Everything is Software, Part 1
|afterstate||Nov 29, 2017|
“[Digital technologies] are no longer the tools for making: they are primarily tools for thinking.”
Mario Carpo, The Alternative Science of Computation
While it is common knowledge that computation involves electrical impulses and ones and zeroes and a lot of circuitry, most daily interactions with silicon microchips rarely require an understanding of capacitors or binary code. The inner workings of these machines are filtered through graphical user interfaces, which shield us from the messiness of source and assembly code. And though we constantly produce and consume digital media, our dialogues with computers begin and end with software.
As concepts digital media and software are difficult to place, particularly in architecture. They are often conflated and taken for granted. Some even argue that “there is no such thing as ‘digital media,’ there is only software.” Seeing as most contemporary creative work relies heavily on these intangible layers, some disciplinary anxieties could very well stem from this lack of clear definitions. These issues have recently been addressed critically by figures like Ellie Abrons and John May, who each advocate for a deeper look at the substrate of our digital artifacts and instruments. While I agree with their mission, their observations of digital media have bypassed a key condition of our contemporary mode of production: our dependence on software.
What follows is a corollary discussion in the form of a response to Abrons’ and May’s texts, whose positions could be read as much needed recalibrations of the “digital” in architecture. My goal is not to oppose, but rather to clarify nuances currently emerging as part of discussions on software-based work and ubiquitous computing. I begin by first defining a vague, yet often used term: postdigital. Its lack of specificity in architecture will prompt a short jaunt to new media studies for a clearer definition. Expanding on this clarification, we will also find that postdigital has an accomplice, which May has identified as postorthographic. The first half of the essay will therefore unpack the relationship between the two terms. The second half concerns largely the notion of “becoming digital,” which is a topic, puth foth by Abrons and May, for several ongoing discussions among a younger generation of architectural practitioners and educators. While this might convey a struggle for architecture to assert its key intellectual dominance over mechanical tools in a world of ubiquitous computing, it is crucial to remind ourselves that most digital artifacts are inseparable from software. Given this dependence on interfaces, I will suggest that “becoming digital” may not necessarily signal a digitization of the self, but rather a human-centric desire to better understand the critical and cultural role that software plays in design processes.
“[P]ost-internet, postdigital and the new aesthetic can be taken as attempts to grapple with the immersive and disorientating experiences of computational infrastructures as they scale up and intensify.”
David M. Berry, Postdigital Aesthetics
As the novelty of the digital wanes, and the word itself crumbles into a vague, dusty relic from previous unnamed futures, its attendant concepts (those of code, electric impulses, and virtual geometry) have receded into an inaccessible layer behind a wall of infinite software. This substrate, which makes up the backbone of our social, economic, and political realities, has become so pervasive that its previously accepted visualization as a set of ones and zeros is virtually obsolete. The Matrix screensaver visual has been replaced by images of data centers, stock photos of blue-ish gradients, clouds, and app icons, causing the word to paradoxically represent both everything and nothing simultaneously.
In response to this collapse, two terms have emerged to rectify the discipline in their own way, postdigital and postorthographic. Both positions have rich theoretical underpinnings, but for brevity’s sake, let us simply say that the former equates computation to an outsider at the service of some architectural thought, whereas the latter posits that computation has evolved into part of the thought process itself. Pragmatically speaking, we see postdigital often associated with images that do not explicitly elicit any traces of digital processes (though they are digital), whereas postorthographic material very much embodies the aesthetics of data and computational logics.
Though not exactly opposites, the two terms are nevertheless polarized. Postdigital in architecture, as most recently described by Sam Jacob, comes a as melancholy reaction to the ubiquity and stylistic positivism associated with parametrics. At its core is a desire to represent certain constants from the human condition, such as materiality and narrative. In “Architecture Enters the Age of Post-Digital Drawing,” Jacob points to a recovered disciplinary loss in the act of drawing out thoughts with computers. The examples put forth by Jacob and his allies of textured, saturated, flat, non-realistic images ended up equating “postdigital” with a specific style. So much so, that after its publication the consensus was that collage embodies the postdigital because it enables a dirtier way of working through and illustrating design narratives and concepts.
Within the digital humanities, postdigital aesthetics takes on a different, albeit related definition. The label is fundamentally defined as a return to low-fidelity modes of operating. Some have equated the resurgence of craft and retrograde technologies as a symptom of postdigital-ness. Others claim that postdigital enables a new understanding of materiality, one based on artistic realism and objectivity rather than analogy or abstraction. This results in recurring visual tropes such as digital grain, noise, textures derived from paintings, and emulated brushstrokes. A useful definition comes from Florian Cramer’s, “What is ‘Post-digital’?” in which he states:
Post-digital could be understood as a moniker for a contemporary disenchantment with digital information systems and media gadgets...After Edward Snowden’s disclosures of all-pervasive digital surveillance, this disenchantment has grown from a niche “hipster” phenomenon to a mainstream position that will likely impact all cultural and business practices built upon networked electronic devices and Internet services.
In other words, it is not “post-” in the sense of “after its death,” but instead is more closely associated with post-punk or post-colonial. It is an ongoing cultural mutation: a rejection of the status quo that nevertheless accepts the digital as an underlying mechanism. Understanding the label as such may not provide complete immunity against being marginalized as a style, but it provides a platform for further defining what, for example, postdigital architectural attitudes might be.
Postorthographic, on the other hand, expresses a more evolutionary point of view. According to May, it suggests that we no longer think in geometric terms, but rather through telematic means. While it may literally translate into “after drawing,” or more architecturally, “after plans, sections and elevations,” in this context the term should be read as work that engages the authority of the silicon microchip. Here we see architectural media that expands and makes use of simulation, animation, automation, communication, synchronization, and visualization technologies. Postorthographic encompasses the systemic realization of “our work in ‘real time,’ materialized in signals and image-models.” It also rejects the status quo, but does not linger on losses. Instead, it accepts our informatic, data-driven society, and asks how can art be extracted from such a viscous layer of convoluted systems. Those working under the umbrella of postorthographic, whether explicitly or not, use the underlying substrate of computation as a medium for critical experimentation as well as representation. The work, therefore, takes on new forms of expression, such as simulations, real-time animations, misuses of programs, bespoke software, or hacked infrastructures.
The two labels constitute a spectrum of new architectural media attitudes. Within this spectrum, everything is born in and returns to software. However it is not a fixed distribution, since software itself allows for fluid ways of working. The contents can shift and slide, depending on their attitude towards aspects of each medium. It manifests itself as a vector map with each attitude having directional magnitudes instead of positions, and elements constantly in motion.
As an example of how to use this spectrum, let us look at materiality and consider a few contemporary practices. Here, materiality will refer to an object’s “emerging event” comprised of “attention and attributes, focus, and physicality.” This definition is key to understanding the term’s ongoing mutation, as in Abrons’ notion of postdigital materiality, which “flattens distinctions between physical and digital material, treating both as equally real and original.” But postdigital materiality in the work of T+E+A+M holds postorthographic qualities, too. It requires an ability to recognize patterns in the form of computational residue, thereby prompting knowledge of specific digital processes both virtual and physical. The result of this synthesis is clearly evident in Abrons’ work with T+E+A+M, but it also parallels the work of artist John Gerrard. Originally trained as a sculptor, Gerrard uses video-game software to produce large scale dioramas of real world spaces. His pieces are typically sited in politically complex situations, and often allude to imbalances in contemporary power dynamics. Gerrard’s most recent installation, “Western Flag” is a projected digital simulation of a flag pole that constantly emits black smoke in the shape of a flag. The scene is austere, yet hyper-realistic. It uses thousands of images as textures mapped on a 3d recreation of the site in Spindletop, Texas. The result is so detailed that passersby might confuse the footage for a live feed of the site.
Compare this to T+E+A+M’s “A Range Life” project. Materially speaking, both T+E+A+M and Gerrard operate in similar ways. Both explore scenographic effects facilitated by advanced 3d modeling technologies, such as texture mapping, physical light simulations, and high-fidelity meshes. Both combine site-specific components (photogrammetry) with computational processes (rendering engines) to curate new cultural associations. But where should their work be placed on our postdigital-postorthographic spectrum? I would argue that both practices converge towards center. The complexity of the material effects built from equal parts simulated particles and captured images demonstrates a desire to blend both physical and virtual assemblages to produce something else. At the same, the projects never relinquish the authority of advanced graphics engines.
If T+E+A+M and Gerrard present a case for convergence, then the individual work of Carl Lostritto and Casey Reas are examples of divergent practices on the same spectrum. Lostritto and Reas could both be categorized as generative artists operating primarily in 2 dimensional media. Their work is assembled and compiled as code, and usually results in large format line drawings. Despite their similarities, however, I maintain that Lostritto leans towards the postdigital, while Reas is very much postorthographic. Lostritto’s body of work is a die-hard examination of the architectural drawing. From early work on pen-plotting, to a recent series of animated drawings, the line itself has been Lostritto’s primary concern. In a way, we could interpret the emphasis on technique and control over tools as a traditional architectural pursuit, one in which anachronous forms of representation are revisited through an appropriation of software and code. "Computing/Drawing With a Vintage Pen Plotter," for instance, catalogs an ongoing series of line drawings produced with the earliest tool for materializing a computer drawing. These artifacts combine the entropic quality of ink on paper, the precision of traditional projective drawing, and the methodical act of delineating spatial effects, all retrograde characteristics of the postdigital. Reas’ work, by contrast, touches on the very makeup of digital drawings: the projected pixel. The series “Still Life” deconstructs an abstract composition of 3d objects based on each pixel’s HSL (Hue, Saturation, Lightness) and RGB (Red, Green, Blue) values. Reas, responsible for co-authoring the programming language, Processing, creates standalone software to automate the real-time assembly of pixels on the screen. Like Lostritto’s drawings, Reas’ operations result in abstract animations and compositions, yet the core of the work remains different. Whereas the former adheres to a specific disciplinary motive, the latter prioritizes a kind of postorthographic materiality, a set of effects that can only emerge from new assemblages of pixels, vectors, polygons, textures, code, data-sets, executables, and software in real-time.
Though pen-plotter drawings and 3d textured models of rocks are all digital artifacts, each embodies a different approach to materiality. One combines a hand-held tool with computation to achieve a specific texture on a mechanically controlled line, and the other creates a data-set of points in virtual space that replicate naturally occurring variation. If entropic attributes are a key component of most definitions of materiality, we can no longer ignore the inherent entropy embodied in digital aggregates. Abrons’ definition of material as “stuff that’s assembled and manipulated to produce things” is a much needed broadening of the term. The goal of the postdigital-postorthographic spectrum is therefore to clarify the diverse attitudes towards software and digital technologies as these definitions evolve.