Exit Archive

Fall 2005 | v.01 n. 01 | Invitational Issue |

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Confessions of a Fraudulent Pixel
Vicky Isley & Paul Smith

boredomresearch, 2005 [>] http://www.boredomresearch.com

There is much mystery and confusion about the processes involved in creating programming dependent or computational artworks.
In coding or programming the method of production is concealed. Even when revealed, as in open source code, there is a broad conceptual gap inhibiting a general understanding of these processes.

For those involved in the production of programmed, interactive or computational works, the use of integrated design environments with their heavy use of graphic interface, on the one hand simplifies this process, while at the same time increases the mystification of this type of production.

In this presentation we will:

1. Confront the fraudulent behaviour of pixels.
2. Explore computational and algorithmic production in a pixel free environment
3. Put forward a translucent computational model that is child’s play.

Pixel fraud
In addition to the way the finder offers tangible references to abstract locations on storage media, it also has the potential to function as a programming environment. All a program is, is a pre­arranged set of instructions. The files and folders of the finder can be manipulated to hold a program. In this case the shallow façade of the operating system conceptually limits our use of its functionality.

Folders and windows have a number of properties that determine how they are displayed, (size, location, selected state, opened state). Once set these are remembered. Actions can be performed that change between states of representation for example changing between list view and icon view or opening and closing windows. By combining the ability to perform actions on multiple folders and their ability to store there own properties you effectively have all the ingredients of an object-oriented programming language.

In a series of works we perverted the use of system components to enable their use as a programming tool. We used Windows, files and folders and file formats like the ‘system seven sound’ or picture clippings, which when opened are played and displayed without launching additional software. These were reconfigured into fully functional software, without the use of any third party programming language. Giving an intriguing insight into the shallow deception that we experience in our graphic user interface. These components were assembled into a programmable drum machine. Despite this software having all the functionality of traditional software its un-compiled state rendered it fragile. The accidental movement of icons destroyed the illusion along with the software.

In our residency “hello world” at Artsway UK, we aimed to unearth some truths about the medium of programming by stripping away all notions of interface, creating programs for execution by people on paper. In the same way the folder metaphor conceptually limits the creative potential of the object on our desktops, unfolding a true folder liberates its creative potential; returning it once again to a piece of card with no dictated task to achieve. In response to the way that tangible objects are used metaphorically on our desktops we took a literal take on the idea of object-orientation building tangible objects to generate computational plant forms.

In many cases the interface of a program gives us a graphic abstraction of the actual process being conducted, for this reason we explored the qualitative experiences of programmed work by inviting participants to execute programs without a computer.


In one session we wrote a simple set of rules that when executed would exhibit emergent behavior. In contrast to our normal experience of software the manual execution of these rules concealed the emergent behavior whilst painfully illustrating its rules. The emergence only became apparent when a time lapse of an hour’s recursive execution was later animated. In these works it was not simply a graphic representation of the program that was experienced, but the line by line execution of the program itself.

The Honest Algorithm
There is something about the term ‘computational algorithm’ that seems calculated to sound frighteningly complicated. However, the board game Snakes and Ladders is exactly that, and what’s more it is normally executed not by a computer but by children of pre-school age. The game doesn’t escape the use of metaphor as snakes and ladders are used to aid understanding of direction. In Moksha-patamu, the original Indian version, algorithm is used as a guide to morality with the snakes and ladders referring to the vices and virtues of life; and snakes seriously outnumbering ladders.

The purity of the algorithmic experience is illustrated when all action not necessitating conscious thought are automated. This allows the game to be played in microseconds. When you play the game your experience is algorithmic and the quality of the algorithm is held in the arrangement of the snakes and ladders. By rearranging them you can even make the game crash. The game can be rebuilt as a visual programming language, giving complex programming potential to anyone able to understand the rules of the game.

In this form programs can be written and executed on paper. The software version we built enabled rapid execution of the code output as MIDI sound. This approach is distinct from the false allusions made to tangible elements like files and folders as it roots are in the algorithmic rules of the original board game. This example shows how real world phenomena can offer more than iconographic references to computational processes.

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