Max Pihlström

Terra Firma, 2018

”Translation is an instantiating act where moments are sequenced through time. In the visual domain, video lends itself as the natural medium for such a process, so I had made some video material with my networks where morphing clouds were translated into moving shapes.”


Many artworks currently (in the summer of 2021) showing at our webpage are made by Uppsala-based computer scientist and image analyst Max Pihlström. Max works as a senior research scientist at Vironova AB in Stockholm, a company focusing on the development of electron microscopy for sub-visible particle analysis. In his work, he constantly finds himself reflecting upon the aesthetical side to this development and holds the distinction between art and technology to be a blurry one.

Pihlström’s private art practice revolves around the exploration of digital preconditions underlying imagery. With his own software for image editing – itself an open and always unfinished artwork in continuous development- he renders images digitally to explore classical art-historical themes such as notions of surface, contours, and form.

Max’s works have earlier been exhibited at the Belgradian art gallery, O3ONE Art space, and we are happy to be able to present his works here once again to a broader public. His works remind us at Differens Magazine about the possibilities in the digital environment and point toward the limitlessness of its qualities.

Our editor-in-chief, Amanda Winberg, have conducted an interview with Max, revolving around the project Terra Firma, to which the images currently exhibited at our webpage belong.

Find the entire interview below ↓

25-28th March 2021, Facebook Messenger:

a: Hi Max, how are you?

m: Hi! Quite good, thank you.

a: Let’s talk a little bit about your project Terra Firma since we will be showing a part of this project at our webpage. It was in the early 2018, the fog lay heavy around Uppsalas river, Fyrisån, and the project was slowly taking shape?

m: Something like that. Days of haze, certainly. This was the mid-term year of Trump and the hysteria about fake news was only escalating. Wherever you stood politically, or apolitically, you were reminded of the propagation of lies. Everyone saw themselves, or perhaps more so the others, as victims of misinformation and distorted reality. In Sweden, I remember, the debate about immigration was in full swing.

Terra firma is a series of works where I explored generative AI hands on, playing around with freely available code in various convoluted ways, just for its own sake. I was interested in questions about content and form, essence, or perhaps the obliteration of essence. What would be solid ground in a world where fake and reality are radically indistinguishable? It’s a theme fit for a post-nihilist era. I mean, in one way or the other utterances remain, traces which read.

a: Hm, this makes me think about Derrida’s trace*, but let’s come back to that later. You describe the global situation and the fake-news storm at the beginning of 2018 as a central issue in your works, but I, coming from the outside, can’t help but wonder: what was circulating in the tech-world at the time?

m: Well, in technological spheres things were actually looking bright and blooming. Any business leader who wasn’t buzzing about artificial intelligence (AI) was missing out, and so many tech-minded people found themselves in comfortable positions. At this point, Google seemed able to read your mind with its smart search suggestions; translations services had become advanced enough that you could read foreign news sites with ease, and image detection systems were now so sophisticated that those I-am-not-a-robot tests when signing up for online accounts had, ironically, become quite hard to pass. And then came this generative AI technology which could produce convincing fake photographs from thin air, en masse. It was the last thing the world asked for, an anti-antidote setting things up for the perfect storm. I admit I found it all quite exciting.

a: For those who are not at all familiar with your aesthetical practices, what would you say is the main current running through the artistic projects of yours?

m: Most people think computer programming is all about being logical, even programmers do. But that’s not the full story. Software is about logic the way a carpenter’s work is about geometry. The carpenter’s drill is twisted in a spiral to transport wood from the hole; a programmer writes if-then statements and loops to move bits around in some desired fashion. The spiral and the loop are, I’m hesitant to say, just tools for the job — they are the turnout in a matrix of practice. Programming just happens to be an abstract matrix.

In my adolescent years I used to be burdened by the conflict between reductionist rationality and that passionate holism of the fine arts. Rather than resorting to the renaissance ideal of excellence in both science and art, nowadays I actually think of my practices in terms of alchemy: any practice is a manifestation of the psyche and a result of the hermeneutic cycle* that forms.

Much of my visual art is black and white, monochromatic. I’d hate to think that’s because I’m a programmer being surrounded by zeroes and ones. The causality is not that simple, but there are common roots. I’m an image analyst by trade. In image analysis you are interested in the elements that constitute images. The way perception works for instance, edge structure — contour — is important, which is to say it is a carrier of information, or, one could say, of meaning. Image formats like JPEG make use of this in order to compress images for faster download. This means the idea about the elemental role of contour is a veritable aspect of reality. Faster downloads, after all, that’s concrete, it’s truth. I find that fascinating. So I have come to approach art from an information theoretical point of view.

Conversely, I’m also interested in randomness, the arbitrary event. In algorithmic information theory, randomness is defined as those patterns that cannot be reduced by some rule. Rules and randomness are complementary, they go hand in hand. If everything were predictable by some rule, everything could be summarized in an instance. There would be no movement, no notion of time, no meaning — nothingness. So I tend to find inspiration in the arbitrary, the aleatoric, which for me is represented by nature and the contingency of my surroundings. And also by color. Your magazine for instance. Why blue? I mean, there may be thought and intent behind the choice, I don’t know that. But I ask: why is blue? That’s amazing.

a: To return to Terra Firma: Terra firma represents neural networks, how come you took aesthetic interest in neural networks?

m: I had been tinkering on a neural network which transformed images of foggy clouds into black and white silhouetted shapes. I chose clouds because they are fractals, they are self-similar. You may have noticed when looking out the window of an airplane that the cloudscapes can appear to be very close, as if within reaching distance, and at the same time very far away, in vast expansion: you attain no concept of scale, no ground. Clouds are self-constituting and because of that, in a sense, devoid of meaning. But we willingly interpret them, and similarly the network gave them meaning by translating them into shapes. Form from void, content from chaos. That was the idea.

a: The images featured at our webpage are stills from a time representation of a rendering process where you run pictures of clouds through playful combinations of neural networks. How would you describe this method of image production? 

m: Translation is an instantiating act where moments are sequenced through time. In the visual domain, video lends itself as the natural medium for such a process, so I had made some video material with my networks where morphing clouds were translated into moving shapes. The temporal continuity of video is suggestive, especially so because to me it always seemed to be something tentative about it. Video is ephemeral, a document of the contingency of events, pointing towards infinity but never catching up. That’s its strength. In contrast, images are associated with permanence, totality, platonic ideals and so on. This got me thinking about how these two notions of the eternal could be reconciled. I wrote some code which in a way projects the video across the spatial plane. The image is bounded in the plane by its borders, but it could go on forever and expand into infinity, just like the clouds.

a: The technological and perhaps logical investigations motivating you might be to intricate to be fully explored here, but I’m still curious. How would you in broader terms describe the logical queries that inspire you in your exploration of aesthetics?

m: My investigations are indeed logical in the Wittgenstein sense of concerning first principles relationships*. Wittgenstein’s philosophy by the way, though expressed in mathematical jargon, was markedly passionate, one could even say ethical, certainly aesthetic. Guys like Frege had come up with things like Begriffsschrift”* in attempts to capture the essence of pure thought, which to them was synonymous with logic. The approach and the general attitude changed gradually with time throughout Wittgenstein’s life. Today, logic and mathematics is in some ways much more of a constructivist’s activity, meaning mathematicians do not lay claim on the nature of reality but rather more explore those abstract structures that seem to tell a story, so to speak. Computers, as once conceived by Alan Turing, have had no small role in this development, but it took some serious first principles thinking to come up with the necessary concepts. Furthermore, I don’t think logic as pure thought is a dead notion; it has just switched orientation and topos. The kind of constructivism which is central to the computational worldview in fact opens wide gates of mystery. For example, the mathematical work of Turing’s undecidability problem and Kurt Gödel’s incompleteness theorems*, which are essentially the same thing, tells us that reduction, by its own nature, inevitably leads to irreducible, unknowable states of fact. That, to me, is a marvellous conundrum and a source for queries of solace and aesthetic inspiration.

a: I was noticing earlier that you seemed to use the terms “utterance” and “trace” in a Derridean sense, and speaking here of Kurt Gödel, my mind wandered to a discussion we had a couple of years ago about the similarities in Gödel’s incompleteness theorem and Derrida’s critique of metaphysics.* As I find Derrida to be one of the most fascinating philosophers of the 20th century, I naturally ask myself what Derridean notions could be at play here. 

m: I have this idiosyncratic approach to philosophy which is very much informed by my formal studies of algorithms. At times I’ve wondered if I’m completely delirious: if all you have is a hammer you see only nails, that type of thing. That’s why I got so excited reading Derrida’s Introduction to Husserl’s Origin of Geometry* where near the end he mentions Gödel on the topic of the undecidable*, which I believe was later developed into the moral concept of l’avenir*. I was relieved. I may have gone mad, but I didn’t misconstrue!

I think Derrida is terrific. For many years now, on and off, I’ve been working on my own painting app, rethinking how images are produced and represented from the ground and up. Initially I had plans on making art with my software, but as time went on and I kept exploring, it became more and more apparent that the software itself, and the process of developing it, was the true artwork. All this, the first principles and the meta state of things, has got me thinking a lot about the limits of language and art and aesthetics. Evasive notions like différance have been conducive in consolidating some of my views.

a: And, for a final question: What do you think about Elon Musk? Elon Musk recently had a baby with musician and artist Grimes (Clare Boucher). What do you think about the relationship of art and technology in the future?         

m: Technology is intertwined with art. That’s a trivial conclusion if you regard culture itself as technology, which I think you can, perhaps should. But it’s also the case in the more specific and narrow meaning of the word, as those tools and techniques available for creating things and at disposal for expressing yourself through some medium. The camera changed the premises for visual art. Before that, mathematical understanding of the world, about light and perspective, had changed much of what depiction entailed. This is not to mention what the alphabet and the printing press did for the written word. Neural networks mimic at least some aspect of the brain, and with that they represent the, in a way, ultimate technology: the mind. What does it mean to have a tool that can potentially be creative — and employ tools? Again, what is solid ground, the fertile soil, in a world where technology itself can sow and harvest ecologies of technology?

Regarding Elon Musk, I don’t think about him much. He’s a hard worker, I respect that. I also think electric vehicles can’t arrive soon enough, so that’s great about his cars. I couldn’t care less about (outer) space exploration though. I wish AI could come to surprise us in such a way that it becomes an existential threat for humanity, but I think our demise, with super-human AI or not, will be much more boring and pathetic, really. And as for us living in a simulation, I find such musings quite naïve and nonsensical. Then again, nonsense is alright.


*Derrida’s trace:

Jacques Derrida, (1930 – 2004) was a french philosopher and post-structuralist who founded ”deconstruction”. His critique of Western philosophy and analyses of the nature of language, writing, and meaning were highly controversial yet immensely influential in much of the intellectual world in the late 20th century.

”Derrida understands the trace as the most minimal form of ‘life’, which for Derrida is the constitution and repetition (preservation) of meaning/identity (this is a phenomenological conception). A trace is, as you know, a mark here and now of something else, of something not-here and not-now. Derrida wants to try and think the trace as being fundamental.[…] A classical thinking would simply say here that the trace can be explained on the basis of the founding categories of presence and absence. For although the trace’s origin is absent, this absence is only a kind of presence, a presence that is not here but could be, and indeed once was. Obviously the ‘origin’ of the stain on my shirt is not present here and now, but it was present when it happened. The fact that I cannot see the event that constituted this stain right now is a contingent, empirical matter. Derrida wants to argue that the mediation of the trace is ultimately irreducible, that a reference elsewhere is the fundamental form of experience. In order to be fundamental, of course, this ‘elsewhere’ that the trace points to cannot be something thinkable outside of or before the trace – for then this ‘elsewhere’ would be what is fundamental. However, in order to be a trace, it really must point beyond itself. […] Derrida believes that this irreducible character of the trace is shown by Edmund Husserl’s account of time-consciousness. According to Husserl, the absolute form of consciousness, of everything that can appear is the “living present”, which is not a simple static and eternal “now”, but a now necessarily mediated with a past and future. […] In other words, every experience has the form of a trace. For experience is the present consciousness of a past and future; every present understands itself as not being its own origin (it has a past, which is elsewhere, and ‘elsewhen’), and also understands itself as incomplete (it has a future, which is not here, not yet). […] The trace amounts to the claim that the rational minimum is a relation, between presence and absence, say, that cannot be reduced to a self-identical instance of any sort. Every experience points beyond itself, but what is pointed to cannot have any value outside of such pointing.”

PhD. Sam Oliver, University from Essex

*Hermeneutic circle:

”Central to hermeneutics, this concept is not only highly disputed but has also been developed in a number of distinct manners. Broadly, however, the concept of the hermeneutical circle signifies that, in interpretive experience, a new understanding is achieved not on the basis of already securely founded beliefs. Instead, a new understanding is achieved through renewed interpretive attention to further possible meanings of those presuppositions which, sometimes tacitly, inform the understanding that we already have. Philosophers have described such hermeneutically circular presuppositions in different ways and, since Heidegger, especially in terms of presuppositions of the existential and historical contexts in which we find ourselves. This contemporary significance of hermeneutically circular presuppositions has origins in an older (and perhaps more commonly known) formulation, namely, that interpretive experience—classically, that of text interpretation—involves us in a circular relation of whole and parts. This formulation derives from antiquity and has a place in the approaches of nineteenth-century figures such as Schleiermacher and Dilthey. On the one hand, it is necessary to understand a text as a whole in order properly to understand any of its parts. On the other hand, however, it is necessary to understand the text in each of its parts in order to understand it as a whole.”

*First principle – :

Regarding basic propositions and assumptions that cannot be deduced from other propositions or assumptions, and is thus of a fundamental, often metaphysical, nature.

*Frege’s Begriffsschrift:

Gottlob Frege (1848 – 1925) was a German mathematician, logician, and philosopher who worked at the University of Jena. Frege essentially reconceived the discipline of logic by constructing a formal system which, in effect, constituted the first ‘predicate calculus’. In this formal system, Frege developed an analysis of quantified statements and formalized the notion of a ‘proof’ in terms that are still accepted today.

In 1879, Frege published his first book Begriffsschrift, eine der arithmetischen nachgebildete Formelsprache des reinen Denkens (Concept Notation: A formula language of pure thought, modelled upon that of arithmetic) where he first set out to realize Leibniz’s ideas for a universal formal language and a rational calculus. In Begriffschrift he developed a formal notation for regimenting thought and reasoning.

*Gödel’s incompleteness theorems:

Gödel’s two incompleteness theorems are among the most important results in modern logic. They concern the limits of provability in formal axiomatic theories. The first incompleteness theorem states that in any consistent formal system, within which a certain amount of arithmetic can be carried out, there are statements of the language in this formal system which can neither be proved nor disproved within the system. According to the second incompleteness theorem, such a formal system cannot prove that the system itself is consistent (assuming it is indeed consistent). These results have had a great impact on the philosophy of mathematics and logic.

*Derrida’s critique of metaphysics:

Derrida contends that the opposition between speech and writing is a manifestation of the “logocentrism” of Western culture—i.e., the general assumption that there is a realm of “truth” existing prior to and independent of its representation by linguistic signs. Logocentrism encourages us to treat linguistic signs as distinct from and inessential to the phenomena they represent, rather than as inextricably bound up with them. This logocentric conception of truth and reality as existing outside language is, according to Derrida, dependent on a deep-seated prejudice in Western philosophy, which Derrida characterizes as the “metaphysics of presence.” This is the tendency to conceive fundamental philosophical concepts such as truth, reality, and being in terms of ideas such as presence, essence, identity, and origin—and in the process to ignore the crucial role of absence and difference.

Derrida’s Introduction to Husserl’s Origin of Geometry:

Edmund Husserl’s Origin of Geometry: An Introduction (1962) is Jacques Derrida’s earliest published work. In this commentary-interpretation of the famous appendix to Husserl’s The Crisis of European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology, Derrida argues that although Husserl privileges speech over writing in an account of meaning and the development of scientific knowledge, this privilege is in fact unstable. Instead, Derrida relates writing to some of his key concepts as differing, consciousness, presence, and historicity. Starting from Husserl’s method of historical investigation, Derrida gradually unravels a deconstructive critique of phenomenology itself, which forms the foundation for his later criticism of Western metaphysics as a metaphysics of presence.

Husserl’s -:

Edmund Husserl (1859 – 1938) was the principal founder of phenomenology—and thus one of the most influential philosophers of the 20th century. He has made important contributions to almost all areas of philosophy and anticipated central ideas of its neighbouring disciplines such as linguistics, sociology and cognitive psychology.

Derrida’s undecidables:

Starting from an Heideggerian point of view, Derrida argues that metaphysics affects the whole of philosophy from Plato onwards. Metaphysics creates dualistic oppositions and installs a hierarchy that unfortunately privileges one term of each dichotomy (presence before absence, speech before writing, and so on). The deconstructive strategy is to unmask these too-sedimented ways of thinking, and it operates on them especially through two steps—reversing dichotomies and attempting to corrupt the dichotomies themselves. The strategy imply that there are undecidables, that is, something that cannot conform to either side of a dichotomy or opposition. Undecidability returns in later period of Derrida’s reflection, when it is applied to reveal paradoxes involved in notions such as gift giving or hospitality, whose conditions of possibility are at the same time their conditions of impossibility. Because of this, it is undecidable whether authentic giving or hospitality are either possible or impossible.


Derrida’s l’avenir:

Derrida: ”In general, I try to distinguish between what one calls the future and ”l’avenir”. The future is that which – tomorrow, later, next century – will be. There’s a future that is predictable, programmed, scheduled, foreseeable. But there is a future, l’avenir (to come), which refers to someone who comes whose arrival is totally unexpected. For me that is the read future. That which is the totally unpredictable. The Other who comes without my being able to anticipate their arrival. So if there is a real future beyond the other known future, it’s l’avenir in that it’s the coming of the Other when I am compleatly unable to foresee their arrival.”

Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering Kofman. Derrida: Screenplay and Essays on the Film. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2005. pg. 53.