Software as an artistic medium

Here’s an edited a transcript of a Skype interview I had earlier this year with South African digital arts masters student Maia Grotepass on the process of writing software for the artistic projects:

How has using software as a medium for developing an artwork or an art piece influenced your process? has it influenced it at all?

When I started getting into more art stuff, pulmonologist I was kind of surprised because I never expected myself to be in this position, health I just never saw myself as an artist. So I felt like I needed to justify myself somehow and I looked back and tried to think of any moments in time where I might have demonstrated an interest in the arts. There was one moment when I was studying undergraduate engineering in Melbourne and I just remember essentially the bulk of the people in the lecture theatre were essentially critically switched off. I studied arts and engineering and I studied liberal arts, not fine arts. I experienced my studies as a kind of schizophrenia when I would go from one class to another because the art students in my literature classes would be all about critical thought and then in the engineering classes it was all about just absorbing the information, sucking it down and not questioning – rote learning and figuring out problems and so on.

And how to make it be faster and the teams more efficient and less bugs…

Yeah it was all about efficiency and speed but then nowhere during that entire period did anybody ask any questions about why we were making this faster or why we were making this more robust, none of these philosophical questions were ever raised and this really bothered me. If I am to throw myself at anything and be passionate about something I want to know why I’m doing it, and there was none of this. This was I guess what really defined me. The sad thing is, I actually think it is really important to general engineering as well. I think this lateral thinking and this questioning can be useful in terms of creating more innovative solutions.

Can you think of some benefits or some problems that you think are specific to using software as a medium?

I think the difficulty with that question for me at least, is that perhaps I wouldn’t have felt as empowered as an artist if I didn’t have the sort of computer skills I do. When I was growing up contemporary art was something that was the furthest from my mind – it was a very foreign and very distant thing. I guess I sort of discovered it later on when I got older, in a way I kind of stumbled across it by accident when I suddenly realised that my interests were converging on it. I think because I started reading material and seeing things on the Internet that were being justified as art or as being creative and they essentially required skill sets that I already had.

So you are saying like your initial framing you were already doing stuff but you hadn’t really framed it as being art as such…

Not quite because I guess my background originally was in electronic music – as a kid I studied music and I played a lot of piano and a few other instruments. It’s possible my very rigid classical background then pushed me into more contemporary music or electronic music. Electronic music seemed liberating because it was breaking all the rules that I’d had to put up with for a very long time. So I got into electronic music and I did that for almost like 8 or 9 years and went quite deep into it. However what’s very different from what I was doing then and my practise now is that I distinctly remember having a discussion with someone about how I wasn’t interested in creating tools, I was really focused on using other people’s tools because my importance at that time was to create work and not to create the tools to create work. I think there were a couple of people at that time who were saying, ah you should maybe try your hand at electronics or you know, you could make your own software, and I was really not interested at all at that stage.

You wanted to make music not software.

Yeah and I really felt that spending any time on tools would totally distract me from my ultimate goal. I was at the point of really just taking off-the-shelf software and buying everything that I needed instead of trying to make it myself, whereas today it’s very different. I pretty much make everything myself and I guess some of what I am making does consist of tools and I do spend a significant amount of time on that.

So you are not making such a clear distinction any more…

Yeah it has become a lot more blurry.

Why do you think that happened?

It’s a good question and I am still asking myself that question because I see people who working in my field who have been totally lured away by the very honourable task of creating tools and they end up spending most of their time doing that and not actually making work. There is a balance I guess.

I think the big difference is because I have shifted away from making electronic music which is essentially largely content driven really, although admittedly you can get conceptual with it. I am saying music as opposed to sound design or interactive sound installations or experimental music and stuff, more music that people would digest every day as opposed to something more experiential. In that context it kind of does make sense to just focus on the output but if you move into a more contemporary art environment  which I have sort of done, then it’s really about exploring and not being influenced. I think not being influenced by other peoples’ aesthetic decisions is really critical and if you want to make something that’s original then you have to do it yourself or at least be really close to that process. I mean there are people who create artistic software with the aid of engineers and assistants and they do so from a distance but I think they do loose certain agency, like you will get a product on the other end, but it will maybe not be as uniquely yours as if you made it yourself. So it’s like being engaged in the medium more directly. However the tricky nature of this whole coding or technical aspect of the new contemporary art forms is that it does restrict the kind of people who are capable of creating it because it doesn’t come naturally to everybody…well it doesn’t come naturally to anybody, but some people really struggle with this sort of technical skill set. Maybe that’s just a literacy thing that’s going change in years to come, I am pretty curious to see how it’s going to change, because I feel a lot people who are working in contemporary art are locked out from some of the really exciting stuff that’s happening at the moment simply because they’re not technical enough and one of the reactions of the mainstream contemporary art world is to label some of this stuff as not art. That’s fine and some of it probably isn’t art anyway but I think it’s a defensive mechanism in the face of what is a pretty exclusive activity at the moment.

To a certain extent I guess you have a lot more liberty when you are making your own art installations or projects. You are not so bound by, I dunno, rigid requirements and formats and so on. There is definitely a more playful element to it. There’s an interesting presentation by a guy called Brett Victor who is interested in tools and also interested in increasing the immediacy of coding as a creative process, whereby you should be able to understand the correlation between your code and it’s output much more clearly and be able to change elements of your code in a much more intuitive way than just typing in numbers to change a variable. He has created this tool where you can hover over a variable in code and a slider will appear and without even knowing what that variable does you can scrub through a whole bunch of values.

When comparing what Brett Victor is doing and creative software patching environments (Pure Data, Max/MSP, VVVV etc) – there is something of a difference because code works typically at a pretty low level and you really have an enormous amount of freedom to do almost anything you want, whereas in the patching environment you are restricted to these black boxes that you link together and then play around with variables. That’s not to demean them as being lesser – they involve a very different process. I use Pure Data as a patching tool and I’m familiar with that kind of process, but text-based coding is quite different and it is very powerful but sometimes you can get lost in the implementation details which is the attraction of some of this node based stuff. I guess that’s where I am at the moment. This is what really attracted me, for example, to openFrameworks, where I was sort of dabbling with c and c++ and playing around with things and creating my own software but nothing that I created really ever reached a substantial size in terms of the size of the project because I would reach this level of complexity and then I would get lost in the implementation details, and whatever creative idea sparked the project initially would fall by the wayside. So all of these creative coding tool-kits have really revolutionised things and I think there’s more work to be done in terms of improving them and taking them further.

So it’s like you are saying there’s the process of actually writing the code and there’s the conceptual part of it and you’ve found that the process of actually being involved in the code obscured the conceptual underpinnings.

Yeah it does and it very much can do that. The more lost you get in the complexity of the implementation of the project the easier it is to forget what it was you originally wanted to do.

So in a way to try and keep the complexity in your mind or to focus on the complexity there needs to be ways of handling the  complexity of the implementation.

Yeah and that happens essentially through methods of abstraction. So the more you can abstract out the complexity the more you can connect to your actual concepts. That definitely has influenced the way in which I am creating work through code.

I am firm believer of source code  control and although it sounds like something too formal it’s really great from a creative point of  view because you can say “well what what would it look like if everything was green” and you can just branch and make it green.

I think source control should be a very important part of a creative coders environment. The whole concept of documenting your work in an art context is hugely  important so if the code constitutes your work then source control is like an automatic documenting process. When you are branching, when you have got various different ideas and you are branching in various different directions, which you have to when you are exploring a creative space, being able to roll back your code to a specific point in time and go back down another path is really critical to that process.

The other thing which I have come across is this whole concept of testing. If you  speak to the engineering people there  is quite a bit of focus on testing but I find from an art perspective because you have got the freedom it’s maybe not seen as that important. How do you feel about testing?

I think testing is pretty much ignored, it’s done but in very slap dash way in a lot of art  installation production, often because there’s not a lot of time, because you might be creating something for an event or an installation but it then will be pulled down and therefore you can’t afford to spend an enormous amounts of time on it. I guess it really depends on the longevity of the actual outcome and its contact with the general public. Like for example if I was to start thinking about selling one of my software projects I would have to put a lot more work into it and probably maybe even think about some of the engineering processes that could be involved,  whereas if I  was just exhibiting it then I could avoid this. It’s like building a house of cards – as long as it doesn’t fall down during that time, internally it could be absolute chaos, a mess, because it is all about the illusion to the general public of what it should be doing or what it is doing.

This is one of the kind of teething issues that I guess will be faced if people working with code eventually consider themselves artists in a more commercial way in the sense of being able to create works that are collectible. I am not even sure if in the  future the art market is going to remain anything like it looks today. This whole concept of  collecting pieces of visual art may not disappear, but it may be completely marginalised in the  face of something new that will emerge that we haven’t really seen yet. But if, let’s say for the sake of argument that the art market will continue and then in order to be recognised as artists, code work creators would have to become part of that, then I think the software produced for the general public will have to be more robust and that will definitely require more engineering process and more testing.

But there is a certain transience to the medium, to the software medium…

Yeah there certainly is and that’s why source control is really critical too, it’s creating a snap shot at a particular time that can be re-created at a later stage. It gives you a point to be able to reformulated it using an updated platform or whatever in the future. That’s another reason why I like source control because a lot of software based art stuff is incredibly impermanent. Even in the space of three months a piece of software can be out of date because it can’t run on the latest platform. It might also be a very transient medium at the moment because it’s very emerging too. If this sort of thing were to become a lot more mainstream then maybe that transience would be reduced somewhat. I  guess at the moment people are not afraid to throw away a lot of stuff or just let things fall to ruin.

From an artists point of view now, are you saying that artists aren’t afraid to throw away?

Um well I think it’s important, in any creative field to be able to know what to throw away and what to keep. That’s a very critical part of refining a work – knowing when it’s close to completion and knowing what to get rid of and cull in order to achieve closure.

So it’s like you have these ideas conceptually or whatever and you have to decide this will fly or this won’t fly?

There’s another aspect to this – I think maybe a lot of people don’t really know the value of what they are creating now and maybe people are just throwing away code because there’s no reason not to. Or maybe the medium is inherently impermanent…

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