PRINT February 2001


John F. Simon, Jr.

TRANSMEDIALE (WWW.TRANSMEDIALE.DE), a media-art festival and competition that takes place in Berlin this month, is introducing a new category devoted to software art. As a judge of that part of the competition (along with Florian Cramer, a lecturer in comparative literature at Freie Universität Berlin, and Ulrike Gabriel, a media artist, and with the guidance of artistic director Andreas Broeckmann), I was most interested in artists who had trained on computers in art school, outgrown commercial applications, and turned to writing their own code. Their work often critiques the limitations of the software industry and its products. The result is a kind of creative writing that, as German media theorist Friedrich Kittler puts it, “gains the enormous power to do what it says.” Here are four examples:

Code as Parody
Adrian Ward (UK), “Signwave Auto-Illustrator”

This self-described “parody” software challenges the way we expect commercial software, like Adobe Illustrator, to behave. Rather than obediently track your cursor, Auto-Illustrator turns circles into smiley faces; worse, its pencil gets out of line. On his website, Ward poses the question, Who is the artist: the coder or the user? Think it's the user? Auto-Illustrator will fight you for it.

Code as Behavior
Antoine Schmitt (FR), “Avec Détermination”

The small animations at Avec Détermination are like character sketches. Pairs of leglike lines bounce around a box, alternately “standing,” “resisting,” “behaving,” and “not behaving.” Programmed to act according to the laws of gravity, to the figures’ “intentions,” and to various flavors of randomness, these animations elegantly illustrate the desire to have programming, rather than user participation, be the determining factor in the viewing experience. Schmitt points out that software artworks are different from other autonomous artworks—like Jean Tinguely’s animated assemblages, say—because software is created with words. Thus, “it is able to transform itself by acting on its own description.”

Code as Attitude
Andy Deck (US), “Artcontext”

Andy Deck writes personal alternatives to standard software. His site features an array of projects designed to loosen what he sees as the stranglehold that big business and the media have on software design and the flow of information on the Internet. “Open Studio,” for example, is Deck’s take on groupware (i.e., software programs designed to enable corporations to hold meetings online). But instead of the rectangles and flowcharts usually found on such sites, Deck offers concentric circles and brushes that produce bar codes. His tools are not there for global financial planning but for the subversion of it. By making variations on standard industry models, Deck's code has the clear attitude of “his” and not “theirs.”

Code as Environment
Golan Levin (US), “Floo”

Golan Levin’s projects originate in his work at the MIT Media Laboratory with the Aesthetics and Computation Group. His site allows visitors to work within a program called “Floo” to create wispy digital nebulae. Floo is the Web version of a performance/installation (Audiovisual Environment Suite) presented at last year's Ars Electronica in Linz, Austria, involving computer-generated audio work as well as visual programs. Levin has a knack for finding interesting visuals through the manipulation of various algorithms. But, as with many of today’s media artists, he might best be served by spending less time on the performative aspect of his work and more on articulating his ideas in code, which is, after all, what it’s all about.

John F. Simon, Jr., is an artist living in New York City.