Over the past ten years, the role of programming in art and design disciplines has changed profoundly. The code is no more a prerogative of informatics but it has started to concern to increasingly diverse areas because of three main phenomena: the growth of processing speed; the progressive hardware and software customization; and the trend towards convergence and intermediality.
Today, most higher education programs include programming or scripting classes aimed at laying the foundations for mapping, understanding and managing complex information flows. Young creatives and researchers from the most diverse disciplines are experimenting with the possibilities offered by new programming environments (such as Processing, Pure Data, Max MSP, Quartz Composer, Open Frameworks, Grasshopper, R *) and languages (such as Rynoscrpit, MAXScript, Mathematica, C #). The use of code in artistic practices and design allows a seamless upgrade path for research.
The need for a critical, self-reflexive and process-oriented design methodology drove to an increasing importance of metadesign. Similarly, more and more software is being developed focused towards simplified programming environments that allow the assembly of different elements to turn into customized digital tools. The “meta” approach is found in these programming environments to meet a growing demand for customization, new free methods of use, fast recombination and agile development of a ‘bottom-up’ adaptive research.
From this point of view, the digital tools are configured as perpetually Beta products: ideally open, they are the environments in which it is the user that actually finalizes the program every time he sets up a machine that “makes something”. The project idea is the inception that creates and (temporarily) closes the code in a cluster. To quote Sol Le Witt “the idea is the machine that makes the art”.
The use of code (which plays with parameters, relationships and algorithms) integrated with metadesign, returns outputs with a complex nature hardly achievable without digital tools. The result of this combination increases the distance between the product and his designer, making though more effective the man-machine symbiosis. However, the centrality of human networks emerges more concretely through a bottom-up meta-design process, which focuses more on processes and behaviours, rather than through a top-down process that focuses primarily on uniformly optimized results.
Findings of this kind help to highlight the groundlessness of some technophobic fears expressed by those who see the increasing use of digital tools as a de-humanizing phenomenon. Comparing the use of code with the “traditional” tools, such as CAD, structural differences emerge, starting with the method by which we think about the design goal. In this regard, Bernard Cache says: “Cad system has certainly increased the productivity of the idea but fundamentally it didn’t offer any advances over the work done by hand. Now we can envisage a second generation systems in which objects are no longer designed but calculated”.
If the model is no longer calculated but planned, other aspects of design methodology are also significantly changing. There is a paradigmatic shift of design and production objectives from the “final product” to its “production process”. The design process acquires even greater significance and importance in the context of generative design, where a series of events achieve a result never fully anticipated, never really controlled from the beginning.
What is true for design is not necessarily true for art. The two spheres have become increasingly closer over time, sometimes overlapping with exciting results. In design, programming has opened up many paths for research and practice. In art, it has often yielded similar results, but introducing a new complication: it has led many artists to a more laboratorial dimension, for which the electronic artwork is too often limited to its strictly procedural technical contents. The result is, in many cases, an artistic practice that tends to be overly explicit, giving up the ambiguity between meaning and significance, the mystery. In all likelihood, this is a transitional phase, which will be superseded by new teaching and critical practices.
We are experiencing a time of great cultural effervescence, whose contours seem to be traced, at least, by the generation variable (not necessarily expressed in terms of age but as a close relationship with the digital logic). The views and debates on these topics are flourishing on a variety of fronts, and Digicult is among them.
There is the urgent need for simple communication tools able to bridge the gap between those who have started many years ago to deal with the relationship between art, design, technology and science, and new generations of students, professionals and artists who are only now beginning to ask themselves these questions.
A perfect candidate for this role is FORM + CODE, a book by Casey Reas, Chandler McWilliams and LUST, recently published by Princeton Architectural Press. Contents are clearly expressed through an historical overview on the code development in electronic art, and in some of its conceptual art “natural language programming” forerunners (based on instructions series set up not for the machines but for the public). The graphic layout is a well-kept and an inseparable part of the publishing project, including a selection of pieces of work and breathtaking images (at a very reasonable price, it must be said).
Primarily designed as a book for students, FORM + CODE is also an important volume for another reason. The simplicity of its technological advancement explanation let emerge one of the most important messages concerning programming in art and design: its accessibility. We come then to question if authors intention is to inculcate a kind of awareness regarding everybody’s ability to think about its complexity.
It’s impressive to think how programming has changed the nature of electronic art in recent years. Practices such as live coding, generative design, and real time parametric visualization have quickly become popular and accessible assets. As generally happens in rapid transformation phases, however, this usage is often accompanied by a substantial lack of awareness about what goes beyond the merely technical issues. And we’re not thinking about the examples given by FORM + CODE, which gives in 176 pages an overview on the most interesting, exciting and revolutionary examples in the field.
However, if we need to find a limit to this text, it is precisely the hesitance in dealing with the critical and problematic elements in the relationship between art and code. A renunciation, which, as Casey Reas and Chandler McWilliams have explained in the interview that concludes this article, is absolutely justified and planned. However, many of the issues at play are precisely structured around this point. What are the limits of author intervention in generative art? Do the complex data visualizations, beyond any appealing aesthetics, always have something interesting to say? What is the real added value of certain programming solutions in interactive installations?
Bertram Niessen: FORM+CODE is the result of coordinated efforts with LUST. How did you manage the composition process?
Casey Reas & Chandler McWilliams: The visual design for a book like this is as integral to the authorship as the text, so we invited the book’s visual designers, LUST, as co-authors. The group developed the original proposal and book together from the beginning. In practice, we were responsible for the words, selecting the projects, and acquiring the images and LUST developed the visual format and typography. But, like all good collaborations, every person involved influenced every aspect of the book. To ensure the design was integral to the authorship, we developed the typographic system as we started the text. After the tone was established for each, we completed the writing and curation and handed off all of the assets to LUST. We remained a part of the visual design process to offer editorial opinons.
Sabina Cuccibar: The book is at the same time very simple and extremely complex, giving an overview of very diversified practices. What is the audience you are referring to? Working on the review, we have discussed a lot if it makes sense to consider the book as a learning tool for students at the beginning of their travel into the world of digital art. What’s your idea about it?
Casey Reas & Chandler McWilliams: We dedicated the book to our students at the UCLA Department of Design Media Arts and they are the primary audience. We have an eclectic department with a growing interest in programming as a creative practice. We encourage our students to take classes across the university: architecture, art, animation, film, computer science. The book is the broadest introduction we could imagine to the relationships between form and code because we want them to see connections across fields.
Sabina Cuccibar: How would you define the relationship between your art practices and the selected topics for the book?
Casey Reas & Chandler McWilliams: The curation of the book came through our teaching and doesn’t have a strong relationship to our practices. The topics emerged organically while we developed a plan for a three-hour workshop given at the Telic Arts Exchange in 2007. Instead of teaching programming in those three hours, we wanted to introduce the audience to many works created with code. We chose to start with explaining what code is fundamentally and culturally, then to give a short history of how computers have been used to create visual form from the 1960s to the present. The following chapters (Repeat, Transform, Parameterize, Visualize), and Simulate are not in a strong hierarchical order, but they do follow a line of history and build on one another..
Sabina Cuccibar: Writing about the history of code in art and design, you rarely mention inner disciplinary transformations, preferring to mainly focus on the technological aspects. Do you believe that the development of computational art is strictly based on the access to new tools, or there are also other factors? Which ones?
Casey Reas & Chandler McWilliams: The development is as much conceptual and cultural as it is technological. Our early decision to make a short and concise book dictated how much we could discuss these ideas, but it’s represented through the the inclusion of knitting instructions and artworks with natural-language instructions, rather than code. Also, instead of writing about disciplinary transformations, we thought it was stronger to show them through the selection of projects and juxtaposition within the layout.
Bertram Niessen: I really appreciate the choices you made in the selection of the topics. At the same time, in some cases I have the feeling of a lack of critical approach. Nowadays, applications of code in art are among the most powerful tools, but there are some questions that art has still not yet answered. What do you perceive as the main limitations from this point of view?
Casey Reas & Chandler McWilliams: Yes, you’re correct. This book doesn’t have a critical approach to software and its impact on the arts and culture. When we first started the book, we imaged a series: ACTIVISM+CODE, PERFORMANCE+CODE, etc. We wrote a book specifically about FORM+CODE because that’s our primary domain in teaching and practice. We wanted to provide a framework for thinking about how code is used to create form without advancing a specific ideology. It was important that the book raise more questions than it answers and remain accessible to people unsure about the role of code in the arts.
Bertram Niessen: Coding is now at the core of several very diverse disciplines, from architecture to software arts. What do you think is going to happen in the near future? What will be the next development? Will new disciplines be affected? And how do you think that the increasing use of code will build new bridges among different fields? Which ones?
Casey Reas & Chandler McWilliams: The history of code in culture has followed a line of increased access since the first digital computers. Now, for the first time, we have a large group of artists, designers, and architects who code extremely well, but who aren’t programmers by profession. They are first and foremost artists, designers, and architects, but they use code as an integral part of how they think and make. (The same is true in the sciences and academic humanities.) We’re excited about the emergence of a programming culture that’s unique to the visuals arts. The arts have borrowed too much of the tools and culture from the sciences, the birthplace of computers. The arts rely too heavily on the constrained software tools produced by companies like Adobe. We hope to see new ways of thinking about code and new tools that map better to how people in the visual arts think and make. Perhaps the sciences and other disciplines will be able to gain a new understanding of software by looking at how it is used in the arts; learn from how artists articulate and approach problems in different ways.