Mark Napier, potatoland's creator, has always been the kind of guy that spends five hours fleshing out his ideas and one hundred or more coding and working on the projects himself. Theories have never burdened him. His work is borne out of the desire to capture the process of art. His is the desire of a painter who, armed with the skills and knowledge of a software developer, can use the new medium of software to explore the many ways to an action painting.
There was a time that, as potatoland's critic-in-residence, I would curse at his love for playing with, what I called at one point, his virtual toys. He would pay more attention to what was happening within those 40 cubic inches of circuitry and plastic, than to any ideas of baroque structures, nomadic thoughts or post-modern aesthetics I could offer in the way of theory. The keyword here is play.
Play is one of the most important tools necessary in the development of the human species. Through play, children first explore the world around them. A baby may tinker with a spoon, trying to find out how to use it and in the process find that the spoon is a eye patch, a shovel, an arm pit scratcher and an attention-grabbing device. Through play humans first enter the world in order to rearrange it, make sense of it and, alas, accept it as it is.
Napier's entrance into net.art was literally through playing with code; and exploring this new medium with a mixture of excitement, reverence and recklessness. It is his eagerness to lose himself in the process of creation that has helped him produce works such as Digital Landfill, The Shredder, Riot, p-Soup and Feed. Napier's sense of play is about the way art is generated through the interfaces he creates for his works: How the creative process can be accessible and inexhaustible.
What follows is a conversation that we had about software, art and process.
On Art and Process
LS: You once were a painter. What is it about software that calls to you?
MJN: Software can change over time. What is frustrating about painting is that whenever I completed a painting it was done. There was nothing more that was going to happen with that painting. I tried to make paintings that could change and be participated with but this type of art was more of an exceptional case. It was not inherent to the painting medium that it change over time. Paintings can decay and you can work with that but that is not really what painting is about; it's not what it is designed to do.
It's more about the visual impact. That's not what I meant to say. All visual art is about the visual impact. I am thinking of paintings like Rembrandt's and Van Eyck's; where people keep going back to them because they keep finding nuances they had not seen before. I am thinking about paintings in which the level of detail is almost architectural.
This is an interesting question that people bring up all the time, isn't painting interactive too, isn't television interactive? A toaster is interactive. Why distinguish that from software? I distinguish it because there are different degrees of interactivity and there is different design.
A painting is not designed to be altered physically. It is designed to be a complete piece that is static. You can interact with it but, typically, your interaction will destroy it for the next viewer. Interaction destroys the integrity of the work. As to TV's and toasters, yes they are interactive but to a very limited degree. Interactivity is largely defined for the user to accomplish only very specific tasks. You have very limited range of choices.
Software is intended from the beginning to be a virtual machine. It is a machine that can change its own structure during its execution. It's a machine that can be altered because by "virtual" it means that it is a soft machine. So software has inherent in its design the possibility of change, evolution, variability, and potentially of a kind of collaboration with the viewer. The viewer by being a user can become a collaborator in a project through the software interface.
Software becomes a space for a type of collaboration--and I emphasize "type" because it is not two artists saying, we are getting together to make one final static piece. Instead it's one or more artist creating an interface that enables the users, in some way, to complete the piece. Without the users, the piece is not complete. So, this comes back to a conversation we had about enabling, that the work enables the user to participate and, the user, by participating, enables the work to exist.
What bothers me about the word "completing"; about a piece being incomplete is that I don't think that it is incomplete; in the sense that it is not net.art if it is not in process.
Right, the natural state of the work is for it to be incomplete; so, in a sense, it is complete.
But it is about process. It is not even about it being complete or incomplete. I like to think of the idea of "artware"; of these pieces being art machines. They're not art unless they are in the process of creating; of being an art machine.
The word isn't "complete", it's "done" and the process does not necessarily ever have to be done; it's ongoing by it's nature.
And if there is no process, there is no art. There is a difference between the idea of the artwork being complete/incomplete and there not being any art unless there is a process. The artwork is the process; that is what creates the artistic experience. With your work, it makes so much sense. You are more interested how creativity evolves by putting together different software elements in order to make things happen in a creative process. You are more excited when you have endless possibilities within a creative process than when you create a static "thing in itself". That's what has made me refer to your work as artware --as art machines that only exist within the process of art.
I like the idea of a creative machine. Then the user is not completing the piece but they are activating the piece.
Exactly! Maurice Blanchot said that a book that has not been read is a book that has never been written. Same concept, different technology. It is not words anymore. It is not paint anymore. It goes beyond them. It's these mini-machines that you can put together. Boom! You have the The Shredder. Boom! You have Riot.
Riot and The Shredder don't exist unless people are activating it. Same with p-Soup, same with Feed. The Digital Landfill would have not existed unless people had not started dumping stuff into it.
On Interactivity vs. Collaboration
Yeah, where I used the word "complete", I think "activate" is a better word. I'm thinking about a term in painting. Back when I was in art school, they spoke of the idea of closure; of a painting being "open" or "closed". "Open" meaning that an image is more likely to have a multitude of interpretations; not only of the subject matter but, of how the execution of the image; it's abstraction. There are different ways you can complete an abstraction. In the case of net.art the word is not so much closure but "opening." The piece opens and starts to unfold and evolve based on people's interaction with it. The user activates the work and ideally, the work activates the user.
Right! It's a symbiotic relationship; one doesn't exist without the other.
It introduces another element to this kind of artwork that doesn't necessarily exist in painting or any other static art forms: That is that the work does in some way need to activate the user. If nobody participates, the work is static. The work needs to entice users to participate. A painting continues to exist and may be appreciated by a small group of people but continues to exist just as much as if nobody liked it.
Even if it is in a warehouse, it continues to be.
People may not be aware it exists, it may not exist in a historical context but it is as active as it is going to be whether it is in a closet, a museum or a gallery. With software that needs to be activated by the user, if no one activates it, it is not art. So it has to have this communication function, it has to effectively attract the user at least to begin something, some exploration of the piece. So there is a kind of invitation, a threshold I guess, in order for the work to function as an active process. It needs to attract a certain critical mass of viewers and at least give them a reason to interact; whether they like it or not. Even if they choose not to pursue it any further at least give them a reason to do something with the piece. Give them a reason to activate it.
Sometimes that reason comes later. You always come to me and say, wouldn't this be fun? Like with the landfill. It started as this great idea for dumping digital crap but the reasons to come to it appeared after people starting using it. You did not think of it as a place where people could advertise. In no way was that at all in the conception of the piece. After that symbiotic relationship, after that process gets rolling, then all of a sudden, even you don't know why people would use your works. Look at what thy did at Yahoo! They categorized the Landfill as free advertising space?
Well, that categorization is what made this piece live as long as it has and it continues to be active.
But this did not come out of your conception.
It's a great coincidence and accident that propelled the piece. What I learned from that is that there are different motivations for people to interact with a piece. When you create artwork that engages the user, the user becomes a factor in the design of the piece. They become a part of that medium. Human nature comes to play a shaping role, a fundamental role in the work.
Not even as a marketing ploy but as a desire machine. Desire as a factor in the art machine.
Right. The question of how people desire art, how they desire precious objects, desire control, desire authority; of being seen like in Digital Landfill; the desire of control over a space like in Riot; those human elements are desirable in the work. They are very exciting because that's the fuel for the machine: The movement of human desire. For instance in the case of Digital Landfill, the desire to be seen is a driving force in the web. It is a huge force, shaping the whole technology. People want to be seen, to be known. That is one way to be potentially known around the world. People create incredible web sites just for that purpose. There is no money in it, just the chance to get their names out there. It is all about being seen and known by other people. Digital Landfill is a record because people are sending all the spam and stuff they have rejected. They're throwing out someone's bid for attention. Then other people are creating their own spam by throwing their own stuff into the landfill in their bid for attention.
Or redirecting it.
And that is another element; another texture of the piece. The textures are created partly by human nature. When someone co-opts the piece to redirect it, although very rarely, it effectively breaks the piece. That is part of the landfill. Digital Landfill was created to include the possibility of people taking it over. So, I don't see that as breaking the integrity of the piece. It is part of the piece. It is in it's own way like a territory, a slice of the web: it can be hacked, it can be a record, it can be an archive, and it can be a web site. It can be all those things.
What's interesting is that it creates a curatorial problem for traditionalists. Your work is about destabilizing authority; yet, it is still "a Mark Napier". The whole idea of who generates the piece is still problematic to many curators.
I think things are changing gradually but it will take time. I mean, I was shocked that Christiane Paul chose to put Riot in the biennial. She picked it partly because it is a piece that exists online, and the content in the browser window can be changed by anybody online. I know she is aware of that and is intrigued by that. So at least one curator is actively pursuing this in a "venerable" institution. I don't know how Riot will unfold. It is an open invitation for anyone ¾for other artists or, who knows, pornographers that may want to advertise to a specific audience that goes to the Whitney Museum.
I don’t know what the content of the piece is going to be; yet, the overall message of the piece stays the same. Though it may not be apparent to people who don't understand it, the structure of the piece is still working regardless of who puts what. The curatorial challenges of a work like that is that you are not curating a final product; you don't even know how it is going to appear. You are curating a process and that may not communicate to people that art can be a process; they may just look at the screen and say, "I'm seeing something about the Ku Klux Klan ... well this artist is into the Ku Klux Klan". No not really. Somebody went to the site and used it that way.
Collaboration is a problematic word. It implies there are two minds working on the same level, to create an aesthetics that they agree upon. The fact of the matter is that it is your work. It is your aesthetics. It is not collaboration but that symbiotic relationship where the user turns on the art machine in order to set in motion an artistic process.
It's a good point. It is not necessarily a meeting of minds. Many people using these pieces don't think of them as art; they don't consider that they are engaged in an art process. There is no collaboration but there is still some element like collaboration. They are activators of the piece and they become critical to the extent that the work doesn't exist without them.
Your net.art has many elements that hark back to your paintings. The color composition, abstract elements, transparencies, layering, they all go back to work you did ten, fifteen years ago. The idea that a user is collaborating with an artist by interacting with their "artware" is simplistic. Not only are you using traditionally utilitarian software technologies to create works of art but also, those works of art only exist as a process that outputs an artistic experience.
This brings up the question of what's the aesthetics of process: how does a process engage a user? To what extent does the process give the user control? How much authority does the user have vis-‡-vis the artist (who may be holding on to a direction or idea within the piece)? How much chaos is allowed? How simple or complex, how clear or confusing is the interface, the language of the piece?
In a case like p-Soup, if you can click you can use it. A completely ignorant user going in and just haphazardly clicking on the screen, trying to figure the piece out will immediately be rewarded and they will already have gotten more than half of the knowledge of how the interface works. What they can then do with the piece is very wide and open in terms of using that language but the piece is very restrictive about what options it gives you. At the opposite end is Digital Landfill, where there are numerous different things people can do with the piece.
But there is that layering, that aspect of your aesthetics.
The thread that unifies them is their treatment of authority, ownership, possession. Digital Landfill, The Shredder and Riot are about appropriation of other people's web content. I'm giving the user the ability to shred it, mix it, to throw it away. P-Soup is more about painting but it is also about the authority of who has control over the painting. Since it is a multi-user, networked piece, any one can alter what's happening on the screen. Each person has to give up their authority over the piece and, so I as the artist as well--in terms of how it will be used and how it will unfold visually. It is not static, it is not a video or flash loop.
Yeah. It is something that is constantly unfolding and constantly letting go. I can take a screen capture of the piece but I cannot actually stop it. It is an ongoing process and the screen captures never seem to "capture" that anyway. There is something lacking in them; the sense of surprise, of animation. The colors seem to be more vibrant when they are changing; when they are constantly shifting from one color to the next. The eye is being constantly challenged and excited in a way that a static image just does not convey.
Until somebody actually uses the piece, nothing happens with it. My work is more like wind chimes than a machine. I'm influenced a lot by Calder. The motivating force behind a Calder piece is the movement of air. Seems to be a device or machine but his pieces are extremely organic. Any other random generative machine or clock would produce predictable results. The beauty of a mobile is that it is not predictable; you can make your guesses as to how it will appear but you can't predict from one moment to the next how it will move.
Were you with me at the Pompidou when I was blowing at a Calder?
Trying to get a half-ton Calder to move…
But it moved.
And in the Pompidou, of all places.
People had a riot with me jumping up and down.
That's what I love about it. It has that potential, especially the pieces that are outdoors. The big pieces bother me because they are restrained by their mass. The smaller pieces you can blow like that one we saw at a hotel in San Francisco. You can blow at it, you can stand at the balcony and wave a newspaper and it will visibly change.
The beauty of the web is that through software you can create pieces that are intended to be interacted with. They are not the exception; they are the norm. Software is intended to be interacted with in most cases. That's the value of it. It is a rich enough, complex enough device that it can react in ways that are very unpredictable. People can use it in a creative way, adding another level of unpredictability. This software machine is in some ways a reflection and extension of human nature. It's a machine but it is an extension of the human interface: From the eye and the hand to the mouse. It then becomes a place for humans to create.
That's why my ideal scenario for net.art is in people's homes. That it's in places where people live and work and play. That they can use the art just by being in the room with it; using it casually without having to go to a special place like a museum or a gallery. For me it means creating art that needs fewer people to activate the work; of focusing in a core group of ten people and creating pieces that are more private. That ten people have it and with relatively little effort people can activate it for a longer period of time.
Do you think that having kids has had an impact on how you conceptualize artwork?
Yeah. I'm interested in games and in interfaces that even a toddler can interact with it. A lot of it also has to do with the space of the internet. The internet is at the same time extremely public and extremely private. These works respond this aspect of the internet. Anybody that can get to the work can alter it. At the same time, it is very private. These people are connecting through the piece; but they are anonymous to the other users. They use technology like a chat room but they are communicating as abstractions. Not as individuals but as abstractions within the artwork. I like that because it puts people at a different level. It puts the in the position of wanting to communicate and having to within the new language.
Just like babies when they are starting to figure out speech.
Maybe. I know I am influenced by the infrastructure of the internet itself like chat-rooms and bulletin boards and usenets and instant messenger. Those kinds of things have influenced me more.
Do you think that's also the reason why you discuss your projects before you create them? When you were painting you would show the work mostly when it was done.
It has more to do with the fact that software is a thousand times more complicated to put together than painting. The technology you use in a painting is as simple as it gets.
Someone said that a car engine was complex and why would software be more complex than an engine. The software designer shot back that you can use software to simulate all the functionality of a v-8 engine but you could not use a v-8 engine to simulate all the functionality possible in software. So software is enormously more open ended than any form of mechanical device by virtue of the fact that they have a defined physical form. In software that form can change and grow in all sorts of ways.
With painting, I rarely asked people what they thought. With software, I do all the time.
It's the quality issue thing, the testing…
It has to work. A painting doesn't have to work because it has no moving parts.
That's why I think committees curating, evaluating and judging art should have programmers in their midst so they can understand how these pieces are created. How you can be working and testing artware for six months to a year and people would not even know it because what's important is that they can use the piece and have fun with it.
But few curators care very little, how a painter mixes his paint. What they are interested is in the final product.
With software art, the piece exists in two levels: in the code and the execution of the process. When we talked about process, the process exists as the function of a virtual machine. It creates a different level of understanding of the artwork: there is the experience the user has which is their activity within the interface of the work; and then there is the code, the actual crafting of the machine that makes this experience possible. Most people know little or nothing about that. One reason I am skeptical about code ever becoming an art form is that no one is going to understand what the hell it is anyway.
There's a shift happening on what art is and how
it is defined. Net.art, as I produce it, is a generative work, not an animation or a recorded loop. It is not a machine generating mechanical patterns. It is art generated by the actions of users.