Sep 10, 2018

How bad code can make good art

Nicole He's enhance.computer invites users to bark commands at their screens to solve a mystery. Photo: screenshot

PORTLAND, Ore. — A new generation of artist-programmers, weaned on code and disdainful of discipline boundaries, is starting to offer pointed and frequently hilarious critiques of artificial intelligence and social media — using tech itself as the medium. A dozen of them introduced their work this weekend at the XOXO Festival in Portland.

Why it matters: Tech's biggest problems today developed because the industry tends to apply a pure-engineering mindset to stubbornly organic realms of human behavior — and while these projects don't solve problems themselves, they spark the kind of creative thinking we'll need to do so.

Some of the artists at XOXO:

  • Janelle Shane collects examples of "AI ineptitude" -- like efforts to train an algorithm to name ice cream flavors with results like "peanut butter slime" and "strawberry cream disease," or image generators that produce barely recognizable results.
  • Nicole He's enhance.computer is an art-project in the guise of a videogame that asks you to solve a mystery by using voice commands to investigate an image — a cliche of countless science fiction films. "Enhance.computer is kind of broken," He says, but that's intentional — and besides, "People like yelling at computers."
  • Diana Smith makes elaborate images using only HTML and CSS code to create lines, shapes and colors. That lets other designers remix them by changing the code.

Some other artists working in this vein (but not part of the XOXO event):

  • Simone Giertz's "Shitty Robots" are deliberately klutzy projects that do useless things badly. They make you laugh, and also question our obsession with automation.
  • Choreographer Kate Sicchio combines live coding and dance, using algorithms that generate instructions for movement based on sound and other inputs.

Most of these artists are women. Their status as outsiders in a field that remains male-dominated gives them unorthodox perspectives and a willingness to ignore conventions and break rules.

  • Many of their works are built using Glitch, a platform for making and sharing apps.

One sign that this field is maturing: Not all of the work is self-referentially about technology.

  • Comedian-author Baratunde Thurston presented Living While Black, a quiz app that asks you to distinguish between true and made-up headlines about white people calling the cops about black people's behavior.

Jenn Schiffer, who hosted an Art and Code showcase event at XOXO, highlighted three challenges for creators in this realm:

  • Keeping the artwork functioning as software as hardware keeps changing
  • Making creations accessible to wider audiences
  • Creating works that leave people feeling empowered rather than helpless

What's next: Artists and thinkers who didn't grow up with the "two cultures" divide between science and humanities etched into their brains are going to keep chipping away at the boundary between art and tech.

  • They see the value in mistakes, and treat errors as doors onto insight, rather than bugs to be squashed.

Editor's note: This story has been updated to clarify which artists mentioned were present at the XOXO festival.

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