Florian Cramer on Fri, 7 Jun 2002 00:52:34 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> Concepts, Notations, Software, Art

[Note: This paper was written for the catalogue of read_me 1.2/Moscow
and is also reprinted in the user manual of Signwave Auto Illustrator. -
It's an both an update on an older paper on software art I wrote with
Ulrike Gabriel & attempt to clarify (a) what 'software [art]' is and (b)
how software art may differ from older generative art. - The paper is
also available at:

$Id: concepts_notations_software_art.tex,v 1.1 2002/03/25 01:09:31 paragram Exp $

Concepts, Notations, Software, Art

Florian Cramer

c/o Freie Universität Berlin
Seminar für Allgemeine und Vergleichende Literaturwissenschaft
Hüttenweg 9
D-14195 Berlin

March 23rd, 2002

Software and Concept Notations

Software in the Arts

To date, critics and scholars in the arts and humanities have considered
computers primarily as storage and display media, as something which transmits
and reformats images, sound and typography. Reflection of the as such invisible
layer of software is rare. Likewise, the term ``digital art'' has been
associated primarily with digital images, music or audiovisual installations
using digital technology. The software which controls the audio and the visuals
is frequently neglected, working as a black box behind the scenes.
``Interactive'' room installations, for example, get perceived as a
interactions of a viewer, an exhibition space and an image projection, not as
systems running on code. This observation all the more applies to works in
which it is not obvious at all that their production relied on programmation
and computing. John Cage's 1981 radio play ``Roaratorio'', for example, appears
to be a tape montage of a spoken text based on James Joyce's ``Finnegans
Wake'', environmental sounds recorded in several cities of the world and Irish
folk music, edited with analog recording technology. Yet at the same time it is
an algorithmic artwork; the spoken text was extracted from the novel using a
purely syntactical, formal method (mesostychs of the name ``James Joyce''), and
the montage was done according to a random score generated on a computer at the
Parisian IRCAM studios. While the book-plus-CD set of ``Roarotorio'' documents
the whole composition extensively, containing the audio piece itself, a
recording and a reprint of John Cage's reading, a recording and a reprint of an
interview, an inventory of the cities where sound was recorded, it includes the
computer-generated score itself only in a one-page excerpt and nothing at all
of the computer program code which generated the random score.{1}

The history of the digital and computer-aided arts could be told as a history
of ignorance against programming and programmers. Computer programs get locked
into black boxes, and programmers are frequently considered to be mere factota,
coding slaves who execute other artist's concepts. Given that software code is
a conceptual notation, this is not without its own irony. In fact, it is a
straight continuation of romanticist philosophy and its privileging of
aisthesis (perception) over poeisis (construction),{2} cheapened into a
restrained concept of art as only that what is tactile, audible and visible.
The digital arts themselves participate in this accomplicity when they call
themselves [new] ``media art''. There's nothing older than ``new media'', a
term which is little more than a superficial justification for lumping together
a bunch of largely unrelated technologies, such as analog video and computing,
just because they were ``new'' at a particular time. If one defines as a medium
something that it is between a sender and a receiver, then computers are not
only media, but also senders and receivers which themselves are capable of
writing and reading, interpreting and composing messages within the limitations
of the rule sets inscribed into them. The computer programs for example which
calculate the credit line of checking accounts or control medical instruments
in an emergency station can't be meaningfully called ``media''. If at all,
computer processes become ``media'' only by the virtue that computers can
emulate any machine, including all technical media, and by the virtue of the
analog interfaces which transform the digital zeros and ones into analog sound
waves, video signals, print type and vice versa.

A Crash Course in Programming

A piece of software is a set of formal instructions, or, algorithms; it is a
logical score put down in a code. It doesn't matter at all which particular
sign system is used as long as it is a code, whether digital zeros and ones,
the Latin alphabet, Morse code or, like in a processor chip, an exactly defined
set of registers controlling discrete currents of electricity. If a piece of
software is a score, is it then by definition an outline, a blueprint of an
executed work?

Imagine a Dadaist poem which makes random variations of Hugo Ball's sound poem
``Karawane'' (``Caravan''):

    jolifanto bambla ô falli bambla
    grossiga m'pfa habla horem
    égiga goramen
    higo bloiko russula huju
    hollaka hollala
    anlogo bung
    blago bung
    blago bung
    bosso fataka
    ü üü ü
    schampa wulla wussa ólobo
    hej taat gôrem
    eschige zunbada
    wulebu ssubudu uluw ssubudu
    tumba ba-umpf
The new Dada poem could simply consists of eight variations of the line ``tumba
ba-umpf''. The author/performer could throw a coin twice for each line and,
depending on the result, choose to write down either the word ``tumba'' or
``ba-umpf'', so that the result would look like:

    tumba tumba
    ba-umpf tumba
    tumba ba-umpf
    tumba ba-umpf
    ba-umpf ba-umpf
    ba-umpf tumba
    tumba ba-umpf
    tumba ba-umpf

The instruction code for this poem could be written as follows:

 1. Take a coin of any kind with two distinct sides.
 2. Repeat the following set of instructions eight times:
     a. Repeat the following set of instructions twice:
         i. Throw the coin.
        ii. Catch it with your palm so that it lands on one side.
        iii. If the coin shows the upper side, do the following:
              # Say "tumba"
        iv. Else do the following:
              # Say "ba-umpf"
     b. Make a brief pause to indicate the end of the line.
 3. Make a long pause to indicate the end of the poem.

Since these instructions are formal and precise enough to be as well executed
by a machine (imagine this poem implemented into a modified cuckoo clock), they
can be translated line by line into a computer program. Just as the above
instruction looks different depending on the language it is written in, a
computer program looks different depending on the programming language used.
Here I choose the popular language ``Perl'' whose basic instructions are rather
simple to read:

for $lines (1 .. 8) 
         for $word (1 .. 2) 
                  $random_number = int(rand(2));
                  if ($random_number == 0) 
                           print "tumba"
                           print "ba-umpf"
                  print " "
         print "\n"

The curly brackets enclose statement blocks executed under certain conditions,
the $ prefix designates a variable which can store arbitrary letters or
numbers, the ``rand(2)'' function generates a random value between 0 and 1.9,
``int'' rounds its result to either zero or one, `` '' stands for a blank, ``
n'' for a line break. This program can be run on virtually any computer; it is
a simple piece of software. Complex pieces of software, such as computer
operating systems or even computer games, differ from the above only in the
complexity of their instructions. The control structures - variable
assignments, loops, conditional statements - are similar in all programming

Unlike in the instruction for throwing coins, the artists' work is done once
the code is written. A computer program is a blueprint and its execution at the
same time. Like a pianola roll, it is a score performing itself. The artistic
fascination of computer programming - and the perhaps ecstatic revelation of
any first-time programmer - is the equivalence of architecture and building,
the instant gratification given once the concept has been finished. Computer
programming collapses, as it seems, the second and third of the three steps of
concept, concept notation and execution.

Contrary to conventional data like digitized images, sound and text documents,
the algorithmic instruction code allows a generative process. It uses computers
for computation, not only as storage and transmission media. And this precisely
distinguishes program code from non-algorithmic digital code, describing for
example the difference between algorithmic composition on the one hand and
audio CDs/mp3 files on the other, between algorithmically generated text and
``hypertext'' (a random access database model which as such doesn't require
algorithmic computation at all), or between a graphical computer ``demo'' and a
video tape. Although one can of course use computers without programming them,
it is impossible not to use programs at all; the question only is who programs.
There is, after all, no such thing as data without programs, and hence no
digital arts without the software layers they either take for granted, or
design themselves.

To discuss ``software art'' simply means to not take software for granted, but
pay attention to how and by whom programs were written. If data doesn't exist
without programs, it follows that the separation of processed ``data'' (like
image and sound files) from ``programs'' is simply a convention. Instead, data
could be directly embedded into the algorithms used for its transmission and
output to external devices. Since a ``digital photograph'' for example is
bit-mapped information algorithmically transformed into the electricity
controlling a screen or printer, via algorithmic abstraction layers in the
computer operating system, it follows that it could just as well be coded into
a file which contains the whole transformation algorithms themselves so that
the image would display itself even on a computer that provides no operating

Software Art

Executable Code in Art

If software is generally defined as executable formal instructions, logical
scores, then the concept of software is by no means limited to formal
instructions for computers. The first, English-language notation of the Dadaist
poem qualifies as software just as much as the three notations in the Perl
programming language. The instructions only have to meet the requirement of
being executable by a human being as well as by a machine. A piano score, even
a 19th century one, is software when its instruction code can be executed by a
human pianist as well as on a player piano.

The Perl code of the Dada poem can be read and executed even without running it
on machines. So my argument is quite contrary to Friedrich Kittler's media
theory according to which there is either no software at all or at least no
software without the hardware it runs on:{4} If any algorithm can be executed
mentally, as it was common before computers were invented, then of course
software can exist and run without hardware. - A good example are programming
handbooks. Although they chiefly consist of printed computer code, this code
gets rarely ever executed on machines, but provides examples which readers
follow intellectually, following the code listings step by step and computing
them in their minds.

Instead of adapting Dadaist poetry as software, one could regard some
historical Dadaist works as software right away; above all, Tristan Tzara's
generic instruction for writing Dada poems by shuffling the words of a
newspaper article{5}:

    To make a Dadaist poem:
    Take a newspaper.
    Take a pair of scissors.
    Choose an article as long as you are planning to make your poem. Cut out
    the article.
    Then cut out each of the words that make up this article and put them in a
    Shake it gently.
    Then take out the scraps one after the other in the order in which they
    left the bag.
    Copy conscientiously.
    The poem will be like you.
    And here you are a writer, infinitely original and endowed with a
    sensibility that is charming though beyond the understanding of the vulgar.

The poem is effectively an algorithm, a piece of software which may as well be
written as a computer program.{6}. If Tzara's process would be adapted as Perl
or C code from the original French, it wouldn't be a transcription of something
into software, but a transcription of non-machine software into machine

Concept Art and Software Art

The question of what software is and how it relates to non-electronic
contemporary art is at least thirty-two years old. In 1970, the art critic and
theorist Jack Burnham curated an exhibition called "Software" at the Jewish
Museum of New York which today is believed to be first show of concept art. It
featured installations of US-American concept artists next installations of
computer software Burnham found interesting, such as the first prototype of Ted
Nelson's hypertext system ``Xanadu''. Concept art as an art ``of which the
material is `concepts,' as the material of for ex. music is sound'' (Henry
Flynt's definition from 1961{7}) and software art as an art whose material is
formal instruction code seem to have at least two things in common:

 1. the collapsing of concept notation and execution into one piece;
 2. the use of language; instructions in software art, concepts in concept art.
    Flynt observes: ``Since `concepts' are closely bound up with language,
    concept art is a kind of art of which the material is language''.{8}
    It therefore is not accidental that the most examples of pre-electronic
    software art cited here are literary. Literature is a conceptual art in
    that is not bound to objects and sites, but only to language. The trouble
    the art world has with net.art because it does not display well in
    exhibition spaces is foreign to literature which always differentiated
    between an artwork and its material appearance.
    Since formal language is a language, software can be seen and read as a
If concepts become, to quote Flynt again, artistic``material'', then concept
art differs from other art in that it actually exposes concepts, putting their
notations up front as the artwork proper. In analogy, software art in
particular differs from software-based art in general in that it exposes its
instructions and codedness. Since formal instructions are a subset of
conceptual notations, software art is, formally, a subset of conceptual art.

My favorite example of both concept art in Flynt's sense and non-computer
software art is La Monte Young's ``Composition 1961'', a piece of paper
containing the written instruction ``Draw a straight line and follow it''. The
instruction is unambiguous enough to be executed by a machine. At the same
time, a thorough execution is physically impossible. So the reality of piece is
mental, conceptual.

The same duplicity of concept notation and executable code exists in Sol
LeWitt's 1971 ``Plan for a Concept Art Book'', a series of book pages giving
the reader exact instructions to draw lines on them or strike out specific
letters.{10} LeWitt's piece exemplifies that the art called concept art since
the 1970s was by far not as rigorous as the older concept art of Henry Flynt,
La Monte Young and Christer Hennix: While the ``Composition 1961'' is a concept
notation creating an artwork that itself exists only as a concept, mentally,
LeWitt's ``Plan for a Concept Art Book'' only is a concept notation of a
material, graphic artwork. Unlike the concept art ``of which the material is
`concepts''', LeWitt's piece belongs to a concept art that rather should be
called a concept notation art or ``blueprint art''; an art whose material is
graphics and objects, but which was instead realized in the form of a score. By
thus reducing its its own material complexity, the artwork appears to be
``minimalist'' rather than rigorously conceptualist.

A writing which writes itself, LeWitt's ``Plan'' could also be seen in a
historical continuity of combinatory language speculations: From the
permutational algorithms in the Sefer Jezirah and ecstatic Kabbalah to the
medieval ``ars'' of Raimundus Lullus to 17th century permutational poetry and
Mallarmé's ``Livre''. The combinatory most complex known permutation poem,
Quirinus Kuhlmann's 1771 sonnet ``Vom Wechsel menschlicher Sachen'' consists of
13*12 nouns can be arbitrarily shuffled so that they result in 10114
permutations of the text.{11} Kuhlmann's and La Monte Young's software arts
meet in their aesthetic extremism; in an afterword, Kuhlmann claims that there
are more permutations of his poem than grains of sand on the earth.{12} If such
implications lurk in code, a formal analysis is not enough. Concept art
potentially means terror of the concept, software art terror of the algorithm;
a terror grounded in the simultaneity of minimalist concept notation and
totalitarian execution, helped by the fact that software collapses the concept
notation and execution in the single medium of instruction code. - Sade's ``120
days of Sodom'' could be read as a recursive programming of excess and its
simultaneous reflection in the medium of prose.{13} The popularity of spamming
and denial-of-service code in the contemporary digital arts is another
practical proof of the perverse double-bind between software minimalism and
self-inflation; the software art pieces awarded at the transmediale.02
festival, ``tracenoizer'' and ``forkbomb.pl'' also belong to this category.

La Monte Young's ``Composition 1961'' not only provokes to rethink what
software and software art is. Being the first and still most elegant example of
all artistic jamming and denial-of-service code, it also addresses the
aesthetics and politics coded into instructions. Two years before Burnham's
``Software'' exhibition, the computer scientist Donald E. Knuth published the
first volume of his famous textbook on computer programming, ``The Art of
Computer Programming''.{14} Knuth's wording has adopted in what Steven Levy
calls the hacker credo that ``you can create art and beauty with computers''.
{15} It is telling that hackers, otherwise an avant-garde of a broad cultural
understanding of digital technology, rehash a late-18th century classicist
notion of art as beauty, rewriting it into a concept of digital art as inner
beauty and elegance of code. But such aesthetic conservativism is widespread in
engineering and hard-science cultures; fractal graphics are just one example of
Neo-Pythagorean digital kitsch they promote. 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

Above all, software art today no longer writes its programs out of nothing, but
works within an abundance of available software code. This makes it distinct
from works like Tzara's Dada poem which, all the while it addresses an
abundance of mass media information, contaminates only the data, not its
algorithm; the words become a collage, but the process remains a synthetic
clean-room construct.

Since personal computers and the Internet became popular, software code in
addition to data has come to circulate in abundance. One thus could say that
contemporary software art operates in a postmodern condition in which it takes
pre-existing software as material - reflecting, manipulating and
recontextualizing it. The ``mezangelle'' writing of mez, an Australian net
artist, for example uses software and protocol code as material for writings in
a self-invented hybrid of English and pseudo-code. Her ``net.wurks'' are an
unclean, broken software art; instead of constructing program code
synthetically, they use readymade computations, take them apart and read their
syntax as gendered semantics. In similar fashion, much software art plays with
control parameters of software. Software artworks like Joan Leandre's
``retroyou'' and ``Screen Saver'' by Eldar Karhalev and Ivan Khimin are simply
surprising, mind-challenging disconfigurations of commercial user software: a
car racing game, the Microsoft Windows desktop interface. They manage to put
their target software upside down although their interventions are technically
simple and don't involve low-level programming at all.

Software Formalism vs. Software Culturalism

Much of what is discussed as contemporary software art and discourse on has its
origin in two semi-coherent London-based groups. The older one around Matthew
Fuller, Graham Harwood and the groups I/O/D and Mongrel is known, among others,
for the experimental web browser ``WebStalker'', which instead of formatted
pages displays their source code and link structures, the ``Linker'', a piece
of ``social software'' (to use a term by Fuller) designed to empower
non-literate users to design their own digital information systems, and
``natural selection'', a politically manipulated web search engine. Fuller also
wrote a scrupulous cultural analysis of Microsoft Word's user interface and an
essay with the programmatic title ``Software as Culture''. The other group
involves the programmer-artists Adrian Ward (whose ``Auto-Illustrator'' won the
transmediale.01 software art prize) and Alex McLean (whose ``forkbomb.pl'' won
the transmediale.02 software art prize), the theoretician Geoff Cox and
participants in the mailing list ``eu-gene'', the web site http://
www.generative.net and the ``DorkBot'' gatherings in London (which involve
poetry readings of program code). Both groups take exactly opposite standpoints
to software art and software criticism: While Fuller/Harwood regard software as
first of all a cultural, politically coded construct, the eu-gene group rather
focuses on the formal poetics and aesthetics of software code and individual
subjectivity expressed in algorithms.

If software art could be generally defined as an art

  * of which the material is formal instruction code, and/or
  * which addresses cultural concepts of software,

then each of their positions sides with exactly one of the two aspects. If
Software Art would be reduced to only the first, one would risk ending up a
with a neo-classicist understanding of software art as beautiful and elegant
code along the lines of Knuth and Levy. Reduced on the other hand to only the
cultural aspect, Software Art could end up being a critical footnote to
Microsoft desktop computing, potentially overlooking its speculative potential
at formal experimentation. Formal reflections of software are, like in this
text, inevitable if one considers common-sense notions of software a problem
rather than a point of departure; histories of instruction codes in art and
investigations into the relationship of software, text and language still
remain to be written.


    John Cage. Roaratorio. Ein irischer Circus über Finnegans Wake. Athenäum,
    Königstein/Taunus, 1982.
    Geoff Cox, Adrian Ward, and Alex McLean. The Aesthetics of Generative Code,
    2001. http://www.generative.net/papers/aesthetics/index.html.
    Henry Flynt. Concept art. In La Monte Young and Jackson MacLow, editors, An
    Anthology. Young and MacLow, New York, 1963 (1961).
    Klaus Honnef, editor. Concept Art. Phaidon, Köln, 1971).
    Friedrich Kittler. There is no software, 1991. http://textz.gnutenberg.net/
    Quirinus Kuhlmann. Himmlische Libes=küsse. ?, Jena, 1671.
    Steven Levy. Hackers. Project Gutenberg, Champaign, IL, 1986 (1984).
    Abraham A. Moles. Kunst und Computer. DuMont, Köln, 1973 (1971).
    Tristan Tzara. Pour fair une poème dadaïste. In Oeuvres complètes.
    Gallimard, Paris, 1975.

©This document can be freely copied and used according to the terms of the Open
Publication License http://www.opencontent.org/openpub


{1} [Cag82] - Regarding randomness generated with computers, the software
artist Ulrike Gabriel says that it doesn't exist because the machine as a fact
by itself is not accidental.

{2} A similar angle is taken in the paper ``The Aesthetic of Generative Code''
by Geoff Cox, Adrian Ward and Alex McLean, [CWM01]

{3} I would not be surprised if in a near future the media industry would embed
audiovisual data (like a musical recording) directly into proprietary one-chip
hardware players to prevent digital copies.

{4} [Kit91]

{5} [Tza75]

{6} My own Perl CGI adaption is available under "http://userpage.fu-berlin.de/

{7} [Fly61]

{8} ibid.

{9} But since formal language is only a small subset of language as a whole,
conclusions drawn from observing software code can't be generally applied to
all literature.

{10} [Hon71], p. 132-140

{11} [Kuh71]

{12} ibid.

{13} As Abraham M. Moles noticed already in 1971, [Mol71], p. 124

{14} knuth:art

{15} according Steven Levy [Lev84]; among those who explicitly subscribe to
this is the German Chaos Computer Club with its annual ``art and beauty

{16} which is why I think would be wrong to (a) restrict software art to only
properly running code and (b) exclude, for political reasons, proprietary and
other questionably licensed software from software art presentations.

"*star[.dot]*star" <netwurker@hotkey.net.au>, [dis|in|con|verse|vective|text]

         [.      s.(mike)hunt.ing............................................]

         ::burst[ing].thru.yr. ][drenched][ groomed (as per)fumed n.odes

[f][ye ][old.ing body weaponed plague singe.rs//polarised 
tag.cocked*flicking//autho(g)r.it(t)y stances in poser ta(c)[tile]unts]

         ::in.Verse inve.C][li][t.ories

[n.gauging d.ream.bouy & life 
][pre][serve.her.grr(ow!)l//s.tam(e)ping.my.blistering.context.foot(er vs 

         ::context dynam][j][ism][ick!][ ah.lur][ch][t

[clik shi(rt)f][lif][ters & 

.           .    ....         .....
blind [t]rusting.txt
.... .               .???  .......

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