Art Wants to be Ninety-Nine Cents

Over the past few days my first three apps became available on the iTunes store: Gravilux, Bubble Harp, and Antograph. I’ve been dreaming of this day for twenty years: a day when, for the first time, we can enjoy interactive art as a media commodity no different from books, music, and movies. But is there a market for this new medium?

Len Lye making films with his bare hands

Len Lye making films with his bare hands

In college in the eighties, inspired by the abstract films I watched while studying experimental animation at RISD, I started writing computer programs that used human movement to create abstract animation. I was particularly enthralled by Len Lye, who made films not with a camera, but with his body, by scratching, painting, and otherwise touching film. I thought there was a way to bring this process of direct cinema to the computer.

From 1988 to 1997 I refined my aesthetic for screen-based interaction, noting that the cursor is the only thing on the screen with true personality, since through the mouse it’s the connection from your body to the computer. For years I created gestural interactive programs inspired by the abstract masters like Lye and Oskar Fischinger, but I couldn’t find an audience.

Oskar Fischinger

Oskar Fischinger

The programs ran on costly workstations and my professors didn’t understand what was interesting about these side projects: “Two-D is a solved problem,” was one of the responses I got to an abstract animation program that later won international art prizes. And I couldn’t convince “real” artists who came to visit the school that anything of interest to the art world was taking place at Brown University’s Computer Science Department, where I worked towards a degree in a medium that enthralled me like no other.

As the late nineties approached, the Internet bloomed, and I posted several of the more refined programs to my website. I was driven to create them, but highly selective about which to release. Discarding dozens that did not meet my criteria for “immediately knowable, yet infinitely explorable,” I was left, in 1998, with the first three of the Dynamic Systems Series: GraviluxBubble Harp, and Myrmegraph.

When I showed these programs in talks or galleries worldwide, there would be an enormous positive response, like that of an audience in the early days of cinema. But outside of those special, often exclusive events, the only sign of success over several years was an email every week or two with a similar message: “I’ve been using this program for weeks and I just love it—there’s more here than meets the eye.” Such feedback kept me going, because I figured the fan mail was about one percent of those actually using the program, giving me a vague, statistical sense of a few thousand people happily playing with simulated stars when their boss wasn’t looking.

Galleries asked to sell these works and I labored for several years to “box” the experiences into objects that could sell to collectors. But my heart wasn’t in it. I grew up with the Free Software Foundation’s maxim Information wants to be free, and it didn’t seem right to make an arbitrary decision to make an edition of three, five, or seven, of something that could be copied more easily than music or movies.

Myrmegraph: ants in a box

Myrmegraph: ants in a box

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not against selling art in galleries, even digital art. Many of my colleagues have a legitimate expression of their art in wall-mounted objects. The very best are Jim Campbell’s work-intensive low-res LED masterpieces, and John Simon, Jr.’s autopsied laptops that revel in their motherboards-stripped-bare to display conceptually perfect algorithmic works like Every Icon. But my work was intended as pure software: trained as a filmmaker, I took my medium to be the rectangle of light itself and not the box around it. Gradually my screen-based work petered out, with neither the passion to parcel it for collectors, nor a mass-market outlet to deliver it at any price.

And then Apple announced the iPad. Rumors of this device had been spreading for a long time, and I was already at work porting programs to the iPhone, excited by other software artists like Liawho had written gem-like apps for the tiny screen. But it’s the iPad that’s the perfect medium for interactive art. The iPhone, despite its beauty, is still mostly a tool for your working life. When you get home, you lay it on the table and kick up your heels. In contrast, the iPad is an object of leisure: a portable screen for our precious free time.  So what do you do with a recreational screen?

All the ordinary things people used to do with their leisure time are neatly packaged and quietly revolutionized on the new device. You can store your library and all your notes; TV stations broadcast to your lap; and you can play games just by tilting the screen. But I believe there’s room in this new medium for something that’s not consumption and has no goal, but is instead like watching a sunset or walking by a river. These experiences are familiar, yet don’t get old. Skimming the surface of a profound Buddhist adage, You never visit the same river twice, sums up their beauty and depth. In the city the experiences we formerly found in nature rotate through museums and galleries on nature’s monthly cycle for a calm, social, and interactive break to enrich our minds.

It’s this experience I’ve tried to create with these screen-based works of art in the palm of your hand: experiences that are immediately and unapologetically pleasurable, yet ones that also have depth. Like the rewards of a musical instrument, the more time you put in, the more you discover, and the more fluent you become. And, even more importantly, these experiences can be calming, enhance concentration, and leave you fulfilled instead of exhausted.

These are loft goals for a ninety-nine cent purchase, and I am not sure the apps fulfill them. But that’s my goal, and that of other interactive artists. Satisfying such human needs is an under-filled niche in the app store today. Is there room for a new category of media? One that I used to call “useless programs” in an attempt to head off criticism, and what the Whitney and the MoMA—where such works are now collected—call Digital Art.

As I write this, Gravilux is the number one Free iPad App on the iTunes Store. It’s ahead of The Weather Channel, ABC Player, and Netflix. What’s number two? A game? A TV station? A productivity application? iBooks. We are in a beautiful new world where participative media flowers. Books are the oldest and most refined of interactive media, using our minds as the ultimate display device. I’m excited to see how art apps will perform in the marketplace. Reading the reviews of Gravilux is itself a pleasurable literary experience, in which people find their own ways to explain what they’re doing and why they enjoy it, without calling the experience art:

“The app may not serve any useful purpose, but it is the most fun I have had with an app in a long time.” –Huniper

“With the touch of one or more fingers, you can fling stars across the Universe (spoiler: Universe not to scale).” –JayKnapp

“It makes me feel like a god.” –Jasonhenle

“We came from the stars and now we can play with the stars.” –by beersyourfriend

“Neat, but useless, but free.” –Foursky