Michael A. Robinson — Somma at DISPLAY

Installation view of Somma

Michael A. Robinson’s site-specific project Somma, at DISPLAY in Parma, Italy, is the sum of many parts, all operating in tandem. The installation appears simple, featuring three wall-mounted LED works and metal arcs and hoops suspended from the ceiling. The space’s glossy floor and glass façade and door reflect the light emitted by the LEDs, potentially multiplying their presence based on the viewer’s position and the level of ambient light.

The installation’s linear symbols written in bright LEDs—X, -, +— suggest a space of infinite computational complexity. At the deepest levels of silicon, computers use simple operations, looped and repeated, to perform even the most complex calculations. Reading machine code or assembly language can be intimidating because the actual instructions the computer executes bear little resemblance to human thought or language. These instructions include Boolean logical operators like “and”, “or”, and “nor” that compare values stored in memory to each other, as well as instructions that increment, decrement, or otherwise manipulate values stored in the accumulator, processor registers, and memory addresses. A vast universe of computational possibilities emerges from simple commands like these, executed billions of times per second.

Somma, while not using computers per se, still seems to operate according to a digital logic of accumulating and repeating discrete elements. It presents a vast visual space in which we can encounter recognizable symbols that become mirrored, flipped, and manipulated according to our point of view relative to the installation. The metal shapes act as a counterpoint to the symbols, their curves standing out next to the sharp lines of LEDs on the walls. Seen against the bright lights, they resemble floaters in the viewer’s field of vision, collagen fibers in the vitreous gel of the eye casting shadows against the retina. They could be seen as disruptions to the glowing harmony of the symbols, or perhaps, as disparate parts of a larger whole. Despite dissimilarities in form and materials, the symbols and shapes are flattened into one image inside the viewer’s eye: the sum of all available visual information.

Installation view of Somma
Installation view of Somma

Another work that seeks to sum up visual data is the long running digital art piece Every Icon by John F. Simon, Jr. Every Icon demonstrates the abyssal vastness of computational possibility even under extreme limitations: a black and white 32 by 32-pixel icon. The work iterates sequentially through every combination of pixels in the grid, one after another, in hope of producing every possible image within the confines of its frame. The project began on January 14, 1997, and the first row of pixels of the grid filled up quickly, turning completely black on June 8, 1998. The second row, however, has taken quite a bit longer to progress. The most recent pixel in the second row to be activated was the fourth one, which flipped on November 4, 2018. The fifth is due on August 15, 2040, according to Patrick Lemieux’s Every Icon Editor program. The number of years it will take to completely fill the entire grid is an incomprehensible 264-digit number.

I see Somma as operating on a similar logic as Every Icon, except functioning in space rather than time. The installation iterates through possible arrangements of elements as the viewer moves around outside the exhibition space, from the outside looking in, or potentially entering and viewing it from the inside looking out. The amount of time it would take to see the full sum of Somma, to experience the minute differences of every possible viewpoint and perspective, would be far longer than the show is on view.

Is there some grand message to be gained from seeing every possible perspective of the installation? Perhaps meaning can be found in the act of iteration and accumulation itself, like the tense buildup to Every Icon’s dead black square at the end of time. Even if we can’t comprehend exactly what information is being processed within the confines of Somma, there is a sense that something is happening, some form of visual or symbolic meaning refreshing and reconfiguring itself at the electrical frequency of the human nervous system.

Installation view of Somma

All photo courtesy of DISPLAY

Somma by Michael RobinsonThrough October 16th, 2022 DISPLAY is an artist-run/project space in Vicolo al Leon d’Oro 4/A, 4321, Parma, Italy

Roman Kalinovski is an artist, writer, and curator. He received a BFA in painting from Syracuse University’s College of Visual and Performing Arts and a MFA in studio art from Pratt Institute. His writings on art, culture, and technology have appeared in publications including artcritical, Hyperallergic, Quiet Lunch, Digitally Downloaded, and in various catalogs and journals. He has presented at international conferences including Electronic Literature Organization conferences in Victoria and Montreal, and multiple Posthuman Symposiums at NYU. He is the Senior Editor of the online magazine Arcade Project and the Associate Director of its exhibition space in Bushwick, Arcade Project Curatorial. He lives and works in Brooklyn.