Benjamin Geer on Mon, 5 Jun 2000 17:29:51 +0200 (CEST)

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Re: <nettime> OFSS01..thread on artists' tools

On Sun, May 28, 2000 at 03:01:04PM -0400, Michael Century wrote:
> I think that instrumental virtuosity in music performance can be a
> helpful way to think about [software user interfaces].  This is a
> very old, and perhaps tired analogy, but nonetheless, consider: A
> violinist playing an Amati violin is unaware of the 'magic' in
> Amati's craft, or at least, need not have much awareness of this
> craft in order to perform on the instrument with skill.  Application
> software can in principle (but rarely does) start from this level of
> refinement.  Why not?

If we're going to use this analogy, let's keep in mind that it's far
more difficult to become a good violinist than to learn to use even
the most complex computer software.  Try to imagine a world in which
computers had violins instead of keyboards, and application programs
required the user to produce a good sustained tone in order to save a
file.  How many people would bother trying to learn to use a computer?

Still, the question is whether computer software can attain a violin's
level of refinement for a particular artistic purpose.  It seems to me
that this is possible when you're dealing with a precisely
circumscribed set of operations.  The craft of violin making could
become highly refined because the tradition of violin music defined a
narrow field of possibilities (in range, tone, etc.) within which
violin makers could seek out nuances.  Violins are standardised.
However, in contemporary art, anything goes, and nothing is
standardised.  An artist could decide to create a work of art by
selecting all the words in the _Iliad_ that contain more than three
different vowels, finding the number of occurrences on the Web of
translations of these words in several languages, and printing the
fifty most common of the translated words in random fonts and sizes on
a fifty-metre sheet of vellum.  Computer software could certainly help
the artist create this work, but it would surely have to be custom
software.  I don't see how any general-purpose `art creation software'
could anticipate the requirements of such a work.

If an artist wants to use techniques that are defined by tradition, a
software tool can perhaps be designed to help.  However, the artist
should be prepared for such a tool to be as complicated to use as a
violin.  For example, like violin playing, typesetting has a long,
complex tradition that has given rise to a vast set of expressive
possibilities, using precisely defined parameters.  Very sophisticated
typesetting software exists to allow people to take advantage of these
possibilities.  One such software package is TeX, which I use when I
want to produce a nicely formatted document.  It seems to me that TeX
is exactly the sort of application software that you're asking for.  I
don't have to know how it works in order to use it.  It uses complex
algorithms (of which I'm completely ignorant) to produce output which
looks beautiful; at the same time, I can exercise precise control over
what it does.  Like a violin, TeX is controlled in a very
idiosyncratic way, which takes time to learn: it has no graphical user
interface, and instead provides a complex formatting language.

If you don't want to learn how to use TeX, you can of course use a
word processor, such as Microsoft Word, just as you can play a
pennywhistle instead of a violin.

Benjamin Geer

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