I recently watched Brett Victors talk from SF SIGGRAPh from 2012 where he talks about artists need to learn code, or to be more specific he argues that artists shouldn’t need to learn to code in order to take control of digital media. I found his ideas very insightful (As always, couldn’t recommend more to check out his other stuff too.) but still I tend to disagree with him on this. Below I write some reasons why. To really understand I suggest to watch the presentation before, it is well worth your time, if you are at all interested on what is happening in the digital arts at the moment.
Bret Victor talks about visual arts as an representation of some real life objects. He uses Magritte’s “Ceci n’est pas une pipe” (“This is not a pipe)” as an example. An image is not the real object, but the artists representation of it. While this is true in all the fields of visual arts: Painting, Photography, Animation, Video – I think it slightly misses the point. I would say that contemporary artists rarely try to represent an object but to create an experience either emotional or intellectual one. Taking the starting point of representation leads more to illustration and design than art.
In his talk Brett Victor demoes a software he has created that aims to free artists from coding. While the software is truly intriguing I would say that it is more a tool for theatre than a tool for visual arts. It allows one to give digital objects some behaviors and personality. Not that much unlike what directors does in theatres. In that sense the software doesn’t offer a tool to free artists from coding, it’s rather a photoshop for theatre directors. And while I think it is great, I don’t think it is a tool for visual artists.
Fact is that everything we do in digital word is based on code. Every image, sound or text we see in our computer/tablet/smartphone screens is made out of code. Code is the essence of digital media.
In my own artistic work one of the most important things I have is the inherent understanding of the media I use: I understand how color is made, I know, and can, make my own paints. I know how to use brush, how different brushes behave, how different canvases, or papers behave and how to use them to portrait my own art with or through them. Before I learned to code I never felt that I knew what I was doing with digital media. Even though I learned to use digital image and video editing tools fairly well, I never felt that sense of making with them. In other words, It never felt that I was creating something on my own, but rather like I was borrowing someone else’s tools and there were assistants doing most of the work for me. I knew that if I clicked some buttons the computer would come to me like and present me with the outcome, in a way robbing me from the sensation or experience of making art. Even though I can see and appreciate many benefits of digital tools and new forms of art created with digital mediums, for me at least, the only solution to this problem was that If I want to gain control of the whole creation process I need to learn to code.
One of the core arguments Brett Victor makes against artists having to learn to code is that code is an linguistic medium and visual artists tend to think visually. Hence having to code hinders the artists ability to express themselves. I think this is a very insightful observation and might ring true to many artists. For me I think the almost opposite is true when dealing with digital media. Let me explain: I am very visual thinker and when I paint or draw I definitely do not think in words but more in abstract, visual way.Visual thinking frees me from the sometimes strict bounds of language and offer me new horizons to look at. But when I move to digital media something changes: The space for visual thinking disappears. I’m not sure why is it, but I think it has to do with the digital space. It doesn’t feel like my own. It feels like I would be using someone else’s tools, so I am careful with them, restricted with them. Also the tools to create digital media try to animate the real life ones: we have brushes and pens, cameras and camera angles, when in fact there are no such things in digital realm. It tries to be homely and welcoming but it is not. I am stuck into this fake world of brushes that aren’t brushes and paints that aren’t paint. It’s the Las Vegas of art tools. There’s everything and you can create wonderful visual extravaganzas, but in the end it’s all fake. And for me the tool Brett Victor shows is in the fake category, it is a great tool, but it is not my great tool.
In the end of the talk Brett Victor performs a piece using the software he had created. He says that it is an piece he couldn’t have made any other way. And I believe him (and may I add it is a touching piece too.) But for me I think some portion of the artistic part is not what he can do with the tool, but that he could create such tool and use it as an art medium. He needed to know code in order to create that art piece. In the talk Brett Victor identifies the different characteristics of different art forms. For images it is representation, For animation it is the movement and for coding it is the behavior. As I disagree on the representation bit I disagree with the behavior bit. Digital tools are so flexible and multifaceted medium that it would be unfair to categorize it’s nature to behaviors. To be able to tap into the powers of digital media artist does need to learn to code, much in same way I needed to learn to paint, or draw.
And, for me at least, it’s not too bad. I find it an inspirational and often even quite visual medium.