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 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: More information on Magic is available throughout this site.

Magic Director Craig Dietrich joined an Electronic Literature Organization 2012 Conference panel discussion with University of Southern California colleagues Mark Marino and Erik Loyer to present an array or tools that promote and produce digital scholarship. The presentation was the first to feature Magic‘s operational interactive interface. Dietrich presented a “chapter” of Magic narrated by software code, media and text from and about The Knotted Line (TKL), an interactive timeline of race in America by artist Evan Bissell and Loyer. The chapter focuses on a piece of code written by Magic co-creator John Bell that delivers information from TKL’s back-end architecture (Scalar, see below) to the timeline. As with all Magic pieces, the code is annotated by cultural material including videos and images that reveal the people and protocols that led to the code’s creation.

Magic‘s operational interface. Code on the left is annotated by, and clickable to, cultural material displayed on the right. Furthermore, clicking an item on the right delivers new pieces of code that relate to the themes present in the media and text.

The projects presented at the panel were framed by Vectors, a digital publication lab, online journal and summer institute through which Magic and other projects by Marino and Loyer were conceived and developed; and Scalar, a digital publication platform based on Vectors workflows and Semantic Web technology that facilitates unbounded relationships between scholarly content. From the panel description by Marino:

Emerging media forms do not merely excite artists; they also inspire critics to develop innovative scholarly works. For over seven years, the USC-based Vectors Journal has promoted web-based scholarship by developing and publishing projects that utilize experimental design interfaces, data structures, and digital authoring tools. In this presentation, Vectors’ Creative Director Erik Loyer, Info Design Director Craig Dietrich, and 2011 Fellow Mark Marino will present glimpses of critical works that use innovative platforms to explore their material. Loyer will begin with a presentation that looks at several of his collaborations with scholars to create the dynamic multimodal works of Vectors. Dietrich will follow with a look at the new platform Scalar, a publishing platform based on Vectors’ workflows and Semantic Web technology. Dietrich will also detail Magic, an experimental design fork of Scalar centered on the presentation of software code. Marino will then present his Scalar piece based on the Magic fork which analyzes a work of electronic literature, the Transborder Immigrant Tool, including annotations of the tool’s code.

Many digital humanities projects require not only a plan to develop software, but a complex set of software protocols to represent culture. Magic will demonstrate the innovations present in cultural code and provide an in-depth look at the practitioners engaged in their solutions. The interface will include media such as video documentaries, audio interviews, and text analysis, while also including interactive techniques to demonstrate how code represents culture and vise versa.

Concept design for MagicConcept design for Magic. Code excerpts in the right column are annotated by cultural material in the left column. Going the other direction, cultural material is annotated by code.

A Magic reader will see two columns: in the right column are code excerpts; in the left column are cultural materials. Hovering your mouse over specific pieces of the code will reveal media objects describing and annotating the code. The media objects might be textual descriptions, interviews with the creators and users of the software describing its significance, writing about related themes, or a snippet of the front-end project it operates on. Likewise, interacting with the cultural material in the left column will reveal code that produces or engages the material. Using the split-screen, one side examines the “who” and “why” of culturally-sensitive software, the other discovers the “what” and “how”.

Magic explores the relationship between software and culture while also highlighting humanities projects that have made impacts on culture. The content of Magic will be dictated by the projects it features, and we are in the process of discovering projects to include. A part of Magic that may be of particular interest to Critical Code Studies is that the actual executable software created by running a piece of code is weighted equally with all other media that annotate the code. Rather than focusing on code as a means to an executable end, the executable is merely one interpretation of a text document written in a coded language.

(This post originally published at the Critical Code Studies Working Group, February 2, 2010.)

Magic co-creator Craig Dietrich presented a prototype design of the Magic interface to a live audience at USC’s Digital Studies Symposium, February 11, 2010.

Magic reader will see two columns: in the right column are code excerpts; in the left column are cultural materials. Hovering your mouse over specific pieces of the code will reveal media objects describing and annotating the code. The media objects might be textual descriptions, interviews with the creators and users of the software describing its significance, writing about related themes, or a snippet of the front-end project it operates on. Likewise, interacting with the cultural material in the left column will reveal code that produces or engages the material. Using the split-screen, one side examines the “who” and “why” of culturally-sensitive software, the other discovers the “what” and “how.”

Magic at USC's Digital Studies SymposiumCraig Dietrich speaks in front of a Magic prototype design at USC’s Digital Studies Symposium

Fellows from this summer’s Vectors-IML NEH Institute in Los Angeles speak about their collaborations and interests in an interactive media installation across the country in Maine. Magic is presently installed at the Without Borders VI: Conjunction gallery show on the University of Maine campus, and features video interview segments and theme-based navigation to explore the processes by which interactive media projects are produced. Co-produced by Vectors staffer Craig Dietrich with U-Maine Intermedia graduate student John Bell, and L.A.-based installation artist Vanessa Vobis, the team created the installation as an early introduction to Magic, intending a full, Web-based release in 2010.

To see the installation on the Web, visit

Magic, Without BordersEarly Magic interview videos featured in an interactive gallery installation at the University of Maine’s Without Borders, September 2009. Video still: Elizabeth Losh

Software and data innovations are routinely present in projects that examine culture. Magic will showcase these advances and the process, design, and implementation by which they are created. Specifically, Magic is comprised of three core intents:

— To provide a platform for discussion of innovations in interactive media. Through interviews, annotated code, descriptions, and video demos, the magical space between database and front-end design, where programming turns flat data into objects, will be revealed.

— To create a resource for culturally-sensitive interactive media projects, as this project genre often requires a rethinking of approaches in both content and software.

— To act as documentation for open source projects. With many projects hoping to open up their code for reuse by others, but whose development team lacks the resources to document their code and tactics, Magic will be the documentation.

Consider a new media project linking Indigenous cultural protocols and media content. The project would require presentation and media delivery software. In addition, it would also need to create logic based on the cultural protocols. This isn’t a task written up in how-to books by major software houses in America, but rather is the domain of humanities groups and individuals interested in advancing knowledge and community. Creating a resource hub for sharing between these groups—and new teams venturing out—will benefit similarly-minded practitioners and educate others on the efforts required to create such projects.

Resources presented in Magic could be technically-oriented and cross-disciplinary: how team A mapped migration routes; how team B overcame relational data limitations to create mind maps; how team C created an innovative way to represent a culture’s sharing protocols with a MySQL database.

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