and half-moons and Piet Mondrian squares overlapping and ducking one-under-another, as if a dozen eyeballs are peering halfway out from the piece’s center, or as if smooth hills are rising up in the distance, or as if all the moons are rising, or as if this is an abstract daydream, geometric in construction, not just in implication.

It’s quite pleasing to look at, no? Despite occupying every range of the color spectrum —there are greens and blues tucked within the creamsicle colors otherwise— no color blares louder than any other, together painting a picture of a soft savanna sunrise; even the blacks are faded and white-tinged enough to conjure a rising sun, or at least an early morning sky. Wreck a man isn’t interested in confronting observers. It doesn’t seem interested in challenging us socially, emotionally, culturally, intellectually. It’s a very internal piece, existing for its own computational reasons, for its own mathematical enjoyment. Cherniak calls Wreck a man in his Artist’s Description, “Hauntingly beautiful.” How could you possibly argue otherwise?

As a description, “Hauntingly beautiful,” aligns Wreck a man with the actual Recaman’s sequence in a crucial way. Recaman’s sequence is often described with that word: haunting. When turned into musical notes, there’s an eeriness to it, a stilted horror movie lullaby. I’ve already alluded to its visual representation appearing like crop circles, interlocked and interweaving and for some reason discomfiting despite its apparent serenity (though it’s markedly less serene if examined carefully and from close up). If Wreck a man is haunting, than it is so because of our natural human reaction to interspersed shapes, uncertain colors with unclear patterns, or, to summarize, a series of almost-patterns which we can’t quite impose logic onto, no matter our best attempts. We humans do not like entropy. 

And besides, the simultaneous existence of order and disharmony is jarring. Humans don’t like contradictions either. Having referenced Piet Mondrian already, I’d nevertheless like to return to that Dutchman’s work, as it displays a similar affinity for what I suppose could be called rhythmic discordance. Abstract squares and lines placed seemingly at random, though with an ultimately halcyon outcome. His work asks the question of whether order is something created or something imposed; in other words, are his pieces so pleasant because of their inherent nature or because observers seek order in everything, and finding even a semblance of it, we lay the whole thing atop? One can see this same logic working here. Stare at this piece for too long, and you’ll notice that there’s nothing truly uniform about it. Semicircles are different sizes, appearing at apparently random intervals, composed of uncorrelated colors. It only appears to be ordered and proper. This is not the Fibonacci Sequence, it is something altogether less certain in its construction.

It is theorized that the Racamen Sequence would include every single integer if allowed to stretch on endlessly. Though not yet a proven postulate, all tests have been to the affirmative. Look deeply at Wreck a man; does it not seem liable to go on forever, stretching into infinity, just barely skating on the edge of order, just barely not making sense, but always close enough to seem so? And, on some level, there’s no difference between a thing actually making sense, and something just appearing to do so. It’s all a matter of perception. It’s all a matter of how long we intend to look at the thing, and what we intend it to be, if only we can bend, this way or that, to make it so.