Composition 1961 1-29 by LaMonte Young
A paper card with the instruction: "Draw a straight line and follow it."
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Composition 1961 1-29

In 1961, Henry Flynt defined concept art as an art "of which the material is 'concepts,' as the material of for ex. music is sound". If software art is, among others, art whose material is formal instruction code, then concept art and software art have two things in common:

1. the collapsing of notation and execution of a concept into one piece;

2. the use of language; instruction code in software art, concepts in concept art, or, as Flynt writes: "since 'concepts' are closely bound up with language, concept art is a kind of art of which the material is language".

If concepts become, to quote Flynt again, artistic "material", then concept art differs from other art in that it actually exposes concepts, putting their notations up front as the artwork proper. In analogy, software art in particular would differ from software-based art in general in that it exposes its instructions and codedness.

An example of concept art in Flynt's sense which today could be seen as non-computer software art as well is La Monte Young's "Composition 1961", a piece of paper containing the written instruction "Draw a straight line and follow it". The instruction is unambiguous enough to be executed by a machine. At the same time, a thorough execution is impossible because it would break physical limits: imagine one straight line being drawn around the globe. So the reality of piece is mental, conceptual, all the while creating a strange correspondence between algorithm and human being, subject and object: the performer draws the straight line, but but doing actually follow the given concept and artefact derived from it. "Composition No.1" therefore could be seen as the prototype of's psychogeographical computer ".walk" (see corresponding feature), but at the same time is asocial, monumental, anti- or trans-subjective. All epistemological questions raised by formal languages and algorithmics are contained and precisely condensed within this piece. It therefore not only provokes to rethink what software and software art is. Being the first and still most elegant example of all artistic jamming and denial-of-service code, it manages to be strictly formalist, conceptualist and radically aestheticist on the one hand while putting up front the philosophy and politics coded into algorithmic instructions at the same time.

by Florian Cramer, posted 19 May 2003

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