“[Suprematism’s] very otherness...provides a paradigm of a space-time universe, which is, naturally and logically, appropriate to the new perceptions of how the cognitive and phenomenal world of the late 20th century is operating.” - Catherine Cooke, The Lessons of the Avant-Garde
Malevi.ch is a web-based drawing app that allows users to assemble abstract compositions in their browser. Using gestures and a few parameters, users can generate primitive forms reminiscent of Suprematist art. But before examining the properties of the software itself, it is necessary to unpack, albeit briefly, some historical references on which it is built and for whom it is named after. What follows is a hybrid user-manual-essay describing the theoretical as well as practical mechanisms of Malevi.ch.
Malevi.ch, Suprematism, and Constructivism.
Kazimir Malevich ostensibly needs no introduction. The progenitor of Suprematist art and author of the notorious Black Square painting, he stands as one of the most prominent Russian painters of the early 20th century. Although it is generally accepted that Malevich’s contribution to the legacy of avant-garde art were the aesthetic and visual theories of Suprematism, the more fickle concepts underneath those theories, such as cosmic relationships and objectness (not to be confused with objectivity) have become topics of renewed interest in contemporary discourse. From re-readings of White on White, to a new translation of The Non-Objective World titled The World as Objectlessness as well as a forthcoming collection of his writings, Malevich’s ideas are being reworked for the digital (or postdigital) age warranting more scrutiny of the intricacies of Suprematism and Constructivism. However, this being a user manual and myself not being an art historian, I will address these topics as they pertain to the Malevi.ch app and its attendant cultural background.
It will come as no surprise that Suprematist themes have resurfaced in architecture before. In the era of Deconstruction, the proto-digital movement concerned with visual instability that branded itself as a metonymic offspring of deconstructionist literary theory and constructivist art, architects developed a formal vocabulary derived from Malevich, El Lissitzky, Leonidov, Tatlin, Rodchenko, Chernikhov and others from the Russian avant-garde. Yet the movement has been largely criticized for its superficiality and shallow appropriation of imagery. After the 1988 International Symposium on Deconstruction, Catherine Cooke was quick to point out that architects should first “clarify the range of work to which reference is being made, for several quite distinct philosophies and approaches are involved which have been too readily lumped together in critical literature as simply ‘constructivist’.” In other words, while both Suprematism and Constructivism consist of similar formal vocabularies, at a deeper level they are in fact dialectically opposed to each other, and one must be aware of this polarity when proposing such direct formal references.
In “Lessons of the Russian Avant-Garde” Cooke also singles out Rem Koolhaas and Bernard Tschumi as two figures who up to that point had made a career out of reassembling the oeuvres of Leonidov and Chernikhov into visually compelling projects. But Cooke does not chastise these architects for their misappropriation. After all, employing “spatial inventories” of repeatable forms was indeed a Constructivist technique. What should have been clarified was the project’s allegiance to Constructivism over Suprematism. Though it narrowly predates its counterpart, Suprematism eschews objects and clearly defined representations of things, and while it may rely on primitive geometries, figures in Suprematist art often exist as pure abstractions. Any reference to Malevich’s movement must therefore prioritize the immaterial over the graphic. Cooke’s “lessons” ask potential designers to carefully consider the theoretical baggage associated with certain visual languages. Perhaps due to constraints or simply due to lack of interest, it appears that Koolhaas, Tschumi, and the other Deconstructionists only brushed the surface of these movements, latching onto the imagery but avoiding deeper questions of fields, mysticism, infinity, and dematerialization, which formed their key underlying structure.
Deconstruction’s foible was crucial to the development of Malevi.ch, in particular the overlooked concept of infinite space. Though it was conceived as a geometric drawing tool, the primitive objects were seen as less important than the mechanisms behind them. It was therefore decided that the app should align itself with Suprematist ideas over Constructivist ones. Following Cooke’s description of Malevich’s paintings, the goal of the project was to design a “space of collisions and ‘events’” instead of one of “objects with precise measure” typically associated with CAD interfaces. If contemporary drafting software is centered around assemblies of pre-manufactured objects or the definition of objects as blocks, then Malevi.ch sought to transcend that and become an objectless drawing tool. The app would then create linkages between immaterial spaces, gestures, and their corresponding compositional effects.
Malevi.ch and the browser as “irrational space.”
Malevich famously defined Suprematism as art that is “liberated from objectness;” that doesn’t examine the world, but rather senses and feels it. For him the movement was a way of resetting painting to a tabula rasa condition, a “degree zero” as El Lissitzky put it. This would allow painting to cease its mimetic dependence on object representation and start to depict “objectlessness” through painterly effects. Anna Neimark’s On White on White is a recent example of an investigation that extends the potential reading of these painterly effects onto architectural imagery. Neimark suggests that Suprematist works imply an ambiguous relationship between objects and their shadows, an indeterminate depth. Along those lines I would suggest that Malevich’s objectlessness and dematerialization could also exist as ways of reevaluating the spatiality of images on digital screens and interfaces.
Suprematism’s immaterial properties are readily seen in the ubiquitous computing environments that surround us, not necessarily as graphic visual elements, but as gestures and instincts tied to software interactions. Software’s pervasiveness has engendered a new consciousness, which collapses the distinction between virtual and physical objects, and creates a tension similar to that of White on White’s off-white and pure-white; or what Neimark refers to as the real-time oscillation of figure-ground, figure-figure, and ground-ground.
The internet, as this ambiguous space in which the Malevi.ch app exists, can be further exemplified by Lissitzky’s concept of irrational space. Lissitzky proposed this abstraction of space as an evolution of Malevich’s work on the painterly surface, pushing for Suprematist space to be “formed not only forward from the plane but also backward in depth.” However much like Malevich rejected the literal object in favor of the abstracted object, Lissitzky saw perspective as a metaphor, whereas axonometry enabled “one reflect on infinity.” Axonometry became for Lissitzky the most appropriate mode of representing infinite space as it allowed elements to show depth without succumbing to the distortion of vanishing points. It was this relationship between non-converging lines and the lack of a single viewpoint that made his space irrational and ambiguous. This ambiguity would then “force the spectator to make constant decisions about how to interpret what he or she sees.”
Because of the infinite extensibility of depth and indirect experience of the passage of time, irrational space is perhaps the most appropriate description of today’s internet browser space. I would argue that both browser windows and Suprematist compositions tackle the subject of an “unrepresentable infinity.” Our internet browsers operate as interfaces that rectify an otherwise incomprehensible amount of coded instructions and data, yet they also collapse time and distance into a set of manageable flat layers through which we scroll, swipe, click. This space operates quite similarly to Lissitzky’s axonometry: the forward and backward buttons move one in the positive and negative directions, scroll bars move orthographically (and infinitely in some cases), and content is stacked on a Cascading Style Sheet canvas.
In the case of Malevi.ch, the browser acts as irrational space while the canvas on which the geometric objects are drawn resembles more closely Malevich’s examinations of the second and fourth dimensions, planimetry and time. Drawn objects in the app can interact with other objects according to forces and time, but cannot rotate in three dimensions nor extend outside the canvas. Irrational space here is not a literal translation of an infinite void, but more of a way to reconcile the difference between the space of the browser and the space of the app itself. For example, one can have multiple instances of Malevi.ch open on the browser as layered tabs, but those tabs each create an infinite plane within each instance. One is free to navigate through the tabs, keeping in mind that although they are infinitely extendable and correspond to the same code read from the same web server, each instance of Malevi.ch constitutes its own independent world.
Malevi.ch and its documentation.
Malevi.ch can be accessed by going to http://malevi.ch on a desktop or mobile browser. Once there, users will encounter a set of instructions on how to use the app. The instructions state that one can click and drag to create shapes, click on objects to move them, toggle gravity on and off, toggle different shape tools, and pause and reset the environment. There is no objective. Users are encouraged to play with the tools and generate compositions by combining primitive shapes, forces, and movement.
Suprematist themes resurface not only in the app’s appearance, but also in the abstract relationships between users and objects. For object-generating gestures, Malevi.ch uses the common “rubberbanding” mechanism invented by Ivan Sutherland in 1963. While Sutherland developed this elastic motion for linking two points together on a screen without a mouse, the stretchy gesture is pervasive in all current CAD and vector-graphics software. The act of defining a starting point and stretching the next point with an imaginary line is now an ingrained part of our digital consciousness. Unsurprisingly, Malevi.ch uses this instinct to define all of its shapes. Rather than defining the boundaries of an object, the software relies solely on Sutherland’s primitive method coupled with a few distance-defining formulas for creating objects. Thus circles and triangles are defined as a center and a radius, and rectangles are defined as a center and a corner.
Once shapes are defined a user may interact with these objects in two ways: by toggling a vertical force (gravity) on or simply by selecting and dragging the shapes around. If no gravity is activated, the shapes will still collide and bounce off the canvas’ boundary or other shapes when they are moved. In the default mode, the canvas hosts physical interactions without a directional force, allowing users to generate Suprematist compositions by moving and colliding objects. If gravity is activated, all objects on the canvas will immediately fall to the bottom of the browser. This shifts the composition from plan to elevation, once again recalling the ambiguity of Suprematist space. In this mode users can also move and generate shapes, but they will immediately fall to the ground after the mouse or finger is released. Gravity may be toggled on and off at any points affecting all objects currently on the canvas.
In the early days of graphical user interfaces, software developers relied on metaphors and skeuomorphic representations to covey the spatiality of the web. But the analogies of surfing and the literal transposition of a physical desktop into an icon no longer hold any meaning besides being kitsch retro fantasies of a more naive era. The internet has evolved into a much more complex and metaphysical environment, which warrants new spatial conceptions. It has enabled a new digital consciousness that manifests itself as an extension of ourselves either through physical gestures that manipulate virtual things or psychological reactions to those virtual objects. We see this when our hand muscles type shortcuts autonomously or when we develop inside jokes about programs or when we feel a rush of euphoria at the discovery of a new tool. At a larger scale, it has also engendered a kind of mysticism in which we find ourselves praying to Google to keep our data safe or to software engineers as we attempt to recover a corrupt file or as we mourn dead pixels. Under these new circumstances we can understand infinite voids, abstract environments, and geometric behaviors as terms related to software and computing, but also as Suprematist modes of depicting space put forth by Malevich and El Lissitzky. Perhaps bringing in the mysticism of the Suprematists and conceiving of screen space as an ever-changing, infinitely deep orthographic space is a productive way to advance our perception of these virtual realities.