Coding Praxis: Reconsidering the Aesthetics of Code
Geoff Cox, Alex McLean, Adrian Ward

Authors: An earlier collaborative paper The Aesthetics of Generative Code (2001) drew an analogy with poetry as a form that requires both reading and live spoken performance. Like poetry, it is clear that code can have aesthetic value both in its written form and in its execution. The paper argued that any separation of code and the resultant actions would simply limit the aesthetic experience (otherwise based purely on the sense apparatus), and ultimately limit the study of these generative forms (that should also engage with the apparatus itself). This paper aims to address this earlier essay, define its terms more closely, reflect upon its conceptions and misconceptions, and respond to its reception.

Since publication, the paper has been generally received as indicative of an over-concentration on formal concerns at the expense of its cultural orsocial implications what Florian Cramer calls software formalism (in Concepts, Notations, Software, Art, 2002; and characterised similarly in Paul, Huhtamo, 2003). This aspect of its reception has been disappointing, as it was only ever thought to be part of the argument. It was claimed that the ideological aspects (or what more pertinently might be called the generative matrix) lay outside the scope of our paper but that it was necessary for a fuller and sustained criticism. Moreover, in this emergent field, there is some danger of making claims that contradict the very principles of software as something 'generative'; that is always in progress, and on execution produces unpredictable and contradictory outcomes. Generative art might be particularly useful in revealing these contradictory tendencies.

In addressing the idea of the limits of aesthetic experience, the suggestion was that some of the tired oppositions between theory and practice, and the intellectual/physical division of labour involved in the production of generative art works might be revealed as a consequence. There has been much attention on the figure of the artist-programmer in this regard, encapsulating the creative and technical possibilities of producing generative artworks. This paper examines these issues in more detail by making a further analogy to the dialectical relationship of theory to practice - in the lexicon of critical theory known as praxis. Praxis is a self-creating action informed by theory, and therefore thoroughly active and dynamic. Is the analogy of this concept productive for thinking about the role of code beyond its functional role, and its implications for social processes as offering a program/programme of action? Is it possible to be able to produce generative artworks that encapsulate the possibility of a critical practice in this way?

class praxis
  dim theory as variant
  dim practice as variant
  function action() as variant
    return theory + practice
  end function
end class

This essay was written for Read_Me Software Art and Cultures conference and is published in read_me Software Art & Cultures Edition 2004 .


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