Processing Power

By Carla Rapoport June 21, 2018

What’s behind digital art? As the first-round judges are working their way through this year’s incredibly strong roster of entries, it seems a good time to shine a light on Processing, one of the most respected means of making art digitally, and its co-creator, Casey Reas (pictured above). Processing is a free-to-download programming language which Casey and Ben Fry developed in 2001, which generates images – both dynamic and static – from short text instructions.


Thousands of artists around the world now depend on Processing to make their art, including a great number of Lumen artists. Here’s Tim Pickup, of Genetic Moo, which won the 2013 Lumen Founder’s award and set up collaborative works in two Lumen shows this summer:


“Processing is a stable, rich environment which runs effortlessly on many platforms, allowing us to be super-flexible in setting up shows with multiple machines and running stuff on other people’s systems.”


“People have made libraries for it to deal with complex things like sensors, audio and networks. And, importantly for us, it is easy to teach. People can instantly create graphics, take minutes to make animations and in an hour we can help them produce large-scale collaborative works.


With this kind of endorsement, I was eager to meet Reas, and thanks to an introduction from Matthias Dorfelt, who won the Lumen Prize Still Image award last year, I had the good fortune to do so this spring in Reas’ office at UCLA, where he teaches in the department of Design Media Arts. Reas is a multi-talented artist in his own right: his work has been shown around the world, including major museums such as the V&A, and he’s recently directed four music videos for The National. He has a lively mind, it’s abundantly clear, and dedicates himself to asking questions. At the moment, he’s looking at drawing, coding and animation and how those three fit together.


As he explains: “For the last 15 years, for my own work, it’s all been very intentionally cold, lines being drawn by the machine and this idea of making artwork that’s post-human in a way – the idea of using reproduction and using machines as the surface of the image was something I’d been really working hard at.” Lately, however, he’s shifted his orientation 180 degrees. “I’m really more interested in getting back into drawing. And getting back into marks that feel very human as a part of the work.”


He continues: “I guess one of the core ideas is to produce new drawing systems that are unique to software. How we can make a new category of pictures in that way? It’s very different from, say, David Hockney’s iPad drawings; more like re-creating paint systems. I think these are ways of drawing that are unique to the software medium.”


Would David Hockney be able to use such a system once it’s developed, I had to ask?


“I don’t think we should call it a system but a wide open space to make things – and yes, absolutely, that would be wonderful.” He points that that there was a BBC documentary in 1986 called Painting with Light where Hockney was using a Quantel Paintbox graphics system. “He was drawing on screen for the first time and sort of commenting about this other way of making pictures. He got that immediately, that there’s this other possibility of drawing with light. It would be wonderful for him to try something like this out.”


A wide open space to make things sounds pretty enticing. I asked a few artists to respond to Reas’ comments. Will Hurt, a 2017 Lumen finalist, had this to say: “If Casey is writing a new language or set of commands that encode humanistic mark-making, that could be extremely interesting.”


Hopefully it won’t be too long before artists will be able to get their hands on Reas’ newest adventure.


Top photo credit: Andrey Noskov/Strelka Institute


Bottom photo: Casey Reas’s Processing 18 at the V&A Museum London, with 2016 Lumen Prize finalist and V&A resident artist Rachel Ara beneath

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