[[ April 5 - May 5, Dortmund ]]

 Angela Plohman

A certain hype has been building around the terms 'artistic software' or 'software art', with an intention to highlight the code that drives the programs used or created by artists. While the use of computers in contemporary art has been common practice for many years now, the zeroes and ones have only recently begun to be discussed in aesthetic terms. It is generally accepted that the terms themselves were born out of the 2001 edition of the Transmediale festival in Berlin, and although it is certain that this will be disputed, the current promotion and discussion of works in the context of this category is largely thanks to Transmediale and curator Andreas Broekmann. Now, with 2 years of artistic software as a competition category at the festival, an exhibition of work by international software artists is taking place in Dortmund, Germany, curated by Broeckmann and Mathias Weiss of hartware medien kunst verein.

'Kontrollfelder. Programmieren als künstlerische Praxis' ('Control panels. Programming as an artistic practice') is an exhibition that showcases works by artists who "do not see the software as a tool, but rather view the code as fundamental aesthetic material for their artistic creations." For the 'artworld' that is already deluged with numerous categories under the notoriously ambiguous heading of new media art, it may be difficult to ascertain why or how this new classification is necessary, or even whether such a term as software art is appropriate. In general terms, Broeckmann says that he thinks "of the discussions around software art as a way to de-mystify software as something that is as limited and as 'given' as a toaster or the TV set that you buy in your local shop; I think that we would probably agree that it is necessary to make people realise that their computer is a multi-valent machine that can be used for many purposes, and that can, above all, be broken open and appropriated. Some people do this by opening the running of code to the discourse around art."

The political and social implications of the computer, of the power inherently bestowed upon software programs and operating systems that is blindly accepted by most of us, are issues that are addressed in several witty and sometimes obvious ways in the pieces chosen for the exhibition in Dortmund. For example, Adrian Ward's well-known piece 'Signwave Auto-Illustrator 1.0' (2002) seems an appropriate introduction to the subject, as the artist effectively plays with common software by upsetting the familiar functions one would expect within the structure. And the issue of terminlogy and categorization becomes more clear in the case of the Web Stalker, a browser by the now defunct group I/O/D from the UK. This piece, created in 1997, is considered to be a pioneering example of net art while, from another point of view, the Kontrollfelder exhibition calls it software art.

All of the works, in one way or another, play with conventional expectations of what a computer or software should or should not be doing. In a sense, it seems wise to exhibit the works in a gallery setting, as most people are wary of dowloading subversive programs to their computer, despite the fact that we do this on a daily basis with free or commercially available software without question. But is there more to software art than this surface subversion of the machine?

Broeckmann claims that "this attention to software will have to remain superficial in a certain way if we want to communicate it to a wider audience ... and, with some luck, get people to think about their computers and standard software as something more than their 'fate'." It remains to be seen if more artists and curators will jump on board. But for now, go to Dortmund.


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