Software Art After Programming
In his article first published in MUTE magazine in 2004, Richard Wright reminds the reader of a problem first posed in the 1960’s, ‘Can the computer make art?’ His response is to reflect upon the early computer artists as ‘intrepid explorers setting out to cross a new continent without first waiting to find out whether it could support life.’ Did these pioneers use computers to offer input into specific art issues? Did the computer represent a convergence between art and science? Wright goes on to ask how computer art influences representation, language and abandonment of the object, or is computer art simply part of the relentless march towards an inevitable digital society.
In the 1980’s the question changed from ‘Can the computer make art?’ to ‘Can a computer be an artist?’ As the complexity of software developed, and so many creative opportunities emerged for artists, that ‘deferring to a machine artist seemed almost indicative of a lack of imagination. Creative applications and clever interfaces that encouraged usability burgeoned in the late 1980’s. In fact, many artists began manufacturing art objects using pre-existing software must do so in association with the manufacturer. Collaboration here is a truism and unavoidable. However it is worth considering if these collaborations with the ‘pre-packaged’ functions, options and parameters of the new art applications are sufficient to cover all artistic fields of enquiry, all aesthetic nuances, and all personal idioms?’ At Electronic Art festivals, like SIGGRAPH, the question developed to become, ‘Do artists need to program?’ Software becomes the material of artistic creation. But to some program users a complication of terms emerged – is the computer a medium or a tool? Some artists were only interested in the myriad of tools, menus, checkboxes and multiple layers of option pallets of applications like Adobe Photoshop, Illustrator or Amiga Deluxe Paint. ‘Software manufacturers were re-defining the creative process as a decision making process converging towards a predetermined ideal goal.’
With wizards, helpers, one-button effects, artists began to make work that was mostly about the software that made it.
Wright goes on to discus specific examples of software art: Adrian Ward’s ‘Auto-Illustrator’, and Harold Cohen’s ‘AARON’ of 1979. He uses these examples to introduce the notion of a digital aesthetic brought about by the family of popular creative software – what Lev Manovich calls ‘Generation Flash. Manovich talks of new vocabularies which include ‘networking’ and ‘sampling’ and applies the new modes of expression to new digital practices like Data Visualisation’. Here this type of work, the objective analysis of raw data replaces older methods and forms of authorship.
Wright ends his discussion by asking not whether artists should learn to program, but what kind of programming should we learn. I agree that artists are best to choose a programming environment that has the most open aesthetic: a programming place that does not limit capability by mimicking hand rendered techniques, like Photoshop, merging imperfectly a subjective creative process with decision making from a finite range of choices.