Knowing and Doing

the splash screen to open David Schmudde's talk, 'Misuse'

This talk, the first of the afternoon on Day 1, opened with a familiar image: René Magritte's "this is not a pipe" painting, next to a picture of an actual pipe from some e-commerce site. Throughout the talk, speaker David Schmüdde returned to the distinction between thing and referent as he looked at the phenomenon of software users who used -- misused -- software to do something other than intended by the designer. The things they did were, or became, art.

First, a disclaimer: David is a former student of mine, now a friend, and one of my favorite people in the world. I still have in my music carousel a CD labeled "Schmudde Music!!" that he made for me just before he graduated and headed off to a master's program in music at Northwestern.

I often say in my conference reports that I can't do a talk justice in a blog entry, but it's even more true of a talk such as this one. Schmüdde demonstrated multiple works of art, both static and dynamic, which created a vibe that loses most of its zing when linearized in text. So I'll limit myself here to a few stray observations and impressions from the talk, hoping that you'll be intrigued enough to watch the video when it's posted.

Art is a technological endeavor. Rembrandt and hip hop don't exist without advances in art-making technology.

Misuse can be a form of creative experimentation. Check out Jodi, a website created in 1995 and still available. In the browser, it seems to be a work of ASCII art, but show the page source... (That's a lot harder these days than it was in 1995.) Now that is ASCII art.

Schmüdde talked about another work of from the same era, entitled Rain. It used slowness -- of the network, of the browser -- as a feature. Old HTML (or was it a bug in an old version of Netscape Navigator?) allowed one HEAD tag in a file with multiple BODY tags. The artist created such a document that, when loaded in sequence, gave the appearance of rain falling in the browser. Misusing the tools under the conditions of the day enabled the artist to create an animation before animated GIFs, Flash, and other forms of animation existed.

The talk followed with examples and demos of other forms of software misuse, which could:

  • find bugs in a system
  • lead to new system features
  • illuminate a system in ways not anticipated by the software's creator
Schmüdde wondered, when we fix bugs in this way, do we make the resulting system, or the resulting interaction, less human?

Accidental misuse is life. We expect it. Intentional misuse is, or can be, art. It can surprise us.

What does art preservation look like for these works? The original hardware and software systems often are obsolete or, more likely, gone. To me, this is one of the great things about computers: we can simulate just about anything. Digital art preservation becomes a matter of simulating the systems or interactions that existed at the time the art was created. We are back to Magritte's pipe... This is not a work of art; it is a pointer to a work of art.

It is, of course, harder to recreate the experience of the art from the time it was created, but isn't this true of all art? Each of us experiences a work of art anew each time we encounter it. Our experience is never the same as the experience of those who were present when the work was first unveiled. It's often not even the same experience we ourselves had yesterday.

Schmüdde closed with a gentle plea to the technologists in the room to allow more art into their process. This is a new talk, and he was a little concerned about his ending. He may find a less abrupt way to end in the future, but to be honest, I though what he did this time worked well enough for the day.

Even taking my friendship with the speaker into account, this was the talk of the conference for me. It blended software, users, technology, ideas, programming, art, the making of things, and exploring software at its margins. These ideas may appear at the margin, but they often lie at the core of the work. And even when they don't, they surprise us or delight us or make us think.

This talk was a solid example of what makes Strange Loop a great conference every year. There were a couple of other talks this year that gave me a similar vibe, for example, Hannah Davis's "Generating Music..." talk on Day 1 and Ashley Williams's "A Tale of Two asyncs" talk on Day 2. The conference delivers top-notch technical content but also invites speakers who use technology, and explore its development, in ways that go beyond what you find in most CS classrooms.

For me, Day One of the conference ended better than most: over a beer with David at Flannery's with good conversation, both about ideas from his talk and about old times, families, and the future. A good day.