Software art and poetry: Graham Harwood and William Blake's 'London'

Lecture written for the Electrohype conference 2002, in Malmo Sweden. In this text I present a new work by Graham Harwood, a piece of software that is based on a poem written by William Blake. The software can be used to calculate the total amount of last breaths of people dying in a inhumane situation over a specific period of time, in order to then use the outcome of this calculation to determine the length of time a horn or siren should be played throughout a city. The last breaths play the horn.

 

 

I have to admit that when I first heard about 'software art' I was a bit

skeptical about it. Why invent a new term for something that is in fact

already part of older notions of art, like net art, media art or digital

art? But then again, net art is closely related to media art and so is

digital art. Often different terms do point at the same or similar art

practices. We simply need to be able to address quite specific aspects

of new media art practices clearly and we need to be able to focus on

details of those same practices. We are entangled in a mesh of

terminology, a labyrinth of words, through which we have to communicate

our experiences to others. Like software art is now becoming a way to

reveal and emphasize the deeper meaning and workings of digital art, net

art and media art, so does the language we use to discuss it serve as a

way to reveal and emphasize the connections between all present day

media art practices and art at large. Software art and a focus on code

helps us to see and to show an aspect of art which, after a strong

presence in the 1960s and 1970s, has become slightly obscured again in

the last two decades: the close relationship between art concept and the

art work itself, or in other words: the connection between our use of

language and our art practices. The domination of the visual in the arts

is once again opposed, yet often in a less conscious way then in the

conceptual arts of the sixties and seventies.

 

It is an age old battle, the philosophical battle between the material

and the immaterial, the struggle with the question what is more

important: that which we see or that which is (mostly) invisible. This

is not just a philosophical issue though, it is most of all a matter of

knowledge and therefore also of science. The importance of hidden or

obscure matters depends on our knowledge about it. We gain knowledge

through experience and through education. Most of the knowledge we have

of things 'invisible', be it about for example atoms, the universe or

evolution, is taught to us through education and not through personal

experience. We trust our teachers and scientists, and we accept what

they say. We base judgments on what we know through mental experience of

a history of science, not just on what we actually see for ourselves.

One could maybe say knowledge is a way of seeing without eyes, a way of

seeing things internally, a way of being able to envision things and

situations. Knowledge is therefore partly dependent on our imagination.

It is related to the imaginary, because a lot of knowledge, like the

imaginary, depends on our capacity to experience something with our

minds alone. In daily life our mental and our physical experiences

become one. When we experience an art work, we depend for judgment of it

on both our mental and physical experiences of earlier encounters with

art. The theoretical, historical and conceptual context of art is part

of our experience of art. With digital art, net art, media art or

software art we still do not have enough of both the mental and the

physical experience to make a sound judgment of these art practices. We

lack an internal experience with these art practices most of all though.

We have not met enough with the minds of the makers yet.

 

With the computer we have (if we follow the imagination of Marshall

McLuhan for a moment) created an extension of our brain that helps us

with many of our brain's functions, but not with all. The computer can

help us remember, it can help us calculate and it can help us connect

and exchange information. When following the lead of the computer's

primary functions some artists can easily get stuck in a quite formal

approach of art. In fact, a lot of so called digital art explores and

admires the beauty of the computer's calculations and processes, like

for example the popular fractal art. In his text for the catalogue of

the Read_Me festival in Moscow the German writer and software art critic

Florian Cramer writes: "..such aesthetic conservatism is widespread in

engineering and hard-science cultures; fractal graphics are just one

example of Neo-Pythagorean digital kitsch they promote." To reach beyond

the level of predictability, decoration and kitsch when using a computer

within an art process asks not just for knowledge of the way a computer

works, but it asks first of all for creativity and imagination. Florian

Cramer then continues: "As a contemporary art, the aesthetics of

software art includes ugliness and monstrosity just as much as beauty,

not to mention plain dysfunctionality, pretension and political

incorrectness." In other words, it asks for human rather then

technological complexity.

 

Earlier in this lecture I made a connection between the use of language

and the use of code, or rather the relationship between creating meaning

with language and creating actions and objects with programming. What

interests me very much is that we discuss this topic inside a complex

structure of code and meaning, namely the internet and the developing

structures of media art institutions and criticism connected to the

internet. In some ways the discourse around software art has replaced or

taken over the critical debate around art in networks. The focus on code

rather then a focus on the network is once again forcing people to pay

attention to deeper complexities of technology and culture, instead of

gazing away at the hypnotizing shine of on screen fashions in visual

design. But like with net art, software art suffers a bit from the

expectations that seem to accompany any development in media art almost

by default: that of an inherent technological innovation being part of

media art practice. People tend to think technological skill and

innovation are at the basis of electronic art always (and the value of a

media art work is in their eyes also connected to the novelty it

represents), but personal media, and especially video camera's, cheap

sound recording tools, personal computers and the internet, have

'de-professionalized' the usage of electronic media to the extend that

most contemporary art practices, be they expressionist, conceptual or

formal, are quite easily combined with the use of electronic media. In a

correspondence I had with Florian Cramer before this conference he says

the same about the essence of new media, computer code: "Since networked

computers have become as a mass commodity, code is no longer a

clean-room construct, but flows in abundance and of course can be

artistically used also in ways that would have scandalized everyone from

Pythagoras to Donald Knuth, i.e. in incorrect, ugly, eclectic and

whatever fashion."

Like with painting, sculpture or performance the value of a media art

work does not necessarily lie in its innovative character at all, but it

lies in its artistic value, just like with any other art work.

 

Artists can make complex works with electronic media nowadays without

too much trouble, yet media art works are still approached from an angle

of design (a combination of aesthetics and skill) mostly, which in turn

makes potential new media artists, art professionals and art audiences

shy away from them unnecessarily. For the Jodi exhibition at the Plug In

gallery in Basel I was in contact with Joan Heemskerk and Dirk Paesmans.

To help me write a text about their way of working for the catalogue

they told me some fascinating stories about their work and the way they

see themselves. What was most interesting for me was that Jodi are,

like some other net artists (Heath Bunting, Alexei Shulgin), absolutely

not interested in presenting their work as a result of technical skill,

on the contrary! Inspired by the programmers' term 'cargo cult code'

they turned the negative interpretation of this term by programmers

(namely: unskillful and messy coding) upside down to use it to their

advantage. Taking the original meaning of the term 'cargo cult' they see

themselves as artists -mimicking- the old notion of media art, evoking

media art 'support' and acceptance for their work without actually

following its rules. The work of Jodi is like the work of many present

day media artists, much more intuitive and expressionist then has been

acknowledged until now. Like Florian Cramer already said: "As a

contemporary art, the aesthetics of software art includes ugliness and

monstrosity just as much as beauty, not to mention plain

dysfunctionality, pretension and political incorrectness." The

emancipatory processes of art and their liberating effects on identity

and personality in electronic media are also part of digital art,

network art, media art and/or software art. Two years ago Dirk Paesmans

stunned the rhizome mailing list with an abundance of seemingly machinic

mails that mostly showed one crooked line scribbled over entire mails.

At a presentation in Amsterdam Dirk Paesmans revealed these hundreds of

mails were not computer generated, but manually created by him, one by

one, in a sleepless night. Text, code and therefore also email has been

very important in Jodi's work from the beginning. End of 1995 they were

best known for mysterious, strange mails filled with a landscape of

signs and letters. Whereas many critics have marveled over Jodi's

skillful play with web visuals and source code, they liked to compare

their work to concrete poetry.

 

In his own way, the artist Graham Harwood does the same. Harwood likes

to look at art and culture from a broad, historical perspective. For

Harwood everything is part of a bigger story, a context in which

politics and culture can not be separated. A museum for instance is not

just a building in which a collection of art is preserved and presented.

As a member of Mongrel (consisting of Graham Harwood, Matsuko Yokokoji,

Richard Pierre-Davis, Mervin Jarman and occasionally Matthew Fuller)

Graham Harwood looked not just at the Tate Modern art collection, but

also at the history of the building of the Tate Modern in London in a

way the Tate Modern itself had never done before, at least not

publicly. Suddenly the building is not just a brick structure housing

one of the most important contemporary art collections, but it is a

historical site built with a specific purpose: it was a prison. This

first and original purpose has inscribed itself into the building, and

has been of considerable impact on british culture at large. For Graham

Harwood and Mongrel the Tate Modern is a monument for a culture

inscribed by elitism, racism and other undemocratic forces. To them this

same culture has inscribed itself in many cultural products, also, or

maybe -especially- in software.

 

The history of software and computers is one result of centuries of

mathematical sciences. In order to progress human kind has always

searched for escape from chaos and confusion in the apparent, but often

false simplicity of linearity and calculation. Hidden tendencies and

desires behind specific types of calculation and logic only rarely get

discussed. The pursuit of rationality and logic separated from morals or

emotion can create monstrous events and situations. By using the

personality and work of the 18th century poet William Blake Graham

Harwood attempts to relive and emphasize centuries of conflicts between

rationality and emotion. In a period of his life when he was away from

his home country (the year 2002 he has been artist in residence at De

Waag, in Amsterdam), Graham Harwood was inspired by Blake's poem

'London', written in the second half of the 18th century and dealing

with the death of poor children in an expanding London at that time. He

started to transform the Blake poem into a perl poem (written in the

programming language perl), at first without having a real idea about

what the code he thus developed would or should be able to perform. In

other words: Harwood started to sketch or write intuitively.

 

Harwood is floating between homesickness and home hatred. He is deeply

affected by social issues, such as the stunning fact that even today 33%

of all children in the UK live below the poverty level and on average 1

child a week dies of neglect (his words). Already in 1996 he produced,

together with his students at Artec in London, a CD-ROM called Rehearsal

of Memory in which he dealt with the personal history of his father, who

grew up in an orphanage after his parents did not take proper care of

him. Images of Harwood's father and mother were also used in the

Mongrelized Tate site. In the Blake perl poem the words of Blake are

transformed into a code to "manipulate London". Whereas William Blake

used his skills and imagination to create a text which would affect the

emotional and cultural consciousness of an 18th century audience to the

best of his abilities, Graham Harwood as Blake in the 21st century uses

the text to perform on two levels at once: that of literature (or the

purely imaginary) and that of physical, be it audible space.

 

It is the literary side of software art that deserves most of our

attention. In the CodeDoc exhibition, launched September 2002 at the

Whitney Museum New York, curator Christiane Paul's aim was "to create

transparency for an artistic practice that seems to be fairly unique: in

software art and many net art projects, the artists write a purely

verbal 'description' of a work that ultimately reveals itself to the

audience as visuals or a 'communication process' in the broadest sense."

For CodeDoc "a dozen artists coded a specific assignment in a

[programming] language of their choice and were asked to exchange the

code with each other for comments". The exhibition, which is available

only on line, is not just a aesthetic experience, but it is also

educational. Christiane Paul about this aspect of the exhibition: "I'm

quite often confronted with an audience's notion that 'the computer does

it all' or with the dismissal of projects because they don't present

themselves as (colorful) visual forms. People sometimes approach this

art with the language of painting, which can only lead to profound

misunderstandings. I believe that in order to understand an art form you

have to understand the very basics of its practice." In the Read_Me text

Florian Cramer puts it more bluntly: "The history of the digital and

computer-aided arts could be told as a history of ignorance against

programming and programmers." The on line introduction to the CodeDoc

exhibition elaborates on what it means to look at people writing in

programming languages and creating art with computers: "In traditional

art forms, the 'signature' and 'voice' of an artist manifests itself in

aesthetics of visuals and execution. Every medium may have its specific

language but in digital art, this language has a quite literal rather

than figurative manifestation. In software art, the visual results of

the artwork are derived from the language of code. Languages are defined

by grammar and complex rules and at the same time leave space for

individual forms of creative expression. Our identity and the roles we

play are expressed in our use of language. One might assume that the

aesthetics of artists who write their own source code manifest

themselves both in the code itself and its visual results". Yet, they

cannot be separated. What distinguishes software art from other digital,

net or media art is the conscious involvement of the code into the art

work by the artist.

 

In the case of "Perl routines to Manipulate London" we can see the

specific way Graham Harwood perceives and uses code. In an interview

conducted for the newsletter Cream in spring 2002 Harwood reveals his

view of technology (and an art criticism that has to deal with

technology) in an indirect way: "One problem we have at the moment is

that we have these beautiful systems for collecting tax, these marvelous

giant algorithms that are able to extract money out of our pockets. They

have a great poetic. How they work, how they configure and bring all

these different people together and how they structure them in these big

things. It is a huge and marvelous thing. It is a beautiful monster. And

you want to make it work right, you want to be able to get into every

person's pocket. You want to be able to take all this money out and

spend it on arms and all these other things. Programmers sit there

completely fascinated by this giant monster, this universe of taking

tax. The thing is, you need to be able to describe that. They only do

this because it is beautiful. People don't do things that don't have

this kind of beauty. It is the same beauty as the pilot dropping the

bomb on people. It is very beautiful from above. He looks down and it is

aesthetically pleasing, it is elegant, it is powerful, it is beautiful.

That is why he can drop the bomb. It is the same thing with the tax

system or the social security system or all these other giant systems.

They are all beautiful. We need to be able to critique that. The net art

critic needs to be able to deal with that poetry. When you're dealing

with that poetry, then the place of people making specific statements

about these cultures has a resonance and a place. Then we are dealing

with structures that occupy our lives. Then we have much more context I

think." From this long quote it seems quite clear that Graham Harwood is

admiring and maybe even taming the beast, he is full of fascination and

horror over the (almost) perfect systems we design to run our world.

Also Harwood's specific use of code in the presented poem here is to

"emphasize the dryness, the coldness of code and rationalism in an

unexpected place". It is a way to create consciousness within a routine

process.

 

In his text 'Software and Concept Notations, Software in the Arts'

Florian Cramer describes the perl programming language as "a programming

language of which the instruction syntax has been consciously developed

as close to the english everyday speech as possible by its developer the

computer linguist Larry Wall, which [means it] contains a great number

of instruction words and leaves programmers great freedom in syntax and

notation". Combining the freedom of the perl programming language with

the rigidity of a mathematical approach to the actual theme or focus of

the poem Graham Harwood is creating a comparable chilling experience for

both the readers of the poem itself and the audience who will witness

the actual 'physical' execution (just mark the morbidity of this

particular computer science term in this context) of the code. The poem

starts by describing its context, and the reason for its existence or

development. It then continues with a method for calculating the lung

volume of children according to class, age and height. From this lung

volume the program then goes on to calculate the volume of air replaced

by the last scream of the child. The amount of air replaced by all last

screams of dying children in London from 1792 until now together will

finally be emitted through a horn or siren, to be heard throughout

London.

 

While Graham Harwood is working on it and talking about it, the Blake

project develops further. Calculating the lung volume from dying

children to transform their collective cry into one long audible wail,

an almost endless scream, he started to think about an actual

application of the code, about actually realizing the project in an

existing city. London is not the only place where people have died from

the results of pure greed. Being in the Netherlands Harwood started to

think of Dutch history, in which plenty moments of shame can be found.

From the children in London Harwood has moved to the holocaust (in

which 90% of all jews in the Netherlands died because of the efficiency

of the Dutch bureaucracy) and (more recent) the massacre at Srebrenica,

former Yugoslavia where Dutch UN soldiers found themselves unable to

raise a finger when thousands of men were separated from their families

and killed in a town the Dutch were supposed to protect. The 'perl

routine to manipulate London' is turning into a morbid and frightening

method to raise consciousness.

 

But it all started with Blake's London. Graham Harwood does not just

identify with Blake because of his connection to England. He is also

fascinated by Blake's apparent artistic resistance to the rigidity he

perceived in the new philosophies of the late 18th century which

culminated in the enlightenment. William Blake lived at a time when the

work of dutch philosopher Spinoza was of great influence. Spinoza's

philosophy (in which he reasons how God can not be separate from the

world, but how He must in fact be in everything all the time) created a

huge freedom of thought on the one hand, but it also created a cultural

nihilism on the other. If everything is God, then there is no force from

beyond us that controls everything. More importantly: there are no

sacred, authoritative rules or laws that bind and guide us anymore.

Reason and calculation started to replace a world full of mysticism and

pure imagination. Graham Harwood sees this period in western history as

one of the most influential for western culture and the rationalism that

is inherent to it. Like he says William Blake did more then two

centuries ago, Graham Harwood aims to bring back the power of

imagination into a rational environment. The power of an internal vision

that is created by not just rationalist calculation alone. Harwood as

Blake is wrestling with the conflict in western culture between

imaginary and rational visual cultures.

 

Reading Harwood's 'London' is like getting trapped in a perverse

universe of misplaced calculation. The words represent horror and the

way they are ordered to form a piece of code, a simple routine to

calculate one isolated aspect out of the entire human history told by

the choice of words, has a nauseating effect on the reader. One does not

even have to understand the perl programming language to feel a chill

running down one's spine. At least I did. Yet this perl poem is not a

technological novelty or innovation. This work is not a revolution of

any order in the technological realms of media art. In fact, the first

perl poem ever was written by the inventor of the perl programming

language himself, Larry Wall, in 1990, 12 years ago. According to

Florian Cramer perl poetry became very popular amongst programmers

shortly after this. A lot of these perl poems were written in purposely

dysfunctional code. To make the text turn against itself inside the code

was and still is a popular and effective art form. So was and is making

words part of program instructions, thus often giving words double

meanings (read: sub merge my senses; ASCII art, Rekursion, Lyrik in

Programmiersprachen, Florian Cramer 2002) or emphasizing meaning inside

the poem. Harwood does nothing of the kind. He lets the rigidity of code

reveal itself by combining it with a very sensitive subject: the death

of children, jews or innocent fathers and sons in former Yugoslavia. His

is a creative innovation, a successful artistic intervention in the

realm of programming.

 

 

http://www.scotoma.org/lungs/london.txt

http://www.scotoma.org/lungs