Influences and Process – Mathematics

27 Jan
by L. Nichols

Ok ok ok. I know… as soon as I mention math, people’s eyes glaze over. That, or they think I’m talking about adding/subtracting/multiplying/dividing. But that’s arithmetic, not math. I am talking about MATH. Math and its crazy abstractions and logic. Math with its symbols. Bear with me.

To be honest, I’ve had a tortured history with math. I did ok in elementary school, but found what they taught to be kind of boring. One of my only Bs in middle school was in math; I cried for hours. I did well in high school, taking summer classes to get ahead for college. I learned differential and integral calculus without issue. I found myself fascinated at the ideas I learned. I initially disliked trig, but again, found myself eventually fascinated. And then I got to college. I totally failed differential equations. To be fair, this was differential equations in my freshman year at MIT, and it definitely wasn’t easy. It took being reintroduced to math in the context of engineering, in the context of its uses, that I rediscovered my fascination with and love of math. It wasn’t until then that I really understood what math was, what math meant. And it wasn’t until much later that I began to understand how I could use what I took from math, the way it taught me to think, in my art. Here are the ideas that I have taken from math and later, examples of how I am just beginning to figure out my own way of using these ideas in my own work. Idea 1: Symbolic Reasoning In math, symbols and symbolic logic are crucial to the understanding and communication of complex ideas. Similarly, in comics or more generally in art, one can use symbols to help communicate. I am not going to use the term “narrative” because I find that a little restrictive. Communication, in a very loose sense. I often find myself using various symbols from mathematics in my work to evoke those same (or similar) ideas or ways of understanding. Idea 2: Compression of Information Symbolic logic allows for compression of information. Comics allow for a similar compression of information. For a simple example, you don’t have to use words to describe scenes, you can show them. Consider images as symbols, letters as symbols. Everything is a symbol. You can then use these symbols to compress/encode information. Math is interested in compressing logic. I find myself often interested in compressing an experience or a feeling. Idea 3: Levels of Understanding Let’s say that you’re agreeing with me, that you understand what I mean by compression. Compression allows for levels of understanding. You can understand something on a first pass. You can understand different things on a deeper reading, a decompression, let’s say. And if you understand the mathematical/engineering/science symbols I’m using, maybe you understand things in a different sense, too. I don’t know about you guys, but I often have several ways of viewing any given situation/experience that I have. I don’t just experience the world in one way. Maybe by experimenting with symbolism and compression, I can figure out a way to simultaneously communicate these different ways of understanding. Now, examples and discussion of my thoughts: This is a very simple use of vector notation. Mostly, I wanted to imply the movement, the feeling of flying, the knowing if the impending fall without actually drawing me lying on the ground stunned and in pain. And here, I’m using the equation of gravitational attraction to comment on emotional attraction. Two “bodies” close to one another. Simple use… still not trying anything too complex Here, the concept of a function, an unknown function f(x). This is my brain. This is my brain on math. A gradient, the del function, of thoughts leaving. The rate of thoughts leaving d(thoughts)/dt. The integral, the sum of my production. A little more formally, this is a page from an ongoing design project Hexadecimal. In this project, I am trying to use 16 ideas from engineering/math/physics to explore relationships between people. An idea still marinating in my brain. Anyway. I wouldn’t say that I’ve really figured it out yet. This is just four small examples; I’m just scratching the surface. But this is a path that I will keep taking, keep walking down. I spent 6 years at MIT, an entire life wanting to study science; math is something I just can’t ignore. But I have to reconcile this history to my work, my art, my life.

One Response to “Influences and Process – Mathematics”


  1. We Need to Place Value – Three Thoughts « - February 9, 2011

    […] up the slack with her great posts. One that I particularly was excited to read was her riff on mathematics, partly because that was a topic I had thought about a lot and was gearing up to write on […]

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