Questions by Dragan Espenschied
Photo by Armin Smailovic
CA -- Cory Arcangel
PBD -- Paul B Davis
JPB -- Joseph P Beuckman
JB -- Joseph Bonn (who could not attend as he was surfing)
» What are "fat bits" and "post data"?
PBD: "Fat Bits" is a metaphor for escaping the restrictions which
consumer software places on our
interactions with computers. We call the bits that we poke "fat" to
describe their expansion beyond
the intentions of Adobe and Macromedia and Microsoft and Avid and Apple
CA: Technically fat bits is the term used to describe the grid mode on a
few old paint applications
available on the Apple/Mac line of computers ... we use it to describe
one of our Nintendo
Projects. I like the term because it reminds me of the days when I used
to stay up late and make
animations on my apple computer. Paul might say something different to
this question though...
Post-Data [coined by Joseph Bonn] is the name for our philosophy also
described in our Make-World
bio as "intentional computing".
"Intentional Computing" is the process of making work which is aware of
this relationship, and work
in which the artist demonstrates a complete understanding of the machine
he/she is composing on
[from the CHIP to the display]. We like to use obsolete computers and
file formats because we feel
since they offer limited options we can more easliy understand the
effects they have on the output.
On modern computers this understanding is harder to achieve, and even
more difficult to obtain when
one uses some consumer software ...
JPB: We're interested at the hardware level - before corporations write
their proprietary "anything
goes" interfaces. Computers have personalities, shapes and architectures
like a canvas that
influence what we make. We don't want to build a flat white surface over
that and ignore the
features of the machine.
» You are well known for making jokes about people like Markus Popp
(this years' winner of Ars
Electronica in Electronic Music) for the tools he uses. What is the
background of this and what is
important about choice of tools concerning digital media?
PBD: When you are using a computer, I think the question of tools folds
back in on itself in a few
ways ... First as if you're using a mold or some sort of custom
fabrication machine - it creates
tools. But secondly, the division between the influence you exert on the
computer and the influence
it exerts on you can, with the use of many Microsoft products for
example, become difficult to
determine. When we put together one of our beloved Powerpoint
presentations using its Auto-Content
Wizard, who's the tool? The computer, or us, as we mind-numbingly bend
to the whims of corporate
design? Another huge danger is something like Flash where the tool and
the delivery system are one
and the same, and it's being promoted even by the art community as a
standard and is taught in art
schools. This coming from a company (Macromedia) who's founder Marc
Canter once said: "Artists do
not use computer languages if they can help it." Dragan I believe you
would use your term
"Analog-popper" to that.
I think that "Made with Macromedia" gives Macromedia credit on a
conceptual level to anything made
with their software. And even people who make things with MAX and MSP
and brag about how you can
write your own objects in C ... what's the point of that? If I'm going
to bother writing something
in C, I want it to do something cool - not be stuck in some slow,
bloated programming environment
on a Macintosh that can send midi notes to other applications.
Our position is that, because we program everything ourselves, the tool
we truly use is the
computer - it's not the software. And likewise our medium is also not
software, it's the computer.
What's happened with Mr. Popp is that, as far as i know, he cannot
program a computer. So his
"tools" are the programmers he hires. And, at least with ovalprocess or
whatever it is, their
"tools" aren't actually programming languages, but Director(tm). This is
bad. What it means is that
for all his high-falutin' notions of digital aesthetics and computer
music, it's hard for me to
believe that Mr. Popp knows anything about his chosen medium. His
creative interface with computers
is purely secondhand, and even then through the most evil of corporate
softwares. The significance
here is immense because he is so widely accepted as a foremost thinker
in the field of computer
fine arts. And as a sort of unwitting Executive Producer, I think Mr.
Popp has possibly set an
exciting trend for years to come in terms of career options for
unskilled digital artists. It just
proves once again that if you don't understand the bits, people will
fool you all day.
JPB: Factory patches, plugins, templates, incompatibilities, needless
standardification, all these things are bad. Confronting the data where
it lives opens the
possibility of community with the data. Hiding behind high-level
scripting languages does not
promote meaningful relationships with the bits.
The worst are operating systems and software that provide their naive
users false and meaningless
descriptions of the power available in their computers.
Companies assume that people don't want to learn about their machines
and indeed they don't want
people to know about their machines. Companies are trying to sell
*their* interface ideas which
mostly have nothing to do with how the computer works.
» But in what way are you opposed to standardization? Isn't it great
that i am at least supposed to
be able to print my MS Office documents on any computer in the world?
PBD: Certainly data is defined by prior intention ... what some people
might call a "format", or
maybe even a language to some extent. Without this everything is
garbledygook, like when you open
up a Word98 document in Word95 and there's crap all over the screen. I
don't think anyone cares
about people just wanting to use a computer for word processing, even
with the difference between
Microsoft Word and the ASCII standard. Where it gets us is when these
same tactics of writing crap
software and then forcing it on everyone are used, is when they are
applied to creative activities.
Photoshop, Flash, Director, even java - which i never understood why
there was a need for it,
wasn't ANSI C supposed to be cross platform? - it just compromises the
essence of what an artist
does. No one is going to agree that standardization is good in the
context of art - a field that
applauds original thinking. And most of this software barely let's one
think at all. If someone
wants to have their activities on a computer standardized, then fine.
But if they want to break
from it, it should not be such a huge mess. I'm ok with acknowledging
the division between creative
and non-creative computer activities in this way, because it doesn't
interfere with usage potential
- it keeps the bits fat.
» Is there any political implication to your use of technology? I
remember the video where Cory
shows how to circumvent the restrictions of a software by changing its
machine code, "cracking" it,
having the needed MC68000 codes written on his arm. It appeared like an
CA: By having 68000 codes on my arm I was simply pointing out the idea
that as a computer artist I
should have a complete understanding of every work I make down to the
actual machine code. Nothing
This is the goal ...
PBD: I don't think cory had any political leanings with assembly
langauge on his arm, and we don't
have any sort of agenda or goals for ourselves, but I would say (and
this might differ from
everyone else) that there are political implications of our work. We are
inherently supportive of
open-source software, and not supportive of companies who monopolize the
art world with tools that
don't allow the creation of unmitigated art. Digital distribution is a
concern, and I at least am very
skeptical of copyright covering both art and software. Also government
attempts to regulate
internet traffic are very worrisome.
In the USA right now there are some possibilities that what I consider
normal use of computers
(cracking software) will be prosecuted as terrorist activities. This in
particular is rediculous,
as cracking is already illegal in terms of copyright. But why? You paid
for the computer, those
bits are yours. If some company produces a piece of software that is
degrading the experience you
are having with your machine, you need to be able to change it. You can
change a bunch of bits that
might erase an entire program, but yet you can't change one bit so an
icon is modified or a
password is removed?
Anyway, i would hope that some of our work would create an awareness
that many of society's ideas
about computers aren't grounded in the truths of the machines or our
interactions with them, but of
corporate and government/media attempts to codify, regulate, and profit
from most people's
inability to use them for what they were designed for.
» How did your style of working evolve?
PBD: Lots of really bad cocaine, i think.
CA: I think a few years ago we simply applied all the ideas we learned
instruments to making work on computers. Paul was trained as a classical
pianist, I a classical
guitarist, Darius also I believe rocks a piano [he plays organ at hockey
games too!], and Dwayne
(Joe Bonn) plays madd bass and guitar.
The idea behind a classical training is that one must obtain a relative
mastery over the instrument
before even attempting to interpert any composition. For example I had
to play only studies and
exercises 6 hours a day for 2 years before one professor would allow me
to play any work. So
somewhere around 1997 as everyone started fooling on computers [with no
regard to even attempting
to understand the tools they were using] we came to the conclusion that
one should obtain a
relative mastery over their software/hardware. [I had been rocking
hypercard/director and things
since early versions so I was lucky to make all the same mistakes people
are making now when I was
We started using fixed architecture machines, computers which are no
longer being developed, at
this time because it is impossible to keep up with commercial software
and hardware. Imagine trying
to play Bach on the piano if they switched keys around every few years
... and charged you for it!
Plus the limited capabilities of these computers allows us to understand
every aspect of the
machine. Thus we can [pardon the phrase] become "experts".
Oh yah, and they are about 15$ and can often be found in the trash.
[even more than "net art" this
can be thought of as art anyone can do...]
» Aren't you often accused of being retro or limiting your artistic
JPB: People assume we are involved in kitchy promotion - trying to
remind 20-30 somethings of when
they were 5-12. They generally giggle when they ask us about it.
CA: No one calls Slash [from Guns'n'Roses] retro when he uses a 1960's
Gibson guitar, or Orbital
when they use an 808 and these machines are actually older than the
machines we use ... hmmmmm ...
you figure it out. But generally we have had very good response from art
critics once they listen
to our styles and see that we have good reasons for using these machines
and are not just blindly
cashing in on a fad. [Once they see our love for the sauce!]
» What role does letterpress, hapsichord and vinyl records play in your
JPB: They are our interests.
PBD: For a specific example, I took my starting point as ASCII art and
applied its aesthetics to
letterpress printing and came up with what i call "ornamental
portraiture" ... using type ornaments
to model grayscale pixels. I see this as different to how aesthetics
from other media, namely print
and TV, are just stuck on the computer and called an "interface" in that
I was trying to do the
With the letterpress I was trying to legitimize computer aesthetics by
applying them to a very
traditional printmaking practice seeing that after thirty years of
computer art it's still not
With all things we do there is the same appreciation for the various
media and desire to have total
control over our art.
Letterpress and vinyl records: paying the bills
And due to our intense dislike of "mainstream" computer art we are
always looking for ways to bring
our ideas out of the box and into people's homes, thus records,
letterpress, silkscreens, game
carts, ... and maybe even in the future childrens books.
» You think that computers coming to the mainstream and more people
using them will change people's
view on data?
CA: Data is no longer respected. Data is tossed, turned, and twisted by
people who have access to
it only through third party Graphical User Interfaces [like Flash]. This
keeps me awake at night.
JPB: I don't think data is that popular or more than 7% of people even
know it exists. I think what
people are "excited" about are USB multimedia-enabled cell-phones that
» What is your relation to Computer Science?
CA: I took a few computer science classes but did poorly. Once I forgot
about the exam, went to it
20 minutes late, and then had to ask all the people around me for a
pencil and paper cause I did
not bring any. I think I got like a 40%. I did not get a CS degree
because I have no interest in
learning how to write 16bit loops in 6502 assembly, or learning how to
sort efficiently through
arrays unless it is to paint a pretty picture on a processor/system I
found in the trash.
JPB: I studied computer science at Southern Illinois University @
Edwardsville. My project was a
system of genetic algorithms that produced short themes. Neural networks
were to learn how to grade
the themes for "fitness" or "phatness." It was written in Microsoft
Visual C++ using Microsoft
Foundation Classes and never worked.
I ran out of time. About a third of my time was spent writing the
program and two thirds reading
about why Microsoft feature A didn't work with Microsoft feature B. I
should have written the
program in pure C++ under Linux. I used FreeBSD machines to plot the
neural network error surfaces
and that was the smoothes/most enjoyable part of the project. Window
makes me depressed when I use
PBD: If I were studying computer science I would have to learn horrible
things like ASP, databases
and silly Microsoft API's ... these things make you feel bad when you
Like my dear friend Dragan Espenschied who, whether he knows it or not,
has his soul slowly eaten
companies pay for. He is a
stronger man than I, I could never do it, and this is what computer
science is these days at
university's and I have no interest in it.
I think studying the computer within the context of making art or music
is much better right now,
and I should say that I hope to go back to school at some point and do
this because there are so
many facets of it I wish I was better at.