Whitehot Magazine

Alien Geometry: The Geonics of Paul-Emile Rioux

  GEON_Cube_C_10, 50 X 50 in, Pigment print on paper, 2018, Edition 5


Atelier Paul-Emile RiouxMontreal

September 8 – October 15

By JAMES D. CAMPBELL, September, 2018

The new digital artworks of Paul-Emile Rioux look like nothing we have seen before in this strange lifetime. This may seem like a large and, to some, an insupportable claim. But anyone who looks hard at his new images will be immediately aware that it is entirely warranted. The whallop they pack is one not felt solely in the optic and forebrain but squarely in the heart and midriff as well. His ‘geonics,’ as he calls this new body of work, are hugely charismatic objects that mark a brave new chapter in his still-evolving body of work.

In an earlier analysis of his digital environments entitled The City on the Edge of Forever (after the penultimate episode of the first season of the American science fiction television series Star Trek broadcast on April 6, 1967), I speculated that Rioux’s digital artworks open a window on the future that is unprecedented in prescience, potency and scale. [1]

Trekkies and other strangers may remember that in the aforementioned episode, members of the crew of the starship USS Enterprise discover a portal through space and time, an omniscient AI time machine called "The Guardian of Forever." After repairing a breach in the timeline, the Guardian informs them: "Time has resumed its shape. All is as it was before. Many such journeys are possible. Let me be your gateway." 

 GEON_CClust_7, 50 X 50 in, Pigment print on paper, 2018, Edition 5

If Rioux repeated the Guardian’s mantra in his earlier Landcut images (comprising the interrelated The City, Downtown and The Suburb sequences) he does so again, and even more eloquently, in his new work: “Let me be your gateway.”  In effect, he has increased the stakes for his project by several orders of magnitude in advancing the truly alien geometries of his new suite of Geons – works that promise instant transport to a future tense in which exotic geometries rule and anything is possible.

Rioux marks out the Geon horizon with hallucinatory clarity in his own new work as an aesthetic construct and ideal. But what is a Geon exactly? There are several meanings of and contexts for Geons that serve to enrich our understanding of his current work. 

Perhaps the most relevant is that of the physicist John Archibald Wheeler who coined the term "geon" in 1955 to describe an electromagnetic wave. In Wheeler's view, a quantum of energy, when localised at a specific station-point in space, might generate enough gravity to maintain cohesive mass. So a geon is a wave of contained energy, held in the state and condition of a "sphere" as it were. [2]

What Rioux has done is simply brilliant: he has given form to Geons in camera-less images that simultaneously astound and confound us. Here are alien geometries that feel like portents of and portals on a future that will soon subsume us. They are potent emblems of Supermodernity --and persuasive advertisements of a future still in store. 

There is a poetic logic in lending verisimilitude to objects that may or may not exist that extends far beyond the wildest imaginal license. It has been hotly debated in the still-emergent commentaries whether or not geons are “stable" entities. In Rioux’s work, they are certainly disruptive, resonant and destabilising entities, although they seem at first very stable, at least apparitionally speaking. In outward semblance, they resemble real things. But things we have never physically encountered or even imagined before.

 GEON_L4_SpV_2, 50 X 50 in, Pigment print on paper, 2018, Edition 5

His crenellated rhomboids and toruses suggest folds in the space-time continuum in much the same sense that French philosopher Gilles Deleuze developed them. Deleuze envisioned the fold in terms of a monad defined by folds of space, movement, and time. The lifeworld is construed as a body of infinite folds and surfaces that wend their way through the fabric of the space-time continuum with an underlying purposefulness. The spatial disposition of Rioux’s Geons -- they seem to float or are mysteriously propelled through space, or are afloat in a sea of liquid metal – echoes Deleuze’s thesis while retaining the nonaccidental properties associated with them in science. [3]

Rioux’s Geons segue with the recognition-by-components theory, a process proposed by Irving Biederman in 1987 to explain object recognition. [4] According to the central tenets of this theory, our ability to recognize objects is grounded in our innate skill at separating them into constituent parts: geometric ions or geons (the object’s main component parts). Biederman suggested that geons are based on simple 3-dimensional shapes (cylinders, cones, so forth) that can be assembled in various arrangements to form an open (infinite) set of objects.

 GEON_Treil_A, 50 X 50 in, Pigment print on paper, 2018, Edition 5

This recognition-by-components approach works equally well when used to assemble much more complex objects, which in turn are made up of a larger number of geons. This relates to Rioux’s procedural methodology in the lab to configure his geonics  - he does not draw, he ‘seeds’ images in various 3d imaging software that then organically grow and multiply -- which can appear infinitely complex and inherently compelling in their mien. Rioux was inspired by the pioneering work of French mathematician Bruno Delean whose Live Picture software represents onscreen images as equations, rather than pixels, and works at astonishing speeds, even with huge graphics files.

Methodologically speaking, perceived geons are overlaid like templates on relatable objects already available in the inventory of our stored memory to identify sameness and discrepancies and to determine just what it is that we are looking at. However, at their most indeterminate and ‘alien’, Rioux’s objects subvert or defeat a phenomenological reading by suggesting that any one view cannot be collated with other views needed to complete its representation in the mind’s eye. Those unseen aspects might yield surprises and may easily be at odds with any notion as to what the actual object is. Thus, the sense of an unfettered whole is simply neither possible nor practicable in some instances.

 GEON_Klush_7, 50 X 50 in, Pigment print on paper, 2018, Edition 5

In his earlier (and still open) series of work, Rioux proposed digital constructs that could be likened to posthuman cities of the future that read alternately as utopian and dystopian in their mien. They, like the Geons that succeeded them, are remarkably holistic images: seamless, dimensionally expansive and layered formal wholes into which we readily project and are thus complicit in their constitution. All these works are at once exhilarating and unsettling. They have a sweepingly alien, unforeseen cast. It is one that reminds us of the best speculative fiction about the interstellar spacecraft and/or nimbus-entities imported from some far future tense. In the Geons, Rioux proposes uncanny digital objects that we seek to solve perceptually --- by imaginative projection, like the Landcuts that preceded them -- and now the promise of inhabitation extends to torsional geometries that read as spacecraft or living organic carapace, episodes in dimension theory or the mouthpiece of God.

Rioux’s images demonstrate a sophisticated order of combinatorial play, manipulation and extant geometries. He employs sundry devices from 3D models of cartography, topography, higher mathematics and geometry and other sources harvested from online sources and available utilities to formulate and fine-tune his Geonics. 

 GEON_DF3DP_2, 50 X 50 in, Pigment print on paper, 2018, Edition 5

As was the case with his Landcuts, Rioux experiments with sundry maquettes for the Geons in order to determine and calibrate the final results. In earlier work, he favoured the extended panorama but now leans towards a square format for the Geons. The resultant semiotic palimpsests are based upon set-building exercises and the systemic deconstruction and reformulation of geometric shape and are modular in the sense argued for digital objects -- meaning they are made up of objects put together to form larger objects, with each piece maintaining a sort of liminal independence as it accretes expansive and auratic sense to the whole.

Rioux’s images hearken back to the vast floating advertisements in Ridley Scott’s prescient films Bladerunner and Bladerunner 2049, (set in a dystopian future which most inner cities have now caught up with, given the ubiquity of digital signs and the fact they are rife with moving image advertisements) and forwards to the incarnation of Paul Virilio’s Panic City and off-planet exploration, Elon Musk’s rockets and the outward urge.

If Rioux’s cities on the edge of forever possessed unusual gravitas, vertigo-inducing vistas and epic scale, his Geons are wholly alien, disturbing and exalting at once -- and yet somehow still assimilable, even when at their strangest and most undecidable. They lead us far beyond the axioms of the geometries that came after Euclid. 

Indeed, they embody an iteration of simplicity upon which all modern computing is based. The seemingly endless and minutely finessed structural facades of the Landcuts and the Geons exemplify – and amplify -- the extraordinary computational power of electrified binary numerics. 

The Geons meaningfully segue with the Landcuts in that they too are “immanent structures” in the sense that Gilles Deleuze meant it in his ontology as outlined in his final book entitled Pure Immanence: Essays on a Life. [5] As a formative value, he uses the term in the meaning of a pure immanence, the vertigo of philosophy, a phenomenal embeddedness, and it is most useful to consider in terms of Rioux’s work wherein the pure plane seems synonymous with an infinitely unfolding field or quintessentially smooth space without inflective division or eidetic rupture.

In Rioux’s Geons, massive rhomboids, toruses, Necker cubes and ‘fugue' geometrics abound. In earlier works from The City series, the fractal dimensionality of silver and black monoliths reminds us of the omniscient icon from Arthur C. Clarke and Stanley Kubrick’s cinematic masterpiece 2001: A Space Odyssey. Now, the alien geometry of his Geons reminds of the twelve extraterrestrial spacecraft in Denis Villeneuve’s remarkable film Arrival (2016)

We have the sense in Rioux’s latest work of a serial unfolding of possible Geons along a plane of immanence according to a structural logic that is purely evolutive and compelling as such. It has a morphological teleology and a sense of fractal geometry, binary code and algorithmic in-building. Of course, this is also true of his replete body of work to date. It has an organic cast and chiasmic order. 

Rioux’s work is the manifestation of a future that has already arrived, on one hand, and promises the shape of things still to come, on the other. As we have seen, those exceedingly odd ‘shapes’ trigger the cognitive process of pattern recognition. The geon is a stimulus that viewers must match against information archived from memory to complete the phenomenological appraisal of his subversive structures.

Those inordinately intricate digimorphic structures do more than delight the eye. They function with criticality because they interrogate the viewer’s visual system. They induce self-questioning and yield a real frisson. Restless, alien and, in a sense, relentlessly feral, they possess violent dynamism and potent aura. So geons are not limited to a theoretical context in the contexts of psychology and high-energy physics – they are envisioned in Rioux’s digital environments today as worthy integers of the Real. 

For a long time now, futurists, visionaries, scientists, sci-fi writers, AI developers and ordinary people have been wondering about the future and how it will look. However, history has consistently proven that it is only an artist who can give us a glimpse of how it might really look. That artist is Paul-Emile Rioux. In his work, the future has arrived early -- and wholesale. His time is now. WM


1. James D. Campbell“The City on the Edge of Forever: The Digital Environment of Paul-Emile Rioux” in Etc Media, Number 103, October 2014/February 2015

2. John Archibald Wheeler, “Geons” in Physical. Review. 97, 511 – Published 15 January 1955

3. Gilles Deleuze, The Fold: Leibniz and the Baroque, trans. Tom Conley (University of Minnesota Press, 1992.)

4. Irving Biederman, “Recognition-by-Components: A Theory of Human Image Understanding” in Psychological Review 1987, Vol. 94, No. 2, 155-147.

5. Gilles Deleuze. Pure Immanence: Essays on a Life. 2nd ed. Zone Books, 2005), p. 25


James D. Campbell

James D. Campbell is a curator and writer on art based in Montreal. The author of over 150 books and catalogues on art, he contributes essays and reviews to Frieze, Border Crossings and other publications.

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