Software art: code becomes art with critical software, social software and generative art



Since the late-1990s, within the broader landscape of net art and new media art, a decent number of programmer-artists have launched a form of art that is concentrated exclusively on code: software art.

Software and graphic interfaces

As many of you already are aware, software (the set of instructions that make it possible for just about any computer to function) is now at the heart of our everyday lives. Software is found on our computers, tablets and smartphones, most of the household appliances that we use each and every day, in our cars and smart homes, etc.

The giant leap in the world of software connected to home computers took place in 1984 when Steve Job’s Apple launched the Macintosh, the first computer with a graphic interface for users. It may sound trite today, but at the time it was groundbreaking: up until that point, to carry out simple operations you had to have memorized their commands. To delete a folder from the computer you had to know the command for “delete,” and so on. Now, thanks to graphic interfaces, the same result is obtained by dragging that very file to the “recycle bin” on the desktop.

In no time at all, because graphic interfaces were so easy to use, computers were embraced by the masses, who needed no specific skills or knowledge to use them, contributing enormously to their popularity. In reality, the software that we use (not just on computers) is written by programmers, many of whom are employed by large, hi-tech international corporations, which is a problem according to some software artists.

Critical software

Undermining user trust in the graphic interfaces of widely available software is in fact the programmed goal of “critical software,” a branch of software art that aims to raise awareness among consumers about the subtle traps set by the programmers of the management software of all such tech products, starting with an item we use every day: smartphones.

Social software and generative art

Social software and generative art are two other important sub-genres of software art. The former is essentially free/open-source software, i.e., programs whose source code can be freely used and/or modified by anyone and everyone (with the only requirement being that those changes and updates are then shared freely and publicly). In generative art, on the other hand, software is used as a tool to create art automatically through a generative process whose main characteristic is that of eliminating, entirely or in part, the artist’s intentions or control over the results (a more in-depth exploration of generative art can be found in the second-to-last chapter of this book).

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