Black Vines on Slow Time: An Interview with Abraham Parangi

Anthony Clavelli

From Issue 1

Buttons are uncool. They predate the digital age and will likely continue to help us use elevators into the future, but for now, we don’t want them on our electronics. It wasn’t always this way. For generations of videogame consoles, the controllers were a breeding ground for buttons. New buttons sprung up anywhere you could reasonably find a finger. But at some point, the way these things go, the button boom declined. Touch-sensitive screens on phones and ATMs, increasingly useful track pads on our laptops, and click wheels on our iPods have made physical buttons almost seem primitive. As technology evolves, buttons may go the way of the appendix or wisdom teeth.

So when I first tried Phyta, a software program developed Abraham Parangi that’s somewhere between a game and an exercise in evolution, I shouldn’t have been surprised that there are no buttons. In fact, there’s really no guidance for what to do at all. The experience is eerie, and thought-provoking, intentionally vexing and almost irritating. And yet it’s strangely beautiful and seems to be hinting at something deeper than what’s on screen.

The program begins on a white backdrop, cascading slowly upward. I notice nothing at first but the title, and a little “1” in the corner—suggesting a narrative that doesn’t really exist. A black vine creeps slowly up from the bottom of the screen, and a little golden bug—something like a cross between Harry Potter’s snitch and a prehistoric dragonfly—flaps at the top of the screen. The cursor is a gear-like structure, black and round. The vine crawls and twists, the cursor moves around the screen when I wiggle the mouse. But what do I do?

After a few minutes of watching the vines twist, I decide I want to capture the flying gold thing. It just feels like the right idea. I begin, slowly, to realize that the vines seem attracted to the cursor, but only peripherally, as if they need some coaxing to want to climb toward it. I shake the mouse, wave it around the golden bug, and soon I convince the black vine to encircle the bug. It flaps its feathered wings, struggles to bounce out of the vine. The screen continues to cascade, the bug slows, stops, loses its glow and shifts to a dull, rusted color, and dies. Another bug emerges from the top, and my cursor begins to twirl and grow. I know what to do now, but I had to come to that scenario on my own, and it wasn’t immediately obvious. There is no ReadMe file, no instruction menu.

“I’m trying to present an experience,” Abraham explains. He takes his time with his words—tells me frequently to wait for him while he considers what I’m asking. “A very simple experience. There’s a plant. And a glowing gold thing. The plant catches and eats the glowing gold thing.”

Phyta has no story. But there is more at work here than counting levels. Not unlike the vines, Abraham takes some coaxing to get deeper with his games. It’s not that he hasn’t thought them out—the 19-year-old computer programmer studying at Cornell is full of ideas about his work that clearly means a lot to him—he just doesn’t want to sound like he thinks he’s an artist. This becomes a bit baffling the more he says about his work.

The cursor, he explains, is like the sun. The vines want to move toward the sun, but it’s not that easy. The code Abraham wrote for the vines’ movement has them battling against time—so that while they’re directed to move toward the sun, a time-based conflicting movement pushes them in a circle, giving them the meandering quality. It also makes them more beautiful, and the resulting vines really look alive and natural.

And Phyta itself evolves, too. As I capture more and more of the glowing bugs, they change. They get bigger, more complex. One is a flying cephalopod with dangling tentacles; another a series of buzzing circles orbiting a larger one. They begin to eat at the vines as I try to encircle them, each new golden creature more voracious than the last. The vines, my partners in this experience, evolve too. No longer does a single vine creep upward, but they branch out, and twist. When one tip of the vine stops, another sprouts behind it. There is a sense of time progression: half from the tediousness of the project (the vines will sometimes take exceedingly long to climb, as if a dry season stunted their growth, producing short spiky vines that are no less beautiful, but terrible at catching shiny golden things), and half from the unavoidable connection to evolution

“Evolution is among the coolest theories,” Abraham says. “There’s a big intuitive component to [my interpretation] because my only explanation is that I think it’s cool. It appeals to me because it’s procedural—it’s not handcrafted. It’s created by a process.”

This philosophy is part of the reason why Abraham does not like to consider himself an artist (a point I disagree with). He wants to let the code create his art. Some of his other work, programs including StreamField and  Tree of Life both generate visual designs through his coding (the latter of which more literally tackles evolution, as little protozoan lines squiggle and change over time).

 “Art is basically communication—from the creator to the viewer.” He says this with confidence. He’s gaining steam, speaking faster and no longer asks me to wait while he thinks. “Coding isn’t quite a communication. It’s like a building machine. Phyta might represent a communication between me and whoever’s watching it. Writing the code is separate. Like building a bridge. The code doesn’t mean anything on its own.”

And all of this writing is entirely his—no cutting and pasting.

“If someone’s done it before a thousand times,” he says, “I’ll still write it from scratch.” He’s been coding since he was as young as twelve—sent off to a summer camp that mixed programming classes with the occasional round of dodgeball. And he’s only nineteen! (When you see how great Phyta looks, you’ll see it’s worth being excited about newer projects.)

The resulting programming, then, is part of him. The same way that some digital poetry or even Oulipo’s poetry is generated from a device—where the machine creating the program is part of the art—here the work is both of the user running the program as well as that of Parangi. It’s collaborative.

With Phyta, as much as the coding generates the images on the screen, there is still an entirely human experience. But you don’t really “play” Phyta. There is no winning. This is a lesson I learned the hard way, stuck on the fifth evolution for what seemed like hours.

“Oh,” he laughs when I tell him this. “Yeah, I don’t think you can get past the fifth level. I’m actually not sure what would happen if you could.”

Abraham clearly likes this. He prefers this kind software, citing Jenova Chen, a founding member of thatgamecompany and designer of the PlayStation 3’s ambient hit Flower, as an influence. He likes programs that are quiet, where the user’s hand is not held. The experience is emotional and undeniably poetic.

By the end of Phyta, like our own evolution, we can only truly know where we’ve been and where we are—an “end” isn’t the point. What’s important as that we piece together the experience and hope to discover something hidden within the code.

Author Biography

Tony is a fiction writer from Chicago. He earned an MFA from West Virginia University and really likes OUTER SPACE.