Can Computer Code Be Used For Artistic And Political Expression?
Hello world. Dust off your monocles, because today we plunge into academia—specifically, into the field of digital studies. The line between computer programming and art is already a blurred one: artists are crafting their own codes to generated computerized visuals (see: Ursula Damm and Martin Schneider’s Transits video for a particularly haunting example), and computer programmers (like Aaron Koblin and Casey Reas) are increasingly regarded as artists.
So the question is not whether computer code can be used for art, but whether it is a form of art in itself? Certain academics argue that code is a form of speech—and comes with the political power that any other language holds.
I polled a few of my programmer friends about whether they agreed with this, and most replied with cocked eyebrows and a firm “no.” One said, if anything, it was more like legal language than anything else—based on pure functionality. “If you release something with ambiguities, you’ve released a buggy code,” said one, nonchalantly. Another said that maybe he would allow an analogy to Esperanto—but that was it. “It lacks the capacity for detailed meaning, for conveying more than just information in a direct or literal sense,” he said.
I wanted to find out why so many academics believe that computer code leaks beyond the boundaries of scientific practicality, and can carry artistic or political weight. So, I decided to turn to Geoff Cox—a researcher in Digital Aesthetics at Aarhus University’s Digital Urban Living Center. Cox’s book, Speaking Code, came out last Friday through MIT Press, and in it, he applies critical theories from the humanities to the study of computing and software development.
The Creators Project: Hey Geoff! Your book Speaking Code is coming out today. And by arguing that programming is a kind of “text,” you weave in ideas about politics, art, and language. What’s the main idea your book contributes to the field?
Geoff Cox: Just one? Hopefully there are a few, but maybe the last line suffices: “The book proposes coding practices that have not only a body but also a body politic.”
The cover of Geoff Cox’s new book, Speaking Code.
I noticed you bring in a lot of critical theorists my English major friends creamed themselves over—especially Althusser and Judith Butler. Why do you think it’s okay to appropriate ideas from such a different field of study?
In my view, it is exactly this kind of interdisciplinary work that leads to new understandings—not seeking some kind of hard truth, but opening up new modes of thinking. I don’t think there’s a straightforward transfer from one discourse to another, especially from humanities to computing, but work to be done across and between.
I wanted to explore the ways language goes out of control—what Butler refers to excitable states—and how this creates new kinds of subjectivities that are open to critique. Similarly, Althusser’s interpellation describes the paradoxes of language: humans are constituted through language, but are also able to modify it.
But there are many different kinds of code, all of them with their own sets of rules and contexts. How can they all be read as the same language?
Human and machine languages are quite different things, but the analogy between speaking and coding is commonplace. It’s useful to open up ideas about interpretability, action, and freedom of use—think about how the discourses about freedom of speech and free software intersect.
As Henry Giroux puts it, who speaks, under what conditions and on behalf of whom?
From Recycling the National Curriculum (1996), a research seminar, launch event, and performance at the School of Education, Middlesex University, on the subject of art, education, and blank paper with Geoff Cox, Victoria de Rijke, Howard Hollands, and Sophie Weeks. Image source.
In your book, you say that one of your concerns is the way coding produces ambiguities outside of its deterministic tendencies. Can you provide an example of how this happens?
Yes, this is one of the most important aspects of this book. Despite the way that code largely determines its outcome through commands, this isn’t entire the case. This gives some political hope in a world where our actions and speech seem ever more predetermined and controlled.
Can you give an example of this indeterminacy?
Let’s look at Feedback.pl, a text editor written by Alex McLean. The programmer edits the code, which runs live while it is modified. However, the running code is also able to edit its own source code, so that the code is able to make fundamental self-modifications. It demonstrates the complexity of how programs operate together with and without the programmer, both relaying instructions and acting upon them in an uncertain relation.
Do you have something against practicality?
I am trying to foreground artistic practices that break out of the functionalism of normal programming, specifically by looking at layers of communication. My book uses some examples of code specially written by Alex McLean, to express some ideas through the logic of code.
One of these is a very simple demonstration of how comments distinguish the voice of the program from that of the programmer: # This is the voice of the programmer echo “This is the voice of the program”
When you called code “both a script and performance,” that reminded me of the way Kittler wrote that code is a text with “the extraordinary capacity of reading and writing itself.”
I refer to Kittler’s statement that program code is a very particular kind of writing. Other commentators, such as Florian Cramer and Katherine Hayles, have described program code as writing that breaks down the distinction between writing and tool.
Take the Fluxus performance score by La Monte Young called Composition 1961 No. I, January I. The instruction was to “draw a straight line and follow it.” It’s the same idea of how notation and execution can be collapsed into one thing.
More importantly, I am drawing on speech theory to suggest that like speech, code says and does something at the same time.
Video from Geoff Cox’s <a href=“http://generative.net/generator/” target=”_blank">"Generator" exhibition (2002-2003)
I want to go back to what you said about how free speech and free software are related.
The book tries to further develop the analogy to free speech, to draw out some of its many paradoxes. The free software foundation clarifies their use of the term “freedom” by saying, “free as in free speech not as in free beer.” But what about the problems with free speech or the liberal illusion of free choice?
Last question: what do you think about all the hoopla that’s been made recently about the discovery of computer codes in string theory? Do you accept this as proof that we live in virtual reality?
I don’t know anything about it, but I guess it can also be seen as another example of biopolitical power, and the ways that code has become embedded in our lived
experience. I think close attention needs to be paid to code and the narratives around it (ideas like ‘the computational universe’ and so on) to understand the processes at a deep level. Be skeptical of the ways these ideas are naturalized.