Thu Oct 4 00:35:11 CEST 2007

make art presentation

Packet Forth presentation for the http://makeart.goto10.org festival
in Poitiers, France.

So, I get to start from a clean slate, hey :)

It's strange, I've been thinking so much about language lately that
I've forgotten how to communicate a simple idea. Problem is, I don't
know you. I don't know your background. And I've gotten tired of
explaining what PacketForth really is. Probably because I don't really
understand it myself.

So instead, I give you the story of me, and how I make art.

The Making of an Artist

First, the moral of the story. 

I've been using Pd http://www-crca.ucsd.edu/~msp/software.html for
quite a while now, summer of 2000 to be precise, and I like it a
lot. I think it's the first piece of software that made me go WOW
after I went through a 3 year long sysadmin-wannabe period, getting to
know Linux, GNU, Debian GNU/Linux and collecting 386 boxes and
networking cards, and realizing there were no 'applications' for
Linux. Especially not for making music. Only weird things that never
worked, that I never understood.

Before the summer of 2000 I'd been toying with hardware synths and
effects. There it was: virtual boxes and virtual patch cords, much
like the things I knew from real life, costing absolutely nothing,
running on Linux, making sweet noises I could only dream of the years
before this discovery. I was hooked! I was corrupted!

So there were applications for Linux after all.

Then it started to dawn on me. There are actually tons and tons of
applications for Linux, they just look different. Actually, they
concentrate on doing something right instead of just looking good. And
a great deal of them are weird and look like the works of a
madman. The reason for this is that most of these tools are made by
the people who use them, and not dictated by the ideas of a mass
market analysis department. These people take pride in understanding a
problem and solving it, in such a way that they put their name on it
and show every little detail (source code) to the world.

During that period I got to know Perl http://www.perl.org/, a weird
programming language originally written by a madman. Now, that's not
an end user application, is it? The idea I try to bring across is that
Perl IS a user interface, it's like a living, spoken language. It
evolves, defies absolute rules and adapts to arising needs. Perl is
dirty like real life is, but allows you to get things done quickly,
like real life demands.

Am I making art http://makeart.goto10.org yet?

No. It's still 2001, and I'm still building Pd patches alone in my
room.  Nobody cares, unless I produce something with a familiar
http://mala.wha.la/cgi-bin/prj?ioidi 4/4.

I wanted to build a synth of my own, before I got to know Pd. But now
that I had Pd, what was there to do? Luckily I found some things
missing in Pd, so I started to translate some of the ideas to
http://zwizwa.be/darcs/creb/modules/xfm.c C code.

Alright, you say, C code. That's not what I'm here for!

Right you are, indeed. As computer languages go, C is about the worst
one still in wide use. To be fair, C is not all bad, but it's great to
scare people off. This is exactly why some people think that
programming is only for obscure geniusses. Bollocks! It used to be
like that 20 years ago, sure. But today, there is a broader palette.

After writing http://zwizwa.be/pdp PDP, around november 2002,
I started to realize I could do more interesting things if I would
combine ideas from Perl with things i saw happening in Pd. If you look
at Pd, it has a lot of the qualities of a programming language: lots
of tiny objects that do one thing well, which you can connect together
to build something bigger: a patch. Now a patch is really just a

So why not make this all explicit?

Now we're januari 2006.

Now I went completely crazy and wrote myself a new language.

Of course, it has been done before, but mine is a little bit
different. But more important: it's mine. My way of talking to my


It's strange when people start calling you an artist, when you see
yourself as 'anything but'. I still have to convince some friends of
mine I don't believe in all that crap, really. That I'm still an
engineer. That there's still some SCIENCE in what I'm doing, and that
art is about experience, not about concepts or reflections (shudder!).

So, instead of fighting this label people attach to my forehead, I
started to redefine for myself what art is. Decided I really don't
care what anyone else thinks it is (making me a true artist, for that
matter :), so I define art as interaction. Not interaction with
audience per se, but interaction with my machine. I am designing a
user interface. Like a trumpet, only I'm not using brass, but code.

If you look around you, graphic user interfaces are everywhere. The
biggest laugh I had recently was when I was programming my dad's DVD
recorder. Why do these interfaces suck? Because of two things:
computers (any electronic device today is a computer) are getting too
powerful to use them to do just simple tasks, and they are not like
human beings. It is incredibly difficult to build a system that
interacts in a proper way with a human being, for the simple reason
that people don't think digital.

Now, there's two things you can do about that. Either you wait till
some http://www.singinst.org/ bright soul finds a way to make
computers think more like humans, or you start to think more like a
computer. When the first thing happens, I think I got myself a new
hobby, but the second thing is what I want to talk about now.

Being incredibly stubborn, I always want my gizmo to do something
different. Something the maker of the gizmo did not think of. This
void is filled by 'good applications'. They leave the last part of
assembly to the user. Instead of getting your meal served on a plate,
you take 3 packages of 'almost-ready' food, and add them together so
you at least have the idea of doing something original. I think the
basic idea here is POWER. We like computers because we like power,
because we like slaves. We want the computer to LISTEN and DO what we

Maybe ART is when you combine POWER with ORIGINAL?

How to talk to a computer

(A) Basicly, what we would want is: 

HUMAN:    "blabla .. bla, now do it."
COMPUTER: "owkay, boss!"

(B) The way it works in the current world is: 

COMPUTER: "these are the options. choose one."
HUMAN:    "eerrrr.. damn. how do i?.. aahh.. click"
COMPUTER: "error! error! beep beep beep!"

Now, there's a strange pattern. Even if in (B) the options are
reasonably simple, people still need to go through the 'beep beep
beep' phase before they actually learn what the options are. Reading a
set of options is one of the most boring things you can do. It makes
you feel dumb, not in control. Reading a manual, if you don't know
what you're looking for, is madness. It puts the programmer (or anyone
who wrote the manual) in control of you, cuz you need to LISTEN! Not
in command, but subordinate! That's no fun, at least, for most of us.

On the other hand, making an error, UNDERSTANDING what you did wrong,
and then finding out what the right thing is, is a rather fun
process. Especially if you get over the fear of being thought of as
dumb. Luckily, a machine doesn't really care.

So what if we make the collection of options incredibly huge, and let
the human make errors until he finally figures out something that
works? Or even better. Give a couple of examples he can change around
to get the idea behind things? This looks a lot like the ordinary
language we speak day in day out. First time you use a word, it's
usually wrong. A shame and blush later, you know what it means, and
probably never use it in the wrong way again.

So, to get to the point. My idea of an ideal computer program is one
that I never really fully understand. One with an infinite amount of
options. A thing that i can interact with, gradually learning how to
do things by making mistakes and experimenting. If I completely
understand something, it's time to move on, because boredom awaits.

This is what PacketForth is for me: my current level of comfortable
chaos. It is a language, but it has things that work well for video or
other graphics. Better than other languages. It is a toolbox full of
small tools that can be strung together to make something new. It
might not be the thing for you, it might not be the thing for many
people, but it is an attempt to make interaction with a machine
possible in ways that are not possible otherwize.

The Message

The real message is hard to bring across. If only I could download
what I know into other peoples minds so I could go on with
experimenting -- making art if you want. Unfortunately, it don't work
that way.

But I think the real message is that we are only at the tip of the
iceberg of seeing what computers can do for art and aestetic
experience. And the most interesting things I've seen thusfar all come
from madmen. It's an interesting time we live in, but it's quite

People are maturing in the way they interact with present day
technology. New ideas are being born. Personally, I find the world of
free software incredibly interesting, and I am hopelessly addicted to
the amount of control you can gain over computers AND aestetic
experience if you learn tricks from people motivated mostly by