Josephine Bosma on Tue, 12 Nov 2002 10:36:01 +0100 (CET)

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[Nettime-bold] software art and perl poetry: Graham Harwood and William Blake

Hello all,

It's been a while since I posted anything to nettime, but the following
seemed quite appropriate for it, since it touches on so many issues
presented at nettime. This is a lecture I gave at Electrohype, a
relatively 'young' new media art festival held in Malmo, Sweden. This
edition was the second one, dedicated to software art. The festival was
surprisingly good, especially the audience, which was enthusiastic,
aware and smart. It was a pleasure to be there, and I hope the following
years will bring more good meetings in Malmo for everyone involved. I
decided to present something which impressed me greatly when the artist
who made it showed it to me last summer. 'Lungs' is a work in progress
by Graham Harwood, now also accessible via his main site It
is best to have the following pages opened while reading this text, so
you can switch from text to code to 'artistic application' from time to



software art and poetry

presenting an adaptation of William Blake's 'London' by Graham Harwood

I have to admit that when I first heard about 'software art' I was a bit 
skeptical about it. Why invent a new term for something which is in fact 
already part of older notions of art, like net art, media art or digital 
art? But then again, net art is closely related to media art and so is 
digital art. Often different terms do point at the same or similar art 
practices. We simply need to be able to address quite specific aspects 
of new media art practices clearly and we need to be able to focus on 
details of those same practices. We are entangled in a mesh of 
terminology, a labyrinth of words, through which we have to communicate 
our experiences to others. Like software art is now becoming a way to 
reveal and emphasize the deeper meaning and workings of digital art, net 
art and media art, so does the language we use to discuss it serve as a 
way to reveal and emphasize the connections between all present day 
media art practices and art at large. Software art and a focus on code 
helps us to see and to show an aspect of art which, after a strong 
presence in the 1960s and 1970s, has become slightly obscured again in
the last two decades: the close relationship between art concept and the
art work itself, or in other words: the connection between our use of
language and our art practices. The domination of the visual in the arts
is once again opposed, yet often in a less conscious way then in the
conceptual arts of the sixties and seventies.

It is an age old battle, the philosophical battle between the material 
and the immaterial, the struggle with the question what is more 
important: that which we see or that which is (mostly) invisible. This 
is not just a philosophical issue though, it is most of all a matter of 
knowledge and therefore also of science. The importance of hidden or 
obscure matters depends on our knowledge about it. We gain knowledge 
through experience and through education. Most of the knowledge we have 
of things 'invisible', be it about for example atoms, the universe or 
evolution, is taught to us through education and not through personal 
experience. We trust our teachers and scientists, and we accept what 
they say. We base judgments on what we know through mental experience of 
a history of science, not just on what we actually see for ourselves. 
One could maybe say knowledge is a way of seeing without eyes, a way of 
seeing things internally, a way of being able to envision things and 
situations. Knowledge is therefore partly dependent on our imagination. 
It is related to the imaginary, because a lot of knowledge, like the 
imaginary, depends on our capacity to experience something with our 
minds alone. In daily life our mental and our physical experiences 
become one. When we experience an art work, we depend for judgment of it 
on both our mental and physical experiences of earlier encounters with 
art. The theoretical, historical and conceptual context of art is part 
of our experience of art. With digital art, net art, media art or 
software art we still do not have enough of both the mental and the 
physical experience to make a sound judgment of these art practices. We 
lack an internal experience with these art practices most of all though. 
We have not met enough with the minds of the makers yet.

With the computer we have (if we follow the imagination of Marshall
McLuhan for a moment) created an extension of our brain that helps us
with many of our brain's functions, but not with all. The computer can 
help us remember, it can help us calculate and it can help us connect 
and exchange information. When following the lead of the computer's 
primary functions some artists can easily get stuck in a quite formal 
approach of art. In fact, a lot of so called digital art explores and 
admires the beauty of the computer's calculations and processes, like 
for example the popular fractal art. In his text for the catalogue of 
the Read_Me festival in Moscow the German writer and software art critic 
Florian Cramer writes: "..such aesthetic conservatism is widespread in 
engineering and hard-science cultures; fractal graphics are just one 
example of Neo-Pythagorean digital kitsch they promote." To reach beyond 
the level of predictability, decoration and kitsch when using a computer 
within an art process asks not just for knowledge of the way a computer 
works, but it asks first of all for creativity and imagination. Florian 
Cramer then continues: "As a contemporary art, the aesthetics of 
software art includes ugliness and monstrosity just as much as beauty, 
not to mention plain dysfunctionality, pretension and political 
incorrectness." In other words, it asks for human rather then 
technological complexity.

Earlier in this lecture I made a connection between the use of language 
and the use of code, or rather the relationship between creating meaning 
with language and creating actions and objects with programming. What 
interests me very much is that we discuss this topic inside a complex 
structure of code and meaning, namely the internet and the developing 
structures of media art institutions and criticism connected to the 
internet. In some ways the discourse around software art has replaced or 
taken over the critical debate around art in networks. The focus on code 
rather then a focus on the network is once again forcing people to pay 
attention to deeper complexities of technology and culture, instead of 
gazing away at the hypnotizing shine of on screen fashions in visual 
design. But like with net art, software art suffers a bit from the 
expectations that seem to accompany any development in media art almost 
by default: that of an inherent technological innovation being part of 
media art practice. People tend to think technological skill and 
innovation are at the basis of electronic art always (and the value of a 
media art work is in their eyes also connected to the novelty it 
represents), but personal media, and especially video camera's, cheap 
sound recording tools, personal computers and the internet, have 
'de-professionalized' the usage of electronic media to the extend that 
most contemporary art practices, be they expressionist, conceptual or 
formal, are quite easily combined with the use of electronic media. In a 
correspondence I had with Florian Cramer before this conference he says 
the same about the essence of new media, computer code: "Since networked 
computers have become as a mass commodity, code is no longer a 
clean-room construct, but flows in abundance and of course can be 
artistically used also in ways that would have scandalized everyone from 
Pythagoras to Donald Knuth, i.e. in incorrect, ugly, eclectic and 
whatever fashion."
Like with painting, sculpture or performance the value of a media art 
work does not necessarily lie in its innovative character at all, but it 
lies in its artistic value, just like with any other art work.

Artists can make complex works with electronic media nowadays without 
too much trouble, yet media art works are still approached from an angle 
of design (a combination of aesthetics and skill) mostly, which in turn 
makes potential new media artists, art professionals and art audiences 
shy away from them unnecessarily. For the Jodi exhibition at the Plug In 
gallery in Basel I was in contact with Joan Heemskerk and Dirk Paesmans. 
To help me write a text about their way of working for the catalogue 
they told me some fascinating stories about their work and the way they 
see themselves.  What was most interesting for me was that Jodi are, 
like some other net artists (Heath Bunting, Alexei Shulgin), absolutely 
not interested in presenting their work as a result of technical skill, 
on the contrary! Inspired by the programmers' term 'cargo cult code' 
they turned the negative interpretation of this term by programmers 
(namely: unskillful and messy coding) upside down to use it to their 
advantage. Taking the original meaning of the term 'cargo cult' they see 
themselves as artists -mimicking- the old notion of media art, evoking 
media art 'support' and acceptance for their work without actually 
following its rules. The work of Jodi is like the work of many present 
day media artists, much more intuitive and expressionist then has been 
acknowledged until now. Like Florian Cramer already said: "As a 
contemporary art, the aesthetics of software art includes ugliness and 
monstrosity just as much as beauty, not to mention plain 
dysfunctionality, pretension and political incorrectness." The 
emancipatory processes of art and their liberating effects on identity 
and personality in electronic media are also part of digital art, 
network art, media art and/or software art. Two years ago Dirk Paesmans 
stunned the rhizome mailing list with an abundance of seemingly machinic 
mails that mostly showed one crooked line scribbled over entire mails. 
At a presentation in Amsterdam Dirk Paesmans revealed these hundreds of 
mails were not computer generated, but manually created by him, one by 
one, in a sleepless night. Text, code and therefore also email has been 
very important in Jodi's work from the beginning. End of 1995 they were 
best known for mysterious, strange mails filled with a landscape of 
signs and letters. Whereas many critics have marveled over Jodi's
skillful play with web visuals and source code, they liked to compare
their work to concrete poetry.

In his own way, the artist Graham Harwood does the same. Harwood likes 
to look at art and culture from a broad, historical perspective. For 
Harwood everything is part of a bigger story, a context in which 
politics and culture can not be separated. A museum for instance is not 
just a building in which a collection of art is preserved and presented. 
As a member of Mongrel (consisting of Graham Harwood, Matsuko Yokokoji, 
Richard Pierre-Davis, Mervin Jarman and occasionally Matthew Fuller) 
Graham Harwood looked not just at the Tate Modern art collection, but 
also at the history of the building of the Tate Modern in London in a 
way the Tate Modern itself had never done before, at least not 
publicly. Suddenly the building is not just a brick structure housing 
one of the most important contemporary art collections, but it is a 
historical site built with a specific purpose: it was a prison. This
first and original purpose has inscribed itself into the building, and
has been of considerable impact on british culture at large. For Graham
Harwood and Mongrel the Tate Modern is a monument for a culture
inscribed by elitism, racism and other undemocratic forces. To them this
same culture has inscribed itself in many cultural products, also, or 
maybe -especially- in software.  

The history of software and computers is one result of centuries of 
mathematical sciences. In order to progress human kind has always 
searched for escape from chaos and confusion in the apparent, but often 
false simplicity of linearity and calculation. Hidden tendencies and 
desires behind specific types of calculation and logic only rarely get 
discussed. The pursuit of rationality and logic separated from morals or 
emotion can create monstrous events and situations. By using the 
personality and work of the 18th century poet William Blake Graham 
Harwood attempts to relive and emphasize centuries of conflicts between 
rationality and emotion. In a period of his life when he was away from 
his home country (the year 2002 he has been artist in residence at De 
Waag, in Amsterdam), Graham Harwood was inspired by Blake's poem 
'London', written in the second half of the 18th century and dealing 
with the death of poor children in an expanding London at that time. He 
started to transform the Blake poem into a perl poem (written in the 
programming language perl), at first without having a real idea about 
what the code he thus developed would or should be able to perform. In 
other words: Harwood started to sketch or write intuitively.

Harwood is floating between homesickness and home hatred. He is deeply 
affected by social issues, such as the stunning fact that even today 33% 
of all children in the UK live below the poverty level and on average 1 
child a week dies of neglect (his words). Already in 1996 he produced, 
together with his students at Artec in London, a CD-ROM called Rehearsal 
of Memory in which he dealt with the personal history of his father, who 
grew up in an orphanage after his parents did not take proper care of 
him. Images of Harwood's father and mother were also used in the 
Mongrelized Tate site. In the Blake perl poem the words of Blake are 
transformed into a code to "manipulate London". Whereas William Blake 
used his skills and imagination to create a text which would affect the 
emotional and cultural consciousness of an 18th century audience to the 
best of his abilities, Graham Harwood as Blake in the 21st century uses 
the text to perform on two levels at once: that of literature (or the 
purely imaginary) and that of physical, be it audible space.

It is the literary side of software art that deserves most of our 
attention. In the CodeDoc exhibition, launched September 2002 at the 
Whitney Museum New York, curator Christiane Paul's aim was "to create 
transparency for an artistic practice that seems to be fairly unique: in 
software art and many net art projects, the artists write a purely 
verbal 'description' of a work that ultimately reveals itself to the 
audience as visuals or a 'communication process' in the broadest sense." 
For CodeDoc "a dozen artists coded a specific assignment in a 
[programming] language of their choice and were asked to exchange the 
code with each other for comments". The exhibition, which is available 
only on line, is not just a aesthetic experience, but it is also 
educational. Christiane Paul about this aspect of the exhibition: "I'm 
quite often confronted with an audience's notion that 'the computer does 
it all' or with the dismissal of projects because they don't present 
themselves as (colorful) visual forms. People sometimes approach this 
art with the language of painting, which can only lead to profound 
misunderstandings. I believe that in order to understand an art form you 
have to understand the very basics of its practice." In the Read_Me text 
Florian Cramer puts it more bluntly: "The history of the digital and 
computer-aided arts could be told as a history of ignorance against 
programming and programmers." The on line introduction to the CodeDoc 
exhibition elaborates on what it means to look at people writing in 
programming languages and creating art with computers: "In traditional 
art forms, the 'signature' and 'voice' of an artist manifests itself in 
aesthetics of visuals and execution. Every medium may have its specific 
language but in digital art, this language has a quite literal rather 
than figurative manifestation. In software art, the visual results of 
the artwork are derived from the language of code. Languages are defined 
by grammar and complex rules and at the same time leave space for 
individual forms of creative expression. Our identity and the roles we 
play are expressed in our use of language. One might assume that the 
aesthetics of artists who write their own source code manifest 
themselves both in the code itself and its visual results". Yet, they 
cannot be separated. What distinguishes software art from other digital, 
net or media art is the conscious involvement of the code into the art 
work by the artist.

In the case of "Perl routines to Manipulate London" we can see the 
specific way Graham Harwood perceives and uses code. In an interview 
conducted for the newsletter Cream in spring 2002 Harwood reveals his 
view of technology (and an art criticism that has to deal with 
technology) in an indirect way: "One problem we have at the moment is 
that we have these beautiful systems for collecting tax, these marvelous 
giant algorithms that are able to extract money out of our pockets. They 
have a great poetic. How they work, how they configure and bring all 
these different people together and how they structure them in these big 
things. It is a huge and marvelous thing. It is a beautiful monster. And 
you want to make it work right, you want to be able to get into every 
person's pocket. You want to be able to take all this money out and 
spend it on arms and all these other things. Programmers sit there 
completely fascinated by this giant monster, this universe of taking 
tax. The thing is, you need to be able to describe that. They only do 
this because it is beautiful. People don't do things that don't have 
this kind of beauty. It is the same beauty as the pilot dropping the 
bomb on people. It is very beautiful from above. He looks down and it is 
aesthetically pleasing, it is elegant, it is powerful, it is beautiful. 
That is why he can drop the bomb. It is the same thing with the tax 
system or the social security system or all these other giant systems. 
They are all beautiful. We need to be able to critique that. The net art 
critic needs to be able to deal with that poetry. When you're dealing 
with that poetry, then the place of people making specific statements 
about these cultures has a resonance and a place. Then we are dealing 
with structures that occupy our lives. Then we have much more context I 
think." From this long quote it seems quite clear that Graham Harwood is 
admiring and maybe even taming the beast, he is full of fascination and 
horror over the (almost) perfect systems we design to run our world. 
Also Harwood's specific use of code in the presented poem here is to 
"emphasize the dryness, the coldness of code and rationalism in an 
unexpected place". It is a way to create consciousness within a routine 

In his text 'Software and Concept Notations, Software in the Arts' 
Florian Cramer describes the perl programming language as "a programming 
language of which the instruction syntax has been consciously developed 
as close to the english everyday speech as possible by its developer the 
computer linguist Larry Wall, which [means it] contains a great number 
of instruction words and leaves programmers great freedom in syntax and 
notation". Combining the freedom of the perl programming language with 
the rigidity of a mathematical approach to the actual theme or focus of 
the poem Graham Harwood is creating a comparable chilling experience for 
both the readers of the poem itself and the audience who will witness 
the actual 'physical' execution (just mark the morbidity of this 
particular computer science term in this context) of the code. The poem 
starts by describing its context, and the reason for its existence or 
development. It then continues with a method for calculating the lung 
volume of children according to class, age and height. From this lung 
volume the program then goes on to calculate the volume of air replaced 
by the last scream of the child. The amount of air replaced by all last 
screams of dying children in London from 1792 until now together will 
finally be emitted through a horn or siren, to be heard throughout

While Graham Harwood is working on it and talking about it, the Blake 
project develops further. Calculating the lung volume from dying 
children to transform their collective cry into one long audible wail, 
an almost endless scream, he started to think about an actual 
application of the code, about actually realizing the project in an 
existing city. London is not the only place where people have died from 
the results of pure greed. Being in the Netherlands Harwood started to 
think of Dutch history, in which plenty moments of shame can be found. 
 From the children in London Harwood has moved to the holocaust (in 
which 90% of all jews in the Netherlands died because of the efficiency 
of the Dutch bureaucracy) and (more recent) the massacre at Srebrenica, 
former Yugoslavia where Dutch UN soldiers found themselves unable to 
raise a finger when thousands of men were separated from their families 
and killed in a town the Dutch were supposed to protect. The 'perl 
routine to manipulate London' is turning into a morbid and frightening 
method to raise consciousness.

But it all started with Blake's London. Graham Harwood does not just 
identify with Blake because of his connection to England. He is also 
fascinated by Blake's apparent artistic resistance to the rigidity he 
perceived in the new philosophies of the late 18th century which 
culminated in the enlightenment. William Blake lived at a time when the 
work of dutch philosopher Spinoza was of great influence. Spinoza's 
philosophy (in which he reasons how God can not be separate from the 
world, but how He must in fact be in everything all the time) created a 
huge freedom of thought on the one hand, but it also created a cultural 
nihilism on the other. If everything is God, then there is no force from 
beyond us that controls everything. More importantly: there are no 
sacred, authoritative rules or laws that bind and guide us anymore.
Reason and calculation started to replace a world full of mysticism and
pure imagination. Graham Harwood sees this period in western history as
one of the most influential for western culture and the rationalism that
is inherent to it. Like he says William Blake did more then two
centuries ago, Graham Harwood aims to bring back the power of
imagination into a rational environment. The power of an internal vision
that is created by not just rationalist calculation alone. Harwood as
Blake is wrestling with the conflict in western culture between
imaginary and rational visual cultures.

Reading Harwood's 'London' is like getting trapped in a perverse 
universe of misplaced calculation. The words represent horror and the 
way they are ordered to form a piece of code, a simple routine to 
calculate one isolated aspect out of the entire human history told by 
the choice of words, has a nauseating effect on the reader. One does not 
even have to understand the perl programming language to feel a chill 
running down one's spine. At least I did. Yet this perl poem is not a 
technological novelty or innovation. This work is not a revolution of 
any order in the technological realms of media art. In fact, the first 
perl poem ever was written by the inventor of the perl programming 
language himself, Larry Wall, in 1990, 12 years ago. According to 
Florian Cramer perl poetry became very popular amongst programmers 
shortly after this. A lot of these perl poems were written in purposely 
dysfunctional code. To make the text turn against itself inside the code 
was and still is a popular and effective art form. So was and is making 
words part of program instructions, thus often giving words double 
meanings (read: sub merge my senses; ASCII art, Rekursion, Lyrik in
Programmiersprachen, Florian Cramer 2002) or emphasizing meaning inside 
the poem. Harwood does nothing of the kind. He lets the rigidity of code 
reveal itself by combining it with a very sensitive subject: the death 
of children, jews or innocent fathers and sons in former Yugoslavia. His 
is a creative innovation, a successful artistic intervention in the
realm of programming.

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