Marius Watz – Random Thoughts on Code and Form

Marius (another LISA alum!) spoke this afternoon at Eyeo.

He says: It took me 15 years to get to finally making some screen prints of my work — with Jer Thorp.  (Just a little plug).  I am descended from Thor the Dog and I’m Norwegian.  I’ve been heckling people here and I’m prepared to have that returned.  This will be random, I have 150 slides to get through.  I don’t have a formal education. But I’ve been programming since I was 11.  I had the TRS-80.  I’ve never thought creatively in any other medium.  I knew I’d be doing it for the rest of my life.  But computer science is god-awful boring.  I’m not a scientist but I worked in the design industry for awhile.  I make art.  I’m an artist.

My job is to imagine interesting things and put them out in the world.  Explaining my work is getting easier and easier.  There are some questions that software artists are asked that they hate.  “Oh, so it’s like a screensaver!”  “Do you use fractals?”  “Oh, so it’s an iTunes visualizer”…  people are starting to understand things like this as cultural objects and they are now more sophisticated.

Software has material qualities, unlike digital data which is malleable.  You’re choosing behavior to suit the task at hand.  Optimization is about manipulating algorithms and choosing parameters and figuring out “how can I tease the beauty out of this system” when the raw data isn’t inherently beautiful.

Software is code, the event loop, data structures and inputs and outputs.  The number of inputs is growing every day.  Mapping an input to an output is often arbitrary.  It’s humans who are programming, we have to own that.  It’s similar to the idea that science should be objective was broken down by the realization that designers are subjective.  Casey does an excellent job of explaining what is a process, this line touches this other line.  I do that all the time but I don’t explain it.  Computational creativity has the potential to be truly alien.

There’s a book by William Latham, I totally ripped him off with my rave posters in the early 90’s.  They were creating genetic algorithms to evolve organic-looking shapes.  Some computer work doesn’t age very well; as a computer artist you can only hope that yours will.  Time will tell.  But I didn’t have a metaphor.  I’d sneak off to the science library and look at the CACM for ideas.

Around 1996 I was getting involved in the media arts scene in Europe, big installations.  The technology was $3-4 million in major art museums.  It was about interactive spaces, immersing humans in spaces that were computer generated.  The element wasn’t about visual formalism. Code was a means but not an end result.  It’s different from what I was ultimately interested in.  People self-publishing experimental websites were a big culture from mid 90’s to early 00’s where people would link to each other.  I was using java applets in 1996 that were precursors of my work now.  The code still executes.  It points to the kind of code-based formalism and I’m currently into.

For people with no experience with code, HTML was their first coding experience.  John Maeda isn’t my favorite thinker, but he worked early and made fantastic work, and shaped a culture.  He was the professor for some of the leading people here today, Golan, Casey, Ben.  A grandfather of the scene.  People like Lia in Vienna connected to the music scene.  Dextro.  It pointed to the idea that there might actually be an entire field of people working like this.  When I found Golan Levin’s Meshy java applet in 1998 I was so jealous!  There were no conferences back then… Joshua Davis was probably the first to break away and have recognition… he was seminal, probably because he shared his code, in computational design.

Later I met people like Casey who pointed in yet another direction.  He was really concerned with drawing processes and art-making in an elegant and succinct way, but not out of the design cultures, which many people were coming from.  He was one of the first people who said “My work has nothing to do with design… this is an art process”.

I used to run a blog and a media art conference called GeneratorX.  I worked with a lot of people who worked with aesthetics and they were not recognized by the art world.  All these people who were making things were meeting but I felt someone has to put the flag down.  I tried to do this with GeneratorX.  I’d like to think that this event was somehow important in setting the tone for what’s come since.

Generative art was the definition that people came flocking to.  Philip Galanter made a good definition.  Setting a machine to contribute to art with some degree of autonomy.  It’s pretty well-known territory by now.  The flip side to this is computational design, where design problems are solved through the application of logic.  Martin Wattenberg’s visualization of the compositional structure of notation-based music is a great example.   You can see the difference between classical music and ACDC.

At GeneratorX I was very concerned with showing software as a pure object.  Lia, Casey Reas, Ben Fry, Lionel Dean’s software captured in time and 3D printed. Nervous System is an example of this. We had a concert tour.  Emi Maeda playing and Lia projecting visuals in synch with the music.  My work with Phonophani.  (He shows pictures). I wanted to put the flag down for a way of thinking.

One of the things that happened around the same time is that we rediscovered all of these software art pioneers.  They show a clear precedent with what is being done now.  Michael NollManfred Mohr. Chuck Csuri.   There’s a direct link between this work and what artists are doing today.  They did so in the context of art at the time.

The significance of this was that it gave a deeper background to the practice of formal abstraction through code.  As a proposal to the opposite of generative art, I would propose a concept- the notion of software abstraction.  It investigates computation as a formal medium borrowing from other system-based art practices that preceded it.  I’m increasingly becoming uninterested in technology itself against what are the stories, the systems and the logic it provides?  Software art is not about technology.  It talks about abstractions, systems and procedural logic.  Conceptually it can be said to explore the idea of computational thought.  What happens when we accept ubiquitous computing as becoming part of our experience?  And iPhone augments your body in the most radical ways that were pure science fiction a decade ago.  I missed the importance of mobile phones.  Totally.

I call Software Abstraction “Soft-Ab” –  like people call Abstract Expressionism  Ab-Ex — and it can produce works with no technical components.  Software as instruments, improvised performative systems, kinetic behaviors, drawing, articulation of spatial structure.  Classic theorists think technology is kind of dirty; unfortunately they don’t get too involved in this.  I curated a show recently with the decision that technology wouldn’t enter into it.  But thinking about space, algorithms.  John Powers – hand-gluing Styrofoam blocks into sculpture, no tech involved.     Zimoun… motors and wire sculpture .  Ralph Becker (sp?).

If you’re thinking about the human condition today, it has to include databases.  I’m interested in sculptures that represent data structures. The idea of “crafting” logic has come back.  To me it’s a logical extension of computational processes.