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Language & Encoding
A Symposium for Artists, Programmers, & Scholars

Nov. 8-9, 2002
State University of New York, Buffalo

Panel Abstracts

Note: Full versions of these essays are forthcoming in Dichtung Digital in December, 2002.

Beige Records
Reverse Engineering Super Mario Brothers

Cory Arcangel and Paul Davis of the BEIGE programming ensemble will present their recent work which deals with reverse engineering Super Mario Brothers Cartridges for the 8-bit Nintendo Entertainment System [1984]. Over the past five years Cory Arcangel and Paul Davis have been studying the hardware limitations of the Nintendo Entertainment System in order to better understand the audio and visual language that dictated the aesthetics of popular video games like Mario Brothers and Zelda. Due to the limited space available on a cartridge, graphic encoding peculiarities, MHz limitations, and color restrictions, Nitnendo games adopted a unified aesthetic. Cory Arcangel and Paul Davis will discuss this aesthetic language in relation to recent work.

Marc Böhlen

My contribution will include two parts. In the first part I will investigate some of the premises upon which the concept of language in computer science is based. Revisiting Nicolas Wirth's landmark text "Algorithms + Data Structures = Programs" [1976] I will discuss the idea of symbols, fundamental types and the idea of representation in data constructs. In particular I will dwell on the construction of the type CHAR, with which computer programming entered an arranged marriage with human language. The fact that a universal machine allows for arbitrary construction of representation, implies that it makes sense to encode reality in more than one way. Given the growth in the number of computer programmers over the decades it makes sense to expect unorthodox applications of computational processes to occur. Code has gone pop and there is logic in this. Artists' use, invention and reinterpretation of computational processes can be placed in this context.
The second part of my presentation will be dedicated to the idea of data mishandling. This is the purposeful misuse of data constructions and data bodies supplied by computational processes. I will show how diligent data mishandling and data enhancement can be understood as forms of cultural intervention. This idea will be elaborated in some recent work.

John Cayley
Reprogramming Performances of Writing
Current textual and poetic practices in networked and programmable media highlight the crucial role of code, in an increasingly literal sense of the word. Setting out from arguments which require us to examine and re-establish a distinction of code and text, this contribution explores and exemplifies the necessities and benefits of such a distinction. Coding is indeed always already crucial to writing in networked and programmable media, but subsequent to its appearance at the 'scene of writing', the distinction between code and text, code and interface text, must be made in order to realize end engage with performances of writing in these newly and continually reconfigurable media.
Alex Galloway
Conflicting Organizational Designs

Throughout the years new organizational designs have appeared as solutions or threats to existing designs. Designs come and go, useful once, disappearing, then returning as useful again. Thus, the rhizome is thought to be the solution to the tree, the wildcat strike the solution to the boss's control, or Toyotism the solution to institutional bureaucracy. The terrorist threatens not only through fear and violence, but specifically through the use of a cellular organizational structure, a distributed network of secretive combatants, rather than a centralized organizational structure employed by the police and other state institutions. Terrorism is a sign that we are in a transition moment in history. It signals that historical actors are not in a relationship of equilibrium, but instead are grossly mismatched. My paper will approach the topic of encoding from the perspective of conflicting organizational designs. How are political agendas encoded inside organizational architectures? Are network architectures necessarily more politically progressive then hierarchical ones? Can messages be physically encoded in the organizational design of media? Do the language of computer protocols limit or enable new forms of communication?

Loss Pequeño Glazier
Poetics of Programming

The resonances between the poetics of innovative poetry and the poetics of programming offer some valuable opportunites to expand our views of how writing makes language. It may not be commonly understood how innovative poets have engaged similar material struggles to those of programming. (As to the sense of 'poetry' here, we are referring to poets who work within language-based practices of the 1970s to the present.) Likewise, programming itself has its own poetics, a fact which is no secret to programmers. The resonances and subtle distinctions between these two forms of practice are investigated here to approach an understanding of how language operates when viewed programmatologically. Addressing both fields of practice, this investigation seeks to point to a more general understanding of what language 'is' in the digital medium.

Lisa Jevbratt
Talk Back

As a network artist with a background in more traditional contemporary art, the process I use writing software is in some sense a very traditional artistic/creative process. I immerse myself in a particular Internet protocol/language, and allow it to "talk back". Programming is my actual medium; writing code is the bulk of the work. My ideas are formed in, and as a result of, the coding. There is always code to write, problems to solve, like a painter grinding pigments, I spend time on those little solvable problems in order to let the large questions arise.

Lev Manovich
Culture after Software: a Program for Post-media Aesthetics

1. Post-media aesthetics needs categories that can describe how a cultural object organizes data and structures user's experience of this data.
2. The categories of post-media aesthetics should not be tied to any particular storage or communication media. For instance, rather than thinking of 'random access' as a property specific to computer medium, we should think of it as a general strategy of data organization (which applies to traditional books, architecture) and, separately, as a particular strategy of user¹s behavior.
3. Post-media aesthetics should adopt the new concepts, metaphors and operations of a computer and network era, such as information, data, interface, bandwidth, stream, storage, rip, compress, etc. As an example of such approach, we can describe Giotto and Eisenstein not only as an early Renaissance painter and a modernist filmmaker, but also as important information designers. The first invented new ways to organize data within a static two-dimensional surface (a single panel) or a 3-D space (a set of panels in a Church building); the second pioneered new techniques to organize data over time and to coordinate data in different media tracks to achieve maximum affect on the user. In this way, a future book on information design can include Giotto and Eisenstein alongside Allan Kay and Tim Berners-Lee.
4. Rather than using the concept of medium we may use the concept of software to talk about past media, i.e., to ask about what kind of user's information operations a particular medium allows for.
5. Both cultural critics and software designers came to draw a distinction between an ideal reader/user inscribed by a text/software and the actual strategies of reading/use/re-use employed by actual users. Post-media aesthetics needs to make a similar distinction in relation to all cultural media, or, to use the just introduced term, cultural software. The available operations and the 'right' way of using a given cultural object are different from how people actually come to use it. (In fact, a fundamental mechanism of recent culture is a systematic 'mis-use'of cultural software, such as scratching the records in DJ culture, or remixing old tracks).

Michael Mateas
Doubled System

My work is in Artificial Intelligence (AI)-based art and entertainment. I simultaneously engage in AI research and art making, a research agenda and art practice I call expressive AI. Expressive AI has two major, interrelated thrusts:
1. exploring the expressive possibilities of AI architectures - posing and answering AI research questions that wouldn't be raised unless doing AI research in the context of art practice, and
2. pushing the boundaries of the conceivable and possible in art - creating artwork that would be impossible to conceive of or build unless making art in the context of an AI research practice. My presentation will explore methodological and conceptual issues in expressive AI, particularly the notion of a doubled system which consists of a technical machine engaging in uninterpreted computation, and a semiotic machine which organizes the rhetorical strategies used to narrate the operation of the machine.

Jonathan Minton
Word For Word: Encoding, Networking, and

What is the underlying textual "intention" of a networked assembly such as the online literary journal Word/ For Word? I propose that one way to answer this question is to rethink "intention" as a specific site of textual encoding/decoding. Intention, in this regard, is not a by-product, or end-result, of writing, nor the manifestation of an author's "original" idea, but an always on-going textual process. In her essay "On Flaws," Ann Lauterbach describes this process as "the abraided and indefinite accumulation of an infinite dispersal of sums." Thinking of such a seemingly infinite network in terms of encoding can afford a unique opportunity to explore this notoriously difficult terrain.

David Rokeby
The Computer as a Prosthetic Organ of Philosophy

As a artist / programmer, I have been expressing myself in computer language for many years. As a vehicle for expression, code is of course very different from spoken and written human languages, but expressing myself in both realms has offered some unusual perspectives on a number of issues surrounding language, encoding and decoding. In software, language and its binary substrate are the reality, and surface manifestations on screen and through output devices are approximate representations of that reality. It has of course often been argued that the same is true of human language and lived reality (at least from the interior view of consciousness), but as in many other things, the computer transforms this theoretical position into a tangible one. Are there limits to what one can express in computer code? Is human language fundamentally different or are computer languages simply limit cases of human language? As we spend more and more of our time in spaces whose character has been programmed, these questions become pressing ones. I will explore these questions from the point of view of my experiences developing and exhibiting a wide range of computer-based art installations.

Phoebe Sengers
The 'Embedded World' of AI

Artificial Intelligence has long been seen, by both its supporters and its critics, as attempting to create a complete encoding of human experience. The complexity of human behaviour and existence in the world, by this way of thinking, is reduced to or replaced by formal algorithms. Supporters of AI rejoice in the formal elegance of this reduction, while detractors lament the limitations of this "closed world" of AI. Yet a radically different epistemological stance is becoming apparent in contemporary offshoots of AI, including statistical natural language processing and machine learning as well as the work of hybrid artist-technologists like Warren Sack and Michael Mateas. By this way of thinking, the power of formal representations is not based on their existence in a separate, clean closed world, but on their embeddedness in a complex, incompletely formalizable outside world. Web search systems like Google, for example, work not by creating an abstract, formal representation of human life, but by computing directly on language and links created by humans for one another. The goal with such systems is not to replace the human world with a formalized ideal, but to opportunistically discover patterns in partial formalizations of a much more complex reality. In these cases, instead of a closed world, we can speak of an "embedded world" in which formalisms can tell us something about social and cultural issues not because they represent them but because they arise from them.

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