Some Personal Remarks of the Artist/Programmer Tradition:
(Introductory text for the Digital Art Forum held on March 9, 2006; at the MetropolitanMuseum of Manila -as part of the opening of the Websining Digital Art Exhibition entitled "Diwa't Kapookan/Articulating Spaces: Winners of the 2005 and 2006 Websining Digital Art Competition.")
In the early days (back in the sixties and seventies) artists wanting
to ue the computer had to programm it themselves -because the
technology itself could do very little. Since then, there has been huge
technological advances -and consumer electronics are a big business.
Nevertheless, one unanswered (but often ignored) question remains: How
much do artists need to know about the technological medium that they
Francis Yates, in her classic book "The Art of Memory" describes the
ancient art of memory: The basic technique involves one in
imagening a space (a building or a street)
filled with diverse (alegorical) symbols which are supposed to remind
one of that which
is to be remembered. The classical European churches and cathedrals
essentially use this technique -to, literally, turn the buildings
into vast "memory machines". However, Yates also speaks of a
heretical tradition which is opposd to the more mainstream use of
alegorical imagery. She suggests that the heretical tradition
evolved out of "magical" practices which attempted to dynamically
simulate the heavenly processes here on earth. This was done in order
them better than would be possible through relying on a neo-Platonic
(static) system -based on that which was already known. Presumably,
through the process of dynamically modeling the heavens they could be
understood more easily. This is perhaps similar to the way "drawing
from life" can also help an artist towards a more complete insight
regarding the way world around them manifests itself -possibly
providing insights that would not be found through relying entirely on
one's imagination. According to Yates, this other, approach lead
to a more dynamic (and
abstract, algebraic) form of "memory theater" which eventually evolved
scientific methodology. The kind of thing that Yate's refers to often
involves a type of permutation system that can be built up with
disks with little windows in them -perhaps, similar to the system also
used previously for calculation by slide-rule.
The result were simple objects that indeed one might use to help
calculate one's horoscaope -the price of the peso against other
currencies -or perhaps even the distance, travel time and petrol
consumption between a range of different towns. Such devices are, in
fact, a form of
Some time ago, I read a book, which my memory tells me was entitled
"The women weavers of the Bauhaus". This book described the personal
histories of the women who made history in the Bauhaus ateliers. Women,
many of whom, when the Nazis came to power, iether emigrated
(successfully or unsuccessfully) or
died later in the concentration kamps. Apparently, the early Bauhaus
been surprised by the large influx of well educated and intelligent
women students -so,
apparently, in order prevent them dominating the "serious" painting
classes -it was suggested that the women formed a weaving studio. The
results are now history: The women weavers achieved much fame as
craftswomen -but not as artists, because this role was apparently
reserved for the men. Interestingly, the painters and teachers of the
time (people such as Kandinsky and Paul Klee) were busy "inventing"
abstract art on canvas -but for some reason the women weavers, who
developed and expressed the rules of abstraction via the woven
thread did not recieve the recogntion of their male counterparts.
Personally, I have the feeling that there is a relationship between the
tradition of weaving and the "altenative" dynamic (and heretical)
systems described by Yates. In fact, one might also conclude that if
indeed weaving is "women's work" -then this might suggest that the
process" could be "women's work" too.
Incidentally, after WWII, the Bauhaus was reconvened in the US -in
Chicago and the Bauhaus philosophy also played a role in the early
American technological art. On the other hand, one might also claim
that the Bauhaus gave the world the most progressive teaching system
-but at the same time, generated the design tradition responsible for
awfully boring designs a person could ever imagine. The box-like
horrors of post-Bauhaus architecture have ruined many a cityscape
around the world -unfortunately, including Manila..
In December 2005, I was lucky enough to visit New Zealand for a
cultural conference, We stayed in a Maori (Iwi) communal meeting place.
On the walls were alternate panels of woven reed and wooden carved
panels. We were told that the Iwi were origianlly from Samoa and the
building we were staying in was actually a simulation of a traditional
Samoan hut. The figures were the ancestors who were
looking at us from between the gaps in the (originally rollable) woven
that would actually formed the side of the hut in real Samoan
building. During one of the
discussions, I mentioned Yate's description of western alegorical
"memory space" to a local theorist -who replied that their (Oceanic)
approach was very similar. Indeed, the carved panels could perhaps be
seen to relate to (for example) the carved (or painted) "memory facade"
of a European church. But what about the woven panels (which represent
the actual sides of the construction)? If we accept that "weaving" is
an alternative (more abstract and more procedural based) form of image
generation that does not fit in easily with the usually accepted form
of (western) image construction -then perhaps one could also interpret
Iwi communal hut as being a dialogue between these two image making
traditions. Interestingly, they are presumably two quite separate
traditions -because we were also told that only men are supposed to
wooden images, although I have no idea if only women were allowed to
Perhaps, the schism between the creative and dynamic weaving of
images and the static reproduction of neo-platonic concepts has
helped to consolidate the two
traditions that have schitzophrenically polarised western cultural
traditions. A cultural split that has lead science into investigating
not the conceptual "meaning" or supposed "value" of something -but how
that "meaning" is actually created. Art may tell us how things should
be -but science prefers to tell us how they actually function.
However, as a result of the more "investigatory" nature of the
scienentific modelling system -Science has been able to
profit from the advantanges of (post-Einsteinian) "Relativity"
-allowing a mapping to be made between the various subjective
universes. While art, on the other hand,
continues to wallow helplessly in the quicksand of extreme
subjectivity, seeing nothing
but meaninglessnessin a non-objective universe.
In my experience -the past 40 or so years years have indeed shown a
repression of the original artist/programmer tradition -with the
alegorical image making taking over -via the so called "multi-media"
industry. How (and why) has this happened?
I like the analogy between weaving and the artist/programmer -because, unfortunatery,
the increasingly globalised belief system that has grown out of the
cultural and economic history of Europe does not provide the conceptual
tools to discuss these issues properly. In my experience, the history
of the artist/programmer has been filled with people aguing against
it (often by people who have both vested interests and a lack of
direct experience of what they are oppose to). When I talk about
"digital technology" -most people seem to assume that this involves the
information highway (via the internet), video-streaming or some other
form of alegorical (and often photographic) image making technique.
However, for me -digital technology is about understanding the
underlying technology in lingusitic terms -understanding how image
comes out of process -and it is therefore very close to the way images are "woven"
in textiles (where the production process is indeed closely, and
literally, interwoven with the final imagary. If this distinction is
not understood -then nothing that I say will make sense to the listener.
I'm afraid that in my view, anybody can point a camera and make a
"meaningful" image -but it takes real skill and a lot of cognitive
effort to "weave" an image. One needs to understand the process of
construction and one needs to understand the process of
perceptual and cognitive interpretation.
By constructing the imge personally -one can test if one's theory of
image production is correct or not. In my view, both the waeving and
the programming process help to develop
valuable skills and insights. These skills are partly analytical
(perhaps like the scientist) and partly creatively synthetic (like the
artist). I believe that these Skills that could be of great value in
developing a better
awareness and understanding of the scocial process and the problems
that make any society what it is. I also believe that this
understanding and this knowledge is essential to our survival - because
any living society -whatever its nature, is always creating new
problems for itself and for others (both present and future). In
my experience, our current global culture is destroying valuable skills
and knowledge faster thatn it is creating them.
I cannot claim that I have mastered all thses skills. Progress had been
hard -and filled with opposition -but I do believe that the
artist/programming tradition presents oportunites for exploration and
discovery that are less accessable by other means. It seems to me that
we are currently faced with an important choice -do we put ourselves in
charge of the machines that are increasingly shaping our lives -or do we just keave everything to the few
that know how they work?
Daily, we are confronted by advertising and TV shows that tell us to be
creative and express ourselves -but how can we be creative -if we do
not understand how the various media function?
Programming is not about
technological skills -it is about a practical but creative understanding of how