Interview with Mark Napier
by Jon Ippolito
Jon Ippolito: Is your background in painting good or bad preparation for making art online?
Mark Napier: I am very influenced by painting, as an aesthetic form and as a technology. Painting has a long history that is a fertile source of ideas about the representation of space, abstraction, and the physical medium itself. I often borrow aesthetics for use in my online art, for instance, action painting, in the Shredder and Feed.
There are also parallels between the technological history of painting and the Internet. When I say 'painting' I mean the physical object, the canvas stretched over a wooden frame, painted with pigment bound in a vehicle like oil or acrylic. Painting is a technology, a medium that can be used to convey ideas, aesthetic experiences, and illustrations of scenes and history. The oil paint medium began to appear in the Renaissance. Using oil on canvas or wood panels, an artist could create work on a relatively large scale, yet those works could still be easily transported. Compare this to frescoes, which required that the artist embed pigment directly into walls and ceilings. The available space was limited, and the results were non-portable. The art was tied to the real estate, and over time it might be obscured or painted over.
A work on canvas could be conceived and created outside of a single physical space. The artwork could be installed anyplace that had an available wall, and could change owners easily. Simple, portable, relatively inexpensive, and durable; these qualities made oil on canvas one of the most successful and lasting media we've seen, and opened up the possibility of a gallery market where paintings could be bought and sold by private collectors.
The Internet creates a similarly portable art form. Artwork based on software exists wherever it can be executed, wherever the software it needs to run exists. In the case of artwork made for Web browsers, the art can be seen anywhere that a person can connect to the Web.
Video art sought a similar portability in cable television and videotape markets, but never gained a foothold in distribution channels. More recently video exists as large installations, usually in museums, certainly not an art form that the average person can take home with them. These works remind me of frescoes: they are tied to the physical spaces where they are installed, and cannot be viewed practically in the spaces we live in day-to-day.
By contrast, art on the Web can be viewed using the same tools that a Web surfer already has: a personal computer, a browser, an Internet connection, and perhaps some readily available plug-ins. A person exploring the Web may view a site about financial news, then a site of net-based art, without having to do anything differently. They are already equipped to view the art, just as a person who wants to hang a painting in their home already has the equipment for doing that (a wall, a hammer, a nail).
JI: In most online artworks, the code that is used to create the work can be separated from the visual result. I assume that this is something your background in painting didn't prepare you for. Do you see any aesthetic difference between a work elegantly coded by a programming perfectionist versus a kludge that happens to generate the same experience for the viewer?
MN: That depends on who is looking at the art, and if they are looking at the code To the low-tech viewer the code is a mystery; they may not even realize there is such a thing as code, so a subtle use of it will be invisible to them. And they may have a strong background in art, but no knowledge at all of technology. It's a steep climb for such a person to learn enough about code to appreciate the nuances of code style, structure, form, etc. I doubt that many members of the art community will ever reach this level of aesthetic appreciation of a work. Given that the code is hidden, I think it will remain a rare treat for the tech-savvy to examine the code for a work and learn about how the piece works "under the hood."
Having said that, I enjoy seeing a very simple algorithm that elegantly produces unusual and exciting visual effects. This is part of my training in code, I see code as a sculptural form, like a finely designed machine. But the aesthetics of code vary across different projects. I have worked as a software developer for years and always put a high emphasis on well designed code that is clean, structured and readable. When coding for artwork I work in a more 'painterly' style, copying scraps of code from other projects and making fast alterations to see what sorts of effects I can achieve. I hack the code and experiment a lot, I don't worry much about the structure. Usually I'm exploring new graphical features of Java and I don't know what the code or the final result will be like.
When I'm finished, I like to clean up, but often don't have much time, so the code usually ends up showing the creative process I went through, which is another way of saying it's sloppy looking code. I invest a lot less in code beauty and focus more on the output. In the long run the code is disposable. It's the look and feel of the piece that will survive.
JI: While many designers use the Macromedia software Flash or Director to bring animation to the Web, you've chosen to author your recent works in the programming language Java. Is your choice based on a personal preference only geeks could appreciate, or on more philosophical or political differences between these comparable technologies?
MN: It's mainly a practical difference, perhaps a philosophical one, and possibly a political one as well. I use Java for its power, flexibility, and control. I have to work harder at it, but with Java I can control very fine nuances of the visual effects. Flash is a product of a company that has a specific agenda and a target audience. The product is meant to be relatively easy to use and to not require programming knowledge, but that means that much of the effects are predetermined, prepackaged: I can't alter the assumptions made by the authors of Flash. With Java, Sun Microsystems has a much broader agenda. Java is a software development language. It is meant to be a low-level tool that programmers can use to build many kinds of software applications.
From an art-world perspective I would say that Java is more 'archival.' It is more likely to be supported ten years from now than Flash is. Programming languages often survive even when their original environments fade away. Witness C, a language started by ATT that was created for mid-sized computers. Since the early 1980s, C has been a standard in software development, only recently supplanted by C++ (an object-oriented version of C), and now by Java. In the same space of time the personal computer has seen at least three distinct operating systems and entire suites of software have come and gone. So I feel that art made using Java is more sustainable, and can be translated into new languages, which may very likely be future versions of Java (Java++?).
On the political side, I am more and more attracted to the Linux world, and appreciate the value of freely available software development tools. The open source community has already demonstrated the creative potential of non-commercial development projects.
JI: net.flag treats flags not as inviolable icons but as modular aggregates of interchangeable components. Do you see any parallels between how programmers exchange and assemble code and what net.flag does with national identity?
MN: net.flag is about the virtual world as a territory. In the physical world a single flag flies over a single land that is bound by geographical borders and clearly delineated on a map. The physical flag is also clear, distinct, unchanging. But what does a flag look like in the virtual territory of the Web? In the virtual world boundaries between regions can be reconfigured. A Web ring can create a community of sites. The same sites can also belong to hundreds of other Web rings simultaneously, and may be linked into other pages and be parts of other virtual regions on the Web, without the site authors even knowing it. On the Web, geography is virtual. Japanese sites are no farther away than the U.S. sites I surf to, just another location to type in the browser box.
The net.flag is "soft" to reflect its nature as a virtual non-object. It can be edited. Software has a history of putting editing and authoring power into the hands of the layman. Look at the history of desktop publishing or image editing. Word processing, page layout tools, image rendering and editing, three-dimensional rendering tools, photo-quality graphics. We can author documents on our personal computers that ten years ago could only be created by print shops. This is part of the reason that corporations like Mattel aggressively pursues Web sites that refer to their products. These amateur sites are made with the same tools that the corporations use. We are competing on the same level. [EDITOR'S NOTE: One of Napier's early Web projects that featured distorted Barbies was the target of Mattel cease-and-desist letters.]
net.flag allows anybody to author their own flag, to declare their own territory with its own banner, to contribute their decisions to the greater flag of the Internet. It is customized and personalized. My.Yahoo meets the U.N.
JI: You said you wanted your work to be about people rather than data. How does net.flag embody this philosophy?
MN: net.flag is a product of the impulses, choices and actions of the visitors. The artwork is a structure through which visitors participate in an aesthetic process. Without the visitors the project is inert, empty. I can make art about technology or quirks of the Internet or browsing habits of people on the Web, but these are all passing fads. In the long run art is about people. The Web is about people. It is no coincidence that the Internet became a mainstream medium a few generations after the Industrial Revolution fragmented communities and families, a few generations after the interstate highway system allowed people to move long distances and easily leave family, friends and community behind. Walk down the street in New York City and watch people walk by, total strangers, make no eye contact, yet many of them (soon maybe all of them) are talking on cell phones, keeping in touch with the people they know.
The Web is driven by emotional needs, much the way the automobile was, much as television is. These are optional technologies (most technologies are). Once we eat, and put a roof over our heads, the rest is optional. People flock to the Web for e-mail, for the new territory implied by the endless expanse of Web sites, the commercial potential, the excitement of being the first, of being the biggest, of inventing something new. The technology is an extension of these emotions. Art that fetishizes the technology misses this human component, and fails to communicate to the broader human world.
JI: In envisioning an emblem for a world of splintered nationalities, were you inspired by any particular depictions of this world?
MN: I read Snow Crash  by Neal Stephenson recently, and I loved the depiction of fragmented national territories. Countries are franchises with exits on the highway. Anybody can live in Hong Kong, just join the Hong Kong franchise on the highway near your town. This impressed me as a very logical development given the virtual territories we see on the Web.
JI: Pretend you're a science fiction writer for a moment: describe an interaction between an online artist, artwork, and/or viewer in the year 2020.
MN: To talk about the future, it's best to look at the present. Right now display technologies are evolving rapidly. Flat panel screens are more common and are getting bigger, and higher in resolution. This technology changes the way we look at computer images. Today most of us use computers as desktop tools. We sit down and look at a relatively small screen that takes up a relatively large amount of desktop space. We interact with this computer through a keyboard and a mouse. We use this tool for everything from viewing art to watching movies.
As displays evolve so the aesthetics of computer art will evolve too. Higher resolution means that images and color nuances can become subtler. We relate differently to an image hanging on a wall than to a small screen on our desks. The image on the wall can be left 'on' for long periods of time, it can become an ambient aesthetic that is appreciated over time, in contrast to the 'hit and run' nature of the Web, where attention spans are measured in seconds.
Combine this with cable modems and other forms of wide bandwidth and you see the potential for a much richer visual aesthetic than what we currently have on the Web. When Internet connections are as common as cable television, and are always connected, then net art becomes just another way to view art, perhaps *the* way to view art, no longer an eccentric new technology.
JI: As part of the commission process for net.flag, you have enthusiastically entered a dialogue about the way your work might be translated into new media once its current technology becomes obsolete. And yet the variable media paradigm runs counter to the medium-specific training artists traditionally receive. I can imagine many artists feeling threatened by the notion that someone might re-create their work after they're dead. Why aren't you?
MN: I have worked in software development for fifteen years. During that time I've seen a lot of software come and go: applications, operating systems, languages, standards. I've written a lot of code that was discarded in a few years, to be rewritten in a new language for a new platform. In many ways this is refreshing. Software products can always be improved and changed. There is never a 'final' product. This encourages experimentation and growth.
In music, a song can be played on different instruments. The song is not diminished by this experimentation, and the author may very well benefit from hearing a new approach to a composition. We hear Beethoven symphonies played on a variety of instruments, perhaps slightly altered by the interpretations of the musicians, but it is still recognizable as a work by Beethoven.
Software-based artwork is similar. The computer language, operating systems, and hardware form an infrastructure that supports the artwork, but they are not the artwork. The artwork is an algorithm, a design, that is built on this infrastructure. That infrastructure is constantly changing and rapidly aging. To hold onto that technology is to tie us to a sinking ship. We have to be nimble enough to jump to the next boat, and our artwork has to be adaptable enough to do that gracefully.