Disinformation and "The Analysis of Beauty" A Project History

Joe Banks

"The central nervous system is nature's Sistine Chapel, but we have to bear in mind that the world our senses present to us... is a ramshackle construct which our brains have devised to let us get on with the job of maintaining ourselves and reproducing our species. What we see is a highly conventionalised picture, a simple tourist guide to a very strange city..."

J.G. Ballard "The Kindness of Women" 1992

"Night science, on the other other hand, wanders blindly. It hesitates, stumbles, falls back, sweats, wakes with a start. Doubting everything, it feels its way, questions itself... it is a workshop of the possible... hypotheses take the form of vague presentiments... thought proceeds along sinuous paths, tortuous streets... the mind frets in a labyrinth, deluged with messages"

François Jacob "The Statue Within" 1987

"The Analysis of Beauty" is an optokinetic sound and light installation, created by the art project Disinformation1 , which takes its title from the book of the same name written by the painter, engraver and satyrist William Hogarth in 1753. The installation was conceived in December 1999 and first exhibited in January 2000, in the "Noise" exhibition at Kettle's Yard gallery (curated by Adam Lowe and by the Cambridge historian of science Professor Simon Schaffer)2 . "The Analysis of Beauty" was exhibited alongside work by artists Marc Quinn and Art and Language, semiotician and author Umberto Eco, and the Elizabethan polymath (mathematician, astronomer, geographer and occultist) John Dee. On account of the (subjective, but strong) similarity between the imagery produced by this installation and DNA, this work was (recent controversies notwithstanding) exhibited at Kettle's Yard directly opposite one of Francis Crick and James Watson's original models of DNA.

In "The Analysis of Beauty" book, William Hogarth explored the aesthetics and symbolism of the sinusoidal "Line of Beauty and Grace" or 'serpentine Line", originally portrayed in his self-portrait of 1745. In his self-portrait Hogarth had depicted a perfect sine-wave, weaving across a painter's palette in place of the brushes and paints that would conventionally have appeared as tools of the artist's trade. In his book, Hogarth wrote that "the eye hath this sort of enjoyment in winding walks, and serpentine rivers, and all sorts of objects, whose forms, as we shall see hereafter, are composed principally of what I call the waving or serpentine lines... intricacy in form, therefore, I shall define to be that peculiarity in the lines, which compose it, that leads the eye a wanton kind of chace, and from the pleasure that gives the mind, intitles it to the name of beautiful". In context of a debate whose politics remain as relevant to today's art-world as they were then, and by way of a belated explanation for his arcane symbolism, the discourse developed in "The Analysis" became the intellectual cornerstone of what Hogarth referred to as "The Battle of the Pictures" and as his "War with the Connoisseurs".

In homage to Hogarth's original discourse, the tribute produced by Disinformation uses outputs from laboratory sine-wave generators " also known as tone-generators, to create a geometric pattern on the screen of a laboratory oscilloscope " a form of cathode ray tube (the sine-wave generators were rescued from a skip outside London's South Bank University, the oscilloscope was purchased for £30 from a car boot sale in Walthamstow, and "The Analysis of Beauty", "The Origin of Painting" and "Angel" artworks are all Disinformation projects that focus the creative potential of phosphorescent green light). Although the gallery installation also features "all sorts of objects" presented alongside the oscilloscope " small sculptures, pictures, found objects and text " the technical set-up that produces the central image strongly resembles the idea of ultrasonic visual music described by Sci-Fi author J.G. Ballard in his short story "The Sound Sweep"3 ...

"Watching the ray tube intently, where he could check the shape of the ultrasonic notes, he launched into a brisk allegretto sequence, then quickened and flicked out a series of brilliant arpeggios, stripping off high P and Q notes that danced across the cathode screen like frantic eels, fantastic glissandos that raced up twenty octaves in as many seconds, each note distinct and geometrically exact, tripping off the tone generator in turn so that escalators of electronic chords interweaved the original scale, a multi-channel melodic stream that crowded the cathode screen with exquisite, flickering patterns". Similar imagery is also depicted in the Sherlock Holmes film "The Voice of Terror"4 " in which, instead of his usual relaxation with cocaine and violin, the 'supreme master of deductive reasoning" is depicted watching Beethoven's 5th on the screen of an oscilloscope.

The sinusoidal patterns visible on the oscilloscope used in "The Analysis of Beauty" installation produce an optical illusion known as the Kinetic Depth Effect " whereby impressions of sculptural form emerge despite the absence of any of the perspective, precedence, stereoscopic and parallax cues traditionally thought to determine visual perception of three-dimensional space. The Disinformation exhibit therefore also extrapolates ideas explored in Hogarth's 'satire on False Perspective" of 1754, as well as exploring Hogarth's concept of the Serpentine Line in the context of contemporary sound art.

Changes in the orientation of these sculptural illusions do not take place on-screen, but (prompted by blinking and by head-movements etc, or even by simply thinking about the imagery in different ways) these changes take place inside the mind of the person watching them " "The Analysis of Beauty" is therefore arguably one of the strangest science fiction films ever made. In this way, the Disinformation exhibit physically demonstrates the role that computation, creativity and (most importantly) knowledge play in the active formation of visual thought. Whereas in for instance avant-garde film-making, most artists experiment with the medium, with "The Analysis of Beauty" it is the medium that experiments with its audience. The contradictory nature of the impressions projected by viewers into this installation's imagery are broadly consistent with the phenomena of "perceptual hypotheses" proposed by the German polymath Hermann Helmholtz " auditory manifestations of equivalent sound phenomena are discussed in detail in an ongoing research project called "Audio Rorschach"5 .

The Portrait of the Painter and his Pug” William Hogarth 1745

The Analysis of Beauty” William Hogarth 1753

Satire on False Perspective” William Hogarth 1754


  1. Disinformation is a research, installation and sound art project, which, since 1995, pioneered the use of electromagnetic (radio) noise from live mains electricity, lightning, laboratory equipment, industrial, metro, photographic, railway and IT hardware etc, geomagnetic storms and the sun etc, as the raw material of musical and fine-art publications, concerts, exhibitions, events, etc. Since this time, Disinformation has recorded 8 commercially published LPs and CDs, and has also evolved into a widely exhibited visual arts project, pioneering for instance artworks concerned with coastal air-defence Sound Mirrors since 1997. From April 2003 to March 2006, Joe Banks was appointed Visiting Fellow in the School of Informatics, City University, London, and from June 2007 he was awarded a 5 year FCPA Research Fellowship in The Centre for Cognition, Computation and Culture at Goldsmiths College, University of London, with the support of The Arts and Humanities Research Council. The quote from geneticist François Jacob also appears in sleeve artwork for Disinformation's 'sense Data and Perception" CD, published in 2005.

  2. As well as Kettle's Yard, "The Analysis of Beauty" installation also featured in Disinformation solo exhibitions at The Huddersfield Art Gallery, The Mac (Birmingham), Q Arts (Derby), South Hill Park (Bracknell), Quay Arts (Isle of Wight), The Ashcroft Arts Centre (Fareham), Wrexham Arts Centre and Saltburn Artists Projects, and has been exhibited at in "The Rumble" exhibition at The Royal British Society of Sculptors (London), CCCB (Barcelona), The Chamber of Pop Culture (London), Orleans House Gallery (Twickenham), and The Study Gallery of Modern Art (Poole). "The Analysis of Beauty" also gave its name an Arts Council funded national touring exhibition of the same name. Exhibitions dedicated to "The Analysis of Beauty" and to the Serpentine Line respectively were proposed to the Serpentine Gallery (London) in 2000 and 2003, and to the Northern Gallery for Contemporary Art (Sunderland) in 2003. The original Disinformation installation is documented in catalogues for "The Rumble", "Noise" and The Hayward Gallery's 'sonic Boom" exhibitions, in sleevenotes for the Galerie fur Zeitgenossiche Kunst (Leipzig) "New Forms" double CD (curated by Carsten Nicolai), and in the catalogue for the Disinformation UK national touring exhibition (these catalogues include analyses by critic Andrew Lambirth and by Richard Humphreys of Tate Britain).

  3. J.G. Ballard "The Sound Sweep" Nova 1962

  4. John Rawlins (director) "The Voice of Terror" Universal Pictures 1942

  5. Joe Banks "Rorschach Audio" in "The Ghost Orchid" CD sleevenotes, PARC / Ash International 1999; "Rorschach Audio: A Lecture at The Royal Society of British Sculptors" Diffusion 8, pp. 2-6, Sonic Arts Network 2000; "Rorschach Audio: Ghost Voices and Perceptual Creativity" Leonardo Music Journal 11, pp. 77-83, The MIT Press 2001; "Rorschach Audio: Art and Illusion for Sound" Strange Attractor Journal 1, pp. 124-159, 2004; "Audio Rorschach" Earshot magazine 5, in press December 2007.

Installation and texts copyright (c) Joe Banks, 1999 to 2007