There’s More Than One Way To Do Microcodes | Pall Thayer
“My medium is the code. (…) The viewer’s medium can be something else.” (1) As simple as Pall Thayer’s statement is, as strict is its execution within the series of so called Microcodes the Reykjavik-based artist started to develop in early 2009. Each Microcode is a fully contained work of art, the conceptual meaning of which is revealed through a combination of the title, the code, and finally the results of running it on a computer. Perceived from a literal/literary point of view, Pall Thayer’s Microcodes can be understood as an extension and transgression of textuality in the digital realm: Perl-codes which are readable as short poems in natural language as well as readable in the sense of executable programmes. Once executed, the codes also draw conceptual strenght from their clearly identitifiable relations to art historical predecessors such as Andy Warhol, On Kawara, Kazimir Malevich and to themes and movements such as modernist monochromacity, ready-mades, or timebased conceptualism.
In Active monochrome for example, one of the nearly thirty already existing Microcodes, Pall Thayer shows his low-tech approach to monochromacity. With this code the artist negotiates parameters of monochrome painting like value, structure, material and space in a digital setting where the qualities of an image determine its appearance. He writes: “Whether we interpret monochrome painting as stillness, pause or violent upheaval against the multi-faceted norm in painting, the coded version provides the same sort of experience. It removes the terminal’s functionality and forces the viewer to acknowledge it on a strictly aesthetic level.” (2) In the following interview Pall Thayer talks about his decisions to choose Perl as programming language for Microcodes, about his attemps to communicate the conceptual background of his artworks to Internet-users who are not necessarily coders and finally about the understanding of Microcodes which “comes entirely from the viewer’s persepective and whatever previous understanding or knowledge they have” — a perspective which is definitely worth to be taken up.
How many hours of sleep did you have last night?
Less than eight hours.
What is your work Sleep (2009) about?
It is a direct reference to Andy Warhol’s movie Sleep (1963). The idea of reproducing it as a Microcode (1) came to me after watching a trivia contest on TV, where they asked a question about it. The interesting thing about the ‘sleep’ function in computer programming is that the program doesn’t really sleep as such. The function can be used to make a program wait for another process to finish or simply to slow a program down so that it doesn’t slow your computer down. But when you tell a program to sleep for a certain amount of time it has to keep working to make sure that it wakes up at the right time. I think this is essentially what Andy Warhol’s film points out. When we’re asleep we aren’t ‘doing nothing’. We are performing the act of sleeping. We’re really doing something significant. The intended give-away, that my Sleep is related to Warhol’s Sleep, is the way in which the sleep time is defined. Perl’s sleep function takes the number of seconds as an argument, so I could have written ‘sleep(28800)’ to make it sleep for eight hours. It was very important to Andy Warhol that his film should be eight hours long, because that’s the average length of time that people sleep at night. So I tried to write it in a way that the fact that it sleeps for eight hours was a bit more visible, i.e. ‘sleep((8*60)*60)’. In hindsight, I guess I could have created a variable named ‘$eight_hours = (80*60)*60;’ and then written ‘sleep($eight_hours)’.
Why did you decide to write Microcodes in Perl and not in any other scripting language?
The most obvious reasons would be that it’s widely supported (it’s installed by default on Mac OS X and most, if not all, Linux distributions) and I’ve been using Perl for a long time and know it very well. The better that artists know their media, the more flexible it becomes. It becomes like putty in their hands, which they can easily shape into whatever they choose. But there is a third, very important reason. Many ‘professional’ computer programmers want their languages to be very strictly structured in a way that there is a single ‘right’ way of doing something. This makes it easier for a team of programmers to work together on a project because they don’t have to spend a couple of hours trying to decipher another programmer’s methods. Everyone does everything the same way. This is not good for an artistic medium. As artists, we want the ability to develop our own distinctive style and we want flexibility. One of Perl’s mottos is “There’s More Than One Way To Do It” (TMTOWTDI, pronounced ‘Tim Toady’). It’s a very flexible language that allows you to choose from a variety of different methods for doing the same thing. It basically just depends on how you want it to sound. For these reasons I believe, quite firmly, that artists interested in exploring computer programming as a medium should learn Perl first.
Without executing Microcodes in a graphic user interface you force the viewers to reflect on your practice at the most basic level of the code before being able to have any visual pleasure: Don’t you think this way of working excludes the average Internet-user, who hasn’t got any knowledge about code?
Not necessarily. The codes have an abstract visual quality to them, especially the very brief ones. They can be taken in at a glance and the form created by the indentation becomes a bit iconic while the mixture of strange characters and familiar English words has a certain visual aesthetic to it. I’ve been exhibiting some of these as framed prints where I include colored syntax highlighting, which makes them even more visual. The fact that these strange mixtures can actually be interpreted as instructions by the computer makes them even more intriguing. What I hope might happen is that people will find these interesting enough that they will make the effort to gain some sort of understanding of them. There are a number of ways in which they can do this. They can look up the functions on the Internet to find explanations or they can mess around with the code to see how their changes might affect the outcome. If they do this and produce interesting results, they can even upload their version to the Microcodes site.
More and more artists are producing artworks through code, and although very few of them see any reason to make the code central to an appreciation of the work the very fact that code is being employed to produce art makes it relevant. There is meaning to be found within the codes regardless of what the artists themselves might say and the only way to emphasize this is to make the code central to an appreciation of the work. To put viewers in a position where they have to acknowledge the code and interact with the work at the code level before they are able to appreciate it at any other level.
We live in a highly coded world. Many of our day-to-day activities involve interacting with code at some level. There’s code in our computers, our phones, ATMs, our cars… it’s all over the place. Anything that becomes such a huge part of our daily existence is obviously going to be relevant to the arts and the fact that this code that we’re constantly interacting with is seldom revealed to us, might suggest that it’s up to the artists to bring it into the limelight.
Why did you decide to publish a mediative and deeply explanatory text (2) about Microcodes on mailing lists and other communication channels?
I’m averse to the inclusion of lengthy texts that are meant to explain what I’m trying to do with my art projects. I want people to experience them on their own terms. However, in this case I understand that it might be easier for people to understand the Microcodes on their own terms, with a little bit of general background information on programming code. The document is written in a way that makes no attempt to teach the reader how to program but focuses rather on how to read code. To me these are very different things. Knowing what purpose a function serves is far less complicated than knowing how to apply it. The guide doesn’t go very far in explaining things. It merely points out a handful of methods used in the Microcodes, provides a brief description of them and then suggests where the reader might find more detailed information.
I think the biggest hurdle in getting people to attempt an understanding of code is nothing more than an irrational fear of the unknown. In publishing this guide I wanted to help ease that fear so that people might see that programming code isn’t really as complex as it looks. Most of it is just basic English applied in a very specific way.
The conceptual artist Ian Wilson claims that he presents “oral communication as an object… all art is information and communication. I’ve chosen to speak rather than sculpt.” (3) Does the same go for you with ‘scripted’ communication?
Absolutely. Over the years I’ve become increasingly aware of the significance of the code in my work. One and a half years ago I wouldn’t have dreamed of releasing work that consisted only of textual code. Yet I had, for some time, been open-sourcing and releasing the code behind my work, because I felt that there were certain conceptual aspects of the work that couldn’t be sufficiently communicated otherwise. At first it didn’t really matter a whole lot to me whether or not people actually looked at the code and picked up on these semi-hidden aspects, but I felt that it was important to make them available. However, as my work progressed it did begin to feel more important to me that people should be aware of the information within the code. I designed a system that I called Code Chat (2007), which I could run my source-code through and it would generate a Web-based, threaded discussion format where people could actively discuss specific lines of the code. It attracted a bit of attention when I first launched it with some code from a project of mine titled On Everything (2006), but the discussion rapidly evolved into being more about the Code Chat system and the idea of making the code a part of the art-experience than about the information within the code. It was during that initial discussion that I actually agreed with the artist G. H. Hovagimyan, who claims that producing art work that only consisted of code would be a bit ridiculous and far-fetched. But the thing with art is that when an idea appears absurd someone has to try it. So I did. But I truly think that if you look back through the evolution of my work and my writing over the past ten years, doing this makes perfect sense. It is the logical next step in effectively communicating my ideas to others.
There are so many allusions to art history within Microcodes: modernist monochromacity, the portrait, readymades, time-based conceptualism, even Land Art. Which precursors do you primarily follow with your art?
I follow a number of them. I don’t think that, overall, one stands out more than others. I look at the whole of art as a sort of living, evolving entity. Things don’t emerge suddenly. They emerge very gradually, slowly evolving out of and building on things that have already been done. Certain types of art carry stronger general references to certain artists, but to me every work of art is a sort of reference point to everything that came before it in the same way that we humans are a sort of reference to our entire evolutionary chain.
That being said, the most obvious and direct ‘precursors’ for the Microcodes in particular would be the conceptualists such as Sol Lewitt and Lawrence Weiner (and all of the baggage they bring with them) due to the text-based, instructional nature of the codes. On the other hand, my background, before I started making art with computers, was in painting and drawing, which is why I like to reference painters such as Kandinsky (Untitled composition (2009)), Malevich (White on White (2009)) and Yves Klein (Active Monochrome (2009)). To me, doing this serves as a sort of positioning of what I do within the realm of the arts. It’s sort of like the very experimental jazz musicians who throw in a standard jazz cover every now and then to remind people that what they’re doing in their more experimental work is in fact jazz. But doing this also serves to highlight the differences between what you copy and what is your own. With the Microcodes I’m presenting code as an artistic medium and my references to other work serve to position the work in the same general realm but at the same time to highlight the newness and unique character of the medium.
The arrangement of the material—in your case it is the code—shows how a certain interplay of artistic form and content is responsible for the understanding of our world. How would you define the political aspects of your work apart from the social activism as known from many other Internet-based artworks?
I don’t know what other people think but I don’t see much of my work as being either political or having anything to do with social activism. I have produced a couple of mildly political pieces but they never take a particular political stance. They might draw attention to something but leave it up to the viewer to decide which side they’re on. But, to tell the truth, I don’t really think about art in the political sense and therefore don’t have much of an opinion on it. This has nothing to do with my own, personal political views. I follow politics and easily get very caught up in issues but it hardly ever enters into my art work in any overt way. The same goes for social activism. I don’t think of my work as having a potential social impact beyond awakening an interest in the work itself. If any of my work makes people think about and take a stance on any social issues then that’s fine, but it comes more from them than me. I’m not sure I would go so far as to agree that interplay of form and content is responsible for the understanding of our world, as you stated, but it does help to point things out to people. To make them aware and cause them to think about certain things. The understanding, however, comes entirely from them and whatever previous understanding or knowledge they have.
When will you go to sleep tonight?
At least five hours before I have to get up tomorrow morning.
Thank you very much for the interview!
(1) Microcodes are very small code-based artworks. Each one is a fully contained work of art. The conceptual meaning of each piece is revealed through a combination of the title, the code and the results of running them on a computer, http://pallit.lhi.is/microcodes (January 06, 2011).
(2) Pall Thayer, The Microcode Primer. A guide for non-coders towards a conceptual appreciation of code, http://pallit.lhi.is/microcodes/MCprimer.pdf
(3) Ian Wilson in conversation with the audience, ZKM, Zentrum für Kunst und Medientechnologie, Karlsruhe, 2005, http://on1.zkm.de/zkm/stories/storyReader$4683