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.



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 oneís 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 :-)?Iím 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 conjunctures.


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 takespeculative, 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 programmersí 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


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 isnít 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


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. Ö

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 interesting.


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 programmerís 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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