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History, particularly when coupled with hero worship, can be a creative burden. But sometimes, pioneering work is doubly inspiring not only because of what it meant in its time, but for the possibilities it suggests in our time, for our technologies, for our own modes of personal expression.

Marcel Duchamp’s work in kinetic, sculptural optical illusion seems ripe for revisiting by today’s visualists.

You can get some idea of Duchamp’s work from pieces like 1926’s Anemic Cinema or the 1947 segment with John Cage for Hans Richter’s Dreams That Money Can Buy, below. These are landmarks of surrealist cinema, but it’s simultaneously hard not to see ways in which they’re dated. Having worked myself on a Steenbeck and with modern, 3D-accelerated video processing, it’s easy to imagine Duchamp’s delight and today’s tools.

At the same time, Duchamp’s great genius was in physical sculptural forms. It’s his surrealist kinetic sculptures – the machines that create the hypnotic, swirling patterns in the films – that are the most extraordinary. Using rotating glass plates, he created illusions of solid shapes. The rotorelief discs that were his invention create a pattern that’s commonplace to us today, but which remains mesmerizing in its elegant interplay of circles and the illusory sense of depth.

The trick with these projects is that you need more than just a film out of context to appreciate his work. There’s an excellent reference to Duchamp’s work, a community and hub for research, in MarcelDuchamp.net. Most notably, there’s a section of the site that describes an evidently-failed proposal to for an interactive exhibit that would explore Duchamp’s optical techniques. The exhibit promises a look not only at Duchamp’s machines, but some of the notions behind the optical illusions and hidden geometries in his works in multiple media. Even in this virtual form, these read like notes for development of similar effects today. It wouldn’t be hard to put together a set of Processing sketches and OpenGL shader snippets for these techniques, like the “Wilson Lincoln Effect,” an analog version of morphing that divides two portraits into interwoven planes.

Duchampian Multimedia

Time for a Duchampian revival? Perhaps. At the very least, it’s a reminder of the potential of kinetic, physical machines, and not only the purely virtual.