minimalistic by Paul Camacho
minimalistic: a tiny 8x8 pixel graphic file (in PNG format) meta-programs the computer's graphics rendering subsystem to produce a work of optical art. Execution is performed by using the graphics file as the desktop wallpaper or background, with the sizing/tiling attribute set to "stretch".
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Featured by Amy Alexander.

When I was a child, local fairs often used to have a booth at which a machine rotated a paper card very rapidly on a spindle. You were handed bottles of colored paint, and you squeezed the paint onto the rotating card, creating what appeared to be tidy, concentric circles of color. Very simple and straightforward - what could go awry? When you had finished your masterpiece, the attendant would stop the machine so you could take your card home and display it for posterity. But, as the machine slowed to a stop, the painting changed drastically. The tidy, concentric circles turned into wild, overlapping splashes of paint. Not at all what you thought you were making - but fortunately, especially to a child, much cooler.

Minimalistic reminds me of that game. The project is very simple, and it's created not through programming but through simple user manipulations of the computer's desktop background. A small image comprised of colored blocks (enlarged computer pixels) is provided, which users simply set as their system's background wallpaper. However, the resulting wallpaper, like the painted cards at the fair, is something you wouldn't expect. Instead of a grid of pixel-like blocks, your wallpaper turns out to be a foggy pattern of soft starbursts. The algorithm the computer uses to try to logically stretch images to fill the screen has been used to do something illogical - to make something discrete turn fuzzy. It's a little like op-art for computer software: instead of taking advantage of tricks humans use when rendering images, Minimalistic takes advantage of tricks computers use when rendering them. (There's also some optical fun for humans built-in: if you stare at the colored wallpaper Minimalistic creates on your computer, all the colors seem to disappear and the wallpaper appears to be solid gray.)

Each year in Read_me and Runme, we seem to encounter at least one project like Minimalistic whose charm lies in the authors' getting a computer to do something it wasn't designed to do: Screensaver by Eldar Karhalev and Ivan Khimin showed us that the hopelessly flashy and hi-tech Windows screensaver could be made to generate a simple, slowly swaying rectangle. The anonymous project discomus.exe demonstrated that a boring and utilitarian floppy drive could play a Russian folk song. As with Minimalistic, these projects could easily be dismissed as clever hacks. But there's something more than technical cleverness going on. The objects of these hacks - screensavers, floppy drives, wallpaper - are iconic to almost anyone who works with computers even casually. And so they become ingrained in the parts of our lives where we deal with computers: work, leisure, or some combination. Experiencing projects that show our computers acting in ways counter to what their designers intended is like seeing the emperor with no clothes: suddenly we realize we've been at the mercy of these drone machines designed by some corporation, obediently doing just what "They" want us to do with them. But at the same time we discover it's not all that difficult to turn that relationship around.

So why, given the history of projects in a similar vein, do I still get excited when I see a project like Minimalistic? Perhaps the more of these projects that emerge, the more it seems to prove the hopeful premise correct: maybe people actually *can* be the bosses of their computers. But, there's more to it than that: the experience of seeing the boring "set as background" menu option suddenly generate soft starbursts out of clunky pixels is just simply a nice surprise. Alexei Shulgin and Olga Goriunova wrote of discomus.exe in 2003, "The delight that envelops the user when the program is launched can be compared to the rapture of a child who finds out that a shoe-polish jar fits exactly into the pipe of a vacuum cleaner." Experiencing Minimalistic, on the other hand, might be more like the wonder you feel after you turn off the vacuum cleaner and realize your walls actually look much better now that they have shoe polish all over them.

by Amy Alexander, posted 14 Nov 2004

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