We await the coming of the Michelangelo of code

We’re all in agreement here that videogames are a form of art, right there with hip-hop and architecture and the animated GIF, but what about code, that intangible string of 1’s and 0’s running in the background, managing the possibilities for interaction with the structure of a game. Could that too be art? 

There is an entire school of thought that says yes. That was the subject of “The Art of Creative Coding,” the latest in PBS’s Off Book series. Daniel Shiffman of NYU explained to PBS, “For the most part, it’s used for computational design, A lot of visual artists and designers who want to create something visual, but don’t want to make it manually. Which means they don’t want to draw it. It’s something that needs to be generated by an algorithm or a process.” 

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On the game side of things, whenever we run into something awesome that isn’t an asset––that wasn’t explicitly drawn by hand––such as the phantasmagoric visual work of the PlayStation 3 racer Dyad, we’re experiencing the art of code. While you shouldn’t expect to waltz into the Louvre and see a screen of source code, we will probably see works that have coded elements more often.

Simony, an art installation from gaming guru Ian Bogost, on display until March at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Jacksonville, immediately comes to mind. Bogost’s installation is a curious work of commentary “on the relationship between the public and the art world via the museum as a mediator,” he told me. It exists halfway in the museum and half in the ethereality of cyberspace. You can download the coded portion as an iPhone app, which loosens the concept of high art from the fixity of a gallery. 

It’s the installation scene where code is most visible as functioning art form. Lumarca, for instance, is a stunning piece of design that’s fully open-sourced. By projecting beams of light onto pieces of twine, it effectively visualizes the intricacies and mysteries of source code. When I broached the subject of the art of code in an interview with Matt Parker, one of Lumarca’s creators, he referenced Theo Jansen, the artist and engineer who builds uncanny autonomous sculptures that scurry the Dutch seaboard, solely powered by the wind. 

‘The walls between art and engineering exist only in our minds.’ And I believe that. I marvel all the time at complex systems that are completely functional. Culture just hasn’t decided to recognize it yet.

However, we have to believe public opinion will change as the populous wises up to the fascinating possibilities that code brings to the arts. Perhaps, games can serve as models to how the craft can be applied to traditional forms of culture, like literature and film and music. We patiently wait.