Christopher Fahey [askrom] on Wed, 24 Apr 2002 23:37:02 +0200 (CEST)

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  I agree with Eryk that NN/m9ndfukc/nato epitomizes the "software
artist" to a certain extent, but there are several mitigating factors I
would like to add to this discussion:

  FIRST, programming is hard work! The "individual-artist-genius" model
of art criticism is hard to apply to Manovich's vision of this new
"software artist" creature simply because programming is commonly done
by more than one person. While individual artists like Praystation or
Golan Levin may often work individually, we are increasingly seeing
software artwork produced collaboratively. Multi-artist collaborations
(like Alex Galloway's Carnivore collaborations) and murky artist
collectives (the excellent c404) are able to produce works greater than
the sum of their parts - also, they can frequently achieve greater name
recognition as a group than as one person. It is widely believed that
NN/m9ndfukc/nato may be at least five different people, any one of whom
might have a hard time achieving that kind of notoriety by themselves.
The amount of labor and specialized skill it takes to produce certain
kinds of software artworks is comparable to the labor in making a film
or a building. And like with films, it is often impossible to attribute
the artistic vision of a single person to the final digital product. 

  This "collaborative model" borders on a kind of "corporate model". Jon
Ippolito recently advocated that digital artists should give up on
making money as artists and keep their "day jobs". I would extend that
idea even further to say that the production of software art is so
similar to the production of commercial digital products that the two
modes benefit from close proximity. It is not uncommon to find that
digital artists have day jobs working for digital companies, or to find
artists who actually OWN or are principals of a commercial enterprise
closely linked to their artistic production (examples include,,, and even my own comparatively staid Increasingly we are seeing artists who
do not hide their day jobs from the art world, who are not embarrassed
by their day jobs - and these artists tend to be digital artists.

  This is not to say that I exactly buy into the McElroy model of
marketing artwork as a corporate product (to me his position often reads
like a parody of the artist's aversion to corporate thinking), but I do
agree that the separation of art and commerce is unnecessarily
artificial and does not lend itself well to the production of software
artworks of any level of complexity above D.I.Y. 

  I do not think that complexity=quality, but I do know that many
artists (like myself) have dreams and visions of building artworks that
are simply beyond the ability of a single person to realistically
complete. While this has always been true for many art
practices(fabricators and artists assistants are common even among plain
ol' oil painters), it is particularly true for digital artists who
cannot specialize in every digital production tool in the world. Someday
we may have digital artists with their own (paid) programming staffs in
much the same way a Nam June Paik likely has a nice little staff of
fabricators and video technicians. 

  This also ties quite closely with Ippolito's advocating that artists
employ the General Public License method of copyright/patent-free
production. The GPL itself was born out of the idea that building
software products *requires* large teams of people: If a large team of
developers is producing something just for fun, then they at least need
some assurance that one of the members of the team won't just take the
whole product and sell it as their own. The GPL allows development teams
to form without worrying about who is the real "owner". And online
source control systems like CVS provide the infrastructure for
developers to work as close-knit virtual teams without stepping on each
other's toes and without corporate management.

  While I find the collaborative model more politically interesting than
the "single-auteur-genius-with-a-staff-of-technical-assistants" model, I
would also give my left arm to have five hotshit programmers working for
me building my most elaborate ideas. 

  SECOND, I think that "software artwork" needs to be subdivided
somewhat. I think the net/not-net debate is less important than the
interactive/non-interactive debate. We are living in a moment where we
see an increasing number of artist-programmers whose work manifests as
either "Autonomous Algorithm" or "Interactive Experience". 

  "Autonomous Algorithm" describes a work that is entirely
self-contained, where the software is executed and it does its thing
regardless of what any human audience does to or with it. This category
includes a wide variety of works, from 'artificial life' applications to
automated data visualization systems to even plain old fashioned video
and film and performance. Actions occur over time according to a
pre-arranged plan. The plan may be simple, as is the case with a video,
or it may be very complex, influenced by intricate algorithms,
dynamically scraped data, random seeds, etc. Such works often have some
interactivity to allow the user to browse through the product or change
perspectives, but this interaction is not critical to the overall

  "Interactive Experience" includes everything from mouse-following
Flash toys to Playstation games. In such a product, the interactivity is
central to the experience. The user is invited to be involved, and the
artist's intention/emotion/message is communicated through the user's
actions and decisions. The experience can be physically immersive,
visceral, or tactile... or it can be psychologically immersive or

  I am essentially trying to make a distinction between experiences that
are meant to be *seen*and those that are meant to be *used*. 

  It is my feeling that the Interactive Experience model is the only
truly new art form because it alone introduces a fundamentally new and
different kind of experience to humanity. Browsing and clicking freely
from page to page on a web site and seeing different pictures,
animations, and texts only scratches the surface of what interactive
artworks really can be. Browsing, in fact, is not even the same as using
or playing. AutoIllustrator and NATO, or Quake III and Grand Theft Auto
II, are qualitatively different kinds of things from most web sites -
they invite the user to stop being a viewer and to start forming goals
and plans entirely within the context of the app/game. They involve a
mental transformation, a mode change in the mind. They ask the user to
invest a bit of their own consciousness into the machine's
protoconsciousness, to put a stake in what the program does next. 

  Just as experiencing traditional media is different from experiencing
unmediated real life (this difference is disappearing in our
media-saturated world, but this was not the case 100 years ago when
seeing a movie was a jarring experience), experiencing interactive media
is different from traditional media in a fundamental phenomenological


[christopher eli fahey]

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