Entering the Machine and Leaving It Again: Poetics of Software in
Contemporary Art

Florian Cramer

Milano, Feb. 7th, 2006



(Lecture/Essay published on AHA: Activism-Hacking-Artivism, mailing-list sull'attivismo artisticoe)

 

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Subject: [aha] Milan talk

[The actual lecture was shorter than this text. Consecutive translation
was stretching the lecture and had made me cut down my manuscript.
There are overlaps with my previous writings: the sections on La
Monte Young, jodi, I/O/D, Alan Sondheim, jaromil and .walk. Other parts
are elaborations of stuff I wrote in "Words Made Flesh": the sections on
Moles and the use of the "software" term in early 1970s conceptual art.
My critique of software-aided art and Jeffrey Shaw's "Legible City" is
published here for the first time, same goes for the brief mentions of
"Google Will Eat Itself" and "Squant". -F]

 

Entering the Machine and Leaving It Again: Poetics of Software in
Contemporary Art

Florian Cramer

Milano, Feb. 7th, 2006

Abraham Moles and the Situationist International

The history of algorithmic programming in art is much older than that of
electronics: It includes, for example, word permutation poetry like that
of the 3rd century Latin poet Optatianus Porfyrius and automatic
composition formulas like Athanasius Kircher musical automata of the 17th
century (both created in Italy). However, today I would like to speak
about the poetics of software in recent and contemporary digital art. It
is, of course, inseparable tied to modern computing.

My focus however is less on computing as something that enable or shapes
new forms of art, but rather the other way around: on digital art as a
speculative appropriation and practical cultural reflection of computing.
In 1962, physicist and philosopher Abraham M. Moles wrote a seminal
programmatic and theoretical outline of computational art, the first
manifesto of permutational art (erstes manifest der permutationellen kunst
) [slide]. The booklet combines structuralist and cybernetic theory with
examples of mathematics, contemporary experimental poetry, music, visual
art, and even mysticism and erotic art. Moles' demanded to refound both
the poetics and the aesthetics of art on the grounds of computation: As
composition, the new art would "narrow down and exhaust the field of
possibilities accessible through a set of rules."

And as aesthetic perception and criticism, it would work through a reverse
formal process based on mathematical and stochastic analysis, thus
eliminating semantic interpretation. (Italo Calvino writes a parody of
this kind of interpretation of art and literary works in his novel Se una
notte d'inverno un viaggiatore in which a student computes the author's
novel with a statistical program.)

Moles even speaks of the new art as a "fundamentally anti-semantic
activity." In his conclusion, he writes that artists would turn into
"programmers" and, quote, "from now on, artworks will be realized either
by machines or through their own consumers".

With this statement, Moles pretty much set the agenda of the new computer
arts, and today, after almost half a century, it still phrases a virulent
point. To my knowledge, his "manifesto of permutational art" is the
earliest and most concise program of what later would be called generative
art.

In 1971, he expanded the manifesto into a book "Art et ordinateur" that
among others included examples of early computer-generated abstract visual
art by Frieder Nake and others. Among others, it included examples of
early ASCII typograms [slide], graphical interface computing [slide] and
even the visionary question "Will Mickey [Mouse = Topolino] end up in the
computer", that has been answered just last week when Disney bought up
Pixar and announced that from now on, it would only produce
computer-animated films.

However, Moles' implication that computer-generated art would be only
formal and eliminate all cultural semantics, was controversial. Already in
1963, one year after the manifesto had appeared, it made him subject of a
fierce polemical attack by an other group of contemporary artists and
theorists, the Situationist International. On the surface, the programs of
both Moles and the Situationists shared many common points. Drawing both
from the sociology of Henri Lefebvre, they conceived of industrial
automation as the root of a society of surplus and leisure. In the early
1960s, painter Guiseppe Pinot-Gallizio had even promoted a
machine-generated "industrial painting" within the Situationist
International. However, the Situationists were not fighting against
semantics, but - in their indebtedness to romanticist and surrealist
programs - on the contrary advocating a revolutionary imagination. On
these grounds, Guy Debord attacked Moles as a "petite tête" ("small head")
technocrat and told him "tu es un robot" ("you are a robot").

In 1959, the German section of the Situationist International had played a
prank against Moles' main theoretical reference, ally and German editor, the
techno-philosopher Max Bense. Bense had been also leading the formalist
computer experiments of his Stuttgart group of experimental poets and
artists. The Situationist announced a public lecture of Bense in Munich.
once the audience had gathered, a tape recorder was switched on and the
voice on the tape declared that Bense was unable to come and would instead
give his talk in "cybernetic form." The talk was a deliberately
nonsensical cut-up of German, Latin and French phrases with garbled
quotations from Marx and Hegel. Yet the audience stayed through the
lecture and applauded in the end. In the prank, the Situationists took
cybernetic poetics and turned it as a tactical device against itself. The
stunt displayed that attempts to do away with semantics had their blind
spot precisely in the semantics of his own statements that negated
semantics.

I would like to argue that this schism between a rigidly formalist and a
rigidly "imaginist" (to use a word by Situationist Asger Jorn) poetics
obstructed computer arts for almost three decades until the advent of the
personal computer and the Internet.

 

Synthetic Computer Art

Before the personal computer and the Internet, computer art was thinkable
only as synthetic creation, i.e. the construction of algorithms in
clean-room laboratories. Of course, this was the inevitable condition of
computer-based generative art and computer science in general in the 1960s
and 1970s when almost all software had to be written from scratch. But it
is also true from computational art that did not actually work with
electronic computers, and probably not even think of itself as
computational art at all.

Proto- and Para-Computer Art

In 1960, the composer La Monte Young who's know today mainly as a pioneer
of minimal music wrote a piece that consisted solely of the following
instruction [slide]:

"Draw a straight line and follow it."

First of all, it's a performance score. But its instruction is unambiguous
and formal enough to be also executed by a machine and adapted as a
computer program. It is, in other words, an algorithm and a source code.
However, it is an impossible algorithm at the same time. If either the
performer or the machine would radically carry out the instruction, this
seemingly simple piece mutates in the most monstruous art work of all
time. One cannot consequently draw a straight line and follow it without
going beyond physical limits and writing a circular inscription into the
whole earth. So the piece implies a philosophical defiance of space and
time constraints, and leaves the piece in a non-resolvable gap between its
physical execution and its mental, conceptual imagination. Doing so, this
score is not only the founding document of minimal music, but it also
creates a paradoxical union of minimalism and late romanticist Wagnerian
total artwork (Gesamtkunstwerk), by the virtue of a source code that
condenses an abundance into one line of instruction. The piece reverses
subject and object: ultimately, the performers turns into its object, and
the line becomes its subject.

In other words, the conflict articulated in the controversy between Moles
and the Situationist exists within the piece. It is not resolved, but
sustained as a paradox.

The fact that La Monte Young and other Fluxus artists who wrote
performance scores - such as Al Hansen and George Brecht - did not
conceive of their own work as computational is hardly surprising. It
stands, above all, in the tradition of Western musical score notation.
Ever since Pythagoras equated music and mathematics, score notation has
been a formalized instruction code and therefore could be seen as a form
of software programming - especially then when those scores are performed
by mechanical instruments like player pianos.

Experimental, free form score notation as it had been introduced by John
Cage and Earle Brown could therefore be seen as an anticipation of code
art; with the difference however that it deliberately detached itself from
formal machine instructions rather than rethinking them.
(Hans Ulrich Obrist's catalogue "Do it" assembles more recent examples of
instruction scores as a medium of contemporary art. [slide])

Software as Metaphor of Dematerialization

In the immediate context of American Fluxus and conceptual art, the notion
of "software" got introduced in the early 1970s, however in a semantics
that was strangely detached from both Moles' theoretical and La Monte
Young's practical anticipation of software art. In 1973, Lucy Lippard
published her famous book Six years with the subtitle "The
Dematerialization of the Art Object from 1966 to 1972". The keyword
"dematerialization" also sums up how the term "software" had been
introduced and understood in contemporary art since 1970. "Software" had
been the title of an art show curated by critic Jack Burnham in New York
in 1970. It mostly consisted of concept art works, partly juxtaposed with
experimental computer software development projects such as Ted Nelson's
first prototype of a hypertext system. However, the emphasis of the
exhibition was not algorithms in art, but immaterial "software" as opposed
to material hardware. As Edward A. Shanken puts it in an essay on
Burnham's exhibition, the exhibition used the term software as a
"metaphorical premise" for the dematerialization of art, not as a
reflection of computation.

In the same year, Sidney Youngblood published his book "Expanded Cinema",
a reference work on the extension of experimental film into cinematic
performances and installations, including video, "cybernetic cinema" and
"computer films". It contains a chapter on "Hardware and Software" which
speculates about programming as future artificial intelligence, but
doesn't go into any specifics of its artistic application. Elsewhere,
Youngblood uses the same broad metaphorical notion of software as
immaterialization as Burnham when he writes:

"Just as every fact is also metaphysical, every piece of hardware implies
software: information about its existence. Television is the software of
the earth. Television is invisible. It's not an object." [slide]

Perhaps this phrase was the inspiration for Radical Software, an
underground magazine for video artists and activists that first appeared
in the same year, 1970. Despite its name, and under the same metaphorical
premise as Burnharm's exhibition and Youngblood's paragraph, it was not
concerned with computing at all, but propagated an "Alternate Television
Movement." The issues combined aesthetic reflection with political debates
about free media and publicly accessible radio spectrum, much like the
contemporary free wireless network movement. Otherwise, the journal
conceived of "software" purely as dematerialized art, and did not cover
computer programming.

Software-aided art

Abraham Moles' idea that artists should become programmers therefore
remained restricted to the specialized field, the ghetto, of electronic
art or "media art" as it is still exists today - although I think it's
outmoded as a category and likely to be given up soon. (The new motto of
this year's transmediale festival, "festival for art and digital culture"
is one indication of this, too.) However, most artist-programmers in
computer arts were rather meta-programmers, artists who instructed
computer programmers to write certain software for them. There is, first
of all no computer art without software, unless the hardware is being used
as purely non-computational sculptural objects - as bricks. In that
respect, all computer art could be called software art. However, in only
rare cases, it is an artistic play with the software as a medium, but
something that should correctly be called software-aided art. In most
computer-generative art, both the software and the hardware acted as mere
catalysts. They functioned as black boxes. Neither the hardware, nor the
code or its processing was considered the artwork, but only the output:
i.e. a computer-generated image, animation, installation or audiovisual
piece. Often, this is linked to the concept of an autonomous machine
creation, in other words the idea that an artwork is no longer a human
product, but a creation by the computer. If we take the original Greek
term poiesis, which literally means "making", we could say that in such
artworks, poiesis turns into poetics, the making of making. But when
making turns into meta-making, human subjectivity is not abandoned.
Instead, it just shifts to a second order position, expressing itself in
the design of the formula rather than the design of the product. When
critics and viewers, fixated on the material product, conclude that
technology has done away with human agency behind a work, this is a
cognitive fallacy reminiscent of Plato's cave. It is yet another fallacy
to believe that conversely on the aesthetic side, i.e. that of perception
of the work, viewers would be liberated through the mechanical variations
of the work permitted by the formula.

 

Jeffrey Shaw, The Legible City

To illustrate my point, I would like to fast-forward to the years
1989-1991 and Jeffrey Shaw's computer installation The Legible City at the
ZKM media arts center in Karlsruhe, Germany [slide]. It is a contemporary
classic in the genre of interactive installation art and consists of a
video-projected 3D simulation coupled with a stationary bicycle. The
projection shows abstract cubic 3D representations of cities of New York,
Amsterdam and Karlsruhe. The spectator, or player, of the work sits on the
bicycle and cycles, in a "virtual reality" simulation, through the cities.
The cityscapes are made up of letters and words written by Shaw's artistic
collaborator Dirk Groeneveld. The work was realized on Silicon Graphics
workstations, and completed two years before the computer game Doom came
out and established immersive first-person 3D navigation games on
commodity PCs.

The Legible City could be called an alternative interface to reading texts
on a computer. The conventional flat two-dimensional emulation of print
and text pages on the screen is being replaced with an immersive
three-dimensional text-scape. The navigation seems to be intuitive thanks
to (a) the simulation of anthropomorphic, euclidian space and (b) the
emulation of the bicycle as a familiar technology of moving through
spaces. So the piece is a perfect example of a concept of digital art as
"interactive" simulation and "virtual reality", through anthropomorphist
interfaces created with complex, high tech hardware and software,
realized, because of that complexity, as an installation in a dedicated
high tech art space.

Again and again, the "Legible City" has been called a seminal work of
digital art. I quote, in translation, from an essay by the German critic
Stephan Porombka:

Nothing that was written for the computer in the 90s could match an
installation like Jeffrey Shaw's "Legible City" - neither
technology-wise, nor conceptually. After all, Shaw had employed a
Silicon Graphics Crimson computer that was worth several ten thousand
dollars to achieve the right effects. Only with such a machine, it
could be suggested to the audience that its own activities were
synchronized to the movement of the digital image on the screen.{1}

Please allow me to disagree with this opinion. I see Shaw's "Legible city"
as hardly anything more than a technology gimmick and a glorified
interface design study. Its subject of the city inscribed with texts
reminds of Tommaso Campanella's "Città del sole", the utopian city whose
walls are covered with educational explanations of all knowledge and
sciences. Just as Campanella's utopia is naive and even problematic, so is
Shaw's if it was intended as such. The Legible City is not, as was
written, liberating the letter like concrete poetry. While concrete poetry
and Marinetti's "parole in libertà" were about freeing type and language
from their conventional typographic and grammatical constraints and
freeing them, as much as possible, from anthropomorphisms and spatial
dimensions, Shaw's system puts them just under a different restraint - the
anthropomorphic Euclidian space of the city. It does not take apart
writing and reinvents it from scratch, but puts letters into a
pseudo-interactive human kitsch world. One could compare this to the
treatment of letters in 19th century children's books or alphabetic toys,
only that the latter are interactive in a much more comprehensive sense
than the Legible City - because they are building blocks of a world
outside a black box. But first of all, Shaw's installation
suffers from the fact that it does not think of itself a toy, but takes
itself overly serious as an "interactive" and experimental art work. On
his web page for the project, Jeffrey Shaw's writes:

Travelling through these cities of words is consequently a journey of
reading; choosing the path one takes is a choice of texts as well as
their spontaneous juxtapositions and conjunctions of meaning.

The text misses to reflect that these allegedly "spontaneous
juxtapositions and conjunctions" are not spontaneous at all. They only
exist within the set of possible combinations encoded into the software
that controls the installation. There is no possibility, for example, that
a word appears on the screen that has been inscribed into the software
before, and no conjunction can be made (a) outside the predetermined
possibilities in the program and (b) outside the Euclidian space
constraints of the visual simulation. It is, in other words, an illusion
of interactivity, spontaneity and intuitivity which the piece sells.
Nothing of this could be criticized if the work would actually reflect and
critically engage with this illusion. But this lack of reflection, and
cognitive fallacy of "interaction" and "spontaneity", is not only
characteristic of Shaw's work, but the whole field of generative and
so-called interactive art. It is struck with dangerously simplified notion
of interactivity - a reductive understanding of interaction as pointing,
clicking and other Pavlovian stimulus-response-reactions within the
constraints of a programmed box. Shaw voices this misunderstanding himself
when he writes:

The handlebar and pedals of the interface bicycle give the viewer
interactive control over direction and speed of travel. The physical
effort of cycling in the real world is gratuitously transposed into
the virtual environment, affirming a conjunction of the active body in
the virtual domain.

The "conjunction" however is a fake since the "active body" can only act
within the pre-programmed constraints of the box. However, the box masks
these constraints through its "virtual reality" kitsch and trompe-l'oeuil.
Even as a toy, "The Legible City" is restrained in comparison classical
alphabetic toys which have

* a much richer interactivity, because they don't force their players
into a restrained brick world, but on the contrary allow players to
integrate their bricks into their own world;
* nevertheless, a more humble and humorous understanding of themselves
and their own limitations.

The Legible City could be called a naive piece of art, with its gap
between formal restraints and overblown self-perception. As such, it is
emblematic of the self-gratifying ghetto of "media art". It is art that is
most unlikely to receive any acclaim and be considered relevant outside
this ghetto, in the larger context of contemporary arts.

 

Analytic Computer Art

Net.art

In the mid-1990s, net.art embodied a paradigm shift in so-called media art
whose nature was institutional, poetic and aesthetic at the same time. In
institutional terms, it was the first computer art outside research labs
and highly funded institutional environments. In poetic terms, it was low
tech computer art. In aesthetic terms, it borrowed from the older low tech
artisanship of hacker cultures by adopting its aesthetics of disruption
and digital humorism: network collaboration and subversion, ASCII art,
code poetry, viruses, computer game modification. While all computer art
before had used a synthetical approach, creating its works from scratch,
net.art used an analytical approach of taking digital information and code
as material. It was computer art under the new conditions of cheap
personal computing. Unlike in earlier computer arts, artists could use
ready-made digital information and code "out there" and treat it like
Dadaist and Pop art painters treated found objects in their collage work.
One could call it an informal, playful and performative approach to
digital art. With the example of the work of jodi and other net.artist, I
would like to show how this art developed from experimentation with
network information to experimentation with software, and from
experimentation with software to performances and interventions.

jodi

I would like to start with OSS, an early work from http://www.jodi.org
[slide oss.jodi.org]. Jodi stands for Joan Heemskerk and Dirk Paesmans, a
Dutch-Belgian artist couple. Their early work OSS [slide] makes small
browser windows pop up and fly around that evade manual control. If one
opens the site, it performs a hostile takeover of one's web browser. It is
a hack, a punk-like aesthetic and technological hijacking. It involves no
simulation, no anthropomorphism, no virtual reality, but is the technology
itself read against the grain. It does not simulate an anthropomorphic
space in order to be perceived and experienced, but simply uses everyday
experience with personal computer operating systems and the Internet as
its frame of reference. It is not a high tech installation in a white
cube, but low tech running on any home or office computer. The whole
source code of the pages takes up less than 10 Kilobyte, i.e. has the
average size of a short E-Mail, as opposed to a complex software
application with several 100,000 lines of original source code. It uses
ready-made, industrial software - a web browser in this case -, however
not in an affirmative way, but in an attempt to hack it and subvert its
cultural interface paradigms. It is ironical and melancholic to the degree
that it promises no computing utopias, and is not futurist
human-machine-interface research, but ultimately depicts "interactivity"
inside the computer as a scam and sad hoax on the users. By forcing the
user to hack the computer in order to regain control - by killing the
browser, shutting down the machine or perhaps even throw it out of the
window - it however creates a genuine interactivity outside the box and
outside preempted behavioral patterns in the software.

Contrary to a slick, visually immersive digital art which treated the
computer as a black box, Jodi aestheticize computers as self-immersed,
often absurd generators of contingent data streams. Contrary to the
"Legible City", code, software, the machine is no longer hidden from the
actual artwork, but the guts are exposed and made the artwork proper. Yet
Jodi's art does not fall into the reverse fallacy of telling an imaginary
truth underneath the surfaces of software user interfaces. One could say
that it exposes the surrealism of formalisms. Comparable to the
"Composition 1960" by La Monte Young, the two poles of rigid formalism and
subjective imagination aesthetically coexist in jodi's work. However, they
don't coexist in a violent tension, but as a play. This play involves
simulations, too, but unlike the "Legible City" it is not simulation of
anthropomorphic space, but simulation of machine functions.

Jodi's aesthetics of disruption and noise differs from the noise and
randomness in older avant-garde arts from Dada to John Cage because it
shifts the noise from the work to the transmission channel, and from
ontology to simulacrum. For Jodi's website reads and behaves as if it
contained intact data disturbed only by faulty net transmission or
computer crashes; but in reality, the line noise is mocked up within the
data itself. Unlike Nam June Paik's visual noise manipulations of TV sets
in the 1960s, jodi's disturbance is not done in hardware with only partly
predictable results, but is a clever simulation of noise done in software.
And while the chance poetics of Cage and Fluxus conceived of disturbance
and randomness as means of radical freedom - an idea still reverberating
in Shaw's allegedly "spontaneous juxtapositions and conjunctions" -, their
implication is much more ambivalent in jodi's work. Cage's ontological
embracement of chance is replaced with a tricky rhetoric of simultaneous
anarchy and entrapment, a neo-baroque conceit and discordia concors of
surface chaos with inscribed structure, and vice versa.

web stalker

Analogous to jodi, net.artist Olia Lialina stated that many of her early
works were based on bugs in the Netscape browser and therefore no longer
work on contemporary computer setups. These plays with the web browser
were not only a critical engagement with the Web and its aesthetics, but
also an engagement with the software that shaped its access modes and
interfaces. It was therefore a logical step from subverting standard
browsers to developing alternative browsers. Most famous is the I/O/D,
web.stalker [slide http://www.backspace.org/iod/iod4.html]. It turns web
browsing upside down by not showing the smooth typographic rendering, but
the otherwise concealed technical layers of the web, including HTML source
code and http protocol communication, in separate windows and controls. It
takes apart the separate components of web browsing - "takes apart" in the
literal meaning of analysis. It thus achieves two things at once: It frees
the cultural technique and the cultural imagination of web browsing from
its conventional interface metaphors, including that of "browsing" itself.
Secondly, it maps the World Wide Web as a controlled space, controlled by
codes. This duality of freeing the user's imagination and revealing
control structures paradigmatically expresses itself in I/O/D's slogan,
"software is mind control, get some".

Jodi reflected the mind control embedded into software, when they began to
write their own web browsers, too, the "wrongbrowsers" which displayed
only pages within arbitrarily restricted domain name spaces. Around the
same time in the late 1990s, the international "browserday" festival
featured experimental browsers programmed by artists and hackers, among
them also an "analog" browser in the form of a wooden window frame with
which users should "browse" the city.

Software art

Within net.art itself, there was an increasing shift towards work with
software, and as a result, software manipulated or written by artists.
Critical observers described these works as "Artware" (Saul Albert in
1999), "experimental software" (Tilman Baumgärtel), "speculative software"
(Matthew Fuller), "artistic software" (Andreas Broeckmann) and "software
art" (Alexander Galloway, 1999). It was reflection on the fact that
digital artists had first taken software as a transparent tool, and later
began to reflect which influence that tool had on their own work and
aesthetics. The more intensely artists worked with the computer, the more
problematic the alleged tool became - not because of some "objective"
limitation, but because of the culture, philosophy and subjectivity
imposed by the creators of onto the users of the software.

Codework

Subjectivity expressed in code is also characteristic of the whole genre
of artistic codeworks whose chief medium are E-Mail messages written
hybrids of English and code fragments from programming languages,
character encodings, markup languages, emoticons and network protocols.
Jodi were pioneers of this genre of digital art, along with Ted Warnell,
Alan Sondheim, Netochka Nezvanova and the Australian female net artist mez
(Mary Anne Breeze). One of Alan Sondheim's codeworks reads as follows:

From: Alan Sondheim <sondheim@panix.com>
To: _arc.hive_@lm.va.com.au
Date: Thu, 9 Jan 2003 17:17:20 -0500 (EST)

sleeping and running zombies through bodies

CPU states: 4.7% user, 5.8% system, 0.0% nice, 89.4% idle:36 processes:
35 sleeping, 1 running, 0 zombie, 0 stopped:1m 4:20pm up 8 min, 1 user,
load average: 0.54, 0.26, 0.11: :Mem: 38664K av, 35084K used, 3580K
free,

...

The work is based on the output of the Unix system command "top" which
displays a list of running processes, memory and central processor load.
"Zombie" is a technical Unix term for a program process that can no longer
be terminated with the "kill" command. Sondheim's text takes these
descriptors-or "semantics," as computer science would call it-literally.
He reads the output of the program as a physical inscription of bodies, as
performance art and a subjective utterance in the medium of computer
software. Yet it is not simply a poetic metaphorization because the
technical apparatus of writing becomes a part of the text. There is a
feedback of textual input, output and processing inside the text and
within the medium of code. Subject and object, syntax and semantics,
formalism and culture become inseparably entangled, crisscrossing and
writing over each other. As such, the "codeworks" by kodi, mez, Alan
Sondheim and other artists manifest a most radical understanding of
formalisms as meaningful. They appropriate languages that were designed to
be asemantic-programming languages, protocol code, shell commands-to
unveil and elaborate their metaphorical and physical inscriptions,
implications, and engendered meaning lurking between the lines. At this
point, that is equally present in the works of I/O/D, for example,
computational art has turned into a flat-out antithesis and refutation of
Abraham Moles' claim that cybernetic art would be "fundamentally
anti-semantic".

This also means, by implication, that there is no difference between
"code" (or artificial language) on the one hand and "interface" on the
other, because the code already is an interface, and the interface is a
code.

Bifo

Vice versa, the fact that computer code executes and thus has an embedded
virulence is used in poetic appropriations. At the "Digital Is Not Analog"
Festival in Bologna 2001, Italian subcultural legend Franco "Bifo" Berardi
made a public reading of the sourcecode of the famous "Loveletter"
computer virus [slide]. This reading reappropriates computer sourcecode as
Dada poetry similar to Kurt Schwitters' "Ursonate", and like jodi's work
exposes its strange aesthetics. On the other hand, it differs from
classical sound poetry because it refers to the contagious virulence and
dangerousness of the code, and tries to emulate its embedded action, and
read it as a subversive performativity.

jaromil, forkbomb

This energy is also embbedded into the twelve characters of jaromil's
forkbomb [slide]:

:({ :|:& };:

Most computer operating systems can be crashed or at least brought to a
grinding halt when users, even those without superuser privileges, launch
an abundant ever-growing amount of programs that eat up all memory and CPU
time. The easiest way to achieve this is a "forkbomb", a little program
which does nothing but launch two or more copies of itself upon startup.
Since these copies do the same in turn, this sets off a chain reaction
with an exponentially growing number of processes. Forkbombs have been
popular entertainment among hackers since about the mid-1990s, but jaromil
manages to condense them to a most terse, poetic syntax, arguably the most
elegant forkbomb ever written.

In other words, if you have access to the terminal prompt of a Unix-like
OS, these twelve characters - which look like Internet smilies - can bring
it down. It has become a secret code of recognition among the initiated,
like the stuffed trumpet of the Tristero underground postal network in
Thomas Pynchon's novel "Crying of Lot 49".

Unwillingly, this example also reveals a problematic issue of the term
"software art": That it is often misunderstood as high programm
craftsmanship. In fact, this understanding has its roots in computer
science itself. Donald Knuth's textbooks "The Art of Computer Programming"
or Paul Graham's recent book "Hackers and Painters" are founded on a
post-classicist notion of art as beauty and high craftsmanship, for
example in the elegance of an algorithm.

Negativeland, Squant

A counter-example to this - software art that expends programming skills -
is a rather unknown work of the American experimental music group
Negativeland, the "Squant" browser plugin http://www.negativland.com/
squant/plugin.html. Negativeland claim that

Squant is a color that cannot be seen on traditional RGB monitors.
This plug-in changes the spectral display capabilities of your system
software. THE NEWHEW SQUANTVIEW PLUG-IN utilizes a new color model
("RGBS") to facilitate the visualization of the Squant color spectrum,
in addition to the already-established RGB color model.

Negativeland's website offers downloadable software packages for Windows
and Mac OS and a "Tech Support" forum. It is filled with actual help
inquiries by people who tried to get the plugin running, failed at one
step, were helped, and still failed. Of course, the plugin and the
"Squant" color is a hoax and doesn't work at all. Yet it is a clever
artistic reflection of software as culture that includes vaporware just as
much as actually running code. The false promises, installation
nightmares, support horrors and other frustrations with software, known to
any PC user, become the material of the work and get turned into an
social-artistic performance.

ubermorgen.com/Alessandro Ludovico: Google will eat itself

This tendency is even more pronounced in recent artistic work - work that
has its origins in the realm of net.art and software art, but is
developing into interventionist performance art both in the Internet and
outside.

A very recent example is "Google will eat itself" http://www.GoogleWillEatItSelf.com
[slide] by ubermorgen.com and Alessandro Ludovico. ubermorgen.com consists
of former etoy member Hans Bernhard and Liz Haas, Alessandro Ludovico is
well known in Italy as the founder and editor of Neural magazine.
"Google will eat itself" is simple to explain: it is a website that runs
ads via the Google "AdSense" program, i.e. embedded commercial text
advertising provided by Google, but bought from other companies. Google
pays website owners a small fee for every click on an ad link; "GoogleWillEatItSelf.com"
uses this money to buy Google shares. The idea is that Google will pay the
site to get bought up by it. Ideally, GoogleWillEatItSelf.com should make so much money
from Google ad payments that it can buy up all Google shares. To
accelerate this process, "Google will eat itself" imploys some hidden
dirty programming hacks that trigger automatic clicks on the advertising
so that any user who visits the site will click multiple Google ads at
once.

It is not only one company eating up another, but also a piece of software
eating up another software. Google is one of the first world companies
that is a piece of online software, with search requests as its input, and
a double output of search results and money to the shareholders. This
collapsing of software program and corporation get turned against itself
by GoogleWillEatItSelf.com. It is the net.art of an Internet that is no longer an open
field of experimentation, but a corporate space. The dark-humorous
actionism of the piece manifests yet another resolution of the conflict
that had originally voiced by Moles and Debord, technical formalism versus
agency.

dot.walk, psychogeographic computing

Computation and situationist urban drift ultimately converge in the
"generative psychogeography" of the Dutch artistic project http://
www.socialfiction.org. Its .walk is a "psychogeographic computer,"
operated by pedestrians who walk through street grids like electrons flow
through the gates of computer chips. The .walk computer can execute simple
program code like the following:

// Classic .walk
Repeat
{
1 st street left
2 nd street right
2 nd street left
}

Psychogeographic computing has a double effect: It demystifies computing
and turns it into a radically simple and popular low-tech and low-cost
operation. Secondly, it liberates the imagination of what a computer can
be and which purposes it may serve. Socialfiction.org has expanded and
systematized this idea into a broader concept of "speculative programming"
in which computing becomes a figure of thought and reflection not only in
theory, but also in artistic practice.

While the same could be said about Moles' manifesto from 1962, the
implications are contrary. Where Moles models art, criticism and
aesthetics after computing, superimposing the latter on the former,
speculative programming does the opposite, modelling computation after the
arts and and speculative imagination.

--------------------------------------------------------------------------

Footnotes:

{1} Nichts, was in den 90ern für den Computer geschrieben wurde, konnte
sich mit einer Installation messen lassen, wie sie etwa Jeffrey Shaw mit
Legible City realisiert hatte - technologisch nicht und auch nicht
konzeptionell. Immerhin hatte Shaw einen mehrere zehntausend Mark teuren
Silicon Graphics Crimson Computer eingesetzt, um die richtigen Effekte zu
erzielen. Nur mit einem solchen Gerät ließ sich dem Rezipienten
vermitteln, dass die eigene Aktivität mit der Bewegung des digitalen
Bildes auf der Leinwand gleichgeschaltet war.
{2} http://www.signwave.co.uk

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