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coding the software/art nexus

oliver bown

Oliver Bown is a researcher and computer music maker from London. He is currently a research fellow at the Design Lab at the University of Sydney. Previously he worked at the Centre for Electronic Media Art in Melbourne and Goldsmiths College in London. He is one half of the British electronic music duo Icarus.

screen grab from Nodal, Jon McCormack, Peter McIlwain, Aidan Lane screen grab from Nodal, Jon McCormack, Peter McIlwain, Aidan Lane
THE SHORT-LIVED CONCERT SERIES LURK, RUN BY UK COMPUTER MUSICIAN ALEX MCLEAN, HAD THE TAGLINE “SOFTWARE TO MAKE MUSIC TO DRINK BEER TO.”

Lurk, like most of McLean’s activities, elegantly draws attention to this world of burgeoning activity in enchanting language; humanising the creative use of machine instructions, reminding us that with software code, as with any other human tool, it’s what you do with it that counts. In general McLean’s writing is indicative of a new generation of individual creative coding, powered by the evolution of flexible and social software development tools.

uncharted territory

The allure of software programming is that there is so much uncharted territory. The blank code editor is like an artist’s blank canvas or a writer’s blank page. The cliché that programming is the new literacy is fitting, not just because code offers a new handle on information but also because of its potential for self-expression and new ways of thinking, dependent above all on its open-endedness. An important aspect of creative coding is the ever-changing relationship between people in the production of tools and outputs.

a single process

In Alistair Riddell’s short history of Australian computer music in Experimental Music: audio explorations in Australia (ed Gail Priest, UNSW Press, 2009), a prominent theme is the fusion of coding and creative practice in a single process, the code being the unique means by which certain creative goals can be achieved. This contrasts with what many would consider a normal state of affairs, where programmers create tools to be used by artists. But the in-between space that has grown to maturity is illustrated by Riddell in early examples, such as the work of Graeme Gerrard or Greg Scheimer, developing software for their own projects that is then adopted by their contemporaries. The creative development of a system goes on to be a useful tool for others, and lives as both infrastructure as well as artwork in its own right.

Fast forward to today and the growth of such activity has naturally echoed the technological Cambrian explosion that computers have unleashed universally. A diversity of patterns and relations is unfolding.

software for making art

Developed single-handedly by Melbourne’s Ross Bencina for over a decade, AudioMulch is pro-audio software that lets you fluidly whip together virtual music-making machines. AudioMulch fits the model of commercial tool: developed by developers, used by artists (except that Bencina is its quintessential pro-user), performing delicate works that bring out its innovative design. Beyond Bencina’s use of it, AudioMulch reveals further versatility in the hands of original artists such as the USA’s Girl Talk or the UK’s Four Tet, who enthuse about its non-linear approach and its focus on live sound creation.

For an increasing number of artist-programmers, the distinction between the world of software-as-art and the world of software-to-make-art is more blurry, and the growing norm for many is to straddle both.

software as art

Australian systems artists such as Jon McCormack create works that exploit the patterns and properties of natural processes in code, rising to the philosopher Manuel de Landa’s challenge that artists must “be able to hack biology, thermodynamics, mathematics and other areas of science.” Typically digital artworks are manifestations of custom programs, but once in a while a project idea emerges instead as a creator’s tool, destined for public consumption. McCormack’s recent collaboration with Peter McIlwain and Aidan Lane has led to Nodal, a music-making tool based on the flow of data around a user-created network of events, something like a virtual Domino Rally of musical notes. Nodal is quirky and fun but equally usable. Like AudioMulch, it frees you from the musician’s timeline and lets you think structurally about music, a challenge weary producers can delight in.

On a finer, more day-to-day level, software artists routinely deposit nuggets of useful code on the web. Today, collaborative coding environments such as Github and modular creative tools like MaxMSP, encourage distributed modular development that is always “to share,” though one problem that arises from the uninhibited sharing of software is the resultant minefield of usability.

For some, the relation between art and tool development is even more tightly intertwined. Perhaps Australia’s best case is the “live coding” software developed by Brisbane’s Andrew Sorensen. Sorensen’s Impromptu and Extempore environments are software tools that let you write code live to make music, emerging from earlier work by Sorensen and Andrew Brown on the software library jMusic. “Live coding” describes the idea of writing code live in performance, often as an act of performance. Sorensen’s Vimeo channel hosts an archive of such work.

That Sorensen is making software to make software to make music to drink beer to is true to the experimentalism of Toplap, live coding’s “temporary organisation.” The deep food chain of creative software development is revealed; we don’t just take inspiration, or even remix each other, but deposit nuggets of infrastructure on the web to add to a many-layered creative ecosystem. With usable code being the object of exchange, along with traditional know-how, the idea that digital artists are “standing on the shoulders of giants” takes a more concrete form.

Programming is also getting easier, and the creative coding world is developing its canon, with publications such as “Generative Design,” and mass-popularisation via The Creators Project. Public discourse contains references to code as “the new literacy” (or for some peculiar British minds, “the new Latin”).

Creative coding is also not just for cyberspace, with a new generation of user-hackable physical computing technologies visibly eroding what BBC technology writer Bill Thompson calls the hacking world’s “brief sojourn in the virtual.” A recent Australian start-up, Ninja Blocks, offers a suite of plug-and-play wireless modules entering the growing marketplace of the soon-to-be-ubiquitous Internet of Things. Ninja Blocks form a wireless network of sensors, buttons, power switches and so on. Their key design feature is that they can be easily hacked by a software-literate user base, and the company’s focus is on this ease of development, the holy grail of creative coding success.

steim, amsterdam

The relations between networks of technologists and artists are also mediated in diverse social ways. A long-standing European example, The Studio for Electro-Instrumental Music (STEIM) in Amsterdam, is a hub of music electronics experimentation that has hosted residencies by Australian creators such as Bencina, Douglas Khan and improviser Jon Rose, whose work includes electronically augmented violin bows and the use of bouncy balls as wireless musical controllers for gamified interactive compositions. Through its residency program, STEIM offers creative practitioners tailored technical support in the development of electronic instruments and provides a suite of their own instruments and software.

STEIM is a pleasantly informal hub for creative technological collaborations that creates a notable niche for the grassroots DIY scene—exemplified by a worldwide network of Dorkbot meet-ups and collectives such as Hand Made Music in Melbourne—commercial projects, umbrella initiatives such as the Australian Network for Art and Technology and the many academic hubs researching creative technologies. STEIM leans towards the maker/tinkerer mode of production and social organisation, embodying a passion for creative tool-making. As the role of the technologist becomes more prominent and also more diverse, this offers one model for the arts to incorporate sustained tool development and design into its ecosystem. New emerging Australian organisations such as Media Lab Melbourne, hosting short-term creative hacking collaborations —“sprints” in their parlance—are innovating alternative manifestations of the artist-technologist relationship. More variations on this theme are bound to arise, and should be welcomed, as this Cambrian explosion continues.

Oliver Bown is a researcher and computer music maker from London. He is currently a research fellow at the Design Lab at the University of Sydney. Previously he worked at the Centre for Electronic Media Art in Melbourne and Goldsmiths College in London. He is one half of the British electronic music duo Icarus.

RealTime issue #114 April-May 2013 pg. 49

© Oliver Bown; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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