Art, and Software Art
by Lev Manovich
“software art” has emerged as the new dynamic area of
new media arts. Flash’s ActionScript, Director’s Lingo,
languages are the medium of choice of a steadily increasing number
of young artists.
software art often deals with data visualization; other areas of
creative activity include the tools for online collaborative performance
/ composition (Keystroke), DJ/VJ software, and alternatives to /
critiques of commercial software (Auto-illustrator), especially
the browsers (early classics like Netomat, Web Stalker, and many
others since then).
artists create not singular works but software environments open
for others to use (such as Alex Galloway’s Carnivore.) Stylistically,
many works implicitly reference visual modernism (John Simon seems
to be the only one so far to weave modernist references in his works
programming is cool. Suddenly, the techniques and imagery that for
two decades were associated with SIGGRAPH geek ness and were considered
bad taste – visual output of mathematical functions, particle
systems, RGB color palette – are welcomed on the plasma screens
of the gallery walls.
It is no
longer October and Wallpaper but Flash and Director manuals that
are the required read for any serious young artist.
from its early days in 1960s computer artists have always wrote
their own software. In fact, until the middle of the 1980s, writing
own software or at least using special very high-end programming
languages designed by others (such as Zgrass) was the only way to
do computer art.
is new about the recently emerged phenomenon of software art? Is
distinguish between three figures: an artist; a media artist; and
a software artist.
artist (the nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth
century) is a genius who creates from scratch, imposing the phantoms
of his imagination on the world.
have the new figure of a media artist (the 1960s – the 1980s)
that corresponds to the period of postmodernism. Of course modernist
artists also used media recording technologies such as photography
and film but they treated these technologies similar to other artistic
tools: as means to create an original and subjective view of the
postmodern media artists accept the impossibility of an original,
unmediated vision of reality; their subject matter is not reality
itself, but representation of reality by media, and the world of
these media artists not only use media technologies as tools, but
they also use the content of commercial media. A typical strategy
of a media artist is to re-photograph a newspaper photograph, or
to reedit a segment of TV show, or to isolate a scene from a Hollywood
film / TV shows and turn it into a loop (from Nam June Paik and
Dara Birnbaum to Douglas Gordon, Paul Pffefer, Jennifer and Kevin
a media artist does not have to use commercial media technologies
(photography, film, video, new media) –s/he can also use other
media, from oil paint to printing to sculpture.
artist is a parasite who leaves at the expense of the commercial
media – the result of collective craftsmanship of highly skilled
people. In addition, an artist who samples from / subverts / pokes
at commercial media can ultimately never compete with it. Instead
of a feature film, we get a single scene; instead of a complex computer
game with playability, narrative, AI, etc. we get just a critique
of its iconography.
years of media art and postmodernism have inevitably led to a reaction.
We are tired of always taking existing media as a starting point.
We are tired of being always secondary, always reacting to what
software artist – the new romantic. Instead of working exclusively
with commercial media – and instead of using commercial software
– software artist marks his/her mark on the world by writing
the original code. This act of code writing itself is very important,
regardless of what this code actually does at the end.
artist reuses 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.
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 “digital hub” for other media recording
/ playing devices), we go back to computer as a programming machine.
liberates art from being secondary to commercial media. The similar
reason may be behind the recent popularity of “sound art.”
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.