Magic, the Future, and Code: Casting Coding within the Prosthetic Relationship
Tiffany Funk
PhD (ABD) Department of Art History
University of Illinois at Chicago


In 1968, Jasia Reichardt’s mammoth experimental Cybernetic Serendipity constituted one of the most influential computer art exhibitions, including many significant early examples of computer animation, three-dimensional modeling, stereoscopic display, and telepresence. One of these works, a short film by A. Michael Noll, demonstrated in four successive stereo pairs a four-dimensional hypercube, projected mathematically onto three dimensions and twice projected stereoscopically. Though 3D films existed prior to Noll’s film, his construction of a 3D model did not simply describe a 2D figure representing 3D space; instead, the computer made it possible to create a 3D figure with mapped coordinates in three dimensions, then produce two-dimensional films exploring that created 3D space. In the catalogue essay “Computer-animated movies,” Kenneth C. Knowlton explained how Noll’s film demonstrated the computer performing as a prediction machine: the simulation “… determines the successive states of this system by following differential equations or other laws supplied; it then uses its drawing capabilities to render a series of views of the resulting events.”[1] The programmer states the conditions of an experiment, and the software generates a matrix of future outcomes. Computer animation performs both aesthetic and practical functions: the software predicts an array of possibilities—or futures—in a suitable graphical environment encouraging exploration.

Though computer-generated art remained largely ignored by the art establishment in the 1960s and 70s, criticized for its seemingly anachronistic formalism, it emerged roughly at the same time as conceptual art practices increasingly dominated art discourse. Despite existing biases, computer artworks from the era reflected the embedded influence of conceptual practices; many hybrid artists/programmers/engineers considered the concepts behind the data crucial, and the computational transformation of this data demanded meaningful conceptual frameworks. Though the contributors to the Art2<code> exhibition use code in a variety of ways—screen-based imagery, sculptural objects, installation environments, and time-based performance—they each share in the legacy of Reichardt’s Cybernetic Serendipity in their conceptual rigor: like Noll’s films, they exemplify what I call the “prosthetic aesthetic,” an experience revealing the fundamentally reflexive relationship between human and technology. Thusly, they accomplish what other traditional mediums can not: they construct an interactive, radical space of potentiality in their ability to predict, and thus influence future outcomes. Though contemporary divination performs pragmatic, process-based actions that arrive at empirical outcomes, they still retain a sense of magic in their reflexivity, thus enacting a historical precedent for coding as a form of divination, participating in rituals embedded in the history of humankind.

Friedrich Kittler reconciled pre-modern modes of production and contemporary media usage in his text Discourse Networks 1800/1900, making the case that the kinds of technology we use fundamentally influence how we behave and what we produce.[2] Though he focused on the literary shift from Romanticism to Modernism, his methodology in analyzing discourse networks translates cleanly to an understanding of how divination methods dictate outcomes: by focusing upon the materials embedded in these divination networks, the prognostication techniques depended upon the nature of models used to predict, and thus influenced personal and societal actions of humans for centuries.

The fundamental similarities between predominantly binary systems of any era or region indicates a historical, socio-cultural connection that correlates many early prognostication systems with algorithmic processes. Many of the known ancient and classical prognostication methods were performed with systematic preciseness, learned through experience and patience; for example, despite its strange imagery in modern contexts, the ancient Etruscan prognostication ritual of extispicy—reading entrails—was performed in such a scientific manner that it should be interpreted as an early mode of autopsy. Extispicy constituted one of the first prognostication systems deriving meaning from elements outside of the human body and not simply from the whims of a designated group member.[3] In similar fashion, augury—reading the flight patterns of birds for divination purposes—depended similar systematic methods of inquiry; reads required the generation of binaries to create complex algorithmic systems, a stream of questions combined to form a procedural schema advancing in complexity as conditions are met.[4] In a more specific, enduring example, ethno-mathematician Ron Eglash examined fractal patterns underpinning architecture, art, and design across the continent of Africa.[5]

These prediction methods derived from engendered prosthetic relationships, reflexive interactions between group members and the nature of the materials used to make predictions. While systematic chains of binary values, e.g. those derived from bird flight produced singular, individual readings, now a computer can provide vast quantities of data, placing emphasis on quantification while simultaneously de-emphasizing its computational method. This provides a more ambiguous transition between these so-called pre-modern, biological models of prognostication and cybernetic systems increasingly prevalent after WWII; while the nature of prognostication, specifically in its embedded-ness in human tradition and performance, did not necessarily change, its interpretations and outcomes changed in accordance with the materials designated by each civilization’s cultural needs. In this way, the function of chance operations in American mid-century art and performance practice conformed to the materials at hand, eventually including the computer.

Julianne Aguilar takes full advantage of technology’s deep connection with the history of magic and prognostication., described as “a magic spell written in CSS3,” imagines coding as spell casting, wherein the viewer is encouraged to partake in a mystical out-of-body experience. Nick Bontrager’s avatar, in his work SIGNALS, similarly sends codes to a target viewer; appearing in different locations with the same military signaling lamp, he flashes Morse code that beckons the viewer respond to the customized messages.

Nowhere is the magical quality of code more apparent than in the generative software artworks included in this catalogue. Though Nicholas Economies’ Apophenia uses random variables to generate segments, the evolving animations generate as line-drawings, appearing as if scrawled by an invisible hand. Catherine Siller’s Not Not 0.1 also challenges and deconstructs human gestures by performing with her echoed-response technological double; after performing a “duet,” Siller leaves the stage, allowing the virtual Siller the agency to perform solo.

Joshua Albers’ work Transmission 2 takes on both literal and metaphorical interpretations of the prosthetic relationship; there’s the literal glow of his movements tracked over time, but also his personal experience figuratively watched from above. Transmission 2 becomes a hybrid technologically-gridded but organic structure, exemplifying the interconnectedness of human and tracking technologies. Likewise, Andrej Boleslavsky’s Google Eye condenses time into a single visualization; he calls his work “collaborative” in that visitors of the webpage contribute to the resulting sculpture by adding pieces of matter, though “collaborative” could also refer to the integral elements of Google Analytics and its own data-gathering methods. Mark Ramos’ last_night_i_dreamt_of_a_hollow_earth also attempts to visualize ephemeral experience into concrete renders. His series consists of a series of 3D printed sculptures generated from the brainwave pattern of dream using a BCI (Brain Computer Interface).

Works such as Mark Franz’ Zelda Deforested perform literal prognostication, in this case predicting a future Legend of Zelda landscape in which all forest elements become rocky landscapes, characters must hoard resources and seek shelter underground, and all but one animal species has died off. Martin Reiche’s Drone Garden also creates an environment of scarcity through constructing a series of interconnected hybrid “plants” (drones) that continually fight for access to resources (in this case, networked bandwidth). Benjamin Grosser’s Computers Watching Movies seems to predict a time when only computers are able to partake in humanity’s once treasured pastime; this work illustrates how computational systems “watch” films when equipped with the agency of vision algorithms and artificial intelligence routines.

It is my hope that works such as these, and the others within the pages of this catalogue, continue the tradition of engendering and interrogating the prosthetic relationships that so fundamentally inform our understanding of how we live in the world. The magic that these works and so many others celebrate connect us to a much longer human history of ritual, experimentation, and prediction. Coding is, in short, performing our humanness.

[1] Kenneth C. Knowlton, “Computer-animated movies,” in Cybernetic Serendipity: The Computer and the Arts, a Studio International special issue, ed. Jasia Reichardt (London: Studio International, 2nd edition, Set. 1968), 68.

[2] Friedrich Kittler, Discourse Networks 1800/1900 (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1992).

[3] Derek Collins, “Mapping the Entrails: The Practice of Greek Hepatoscopy,” American Journal of Philology 129 (2008): 319-345; more information about the early cross-cultural influence of Eastern prognostication methods across ancient Europe is explored in Walter Burkert, The Orientalizing Revolution: Near Eastern Influence on Greek Culture in the Early Archaic Age (New York: Thames and Hudson, 1992), 46–51.

[4] Again, Burkert’s text relates the divination method of augury with extispicy and other Eastern-influenced methods: ibid., 49.

[5] Ron Eglash, African Fractals: Modern Computing and Indigenous Design (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1999); Eglash, Appropriating Technology: Vernacular Science and Social Power, ed. Eglash, R., Croissant, J., Di Chiro, G., and Fouché, R. (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2004).


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