A Short Introduction to Software Art

The term ‘software art’ acquired a status of an umbrella term for a set of practices approaching software as a cultural construct. Questioning software culturally means not taking for granted, but focusing on, recognising and problematising its distinct aesthetics, poetics and politics captured and performed in its production, dissemination, usage and presence, contexts which software defines and is defined by, histories and cultures built around it, roles it plays and its economies, and various other dimensions. Software, deprived of its alleged ‘transparency’, turns out to be a powerful mechanism, a multifaceted mediator structuring human experience, perception, communication, work and leisure, a layer occupying central positions in the production of digital cultures, politics and economies.

Olga Goriunova (2007)

As Professor Olga Goriunova explains, the term "artware" or "software art" is an umbrella term for all manner of experimental software projects by artists, hackers and other creative technologists that explore software (apps, programs, exectubales, etc) as a creative medium. Where mainstream software is typically aimed at providing some utility for the user, artware departs from this convention to explore a number of other themes and concerns.

In his book Behind the Blip (2003), Professor Matthew Fuller articulates some of these themes and defines a few sub categories, such as "critical software", which is "software designed explicitly to pull the rug from underneath normalised understanding of software [...] Critical software engages with existing software programmes and mutates or critically analyses them." Critical Software is software as critical commentary, where the thing being commented on is software products and software ideas themselves, like ExtraFile (2011) by Kim Asendorf perhaps. Another definition of "critical software" is software as criticism, or as an act of political protest, for example FloodNet by the hacktivist net art collective Electronic Disturbance Theater (EDT) as documented in this excerpt from the documentary Hackers In Wonderland.

Another sub-category defined in Fuller's book is "social software" which is "software built by and for those of us locked out of the narrowly engineered subjectivity of mainstream software. It is software which asks itself what kind of currents, what kinds of machine, numerical, social, and other dynamics, it feeds in and out of, and what others can be brought into being" furthermore, "It is software that is directly born, changed, and developed as the result of an ongoing sociability between users and programmers in which demands are made on the practices of coding that exceed their easy fit into standardised social relations". One example might be the iPhone app Sombody (2014) by Miranda July. Another is "speculative software", Fuller explains that, "the best fiction is always also attempting to deal with the crisis of written language, in the way that it asks itself about the legacy built into text as the result of its birth in the keeping of records, in the establishment of laws, in assembling and managing tables of debt and credit. It does this perpetually, at the same time as reinventing and expanding upon the capacity of language to create new things. Speculative software fulfills something of a similar function for digital cultures." An example of this could be the Beaker Browser (2016-present) by Paul Frazee and Tara Vancil.

If you'd like to dive deeper, you can access an excerpt from Behind the Blip on the Nettime mailing list as well as check out this interview with Olga Goriunova by the group critical artware at the Read_Me Software Art Festival in Aarhus Denmark in 2004.

Examples of Experimental Drawing Apps