This weekend I had the pleasure of visiting a show at the Phillips gallery featuring the abstract works of Georgia O’Keeffe. I adore O’Keeffe for her art, particularly her use of lines and colors, but this exhibition focused on the relationship between the abstract and the representational. These particular paintings exist on the edge between abstract compositions and depictions of flowers, bones, or landscapes. O’Keeffe is known for rebelling against the characteristics of realism in art, and claiming that “There is nothing less real than realism.” Instead, it is the abstract that most closely is connected to how we think of the world and understand it in our minds. Abstraction is the process of distilling a representation into its purest, simplest meanings. Realism does not convey experience; it conveys instead a rendition, an imposition of noise where there should be clarity. Realism detracts from the artist’s interpretation of meaning from a subject by chaining the representation to the object. O’Keeffe manages to do this without essentializing: her paintings of a jack-in-the-pulpit are not a claim that the images represent the true essence of the flower, but that they suggest her own experience of the flower, distilled.
Because I’m interested in games, this post necessarily has to connect somehow, and that is in procedural abstraction and representation. Games and simulations are abstractions of the world. Instead of depicting images, they depict processes. There is plenty of writing about the inappropriateness of realism for simulations, but one thing that can be learned from O’Keeffe is the role of the artist in the abstraction itself. The practice of abstraction is cognitive, gradual, and immensely personal. While O’Keeffe’s role in her art has been to transform objects into representations which are abstracted, personal, and artistically evocative, it is the role of the designer to derive rules in simulations which create dynamics and aesthetics that form a good experience for the player.
There are several dimensions for exploration here: O’Keeffe made several series in which she abstracted an image more and more until it became something that is far removed from its original subject, but still recognizable. An interesting exercise would be to simulate a system was with many rules so that it is realistic, and then gradually remove them until the system became more abstracted, but still recognizable. What kind of effect would such a series of systems have for a player? How would the designer make the choices of what rules to remove while reducing and abstracting gradually? A second exercise is to consider O’Keeffe’s artistic evocation of sexuality in her paintings of flowers. What would it mean to design a simulation which was abstractly representative, but also evocative of something else?