Technology and Materials, 1

I recently finished reading Maeda and Media (2000) by John Maeda. It's an interesting retrospective of the work Maeda -- former director of the MIT Media Lab, former President of RISD, and now venture capitalist -- did in exploring the possibilities of and pioneering generative, programmatic, and digital art.

Of course, having been made in the early days of computers and GUIs, it all looks terribly dated: pixels and primary colors stretched across basic shapes, and geometric line art being programmed into existence. It's from an age where the idea of pixels, their LED components, and drawing programs were still cutting-edge.

Yet there might also be a reason to re-explore some of the conceptual challenges of early computer-created work. Those early pixels don't try to imitate existing art forms (because they can't). Just the opposite: Maeda's work suggests that programmatic experiments such as John Conway's Game of Life can be a completely new -- and previously impossible -- forms of art... a form that requires a completely different set of tools: not the Adobe Creative Suite or Sketchup, but the underlying algorithm or the code.

It forced me to grapple with a number of questions -- isn't Maeda describing a nearly Dadist form of art, to create a set of instructions and let the scenario play out? How can programming and generative art be informed by that sort of structured playfulness and unexpected performance? And what does it look like when that sort of generative art intersects with the non-digital world?

Is a set of instructions a tool or a material, in some sense? Is an idea a technology?