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Aesthetic Programming


The term ‘Aesthetic Programming’ is closely related to ‘creative coding’ (Maeda, 2004; Peppler & Kafai, 2009) and ‘exploratory programming’ (Montfort 2016) that have been introduced in related literature in recent years. Such terms emphasize the expressivity of computer programming beyond something pragmatic and functional, in which aesthetic production, or critical thinking through practice, can be cultivated and developed through learning and understanding programming from the broad perspectives of aesthetic theory and cultural studies.


Aesthetic Programming is also the title we have given to one of the undergraduate courses in the Digital Design at Aarhus University, which has been taught in parallel to a course in Software Studies since 2013. Together the courses offer ways of thinking about software and computational culture to understand wider political, cultural, social and aesthetic phenomena, and the ways in which our experiences of the world are ever more underscored by computational processing. Taking its lead from these courses, the research aims to explores programming as cultural practice and phenomenon, as ways of thinking and doing in the world, to understand some of the complex procedures that underwrite our lived realities.


Similarly, we draw upon Software Studies to deal with and communicate knowledge of software as a cultural form via analyses of examples of software artefacts and close readings of theoretical texts, developing a critical understanding of digital culture. We have been working with key concepts from programming as the starting point for analysis; not reading cultural phenomena in relation to programming concepts but rather an approach where the programming leads the discussion through a deep understanding of the way it is constructed and is operationalized. The common ground therefore with both courses promotes the practical understanding and knowledge of programming to underpin critical understanding of techno-cultural systems.


In this spirit, it also draws upon concrete examples and makes an argument for the inherent interplay of aesthetics and technology. More specifically, there are increasing numbers of artists/programmers whose works explore computational culture and computer processing with a critical attitude (including the work of Winnie Soon, see http://siusoon.net/). In such examples, ‘software art’ is often not considered as a practical tool that produces an artwork but as a critical-aesthetic object in itself. As media theorist Tilman Baumgärtel clarifies:


Software art is not art that has been created with the help of a computer but art that happens in the computer. Software is not programmed by artists, in order to produce autonomous work, but the software itself is the artwork. What is crucial here is not the result but the process triggered in the computer by the program code. (cited in Cox, 2007, p. 150)


In order to discuss the expressivity and aesthetic dimensions of code and computational processes, this research project incorporates and presents artistic works that explore the materiality of software and computational processes alongside the practical and theoretical examination of programming. We take this approach broadly from cultural studies and aesthetic theory inasmuch as such works demonstrate an expanded critical capacity and potential for commentary on contemporary conditions. The term Aesthetic Programming thereby is useful as it points to computational processes and code as expressive materials to reflect the technical, cultural and political implications of techno-cultural systems.