Last Saturday I visited the Park Avenue Armory to see the transfinite, a large-scale digital installation and sonic landscape designed by Japanese artist and electronic composer Ryoji Ikeda. the transfinite is stunning in size, mind boggling in its attempt to reveal the purity of a subject that fascinates some and is endlessly frustrating for others: mathematics.
In a statement by Ikeda, he said, “To me, the purest beauty is the world of mathematics. Its perfect assemblage of numbers, magnitudes and forms persist, independent of us…This project explores the transfinite (the infinite that is quantitative and ordered) intersection that lies between polarizations – the beautiful and the sublime; music and mathematics; performance and installation; composer and visual artist; black and white; Os and Is.”
Using data as the subject of his composition, Ikeda’s three-part installation creates an immersive experience – both visually and aurally. One side, called “test pattern” looks like a giant opened laptop with a stream of seemingly chaotic black and white material running across the screen, accompanied by the sound of blips. Viewers take off their shoes and can walk, sit, or stand anywhere on the floor. “test pattern” is both dynamic and dizzying, but what at first feels random is clearly much more. The patterns we see and sounds we hear are making sense of Ikeda’s data. There’s a rhythmic feeling to the sound, while the screen movement feels choreographed in spite of initially looking disorderly.
Walking around to the back of the installation, viewers are faced with a column of small, high-definition screens (called “data.scan”) that show streams of data, also visible on the larger screen (called “data.tron”). This back side reveals the mathematical order that feeds the front side. Only after seeing all the three parts did the installation start to cohere for me, and the orchestration start to make sense. the transfinite challenges viewers to understand data as an abstract experience – one that can be both seen and heard. It’s a struggle, and often beyond comprehension. But the beauty of the installation is its ability to reflect and explore the polarizations that Ikeda mentioned in his statement. the transfinite is both art and math, exhibit and live performance, planned orchestration but also interactive and highly personal. Data can be pretty black and white, but no two viewers will interpret the transfinite in quite the same way.