From I/O/Ds Webstalker.
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 afsnitp.dk
(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: email@example.com.
You should also check out our interview
with Andreas Broegger.
Software Art -
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
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 Juniks.org. 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"
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
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
by Ben Fry and Casey Reas is a good example.
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
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
Left: Chris Czikszentmihalyi: DJ
I Robot. Right: Golan Levin: Audiovisual
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 runme.org
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 runme.org 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 runme.org:
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 runme.org.
Left: Simon Biggs: Babel.
Right: Ixi-software: Connector.
Runme.org 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
runme.org 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
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.