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[Nettime-ro] FW: RHIZOME DIGEST/On Software Art
Alexandru Patatics on Mon, 1 Oct 2001 14:44:38 +0200 (CEST)

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[Nettime-ro] FW: RHIZOME DIGEST/On Software Art

Florian Cramer & Ulrike Gabriel: On Software Art

Date: 9.20.2001
From: Florian Cramer & Ulrike Gabriel (cantsin {AT} zedat.fu-berlin.de)
Subject: On Software Art
Keywords: software, language, interface, conceptual, code

What is software art? How can "software" be generally defined? We had to
answer these questions at least provisionally when we were asked to be
with the artist-programmer John Simon jr. in the jury of the "artistic
software" award for the transmediale.01 art festival in Berlin, Germany

Since more than a decade, festivals, awards, exhibitions and
publications exist for various forms of computer art: computer music,
computer graphics, electronic literature, Net Art and computer-
controlled interactive installations, to name only a few, each of them
with its own institutions and discourse. Classifications like the above
show that attention is usually being paid to how, i.e. in which medium,
digital artworks present themselves to the audience, externally. They
also show that digital art is traditionally considered to be a part of
"[new] media art," a term which covers analog and digital media alike
and is historically rooted in video art. But isn't it a false assumption
that digital art - i.e. art that consists of zeros and ones - was
derived from video art, only because computer data is conventionally
visualized on screens?

By calling digital art "[new] media art," public perception has focused
the zeros and ones as formatted into particular visual, acoustic and
tactile media, rather than structures of programming. This view is
reinforced by the fact that the algorithms employed to generate and
manipulate computer music, computer graphics, digital text are
frequently if not in most cases invisible, unknown to the audience and
the artist alike. While the history of computer art still is short, it
is rich with works whose programming resides in black boxes or is
considered to be just a preparatory behind-the-scenes process for a
finished (and finite) work on CD, in a book, in the Internet or in a
"realtime interactive" environment. The distribution of John Cage's
algorithmically generated sound play "Roarotorio," for example, includes
a book, a CD and excerpts of the score, but not even a fragment of the
computer program which was employed to compute the score.

While software, i.e. algorithmic programming code, is inevitably at work
in all art that is digitally produced and reproduced, it has a long
history of being overlooked as artistic material and as a factor in the
concept and aesthetics of a work. This history runs parallel to the
evolution of computing from systems that could only be used by
programmers to systems like the Macintosh and Windows which, by their
graphical user interface, camouflaged the mere fact that they are
running on program code, in their operation as well as in their
aesthetics. Despite this history, we were surprised that the 2001
transmediale award for software art was not only the first of its kind
at this particular art festival, but as it seems the first of its kind
at all.

When the London-based digital arts project I/O/D released an
experimental World Wide Web browser, the Web Stalker
http://www.backspace.org/iod/, in 1997, the work was perceived to be a
piece of Net Art. Instead of rendering Web sites as smoothly formatted
pages, the Web Stalker displayed their internal control codes and
visualized their link structure. By making the Web unreadable in
conventional terms, the program made it readable in its underlying code.
It made its users aware that digital signs are structural hybrids of
internal code and an external display that arbitrarily depends on
algorithmic formatting. What's more, these displays are generated by
other code: The code of the Web Stalker may dismantle the code of the
Web, but does so by formatting it into just another display, a display
which just pretends to "be" the code itself. The Web Stalker can be read
as a piece of Net Art which critically examines its medium. But it's
also a reflection of how reality is shaped by software, by the way code
processes code. If complex systems and their generative processors
themselves become language, formulation becomes the creation of a frame
within which the system will behave, and of the control of this
behaviour. The joint operation of these processes creates its own
aesthetics which manifests itself no longer by application-restricted
assignments, but in the free composition of this system as a whole.
(Which simply is what developing software is all about.)

Since software is machine control code, it follows that digital media
are, literally, written. Electronic literature therefore is not simply
text, or hybrids of text and other media, circulating in computer
networks. If "literature" can be defined as something that is made up by
letters, the program code, software protocols and file formats of
computer networks constitute a literature whose underlying alphabet is
zeros and ones. By running code on itself, this code gets constantly
transformed into higher-level, human-readable alphabets of alphanumeric
letters, graphic pixels and other signifiers. These signifiers flow
forth and back from one aggregation and format to another. Computer
programs are written in a highly elaborate syntax of multiple, mutually
interdependent layers of code. This writing does not only rely on
computer systems as transport media, but actively manipulates them when
it is machine instructions. The difference is obvious when comparing a
conventional E-Mail message with an E-Mail virus: Although both are
short pieces of text whose alphabets are the same, the virus contains
machine control syntax, code that interferes with the (coded) system it
gets sent to.

Software art means a shift of the artist's view from displays to the
creation of systems and processes themselves; this is not covered by the
concept of "media." "Multimedia", as an umbrella term for formatting and
displaying data, doesn't imply by definition that the data is digital
and that the formatting is algorithmic. Nevertheless, the "Web Stalker"
shows that multimedia and terms like Net Art on the one hand and
software art on the other are by no means exclusive categories. They
could be seen as different perspectives, the one focussing distribution
and display, the other one the systemics.

But is generative code exclusive to computer programming? The question
has been answered by mathematics proper and the many historical
employments of algorithmic structures in the arts. A comparatively
recent classical example is the Composition 1961 No. I, January I by the
contemporary composer and former Fluxus artist La Monte Young, which is
at once considered to be one of the first pieces of minimal music and
one of the first Fluxus performance scores:

"Draw a straight line and follow it" [1].

This piece can be called a seminal piece of software art because its
instruction is formal. At the same time, it is extremist in its
aesthetic consequence, in the implication of infinite space and time to
be traversed. Unlike in most notational music and written theatre plays,
its score is not aesthetically detached from its performance. The line
to be drawn could be even considered a second-layer instruction for the
act of following it. But as it is practically impossible to perform the
score physically, it becomes meta-physical, conceptual, epistemological.
As such the piece could serve as a paradigm for Henry Flynt's 1961
definition of Concept Art as "art of which the material is 'concepts, as
the material of for ex. music is sound" [2]. Tracing concept art to
artistic formalisms like twelve-tone music, Flynt argues that the
structure or concept of those artworks is, taken for itself,
aesthetically more interesting than the product of their physical
execution. In analogy, we would like to define software art as art of
which the material is software.

Flynt's Concept Art integrates mathematics as well, on the acognitive
grounds of "de-emphasiz[ing]" its attribution to scientific discovery
[3]. With this claim, Flynt coincides, if oddly, with the most
influential contemporary computer scientist, Donald E. Knuth. Knuth
considers the applied mathematics of programming an art; his famous
compendium of algorithms is duely titled "The Art of Computer
Programming" [4].

Should the transmediale software art jury therefore have consisted of
mathematicians and computer scientists who would have judged the entries
by the beauty of their code?

What is known as Concept Art today is less rigorous in its immaterialism
than the art Flynt had in mind. It is noteworthy, however, that the
first major exhibition of this kind of conceptual art was named
"Software" and confronted art objects actually with computer software
installations [5]. Curated in 1970 by the art critic and systems
theorist Jack Burnham at the New York Jewish Museum, the show was, as
Edward A. Shanken suggests, "predicated on the idea of software as a
metaphor for art [my emphasis]" [6]. It therefore stressed the
cybernetical, social dimension of programmed systems rather than, as
Flynt, pure structure.

Thirty years later, after personal computing became ubiquituous,
cultural stereotypes of what software is have solidified. Although the
expectation that software is, unlike other writing, not an aesthetic,
but a "functional tool" itself is an aesthetic expectation, software art
nevertheless has become less likely to emerge as conceptualist clean-
room constructs than reacting to these stereotypes. The "Web Stalker"
again might be referred to as such a piece. In a similar fashion, the
two works picked for the transmediale award, Adrian Ward's "Signwave
Auto-Illustrator" and Netochka Nezvanova's "Nebula M.81," are PC user
software which acts up against its conventional codification, either by
mapping internal functions against their corresponding signifiers on the
user interface (Auto-Illustrator) or by mapping the signifiers of
program output against human readability (Nebula M.81).

The range of works entered for the transmediale.01 software art award
shows that coding is a highly personal activity. Code can be diaries,
poetic, obscure, ironic or disruptive, defunct or impossible, it can
simulate and disguise, it has rhetoric and style, it can be an attitude.
Such attributes might seem to contradict the fact that artistic control
over generative iterations of machine code is limited, whether or not
the code was self-written. But unlike the Cagean artists of the 1960s,
the software artists we reviewed seem to conceive of generative systems
not as negation of intentionality, but as balancing of randomness and
control. Program code thus becomes a material with which artist work
self-consciously. Far from being simply art for machines, software art
is highly concerned with artistic subjectivity and its reflection and
extension into generative systems [7].

+ + +


1. facsimile reprint included in [hun90], no page numbering

2. Henry Flynt, Concept Art [Fly61] "Since 'concepts' are closely bound
up with language," Flynt writes, "concept art is a kind of art of which
the material is language."

3. ibid.

4. [Knu98]

5. Among them Ted Nelson's hypertext system in its first public display,
according to Edward A. Shanken, The House that Jack Built: Jack
Burnham's Concept of "Software" as a Metaphor for Art, [Sha]

6. ibid.

7. Or, as Adrian Ward puts it: "I would rather suggest we should be
thinking about embedding our own creative subjectivity into automated
systems, rather than naively trying to get a robot to have its 'own'
creative agenda. A lot of us do this day in, day out. We call it
programming." (quoted from an E-Mail message to the "Rhizome"
mailinglist, May 7, 2001)

+ + +


[Fly61]--Henry Flynt. Concept art. In La Monte Young and Jackson MacLow,
editors, An Anthology. Young and MacLow, New York, 1963 (1961).

[hun90]--George Maciunas und Fluxus-Editionen, 1990.

[Knu98]--Donald E. Knuth. The Art of Computer Programming. Addison-
Wesley, Reading, Massachusetts, 1973-1998.

[Sha]--Edward A. Shanken. The house that jack built: Jack burnham's
concept of 'software' as a metaphor of art. Leonardo Electronic
Almanach, 6(10). http://www.duke.edu/~giftwrap/House.html

+ + +

[Note: This text is almost identical to the essay "Software Art and
Writing" which is part of the recent issue of the American Book Review,
vol.22, no.6.]

+ + +


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