ABC Buechlein, 1627
What is it?
The Mimeticon is both an artwork about the history of writing and
a functioning search engine. Instead of entering search words or keywords
you are able to create a "keypicture" or image. It than takes
this image and returns a set of visually similar images. It is a bit like
Google's image search but with the fundamental difference that it relies
solely on matching the visual features of images. And by constructing
the search image out of letters from the history of the modern Roman alphabet
we can see how words and images have depended on each other right back
to their origins in the "mimetic" signs of Egyptian hieroglyphs.
The images it returns don't make sense?
Sometimes the images it returns are obviously similar and sometimes
they seem random, mistaken or "false positives". When the software
is searching for matches it is entirely uninfluenced by the meaningful
content of the pictures it is comparing, nor by any kind of object recognition,
file names or textual annotations. It is purely looking for similarities
in their visual features - composition, light and dark, shape and pattern.
If you look carefully you can often see visual elements that match your
keypicture, but in ways that are quite unexpected. As you get used to
understanding this "algorithmic" matching process you will find
that the software is teaching you to "see" images in the same
that it does!
Why draw images with alphabets?
The alphabet is not just a collection of arbitrary signs for vowels
and consonants. It is also a visual vocabulary, developed over thousands
of years for distinctiveness of letterform, recognisability and ease of
writing and reproduction. Many letters that represent similar sounds have
similar shapes as well, such as "M" and "N". The letters
are a set of visual elements that can function as a set of basic drawing
tools just as the geometric primitives of circle, square and triangle
do. By recovering this purely visual function we can also glimpse how
new techniques such as the "search engine" can be used to extend
the possibilities of writing new forms that are not constrained by the
conventional distinctions between words and images. The search results
become a form of visual sentence construction but using an entirely different
Why use these alphabets?
The Mimeticon allows you to draw using letters from a set of alphabetical
"palettes". All these alphabets have been chosen from significant
stages in tyhe history of our "modern " Roman alphabet. As you
can see if you flip through them, many letters can be traced back to hieroglyphs
in use when Egyptian writing first began over 5,000 years ago. The shapes
of modern letterforms can still be detected in Egyptian pictograms and
ideograms. The letter "M" was originally the Egyptian word for
"water" (pronounced "net"), which it mimics with a
little icon of waves. The sounds or phonemes of our letters can also often
be traced back to the first fully phonetic alphabet - a Semitic script
over 4,000 years old.
For more information on this historical background see the About
Why call it a Baroque search engine?
The Baroque was the last period of history when pictures and words
were not considered distinct modes of language and expression. The examples
down the left margin are taken from an ornamental alphabet designed by
Lucas Killian in 1627. These figurative motifs recall the origins of the
Roman alphabet that goes back to Egyptian mimetic hieroglyphs. The writing
that appears beneath your search image is also a Baroque style caption
composed out of the file names of the search results, reminiscent of the
Emblem books of the C17th. This search engine has a Baroque sensibility
in that it uses the search engine as a mechanism by which words and images
can be transformed between each other, reinterpreted and rewritten, all
within the context of the visual history of the alphabetic sign.
For more information on this context see the About
The results still look inaccurate. What's the best way to draw with
Because the search engine only looks at the strongest visual features
it will tend to produce more obviously "accurate" results if
you draw the most graphic images (see examples at bottom of the main
page). Try keeping your images very simple and direct, drawing only the
most significant visual structure or skeleton and skipping the details.
So if you are drawing a face, concentrate on the darkest features such
as the eyes, mouth, hair and their relative positions. Sometimes simple
patterns can retrieve interesting matches. If you draw a letter "O"
in the middle of the canvas it will treat it as a completely image to
if you place it at the top left. And remember that if an image of a face
is half in shadow then it is that shadow silhouette that will become the
most likely feature for it to match on - it won't recognise eyes themselves.
Remember you can also use the Eraser tool if you want a more exact shape
- you could even use it like a paintbrush.
Where do the image results come from?
The images it retrieves are meant to reflect the scope of a commercial
internet search engine. But because I can't afford to store the billions
of images that a service like Google or Alta Vista can provide, the database
that The Mimeticon searches typically contains a few tens of thousands
of images. These have been collected at random from the internet and are
periodically updated. So it is a bit like a shifting "window"
of all the images on the internet. So if you submit the same image a few
weeks later you may get different results. The larger I make this database
the more accurate the results are likely to be - it can only return the
nearest matches to the images available in its current database.
How does it work?
Searching by visual appearance is known as CBIR (Content Based Image
Retrieval) and is still an emergent technology (that means it doesn't
work perfectly). It is an enormously more complex process than textual
matching because images are formed of continuous surfaces of features
and can vary in all the two dimensional aspects of size, orientation,
etc. They are not composed of a standard and limited set of signs. The
Mimeticon uses a piece of open source software called "imgSeek"
for its basic image recognition engine. imgSeek uses a technique called
"multi-resolution wavelet decomposition" to break images down
into bits it can search and compare. It is a bit like a compression algorithm
Who are you?
Richard Wright has worked as a media artist for over twenty years,
specialising in digital imagery, history and parallels between the Baroque
and digital culture. For more info see www.futurenatural.net.
Concept and design: Richard Wright
Technical Assistance: Tony Shaper
Hosted by: Furtherfield.org
Funded by a grant from Arts Council England 2006
Latin 100 AD
Greek 500 BC
Phoenician 1100 BC
Semitic 2000 BC
Egyptian 3300 BC