Thursday, February 14, 2008

Code and the Arts

It seems that the future of the arts has become inextricably linked to code.

This is bad. Code cannot tolerate ambiguity. Code is incomprehensible to all but the initiated. Code is unnatural, inhuman, even. It is turning us into machines.

This is good. Code gives the artist unprecedented control over both form and content. Code is language like any other, one that we may all have a responsibility to learn. Code, like Bush’s Memex, takes care of the repetitive, mechanical tasks and allows us to concentrate on being fully, creatively human.

So which is right? Good? Bad? Or are our times, as the title characters in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead would have it, “indifferent”?

Obviously, a “good or bad” normative judgment would be not only reductive, but premature. New media is still a nascent art form, and it’s too early to start fitting binary code into “right/wrong” binaries. At the moment, digital artworks are content with raising questions.

The CODeDOC website that we looked at for Wednesday asked artists to create software art in which the code itself was art. I can’t tell Java from C++, so I was unable to derive any sense of significance, or even signification, from reading the code behind the animations. The artists would annotate their work within the code, describing what each block of incomprehensible (to uninitiated me), punctuation-laden text was actually doing, and then the other artists left comments like “I think the Javascript reload is forceful and a little risky.” Excuse me? This seems like commenting on the aesthetics of Ikea instruction manuals. I’d be interested to hear what those who know more than I do (read: anything) about coding think of this.

On the other hand, Mez’s codework was fascinating – the reader can explore the plural meanings inherent in not just whole texts, but individual words. And Pold discusses the intriguing ways in which AutoIllustrator challenges our relationship with code, asking how much “transparency of interface” we’re actually willing to deal with. Press the “Don’t Push This Button” button and you’ve opened a Pandora’s Box of sounds and flashing “gibberish.”

Hayles expresses her wish that code should coexist with speech and writing in a state of harmony. I hope this will also be the case for new and old media artworks. There’s no reason we can’t have both pdfs and books, Mez and the novel, software art and painting.

Serialist composers in the early 20th-century, such as Schoenberg and Webern, claimed that the tonal system of music was outmoded, dead. But rather than supplanting that system, their experiments in twelve-tone composition have come to augment (no pun intended) pre-existing forms, creating a musical language that is richer and more expressive. We should aim for integration of new and old media in the same way.

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