Wednesday, 14 October 2020

It's Not Like I Have All the Answers

A little while ago I was messing around making some doohickey's with the aid of an Arduino and it struck me that art has a strange relationship to electronics in general and writing code in particular. It's a relationship that I've found difficult to describe and even more difficult to define, so I hope by writing about it here that I'll be able to get some insights into my own thoughts on the subject.

Writing code, or programming, quite literally consists of nothing but making a list of logically valid statements. Unlike more pure mathematics, these statements are furthermore pre-defined by other human beings. While some mathematics can be discovered or invented, depending on your viewpoint, programming generally consists of applying the known possibilities of a set system.
If one is privy to my conception of art as object manipulation uncommon in daily life, it stands to reason that no piece of programming could ever be considered art. As all possibilities can be theoretically known in advance, any uncommon or surprising ways to write code is dependent fully on the understanding, or lack of understanding, of the person perceiving it.

Yet at the same time I'm aware that there are such endeavours like 'The International Obfuscated C Code Contest'. Most of this is way above my pay grade, but the first winner in 1984 was a program that 'prints hello world, where read is write'. Clearly that is a way to write some code which is uncommon in daily life. Simultaneously one could describe it as object manipulation as well, as no code affects anything unless some physical object changes according to its laws.

Then there are also initiatives that commission 'web art', like I again have mixed feelings about this. Some of the projects seem like genuine uses of the internet that can only be the result of some unusual interpretation of its workings, but other projects are just data visualisation or some slightly-odd way of using social media. Are those latter projects genuinely different from the famous photo of an egg on instagram or the brochure design of the yearly fiscal reports for some multinational?
One of Cory Arcangel's projects for the initiative was titled Data Diaries, wherein he substitutes the video data of a QuickTime file with whatever was in the RAM of his computer at the time, resulting in various glitchy patterns of colours. Which is you know, interesting, but at the same time he just loaded the data of one program into another that isn't meant to display that sequence of information. Fundamentally this is not that different from opening something like a .png in a text editor and then marvelling at the strange text that appears. Which is something that has happened to many people on accident, especially to those among us who have been using computers before the 2000's and had to deal with the many incompatible file formats of the time.
The level of skill on display here is therefore hard to pin down. On the one hand it's obviously higher than that of your average user, because it deliberately circumvents some ways in which a program is meant to handle data. On the other hand the result it gives is a garbled mess that even an expert couldn't distinguish from an accidental glitch. A glitch that could possibly be caused by a manufacturing defect in the computer's hardware and thus have no relation to the artist's actions at all.
A defining feature of artwork in traditional art media is that discernable traces are left by which an informed spectator can retrace the origins of a work. Digital artworks often rely on logical processes that aren't formally valid and by extension they also can't be mentally reverse engineered to any reasonable extent, thereby calling into question how a viewer must approach the work. 
By analogy I am thinking of shuffling methods in a casino. Any skilled dealer with the dexterity to shuffle cards in a truly random fashion, also has the skills to order them exactly how she wants them to. A common solution to this problem in high-profile casinos is for dealers to shuffle the cards by making a big pile on the table and moving them around like a toddler would, as this ensures a fully random order while being in plain view of all the players. Is that thus the smartest or the dumbest way to shuffle?

The influence of technology on art has always been a strange one. As already covered in one of the earliest posts on this blog, new technologies rarely have an immediate impact on art making. Over time they can however become quite significant after clear and common methods are established, for which artists are able to find contrasting solutions.
However I don't think that this particular problem is at play with coding. Coding itself hasn't changed fundamentally over the decades and I also think that you can't change it in any fundamental way to make the act of coding artful, or however you want to call it. Just like how in more general mathematics, no artist has ever truly called Euclidean geometry into question. 
But then again there are also artists like M.C. Escher that do at least appear to mess around with those mathematical ideas, albeit in a circumlocutory way. 

Perhaps more broadly speaking one can say that coding might not have much ability to go truly beyond its mathematical intricacies, but its influence on the physical apparatus it's meant to manipulate could posses such an ability. 
It also occurred to me that electronics in art rarely get to look like electronics in the way that we all use them in our daily life. Consumer electronics are often packed inside closed plastic or metal containers, both for protection and an aesthetic appeal to consumers. No consumer would want an iPhone if it was just some battery and a screen soldered to a PCB.
Artists commonly expose the insides of the electronics they work with when making art. This is perhaps to show that it is not simply an off-the-shelf product and that the artist did something unusual to make the work show what it shows.
I'm of course inclined to say that this is to distinguish the electronics artists use from the electronics found as objects in everyday life, but perhaps it has more to do with aesthetics or a general interest in seeing how things look like on the inside. My first Game Boy had a transparent case and I was absolutely fascinated with seeing how the thing looked like on the inside, without having the slightest clue about the functions of its various components. As there are plenty of decorative fashions in art that have little to do with the content of the work, perhaps exposing the electronics is simply one of them.

I'm sure you as a reader have gained little insight from these ramblings, but in the process of putting pen to paper I nevertheless have understood that the crux of my own confusion lies in the apparent paradoxical relationship between the extreme axiomatic restraint of Boolean algebra and the seemingly limitless number of ways it can be exploited by way of electronics.