Robert Rauschenberg

Robert Rauschenberg died on Monday at the age of 82. Probably best known to most for his non-traditional “combines” artwork and his design of the cover for the Talking Heads album Speaking In Tongues, Robert Rauschenberg was to me, along with John Cage, the epitome of an Experimental artist.

The child’s joke goes something like this: two kids are drawing when one notices the other’s paper is blank. What is it? A polar bear in a snowstorm.

In the early 1950’s, Rauschenberg made a series of “White Paintings” – canvases covered entirely in white paint. Between proclamations of “My child could do that!”, one might notice that the experience of viewing an entirely white painting is necessarily different from that of most other artwork. A white canvas is highly affected by lighting conditions, and could be described as a dust magnet.

Every moment, that “white” painting would present a unique view, and one reflective of its immediate environment. This is, strictly speaking, true of any painting hanging in a gallery, but those minute differences which we actively attempt to tune out become amplified and highly focused on a white canvas. Rauschenberg shows us the invisible that surrounds us.

John Cage was thinking along the same lines in music when he composed his notorious “Silence” (better known as 4’33”, though that title refers only to David Tudor’s infamous performance). Music is made up of a collection of sounds, but those sounds can only exist in counterpoint to silence. Composers even write silences (“rests”) into their scores, so the quietest possible score would simply be one rest – all silence.

Only, there is no such thing as true silence – at least not outside the vacuum of space. In real life, “silence” is made up of all the miscellaneous sounds of the Universe. The audience at David Tudor’s first performance of 4’33” would have been confronted by many sounds during the “silence” of the performance – audience members fidgeting and coughing, dogs barking and cars driving by outside. All of these became part of the performance in a beautifully unpredictable way. Cage put the roar of “silence” in everyday life in sharp focus. And like the Rauschenberg, every performance of “Silence” is unique.

These may seem pretentious approaches to art to many, but they fascinate and inspire me.

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Pardon the abrupt segue.

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Media player visualizations frustrate me because they are a one-way transform. There are lots of ways to make pretty pictures from sound, but it’s not so obvious how to make sounds from images.

Well, there are an infinite number of ways to make sounds from images. But I wanted to answer the question, what does the Mona Lisa sound like? And I wanted one process which would make a Rothko sound like a Rothko, and a Pollock sound like a Pollock. At least the way Rothkos and Pollacks look to me like they should sound.

(A Jackson Pollock should, of course, sound like Ornette Coleman. But that’s a topic for another day.)

I have devised a method for transforming images to sound which more or less accomplishes this and wrote a program to convert BMP files to WAV files. Here is a sample using the Rauschenberg combine Rebus.

Rauschenberg Rebus Sketch 1

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