Creating in Codes: Mark Stock, Teton ArtLab artist in residence, gets a little buggy

By on November 8, 2017

Something was wrong with the code. The energy in the system was increasing exponentially –something wasn’t right. Somewhere in the rows upon rows of numbers meant to simulate a complex turbulent flow in a boiler there was an error, and engineer Mark Stock had to find it. He plugged the code into another program, and that rendered the numbers into objects.

He was stunned by what he saw on the screen.

He could immediately see that the cylinders that were formed had different radius’s, and he knew where in the code to look to fix it. But he couldn’t look away from the image the code had formed.

“It was a sculpture unlike anything I’d ever seen,” he said. “I fixed the bug, but I got another bug in the brain. I just had to do more because it was so beautiful.”

Stock, Teton ArtLab’s November artist-in-residence, took that bug and ran with it, and now uses computer codes to create art.

Stock grew up in Michigan and always loved math. Early on, Stock asked his mother, a teacher, what all the letters meant in an Algebra book from the family bookshelf. She explained how the letters were part of the math, and Stock retreated to his room to solve various problems. He was in second or third grade.

When Stock wasn’t playing with math equations, his family loved to adventure outside, and took camping trips each summer. He loved looking at the clouds or studying rivers, letting his mind wander on how things were made and how they worked.

That love of math and the mechanics behind how things work led to his decision to attend the University of Michigan, where he studied aerospace engineering. He always liked airplanes and the degree offered a full semester class on rocket propulsion, which he thought sounded cool.

After graduation, Stock took a job working with computer programs to simulate mechanical systems before returning to the University of Michigan to pursue a doctorate in aerospace engineering.

It wasn’t until the year 2000 or so that he created that first accidental piece of art while trying to fix code. Stock was in his mid-20s at the time, and had never really felt an interest in art, even as a hobby. But the image on his computer screen resonated with him.

“It was like this new kind of photography,” he said. “I was using a computer as a camera and I was also using a computer as a world generator.”

Stock decided to try it again with a different code, and was again amazed at the results. He started printing the images, starting with paper before graduating to a three-dimensional printer. These days, Stock also experiments with other mediums like printing on transparencies, too.

Stock said he never really knows what he’ll create when he starts working with a code. His latest body of work “Immaculate Collision,” is an exploration of fluid spheres with different densities. They rise, fall, merge and blend, he said.

“It’s mathematically perfect,” he said.

He decontextualizes the fluid part, looks at the shapes, and then creates X-ray images he prints on transparencies before putting them between two pieces of glass.

The work, which is about 20 x 30 inches, weighs more than 20 pounds when finished with the glass. He’s already created eight pieces in the series and has plans for another six.

One of the major hurdles, Stock said, is that he fights the urge to explain the technical aspects of his work to viewers.

“I want to create work that is strikingly beautiful,” he said. “I want people to think they’ve never seen anything like it before.”

Stock still works as a programmer in a consultant role, and focuses primarily on projects simulating three-dimensional flow. Sometimes his work provides inspiration for his art.

“I’ll think ‘What input can I give it that will let it run and adapt and turn into this other thing?’” he said.

He still finds inspiration in the natural world, too. He’s drawn to the clouds and rivers that captivated him as a child. But now he thinks about them a little differently.

He still will stare at a natural feature, like a canyon, and wonder how it was made.

“And can I write a program to do that?” he said. PJH

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