Lev Manovich on Sun, 28 Apr 2002 06:10:02 +0200 (CEST)

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[Nettime-bold] GENERATION FLASH: Lev / Sawad


I am delighted by the dialog and the number of responses provoked by my
text. I tried to make it confrontational on purpose to stimulate the debate,
and seems that it worked. Here are my answers to your comment.

Flash Software vs. Flash Generation

     I think that some of your points were already anticipated and answered
in my "summary" and a footnote included in the very first posting (1/3). I
probably should have included them with the subsequent postings. I am
quoting them here:

------------------ quote ------------------

GENERATION FLASH looks at the phenomenon of Flash graphics on the Web that
attracted a lot of creative energy in the last few years. More than just a
result of a particular software / hardware situation (low bandwidth leading
to the use of vector graphics), Flash aesthetics exemplifies cultural
sensibility of a new generation [1]...

 1. I should make it clear that many of the sites which inspired me to think
of ³Flash aesthetics² are not necessaraly made with Flash; they use
Shockwave, DHTML, Quicktime and other Web multimedia formats. Thus the
qualities I describe below as specefic to ³Flash aesthetics² are not unique
to Flash sites.  
------------------ end of quote ------------------

    I completely agree with you that using Flash's scripting language is not
the same as programming in Java, that this a commercial and a closed
software, and that QuickTime can be used in much more interesting ways than
it normally is: that is, as a programmable time-based media rather than
simply a way to show digital video.
    The reasons I used Flash (rather than QuickTime, or Java, of any other
software) as a stand-in for a larger phenomenon I am addressing in the text
are the following: [ 1 ] the existence of a strong, large, highly visible,
and dynamic subculture around Flash - almost a movement - something that I
have not seen develop around other software programs); [ 2 ] on the Web it
is Flash projects that exemplify "soft modernism" aesthetics one can now
finds across new media art landscape (for instance, works by Lisa Jevbratt,
John Simon, and Golan Levin that I refered to in footnote 2 of posting 1/3);
[ 3 ] finally, my text developed in response to the request by Miltos
Manetas to write something for his current show www.whitneybiennial.com
which consists solely from Flash pieces (see footnote 3 of posting 1/3).
    Of course, now that the new release of Flash (Flash MX) allows for
import and streaming of video, it is possible that soon "Flash generation" /
"soft modernism" aesthetics will leave Flash sites.  This is fine. Again, my
concern is NOT  with Flash software and its limitations/capabilities per ce,
but with the new sensibility that during the last couple of years manifested
in many Flash projects. In other words, I am interested in "generation
Flash" that is quite diffirent from Flash software/format.
    Therefore the number of people who after reading my text accused me of
confusing a technical standard with an aesthetics missed my argument . The
vector oriented look of "soft modernism" is not simply a result of narrow
bandwidth or a nostalgia for 1960s design - it ALWAYS happens when people
begin to generate graphics through programming and discover that they can
use simple equitations, etc. For instance at UCSD we teach a course in
graphics programs (using C and OpenGL) to our computer arts students, and
what the students typically end up creating are vector animations. This is
also why "soft modernism" of Flash projects and other software artists
replays, sometimes in amazing detail, the aesthetics of early computer art
(1950s-1970s) when people were only able to create images and animations
through programming.

Flash vs. QuickTime: "A Personal Dynamic Medium"
I also agree with your statement that "There is no reason that software arts
cannon use/create 'images' in the narrowly defined sense of 'pictures,' or
any other form we identify from our experiences with so-called old-media."
It was not accidental that soon after his arrival at Xerox PARC in the
1970s, Alan Kay and his associates created a paint ptogram and an animation
program, alongside with overlapping windows, icons, Smalltalk and other
principes of modern interactive grapphical computing. The ability to
manipulate and generate media are not after-thoughts to a modern computer -
they are central to its identity as a "personal dynamic medium" (Alan Kay.)
To put his diffirently:  computer is a simulation machine, and as such it
can and should be used to simulate other media.
    So I have nothing software artists using/creating media, but I hope
that "Flash generation" will extend its programming work to representational
media! In other words, if in the early 1970s the paint program and the
animation program were revolutionary in changing people idea about a
computer away from computation and towards a (creative) medium, after almost
two decades of menu based media manipulation programs and the use of
computers as media distribution machine (greatly accelerated by World Wide
Web), a little programming can be quite revolutionary! In short, we have now
are so used to think of a computer as a "personal dynamic medium," that we
need to remind ourselves and others that it is also a programmable machine.
    Now, think about how programming has been used so far to create/use
still images, animation and film/video. There are three trajectories that
can be traced historically. One trajectory extends from the earliest works
of computer art - the films by the Whitneys made with an analog computer
already in the mid 1950s (who were the students fof Oscar Fishinger and thus
represent a direct link with the early twentieth century modernism) - to
today's "soft modernism" of Flash projects and data visualisation artworks.
In other words, this is the use of programming to generate and control
abstract images. 
    The second trajectory begins in the 1980s when Hollywood and TV
designers started to use computer-generated imagery (CGI). Now, programming
was put in the service of traditional cinematic realism. Paricle systems,
formal grammars, AI and other software techniques became the means to
generate flying bats, hilly landscapes, ocean waves, explositions, alien
creatures, and other figurative elements intergrated in a photorealistic
universe of a narrative film.
    What about using algorithms not simply to generate figurative elements
of a narrative but to control the whole fictional universe? This is the
third trajectory: programming in computer games (1960-). Here algorithms may
control the narrative events, the behavior of characters, camera movement,
and other characteristics of the game world - all in real time.
Unfortunately, as we all know, aesthetially revolutionary computer and
player driven game worlds feature formula-driven content that makes even  a
bad Hollywood film appear original and inspiring by comparison. (Grand Theft
Auto 3 is no exeption here - despite its breathroughs in simulating a more
compeling an open universe.)
    I think this brief survey shows that there is still an untouched space
completely open for experimentation and creative research - using
programming to generate and/or control figurative/fictional media. For
instance, in the case of a movie, programing can be used to generate
characters on the fly, to composite in real-time characters shot against a
blue screen with backgrounds, to control the sequence of scenes, to apply
filters to any scene in real-time, to combine pre-recorded scene with on the
imagery generated on the fly, to have characters interact with the viewer,
etc, etc. In short, programming can be used to control ANY aspect of a
fictional media work.
    Of course, once in a while one encounters projects moving in this
direction at places like SIGGRAPH or ISEA, but they are typically research
demos created in Universities that do not reach culture at large. Of course,
you can object that having an algorithmatically controlled complex fictional
universe requires the kind of programming investment only possible in a
commercial game company or in a University. After all, this is not the same
as writing a script that draws a few lines that keep moving in response to
user input...yes, but why our fictional/figurative works have to follow the
formulas of commercial media? If one accepts that the characters do not have
to be "photorealistic," that the fictional world does not have to be
exclusively three-dimensional, that chance and randmness can co-exist with
narrative logic, or that stick figures can co-exist with 3-D characters and
video footage, etc., programming iguration / fiction becomes less
formidable. It can even be fun!

Let me conclude with a personal confession. While in the mid 1980s I was
programming abstract images and 3-D animations in APL, and writing my own
image processing filters for processing photographs in C, today I am much
more interested in programming fictional and/or figurative media works (in
whatever!) (Note: it is this use of figuration alongside abstraction which
draws me to the software works of John Simon.) I am on a advisory board of
AVRA project (www.thickspace.net) to create open source software for making
QuickTime manipulation via programming more accessible. Similarly, my
current project-in-development Soft Cinema is designed to show how
programming can be used to drive figurative, rather than abstract, media
generation and control  - specefically, automatic real-time editing of
digital video. In short, while I welcome programming Flash, I think it is
much more challenging to program QuickTime!


>> A software artist re-uses the language of modernist abstraction and design ­
>> lines and geometric shapes, mathematically generated curves and outlined
>> color fields ­ to get away from figuration in general, and cinematographic
>> language of commercial media in particular. Instead of photographs and clips
>> of films and TV, we get lines and abstract compositions. In short, instead
>> of QuickTime, we use Flash. Instead of computer as a media machine ­ a
>> vision being heavily promoted by computer industry (and most clearly
>> articulated by Apple who promotes a MAC as a ³digital hub² for other media
>> recording / playing devices), we go back to computer as a programming
>> machine.
>> Programming liberates art from being secondary to commercial media. The
>> similar reason may be behind the recent popularity of ³sound art.² While
>> commercial media now uses every possible visual style, commercial sound
>> environments still have not appropriated all of sound space. While rock and
>> roll, hip-hop, and techno have already become standard elevator music (at
>> least in more hip elevators such as the Hudson Hotel in NYC), it seems that
>> the rhythm-less regions of sound space are still untouched ­ at least for
>> now.
> Lev,
> I don't know that programming is as liberatory as is stated here. If
> anything, programming holds the possibility of involving one in a different
> set of relations to product(ion), as well as to a different class of
> worker. I've made some references to this other relation elsewhere.
> Mentioning Flash already seems to undermine this libertine vision you want
> to advance. Although the Flash spec were released by Macromedia a few years
> ago, and is considered "open," as far as I understand it people working
> with Flash are still very much using the tools provided by a Macromedia. I
> have seen very limited software libraries written in Java and C (one by
> Paul Haberli) which allow C programmers (and at some point Java programmers
> too) to create Flash-generated imagery on-the-fly from within their C
> programs, but I get the sense that this type of programming is not what you
> mean when you talk about Flash. Flash remains essentially "media," as you
> define it, much as Quicktime. I don't think that scripting separates it
> from being so. For that matter, some "programming" is also possible using
> Quicktime. In many ways, for programmers, Quicktime is much more useful
> because Apple provides an extensive C library through which to access its
> functionality, which extends far beyond making digital videos. In fact,
> what is so interesting about Quicktime is that it is not old-media (film,
> video, sound) specific. Rather, in many ways it is more of a protocol for
> creating, playing, and delivering *time-based information*. In theory, one
> can do much more with Quicktime than what artists have tended to use it
> for. This is not simply a limitation of Quicktime, but of artists as well.
> Mostly of artists and the systems within which they learn. Anyway, one can
> also access Quicktime from within Java, as Apple has made a set of classes
> for doing that easily: Quicktime for Java. I am not defending Quicktime,
> simply pointing out some problematic issues in the distinctions you are
> making between programming and media.
> I also think that many non-artist programmers would resist referring to
> Flash as a programming language. Well, they would giggle. Programmers tend
> to think of C/C++, Fortran, Basic, Java as their materials. To be sure,
> there is a bravura at work there. Programmers tend to work with programming
> systems or libraries in order to create their applications, but Flash still
> seems very much tied to the development environment Macromedia sells.
> Furthermore, this issue of liberation through programming seems somewhat
> more Romantic than it needs to be. One of the linguistic issues which
> programming languages have made so apparent is the citational dimension of
> all languages, be they social, mathematical, or programmatic. "A software
> artist re-uses the language of modernist abstraction and design ­
> lines and geometric shapes ...." Similarly, programmers very often learn to
> program by copying and modifying other programs and, on a more abstract
> level, algorithms. (Beth Stryker and I delivered a paper earlier this year
> at CAA in Philadelphia which sketched out some relations between
> programming algorithms and notions of space and representation in general.)
> Advanced programmers use these same techniques. They also utilize software
> libraries (talked about earlier in the case of Quicktime) which contain
> code which can be referenced ("called") from within one's (own) code. In
> other words, programmers are always already indebted to other programmers.
> The whole GNU project depends on this structure of debt. I don't disagree
> that there is an element of liberation to be studied here, but it is not a
> simple one, and certainly not one that is merely oppositional.
> While it is true that Flash currently is implemented upon a vector-based
> set of routines, your use of its attributes to characterize all software
> art is simply synecdoche.
> "A software artist re-uses the language of modernist abstraction and design ­
> lines and geometric shapes, mathematically generated curves and outlined
> color fields ­ to get away from figuration in general, and cinematographic
> language of commercial media in particular. Instead of photographs and clips
> of films and TV, we get lines and abstract compositions. In short, instead
> of QuickTime, we use Flash."
> There is no reason that software art cannon use/create "images" in the
> narrowly defined sense of "pictures," or any other form we identify from
> our experiences with so-called old-media. Through software one can create
> images or effect any number of sensuous phenomena. Your position vis-a-vis
> the "modernism" effected by the Flash protocol, which is designed to
> deliver compressed animation over relatively narrow bandwidth seems to me
> mistakes technological limitations for an iconoclastic morality.
> Sawad

Prof. Lev Manovich
University of California San Diego, Visual Arts Department, 0084,
9500 Gilman Drive, La Jolla, CA 92093-0084, U.S.A

URL: www.manovich.net
Email: manovich@ucsd.edu
+1 (858) 8221012


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