Rhea Myers

Surgical Strike Free Software

“Surgical Strike” was a 1996 art computing project concerned with the social history of art computing. “Surgical Strike Free Software” is a 2008 reimplementation of the original project.

Computing has trickled down from military applications through corporations to universities and finally into art practice. This history is present in the language and social assumptions of computing. This culture sits uncomfortably with the culture of art, or at least it should. Surgical Strike depicts these contradictions in the form of ironized computer art in order to make them explicit.

The source materials for Surgical Strike were military jargon, the art of William Latham (due to its status as paradigmatic “computer art” at the time), 3D models of stealth aeroplanes, 1990s computer software logos, and verbal descriptions of awkward facts from the history of commercial computing. The swirly structures of stealth bombers replaced the innocent spheres and cylinders of Latham’s computational Darwinism with more significant forms. The texturing of these forms with commercial trademarks rather than procedural textures was another level of indexicality. These were then sandwiched between texts describing things the computer industry would rather forget in the background and the source code for the depicted form asserting its primacy and interfering with the unreflective consumption of the image in the foreground.

The composition of the images produced with the original system was probably based, unconsciously, on Art & Language’s “Hostages” series. The idea of an indexical computer programming language came, again unconsciously, from PJH Halls at KIAD. The project came to me fully formed as I walked to the CEA at Middlesex University early on the morning that I desperately needed to have a project to start.

Surgical Strike proper is a toy programming language for creating patterns of textured 3D objects. The keywords of the language are intended to sound militaristic. Although Surgical Strike can use any 3D models or textures, it is intended to use models of military artefacts and images of software logos. The language features iteration but not branching or even variables so it is not Turing complete.

The original version of Surgical Strike was written in C++ using Apple’s QuickDraw 3D for Power Macintosh on Mac OS 7.x . The parser was hand-written and compiled programs were executed using a bytecode format inspired by the public documentation of Display PostScript. Given the unmaintainability of this code and possible rights issues the current version has been written from scratch.

Surgical Strike is not anti-militaristic except to the extent that it works with the assumptions of the cultures it is targeted at. Those cultures were idealistic mid-1990s art computing and mid-1990s art criticism ignorant of the content of art computing. The title is a piece of military jargon that served to illustrate the gap between depiction and reality. But the gap that it indicated was in the target cultures, not (neccessarily) between the ideals and reality of militarism.