Explaining Pictures to a Dead Protocol: Programming Aesthetic Experience

Posted by Lewis LaCook | Fri Sep 3rd 2004 12:34 a.m.

Explaining Pictures to a Dead Protocol:
Programming Aesthetic Experience
Science is what we understand well enough to explain to a computer. Art is everything else we do.

--Donald Knuth, The Art of Computer Programming
The Beethoven Code
The idea of programming aesthetic experience is a seductive one. Figuritive painters have employed means for centuries to control the flow of a viewer's sight through a painting; composers have developed strategies to break Western Art Music out of the comfort of functional tonality and into the realms of serialism(Schoenberg) and indeterminacy(Cage). Indeed, all arts, even those not executed via computer, seem to be based on the idea of programming experience, and by the binary forces inherent in programming: freedom and control. Paul Tulipana, one of the members of the art programming group Eidolon(http://www.node99.org/denature/), has written that:

Underlying the acts of the creation and viewing every piece of art created in or by a computer there are thousands of lines of code. Everything from the algorithm which controls image manipulation in many recent paintings to the html that underlies the visual elements of Alexei Shulgin?s 'form art' is driven by lines and lines of code, resultant (albeit not necessarily considered) in what the artist intends to be your viewing experience. The infrastructure is compounded when viewing a piece of art on the computer - Maciej Wisniewski's Turnstile Part II, for example, is reliant not only on HTML and a _JavaScript client-side program, it is reliant on an XML backend that allows communication with a huge database of found data. Moreover, viewing this piece is reliant on the code that runs the server (say, stadium.com), not to mention the code that allows your computer to connect to the server (TCP, IP, your internet provider, your browser, your operating system, and so on for a very long
time).(Tulipana, 2002)

Tulipana is honing in on computer-based arts here, specifically network art. But in a way this also applies to more "realtime" art activities; is there not code in Beethoven? Is the system of notes and time signatures that is a formal music education not in essence a programming language? Or at least a markup language, like HTML(it does lack control structures--no while loops on the staff). But traditional art music praxis does bring to mind the dynamic of computer and network art; the score can be seen as code executed by an orchestra or any other set of musicians. Christiane Paul, introducing the 2002 Whitney ArtPort commission project CODeDOC(http://www.whitney.org/artport/commissions/codedoc/index.shtml), points out, "...there is no digital art that doesn't have a layer of code and algorithms, a procedure of formal instructions that accomplish a 'result' in a finite number of steps. Even if the physical and visual manifestations of digital art distract from the layer of data and
code, any 'digital image' has ultimately been produced by instructions and the software that was used to create or manipulate it. It is precisely this layer of 'code' and instructions that constitutes a conceptual level which connects to previous artistic work such as Dada's experiments with formal variations and the conceptual pieces by Duchamp, Cage and Sol LeWitt that are based on the execution of instructions.(Paul, 2002)"
Control and its Other
"Within the past quarter of a century, operational instructions have been imbedded in the design of many industrial and household utilities. They implement our daily use of telephones, automobiles, cameras, TVs, and radios. Our hospitals, factories, banks, and shopping centers all depend on the algorithms that control inventories, transactions, communications and security. They are ubiquitous and our mass culture would collapse without them.(Versotko, 2004)"

If this makes you nervous, it probably should. The fact that contemporary urban culture has become so dependent on algorithms IS a bit scary--I mean, who's writing this code, anyway? What do they want of me? In a world of voice mail and instant messaging and ATMs and cable television remote controls, have I, as a human being, become nothing more than some pre-determined entity that presses buttons in precisely prescribed sequence?

This is where art usually steps in--to "humanize" phenomena; not to anthropomorphize it per se, but to lay a veneer of the "organic" over our mechanized, algorithmic culture. Network and software art should play a vital role in this: successful aesthetic programming often highlights and debunks the control structures inherent in our communication networks. Such works critique the medium because it's their duty to;comprised of the medium, they often utilize control to no purpose(at least from a capitalist perspective), or for the "fuzzy" purpose of pleasure...

"The path of a user?s experience follows a narrative trajectory: confusion > discovery > understanding > exhaustion. " Brad Borevitz surmises. "The pleasures of this passage involve the sensual, empathetic experience of the algorithms of the software(Borevitz, 2002)." To speak of empathy and algorithms in the same sentence may puzzle many; to the daily user, automation goes unnoticed, is taken for granted (I don't get particularly excited when using the ATM). But to the PROGRAMMER, ah, the programmer sees in the abstraction of a good algorithm beauty and elegance. Sites like sweetcode.org(http://sweetcode.org/index.html) may seem to offer little more than ascetic tools for ascetic codehawks, but note the presence of projects like Filelight(http://methylblue.com/filelight/), billed at sweetcode as "a cute interactive visualization of disk space consumption."
The Artist-Programmer caresses her tool
So who is this weirdo who finds something to empathize with in automation? Is he obsessive-compulsive? Does he spend his day washing his hands over and over again? Recently, I became interested in the relationships network and software artists had with the programming languages they knew. In true democratic netizen fashion, I sent a survey out to a few email lists--most notably the Rhizome list, Netbehaviour, Webartery and Wryting. What I got back reads (perhaps not surprisingly, since we're talking about something as intimate as one's relationship with language, whether that language compiles or not) as strangely personal, confessional even. Of course, when one of the questions in a survey is "Have you ever dreamed in code?" you can't expect institutional responses.

To the query, "Does each programming language imply an ontology?", Francis Hwang, Rhizome's Director of Technology, points out that "...under the surface in OO design...these debates (are) raging. People in stricter typing languages (C++, Java) tend to believe that you need to set up this deep forest of Platonic types before you can write a single line of code. We dynamic folks (Ruby, Smalltalk) are much more likely to believe that types are practical and provisional, but have no reality behind them. You discover types as you need them, and you discard them if you think they're no longer relevant to your task(LaCook, 2004)" Francis outlines here the differences in variable declaration procedures in programming languages; some languages require a variable to be declared, and tied to a specific data-type(text, number, true/false polarity), before it can be used; others will treat a variable as a less-than-definite entity, easily converted from one data-type to another. Strict languages
do seem to be more Platonic, more dependent on transcendent "categories," than, say, Flash's ActionScript, an interpreted language that pretty much trusts the programmer to know what kind of data she is working with, and that she knows what to do with it. Or, as multimedia artist and poet Dan Waber answers:"...some ideas are sonnet shaped, some ideas are rondeau shaped, some ideas are free verse shaped."

One factor in the relationship between artists and programming languages that always fuels fiery debate is whether or not the language in question is open source. To create interactive Flash objects, for example, one must buy Macromedia's product; not only that, but programmers have no access to ActionScript's core engine, can't modify it to suit their whims. A language like PHP, on the other hand, is a free download, and programmers are encouraged to modify it. Would artists particular about the politics of art and social critique frown on proprietary technologies?

" I don't choose my paint based on political

ideas." Dutch artist Jan Robert Leegte replied curtly. But Jessica Gomula was quick to point out one of the advantages of open source code: "I would never have had the opportunity to learn if tutorials and

resources were not available online and if other programmers had not posted

their source-code as examples."

Gomula also outlined the very fundamental difference between networked/algorithmic art objects and more familiar media. "Once it is interactive the artist loses control over the exact

_expression of an experience," she explained. "But by programming specific response and

avenues into the piece, the overall experience is still highly guided.

Coding it is one of the only ways to introduce a non-linear experience,

which I believe adds an important element to art, as the idea of the

non-linear experience, stemming from web use, is a paradigm that has yet to

reach it's fullest _expression."

Just to confirm that I wasn't imagining things, and that indeed the execution of code could provide some rare personalities with pleasure, I also asked if it were true that one could code catharsis, could introduce into an artwork some automation that reaches the user on a more intuitive, subjective level. Dan Waber took umbrage: "To me, the answer to this is so obviously 'yes' that I am compelled to ask you: what makes you think a coded art object might be inherently incapable of producing catharsis in the user?" Net poet and theorist Alan Sondheim completely dissolved the art object in his response. "I'm not sure what 'art object' is." He wrote, "...anything can produce anything depending on the content..." And artist-programmer Rob Myers cut to the chase as far as human subjectivity and automated objectivity go. "Yes. I wrote a small script to print "I am drunk" repeatedly the other night. It was very cathartic."

A compiled text of the responses to the Programming Survey can be seen at http://www.lewislacook.com/programmingSurvey .

Questioning the ability of code to produce empathy and catharsis in end users will, as time goes on, become a pointless activity. "In a world where artists use software to write software that will be seen via other software, questions about the 'aesthetics of the code' become a symptom of not being able to see the wood for the trees." Richard Wright asserts in the latest issue of Mute. "Programming is not only the material of artistic creation, it is the context of artistic creation(Wright, 2004)." That is, the subject of code is surrounded by code. When Francis Hwang wrote about the Platonism of strictly-typed languages, he could just as well have been referencing the longing artists and theorists often feel when confronted with algorithmic art objects. A desire for the transcendent, for immanence; basking in the mediation that is algorithmic reality. And hasn't art always been mediation?



Works Cited

Borevitz, Brad. Super-Abstract: Software Art and the Redefinition of Abstraction. Graduate Thesis. 2002

LaCook, Lewis. Programming Survey distributed to list-servs (Rhizome, Netbehaviour, Webartery, Wryting). 2004.

Paul, Christiane. CODeDOC http://www.whitney.org/artport/commissions/codedoc/index.shtml 2002

Tuulipana, Paul. On Network Art. http://art.paultulipana.net/ 2001-2002.

Wright, Richard. Software Art After Programming. Mute, Issue 28. 2004.


Lewis LaCook -->http://www.lewislacook.com/

XanaxPop:Mobile Poem Blog-> http://www.lewislacook.com/xanaxpop/

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