Tilman Baumgaertel on Tue, 20 Jul 1999 02:51:43 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> Interview with John F. Simon


Here is an interview I did with the artist John F. Simon at his studio
during a recent visit to New York. It might or might not confirm recently
voiced opinions that net art is not dead, but has started to smell a
little funny... 


I think, 
and then I sink
into the paper 
like I was ink.
Eric B. & Raakim: Paid in full

Dr. Tilman Baumgaertel, Hornstr. 3, 10963 Berlin, Germany
Tel./Fax. +49(0)30-2170962, email: 100131.2223@compuserve.com


Art that does what it says

Interview with John F. Simon jr.

By Tilman Baumgärtel

The art of John F. Simon seems to confirm the worst fears of the critics
of computer-based art as a mere over-haul of well-known ideas of abstract
art, that have now "turned digital". But the programms and applets that
Simon has written both for computer operating systems as well as for the
net are more than just the reworked versions of the ideas of canonical
modernist artists such as Paul Klee or the conceptual artists, that he
sees as major influences on his work.

The art of programming that Simon has practised on- and off-line in the
last couple of years actually surpasses the ideas oft artists like the
abstract painters of the 20ies and the conceptual artists of the 60s. Not
only do the pieces that derive from his computer programms LOOK very
different from classical abstract art, they make conceptual operations
possible that were beyond the horizon of the "pre-computer" artists Simon
relates to.

Although Simon is higly critical of the attention that net art is
currently getting, his best-know piece is also available on the internet:
the Java-applet "Every Icon". But it is the sophisticated paint programm
that he has written himself that impressed me the most on a recent visit
to his studio in Manhattan's Garments District. Here is an excert from our

?: You developed you own paint program. Why? Because the existing software
didn't fit your needs, or because the programming was a challenge for you? 

John F. Simon jr: Because of conceptual limitations. There was no software
that had a brush that animated, for example. I thought a big part of the
creative procces was to invent variations of the brush. If someone else
would have come up with it, I would have just used it. But my drawings
eventually became about what kind of variations I could come up with based
on the software. The drawings were revealing the action of the software.
So using somebody else's software wouldn't make any sense. Now the work is
both my writing of the software, and the drawings, that I do by
interacting with the software - by using pressure-sensitive tools for

?: So what exactly is the art work? The paint program or the drawings that
you produce with your paint program? 

Simon: I consider them all part of my creative output. Then again: using
an artwork to create more artworks - I don't know. (laughs). I guess, one
thing is revealing the other. When you run the programm you are
demonstrating the writing of the programm. 

With computers you can't really draw as many boxes around things. An
object in the real world is an object, but computers are systems, and
digital images are part of this system, so it is harder to draw a line,
where it ends and starts. What you see online is part of a system, too.
You need a browser, you need a computer, you need a network, just to bring
it all together. 

?: The best-known of you art projects is "Every Icon". Can you tell me how
you concieved the idea for this piece? 

Simon: "Every Icon" is an activated idea. I had this idea to apply
exponential growth to images for so long. Around 1987 I started to think
about how many video images were techically possible. And I wanted to
write a programm to try it out, that would do all the possible variations
of every pixel on the TV monitor. Because if you could search video space
that way, you could eventually see every video that was ever possible to
be made. 

?: That's like this famous idea: to put a million monkeys behind
typewriters, and if you give them enough time, they eventually end up
writing Shakespeare's complete works... 

Simon: That's the idea. But with the computer you don't need the monkeys
anymore, you just have to write the most clever algorythm to eventually
come up with interesting new images. The same thing happens with "Every

?: Could you explain for a Non-Computer-Person, how "Every Icon" works? 

Simon: It basically counts forward, from 0 to 10 to the 308th power
(laughs). The number of atoms in the universe is 10 to the 80th. The
number of possible images in the universe is much greater. I use a 32 X 32
black and white grid. I chose that, because that was the original
Macintosh definition for an icon, when the first Mac system came out. With
the old Macs, you went to the icon editor "ResEdit", where you could
design you own icons by clicking on the different fields of this grid. 

I figured that if I would write a program that would show all the
variations in black and white within this grid, it would eventually show
all the possible icons. The programm starts with a totally white grid, and
then puts in one black square in the upper left hand corner, and then it
moves that square over one, then it makes two black squares, and shows all
the possible combinations with two squares, and then three, four, five
etc.  It turned out that if you show 100 variations a second, it takes
about one year just to show all the possible variations on the 32 squares
of the first line. The first two lines would take six billion years. 

?: So, what's the message here? 

Simon: Well, in the 80s there was this talk about how many possible images
there were, the end of images etc. The very simple argument is that even
if you have just this very tiny grid that is only black and white, you
will never even see all the possible variations of the first two lines in
your life time. The range of images is just vast. 

?: Was working with software and chance operations a way to avoid
developing a personal style? 

Simon: No. Why would I do this? 

?: Because there is this idea in modern art about the abolishment of a
personal style, to make paintings that showed no trace of it's creator... 

Simon: But I am so convinced that any descision I make is a personal
thing.  I don't even see how you could try to make something that wasn't
personal.  I used to think about science that way: that there was some
objective truth, that didn't depend on any outside knowledge. But if you
work in science for a while, you realize that any descision that a
researcher makes is a reflection of the personality of the researcher.
What you do and what you are is so enfolded in the work, that I don't see
any way to escape it. 

?: You recently had a show with two conceptual artist, Sol Lewitt and
Hannah Darboven. Do you see any connection between your work and the art
from the conceptual period? 

Simon: Yes. The works that people like Lawrence Wiener and Sol Lewitt were
doing in the late Sixties, especially their wall drawings, were basically
sets of instructions. There is a work by Lawrence Wiener, that is called
"A 36" X 36" Removal to the Lathing or Support of Plaster or Walllbboard
from a Wall", (1967). For Weiner, the idea was really the piece. It could
be executed but it didn't *need* to be executed. Also, Sol Lewitt had sets
of instructions for his wall drawings. These works all dealt with
language, and with a kind of activation. 

I think that software and programming is a natural extension of this
concept, because software is basically nothing but a set of instructions. 
It is the nature of software that you write the source code, and then the
source code is executed by the computer. You could actually extend some of
the ideas of the conceptual artists to write them down as sourcecode, and
then have them executed by a computer. The works themselves would work out
what they describe, or rather: the art works could simply do what they
say.  That's how I think about my applets. 

It is interesting how far a person that is executing Sol Lewitt's pieces
can go. Sometimes he has instructions like "10.000 straight lines not
touching" or "1.000 crooked lines". Now, what does "crooked" mean? There
is this level of interpretation, because his descriptions are very
general.  With my piece "Combinations", I say "Four sets of lines in four
different colors", but the user can click on the end points, and modify
the work any way they want. 

?: The materialization of their pieces was actually very crucial to the
Conceptualists. How important is it for you to make your ideas physical
again, for example by printing them out? 

Simon: Sometimes it is important, sometimes not. With "Combinations" for
instance, it is important to print them out, because no matter big your
computer screen is, you will never be able to view all the 1820
combinations at one time. You do need a print out to really understand the
work.  In the case of "Every Icon", it wouldn't make any sense at all to
print it out. It needs to be activated, and you should be able to watch it
over a period of time to get a sense of how long it takes and how fast it
goes. That's why I started making these "screens" (wall-mounted computer
screens that show "Every Icon" - T.B.). There is something nice about
having the piece as an appliance. It becomes something like a clock on the
wall. It is physical, but it is still software. 

?: Before the interview we were talking about Paul Klee, and his concept
of drawing as a "the line that wanders". Can you elaborate on this idea a
little and how it relates to your work? 

Simon: The avantgarde idea is that everything is different, is a push
away.  In science you study what has been done before, and than develop
these ideas further. My art work is really analytical, but at first I
didn't really have a way to express that. I was doing drawings of trees
and faces, the way I thought art should look like. But really my nature is
to investigate and look at possibilities and try to be analytical. When I
looked at Paul Klee, I thought that he was someone that had the same
attitude. I started to look at his rules for picture making, that he
taught at the Bauhaus. That gave me the courage to work forward
analytically, because it was part of who I was. In his analytical work,
Klee was describing lines in motion and forces, that influenced the way
shapes form.  His idea of a line was a point that sets itself in motion. I
just immediately had the idea of a piece of software, where there was a
point that would set itself in motion as you drew. 

?: So what Klee outlines in his "Paedagogical Notebook" is basically a
series of commands, like in a computer language... 

Simon: For Klee, it was almost enough to imagine the point in motion. His
writings were like starting conditions for software. But once you write a
piece of software and run it on the computer, then it is a very fluid
language. Every variable that you choose in the software becomes subject
to expansion, and you can make look up tables to vary parameters or you
can have functions that are varied by random numbers. All of a sudden you
just expand and expand these ideas. Sometimes you get things that look the
way you expected them to look, and sometimes they are completely
different. And once you have all these parameters at hand, what you do
with it, is what you are. 

?: But despite the fact that a number of your works are accessible on the
internet, you wouldn't consider yourself to be a net artist? 

Simon: I'm interested in programming as writing.  What you can say in a
certain programming language.  In a lot of the net art I have seen, the
algorithms, the coding, is not highly evolved. I think net art is a bit
overrated, in relation to artists who really do coding. Even at the Ars
Electronica there isn't a category for projects that deal with coded
ideas.  The only real 'net' piece I did was "ALTER STATS" which was about
making pictures from information. So when people visited the site, it
modified the picture. I think what the net is best for is collaborations
with other people. But I have to say that I am not very interested in
defining my work through the actions of other people. 

John F. Simons work are available at: 

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