Return to Square


“Media transformation through electronics” might be a description of the internet but the phrase here is the title of an exhibition of Japanese computer art by CTG, the Computer Technique Group, which took place in Tokyo in 1968. The image on the poster is Return to Square, an example of incremental transformation conceived by Masao Komura and programmed by Kunio Yamanaka which is the most well-known work produced by the group. Morton Subotnick used Yamanaka’s print a year later on the cover of his third album, Touch, which is where I first encountered it.


After reading this recent interview with Subotnick I was listening again to some of his albums, Touch included, which in turn prompted me to go looking for more information about the cover art. Following Yamanaka’s history back to the CTG revealed two versions of Return to Square. The image on the exhibition poster and the Subotnick cover is the second version, Return to Square (b) which in both cases is printed in negative, or reversed-out to use the technical term that printers prefer. This version takes 30 incremental steps from the shape of the woman’s head to reach the central square.


The first version, Return to Square (a), is more densely printed inside the head, taking 50 steps to reach the central square. According to a description in the Cybernetic Serendipity catalogue (see below), the difference between the versions is also a result of the programming: version (a) is programmed with an arithmetic series, while version (b) uses a geometric progression. Return to Square (a) achieved some prominence of its own when it was reproduced in 1967 by Motif Editions, a British publisher of lithographs who made prints from several images derived from experiments with computer graphics. I can’t say where Subotnick first saw Yamanaka’s print but it’s a great choice for the cover of an album of avant-garde electronic music. You’ll only see it today, however, on old vinyl copies (or on 8-track cassettes) since Touch hasn’t been reissued as a standalone album since 1972. The whole composition runs for 30 minutes which means on CD (or audio-DVD, as with one of my discs) you only find it bundled with other Subotnick compositions.


Photo by William Klein.

While tracing the history of Yamanaka’s print I didn’t expect to find the source for the outline of the woman’s head but here it is, a spread from a 1964 issue of Vogue magazine. This detail comes from a short post by Zihou Ng which not only gives you the code that Yamanaka used to create Return to Square (a) but also has a small interactive rendering of the image which you can push around and distort: “media transformation through electronics”.


Less successful than Ng’s recreation is this attempt by myself to make a version of Return to Square (b) in Illustrator. I use Adobe’s vector-graphics application almost as much as I use Photoshop but some of the standard Illustrator tools I find to be of limited utility. The shape-blending tool is one of these but it’s what I used to make this recreation. The lack of accuracy is a result of its limited settings: you define the number of steps you want it to take then click on two shapes in succession and the tool fills the space between them with iterative transformations. Rather a blunt instrument but this took me all of 15 minutes to create, a fraction of the time that Yamanaka would have spent programming his original.

• Related reading: Cybernetic Serendipity, PDFs (high- and low-res) of a catalogue for an exhibition of computer art at the ICA, London, in 1968. Includes a profile of the Computer Technique Group with examples of their work. The low-res scan has a few extra pages at the end which include an ad for Motif Editions.

Previously on { feuilleton }
Gioconda of the Mausoleum
Golden apples and silver apples

Weekend links 695


The Sleepwalker (1878) by Maximilián Pirner. Via.

• The latest non-fiction book from A Year In The Country is Threshold Tales, “an exploration of the edgelands, borderlands and liminal places in film; of the places whether literal, in the mind, cultural or amongst the paranormal realm where the boundaries between worlds, ways of life, the past and the future become thin and porous.” Featuring some useful viewing tips for the Spook Season, no doubt.

• Spoon & Tamago reports on VHS cafe opening in Tokyo’s Shimokitazawa district. I was happy to see the end of VHS format but I admire the Japanese dedication to redundant technology.

• There are more seasonal viewing (and reading) recommendations at Unquiet Things where Ms. E. has been blogging her way through the month. Begin here.

• At Public Domain Review: Edmund Fry’s Pantographia: A Specimen Book of All the Alphabets Known on Earth (1799).

See 12 winning images from the Wildlife Photographer of the Year Contest.

Wyrd mail (and further links to other things) for autumn from Wyrd Daze.

• At The Daily Heller: The Art of Invented Scripts, Meaning Optional.

• Mix of the week is DreamScenes – October 2023 at Ambientblog.

• New music: N/Y by The Haxan Cloak.

Sleepwalker’s Timeless Bridge (1972) by Amon Düül II | Sleepwalkers Woman (1983) by Scott Walker | Sleepwalking (1985) by Cabaret Voltaire

Back and forth

Another advantage of the recent WordPress upgrade means I can now do things like this. The photo is a Prague street scene that I found in a newspaper years ago which I decided to depopulate in Photoshop. In the past you could only do this with a special plugin but WordPress changed the user interface a while back from a basic write-text-and-add-media arrangement to a more complex editing system known as Gutenberg. The new editor uses CSS-style blocks which you fill with different types of “content” then shuffle around until you have a layout that you’re happy with. You can do a lot with these blocks but most of the tools that control them are hidden from view behind multiple menus and sub-menus; using the system means you first have to learn and memorise the location and function of all these hidden tools. Users of standalone installations of WordPress are a loyal bunch but there was a very negative reaction to the new editor, so much so that a plugin appeared almost immediately which reverts the interface to the former system. WordPress continues to evolve Gutenberg, however, and now provides a variety of media blocks like this picture-comparison thing. The utility is limited but it looks nice.

I’m in the anti-Gutenberg camp for the most part, especially when looking at the code that makes something like this possible. Most of the posts here are written outside WP as plain text with handwritten HTML tags; Gutenberg adds loads of new tags and instructions that clutter up the back end. I may work as a book designer but a print-style layout isn’t what I want to emulate for these pages. (And the Adobe applications I use don’t hide all their controls unless you really want them to.) Gutenberg is no doubt useful for people with big media websites using WordPress as a CMS to create layouts filled with articles, video and the like. But I’ll be sticking with the old system for now.

Maintenance 2


“Ralph in his space flyer overhauls the Martian, Llysanorh. He will trap him with his Ultra-Generator.” A scene from Ralph 124C 41 + written by Hugo Gernsback.

Another public service announcement to say that the aforementioned server replacement has now taken place. In fact I’ve moved my site to a new webhost after service at the previous place had become increasingly poor. Most of today has been occupied with upgrading WordPress and installing the database on the new server. This is always a tricky business if you’re not used to the eccentricities of WordPress or moving databases around. I can do all this but, like Bartleby the Scrivener, I prefer not to. The effort was worth it, however, the software is now more future-proof than it was, and the site is finally https which may please some people. I still have to check web pages for missing images and the like so if you see anything that looks awry please leave a comment. Regular service will resume tomorrow.



Don’t try this at home.

A rare Sunday post to inform regular readers that plans are in motion to move this site to a new server. The software that runs the site requires upgrading in several areas so relocation is the best solution for an essential process. There may be a short period when { feuilleton } seems to be unavailable but this shouldn’t last long. Fingers crossed.