In 10 PRINT CHR$(205.5+RND(1)); : GOTO 10, a new book published by MIT Press, the authors (the book is co-authored by the ten [Montfort, et al.] rather than separate chapters by each) eloquently describe “mysteries of a magic box” (39), wonders that computers and programmers can provide via visualizations that are often times produced with small sets of code. In fact, as the authors describe, the Commodore 64 magazine included a section named “Magic” that first introduced the single line of code that forms the basis of the book:
In the early 1980s, magazines published one-line programs, sometimes regularly, to fascinate and intrigue home computer users and to help them explore programming. In the Commodore-specific magazine RUN, they appeared in a section near the front of the magazine entitled “Magic,” which contained “Hints and tricks that will let you perform computing wizardry.” Some of their one-liners and tips were clearly for amusement and educational purposes. Others were practical programming aids. Many were quite expressive and produced interesting visual effects. (148)
Perceiving magic qualities is of course natural to outside observers where underlying operations are not well known. This is particularly true for computer software, unique in its hyperbolic advances, and is central to the Magic project that this site describes. The Magic project had its seeds in video interviews conducted by Magic co-creator Vanessa Vobis with scholars attending the 2009 Vectors-IML Summer Institute. Revealed in the set of interview clips are direct references to conjurings not dissimilar to the classic art of magic:
David Shorter relates the magic that happens during the software development process to breaking the DaVinci code. Video by Vanessa Vobis, 2009.
Put forth by the Magic project, magic can link scholars, designers, and developers through a back-and-forth of knowledge fascinating to all parties. While scholars revel in technical creations, technicians are inspired by new scholarly concepts. This was explored in more depth in a comment by Magic Director Craig Dietrich during the 2010 Critical Code Studies Working Group, wrapping Shorter’s remarks and a related interview with Elizabeth Losh (displayed below):
I’m excited that Micha [Cárdenas] brought up a distinction between the spiritual/magical potential of “medium” and the more-emphasized “technological shamen.” For the Magic project (whose relationship to this discussion is coincidental yet very intriguing) we conducted interviews at last summer’s NEH Vectors institute, a month of rapid prototyping of digital humanities projects between cultural specialists and technologies. I looked at the archive and a couple quotes stand out, that both enlighten and confuse my thinking about who and what cause/control unintended, emergent and unanticipated effects. In an interview, Elizabeth Losh describes how her video was transformed by the addition of a video-annotation player,
Today was the magical moment. Actually seeing the prototype and the video running in it was amazing to me because I shot that video a day and a half ago, and to see it not only running in a player but the fact that I had this whole ability to annotate it and to have it speak in ways other than the speaker is speaking. In other words it can speak in terms of the system of the essay itself—the online text—because I can mark it up with meta data.
The transformation wasn’t magical in the sense of turning one thing into another, but rather the different technologies (video and annotation player) and content (video and annotations) revealed a fascination when they were brought together (in the form of an annotated video).
We also had interviews that spoke to the wizardry of technologists. In the context of the shaman who transforms to travel to other places, when a programmer conjures up a game-changing algorithm, does this take the project to a new place? David Shorter describes a moment in his project’s development:
After my latest meeting this morning I actually feel like, in some ways [the Vectors tech team] broke the DaVinci code, and this might actually be a very workable model within a week, which is crazy to think about. In intellectual labor we think a project—writing and editing—could take a long time. But in a programmer’s world I have a feeling that once they break a code or learn how to hack something (which I think they just did) it makes everything, ‘Okay, Great! Now we’re good to go…” you sort of bust through a moment.
The coders here will point out that this isn’t what really happened: a lot of time, effort, and creativity went into writing the project’s code, but to the non-programmer (David) it appeared to be a single conjuring. Though, if the roles were reversed, I would imagine the technologist would see similar magic: David conjuring up a ground-breaking notion in anthropology during a meeting.
Whether fetishizing the medium or seeing magic in the work of others, the net effect, at least in these interviews, is excitement. Sure, we can rebuke astrologists for not sticking to science, but they have much more intimate relationships with the objects in the sky than the average person. Perhaps we can promote the positive, spectral aspects of code— “unleash the unexplainable”—to build interest, resulting in a better understanding of systems that drive most of our daily routine?
Elizabeth Losh describes using her prototypes project for the first time. Video by Vanessa Vobis, 2009.
Interestingly, one of the 10 PRINT co-authors is John Bell, also co-creator of the Magic project. He developed a principle aspect of Magic‘s first output, a Flash-powered interactive installation presented at the University of Maine’s Without Borders show in 2010 and featuring the videos above along with interviews featuring other scholars. In the Without Borders presentation, thematic phrases are revealed over time while interview clips are being displayed. For example:
For David Shorter’s clip: Functional code is more subject to epiphany than narrative code.
For Elizabeth Losh’s clip: Context and metadata do not just transform speech but are speech in their own right.
As interview clip phrases are algorithmically combined together, the themes build to form representative paragraphs of Magic as a concept. One such paragraph is the result of six clips played in sequence:
Community requires politics, but is not political.
Creating relationships between data generates narrative.
A virtuoso talent can fall flat next to a chorus of voices
Building requires broad knowledge and deep knowledge. Neither is useful without the other.
Functional code is more subject to epiphany than narrative code.
At the same Without Borders show, Bell created a second installation across the gallery floor (out of view from the display above). Here, the combined paragraphs were beamed in real-time through the gallery’s network to another computer that collected the phrases and displayed them in a new custom interface. Abstracted–or disembodied–from their source interview clips, the paragraphs invited viewers to explore the texts as individual works:
Second Magic interface displayed at the Without Borders gallery show. Interface and screengrab by John Bell, 2009.
Bell describes benefits of the separate interfaces, such as leveraging the distributed nature of the content for furthering the installations’ theme, at his novomancy.org blog:
Despite a century of philosophical writings that question how much of an artwork physically exists versus how much is in the mind of the beholder, few have been willing to break the work itself into pieces that can exist independent of one another. Most analysis would argue that an artwork must be taken as a whole; the internal relationships between different aspects of a work may be considered, but only very rarely does one think about what would happen if just one of those aspects was changed. Duchamp’s In Advance of a Broken Arm, like many of his ready-mades, depended largely upon the fact that it was recontextualized into a museum setting. But was it no longer an artwork when a janitor in a Minnesota museum used it to clear a snow drift, or did it just gain a new way of being displayed and analyzed?
The secret of Magic is that it is a collection of reusable parts. The videos in Magic are a collection of video interviews that Craig Dietrich and Vanessa Vobis created as a piece of their Vectors interactive media project of the same name and they exist quite independently of this installation. The physical installation is a revision of one previously used when John Bell showed Analog(ue) in February of 2009. It is the combination of the two that makes this Without Borders installation unique from the other uses and reuses of the individual components.
Indeed, the distribution of the Magic project’s content is alluring in its ability to support multiple works of art, similar to the emphasis on bindings between technologists, designers and developers through participant fascination, i.e., “magic,” described in the interview clips.
The full Without Borders presentation is available at: http://magic.craigdietrich.com/WithoutBorders. More information on Magic is available throughout this site.