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Programmers are the New Art World Renegades

The best software artists gathered at the Leaders in Software and Art conference in New York.
October 26, 2012

Just as photography was a controversial new art form in the late 19th century (critics questioned the role of the artist if the machine ultimately produced the work), it seems computer programmers have yet to be fully accepted into the art world.

A visualization from researchers at Google shows wind flowing over the United States.

This much was clear at the first Leaders in Software and Art (LISA) Conference, which took place at the GuggenheimMuseum in New York last week. The conference grew out of the LISA Salons that conference organizer Isabel Draves has hosted for three years in an effort to create a sense of community among software artists.

Panel discussions at the event addressed questions about the place of software art in history. Draves said in her opening remarks that it could even become the next big artistic movement: “something has to come after post-modernism. It’s only a matter of time” before media art takes its rightful place in history.

But software art—images, videos, and interactive content created by programming computers—is still experiencing resistance from the mainstream art community, according to Draves and others at the conference.  While the field is decades old, they said, it still hasn’t been accepted as a mainstream art form.

Panel discussions included media art collectors, museum curators and new media artists asking how does one evaluate, collect and distribute this kind of art? How can social media and crowd sourcing play a role in art? And how does software change the language of art and the space in which it is exhibited?

Much of the rest of the event was dedicated to celebrating work that could perhaps help convince some of those doubters.

Keynote speaker Scott Snibbe called the computer “the ultimate looking glass” through which to create alternate universes. His work with musician Bjork on the first app album Biophilia (October, 2011) is exactly that: a cosmos of clickable constellations, each of which leads to an “interactive” song over which the user has some control. His forthcoming project is an interactive app for REWORK_Philip Glass Remixed (out this month).

Of the lightening speakers there were several standouts. Data visualization expert Martin Wattenberg, half of two-person team leading the “Big Picture,” visualization research team at Google, presented the Wind Map which displays data from the National Digital Forecast Database with brush-stroke beauty across a map of the United States. His colleague, Fernanda Viegas, showed edit wars in the Wikipedia entry for “chocolate” by colorfully charting each change made to the page. What looks like a zig-zagging artistic effect is in fact a scuffle over the roots of chocolate “coulage”.

Bang-Geul Han showed her Blogreader project, a haunting video in which she sits on a stool in a snowy plane robotically telling personal narratives. The narratives are pulled from blog entries by a Perl script from a now-defunct site called  She recorded herself reading 3800 of the site’s most frequent words and played them back in the stark visual context. If a word existed in the blog but wasn’t recorded it appears in text on the video. The effect is a visual and audio disconnect from the emotional content of the blogs, many of which recount crushes and heartbreaks.

Jake Barton, founder of Local Projects, which was involved in the 911 Memorial Museum, talked about his design for an interactive addition to the Cleveland Museum of Art. The display will show the museum’s entire collection on a digital panel through which users can create their own collections sorted by theme. For example, if a user searches for art depicting “Love and Lust” the panel would display the racier paintings and sculptures in the collection. The new space opens in January.

Karolina Sobecka’s work might’ve been the most haunting: virtual storefronts housing crowds that don’t exist but which nevertheless turn to look at passersby. And a virtual dog that, using tracking software, follows the viewer as if it could see and sniff.

And the most popular of the bunch, Golan Levin, showed work he feels should be “driven by civic concerns and conscience.” When his son noticed that the parts of the toys he played with don’t work together (Legos, Tinkertoys), Levin created the Free Universal Construction Kit, 3D printed parts that allow the two divergent toy species to mate.

Mainstream or not, several of the works displayed reflected the very best of the overlap between art and science.

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