<< preface

this blog is nina wenhart's collection of resources on the various histories of new media art. it consists mainly of non or very little edited material i found flaneuring on the net, sometimes with my own annotations and comments, sometimes it's also textparts i retyped from books that are out of print.

it is also meant to be an additional resource of information and recommended reading for my students of the prehystories of new media class that i teach at the school of the art institute of chicago in fall 2008.

the focus is on the time period from the beginning of the 20th century up to today.

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>> Saul Albert, "Artware", 1999

from: http://twenteenthcentury.com/saul/artware.htm
Saul Albert, 08/9, Published in Mute Issue 14


"The idea becomes a machine that makes the art" Sol Lewitt, Artforum, 1967.

;"> The rise of Conceptual Art, which occurred around the time that Sol Lewitt wrote "Paragraphs on Conceptual Art", coincided neatly with the birth of hacker culture--between the transformation of MIT's Tech Model Railway Club into the AI lab in 1963-4, and 1969, the year that ARPANET was set up. Although it is not possible to chart the links between these events in a linear fashion, it is interesting to see their more recent convergence. Artist-programmers have been hunched over computer screens in bedroom-studios (and now, trendy new media labs), bearing much resemblance to the stereotypical teenage hacker of the 80s. Many of the theories in Lewitt's text draw a strong analogy between the Conceptualist use of the 'idea-becoming-machine' and contemporary uses of software in art.

It is one of the defining characteristics of computer programmes that they cross the boundaries between user and author. The move towards software engineering from a more commonplace 'click here' approach to computer based art can be seen as an attempt by artists to engage the user as a co-author of their experience. This relates clearly to the conceptualist strategy of relying on the viewer to make (or imagine the making of) the artwork:

"To work with a plan that is pre-set is one way of avoiding subjectivity. (...) The plan would design the work".

Lewitt saw the execution of the conceptual plan as a tactic for avoiding the 'expressive', or self-consciously authored art object. The conceptualists developed the form of 'instructions for the making of art'. This represented a shift in authorial hegemony from a centralised model (centred in the body of the artist), to a distributed one. However, although by following the instructions anyone could make the artwork, the instructions themselves retained the authorial privilege. The 'original' idea remained sacrosanct. This highlights a contradiction in the stated intention to de-subjectify the artwork, and final result in which the user/viewer is still subjected to the didactic stance of the artist. (1)

In a recent interview with Tilman Baumgaertel, John F Simon Jr. describes the workings of his homemade paint programme:

"Using the artwork to create more artwork... when you run the programme you are demonstrating the writing of the programme."

The use of the programme generates artwork, and Simon invests equal artistic value in the programme itself. It seems that Simon's programmed artwork retains Lewitt's contradiction; on the one hand enabling the user to direct the making of artworks, but at the same time preventing them from directing the way in which the artworks are made, a fact he acknowledges in his interview:

"I have to say that I am not very interested in defining my work through the actions of other people".

This limitation on authorship can be attributed to other factors besides Simon's Conceptualist artistic heritage. The limitations placed on the user of the artwork are framed by the artist's limited authorial privilege in writing and running the programme. For example, the programme is written in a programming language that has a given structure and syntax to which the artist must adhere in order for it to function. Aside from this and countless other dependencies, the artwork/software runs within an Operating System that has a given visual feel, and a given functional structure, not to mention the political, cultural, economic and legal intricacies of IT infrastructure. Of course all of these limitations have their analogous limitations in the physical world of canvas, plaster, dealer and gallery, but it is the nature of these limitations which make the programmer/artist a distinctive figure.

The structures that surround the work of the Artist/Programmer can be examined by looking at the various ways in which artists approach software. Without pretence to exhaustive analysis, I will present the work of a few artists who represent diverse approaches to the artistic use of software.

Keith Tyson wrote his Art Machine programme using Prolog, a language well suited to AI applications. He feeds the programme with a variety of sculptural ingredients, the Art Machine then translates these into instructions on how to make a sculpture. Tyson makes the sculptures, exhibits them and sells them on the art market. The relationship Tyson has with this programme is mutually controlling. He programmes the Art Machine with possible sculptural ingredients and a framework for configuring them, then the art machine programmes him with Conceptualist style 'instructions' for making artwork. The sculptural product of the process can then be introduced to the art market that has its own means of distributing, evaluating and promoting sculptural forms (2). Tyson subjects himself to programming, much in the same way as John F. Simon does when he--rather than another subjected user--is running his homemade software. The products of these interactions are manifestations of the artist's ideas, displayed in a compatible format (sculpture and drawing) for assimilation by the art market. The viewers are placed in an art gallery context, and have no direct interaction with the art machine other than by seeking its rationale through its many bizarre products. The viewers are invited to examine how Keith's relationship with the Art Machine effects his status as the artist, and theirs as the viewer (3).

Paul Garrin's name.space (NS) project is realised and distributed in an entirely different arena. NS is an alternative autonomous Domain Name System with which Garrin hopes to establish a 'Permanent Autonomous Net'. He speaks about the existing Domain Name System being a dominating and semantically territorial regime controlled nefariously by ex CIA officials.

"In the meme of the 'DOMAIN NAME SYSTEM' the message is control, 'DOMINATION', 'TERRITORY'." (Paul Garrin interviewed by Pit Shultz, Nettime, 13th June 1997).

Whether or not this is the case, Garrin's creative use of software is masterful. With only a couple of servers he has created an alternative domain name system. His system does not rely on geographical referents such as .uk, .au, or .jp. Name Space is open to user directed suggestion as to how the name syntax is defined. http://timothy.leary is one example of an NS address. The art world is sidelined here. Garrin is playing to a potentially mass market, and for potentially high financial stakes. Other companies with similar ideas such as Alternic started up at around the same time as NS, so he even had commercial competition. His right to incorporate his system into the mainstream DNS is being contested in the courts.

This artistic use of software attempts to throw off some of the strictures of the technology that Internet users are subjected to. Both the bits of software Garrin uses--Apache and WebStar--are available free (or as demo-ware) over the Internet, and are not designed with the creation of an independent Domain Name Servers in mind, the end to which Garrin cunningly exploits their functionalities. His idea is to facilitate a usage of the Internet that is less mediated by commercial and governmental interests, allowing a user's Internet presence to be nominally self-directed. By playing with the server software that makes up the infrastructure of the Net, he is attempting to bolster the authorial rights of its inhabitants. In this struggle for (signified) territory, Garrin takes his cue from Situationist tactics of d├ętournement, using the technology of the dominators to undermine and subvert their aims (4).

The art collective Mongrel has also taken this Situationist approach to software, by hacking into a popular commercial image editing application and giving it a political charge. The user is invited to edit their heritage using this software tool, and with commands such as 'purge' and 'invert', to alter the image of a skin-masked face in a racially charged visual language. This method of software intervention derives from a hacking tradition of game patching; writing software agents or altering image resources to change the look or function of pre-existing software.

Mongrel breaks the smooth simulated surface of the programme and gives the user a look into the politically dubious and racialized norms of routinely used software. The cropped language of the 'commands' ("Purge", "Execute") reveals the software's own military heritage, and the shocking imagery combined with the 'user-friendly' interface is very unsettling. By altering the programme in these ways, Mongrel shows how these mainstream programmes direct what is produced using them, and even limit the imagination and capabilities of users.

"An emphasis on specific objects gave way to an investigation of instructions as an art form and the role of the artist as communicator to the public gave way to the artist as instigator of public events. "John C. Ippolito on artistic developments since the 60's, Nettime - 04 Sept 1998

In early 1999 the panel of judges for the Prix Ars Electronica chose Linux, the Open Source Operating System (5) as the winner in the .net category. If just the name Linux sends you into a boredom induced coma, skip the next paragraph with which I will try to outline some of the reasons Linux won. The legalities at the basis of Linux's usage are dealt with by licence under the GPL (General Public Licence) which free it from the grasp of commercial software corporations. The central ethos of its development policy has been to make available all the information, tools and code necessary for users to alter the program; the Operating System does not constitute a visual and functional given for any artwork/software made or shown using Linux. The ability of Linux to gather a community of user/authors was acknowledged as a contributing factor to it winning the Golden Nica. The distribution, evaluation and promotion of Linux is done within this Open Source community, ensuring its continuity and growth.

It is this combination of features which allowed the Linux development community to grow so large that Linux's efficiency, quality, and speed of reaction to user demand far outclasses the commercial competition. As a result of this, and the tumult of media hype now surrounding Linux, that it has become the only real challenger to Microsoft's market domination.

As to how the Judges came to choose Linux for the Ars Electronica prize, Lewitt's words are resonant

"The idea becomes a machine that makes the art"

When Linux is examined using artistic criteria, it reveals a very high degree of critical rigour in its execution and conception (this rigorous approach was necessary to the legality of the project). Most of all, Linux is a beautifully clear realisation of the idea of Open Source. By awarding the Golden Nica to Linux, the judges were revealing the connection between Lewitt's Conceptualism and the hacker/hobbyist dreams of the last forty years.

It is the idea of Open Source that became a machine (Linux) which both constitutes and facilitates the artwork.

Saul Albert

Published in Mute Issue 14
ISSN 1356-7748


  1. < I am not criticising Lewitt's work with this observation, I am simply pointing out a link between his work, and the issues surrounding the work of artist's using software.
  2. < Keith has drawn up Jackson structure diagrams (family tree-like hierarchical arrangements) of the way money flows through the art market. His use of the art-machine to interface with these money flows is extremely well calculated.
  3. < Keith's under used "Replicators" project for adaweb works along similar lines and is worth a try at: http://adaweb.walkerart.org/influx/tyson/
  4. < Retired artist and "aspiring revolutionary" Heath Bunting relates to this territorial struggle in a recent interview at London's Expo Destructo. Although he has shifted ground to biotech, his intentions and methods are very similar to Garrin's.
  5. < For those of you who don't know what Open Source is try Eric S. Raymond "The Cathedral and the Bazaar", but for now, the characteristics listed below may give you some idea.


  1. Sol Lewitt, Paragraphs on Conceptual Art, Artforum vol 5 no. 10 summer 1967 pp 79-83
  2. To: nettime-l@Desk.nl Subject: (nettime) more on Bochner/jodi/formalism From: "Jon C. Ippolito" (JIppolito@guggenheim.org) Date: Fri, 22 May 1998 11:39:51 -0400
  3. To: nettime-l@bbs.thing.net, kunstvereinn@odn.de Subject: (nettime) Interview with John F. Simon From: Tilman Baumgaertel (tilman_baumgaertel@csi.com) Date: Mon, 19 Jul 1999 16:47:04 +0200
  4. To: nettime-l@Desk.nl Subject: (nettime) Pit Schultz Interview with Paul Garrin From: (mf@mediafilter.org) (MediaFilter) Date: Fri,13 Jun 1997 03:54:51 -0400

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... is a Media Art historian and independent researcher. She is currently writing on "speculative archiving && experimental preservation of Media Art" and graduated from Prof. Oliver Grau's Media Art Histories program at the Danube University in Krems, Austria with a Master Thesis on Descriptive Metadata for Media Arts. For many years, she has been working in the field of archiving/documenting Media Art, recently at the Ludwig Boltzmann Institute for Media.Art.Research and before as the head of the Ars Electronica Futurelab's videostudio, where she created their archives and primarily worked with the archival material. She was teaching the Prehystories of New Media Class at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC) and in the Media Art Histories program at the Danube University Krems.