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October 10th. 2003: Code. In Conversation with Casey Reas

[October 10th 2003]

Casey Reas at the Ars Electronica symposium 2003.

e. In Conversation with Casey Reas

Casey Reas is an artist exploring abstract kinetic systems through diverse digital media. He is an associate professor at the Interaction Design Institute Ivrea in Italy and received his M.S. degree from the MIT media lab where he was a member of John Maeda's Aesthetics and Computation Group. Casey Reas performed a central role at this years Ars Electronica festival, at which he contributed as symposium moderator, speaker, workshop participant as well as exhibiting artist. Interview by Sebastian Campion, Ars Electronica festival, Electrolobby September 9, 2003.

Casey, at first view, the festival theme CODE seems very straightforward but a second view suggests that it is more ambiguous. It can imply 'social code', 'aesthetic code', 'political code', and 'software code' etcetera all depending on how you look at it. What does CODE mean to you and how does it reflect your work practically and conceptually?
For me CODE is software. The important aspects are the concepts and desires, which are temporarily encoded as text, but come alive again as the software is executed. I need to code to make the work I desire.

You have three different kinds of artworks exhibited at the festival: A user-responsive installation, a generative installation and some print works. Can you say a few words about these pieces individually and collectively?
First of all, the generative piece MicroImage is in fact two different pieces. In the one piece it is the same code running on all three machines with the idea of showing how it produces different processes and results. Although each one is identical programmed it showed how diverse the manifestation effect of that code is. But today it is running a slightly different version, where the original software is on the left and two different interpretations of that software on the right. I always write software that is very interactive but lately, instead of having the audience interact with it, I am the person who interacts with it, meaning I am taking more control. It is something new that I am doing right now. The responsive installation Tissue is in essence the same code. The important part of the code is identical but it is interactive so you can control the environment in which the software responds to.

MicroImage, generative installation. Triptych of software. Different forms emerging out of the same software code. Running on plasma screens at the Ars Electronica festival.

Tissue, responsive installation. Visitors interact via the Responsive Window system created by MIT's Responsive Environment group.

Tissue, print. Archival Epson paper with archival Epson inks. Size: 11" X 14"

I like to manifest the software in different media because each media gives me some sort of different way of presenting a thought or a concept. When presenting the software as running software, as interactive software, it allows me to explore the domain of response. Doing it as a print allows me to explore a new level of materiality and tactile quality, which is not possible in screen based media. All the work that is being shown here explores being able not to have control over the machine. So, in essence, it's the same software but each media gives me a different way of exploring a piece of code.

Some of your other work, which is not exhibited here, is not entirely based on written code but also on photographic images. What is your interest in the image as source material?
The reason I find images so interesting is because they have inherent structures that are really sophisticated. I did a series of pieces based on images and the idea was to explore what is a digital image. Basically, the digital image is a series of data. It's just a series of numbers, like each pixel has an RGB value: red, green and blue ranging from zero to one or 255 depending on how you scale it. In Cinema Image I was experimenting with different ways of representing the same image. The exact same data is presented in a different order and all of a sudden it is perceived in an entirely different way. I worked with the same concept in Scanner. The pixels are a separate process and they're reading the colors from the image below and the color currently read is being presented on the left. It's sort of a two dimensional version of Cinema Image.

Cinema Image
By exploring the surface of a two-dimensional digital image unit by unit, it is transformed into a time-based one-dimensional experience. Structure is revealed through time rather than space.

Reading the surface of an image to extract colors

You have created still images - print works - from your generative 'running' software and in your photography-series you reverse that process and create animations from still images.
Yes, these animation pieces allow me to explore choreography and have total control over how the image unfolds in time. Another piece Mediation is more or less the same as Scanner and Cinema Image but it's animated differently. The interesting thing is not the code or the process but the image that you select. You can sort of move to different kind of spaces within time by selecting images in a different way. Computational it's not very interesting at all but by carefully selecting certain images and cropping them in certain ways I create different rhythms and patterns in time. The code works on any image but I think it is only significant if it is extremely carefully selected.

Mediating the relationship between a photograph and its viewer by systematically obscuring all representational and symbolic content.

The images you select seem to depict organic material or natural systems something, which is also very visible in your generative pieces.
Yeah, I do have an interest in natural systems. In the past a lot of artists have made abstractions of the physical world and how it exists. I am really interested in making abstractions of the processes of the physical world. Abstractions of the behavior of natural systems. So my interest is really in the behavior of how they work, rather than how they look.

Is it an interest you developed while studying at the aesthetic + computation group at MIT? Although your work is conceptually different, it seems you share an interest in the relation between computer, software and organic material with Golan Levin and Ben Fry, whom you studied with.
Yeah, I mean within those people you mention there's a number of common threads just because were all sitting in a room through 1-2 years working very closely. So of course some sort of discourse emerges from this.

And what did you do before you went to MIT?
Before...I did...a number of things ha-ha… I started as a Graphic Designer in New York. I was a visual communication designer, always focusing on system design. Hands on! I was designing book and print systems basically, and that led very easily into designing for the Internet, because there it was like still designing systems but designing them in a way that was a bit more dynamic than in print. Then I wanted to be even more fluid and dynamic and that's when I started writing software. So, it's sort of a gradual progression of designing systems that were static, that were more flexible and then, now, software systems that can be very responsive and very fluid and has a lot more aspects to explore.

Did you program at that time?
No, I started only 4 years ago, maybe 5 now.

So you didn't start as a teenager coding Amiga or Commodore like the 'programmer myth' dictates?
No, no… I am not a lifetime programmer. I didn't even know what Amiga was until a very short while ago!

Basic examples of the processing language developed by Casey Reas and Ben Fry.

Perhaps one of your more ambitious projects is Processing, which is also featured here at Ars Electronica. It's a programming language and software environment that you are developing with Ben Fry. When and why did you start this project?
We began 2 years ago, I guess, actually, I have been programming for 5 years then. Ha-ha... time flies! Ben and I are both teachers doing all our work in software and we are really frustrated with the current software environments that exist for doing this kind of work. Nobody has really designed a software environment for working in the way that we like to work, so that's why we started building it. We always worked in software environments like C, C++, Java, and OpenGL. These environments are too complex. They're trying to do everything so they're just massively difficult to use. And what we need is just something that is specifically tailored for the work that we want to do. So in our language for example, we have a simpler and better control over color than any other programming language that I have ever seen before. So it's specifically designed for the things we find important.

An artistic tool?
Yes, it's specifically made for what we call electronic arts. Oh, and it's very good for connecting electronics to computers as well. So you're able to connect a camera or connect two computers together.


Basic examples of the processing language developed by Casey Reas and Ben Fry.

Is it possible to learn without any previous programming knowledge?
It has three different learning levels. In the most basic layer you're able to type in just a few lines of code and see a result, and the next layer there's a slightly larger structure that allows you to do things that are responsive and things that can be animated. And then, in the third layer, you are actually programming in Java itself. We taught a lot of workshops were we had people who had never learned to program before and after just two weeks they were doing really nice works. Another really important thing about the language is that we have designed it slowly over 2 years, and we have always been teaching with it and using it personally the whole time, so it grows very organically.

I heard Golan Levin quote John Maeda, saying something like "When you use other people's software you live in somebody else's dream". Do you recognize the quote? - Are 'processing users' living in your dream?

I don't know this quote directly, but it makes sense. There are many levels of software from the general to the specific. As software becomes more specific, it limits the possibilities. Processing is very general and doesn't put many constraints on the possibilities of software. In many respects Processing is living in the dream of Java and OpenGL. It's more a collage of ideas than a specific revolution…

Casey Reas:
Ben Fry:
MIT aesthetics + computation group:
John Maeda:
Golan Levin:


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