Rhea Myers


I came up with the idea for paintr one Friday morning in 2005 while thinking about Harold Cohen’s arguments regarding computer art in his essays and while thinking about the work of Pall Thayer. Paintr’s tag line was “art in the age of network services”, or “art as a network service”. By lunchtime I had something working, and by late afternoon on Saturday it was feature complete. A few weeks later I exhibited it at my show “Howto” in Belgrade.

Artists don’t make art by sitting around waiting for flashes of abstract conceptual or aesthetic inspiration then realizing it in visual form, but paintr does. The original version did so purely using Web 2.0-style web services; colr.org for colour palettes, flickr for (copylefted) photographs, and an online version of autotrace to convert the photographs to drawings. These paradigmatic web services were glued together with the paradigmatic web scripting programming language PHP.

Many of my projects take a linguistic (verbal or visual language) description of art or reality and drive open the cracks in it by taking it literally to making something ironic and unstable. They are disproofs of theories, illustrations of mistakes, but they have a remainder that has its own meaning or effect. Paintr is a good example of this. It’s an analogue to art or artistic activity, the realisation of a popular misconception of how art is made. It’s an exploit on the idea of art or on the misunderstanding of it.

The relationship that paintr has to Web 2.0 hype is similarly ironic. Web 2.0 makes it easy to create new software by gluing together the public APIs of web services, but you are limited in what you can ultimately do by the affordances that those services provide. Human socialisation can be planned, effected and recorded online in great detail and with great reach through social networking sites, but it is reified and channeled through normatising affordances. Art isn’t something that should be created and vended as a web service like weather data or news tickers, but if that’s the case what is special about art as a human activity that isn’t about human activity in general?

Paintr makes something that isn’t art. It’s easy to say why it isn’t art but it’s less easy to see why it isn’t art, unless contemporary art of the housepaint-on-aluminium school also isn’t art. This entanglement makes paintr about something more than itself artistically as well as socially. Art computing is usually dismissed out of hand by mainstream art critics because of its perceived lack of psychological content, subjectivity, interiority, or affect. Dismissing paintr on that basis is trivial because it isn’t even trying to express something. But the intentional fallacy starts to seep through the cracks, and entanglement means that this leads to collateral damage for more critically acceptable forms of art.

Aesthetics is resistant to corporate information culture because quantifying it doesn’t capture its value. We can chain back from this obvious example to the more general case of human experience. The supernaturalism of qualia isn’t necessary for aesthetics to have an experientially irreducible core. But paintr itself cannot experience this core. It weaves human affect and activity into its activity (colour palettes and images posted to social networking sites) but it is inhuman, beyond even death-of-the-author, a representative of corporate information culture and its exploitative cultural asset-stripping of “cool”. It loops back, conceptually. The remainder of this loop is its artistic value.

The latest version of paintr has a back end written in Lisp and runs autotrace locally. It now has an RSS feed, always part of the plan, although it doesn’t have an API yet. It’s going to expand to start from expressing emotions rather than from abstract aesthetic inspiration. It will probably use Wordnet to map more creatively from its initial tags to the colours and images it searches for. It is becoming increasingly an example of social-network-based collective intelligence programming and increasingly an example of how this reifies human experience. And it looks good while doing so and in order to do so.