“Generation Flash” looks at the phenomenon of Flash graphics on the Web that attracted a lot of creative energy in the last few years. More than just a result of a particular software/hardware situation (low bandwidth leading to the use of vector graphics), Flash aesthetics exemplifies cultural sensibility of a new generation . This generation does not care if their work is called art or design. This generation is no longer is interested in “media critique” which preoccupied media artists of the last two decades; instead it is engaged in software critique. This generation writes its own software code to create their own cultural systems, instead of using samples of commercial media . The result is the new modernism of data visualizations, vector nets, pixel-thin grids and arrows: Bauhaus design in the service of information design. Instead the Baroque assault of commercial media, Flash generation serves us the modernist aesthetics and rationality of software. Information design is used as tool to make sense of reality while programming becomes a tool of empowerment 
Turntable and Flash Remixing
[Turntable is a web-based software that allows the user to mix in real-time up to 6 different Flash animations, in addition manipulating color palette, size of individual animations and other parameters. For www.whitneybiennial.com, the participating artists were asked to submit short Flash animations that were exhibited on the site both separately and as part of Turntable remixes. Some remixes consisted from animations of the same artists while others used animations by different artists.]
It became a cliché to announce that “we live in remix culture.” Yes, we do. But is it possible to go beyond this simple statement of fact? For instances, can we distinguish between different kinds of remix aesthetics? What is the relationship between our remixes made with electronic and computer tools and such earlier forms as collage and montage? What are the similarities and differences between audio remixes and visual remixes?
Think loop. The basic building block of an electronic sound track, the loop also conquered surprisingly strong position in contemporary visual culture. Left to their own devices, Flash animations, QuickTime movies, the characters in computer games loop endlessly – until the human user intervenes by clicking. As I have shown elsewhere, all nineteenth century pre-cinematic visual devices also relied on loops. Throughout the nineteenth century, these loops kept getting longer and longer – eventually turning into a feature narrative Today, we witness the opposite movement – artists sampling short segments of feature films or TV shows, arranging them as loops, and exhibiting these loops as “video installations.” The loop thus becomes the new default method to “critique” media culture, replacing a still photograph of post-modern critique of the 1980s. At the same time, it also replaces the still photograph as the new index of the real: since everybody knows that a still photography can be digitally manipulated, a short moving sequence arranged in a loop becomes a better way to represent reality – for the time being.)
Think Internet. What was referred in post-modern times as quoting, appropriation, and pastiche no longer needs any special name. Now this is simply the basic logic of cultural production: download images, code, shapes, scripts, etc.; modify them, and then paste the new works online – send them into circulation. (Note: with Internet, the always-existing loop of cultural production runs much faster: a new trend or style may spread overnight like a plague.) When I ask my students to create their own images by making photographs or by shooting video, they have a revelation: images do not have to come from Internet! Shall I also reveal to them that images do not have to come from a technological device that record reality – that instead they can be drawn or painted?
Think image. Compare it to sound. It seems possible to layer many many many sounds and tracks together while maintaining legibility. The result just keep getting more complex, more interesting. Vision seems to be working differently. Of course commercial images we see everyday on TV and in cinema are often made from layers as well, sometimes as many as thousands – but these layers work together to create a single illusionistic (or super-illusionistic) space. In other words, they are not being heard as separate sounds. When we start mixing arbitrary images together, we quickly destroy any meaning. [If you need proof, just go and play with the classic The Digital Landfill How many separate image tracks can be mixed together before the composite becomes nothing but noise? Six seems to be a good number – which is exactly the number of image tracks one can load onto Turntable.
Think sample versus the whole work. If we are indeed living in a remix culture does it still make sense to create whole works – if these works will be taken apart and turned into samples by others anyway? Indeed, why painstakingly adjust separate tracks of Director movie or After Effects composition getting it just right if the “public” will “open source” them into their individual tracks for their own use using some free software? Of course, the answer is yes: we still need art. We still want to say something about the world and our lives in it; we still need our own “mirror standing in the middle of a dirty road,” as Stendahl called art in the nineteenth century. Yet we also need to accept that for others our work will be just a set of samples, or maybe just one sample. Turntable is the visual software that makes this new aesthetic condition painfully obvious. It invites us to play with the dialectic of the sample and the composite, of our own works and the works of others. Welcome to visual remixing Flash style.
Art, Media Art, and Software Art
Suddenly, programming is cool. Suddenly, the techniques and imagery that for two decades were associated with SIGGRAPH geek ness and were considered bad taste – visual output of mathematical functions, particle systems, RGB color palette – are welcomed on the plasma screens of the gallery walls. It is no longer “October” and “Wallpaper” but Flash and Director manuals that are the required read for any serious young artist.
Of course from its early days in 1960s computer artists have always wrote their own software. In fact, until the middle of the 1980s, writing own software or at least using special very high-end programming languages designed by others (such as Zgrass) was the only way to do computer art . So what is new about the recently emerged phenomenon of software art? Is it necessary?
Let’s distinguish between three figures: an artist; a media artist; and a software artist.
A romantic/modernist artist (the nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth century) is a genius who creates from scratch, imposing the phantoms of his imagination on the world.
Next, we have the new figure of a media artist (the 1960s – the 1980s) that corresponds to the period of post-modernism. Of course modernist artists also used media recording technologies such as photography and film but they treated these technologies similar to other artistic tools: as means to create an original and subjective view of the world. In contrast, post-modern media artists accept the impossibility of an original, unmediated vision of reality; their subject matter is not reality itself, but representation of reality by media, and the world of media itself. Therefore these media artists not only use media technologies as tools, but they also use the content of commercial media. A typical strategy of a media artist is to re-photograph a newspaper photograph, or to re-edit a segment of TV show, or to isolate a scene from a Hollywood film/TV shows and turn it into a loop (from Nam June Paik and Dara Birnbaum to Douglas Gordon, Paul Pffefer, Jennifer and Kevin McCoy) Of course, a media artist does not have to use commercial media technologies (photography, film, video, new media) – s/he can also use other media, from oil paint to printing to sculpture.
The media artist is a parasite who leaves at the expense of the commercial media – the result of collective craftsmanship of highly skilled people. In addition, an artist who samples from/subverts/pokes at commercial media can ultimately never compete with it. Instead of a feature film, we get a single scene; instead of a complex computer game with playability, narrative, AI, etc. we get just a critique of its iconography.
Thirty years of media art and post-modernism have inevitably led to a reaction. We are tired of always taking existing media as a starting point. We are tired of being always secondary, always reacting to what already exists.
Enter a software artist – the new romantic. Instead of working exclusively with commercial media – and instead of using commercial software – software artist marks his/her mark on the world by writing the original code. This act of code writing itself is very important, regardless of what this code actually does at the end.
A software artist re-uses the language of modernist abstraction and design – lines and geometric shapes, mathematically generated curves and outlined color fields – to get away from figuration in general, and cinematographic language of commercial media in particular. Instead of photographs and clips of films and TV, we get lines and abstract compositions. In short, instead of QuickTime, we use Flash. Instead of computer as a media machine – a vision being heavily promoted by computer industry (and most clearly articulated by Apple who promotes a Mac as a “digital hub” for other media recording/playing devices), we go back to computer as a programming machine.
Programming liberates art from being secondary to commercial media. The similar reason may be behind the recent popularity of “sound art.” While commercial media now uses every possible visual style, commercial sound environments still have not appropriated all of sound space. While rock and roll, hip-hop, and techno have already become standard elevator music (at least in more hip elevators such as the Hudson Hotel in NYC), it seems that the rhythm-less regions of sound space are still untouched – at least for now.
To return to the topic of new modernism. Of course we don’t want to simply replay Mondrian and Klee on computer screens. The task of the new generation is to integrate the two paradigms of the twentieth century: (1) belief in science and rationality, emphasis on efficiency, basic forms, idealism and heroic spirit of modernism; (2) skepticism, interest in “marginality” and “complexity,” deconstructive strategies, baroque opaqueness and excess of post-modernism (1960s). At this point all the features of the second paradigm became tired clichés. Therefore a return to modernism is not a bad first step, as long as it is just a first step towards developing the new aesthetics for the new age.
Utopia in Shockwave
[Utopia is a Shockwave project by Futurefarmers for Tirana Biennale 01 Internet section]
[Futurefarmers: Amy Franceschini and Sascha Merg]
Utopia is playful and deceitful – because it pretends to be more innocent, more simple, and more light than it actually is. At first glance it can be taken for something made for children – or for adults whose references are not Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud, Rem Koolhaas, and Philip Stark, but text messaging, gnuttela, retro Atari graphics, and nettime. This is the new generation that emerged in the 1990s. In contrast to visual and media artists of the 1960s-1980s, whose main target was media – ads, cinema, television – the new generation does not waste its energy on media critique. Instead of bashing commercial media environment, it creates its own: Web sites, mixes, software tools, furniture, cloves, digital video, Flash/Shockwave animations and interactives.
The new sensibility, which Utopia exemplifies so well, is soft, elegant, restrained, and smart. This is the new software intelligentsia. Look at the thin low-contrast lines of Utopia, praystation.com, and so many Flash projects included in Tirana Biennale 01. If images of the previous generations of media artists, from Nam June Paik to Barbara Krueger, were screaming, trying to compete with the intensity of the commercial media, the new data artists such as Franceschini/Merg whisper in our ears. In contrast to media’s arrogance, they offer us intelligence. In contrast to media stream of endless repeated icons and sound bytes, they offer us small and economical systems: stylized nature, ecology, or the game/music generator/Lego-like parade in Utopia.
Futurefarmers are among the few Flash/Schockwave masters who use their skills for social rather than simply a formal end. Their project Theyrule.net is a great example of how smart programming and smart graphics can be used politically. Instead of presenting a packaged political message, it gives us data and the tools to analyze it. It knows that we are intelligent enough to draw the right conclusion. This is the new rhetoric of interactivity: we get convinced not by listening/watching a prepared message but by actively working with the data: reorganizing it, uncovering the connections, becoming aware of correlations.
Utopia does not have explicit political content; instead it presents its message through a visual allegory. Like SimCity and similar sims, the program presents us with a whole minituare world which runs according to its own system of rules. (All the animation in Utopia is result of code execution – nothing is hand animated). The cosmogony of this world reflects our new understanding of our own planet – post Cold War, Internet, ecology, Gaia, and globalisation. Notice the thin barely visible lines that connect the actors and the blocks. (This is the same device used in Theyrule.net) In the universe of Utopia, everything is interconnected, and each action of an individual actor affects the system as a whole. Intellectually, we know that this is how our Earth functions ecologically and economically – but Utopia represents this on a scale we can grasp perceptually.
The lines also serve another purpose. Despite CNN, Greenpeace, the glass roof of Berlin’s Reistag and other institutions and devices working to make the functioning of modern societies transparent to their citizens, most of it is not visible. This is is not only because we don’t know the motives behind this or that Government policy or because advertizing and PR constantly work to make things appear diffirently from what they really are – the societies’ functioning is not visible in a literal sense. For instance, we don’t know where are the cells which make our cell phones work; we don’t know the layout of private financial network tha circle the Earth; we don’t know what companies are located in a building we pass everyday on a way to work; and so on. But in Utopia, we do know – because the links are made visible. Utopia is Utopia because it is a society where cause and effect connection are rendered visible and comprehensible. The program re-writes Marxism as vector graphics; it substitues the figure of “connections” for the old figure of “unweilling.”
Utopia is serious business behind its playful façade – but it is not all business. Drawing on our urrent fascination with computer games and interactive image-sound software, Utopia is a visual and intellectual delight,Utopia draws on the current fascination with computer games and interactive image-sound software. It is Tetris that meets Marx that meets data mining that meets the club dance floor. It is a game for the new generation that know that the world is a network, that the media is not worth taking very seriously, and that programming can be used as a political tool.
The Unbearable Lightness of Flash
[Tirana Biennale 01 Internet section (www.electronicorphanage.com/biennale) was organized by Miltos Manetas/Electronic Orphanage. The exhibition consisted from a few dozen projects by Web designers and artists, many of whom work in Flash or Schockwave. Manetas comissioned me, Peter Lunenfeld, and Norman Klein to write the analysis of the show. This text is my contribution; many ideas in it developed out of the conversations the three of us had about the works in the show. The joint text entitled “KLM Theory” will be released soon. The names in brackets below refer to the artists in the show; go to the show site to see their projects.]
Flash artists are big on biological references. Abstract plants, minimalist creatures, or simply clouds of pixels dance in patterns which to a human eye signal “life'” (Geoff Stearns: deconcept.com, Vitaly Leokumovich:unclickable.com, Danny Hobart: dannyhobart.com; uncontrol.com) Often we see self-regenerating systems. But this is not life as it naturally developed on Earth; rather, it looks like something we are likely to witness in some biotech laboratory where biology is put in the service of industrial production. We see hyper accelerated regeneration and evolution. We see complex systems emerging before our eyes: millions of years of evolution are compressed into a few seconds.
There is another feature that distinguishes life a la Flash from real life: the non-existence of death. Biological organisms and systems are born, they develop, and eventually they die. In short, they have teleology. But in Flash projects life works differently: since these projects are loops, there is no death. Life just keeps running forever – more precisely, until your computer maintains Net connection.
Amplification: Flash aesthetics and Computer Games
Abstract ecosystems in Flash projects have another characteristic that makes playing so pleasurable (Joel Fox). They brilliantly use the power of the computer to amplify user’s actions. This power puts a computer in line with other magical devices; not accidentally, the most obvious place to see it is in games, although it is also at work in all of our interactions with a computer. For instance, when you tell Mario to step to the left by moving a joystick, this initiates a small delightful narrative: Mario comes across a hill; he starts climbing the hill; the hill turns to be too steep; Mario slides back onto the ground; Mario gets up, all shaking. None of these actions required anything from us; all we had to do is just to move the joystick once. The computer program amplifies our single action, expanding it into a narrative sequence.
Historically, computer games were always a step ahead from the general human computer interface. In the 1960s and 1970s users communicated with a computer using non-graphical interfaces: entering the program onto a stack of punch cards, typing on a command line, and so on. In contrast since their beginnings in the late 1950s, computer games adopted interactive graphical interface – something that only came to personal computers in the 1980s.
Similarly, today’s games already use what many computer scientists think will be the next paradigm in HCI: active amplification of user’s actions. In the future, we are told, agent programs would watch our interactions with a computer, notice the patterns, and then automate many tasks we do regularly, from backing up the data at regular intervals to filtering and answering our email. The computer would also monitor our behavior and attention level, adjusting its behavior accordingly: speeding up, slowing down, and so on. In some ways this new paradigm is already at work in some applications: for instance, a Internet browser offers us the list of sites relevant to the topic we are searching on; Microsoft Office Assistant trying to guess when we need help. However, there is a crucial problem with moving to such active amplification across the whole of HCI. The more power we delegate to a computer, the more we lose control over what it is doing. How do we know that the agent program identified a correct pattern in our daily use of email? How do we know that a commerce agent we send on the Web to negotiate with other agents the lowest price for a product was not corrupted by them? In short, how do we know that a computer amplified our actions correctly?
Computer games are games, and the worst that may happen is that we lose. Therefore active amplification is present in practically every game: Mario embarking on mini-narratives of its own with a single move of a joystick; troops conducting complex military maneuvers while you directly control only their leader in Rainbow Six; Lara Craft executing whole acrobatic sequences with a press of a keyboard key. (Note that in “normal” games this amplification does not exist: when you move a single figure on a chessboard, this is all that happens; your move does not initiate a sequence of steps.)
Flash projects heavily use active amplification. It gives many projects the magical feeling. Often we are confronted with an empty screen, but a single click brings to life a whole universe: abstract particle systems, plant-like outlines, or a population of minimalist creatures. The user as a God controlling the universe is something we also often encounter in computer games; but Flash projects also give us the pleasure of creating the universe from scratch.
The active amplification is not the only feature Flash projects share with games. More generally, computer games are for Flash generation what movies were for Wharhol. Cinema and TV colonized the unconscious of the previous generations of media artists who continue to use the gallery as their therapy coach, spilling bits and pieces of their childhood media archives in public (for instance, Douglas Gordon). Flash artists are less obsessed with commercial time-based media. Instead, their iconography, temporal rhythms, and interaction aesthetics come from games (Mike Clavert: mikeclavert.com). Sometimes the user participation is needed for the Flash game to work; sometimes the game just plays itself (Utopia by futurefarmers.com; dextro.org).
Flash versus Net Art
Tirana Biennale 01 Internet exhibition: this title is deeply ironic. The exhibition did not include any projects from Albany, or any other post-communist East European country for that matter. This was quite different from many early net art exhibitions of the middle of the 1990s whose stars came from the East: Vuc Cosic, Alexei Shulgin, Olga Lialina. 1990s net art was the first international art movement since the 1960s that included east Europe in a big way. Prague, Ljubljana, Riga, and Moscow counted as much as Amsterdam, Berlin, and New York. Equally including artists from the West and the East, net art perfectly corresponded to the economic and social utopia of a new post Cold War world of the 1990s.
Now this utopia is over. The power structure of the global Empire has become clear, and the demographics of Tirana Biennale 01 Internet section reflected this perfectly. Many artists included in Tirana Biennale 01Internet exhibition work in key IT regions of the world: San Francisco (Silicon Valley), New York (Silicon Alley) and Northern Europe.
What happened? In the mid 1990s, net art relied on simple HTML that run well on both fast and slow connections – and this is enabled active participation of the artists from the East. But the subsequent colonization of the Web by multimedia formats – Flash, Shockwave, QuickTime, and so on – restored the traditional West/East power structure. Now Web art requires fast Internet connections for both the artist and the audiences. With its slow connections, East is out of the game. The Utopia is over; welcome to the Empire.
(Tirana Biennale 01 did include one artist from China who contributed a beatiful animation of martial arts fighters. But we never found who he was. All we knew about him was his email address: email@example.com. Maybe he did not even live in China.)
When I first visited the most famous Flash site – praystation.net – I was struck by the lightness of its graphics. More quite when whisper, more elegant than Dior or Chanel, more minimal than 1960s minimalist sculptures of Judd, more subdued than the winter landscape in heavy fog, the site pushed the contrast scale to the limits of legibility. The similar lightness and restrain can be found in many projects included in Biennale 01 show. Again, the contrast with screaming graphics of commercial media and the media art of the previous generations is obvious.
The lightness of Flash can be thought of as a visual equivalent of electronic ambient music. Every line and every pixel counts. Flash appeals to our visual intelligence – and cognitive intelligence. After the century of RGB color which begun with Matisse and ended with aggressive spreads of Wired, we are asked to start over, to begin from scratch. Flash generation invites us to undergo a visual cleansing – this is why we see a monochrome palette, white and light gray. It uses neo-minimalism as a pill to cure us from post-modernism. In Flash, the rationality of modernism is combined with the rationality of programming and the affect of computer games to create the new aesthetics of lightness, curiosity and intelligence. Make sure your browser have the right plug-in: welcome to generation Flash.
Postcript: Response to my critics
>> A software artist re-uses the language of modernist abstraction and design –
>> lines and geometric shapes, mathematically generated curves and outlined
>> color fields – to get away from figuration in general, and cinematographic
>> language of commercial media in particular. Instead of photographs and clips
>> of films and TV, we get lines and abstract compositions. In short, instead
>> of QuickTime, we use Flash. Instead of computer as a media machine – a
>> vision being heavily promoted by computer industry (and most clearly
>> articulated by Apple who promotes a Mac as a “digital hub” for other media
>> recording/playing devices), we go back to computer as a programming
>> Programming liberates art from being secondary to commercial media. The
>> similar reason may be behind the recent popularity of “sound art.” While
>> commercial media now uses every possible visual style, commercial sound
>> environments still have not appropriated all of sound space. While rock and
>> roll, hip-hop, and techno have already become standard elevator music (at
>> least in more hip elevators such as the Hudson Hotel in NYC), it seems that
>> the rhythm-less regions of sound space are still untouched – at least for
> I don’t know that programming is as liberatory as is stated here. If
> anything, programming holds the possibility of involving one in a different
> set of relations to product(ion), as well as to a different class of
> worker. I’ve made some references to this other relation elsewhere.
> Mentioning Flash already seems to undermine this libertine vision you want
> to advance. Although the Flash spec were released by Macromedia a few years
> ago, and is considered “open,” as far as I understand it people working
> with Flash are still very much using the tools provided by a Macromedia. I
> have seen very limited software libraries written in Java and C (one by
> Paul Haberli) which allow C programmers (and at some point Java programmers
> too) to create Flash-generated imagery on-the-fly from within their C
> programs, but I get the sense that this type of programming is not what you
> mean when you talk about Flash. Flash remains essentially “media,” as you
> define it, much as Quicktime. I don’t think that scripting separates it
> from being so. For that matter, some “programming” is also possible using
> Quicktime. In many ways, for programmers, Quicktime is much more useful
> because Apple provides an extensive C library through which to access its
> functionality, which extends far beyond making digital videos. In fact,
> what is so interesting about Quicktime is that it is not old-media (film,
> video, sound) specific. Rather, in many ways it is more of a protocol for
> creating, playing, and delivering *time-based information*. In theory, one
> can do much more with Quicktime than what artists have tended to use it
> for. This is not simply a limitation of Quicktime, but of artists as well.
> Mostly of artists and the systems within which they learn. Anyway, one can
> also access Quicktime from within Java, as Apple has made a set of classes
> for doing that easily: Quicktime for Java. I am not defending Quicktime,
> simply pointing out some problematic issues in the distinctions you are
> making between programming and media.
> I also think that many non-artist programmers would resist referring to
> Flash as a programming language. Well, they would giggle. Programmers tend
> to think of C/C++, Fortran, Basic, Java as their materials. To be sure,
> there is a bravura at work there. Programmers tend to work with programming
> systems or libraries in order to create their applications, but Flash still
> seems very much tied to the development environment Macromedia sells.
> Furthermore, this issue of liberation through programming seems somewhat
> more Romantic than it needs to be. One of the linguistic issues which
> programming languages have made so apparent is the citational dimension of
> all languages, be they social, mathematical, or programmatic. “A software
> artist re-uses the language of modernist abstraction and design –
> lines and geometric shapes…” Similarly, programmers very often learn to
> program by copying and modifying other programs and, on a more abstract
> level, algorithms. (Beth Stryker and I delivered a paper earlier this year
> at CAA in Philadelphia which sketched out some relations between
> programming algorithms and notions of space and representation in general.)
> Advanced programmers use these same techniques. They also utilize software
> libraries (talked about earlier in the case of Quicktime) which contain
> code which can be referenced (“called”) from within one’s (own) code. In
> other words, programmers are always already indebted to other programmers.
> The whole GNU project depends on this structure of debt. I don’t disagree
> that there is an element of liberation to be studied here, but it is not a
> simple one, and certainly not one that is merely oppositional.
> While it is true that Flash currently is implemented upon a vector-based
> set of routines, your use of its attributes to characterize all software
> art is simply synecdoche.
> “A software artist re-uses the language of modernist abstraction and design –
> lines and geometric shapes, mathematically generated curves and outlined
> color fields – to get away from figuration in general, and cinematographic
> language of commercial media in particular. Instead of photographs and clips
> of films and TV, we get lines and abstract compositions. In short, instead
> of QuickTime, we use Flash.”
> There is no reason that software art cannon use/create “images” in the
> narrowly defined sense of “pictures,” or any other form we identify from
> our experiences with so-called old-media. Through software one can create
> images or effect any number of sensuous phenomena. Your position vis-a-vis
> the “modernism” effected by the Flash protocol, which is designed to
> deliver compressed animation over relatively narrow bandwidth seems to me
> mistakes technological limitations for an iconoclastic morality.
I am delighted by the dialog and the number of responses provoked by my text. I tried to make it confrontational on purpose to stimulate the debate, and seems that it worked. Here are my answers to your comment.
Flash Software vs. Flash Generation
I think that some of your points were already anticipated and answered in my “summary” and a footnote included in the very first posting (1/3). I probably should have included them with the subsequent postings. I am quoting them here:
–––––––––––––––––– quote ––––––––––––––––––
“Generation Flash” looks at the phenomenon of Flash graphics on the Web that attracted a lot of creative energy in the last few years. More than just a result of a particular software/hardware situation (low bandwidth leading to the use of vector graphics), Flash aesthetics exemplifies cultural sensibility of a new generation …
1. I should make it clear that many of the sites which inspired me to think of “Flash aesthetics” are not necessaraly made with Flash; they use Shockwave, DHTML, Quicktime and other Web multimedia formats. Thus the qualities I describe below as specefic to “Flash aesthetics” are not unique to Flash sites.
–––––––––––––––––– end of quote –––––––––––––
I completely agree with you that using Flash’s scripting language is not the same as programming in Java, that this a commercial and a closed software, and that QuickTime can be used in much more interesting ways than it normally is: that is, as a programmable time-based media rather than simply a way to show digital video.
The reasons I used Flash (rather than QuickTime, or Java, of any other software) as a stand-in for a larger phenomenon I am addressing in the text are the following:  the existence of a strong, large, highly visible, and dynamic subculture around Flash – almost a movement – something that I have not seen develop around other software programs);  on the Web it is Flash projects that exemplify “soft modernism” aesthetics one can now finds across new media art landscape (for instance, works by Lisa Jevbratt, John Simon, and Golan Levin that I refered to in footnote 2 of posting 1/3);  finally, my text developed in response to the request by Miltos Manetas to write something for his current show www.whitneybiennial.com which consists solely from Flash pieces (see footnote 3 of posting 1/3).
Of course, now that the new release of Flash (Flash MX) allows for import and streaming of video, it is possible that soon “Flash generation”/”soft modernism” aesthetics will leave Flash sites. This is fine. Again, my concern is not with Flash software and its limitations/capabilities per ce, but with the new sensibility that during the last couple of years manifested in many Flash projects. In other words, I am interested in “generation Flash” that is quite diffirent from Flash software/format.
Therefore the number of people who after reading my text accused me of confusing a technical standard with an aesthetics missed my argument. The vector oriented look of “soft modernism” is not simply a result of narrow bandwidth or a nostalgia for 1960s design – it always happens when people begin to generate graphics through programming and discover that they can use simple equitations, etc. For instance at UCSD we teach a course in graphics programs (using C and OpenGL) to our computer arts students, and what the students typically end up creating are vector animations. This is also why “soft modernism” of Flash projects and other software artists replays, sometimes in amazing detail, the aesthetics of early computer art (1950s-1970s) when people were only able to create images and animations through programming.
Flash vs. QuickTime: “A Personal Dynamic Medium”
I also agree with your statement that “There is no reason that software arts cannon use/create ‘images’ in the narrowly defined sense of ‘pictures,’ or any other form we identify from our experiences with so-called old-media.” It was not accidental that soon after his arrival at Xerox PARC in the 1970s, Alan Kay and his associates created a paint ptogram and an animation program, alongside with overlapping windows, icons, Smalltalk and other principes of modern interactive grapphical computing. The ability to manipulate and generate media are not after-thoughts to a modern computer – they are central to its identity as a “personal dynamic medium” (Alan Kay.) To put his diffirently: computer is a simulation machine, and as such it can and should be used to simulate other media.
So I have nothing software artists using/creating media, but I hope that “Flash Generation” will extend its programming work to representational media! In other words, if in the early 1970s the paint program and the animation program were revolutionary in changing people idea about a computer away from computation and towards a (creative) medium, after almost two decades of menu based media manipulation programs and the use of computers as media distribution machine (greatly accelerated by World Wide Web), a little programming can be quite revolutionary! In short, we have now are so used to think of a computer as a “personal dynamic medium,” that we need to remind ourselves and others that it is also a programmable machine.
Now, think about how programming has been used so far to create/use still images, animation and film/video. There are three trajectories that can be traced historically. One trajectory extends from the earliest works of computer art – the films by the Whitneys made with an analog computer already in the mid 1950s (who were the students fof Oscar Fishinger and thus represent a direct link with the early twentieth century modernism) – to today’s “soft modernism” of Flash projects and data visualisation artworks. In other words, this is the use of programming to generate and control abstract images.
The second trajectory begins in the 1980s when Hollywood and TV designers started to use computer-generated imagery (CGI). Now, programming was put in the service of traditional cinematic realism. Particle systems, formal grammars, AI and other software techniques became the means to generate flying bats, hilly landscapes, ocean waves, explositions, alien creatures, and other figurative elements intergrated in a photorealistic universe of a narrative film.
What about using algorithms not simply to generate figurative elements of a narrative but to control the whole fictional universe? This is the third trajectory: programming in computer games (1960). Here algorithms may control the narrative events, the behavior of characters, camera movement, and other characteristics of the game world – all in real time. Unfortunately, as we all know, aesthetially revolutionary computer and player driven game worlds feature formula-driven content that makes even a bad Hollywood film appear original and inspiring by comparison. (Grand Theft Auto 3 is no exeption here – despite its breathroughs in simulating a more compeling an open universe.)
I think this brief survey shows that there is still an untouched space completely open for experimentation and creative research – using programming to generate and/or control figurative/fictional media. For instance, in the case of a movie, programing can be used to generate characters on the fly, to composite in real-time characters shot against a blue screen with backgrounds, to control the sequence of scenes, to apply filters to any scene in real-time, to combine pre-recorded scene with on the imagery generated on the fly, to have characters interact with the viewer, etc, etc. In short, programming can be used to control any aspect of a fictional media work.
Of course, once in a while one encounters projects moving in this direction at places like SIGGRAPH or ISEA, but they are typically research demos created in Universities that do not reach culture at large. Of course, you can object that having an algorithmatically controlled complex fictional universe requires the kind of programming investment only possible in a commercial game company or in a University. After all, this is not the same as writing a script that draws a few lines that keep moving in response to user input… yes, but why our fictional/figurative works have to follow the formulas of commercial media? If one accepts that the characters do not have to be “photorealistic,” that the fictional world does not have to be exclusively three-dimensional, that chance and randmness can co-exist with narrative logic, or that stick figures can co-exist with 3-D characters and video footage, etc., programming iguration/fiction becomes less formidable. It can even be fun!
Let me conclude with a personal confession. While in the mid 1980s I was programming abstract images and 3-D animations in APL, and writing my own image processing filters for processing photographs in C, today I am much more interested in programming fictional and/or figurative media works (in whatever!) (Note: it is this use of figuration alongside abstraction which draws me to the software works of John Simon.) I am on a advisory board of AVRA project (www.thickspace.net) to create open source software for making QuickTime manipulation via programming more accessible. Similarly, my current project-in-development Soft Cinema is designed to show how programming can be used to drive figurative, rather than abstract, media generation and control – specefically, automatic real-time editing of digital video. In short, while I welcome programming Flash, I think it is much more challenging to program QuickTime!
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- This article about “Flash Generation” and noI should make it clear that many of the sites which inspired me to think of “Flash aesthetics” are not necessaraly made with Flash; they use Shockwave, DHTML, Quicktime and other Web multimedia formats. Thus the qualities I describe below as specefic to “Flash aesthetics” are not unique to Flash sites. [↩]
- For instance, the work of Lisa Jevbratt, John Simon, and Golan Levin. [↩]
- “Generation Flash” incorporates revised versions of the texts comissioned for www.whitneybiennial.com and http://www.electronicorphanage.com/biennale. Both exibitions were organised by Miltos Manetas/Electronic Orphanage. “On Utopia” was commissioned by Futurefarmers. [↩]
- See http://www.potatoland.org/landfill/ [↩]
- After GUI-based applications such as Hypercard, Director, Photoshop and others became commonplace, many computer artists continued to do their own programming: writing custom code to control an interactive installation, programming in LINGO an interactive multimedia work, etc. This was not refered to as software art; it was taken for granted that even in the age of GUI-based applications a really serious artistic engagment with computers requires getting ones hands dirty in code. [↩]