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<nettime> Art And Code: Robert Atkins & John Simon
Aliza Dichter on 28 Feb 2001 23:11:54 -0000

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<nettime> Art And Code: Robert Atkins & John Simon

Imagination, Innovation And Interface 
Is new media art circumscribed by commercial software packages? Are the
prevailing conventions for user interfaces another example of American
cultural imperialism? Artist-programmer John Simon talks with Robert
Decoding Digital Art 

 Artist John F. Simon, Jr., is the embodiment of media theorist
Friedrich Kittler's observation that understanding today's culture
requires a knowledge of a natural language and an artificial language. A
native English speaker, Simon is that rare digital artist conversant in
both art history and computer programming, perhaps the most important
artificial language of our era.

 He became widely known in the admittedly small world of online-software
art through his Webwork, "Alter Stats - Condition of the Web Observer"
(1995), which provided the site visitor with a real-time, statistical
profile of those accessing the site, including that visitor him- or
herself. Simon's interest in the issues intrinsic to programming
differentiates him from many artists creating image- or narrative-driven
cyber-art. Will new media art be limited and shaped by the commercial
software usually used to created it? Or by the conventional Web site and
interface formats that predominate among artworks online? Simon also
investigates these conceptual concerns offline in drawings and plug-in
objects incorporating computer LCD screens and processors. By creating
art in varied media, he is beginning to reach wider audiences - and to
provide insights into the expansive possibilities of computer-art
interactions and the issues they raise.

-Robert Atkins

 Robert Atkins: I've heard that you make your digital-art students learn
computer programming. Is that true?

 John F. Simon, Jr: Yes. When I was teaching in the Computer Art MFA
program at the School of Visual Arts [in New York] I taught both
programming and systems. The systems class was meant to explain how the
computer worked, layer by layer, from "why the user interface looks like
a desktop" to "how electricity and transistors can be made to store and
manipulate information." I don't think we should allow creative
innovators to use application software without showing them how it is
all put together.

 RA: Why not? 

 JFS: So many choices that influence the final product are made by the
designers of the software package. I first saw computers when their
potential was much more broadly considered. Before the ubiquitous
Photoshop and Director programs it was possible to imagine all kinds of
creative uses for computers. I like to open that door for students, if
just for a glimpse of other possibilities. 

 RA: Do you think software conceived in Silicon Valley is as American a
medium as Hollywood films? Is it having that kind of influence on global

 JFS: That's a good question and a very complicated one. Electronics are
clearly having a profound effect on global culture. But is the computer
an American product? Is the telephone? If we think of software writing
in general as a reflection of American influence then, yes, because
software is now being written everywhere. America defined the PC market
and spread the PC worldwide so the world is now using the American
concept of a PC. It's the same with operating systems. I don't see many
interfaces for PCs which don't use the Windows/Mac Desktop metaphor even
though I can imagine far better interfaces. 

 As far as applications and styles of software published by American
companies, I see a lot of coding from Europe that has a distinctly
non-American flavor. The attitude is generally more aggressive and less
accepting of the limitations of commercial software. Think of projects
like Nato, a software for multiple-video-imaging processing and IOD's
Webstalker, an alternative to Web browsers like Internet Explorer.
Despite that, I'm still not sure that the best way to think about the
expanding cultural influence of the electronic - think of the boom of
home computing in China - is to differentiate what might be its American
elements. I think that the division between those who use electronics
and those who don't - the so-called digital divide - is more far
reaching than any geo-political boundary. 

 RA: So AOL Time Warner isn't the next Disney? 

 JFS: Perhaps a different Disney. I don't think AOL Time Warner intends
to build any theme parks. But AOL has been very smart about figuring out
what works online and Disney hasn't. American culture is likely to
dominate markets for online entertainment, but that's got less to do
with being electronic and more to do with the American domination of
global pop culture in general. 

 RA: What effect is the electronic having on artists? 

 JFS: One can't argue with the explosive demonstration of creativity
online. It's as if there were an untapped urge for self-expression that
the arrival of html and the Web seemed to fulfill. More people are doing
artistic and creative things for public consumption than ever. 

 Just remember ten years ago when getting things together - say, color
images of your work - for someone was such a hassle. Now it's so easy to
snap a digital photo and either e-mail it or ink-jet a print without
ever leaving your work space. This capacity to make and share still and
moving images has got to have a positive effect on image making, even if
it takes a while to sort out the good stuff from the mass of mediocrity. 

 RA: Some of us refer to a particular sort of this mediocre art as
looking "Photoshopped," meaning it all looks the same because it was
produced with software intended for designers. Might art be devolving
into design? 

 JFS: That's a big - and general - question. Let me begin by making a
few observations: There are identifiable styles and artifacts that
relate to the design and limits of software tools. But now the
traditional tools are getting mixed with digital tools of production,
blurring the lines of origin. Let's face it, art is art. Fashion and
taste change all the time, and artists' and critics' interests change
all the time. I believe artists who work from a strong personal vision
will make interesting art with Photoshop or anything else they find
necessary to realize their ideas. That said, using a software tool by
just following the demos and the menus is going to produce very similar

 RA: Did you come to art from computing or vice versa? 

 JFS: It was more a gradual synthesis of the two. I was in Providence at
Brown University and the Rhode Island School of Design getting
undergraduate degrees in Geology and Studio Art. This was the first half
of the eighties before the PC was readily available or very powerful. In
fact, the first Mac came out in January, 1984. 

 RA: Much of your work relates to drawing. Was that always your primary

 JFS: Actually my initial interest was photography. In high school I had
a darkroom and in college I did photography and photo-silkscreening. I
found connections between the mechanical processes of photography and
computer image processing. Drawing didn't become the focus of my work
until 1989. 

 RA: What was your earliest computer artwork like? 

 JFS: My earliest computer artwork involved image and photo
manipulation. I did a lot of digitizing with a video camera and a lot of
scanning with cheap early Mac scanners. As an undergraduate I used the
digital images from NASA's Viking Orbiter spacecraft for prints. In
graduate school for Planetary Science at Washington University in St.
Louis. I started writing lots of code and manipulating digitized images
directly. I worked out systems to overlay and combine images according
to sets of rules. As a graduate student in art in New York at the end of
the eighties, I spent more time developing my coding skills and making
more intricate digital image combinations. 

 There was already a kind of euphoria developing from the pre-World Wide
Web Internet bulletin board systems and MOOs. [A MOO is a subset of the
MUDs, Multi-User Domains (or Dimensions or Dungeons), virtual spaces in
which visitors can converse, build and navigate.] Suddenly it was like,
"Hey, we can all talk to each other!" 

 RA: Were you interested in these onscreen dialogues? 

 JFS: Yes. At the beginning. The whole thing was a novelty, of course.
The first time you try chat you're hooked for at least awhile. How can
you not think: "Who are these people?" 

 Those on The Thing [an early BBS system] and on the PMC-MOO [hosted by
the journal Post-Modern Culture] were artists and academics. I was very
interested in finding an intellectual community that wasn't there in
graduate school. So it was a great thing, less as an art practice than
as a community and information source. It's easy to forget how difficult
it is to find out what people are thinking and to meet other artists
with similar interests. 

 RA: Were you writing software at this time? 

 JFS: Yes. I published a commercial package with Tim Binkley in 1991
called Symmetry Studio. It was software for designing with repeated
patterns. But it used to be much more difficult to distribute software
than it is now. You had to deal with a distributor or publisher and
everything had to be platform specific, for Macintosh or PC. Symmetry
Studio was for Mac only; there were very few small, cross-platform
packages in those days. It was published by Van Norstrand Reinhold as a
manual/book and disk and sold through book stores. I think it sold
700-1000 copies at around $70 each, but I only got the smallest amount
of money from it and no royalties. Most of the money went to the
publisher, I'm sure.

 RA: Many foundation funders act as if artists can really make money on
software. Are there many instances of this actually occurring? 

 JFS: Not that I'm aware of. I just read in Talk magazine that the San
Francisco Museum of Modern Art and [its director] David Ross are
interested in creating a software company to make authoring tools and
help fund the museum. That's not as easy as it sounds. Marketing is
often the most important factor in the commercial success of software.
I'd hate to see the museum's focus waver from supporting art to
supporting marketing of an entirely new product. And there's a greater
danger: Whoever writes a software package has control over what kinds of
things the software can produce, as we've discussed. Should the museum
take on the role of deciding how artists should work? Will artworks that
have the look of SFMOMA's authoring tool be more readily accepted for
exhibition there? It's very complicated.

 To return to your question, frankly I don't know anybody who makes a
living creating art that is entirely software. Two of my works that fall
into that category are Every Icon and Color Balance. I've sold 85 copies
of Every Icon for $20 each and several copies of Color Balance for $500,
but that's hardly enough to stay alive. 

 RA: What appealed to you about the Web when browsers came along in

 JFS: The Web to me appeared to be a viewing platform for software
ideas. The first thing I wanted to do was visualize this process of
looking at Web pages - that is, viewing a site. So I made AlterStats.
It's a self-modifying World Wide Web self-visualization, meaning that it
is an activated image that changes from being looked at. If a page was
requested, AlterStats rendered a picture that showed the new request and
the history of previous requests. The new request was then added to the
database and included in all the future pictures it made. By building
new images every time it is looked at it was a completely dynamic site.
Also, it had shades of the uncertainty principle - that you couldn't
look at it without changing it. It seemed to me to be really a "network"
object because it depended on the setup of the Web to exist.

 Another Webwork, Every Icon, was an old concept that found a new home
online. Icons are the little pictures on a computer desktop (the folder,
the trash can, the AOL symbol), and they are all displayed in a 32 X 32
size pixel grid. Instead of me having to design new desktop icons, I
wrote Every Icon to display every possible combination of squares on the
32 X 32 grid and automatically show me every one on the Web. It was a
little slower than I'd expected: To show the number of possibilities in
the first 2 lines (64 squares) would take billions of years at the rate
of 100 icons whizzing by per second. It's clear that there are many,
many, many more images in the world than we will ever be able to see in
our lifetimes, even if we looked at hundreds of images a second.

 Java, which came along in 1996, is perfect for conceptual pieces like
this because the code runs, more or less, on all platforms. I could
write about this idea of exponential growth, which needs to be
experienced over time, and use the Web to distribute it so that people
could see it in action.

 RA: You just returned from Berlin's Transmediale Festival where you
judged the artists' software or social software competition. What was
that like? 

 JFS: Transmediale is a media art festival. They have competitions and
showings of film and video as well as music and software. 

 The category I judged was called "Artistic Software" which will be
changed to "Software Art." Transmediale's Artistic Director, Andreas
Broeckman, created this software category to recognize the artistic
merits of software as a medium in itself. Software has long played a
secondary role to "interactive installation" in media festivals. We
hoped to look at software as a kind of creative writing, a writing that
might be evaluated both for doing what it set out to do and as a means
of expression in and of itself. 

 RA: What are you working on now?

 JFS: Many things. I am encapsulating software on wall-mounted LCD
screens. I take the screen and the processor from mostly used laptop
computers, which I get from eBay or dealers. I am currently using Apple
G3 Powerbooks with 14.1" screens. I remove the case and mount the LCD
screen to a plastic housing of my own design. The CPU is mounted on the
back of the housing. I install my own software, which runs automatically
when the computer is turned on. The images on the screen are constantly

 This is a way to write software directly for a processor and not have
it compete for attention with other things on your desktop. I sell these
works through the Sandra Gering Gallery, with which I've had a longtime

 I'm also using a computer controlled laser to cut and engrave materials
like acrylic. I am interested in how the lines and shapes from my
algorithmic tools can be manifest in material form. 

 RA: What will you show at "Bitstreams," the Whitney Museum's upcoming
digital show?

 JFS: For "Bitstreams" I will have two large gas-plasma screens
displaying new versions of the software I wrote for my first two LCD
panel pieces. Color Panel v1.0 will be rewritten and called Color Panel
v1.5, and CPU will be CPU 1.5. There are some fun issues when moving the
software from it's small LCD display to gas plasma-screen size. How does
one handle the increases in wall size, color depth and computing speed?
Do you just proportionally increase the resolution - that is "res-up" -
so things are bigger and blockier on the screen? Or do you leave things
at the same size and make more of them? 

 RA: Conceptually, it seems like a reflection on a culture that craves
bigger and more all the time.

 JFS: Absolutely.


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