Nettime mailing list archives

<nettime> Ted Warnell interview on the poetics of programming
Florian Cramer on Thu, 10 Oct 2002 01:29:23 +0200 (CEST)

[Date Prev] [Date Next] [Thread Prev] [Thread Next] [Date Index] [Thread Index]

<nettime> Ted Warnell interview on the poetics of programming

[The following essay on & interview with Ted Warnell just appeared at
trAce. For Nettimers, it contains - among others - some nice stabs at
Macromedia Flash. Posted here with kind permission of trAce, Randy and
Rita.  -F]

Ted Warnell
by Randy Adams

This article first appeared at trAce, October 2002,

Code poet and digital artist Ted Warnell hails from the small Canadian
city of Medicine Hat, where the South Saskatchewan River snakes across the
plains, about one hour north of the American border. You do not have to
drive far beyond the outskirts of Medicine Hat to feel like you are in the
proverbial middle of nowhere. It is a landscape of vast distances, a
favourite subject in Warnell's digital images from the 80's and 90's.
There is a certain formalism in the design of many of his web pages,
possibly a nod to his real landscape, but his work is anything but free of

Self-employed since 1983 as a systems analyst and programmer specializing
in corporate database management, Warnell came to poetics through working
with computer languages - machine code, assembly language and programming.
He fuses digital imagery with markup language (HTML) and code (JavaScript)
to create his web art and poetics. His source material is "code and data,
program logic, information from cyberspace, all things digital." He has
even found a creative use for spam.

His work is often delightfully whimsical, like fly paper from his ADVEXP
series, where the viewer interacts by using their mouse to arrange and
rearrange flies on black squares - the visual pattern is linked to the
literal in an ingenious manner. But the interface is not obvious - typical
of much of Warnell's work, the task of discovery is squarely on the
viewer. Another whimsical piece is his Y2K calendar, a 16 month calendar
you can download in a single file or "in three smaller files (with some
assembly required)". In PbN does Windows, presented as a series of help
files for Windows - how to arrange icons, choose colour schemes, use
NotePad, work the mouse - each set of instructions is delightfully

On a more serious note, in TOWERS, from Warnell's REALIZATION series, two
vertical bars (2100 pixels high X 210 pixels wide) stretch empty and black
down the page. The viewer scrolls to the bottom where jumbled text and
binary code lay in seeming disarray. The text includes a URL to the
collaborative project text_TOWERS, begun by Miekal And in commemoration of
the World Trade Centre. "The works at Realization are like sketches," says
Warnell. "Parts of which may later find their way into larger works."

Warnell's trademark project, Poem by Nari (PbN), now spans seven years.
"It means poem bi nary, poem binary," he says. "Mark Amerika was first one
to get it, in 1997. PbN is myself and friends, not Ted Warnell all by his
lonesome." An early advocate of multi-authorship, Warnell's PbN is the
result of creative collaborations with artists, writers, and computer
programmers in Europe, Africa, Australia, Asia, and South and North

Warnell's work has been widely published online including in Alt-X and The
Iowa Review Web, he is represented in the Rhizome ArtBase. He has been
poetry editor for the hypertext/hypermedia literary journal BeeHive. In
2001, he conceived a concept cover for the online version of Pif magazine,
with graphics and coding for animated and interactive artwork for 12
issues. From 1995 to 2001, warnell.com grew to "32 megabytes, 2,800 Web
files, 1,100 HTML pages, 1,600 media files, 1,000 Web links, 350
contributing and collaborating artists."

Rita Raley, who teaches digital humanities and global literary studies at
the University of California, names Warnell as a one of a handful of
prominent practitioners of codework. This work includes many 'quick and
dirty little ditties', like fragments, as well as complex code poems like
Berlioz - 'a roll-your-own tone poem in fourteen movements' which includes
input from Mez, Talan Memmott, Jim Andrews, Thuan Tran, and Brian Lennon
during a creative exchange of ideas on the webartery email list.

Sometime in 2001, Warnell's output slowed to a trickle: "I am more fully
in the real world these days vs. the cyber world. Haven't stopped
entirely, of course. But slowed down a bit - channelling creative energies
into the promo work I'm doing with the dancers at The Doll House, a
nightclub featuring exotic dancers - a variety of promo products for their
stage show, posters, fridge magnets, lighter wraps, prints, cigarette
packs, key tags, t-shirt x-fers, and the like."

In the fall of this year, Warnell received a grant from the Electronic
Word program of the Canada Council for the Arts, so his creative juices
will be focussed once again on a project for the web.


Chat interview with Ted Warnell
(with guest Rita Raley)
[Time: Thu Sep 19
18:35:19 2002]

Adams >> I understand you have been self-employed since 1983, as a systems
analyst and programmer specializing in corporate database management. You
were involved with the miningco? (now about.com)

Warnell >> Yes, programming for business from 83-98. On the internet since
1980 and the web since 1994.  My web site a Room without Walls came online
in 1995.

Miningco was 97. I defined and developed the Art & Technology site for
them. Original A&T articles still are found at ZINEn

Miningco fired me for putting Poem by Nari on their A&T site, and for not
being a team player. Funny, hired as an independent web artist and fired
for not being a team player. Huh?!? The experience put me off of corporate
internet, but I still am grateful for the opportunity to participate in
their venture.

Adams >> You have a background in photography?

Warnell >> Enthusiast. Have had a camera for 30+ years, no exhibits.

Adams >> But you have exhibited on the web. I especially like the project
with your daughters.

Warnell >> The project continues today, but is no longer being published
on the web. It started in 93-94 as a way to learn imaging. Poem by Nari
projects are my primary publishing focus since 1996.

Adams >> I suspect, though, that your visual sense, even with your code
poetry, is influenced by your work with imagery. The viewfinder = the
computer screen = rectangular format. I mean, your layouts, they are quite
formal, visually.

Warnell >> Oh, yes. My visual sense certainly predates the web, and even
the computer. With the computer, my work is what the computer, screen, and
a client-server environment demand - it is tuned to those requirements. It
is influenced, too, by interface design as that is where we work, and what
we do there needs to function. I am interested, too, to break and bend
these rules and requirements...

Viru2 for example, bends the idea of a Web browser cookie file by treating
the cookie as a computer virus.

Adams >> I remember viewing the source code of Viru2 and thinking how a
portion of it reminded me of a virus under a microscope. Some of your
code/text looks like an image file opened in a text editor.

Warnell >> Some of it is exactly that. Code is visual, to be looked at. It
also is 'real' (functional) in some cases. Or a mix of both, often. Beyond
the mechanics and technicalities is a rich world of the conceptual.

The computer is unique in many ways; it is the first invention that as a
tool extends the mind, like a hammer extends the fist in a physical way.
If this is true, and I think so, then computers, the internet and web,
etc., are first and foremost conceptual animals.

The computer is a conceptual tool.

Exploring digital media for me means more than exploring technical physics
- we can explore concepts and interactions. We can move the creative
process from private to public - a work of art need never be finished by
the artist, but can be endlessly recreated by a viewer. Creative
production moves away from the lone artist to all viewers - viewer/client
becomes a creative participant.

Poem by Numbers and Berlioz require viewer participation in creative
realization of a finished product -- and that is the idea. Berlioz mimics
the participatory email list process from which source material for the
work is derived. Poem by Numbers is a tongue-in-cheek look at
point-and-click art production with programs like Flash.

Thing is, here is this new mind tool that is rich with possibilities to
realize more than just physics.  Why then are we still interested to use
it to look at yet another rendering of a tree? Digital media can do so
much more - conceptually. I am interested to explore what more.

Raley >> One thing I notice about the recent genre of, let us call it,
Flash poetry, is that much of it seems simply to display the technical
capability of the software. That is, sometimes one wonders if a Flash poem
or story could really just function as a Macromedia demo? So I wonder if
you have a particular relationship to Java or JavaScript that is not
possible with a Macromedia product; would you be willing to think about it
in terms of freedom from constraint'?

Warnell >> I must confess to not knowing much about Flash. There are
constraints still in JavaScript, a browser, the Net itself, computers.

Raley >> Well I suppose one difference is that one really has to work
within a particular production environment's constraints -- in some way
the formal properties of a text are dictated by the program.

Warnell >> Working with these constraints is a challenge, for sure.

I prefer working at levels below those of typical WYSIWYG applications as
constraints are fewer.

Another way to say WYSIWYG might be, 'what you see is what we give you to
work with'. Thanks, but I'll program it myself. Source code for all PbN
works is there below the visible page - if you're so inclined, then you
can take it and re-program it for yourself.

Raley >> A poem like your Lascaux.Symbol.ic seems very different to me. It
certainly has a visual style but the style of the programming is equally
amazing. So one thing I appreciate about your work is the extent to which
the programming has an aesthetic quality that I do not see in most Flash

Warnell >> Programming style for my HTML and JavaScript works is
structured as for C programming, a language I worked with for many years.
I guess old habits die hard.

Flash is 180 degrees opposite to the reality of client-server network
environments like the internet.  It is wrong and bound to failure, in my
opinion. And I am afraid of it.

Adams >> Because the platform may disappear? Like 8 track cassettes?

Warnell >> That it will disappear is a certainty. I don't hate Flash or
Macromedia. Nor am I opposed to artists doing whatever they want with this
or any other software, but products like Flash work against the grain
here, and that does concern me.

>From my perspective, regarding artists and the new media, it isn't about
control any more, but open and free dissemination of our creative effort.
We cannot control an end-user's experience of our work because we're not
supposed to - this is most natural on a client-server network like the
internet, and assuming that the net is not ultimately owned by a

Proprietary programs such as Flash are about control. Dead end.

Raley >> I understand you have just received a grant from the Canada
Council for the Arts. Will you be producing something specific for your

Warnell >> Yes, the Eden database. As Eve was banished from paradise
(Eden, conceptual) to the physical world, I will return descendants of Eve
from the physical world to a conceptual Eden. The Eden database is cyber,
digital, conceptual. It will be filled with data/code digitized directly
from flesh via a digital camera. Not banishment, but reversal. Or perhaps,

Eden will do a few more things, too, like visualize huge quantities, and
demonstrate/realize how data is sliced, diced, and cooked a million
different ways. And you thought giving out just your name was no big
thing. And your telephone number. And purchase habits, times, dates,
products, subscriptions. A growing database of us', sliced and diced with
programming. To what end?

Raley >> Interesting because I certainly want to see in some of your work
a kind of cabalistic fascination with numbers and/or patterns - another
link to the biblical, that is.

Warnell >> Book of Job might be such a work. This work was referenced in
my Eden proposal to Canada Council as a 'conceptual database' in that it
treats chapters and verses from the biblical Book of Job as files and

My fascination with numbers and logic -- these are devices I use
frequently in my work. You will have to look beyond them to see what
really is going on. I hope you might.

Raley >> I'd like to ask how you understand the relations between
"technical" and "creative" work? How do you think of your writing
vis-ŕ-vis application and programming?

Warnell >> I'm not sure I differentiate these to any great degree. They
are one and the same to me.  Above and below, they are written/created. We
look beneath the surface as that is where much of what we do here exists
-- 'the code is the work is the code'... Mark Amerika spoke of this in his
1997 essay, Surf-Sample-Manipulate: The Pseudo-Autobiography of A Work-In-

It is not possible to separate code from work in a digital realm. Both are
to some degree technical, and both are creative.

Raley >> I used to make the argument that a multi- or hyper-media critic
did not have to have a technical knowledge equal to that of the artist -
this came up at an ELO panel in April. But your work certainly compels me
to rethink this line. Before I used to argue that a certain analogy to
fine arts criticism could be set up, whereby one could say that a precise
knowledge of the chemical composition of paint was not required to read
Cezanne and so too one did not require a precise knowledge of say
JavaScript in order to read a Warnell poem.

Adams >> Ted, were you involved in poetics pre-web?

Warnell >> No, not pre-web. I came to computers in 1978 and quickly
discovered that programming code could be as challenging and creative as
making art. From 78-93 I was more involved with programming than art. My
interest in poetics has evolved with the PbN projects.

Raley >> I can see the influence of graphic arts in e.g., White Wedding in

Warnell >> Yes, many people see this influence in my work. I do love
graphic arts, especially drawing.

Raley >> It is hard to believe that you did not write before programming.

Warnell >> Well, programming is inherently poetic, or might be. It is part
science and part art, of course. What I write now is programming and

Adams >> So the programming language defines your code poetry?

Warnell >> If you mean that my code poetry works often are a reflection of
their own programming, then yes, you could say that the programming
language defines the work, or defines it to some extent. I am not
slavishly bound to this idea of code poetry as actual, operable program
code, though - the idea is irrelevant to me.

Raley >> There is an interesting organic-inorganic dichotomy. So in Niku
Codepo> for instance you talk about code as bones and text as flesh. It is
an interesting metaphor - linking I know to Alan Sondheim's work. I
thought that in some way your poetry can be read as offering an extended
commentary on code itself vis-ŕ-vis poetic and ordinary language.

Warnell >> The work visualizes a concept of the message subsumed by the
communication - content impaled by protocol. It realizes both the idea
expressed in Alan's message, and communication of the idea.

All of my works, but especially my code poetry works, are keenly aware of
their existence on the page (screen) and below - the 'neath text' as my
friend and fellow web artist Jim Andrews vispo.com refers to it (code) -
and so might offer some commentary on these things. Truthfully though, I
am not exactly certain about what those comments might be :)

Raley >> In the latest Electronic Book Review, John Cayley makes a
distinction between "codework" that has a genuine addressee, and
materially changes the text in a visible way, vs. codework that uses
elements of code - he calls it pseudo-code.

Warnell >> Both are fine. I use code and pseudo-code and no code as
required by a given work. While I certainly can appreciate machine
generated and modulated works, I am not bound by the idea that digital
code works must necessarily be executable code works.

Adams >> Peter Howard wrote, "Anyone who uses computers as part of their
art has to allow for or accept that what is ground-breaking today may be
buried tomorrow."

Warnell >> We can temper future losses (possible/probable) by staying
clear of those things that are shown by their history to most likely
disappear sooner rather than later, e.g., non-standard, proprietary,
commercial programs and web browser plug-ins - by staying close to the
real core of things.

Web art might have the potential to bring about real new thinking and a
new art, but it will take real time for these things to happen. If you are
a web or net artist, then do yourself a favour and give yourself as much
time as you can. And good luck to you.

Thx 4 th chat R & R - best 2 u /t.

Rita Raley is Assistant Professor of English at the University of
California, Santa Barbara, where she teaches courses in the digital
humanities and global literary studies. She is completing work on one
book, _Global English and the Academy_, and also currently at work on a
book about digital textuality.  Her most recent articles address hypertext
and performance and the electronic empire and her ancillary research
topics include codework, net.art, courseware, and molecular computing.  

Randy Adams, writer and visual artist, is Associate Editor at trAce. He
has been an active member of the trAce community since 1999, and was the
first writer/artist to be awarded a trAce Writer's Studio.  He lives on
Vancouver Island, off the west coast of Canada.

trAce Online Writing Centre
The Nottingham Trent University, Clifton Lane, Clifton,
Nottingham NG11 8NS, England
Tel: +44 (0)115 848 6360 Fax: +44 (0)115 848 6364
ŠtrAce 2001-2002

[Postscript by Sue Thomas of trAce: "In addition, if you have room, I'd
be very grateful if you could alert your readers to our survey of
writers on the web - we'd love to have some respondees from Nettime. The
survey is at http://trace.ntu.ac.uk/process/index.cfm?article=3D25]

#  distributed via <nettime>: no commercial use without permission
#  <nettime> is a moderated mailing list for net criticism,
#  collaborative text filtering and cultural politics of the nets
#  more info: majordomo {AT} bbs.thing.net and "info nettime-l" in the msg body
#  archive: http://www.nettime.org contact: nettime {AT} bbs.thing.net