Browser-based Malevich: What the Minimalism of Modernism Can Tell Us About Digital Culture

Adriaan Odendaal
Apr 6 · 5 min read

Browser-based Malevich is a triptych of Firefox browser-plugins that warp and distort any webpage you open into a digital approximation of one of the three thematically-related Suprematism paintings by early 20th-century Russian avant-garde artist Kazimir Malevich: Black Square (1913), Black Cross (1915), and Black Circle (1915).

Download Black Square (Browser-based Malevich) for Firefox
Download Black Cross (Browser-based Malevich) for Firefox
Download Black Circle (Browser-based Malevich) for Firefox

These browser plugins are somewhat mesmerizing to watch at work, resulting in highly aestheticized but completely dysfunctional (glitched) browsing experiences. Yet beyond the minimalist abstraction, these modest browser-based artworks try to show why Malevich’s seemingly simplistic modernist paintings are ever-relevant as culture becomes increasingly digitized and softwarized.

Malevich and Abstract Modernism

The three works of Malevich mentioned above were exhibited over a century ago at the iconic Last Futurist Exhibition of Paintings 0,10 (pronounced ‘zero-ten’) in Petrograd in 1915. The epochal exhibition inaugurated the non-objective art movement of Malevich: Suprematism, a new aesthetic the artist somewhat mystically described as follows:

“I transformed myself in the zero of form and emerged from nothing to creation.”

“Black Square” (1913), “Black Cross” (1915), and “Black Circle” (1915) by Kazimir Malevich & photograph of the “Last Futurist Exhibition of Paintings 0,10” exhibition in Petrograd.

In perhaps more comprehensible formal terms, Malevich’s work represented an absolute departure from figurative art, that is: art that repeats or copies the world of objects (Monet’s Water Lilies, for example). Instead, Malevich presented the world as completely non-figurative abstraction, the reduction of the perceptible world into what he calls ‘zero of form’.

Underlying the abstract minimalism of Malevich, and many of his 20th-century modernist contemporaries, was a new way of thinking about the world. As humanity marched towards industrialization and mechanical automation, and mathematics and science ascended to a quasi-religious status, artists searched for new forms of contemporaneous cultural expression. With Suprematism, Malevich wanted to create the new cultural iconography for this modernist future where the logical purism of mathematics will reign supreme.

The lineage of Modernism in Digital Culture

Almost as if a practical realization of the modernist vision, contemporary culture is progressively taking form as mathematical expressions as we increasingly rely on new media technologies to mediate it. Whether it is born-digital object like a browser-based game, or Monet’s Water Lilies digitized as a .jpg, these cultural artifacts are composed of nothing but bits of computer memory that fluctuate between binary states: on and off (one and zero). These bits, grouped within larger units called bytes, are read by layers of hardware and software architecture operating within and in-between computer systems constantly doing complex mathematical calculations. What you see on your computer screen right now is an unfathomable amount of binary data that is computationally encoded, parsed, and finally displayed by your browser as cultural media: text, images, videos, sound, etc.

As Lev Manovich writes about our digital cultural context in his influential text Language of New Media: “all new media objects, whether they are created from scratch on computers or converted from analog media sources, are composed of digital code; they are numerical representations”. Even the physical canvas-based works of Malevich himself become ones and zeros when viewed through the computational cultural filter of your web browser.

In a way then, modernists artists like Malevich seemed to unwittingly anticipate the current unfolding era of cultural digitization. As Mike King writes reflectively: “The computer emerged as a tool for artists at just the wrong time: too late for the mathematical explorations of Constructivism and Suprematism (by decades)”. It is not surprisingly that at the dawn of the computer age, pioneering computer graphics artists like Herbert W. Franke, John Whitney and Michael A. Noll explicitly referenced modernist art in their early computational creative explorations in the 1960s and 1970s. These artists were experimenting with a new form of cultural expression, ones and zeros. And in what can almost be read as a facetious parody of King’s above statement, these days you can find countless creative Twitter bots somewhat frivolously auto-generating modernist artworks that computationally mimic Rothko, Mondrian, and other modernists: @bot_mondrian, @rothko_Bot, @kandinsky_bot

“Rotationen, Projektionen” (1970) by Herbert W. Frank

Software Art and Browser-based Malevich

Browser-based Malevich is more than just a digital facsimile of a 20th-century canvas-based painting, however. It takes inspiration from the browser-based art of Rafaël Rozendaal in that it aspires to function as software art (often also called artistic software, critical software, software-based art). Software art, as media theorist Florian Crammer writes, is “art of which the material is formal instruction code and/or which addresses cultural concepts of software”. This means that software art doesn’t merely use code as a means to create art, but that the software code itself is the art. In the same way, what Browser-based Malevich attempts to aesthetically communicate can be found in the running of its code.

“Abstract Browsing” (2014) by Rafaël Rozendaal. This Chrome plugin renders any given web page into abstract blocks of vivid 16-bit Microsoft Paint hues.

In the Browser-based Malevich triptych, each of the JavaScript plugins runs through a unique set of functions that identify a webpage’s DOM elements one by one and computationally alters their CSS (Cascading Style Sheets) properties with brute force until the whole page is a digital approximation of the pure visual abstraction of its respective Malevich painting — a geometric black circle, square, or cross set against the empty white canvas of the browser window.

“Black Circle” from “Browser-based Malevich”

In running its code over a webpage, Browser-based Malevich reduces the digital cultural content of that page back into an Modernist approximation of its essential binary state, a ‘zero of form’. Through processing the webpage into a glitched browsing experience, the plugin attempts to show something of the underlying computationality of contemporary culture. After all, we rely so much on our browsers (and other internet interfaces) to render abstract binary ones and zeros (bits) into representational cultural content: memes, Youtube reaction videos, click-worthy news articles, weekly podcasts, Spotify playlists, and more.

What Browser-based Malevich essentially does is to digitally literalize Suprematism’s iconography, an iconography prophetically fit for a world in which culture is increasingly mediated by abstract ones and zeros, spun up as bright shining pixels.

Find the source-code for this project on Github

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