back to


September 24th 2003: Software Art - an introduction

[September 24th]

From I/O/Ds Webstalker.

Special: Software Art
We take a closer look a the different phenomena known to some as "software art". In the near future we present a series of interviews with various players related to this new category. In this introductory text Andreas Broegger presents his thoughts on the matter and an awesome collection of links to new and old works that can fall within the category.

Andreas is a Ph.d student and teaches digital art and theory at the Department of Comparative Literature and Modern Culture at the University of Copenhagen. He is the art-editor of the magazine Hvedekorn and contributor and former co-editor of (he was the curator of the net art project ON OFF 2000-2001). Since 1995 he has been an art critic for various Danish newspapers, magazines and web sites. You can email Andreas at: You should also check out our interview with Andreas Broegger.

Software Art - an introduction
by Andreas Broegger

Please have a look at the illustration above. What you see is the same information you are reading now, only it is read and visualized by another browser than the one I assume you are using. Created by the collective I/O/D, this alternative browser called The Web Stalker is a well-known pre-cursor of what has recently come to be known as "software art". Earlier on, when it was released in 1997, The Web Stalker was identified with the then new phenomenon "net art" (or the more specific one "browser art"), being one among a number of "alternative browsers" expanding and critiquing the conventional browsers from Microsoft and Netscape.

The fact that projects like these are now being "re-sited" to the new territory of "software art" which a lot of new media artists and critics have been flocking to lately, is not only a sign that this new category is replacing "net art" (already declared dead by many of its pioneers) as the "latest thing" in new media art. It is perhaps also a sign that "software art" is a more open and useful category than "net art" which was so keen to define itself by its supposedly distinctive features (and therefore exclude everything "non-net"). Other examples of how the information your mind is processing right now could be "interpreted" are shown below.

Left: Mark Daggett's Blur Browser. Right: Pornolizer by Alternatively, you can go to WebPlayer - Music to Watch URLs by to see what this page would sound like if filtered through Arnold Schönberg and other "parameters" defined by its creator twofivesix.

The cultural and aesthetic implications of software
The point of this introductory experiment is, of course, that software influences the way we experience things... As Lev Manovich points out in his influential study The Language of New Media, many cultural phenomena now come to us in the form of data: web pages, mp3 files, dvds, pdf files, text files and emails, and so on. Since this data is mediated by various kinds of software, Manovich claims that our very access to culture is mediated by software to an increasing extent. Hence the term cultural interface or the clunky neologism of "human-computer-cultural-interface", as Manovich adds culture to the classic term "human-computer-interface" (HCI).

Over the last four decades, artists and critics have attempted to deconstruct and offer alternatives to the conventional forms of representation and reception found at culturally influential "sites" such as mainstream TV, the Hollywood movie, advertising, music videos, and, more recently, video games. To this tendency we might add the practice of "software art". A large part of the so-called software art projects investigate the ways in which ideology is encoded into mainstream software - browsers displaying html code in particular ways, search engines crawling through the web according to certain parameters, software companies deciding which features should be built into their applications, interface designers engineering the user according to their ideal of "useability", and so on. Of course, commercial software makes it possible for most of us with little or no programming skills to use a computer creatively. But this also means that the same software to some extent pre-defines our choices and what we create. Perhaps this is why Macromedia imprints its signature - "Made with Macromedia" - on whatever you create in Director, thereby claiming a kind of "co-authorship" to your work.


When dominant software companies like Adobe include filters allowing us to simulate van Gogh or Monet with the simple click of a mouse, I suppose we can expect art to somehow strike back.It does so, for instance, by deconstructing or parodying mainstream applications. See, for instance, Signwave's Auto-Illustrator (2000) which features wacky filters and generative processes creating unexpected contributions to your artwork during your use of the software.

Signwave: Auto-illustrator.

As a reaction to the normal "user level" and "user modes" offered by most commercial software, high above the technicalities of programming, artists and critics are seeking new possibilities (for us and for themselves) at the level of coding. A significant aspect of software art is not only the deconstruction of existing software, but audio-visual-textual experiments made possible by the production of new creative instruments. A site like Proce55ing established by Ben Fry and Casey Reas is a good example.

Left: Custom Letter by Peter Cho. Right: The Unbearable Lightness of being a Pixel by Juha Huuskonen. Both projects from Proce55ing.

VJ'ing and other types of performative practices is an area characterized by a high intensity of development (See for instance ixi-software's audio-visual tools or the creative applications by Golan Levin, carrying on the research done in this field by someone like John Maeda). Mini-applications like Josh Nimoy's Textension - a creative extension of the simple "note pad" application found in both Windows and Mac OS - or Jonah Brucker-Cohen's suite of Desktop Subversibles serve as tools as well as models of possible forms of interaction and production on a larger scale.

Left: Josh Nimoy's Textension. Right: Jonah Brucker-Cohen's Desktop Subversibles (Mouse Traces).

To this we might add a string of software art which has a more explicit social or even economical relevance: the creation of viruses or other disturbances of network and software order (see for instance The Yes Men's various projects), free software initiatives and collaborative open-source projects (see The Free Software Foundation's list of free software since 1984 and The Open Source Initiative) some of which connect with non-digital contemporary art practices of the activist kind. The recently launched web site NordicOS) which offers free open-source software was established by the governments of Scandinavian countries, acknowledging that software (and technological openness) is a requirement for participation in a democratic society today.

Software Art 1970-2003
Perhaps it all began where we began: with projects like The Web Stalker in 1997. Or perhaps in 1999 when Ars Electronica awarded a Golden Nica in the ".net" category to Linux? The first festival to offer an award specifically to software art was Berlin's Transmediale 2001, highlighting projects like Chris Czikszentmihalyi's DJ I Robot (2000) , Golan Levin's Audiovisual Environment Suite (2000), Netochka Nezvanova's Nebula.M81 - Autonomous (1999), Daniela Plewe's Ultima Ratio (1998-2000), Antoine Schmitt's Vexation 1 (2000) and Adrian Ward's Auto-Illustrator (2000).

Left: Chris Czikszentmihalyi: DJ I Robot. Right: Golan Levin: Audiovisual Environment Suite.

Since then, the Read_me festival held in Moscow in 2002 and in Helsinki in 2003 has only confirmed the interest in this new field, defining it as being of cultural and not only "artistic" relevance (in any narrow sense of the word). The CODeDOC project at the Whitney's Artport foregrounded code rather than its 'effects', focusing, among other things, on the 'styles' of coding exhibited by a number of artists all responding to the same task formulated by curator Christiane Paul: "move and connect three points in space". These are just some of the activities in this new, expanding field. As I write this, people are gathering in Linz for Ars Electronica with the overall theme this year being CODE, referring not only to computer programming, but also to genetic code and to the code of law, all of which regulate crucial processes in and around us. The extent of "programming" we are subjected to can of course only by counteracted by 're-programming', as in art or activism, or by "co-programming" as the models of free and open-source software suggest.

In this regard, it is not the first time in recent times that "software" has caught the attention of artists, critics and curators. In the fall of 1970 the American artist and critic Jack Burnham curated a show for the Jewish Museum in New York entitled Software - Information Technology: Its New Meaning for Art. The show put together computers and conceptual artists, linking them through the idea of software as a process or a program to be carried out by a machine or, why not, by the audience based on "instruction lines" formulated by the artist. Earlier that year, a group of video artists and writers concerned with the cultural effects of mass communication and information technologies founded the magazine Radical Software. The premise was similar to the one motivating people in the Software show: to an increasing extent power travelled in immaterial form, as information in networks, so in order to have any influence on cultural developments artists had to participate on the level of software rather than hardware (i.e. by no longer creating traditional marketable art objects).

Today, we see artists making similar statements about the importance of software. Today, we speak of software art in a literal sense while the idea of art as software in 1970 was more metaphorical. However, the dialectic of hardware and software has mutated somewhat since 1970. We can no longer posit software as the opposite of hardware when it comes to economical and copyright issues, for instance. In many cases, software is as "hard" as hardware, a commodity, an object however immaterial. The mere fact that the newly created "software art repository" at features a category called "conceptual software" is a sign of this change which software has undergone since 1970: it is as if the concept of "software" is no longer a suitable metaphor for conceptual art practice, but needs the qualifier "conceptual" to re-establish this connection. At we find in the "conceptual software" category the famous conceptual piece by La Monte Young's consisting of just one line of instruction:

draw a straight line and follow it

Definitions ... or maybe not?
The link between software and art not only takes us back in time, but also leads us to an entire 'delta'of current phenomena and practices: net art, generative art, artists' games and mods, browser experiments, viruses, programming as a creative act, interface manipulations, interactive installations, conceptual art, open-source as social platform, activist strategies, and so on. For some, all this calls for a precise definition of what constitutes "software art" (and what not), some sort of "dam" to prevent the instant flooding of this newly designated area of interest.
The good news is, however, that new media art discourse seems less focused on defining the "specificity of software art" this time (the search for the "specificity of net art" in the 1990s was, in my opinion, one of the reasons for its predictable "death"). By comparison, those who stake out the field of software art do not seem eager to exlude, but rather to include. Just click your way to the extensive (and humorous) list of software art categories at algorithmic appreciation, artistic tools, browser art, code poetry, conceptual software, data collage, digital folk and artisanship, hardware transformation, installation-based, performance-based, plagiarism, system dysfunctionality, and so on.

Two projects from Left: Simon Biggs: Babel. Right: Ixi-software: Connector. is a collaborative, open project developed by Amy Alexander, Florian Cramer, Matthew Fuller, Olga Goriunova, Thomax Kaulmann, Alex McLean, Pit Schultz, Alexei Shulgin, and The Yes Men. The site is related to the readme festival organized in Moscow in 2002 and Helsinki in 2003 by Guriunova and Shulgin.

And, of course, many new media artists have been programming all along, before the recent attention towards 'software art'. But attention has rarely been focused on the software or the activity of programming in itself. The software running interactive installations has not, for instance, been considered art in itself, but rather a technical requirement for the art work to "happen" as users enter an installation. Now, should we ask whether the software running the interactive installations must be regarded as 'software art'? To qualify as "software art", does the software have to be programmed by the artist herself? Should programming be considered an art form? While it is interesting to consider programming as a creative process, we should be aware of the problems inherent in over-valuing this aspect: the danger of maintaining a technocratic version of the 'creative genius'from generations past (thus re-installing the traditional value of "skill" when art has in fact managed to "de-skill" itself). Conversely, then, can we imagine "software art" without any programming in a literal sense or even without any actual software running? Looking back to 1970 provides a clue to a balanced answer, as do a number of interesting current projects, which are more or less software-based. One example: A few years ago, the artist Peggy Ahwesh ran the Unabomber Manifesto through the spell-checker of her word processor, subsequently creating a video piece displaying simply the words, one after another, not found in the word processor's dictionary.

Peggy Ahwesh: 73 Suspect Words

Watching her "73 Suspect Words" (2000) we are made aware not only of the obsessions of the manifesto but also the biases underlying the production of something like a spell-checker. Should we consider this example (and there are many others like it) under the umbrella of "software art"? Why not?
Questions like these do not yield definite answers. Instead, it is probably wiser to simply say that "software art" signals mainly a shift of focus - a (re)newed interest in coding and software as a creative activity, a cultural filter, a critical tool, a social phenomenon...

In his recent book titled Postproduction (and subtitled "Culture As Screenplay: How Art Reprograms the World"), French critic Nicolas Bourriaud claims that "since the early nineties, an ever increasing number of artworks have been created on the basis of preexisting works". Interestingly, the field of software art seems to both connect with and divert from what Bourriaud says. Surely, there is a lot of "repurposing" and "détournements" going on in software art (as well as a lot of code-borrowing), but there is also a lot of brand new creative work - new tools and new processes - growing out of the field of software art.


© 2001-2007
artificial at artificial dot dk