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The Archaea Series

29/08/2003
llacook

“The Space Between Analog and Digital”: Alan Sondheim’s Recent Executables

I’ve developed, over the last few years, certain assumptions about software art. Just browse through the many entries available at runme.org (http://runme.org/), and you, too will likely come away with some of these assumptions: that software art is, at its heart, utilitarian; it functions, it does something; it’s tool-like; it’s often more software than art.

Over the last month or so, July and August 2003, the writer Alan Sondheim has been happily chipping away at those assumptions. Alan is well known to netizens for his writing, which operates at the hinge of language and machine code; what isn’t so well known about him is that he’s spent some time programming–indeed, has been programming since at least the 1970s. A careful visitor to his monumental text work Philosophy and Psychology of the Internet (also known as the Internet Text)(http://www.anu.edu.au/english/internet_txt/), will see that Alan has, embedded in the text, some brilliant source code for Quick BASIC, the revival of the old BASIC language once shipped with all Windows PCs. He has written in Perl as well–see his Julu at runme.org (http://runme.org/project/+sondheimjulu/).

I’ve developed software art with Alan’s inspiration in mind myself–the application sondheim.exe (http://runme.org/project/+sondheim/) is a text editor written in Visual Basic designed to transform user input based on a configurable timer. The idea for this piece was wholly Alan’s; in electronic conversation, Alan mentioned that he had once, in the 1970s, written a similar application.

It was shortly after I wrote sondheim.exe that I mailed Alan a copy of Visual Basic, the object-oriented application development environment, developed by Microsoft, based on the old BASIC language. Visual Basic is about as close to English as one can get in the higher-level programming languages; it eschews the funky syntax most other languages have inherited from C, and which is often one of the more apparent stumbling blocks for new coders. And yet, despite its seeming simplicity, it succeeds as one of the most powerful Rapid Application Development (RAD) packages for Windows programming; one can do with Visual Basic almost anything that can be done in C and C++; indeed, if it weren’t for the fact that VB is exclusively a Windows programming tool, it might even approach that paragon of portability and power, Java.

Alan took the tool and ran with it. His characteristically unique vision, combined with his agile sense of mathematics, has produced a series of standalone executables in Visual Basic that are challenging the very core of what I had always assumed software art was about–creating strange and wondrous tools, creating functional pieces that interacted with unsuspecting users.

Alan’s recent Visual Basic works are nothing like that at all. These are not tools in any sense of the word. They’re only minimally interactive; usually, all one of these works require to get started is one simple mouse click from the user. Instead of crafting a functional artistic tool, Alan Sondheim has, in these works, highlighted the very processes one’s computer uses. These are narrative works, in the skin of software.

Anyone who has downloaded these is doubtlessly scratching their head right now, thinking, “Narrative? What’s narrative about watching an image dissolve or be defaced in some pre-programmed way?” Well, I understand your consternation. I’m not the most stable of people. Children run away from me when I smile.

Be that as it may, I’m sticking to my thesis: these executables are narrative; what we’re watching, when we download and run this software, is, as Alan himself states, “mathesis transform(ing) semantics…” And here’s how:

The Archaea Series
This is where I first began to notice the gist of Alan’s work in Visual Basic. The Archaea series consists of ten executables; they are all predicated on the dissolving and warping of images based on mathematical processes. The most vivid in the series is archaea3, downloadable here: http://www.asondheim.org/portal/archaea3.exe .

“The programs are operating in the space between analog and digital, although totally grounded in the digital,” Alan writes. “What are they deconstructing? Language, meaning, symbols, the symbolic. Through erasure and the growth of form.”

We’re confronted with a very red image of breasts pressed up against some glass when we first open archaea3. The glass is beaded with moisture; either the light or the filter makes the water gleam a sinister red. When we click on the image, what looks like static begins to eat away at the scene from left to right, very slowly; the static looks like it’s wiping away the image, as if it were cleansing the screen of this suggestively bloody site. It’s almost like watching a linear animation–except here the story, the plot, the interest, hinges on the horizontal erasure sweeping through the image. It’s a purgative myth we’re witnessing; like the big fish vomiting Jonah up out of the sea.

What clinches process works like these as narrative is the fact that Alan uses evocative images in this software. “…these images are interpreted in terms of the underlying photographs – a lichen-like growth upon them, empathetic and cohering. In turn, they modify, deconstruct….” Alan muses. The images serve as a reference point. The story’s there, not just in the images but in the process itself–a process the user stands outside of. Like cinema, like literature, it’s a closed system until it’s in front of us, in our heads, and when we perform the magic of watching.

The other works in the series follow the same principles. In archaea9 (http://www.asondheim.org/portal/archaea9.exe), its a woman (Alan’s wife and long-time collaborator, Azure Carter, whose influence on Alan’s work is ever pervasive) paddling in a swimming pool that gets “erased.” But what kind of erasure is this? The paradox of this process that Alan is using is precisely in its “lichen-like” growth. In number 9 it’s quite evident–this image isn’t being erased so much as its getting penetrated by an emptiness. Ripples from the image linger as the process spreads throughout the surface of the picture. The emptiness left behind is an entity unto itself–may, indeed, be the protagonist in these stories.

Or is the image the protagonist? archaea4’s image is basically that of a rocky hole. Found at http://www.asondheim.org/portal/archaea4.exe, the erasure in this piece resonates strangely with this hole. Which is the emptiness? Is this a zen koan, a linear animation, or software?

This Program is not Responding
One aspect of these pieces may actually come across as a design flaw; clicking on the close button in the upper right hand corner doesn’t close them. Indeed, just trying to move the piece from one area of the screen to the other causes a major hang on CPU resources; the image blanks out completely, along with its erasure.

“The immobility of some of the pieces, as well as the inability to resize is deliberate,” Alan maintains. “I thought of these as ‘sticky objects,’ insistent on their own processes. One of the earlier ones, of course, _does_ kind of stick to the desktop…”

I can see how this would enhance the work. When running one of these strange programs, I often feel as if to do anything at all on the computer while the process is playing itself out would be to violate the principle of the whole thing. I get the sense that what is happening in these pieces is both intense and enormous; and yet, fragile as far as the machine is concerned. This process will not tolerate any other process spinning off in the same space.

I like to leave the works running on my screen. Like a good movie, or a good novel, I’m fascinated enough by the interaction between the characters to sit still for a moment, absorb rather than react.