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Wall Pepper, By Joab !

Reprinted from PitchWeekly, a newspaper for Metro Kansas City

Art you up  
     "Viruses, when the lens is right,"
   "change into a bright bouquet."
    --Henry Wit, "First Photos of the Flu Virus"

    Ahh, the problem of what to put on the computer desktop. This is more of a serious dilemma than you might think. If you're like me, you stare at the computer screen all day, crunching numbers or words or code or whatever, only to return home and blow off the pressure by, say, playing Quake. The obvious question, besides the one about getting a life, is what are you going to put on your desktop, that background on the monitor you see whenever there's no programs running? Shouldn't this heavily trafficked piece of real estate be as pleasing to the eye as possible?

    Well, it takes some doing. Certainly, the choices Apple and Microsoft offer with their operating systems show us why these people are making their killings in the computer business rather than in the art world. Take Windows 95 for example. Obviously, Gates' boys were too busy thinking up ruthless predatory competitor-crushing tactics to worry about picking out a few eye-pleasing decorative patterns. In fact, it seems as if they went out of their way to throw on some butt ugly choices, like "Metal Links" (yeah, right. Just what any computer needs, a menacing industrial look) and the almost dada-esque "Houndstooth."

    I'm still surprised how many people go with that default icky-green background or some other choice that just screams aesthetic indifference. (Awhile back, I was helping my boss set up her new computer and, out of all the possible choices, she chose "Setup," that unfocused blue-ish morass that fills the screen whenever a Microsoft program is installed. What was she thinking?)

    For Windows 95, Microsoft had the good taste to commission pop music visionary Brian Eno to score a 6-second soundbit that plays every time Windows boots up (which admittedly many people don't enjoy either, though I think it sounds much better played backwards). So why not hire a few decorative artists to create some pleasant backdrops for the next release?

    Until then, we're on our own. Oh sure, there is commercial software just chock full of patterns, which is fine if you're really into paintings of wizards playing chess by castles or some such fantasy. The Net warrior knows better, though, than to pay for what can be had for free with only a bit of scrounging. Art is, after all, where you find it.

    Some help in this endeavor can be found in both the Netscape and Microsoft browsers. Both can easily transfer any image from the Web to the desktop. With this feature, all the World Wide Web is your palette. Oddly enough however, I've found that the best images online weren't particularly intended for the desktop, but nonetheless look good there.

    I've picked out some fresh Callirhoe involucrata from the Vascular Plant Image Gallery (www.csdl.tamu.edu/FLORA/ gallery.htm). Once bored with that, I went to The Institute for Molecular Virology's Visualization of Viruses (www.bocklabs.wisc.edu/virusviztop.html), and found some colorful molecular surface visualizations of viruses, like the shockingly yellow choral reef-like Herpesvirus and the wonderfully intricate Rhinovirus 14. Moving from the very tiny to the very large, I came across some dramatic shots of the universe from Hubble Space Telescope at the Space Telescope Science Institute (http://oposite.stsci.edu/pubinfo/latest.html). The Mars Pathfinder site (http://mpfwww.jpl.nasa.gov/MPF/index1.html) had some unearthly yet becalming panoramas of our neighbor planet's rocky surface. Mathematics has always lead to colorful abstractions. Dynamic fractal patterns-very unfashionable, but still pretty neat, can be found at the Fractal Clearinghouse: (www.cybercom.net/~kmcguire/ fractal.htm).

    My favorite background, however, comes from The Primordial Soup Kitchen (http://psoup.math.wisc.edu/kitchen.html). It's the one on the main page, rich overlapping shades of blue punctuated by rectangular specs of yellow, orange and gold. It's refreshing, sprightly, not too loud, flashy but not trendy. (It helped that I went into my display setting in the control panel of Windows 95 and changed the display option from "center" to "tile" so the pattern covered the entire desktop.) Other "Particle Postcards" at the kitchen have landscape-like patterns even more unearthly than Pathfinder's space shots. There are also Java applets on this site for generating original patterns.

    Created by David Griffeath, a math professor at the University of Wisconsin, the images at the Primordial Soup Kitchen were created with mathematical formulas that generate spatial structure from disordered initial states. The process is called "random cellular automata."

    What I've found with all these images is that not only did they nearly rival the offerings the more traditional fine art sites like Mark Harden's Artchive (www.artchive.com) but many got me thinking as well. What would life on Mars be like? What are viruses anyway? What are these worlds, exactly, that random cellular automata create? Like the best art, they reveal realities we barely conceive of.

    Got questions or Internet info for Joab? E-mail him at joabj@charm.net.

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