John O’Connor, Turing, 2010, colored pencil and graphite on paper, 78 × 50 inches. Images courtesy of the artist and Pierogi.
I was hooked on the pop-psychedelic appearance of John O’Connor’s drawings, all of which are generated by an array of different systems that are mind-boggling in their eccentricity and range. Wanting to know more about the work, I visited his studio in Long Island City, talked to him at length, took numerous notes, and then, upon leaving, realized that, despite his intricate explanations, the works still resisted my understanding. It’s as if the descriptions of the overlapping systems guiding the drawings’ composition opened up multiple pathways into them, none of them fully explaining their wonderfully strange manifestations.
Take this: for Turing (2010) O’Connor drew from a 1950 paper on artificial intelligence in which the British mathematician Alan Turing posed the question, “Can machines think?” Through a computer, a human judge engaged in a “conversation” with a human and a machine—both of which were trying to appear human. More often than not the judge could not tell the machine apart from the human.
For the drawing, O’Connor imagined he’d fool a machine into thinking that the human was actually one of its own. Free-associating on the notion of predestiny and free will, he wrote down a list of words. He then treated these words through various processes. He reversed the order of letters, turned letters into numbers, or used coding systems to transform them, and, ultimately, came up with a new, random list of words that emulated the computer-generated logic of, say, spam. Through an elaborate procedure, O’Connor then retranslated the random list into numbers and added them up to find a word in the dictionary. He reports that this process churned up a disparaging term that encapsulated an element of Turing’s biography as a prosecuted homosexual. Ultimately, in Turing, the human reasserts itself by defeating the machine.
Or take another example: for the drawing Hairy and Bald (2005), on “the irony and tragedy of hair loss,” O’Connor chose a number between one and 100 at random: 83. In the center of the piece he drew 83 different versions of hair-loss patterns he found in an illustrated book. At the bottom he created a geometric figure with the words Lorenz attractor by translating the words into numbers. (A cryptic yet accessible Wikipedia entry will tell you that the Lorenz attractor is “a fractal structure corresponding to the behavior of the Lorenz oscillator” which, in turn, is “a three-dimensional dynamical system that exhibits chaotic flow …”) Many more steps went into connecting the figures at the drawing’s center and bottom edge, but you get the idea.
In an O’Connor drawing you’re likely to find transcriptions of words the artist spoke in his sleep, allusions to studies on the most offensive words on television, or predictions by Nostradamus. A drawing he’s currently working on, Secrets of the State, culls from military patches for secret, real, or fictitious operations, the names of people throughout history who’ve died of mysterious causes (and the dates), and logos of corporations with direct connections to intelligence operations. It all makes total sense when O’Connor tells me about it, but the closer I look at the work, the more it becomes an impossible riddle, a Zen koan of sorts.
Raymond Queneau, cofounder of Oulipo, once described the cult writer Raymond Roussel, renowned for his perplexing compositional methods, as one who “joins the mathematician’s delirium to the poet’s logic.” I could say the same about John O’Connor. It’s as if Roussel, channeled by O’Connor, had discovered the Internet and decided to make illuminated pages from his findings.