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 use?

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 neo-Platonic 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 to understand 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 into scientific methodology. The kind of thing that Yate's refers to often involves a type of permutation system that can be built up with rotatirng (cardboard) 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 primitive computer.

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 teachers had 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 "technological 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 history of 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 the most 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 patterned screeens 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 the 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 carve wooden images, although I have no idea if only women were allowed to weave.

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 nice "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 things work.

Trevor Batten
March 2006

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