Wednesday, April 29, 2020

Rafael Fajardo, "Code Drawings in Hopscotch"

Rafael Fajardo

Code Drawings [i] in Hopscotch

1> The relationship between archives, writ large, and code drawings is redolent for me, fraught with anxieties and questions. I am a digital artist and designer, trained in and among the pre-digital traditions in art and on the cusp of digitization in design practices. My generation received the aesthetic that our work should strive to be enduring, and that as a signal of seriousness of purpose we should use materials and media that were archival, that we should, in fact and in deed, adopt archival modes of production, archival habits of practice. The definitions and models of our craft traditions were infused with durability.

2> This, it could be argued, was with the intention of aiding the creation and organization of markets for the outcomes of our practices; so that collectors could invest in durable goods that would not fall apart; so that - it has also been argued - political and economic power could be asserted and reinforced across historical spans of time. This latter goal, especially, called for aspirations of permanence and memory, two qualities inherent in a traditional understanding of an archive.

3> Digital art practices challenge, question, and sometimes flout those traditional understandings and practices. Artists have questioned our own practices, and several have dematerialized, leaving their documentation as the only durable evidence of a work. These are cinders and ashes of conceptual and performance practices, ephemeral before and alongside the development of electronic media practices. [c.f. Lippard, Six Years] Many artists who are practicing after the digital turn have accepted that the forces of Moore's Law and of consumer markets will [render] obsolete the platforms and infrastructures on which we work.

4> Our substrates of silicon will shift like the constituent sands in these winds. We have come to accept ephemerality [as] the work, and so we obsessively document the indicia of the work; we try to capture the sometimes faint traces of its passing through the world. This brings up some questions that operate simultaneously on the scale of the person and on the scale of culture as a whole. How will we remember? How will we know that we are novel? How will we know that we are not repeating history? How will we know we aren't fooling ourselves? If the works disappear and there is no one to enter their names in a search engine, can they be said to have ever existed?

5> Do we accept that this work is ephemeral and evanescent? That it is incandescent? That it consumes itself even as it gives off light?

6> I have been making code drawings in a number of programming environments for several years. Most often these environments were meant to introduce children to programming. Except for in the eyes of parents and their refrigerator door archives, the work of children is thought to be slight, to be beneath the threshold for conservation. And so the tools and materials created for children have a high acid content and are washable from surfaces. They are erasable, impermanent. And yet the programming environments crafted for children have been carefully devised for visual delight, for lowering the barriers to entry into abstract and difficult algorithmic constructs, for presenting expansive opportunities for expression. It's possible to do serious work in these environments.

7> The code drawings shared here were created in
Hopscotch. I don't know to what extent the makers of Hopscotch have thought about the durability of the works created by their participants - people who, through network effects, co-create value for the company. Children don't often yet have the skill or the drive to reflect and so may not be thought to miss the work if it should suddenly, one day, vanish.

8> Hopscotch is a visual programming environment available on Apple's iOS for the iPad, intended for young learners to tinker and experiment with algorithms. It takes advantage of the touch interface of the iPad to allow the dragging and dropping of blocks that represent programming logic into instruction sets for sprites. Hopscotch has created a social network for the sharing/publishing, liking, and remixing of projects as well as for following individual contributors. It is this network where my archive of this project exists, kind of. And it is the question of the durability of this archive that troubles me.

9> The archiving of unstable media is a problem. The library of congress cannot keep up.

10> (computer) Memory is now cheap. Processing power continues to increase exponentially every 18 months. This is Moore's Law. It allows us to engage in an ecstasy of collection. I can snap screenshots of the drawings as fast as possible and I do. I create stable-ish images of the states of the pixels at moments that I feel have come close to beauty. These go directly to my camera roll, and then are backed up to Dropbox where they are (re)titled with a date and time stamp, and then backed up again to Flickr, and - eventually - backed up to my own archive on my website. The same technological imperative that may make Hopscotch obsolete allows me to make multiple redundant copies of the images, the outcomes of the programs. I engage in an ecstasy of collection and dissemination as a hedge against the future. At the suggestion of the author Cory Doctorow, I act like a dandelion.

11> Librarians, Information Scientists, Media Archeologists, and Art Historians are working on this puzzle as artists move ever faster.

12> Let's look at code drawing 118b. Code Drawing 104i was featured by Hopscotch and, as of this writing, has surpassed 30,000 plays. By contrast, Code Drawing 118b has not been featured and has had 1 play other than myself in the time since it was shared with that community in September of 2015.

13> Hopscotch builds on the legacy of Seymour Papert's Logo and Mitchel Resnick's Scratch, and their shared definition of the Constructionist learning model. Constructionism* has a social dimension that includes the sharing of artifacts with audiences. Hopscotch has interpreted this aspect as a social network where works can be published and appreciated. The network has been a walled garden. Until recently the wall has had at least three layers: the outer layer is iOS, the middle layer is the iPad, and, the inner layer is the app itself. The code that manifests the drawings can't exist outside this ecosystem. My access to the code and the drawings they generate is dependent on the continued existence of Hopscotch. Hopscotch is platform and substrate and medium and archive all in one.

* Note: For more on Constructionism see Papert, The Children's Machine, Basic Books, 1993.

14> Hopscotch is a dynamic system, being built by a startup in New York. This is a loaded sentence that can be unpacked. Hopscotch is "being built" - that is, it was presented to the world as a public beta, as a work in progress, and as an unfinished structure. It was not a platform at first; it was not an infrastructure. It would be downloaded onto an iPad and would run locally, offline, and would interpret the code-blocks live. Its only output was the organization of the pixels onscreen. It did, and does, "listen" for inputs from its sensors: the capacitive touch sensing surface of the display, the motion and tilt sensors within the device, the microphone, and the video camera.

15> Hopscotch is unstable. It is a startup in an economic system that demands that a corporation grow or die. It has entered into a software market that demands that new features be added or be perceived as stagnating, hence dying. From its start as a software that could exist offline it now is almost always online; it can work without an internet connection, but it apologizes for the poverty of this experience and warns you that you won't be able to share your work. If you are not connected you don't exist.

16> Hopscotch has introduced a window into the walled garden, an URL generator that allows creators to share their work with publics outside of the ecosystem. Viewers with the URL can look at work through a browser on a desk/lap top machine. Here is the one for Code Drawing 118b, so you can generate your own, unique, screenshots and watch the algorithm draw. The entire project of code drawings in Hopscotch was recently featured in V1B3's Art2<code> project.

17> I wasn't aware of the availability of the URLs at the time of that submission. I realize now that the collection of URLs for all my drawings constitute another kind of archive, though it's not searchable, not findable. The URL generator creates inscrutable hashes of letters and numbers for each entry. It may be possible to stave off link rot, and submit these URLs to perma.cc for their consideration. If memory serves, it will take more than one request by different parties to validate the value of the link. Recently the Journal for Artistic Research has offered its infrastructure for the long-ish term archiving of serious projects. This may become a repository for this work.

18> If we engage in mass forgetting, then we face the end of history.


[i] Code drawings have been with us since the beginning of digital art. Cybernetic Serendipity at the ICA in London in 1968 - one of the first, if not the first, exhibitions of art made with and on computers - contained images generated by algorithms written by an artist/programmer. That show lives in the memory of those present, and in the exhibition catalog.

In the time since writing this essay, Flickr was sold to SmugMug which announced a change in the Terms of Service we users could expect. On January 08, 2019, users of the Free level of service had their 1 TeraByte of space rescinded and offered a maximum of 1000 images. At that time I had well over 15,000 images stored on Flickr. I have removed all of my images from Flickr. They continue to be available at my website.

Some works can be reconstructed, reconstituted, emulated. Others cannot:

In 1969, Manfred Mohr exhibited his first drawings with a computer:


Rafael Fajardo teaches at the University of Denver in Electronic Media Art & Design, and Digital Media Studies. He is part of an emerging group of artists and designers who are exploring the potential of digital video games to express serious and complex subject matter. Through his collaborative, SWEAT, Fajardo has published two video games that comment on the game-like nature of (il)legal human traffic at the US/Mexico border. These games have been exhibited in Holland, Turkey, Canada, Australia and the US.

Poetics & Poetry / Literature & Culture

Volume Six (2020)
Artifacts & Works / Communities & Fields


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