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<nettime> QuickView on Software Art
Olga Goriunova on Sat, 22 Feb 2003 19:58:09 +0100 (CET)

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<nettime> QuickView on Software Art

QuickView on Software Art

Amy Alexander, Florian Cramer, Matthew Fuller, Thomax Kaulmann, Alex
McLean, Pit Schultz, and The Yes Men, interviewed by Olga Goriunova and
Alexei Shulgin.  http://runme.org

Q: Why are you personally attracted to 'software art'?

The Yes Men: We are very interested in software art because of its
potential for automation! We can use these technologies to replace the
artists. A wholesale replacement.  Followed by leisure!

Alex McLean: Because making code is empowering, but generally taught very
badly.  The act of programming is portrayed as systematic and uncreative.
This may be appropriate for working on quality assured credit card
transaction systems, but why apply it to programming as a whole?  Software
art might give us a place to look at the creation and use of software
outside of formal business constraints, and the stereotypes thereby
fostered.  I'm also repelled by software art, because I see artists trying
to employ software thoughtlessly.  Hopefully software art will draw on its
hackerly heritage enough to sidestep readymade wizardware.

Thomax Kaulmann: Software art can be a manifold thing. It can look nice in
source code or at runtime. It can influence culture or can give an
impression of the present culture.  Software art is just another art
discipline and it is not defined.  Art is always a matter of intention,
there can be different media to transport one's vision: stones & hammer,
canvas & color, camera & video or computers & software. An artist is
intrinsically motivated to translate his/her ideas to a broader culture,
through software as well. 

Amy Alexander: Hmm, it's a little like asking "why are you attracted to
art?" isn't it :-)?  I'm not sure verbal answers to such questions can be
entirely satisfactory or productive. But to give a partial one: I think
because software art is a mode of non-verbal expression relevant to
contemporary culture - just as photography, video art, etc., were to the
times in which they first appeared (and still are.)

Matthew Fuller: Perhaps the conjunction of two highly productive and
inventive forces, neither of which really wants the other is always going
to make for something interesting?  What is named as contemporary art has
responded to networks and computation by taking on certain of the
characteristics of networks - the formulation of 'the relational aesthetic'
for instance - without actually dealing with the specific technologies.  On
the other hand, software cultures have only very rarely considered
themselves to or have acted in a manner which is reflexive, in the way
which is most usefully and richly developed over the last century and a
half or so of art.  Various conjunctions of these two patterns of activity,
their mutual interference, seem to be generating some exciting or annoying
or disruptive or inventive effects.  One cannot claim this for all of the
work that operates here of course, but it is an opening to new

Pit Schultz: Software art is attracting me because it is carrying a
seductive promise that possibly software production could be seen as
cultural production; that writing code has more meaning as making a program
run or crash or sell. It might place media art into the history of
contemporary art with the passage of conceptual art for example.  It poses
questions of artisanship, and pragmatic aesthetics of code, a kind of
surplus that is not technological in terms of efficiency.

Florian Cramer: If one defines (as the Read_me 1.2 jury did) software art
as art that is either based on formal instruction code or which is a
cultural reflection of software, then there has been a lot of interesting
artwork lately in this field that has a attracted me and which justifies to
engage with this concept. Jodi's work of the past few years, which has
radically shifted from browser art to manipulations of computer software,
is one striking example. But aside from that practical observation, I am
also attracted by theoretical issues, since, being an academic in
comparative literature, I research the borders and grey areas of writing,
executable code and art, from the permutational poems of the late antiquity
to lullist and kabbalistic language speculation to up to the very new
situation that instruction code has become a mass commodity and a material
appropriated by artists in all kinds of ways.  I thus would never limit
software art to craftsmanship of programming (i.e. software art as a Donald
Knuth-style "art of programming"), but consciously take  speculative,
unclean, or even non-computer-related approaches into account, from certain
forms of poetic play and conceptual art to the use of machine code
fragments as private languages in artistic "codeworks" like those I
collate, together with Alan Sondheim and Beatrice Beaubien, into the
"nettime unstable digest".  I should also add that I am a Free Software
activist who perceives operating systems (particularly those which don't
create artificial frontiers between "users" and "programmers" - i.e. Unix,
Plan9, LISP machines) and software as ways of thought and cultures that are
in no way aesthetically, culturally or politically "neutral". It thus
follows that software and art, as modes of both cultural reflection and
construction, are closely related to each other.

Q: Which viewpoints on the issue you find most interesting?

Alex McLean: That of the programmer, because I am one myself, and that of
people using the software, because there is often great disconnection
between software creators and their audience.

Amy Alexander: I have a few interests: critical, political and algorithmic.
Critical: Software art helps us examine the biases and the influences on
culture of software at large.  Most non-art software pretends to be neutral
and objective technology - devoid of human influence.  Software art opens
itself up to examination of its human-created biases and its
human-experienced influences - so it helps us understand how these factors
operate in "normal" (non-art) software as well. 

Political: Governments and corporations use software and information
capital to exert influence.  But artists and others can use software to
strategically redistribute information capital in a more equitable, useful
and entertaining manner. (Mi datamine es tu datamine.) In other words, I
think it's important to realize that data and algorithms are separate
things. Even proprietary data can often be publicly accessed (search engine
databases, etc.) But how it's used is in the algorithm - strategically
written algorithms can provide a lot of leverage and be very handy as
tactical media tools.

And algorithmic for its own sake: the visceral, improvisational nature of
art and communication through algorithms and coding.

Matthew Fuller: Yes, it is the way in which various software art projects
reveal the way software is embedded within wider currents of social and
aesthetic composition.  How does software manifest, reproduce or invent new
relations, say of class, or of processes of work and activity?  How is it
racialised? Is it so precisely in its 'universality'?  Does it have a way
of doing things built into it that enhances certain kinds of sociability,
or act against them?  We can ask these questions in a number of careful
ways, but also in a manner that acknowledges our embeddedness within
software as culture.  Part of these discussions are already part of office
culture, think of the drippy compensatory humour of 'Dilbert' cartoons;
consumer culture, where it exceeds itself as simple passivity, the
inventive intermediate role of 'power users'; and, perhaps most usefully in
this case in the way that particular scenes invent new forms of software
and new ways of dealing with established forms - think of the now long term
tradition of the demo-scene for instance.  At the same time, it's useful to
work from the 'opposite' direction. There are some interesting currents
that take advantage of the specific material qualities of particular kinds
of coding culture. Think of some of the games mods or some of the
generative code work that really take advantage of the idiosyncratic,
perverse and particular nature of code practices.  Exploiters of bugs.
Make the machines stammer, speak in tongues.

Amy Alexander: The algorithm is also very important here. The algorithm
that generates the output is an important and subjective thing, and in
commercial software, it often hides behind the veil of innocent,
technological neutrality. An obvious example is Google's PageRank
algorithm, which determines which sites appear towards the top of Google's
results, and which don't appear at all. The algorithm is very biased toward
big sites, especially if they own lots of other big sites.  But in their
description at http://google.com/technology, Google explains that they rely
on "the uniquely democratic nature of the web" and that "Google's complex,
automated methods make human tampering with our results extremely
difficult." Didn't humans write the algorithm?
That is a very direct example. Software artists approach the subjectivity
of algorithms in different ways; some are more formal; many are more
subtle. But because software art opens itself up to examination of its
subjectivity, and the fact that interface is driven by human-generated
algorithms, it can help us think about the broader software context.

Pit Schultz: Which viewpoints? The view from the 'folkloristic' aspect of
programmers' cultures, writing gimmicks.  The aspect of generating a tree
of knowledge out of existing material, by changing the viewpoint to it. The
question if there's something else than an unlimited numbers of readymades
to be found.  The archive aspect of an area of production, which is not yet
bounded, territorialized. Something ambivalent that was already attracting
me to the possibility of net.art. A strange attractor for the possibility
of existence of such a genre?

Florian Cramer: Georg Philipp Harsdoerffer's "Mathematische und
philosophische Erquickstunden" ("Mathematical and philosophical
recreations") from 1636 -- perhaps the first attempt to systematically
combine poetics, mathematics and algorithmics into a playful whole, Abraham
M. Moles "First manifesto of permutational art" from 1963, Jack Burnham's
exhibition "Software" from 1970, Geoff Cox', Adrian Ward's and Alex
McLean's 2000 paper "The aesthetics of generative code", Matthew Fuller's
2000 paper "It looks like you're writing a letter: Microsoft Word", the (to
date: four) jury statements of the Transmediale and Read_me juries, to some
extent also Larry Wall's papers on Perl and postmodernism. We could use
more cultural criticism of software in general, and especially a criticism
that sees more than surface screen visual and which doesn't fall into the
trap of simplistic analogies between structures in software and structures
in society.

Q: Programmers don't seem to be interested in submitting their works to art
festivals and competitions. There is a huge body of their work that might
be interesting culturally and artistically. What are the possible
strategies and interfaces that can help to make those works visible in the
extended software / art context?

Alex McLean: Yes, programmers don't need institutionalised art festivals or
competitions.   They have the Internet, and the grass-roots fact-to-face
meetings that result from their online projects and discussions.

Amy Alexander: Programmers don't need art festivals - hooray! Rewind back
to "net artists don't need museums", and multiply by a factor of two
(because programmers typically don't consider themselves in the "art" field
at all.) So a programmer's work might be culturally and artistically
interesting, but you have to go where it lives instead of making it come to
you. First we should ask ourselves, "is this a problem?" Personally, I
don't think so. Centralization causes marginalization of whomever is not in
the "center." Not to mention structural weakness (single point of failure -
when the "center" disappoints, the whole can fall apart.) Do programmers
feel the urge to be pulled into the "art context?" If not, then to do so
might be to open a software art zoo and hunt down projects to bring them
into captivity - so we can gawk at them without getting our fingers dirty.
Many authors won't want to be involved in "art" contextualizations at all.
Others will if the context and culture seems inclusive and relevant to
them. Programmers (among others) are turned off by artspeak, or if every
discussion refers back to postmodern philosophy. These conversations
exclude people, and it is in fact possible to have an intelligent,
culturally relevant discussion without these as the focus. Also, it is
helpful for non-programmers to read about, learn about, and experience geek
culture. It is a culture, and it's about people, not technology.  So
anyway, hopefully runme.org takes a couple of positive steps: it's, we
hope, easy to submit work to - you don't have to spend a lot of time
putting together a big press kit with lots of artspeak to impress some jury
and mailing it in ... and you can invite someone else's work in, if they're
too busy or too shy to submit it themselves... it also tries to respect
that software art comes from both "software" and "art" genealogies but is
its own thing. I think it's a problem when people try to interpret software
art as strictly "software" or strictly "art." Time will tell if our
diabolical plans have been successful. :-)

The Yes Men: There are many examples of amazing "outsider art" that isn't
recognized as such by the producer.. So I would think merely pointing them
out, or finding them and making contact with the producers is what would be
most important first.

Alex McLean: Yes, runme.org may be a start, allowing existing communities
of people interested in creative aspects of computing to share their view.

Florian Cramer: I personally think runme.org is an excellent step in this
direction. With its function as a download repository and weblog-style
interface (as it was pioneered by Free Software websites like Slashdot.org
and Freshmeat.net), it clearly overcomes some (so-to-speak) interface
design issues of the festival/competition/exhibition-oriented art system,
although I still think that both channels could and should co-exist. I find
the exhibitions "I love you" (at MAK Frankfurt 2002 and at transmediale.03
Berlin) and jodi's "install.exe" (at plug.in Basel 2002 and Buro Friedrich
Berlin 2003) very successful presentations of software art in the language
of the traditional art system, and the presentations are necessary to
address a larger non-geek audience. Since runme.org got headline coverage
on Slashdot.org, I am quite optimistic that this is the way to go. In
general, Free Software self-organization provides good blueprints to
software art self-organization.

Pit Schultz: The question is what constitutes the 'software art context'?
The software repository is known from shareware and other kinds of
downloadable software tools. Is it applicable to the area of 'art' too?  If
we talk about context, the question is what kind of 'institutions' make
software art exists, where are its boundaries? Who constitutes these
boundaries and how? And of course, is there a history of software art,
assuming that it exists.

Matthew Fuller: Roland Barthes suggested that a truly interdisciplinary
object is one which is nameable by none of the disciplines that in part
contribute to making it, or that congregate around it.  Such an object is
owned by no one set of ideas and approaches.  It demands that traditions
become strange to themselves.  So what is set in motion when art approaches
the irritating subject of programming, what happens when the 'art'
insistences on being incidental, on being amateur, on being able to go
wide-eyed or cunning into any context, comes into some relationship with
technical skill?  Equally, what happens when computing enters a context
wherein every stage in a process has aesthetic effects?  What happens when
computing's in-built judgments about what is 'optimal' or what is 'trivial'
are subject to question and reinvention, or may even usurp its capacity to
rule, to make rules?  The revaluation of the trivial, of waste, of the
past, of what has been shat out, and conversely, what it founds - the new -
is one of the powers of art.  I don't think that this work then that you
ask about, that of programmers, needs 'help'.  It doesn't need to be 'made
visible'.  We don't need gestures of sympathy such as those repetitiously
awarding Linux the name, 'Art' in order to make things possible.  What is
needed are more specific alliances with particular currents of programming
and other strands of making culture; deranging gestures that bring new
worlds to light; prison break-outs; sustained and thoughtful work that
makes itself available for use.

Q: Software art seems to be quite an open field yet, possibly due to the
reason it is very diverse and in many respects is based on the programmers'
culture that is hard to grasp. While contextualizing grassroot movements
like this one and thus, providing an access to 
interesting practices to larger audience, we are at the same time inevitably packaging them for easy appropriation by art institutions. How do you think we can deal with this problem?

Alex McLean: Having people with broad knowledge and experience of
programming languages forming part of art institutions.  Critics should
become literate in some of the many languages of software art before trying
to understand its context.  Right now I think many art institutions are too
software illiterate to be of any interest to software artists.

The Yes Men: Yes! Just like the outsider artists... Well, it seems the
important thing is to respect the desires and intentions of the creator...
See if they want to be appropriated first. If appropriation involves a
compromise of integrity, then figure out in each instance how to make the
work useless to the dominant narrative...?

Pit Schultz: How did other types of 'immaterial art' deal with this
problem? How did early computer graphics deal with it, or certain kinds of
Fluxus? The question is for me first of all is there a 'style' a kind of
common 'ductus' which one can see after the years surrounding different
forms of 'conceptualism'. The suggestion is that there is a difference to
be made in relation to other forms of art, which are based on the
postulation that a new 'form' is found, only through the use of a specific
'new' medium. The autonomy of media art in relation of contemporary art has
to be questioned, on the other hand the way the art operating system
processes incoming 'new forms' has to be questioned too. Software and the
net allows to run a 'museum' with much less funds than elsewhere, this
poses questions of what defines the needed power relations of
representation which are constituting an art form.  "Software art" insofar
is not new, but it reflects, enhances, explores the role of software in a
post-industrial society and afterwards. What is the role of the original,
the author, the object, can one apply other basic questions of the
predecessors of this potential art genre in a new way? How do seemingly
successful works function gaining a market? (rhizome list etc.) What kind
of criteria they seem to fulfill?  Is there any place of constituting
itself outside of an institutional interest? As with any art I'm also
interested in the art which hasn't to be called art.

Matthew Fuller: This question might also be posed from a different
perspective.  If art institutions are treated simply as a particular and
distinct part of a number of interlocking, but also partially
differentiable processes and institutions it is useful to use them and take
part in them for those things that they do well.  I also think that in
general it is wise to avoid becoming involved solely in one kind of
institutional structure.  The advantage of the internet and other
distribution mechanisms is that you can be active in art contexts, but also
develop relations to other circuits of distribution: shareware, module
libraries, free software, gratis CD ROMs and so on.  Work to multiply
these.  Mongrel for instance always triangulates what it does, using the
net, streets / communities, and art systems to reinforce each other, but
also to make sure that no one mode dominates the others.

Amy Alexander: I don't worry about this. Art institutions (including
runme.org!) can and will appropriate anything they want - the thing about
digital projects of course is that in general, they're infinitely
reproducible - so an institution jumping onto the net doesn't interfere
with other nodes and modes of distribution. It just jumps on the bandwagon.
People can decide for themselves which packagings they find most

Florian Cramer: This is a question that applies to any labeling and
contextualization of art. Recuperation is inevitable as soon as you call
something "art", and of course we ourselves do contribute to that
recuperation. I don't care, and even think it's good to recuperate certain
things -- like, for example: hacker code -- to save it from being
overlooked or forgotten.  It's rather problematic if the recuperation
happens the other way round, as problematic exploitation of programmer's
cultures through artists (like in the RSG Carnivore project and - despite
its good intentions - the "CODeDOC" exhibition at the Whitney museum).


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