Fun with Software A discussion with Annet Dekker and Olga Goriunova
Olga Goriunova is curator and Annet Dekker is co-producer (as part of aaaan.net) of the multi-venue exhibition ‘Fun With Software’ (in Bristol) and ‘Funware’ (in Eindhoven and Dortmund). The exhibition has many aspects to it, being in some ways a retrospective of certain strands in software art, a set of propositions about the nature of digital culture and an argument, made through the conjunction of works, for a fundamental appreciation of fun as an inventive lively force in all forms of life.
This discussion was carried out by email in late September and early October 2010.
Matthew Fuller: ‘Fun’ is an interesting term to use, it is somehow, juvenile, gleeful, grinning, something not as ‘serious’ as humour, or jokes, which have their literature and interpretations, nor does it necessarily correspond to the policy scam of ‘creativity’, or the industrial dimension of games. But yet, there’s a quality of fun which links all these things and you have assembled some exemplary ‘cases’ of them here. What forms does fun appear in, in the exhibition?
As such, the idea behind the show is to think how freaks run the world. The fun they have when poking at the screens of reality to discover other realities is what I imagine the concept of fun is about. Now, beyond shared qualities, there is a distinctiveness of fun in relation to, broadly speaking, computation and computers. Fun here becomes related to formal logic and repetition, to the question of where software starts and ends, to mental states, to what operations it can carry out on the world, to the cultures and usages of software, to its building upon itself, to its aesthetics. Humour often adjoins fun when software, but also its realm of production and operation, is tested against dominance, boredom, madness, power; the fun I am interested in can also be absurd rather than jolly.
Fun lets one see the territories that are in-between computer science and digital folklore, the art and cultures of using conventional software. Probably, the juvenile aspect you are talking about is the unseriousness of fun, which is the bravery generally ascribed to youth to ignore the often self-inflicted order of ‘seriousness’. Such seriousness is the effect of power systems, of orders of rationality producing forces that act in a manner that is ‘more royal than the king’. And certainly, fun can be and is used then to update such orders to complexify the systems of reinforcement.
The exhibition tries to attend to different aspects of fun. David Link reconstructs the ‘Love Letter Generator’ written in 1952 by Christopher Strachey, with Alan Turing, that predates all early generally known text generating algorithms. It produced beautifully absurd love letters on a Ferranti Mark 1 – one of the first electronic computers. . On production, the poems were hung around the walls of Manchester University, mystifying the students who came there to do something very serious. The work presents the complete working memory and processor of ‘Love Letter Generator’ which can be seen on 12 cathode ray tubes which the Ferranti used for memory, storing bits in phosphor.
This work will be shown in the Arnolfini, Bristol, and for Eindhoven, David is working on ‘Draughts’. Here is how David describes it: ‘ In 1947, the electrical engineers Frederic Williams and Tom Kilburn succeeded at the University of Manchester to construct the first reliable means for the volatile storage of information — the Williams tube. Two years later, the device had evolved into the Manchester Mark I, arguably the first computer worldwide. The earliest major program for this machine was written in 1951 by an outsider, the school teacher Christopher Strachey, who had obtained the technical manual from a former fellow student, Alan Turing. The task of this software was not to calculate the trajectory of missiles, but to play the game of draughts (checkers).’
In these various versions of the exhibition and with the overall concept, I try to present different time periods, problems through which fun manifests, be they visual aesthetic or functional, subjects or objects that have agency, cultures of producing fun and moments at which it can emerge.
MF: Given these different time periods, how might you perhaps characterize them, how does the possibility of fun proliferate or diminish at different times in relation to specific kinds of computing culture?
OG: This is a question to a broadminded historian. However, one could certainly say that there is a different sensibility to every time period, however hard it can be to give the exact dating. Here, David Link’s work comments of the 1950s and challenges the view that computing was always heavily dominated by the military interests. Strachey and Turing, as demonstrated in the show, were also implied in the kinds of making sense of the world through the funny, peculiar and the absurd. Computing of the 1950s and 1960s still remained quite closed for wider tinkering. The 1970s and 1980s brought around home computers and ‘script kiddies’ avant la lettre, and a new era of fun begun, less like the absurdist fun of, say, the writer Daniil Kharms, but more homebrew and hands-on, with a distinctive materiality and aesthetic that is alive up to this moment. The 1990s were the years of the explosion of digital avant-gardes, very similar to the Soviet 1920s, where similar drives of inventing and establishing new orders could be sensed in unrelated domains and artists, computer labs of Universities, companies made up the languages of today.
But again, if one changes the viewpoint and looks at the history of computer science, a different timeline could be developed, with brilliant humanist and humourous programmers, such as Dijkstra coming to the fore, whose acts and breakthroughs stand as milestones.
MF: The first stage of the show, which has just opened at the Arnolfini in Bristol, proposes perhaps a more ‘Geeky’ aspect of fun, that suggests an interest in code, devices, unexpected solutions to newly imagined problems. Is there a particular relation to fun in geek cultures you are interested in here?
OG: Certainly, there is a particular relation to fun in geek cultures. There is professional humour, the insider jokes, the obsession and dedication, cultures of enquiry and leisure, of building and maintaining the structures. I guess what interests me in this respect is the artistic nature of geekiness, for instance, the way in which objects and processes, projects that are thrilling artistic works are produced within systems of coordinates which are not interested in art at all.
The proximity of ways of working and imagining, of letting things to be seen and experienced that are offered in certain ‘geeky’ work and art work makes sensible certain kinds of forces that traverse unrelated areas in making the world up.
Take ‘Tempest for Eliza’ by Eric Thiele. This project is done by a programmer ‘for fun’. It is there to explore the reality of TEMPEST – a secret service code word coined in the late 60-s – early 70-s for the using of and defending against ‘compromising emissions’. Electronic devices emit electromagnetic waves, which can be caught in order for the original data to be reconstructed. Tempest for Eliza demonstrates this in a very precise manner: the software produces images (‘one for each note in the song’), which are displayed by the computer monitor, which sends electromagnetic waves of very high frequencies, which are then caught by short wave AM radio. Here, the thoughtfulness and irony of the project are supported by the formalist coherency of the images produced; and the seemingly non-purposeful usage of a computer reveals the multi-layeredness and complexity of its materiality.
The best examples of fun in geek cultures offer exactly that elegant complexity at the level of formalist qualities, meanings, frameworks, mixed with non-pretentiousness. As statements and ways of seeing, they are laborious, laconic and exact, like haiku.
MF: As we’ve said, the show includes work from several time periods, things that operate as art, but also under other rubrics outside of art. Elsewhere, the idea of ‘Digital Folk’ is one way in which you have spoken about certain computing cultures, the sensibilities active here cross in and out of art, particular kinds of technicity. The show feels refreshingly unconstrained in this way…
OG: As related to the question above, digital folk is a phenomenon that draws heavily on geek cultures. At the same time, there is a sense in which digital folk – a variety of cultures that use, adapt, produce software that makes and ‘changes’ sense in relation to labour conditions, states of work, certain aesthetic normalities, software operations and allowances, always stay minor.
Digital folklore still awaits its dedicated scholar while certain times and kinds of it are becoming lost. At the same time, a part of it, along with software art, made its way into the world of iPhone applications where it is often detached from its operationality, of the ways in which it had a relation to the modes in which an OS works or hangs, to the joint subject formed in-between a desktop computer and its tense user.
MF: The Runme.org site also appears in the exhibition. As a busy place for software art, what does it exemplify in relation to the theme of the show?
OG: Runme developed most rapidly during early and mid naughties when software art was in the period of bloom. In my view, which other people of Runme might not share, it is included for the purposes of remembering. Such remembering is about a somewhat missing round of understanding of the 1990-s and early 2000-s which produced systems of coordinates and languages inhabited by, transformed, used and re-used, often rather violently, in the current sleek digital world.
Here it probably makes sense to provide a short description of Runme for the purposes of reminding:
“Runme.org is a software art repository created by all the people who used and contributed to it since late 2002. It offers an interesting and slightly ironic perspective on software art, and one that is rich in drawing upon programmers’ cultures alongside the more self-consciously ‘artistic’ enquiries. Software art is a set of practices which focus on software as material as well as a machine for making sense of the world we are all implied in, and it works on destabilising some of its normalities. Hosting and linking to over 400 projects, along with features and texts, Runme.org is a project of self-organisation of an art current through the ‘fun’ of exploration that tries to be open, and its position of relative success is due, among other, to the perspectival humour and inclusive drive of its structure.”
MF: Is fun with software the only way to stop it driving you mad?
OG: If you consider software to be the backbone of most management theory based processes that have an ambition to govern all aspects of life in most developed countries (that’s in fact the topic of your and Andy Goffey’s Evil Media Studies book, right?) then fun with software is not only a way to stop losing sanity but also a way to sneak out, which is maybe one and the same thing as one needs to get out in order to remain in.
OG: I would like to say that this exhibition would never be possible without two people which decided on producing it: Annet Dekker and Annette Wolfsberger. Why did you decide to take it on?
Annet Dekker: Software art is often still regarded as belonging to creative industries or nerds and not to experimentation, art or fun. We very much believe in Olga’s approach to software art and wanted to emphasise its importance for art as well as its relation to the structure of society and show this to as many people as we could take on.
We also share your view on the lack of historical recognition or understanding and certainly visibility of these kinds of works. We think it is important to present these works and we are especially attracted by the way Olga has framed the exhibition, not looking at it from a deterministic technological point of view or a merely aesthetic one but looking outside these almost traditional frameworks practiced in art and start with fun. It shows perfectly that art has a wider scope than is often addressed within the field. The focus on fun opens up the exhibition as well as the field of software art which for many, is a very closed territory consisting of and belonging to nerds, trained specialists or large business corporations.
Similarly the concept of fun is not very much talked about and in relation to software often only seen as being about play, gaming and interactivity. This narrow view totally misses the depth or the implications software art and fun have. By presenting works that show different sides of software brings in new relations that hopefully people will recognize as being closer to their own experience and at best something they can actually influence if they wish to.
OG: Annet, is there a relation between the theme and structure of the exhibition and the current layout of artistic, political, social interest in Holland and EU? Does the exhibitions’ thematic fit a certain strategy or a missing discussion? Is there a way in which MU and Baltan laboratories saw themselves implied in such problematic?
AD: I think it goes too far to connect the theme and structure to the current political situation in the EU or the Netherlands – although the issue of fun would in a way be a perfect vehicle to divert current issues. It would certainly be a welcoming addition in todays political climate as it may show things in a different perspective.
As for the venues that were approached to show Funware we tried to find different environments to connect with and relate to in a manner that will open up the discussion of the influence of software. Arnofini with its history in performance and theatre was an interesting point of departure to think of or invest with software. MU on the other hand has an interest in visual culture of the here and now but it is foremost the quirky and approachable multidisciplinary approach of MU that made it a perfect place to connect to. At the same time Eindhoven as a city has a long history of innovation and research, where Phillips has its roots, and local organisations are keen to work together. Together with MU and Baltan Laboratories we ended up organizing an exhibition, an artist in residence (together with NIMk in Amsterdam and Piksel in Bergen, Norway), an extended educational programme and a symposium at one of the largest art&technology festivals taking place in Eindhoven, STRP. It’s quite amazing that so many connections could be made in one city. In a way it reflects the diverse character of software art.
In the end HardwareMedienKunstVerein brings these different perspectives together. HMKV has a long-term international reputation for display of new developments in both art and technology By choosing a thematic approach whereby technical art is seen as a means not as an end. It is their topical and conceptual discussion of our contemporary world based increasingly on media and technological structures which is also reflected in Funware.
MF: Bringing together pieces of work from different times implies some kind of preservation or reconstitution of some works. I wonder, is there some kind of fun to this process itself?
AD: Yes absolutely and in many different ways. It is the absurdism of trying to find a working plug, cable or network configuration just in order to see the authentic working. This of course relates to the practice of conservation in art where ‘the authentic’ is the most valued. And especially with software art it has become a bigger challenge to get to such an authentic experience. Rebuilding software is not only about assembling the objects and maybe slightly restoring them, but also about reconstructing the code by doing. The work by David Link is again a perfect example here. But there are of course also other methods, which aim at representing the work through documentation. Trying to reconstruct the context of the work and doing the interviews reliving the experience can certainly be fun. It brings up aspects that were long forgotten but which when recounted, shed a totally new light on the work, also sometimes for the makers. At times, one could argue that the documentation of a work might be better than the actual work. For Funware we try all these different methods, just to see what it brings; and in case when things don’t work anymore we asked the artists to think of revisioning their work (as is the case with JODI’s JET SET WILLY the making off). Making a new version by building on the past is a way to accept loss and at the same time an attempt to prolong the work.
But it all can be very serious so it is important to keep a sense of humour as a means to prevent you from becoming too frantic. In the end we are presenting a new work by Dave Griffiths, Aymeric Mansoux and Marloes de Valk: Naked on Pluto – a game in Facebook, I’m already looking forward to seeing that being preserved!
MF: One of the things that is the sheer variety of the formats involved. Some projects entail custom hardware, of several different sorts, that either ‘quote’ existing objects or invent new ones, others use conventional computing platforms. Some work exists fleetingly on networks of different kinds, one exists on paper only, others work with cracked or manipulated games or use computers primarily aimed at children. How do you see this diversity?
AD: To me this is the whole point of the show, to present the sheer diversity of software art. It is not just the ‘world of nerds’, it’s all around you, much closer than you think, and it can be accessed in many different ways and levels.
OG: It is interesting that at a point in time, there was a discussion about the problems of presenting new media art in a gallery space, as a lot of such presentation took the form of a computer sitting on the desk. It was somewhat surprising to see now, how easily a very wide range of methodologies and conceptual structures could be gathered together. Probably, an easy answer is that with such a largely retrospective show as Funware is, the body of great work accumulated naturally exhibits a richness and diversity that only proves how interesting those years and explorations were.
MF: Many mainstream accounts of computing propose that it becomes increasingly calm, intuitive, fitting into the ‘flow’ of everyday life and enhancing it. Others propose that it is not simply functionalist, but becomes a kind of event in itself, full of lots of bijoux treats, as for instance with some smartphones as mentioned already, animating daily routines with pleasure-design and things to fill time. Such figurations are perhaps most evident in HCI and user experience design or other forms of human factors.
The work in this show however tends to step aside from these two poles in order to propose different kinds of thoughtfulness and experience in relation to software, each piece of work having its own characteristics of excitement, awkwardness, time-requirements, involvement and so on. Some of them are exuberant, but others, melancholy. You show us that, in places, software culture is, by several means, inexplicably richer than that which it is designed for. What might be the stakes in such explication?
OG: I would not like to end up the interview by a pessimistic rant on the ‘brave new world’ that is speedily coming towards us, though everyone holds their breathe here in Britain, waiting for the cuts, new immigration rules, university tuition fees changes, and other kinds of governmental announcements. Now, it becomes crystal clear that a sheer possibility to play around, to do something useless that may become brilliant, to be obscure and absurd is fundamental to the production of culture we inhabit and the parts of it we admire, can disappear. This is a question of education, imagination, environment, ideology, time, idea of usefulness and of value, aesthetics and many other spectra. Software culture is not different, in this sense, from other domains. However, what is also possible is a new renaissance through the very renewing of the ‘oppressed’, as hard times are often very interesting And here, software is different, in terms of the kinds of control possible and implemented, by the types of network platforms or hardware popular and desired and also by the depth of its appropriation by the pure ideological management system of society. What can be done here now, remains an open question.
The Arnolfini edition of the show includes, ‘Love Letter Generator’ by David Link, Jodi’s film ‘All Wrongs Reversed (c) 1982′, ‘WIMP’ by Laskin/Shulgin, ‘Tempest for Eliza’ by Eric Thiele, ‘London.pl’ by Harwood, ‘Open Circuit’ by Christoph Haag, Martin Rumori, Franziska Windisch & Ludwig Zeller and ‘Runme.org’.
Eindhoven’s version of the show, produced by MU and Baltan laboratories, will be much larger and includes ‘Auto Illustrator’ by Adrian Ward, ‘SVEN’ by Amy Alexander, ‘eRiceCooker’ by Annina Ruest, ‘Al Jazari ‘by Dave Griffiths, ‘Naked on Pluto’ by Dave Griffiths, Aymeric Mansoux, and Marloes de Valk, ‘wowPod’ by Electroboutique, ‘LOCUSOLUS’ by Gazira Babeli, ‘RETROYOU R/C STORY’ by Joan Leandre, ‘JET SET WILLY the making of’ by JODI, ‘Satromiser’ by Jon Satrom and Ben Syverson, ‘I/O/D 4: The Web Stalker’ by I/O/D, ‘Hardware Orchestra’ by Carmen Weisskopf, Domagoj Smoljo and Roger Wigger, ‘SimCopter’ by RTMark, the above mentioned ‘Open Circuit’, ‘Runme.org’ and ‘Textmode Quake’.
The exhibition will then go to Hartware MedienKunstVerein in spring 2011.
‘Fun with Software’
Arnolfini, Bristol, UK
25 September – 21 November 2010
16 Narrow Quay, Bristol
12 November 2010 – 16 January 2011
MU, Eindhoven (NL)
5611 AZ Eindhoven
Made possible with support of VSBfonds.
HMKV, Dortmund (DE)
HMKV at Dortmunder U
(formerly Brinkhoffst. 4)