Complex Systems Summer School
Mark Chu is an Australian multidisciplinary artist who shows paintings internationally. His work focuses on abstraction through color and form. As an adolescent, Chu recorded as a solo pianist with Australian symphony orchestras and later worked as a restaurant critic for The Good Food Guide. He holds a fiction MFA from Columbia University and attended Complex Systems Summer School in 2019. In August, his first co-authored paper “Color Associations in Abstract Semantic Domains” was published in Cognition. (See the Computational Synthesia instagram for accompanying images.)
Briefly describe your primary research/academic work or other professional work.
My day job is painting. Every year I throw exhibitions, producing bodies of work with core concepts. I often create finished works during experimentation. For me experimentation involves formal considerations, like new colors, subjects and scale. Experiments can also be technical from a conceptual angle, like controlling accidents or channeling productive psyches. Laurent Garnier, a DJ, made an observation that these days too many creators think like brands. This gave me the confidence to be as eclectic as I want. My paintings can look like different artists did them—I try stretching that range. I also keep up projects in different disciplines, partly because I think it’s important getting to know the broadest variety of people possible—changing work contexts and roles helps. Learning is vital too and because I’m always in a rush I multitask badly, like having lunch in the shower while listening to lectures.
In what ways does the study of complexity science influence your thinking about your current work?
Because art is more than its properties summed, artists are exclusively engaged in the creation of emergence, a central term in complexity science. Like the word light, or texture, knowing a technical term like emergence gives me a specified intellectual space to think in. I can ask myself things like, has this splash or this color really induced a phase transition to the viewer? Francis Bacon said an artist’s work is to deepen the mystery. To me, rich mysteries go hand in hand with the embrace of concrete terms, because truly pushing back the shoreline of mystery means advancing banks of knowledge. When complexity science perceives a mystery, it always tries to solve it, and I love that. To me, this is the real pursuit of discovery, converting mysteries into knowledge to encounter new mysteries. Many cultural pseudo-myths are explainable through science, especially at a coarse grain resolution—like what art is. Science makes me communicate clearer, though I will say flow charts and domestic quarrels don’t always mix.
How did your experience at CSSS impact your professional and personal perspectives?
At CSSS I realized artists have done a poor job of educating the world about the fundamentals of art. I wish artists would engage the educational project of sharing art’s central values and broadcasting them—its inherent logic, not just examples. Many people don’t know the term aesthetics even when aesthetics causes much of modern life. Basic issues like the limits of subjectivity are counterintuitive and need explaining; Cantor’s hierarchy of infinities comes to mind. I’m definitely guilty here too, but I think art has obscured itself by mythologizing personalities, despite art’s profound collective history—understandable, because art’s big personalities are entertaining. CSSS showed me that fruitful cross-pollination depends on effective cross-pedagogy, which depends on a willingness to convey meaning explicitly. I want to encourage true interdisciplinarity in more artists, so cultural silos become porous. Artists are often fearful of society and this fear gets reconstituted into elitism, which is then justified through exalting the individual.
What interests do you have that might surprise your colleagues?
I like decorating my bedroom wall with cheese stickers. I like motels for their diverse travelers. I like stuffy restaurants because you have to have a good time on your own terms, whereas in buzzy places you’re eager to play a preset role. If these points seem trivial, it’s because I try to hoist interests into the work arena. Maybe it has something to do with impressing my parents but still being me. I’m lucky to have a life that allows it. I do watch a lot of reality TV though, and when I watch I analyze out loud. Commercial TV should never have more say than a person. Friends used to get impatient. Over the years my girlfriend’s tolerance has grown. Now she lets me pause, ramble, then rewind. Sometimes she rambles too and it can take hours to watch half an episode of The Bachelor.
All images courtesy of Mark Chu
This interview was conducted in August of 2020