I’ve found that over-exposure to contemporary art is counterproductive.
In terms of visual imagery, my mind is a sponge.
If I spend too much time looking at the work of other artists,
my own sense of creative identity starts to lose focus and dissipate.
We human beings have evolved rapidly relative to other species because we learned to make and use tools. From the wheel to the mobile telephone such tools have not only served us but also shaped the way we live and the way we relate to each other. As they become ever more complex, some people think that machines will soon become better at ‘thinking’ than humans. If computer computational power doubles every two years [an assertion is known as Moore’s Law], then it will – the argument goes – outstrip the human brain by the middle of this century. But can a computer create? Or is an act of imagination something only human beings can achieve?
These questions come to mind when one considers the work of Murray McKeich, a new-media photo-artist from Melbourne. He uses computer software not simply as a tool, but as the creator of art. While he is the mastermind who writes the software, it is ultimately the machine that makes the decisions that directly lead to the creation of the image. It is an unusual way of working and one that disturbs some people. But he believes it is the way of the future.
Created from many photographic elements, these images are essentially digitally layered collages. Various small objects and materials are digitised on a flat-bed scanner to build a library of image fragments that will later be the basis of the work. In some cases, these basic materials are found in a specific place and used to create a work that is later displayed in that same place; a site specific work made from and for a particular location.
For example, Murray McKeich was commissioned to make a work for exhibition in the Town Hall of Clunes, a regional municipality of the state of Victoria. The town grew up in the 19th-century gold rush and is now often used as a location for shooting period dramas. Although it seems well preserved, much of the architectural detail is actually set décor left over from previous cinematic projects. That blending of old and new, real and fantasy, echoes the way in which European colonists, arriving in Australia in previous centuries, brought with them the trappings of the Old World and overlaid them onto the raw frontier existence of the new settlements.
For the Clunes commission, Murray McKeich created a series of life-size figures and groups. Each image was constructed by a software program from scans made of materials found in and around the town. However, the shapes formed from these elements suggest the clothing of aristocratic Europeans long before the town of Clunes was founded. What is particularly effective is the way the artist draws the exhibition visitor in to become complicit in this layering process. Each image has a hole where the head would be. Visitors are invited to place their face into the hole and thus ‘finish’ the figure. In doing so they complete the imaginative layering that blends history and mythology, aspiration and nostalgia in a way that both evokes and plays with the émigré psyche.
Alasdair: Your images are made in a very unusual way.
Murray: Yes. They are constructed from a great number of separate photographic elements collaged together. But I don’t directly compose the imagery piece by piece. I design computer software systems that produce the artworks. A computer composes the images and animations based on a broad outline of instructions that I write into the software code. It’s an automated process.
In very simple terms, this software system chooses the various elements to be used in the image from a visual archive I have scanned into the computer. It then organises them into the formal arrangements of the finished artworks. This process does not require my direct involvement and I see each artwork for the first time only when it is completed. It is very rare for me to make any further changes to the computer-generated piece.
In this way of working, the software systems I design have a role akin to highly trained and trusted studio assistants; technically skilled individuals that can quickly produce many individual artworks based on a general idea. I then review all the images produced and select only a small number to be exhibited. This process relies largely on serendipity. Although I create each system with a general idea of what it will eventually produce, it is in the automated production that the unexpected and surprising arise. This is what interests me.
Have you always worked in this way?
This automated art making is the outcome of a creative strategy that pre-dates my use of digital media. I have always tried to avoid overt meaning in my images because I find mysterious ambiguity far more fascinating. Like many other artists, I rely heavily on instinct to help conjure novel images. However, the price paid for developing skill and expertise is that you can become trapped in the habits of practice. It can become very hard for your imagination to break out of well-defined ruts and grooves.
I use the computer as a form of imagination prosthesis. Although it’s common to think of computers as the epitome of rational logic, it is their capacity for irrational computation that I have found most valuable. Such systems have allowed me to move beyond my entrenched habits and physical limitations. The sublimation of my role as creator into the abstractions of software design has helped my artworks achieve the enigmatic qualities I am seeking.
What equipment do you use?
I use a flatbed scanner as a digital camera. Leaving the lid of the scanner up, I place an object on the glass plate and scan it in same way you would scan a document. I’ve employed this technique since I began using personal computers some twenty years ago. Many of the stylistic qualities associated with my work are simply the result of this process. For example, my images often include the chiaroscuro lighting effect of forms emerging from a dark background. I did not deliberately set out to achieve this effect; it developed naturally from the process of placing objects on a scanner.
Why did you start to work this way?
Early on, I found new visual ideas by combining two images together to form a hybrid. If an interesting idea emerged, I’d continue adding elements and building piece-by-piece towards a finished composition. This was very time-consuming. The first of my three children was born in 2000 and I also began work as a full-time academic. Between work and family, I had very little time or energy left for art making.
We’re inclined to think that it is the limits of imagination and inspiration that constrain an artist’s creative potential. But, in my experience, time is as necessary as inspiration. It takes time to experiment and explore the best way to produce good new work.
I’d already been using Photoshop for some years, but it wasn’t until I had no free time that I realised I could use this software to automate the first steps of my creative process. Even though I had no formal computer programming skills, I was able to get Photoshop to open two random images, combine them in a particular way and then save the resulting image as a new file. I could set up Photoshop to do this automatically for thousands of images overnight.
This not only increased the speed of my creative process, but also led to more interesting ideas. The random selections made by Photoshop were often more thought-provoking than those I would have made by conscious choice. I quickly developed more sophisticated systems until they reached the point where an image could be created from start to finish automatically.
One of your best-known series is called ‘p-Zombies’. What is a p-Zombie?
A p-Zombie is a philosophical Zombie. It’s a theoretical construct that cognitive scientists use to test arguments about the nature of human sentience. The p-Zombie arises from the question: how can you tell that another person is a true human being and not just a zombie giving the appearance of being a real person?
I loved the term and I thought it made an interesting reference to the way I work. In my case: how can you tell whether an artwork has been made by Murray McKeich or by a computer emulating Murray McKeich’s creative decisions?
I think the issues at stake are interesting. My work suggests that we underestimate the capacity of software to emulate human decision-making and we overestimate the complexity of human creative processes. Many people find the idea of computers autonomously creating artworks an anathema or a novelty, but I think that the way I work will be very common in the future.
© Murray McKeich ‘p-Zombies’ animation
Even though these ‘portraits’ are made by machine they have a curiously ‘human’ quality to them; even more so when the series was animated. How did you achieve that in the programming?
The curiously human quality of the p-Zombies was relatively easy to achieve. Humans are hardwired from birth to recognise, and be interested in, human faces. All an artist needs to do is provide a few well-chosen visual clues and the viewer’s imagination will do the rest of the work. A smiley face is a good example of this. In order to encourage a viewer to imaginatively humanise a form, you need to leave space for their imagination to do the work. To this end, what you leave out is as important as what you leave in.
What made you decide to become a photographer and how has your career developed?
I was trained as a graphic designer and illustrator in pre-digital techniques. However, I was never creatively fulfilled by commercial art and in 1993, hoping to develop a more satisfying practice, I began full-time study in the new field of Desktop Computer-Aided Art & Design.
When I first began learning Photoshop it was difficult to get good quality photographic imagery into the computer. High resolution digital cameras and film scanners where prohibitively expensive. But, we soon learned that the flatbed scanner in our school computer lab could be used to create high-resolution images by scanning small objects placed directly on the glass plate.
Within a few years of learning to use computers, I had the opportunity to create editorial illustration work for ‘21C’ magazine. The magazine gave me a great deal of creative freedom – far more than I ever had as a commercial artist in advertising – and I began to develop a distinct visual style of my own. There was a lot of interest in new-media art at that time. Magazines and galleries where looking for computer-generated work and I was given the opportunity to publish and exhibit in contemporary art contexts. Until then I had never thought of myself as a gallery artist and knew very little about the world of contemporary art.
How do people respond to your work?
I think my work polarises people. Generally, they either love it or hate it. I think that those people who like my work have an immediate and instinctive aesthetic attraction to it that defies fashion or taste. For those that find this challenging, I put it this way: my art is to make makers and my makers make art. In the future, I think people will get more used to the idea of system building being a legitimate and authentic art practice.
More generally, what is your view of art photography today?
I’m a voracious consumer of other forms of culture, but not visual art. I don’t always enjoy going to galleries and I rarely read art magazines. I’ve found that over-exposure to contemporary art is counterproductive. In terms of visual imagery, my mind is a sponge. If I spend too much time looking at the work of other artists, my own sense of creative identity starts to lose focus and dissipate.
What advice would you give to a young photomedia artist starting out?
Do not become obsessively focused on software proficiency. You can achieve a great deal with just a little technical knowledge. Trying to learn everything is a trap that can waste a great deal of time and not result in any increased creative value. The real long-term value is in understanding how to learn things as and when you need to know them.
 ‘21•C’ began in 1990 as an Australian magazine focused on technology, science and social issues that would affect the near future. In 1994 it moved to an international publisher and ran as a print magazine until 1999. More recently an online version has been published and can be found here…
Murray McKeich is a New Zealander currently living in Melbourne. He has a PhD from Monash University and is a lecturer in the School of Creative Media, RMIT University – both in Melbourne. His distinctive and innovative digital imagery has collected numerous national and international awards including The Visual Club of New York Award for Best Magazine Cover in 1996.
Photo: © Amellia Bartak
This article was initially published in Chinese, in the August 2013 issue of PhotoWorld magazine, Beijing.
First published in English at Talking Pictures in January 2020.