In conceptual art the idea of concept is the most important aspect of the work. When an artist uses a conceptual form of art, it means that all of the planning and decisions are made beforehand and the execution is a perfunctory affair. (Sol LeWitt, “Paragraphs on Conceptual Art” in Aleberro, A., Stimson, B. (1999) Conceptual Art: A Critical Anthology, MIT Press, Cambridge Massachusetts)
Sol LeWitt’s notion of conceputal art is often regarded as a model for processes of computational art. In a well known on-line exhibition, one of the creators of the Processing software, Casey Reas, drew explicit inspiration from LeWitt’s approach. He shaped his Software Structures project (http://artport.whitney.org/commissions/softwarestructures/) as a homage to LeWitt’s notion of wall drawings, in which short linguistic descriptions of a potential drawings provide the blueprint for any number of specific drawing performances. The computational version adds a complication. Rather than passing straight from natural language to visual artefact, the written descriptions inform the development of algorithmic constructs which then produce a variety of specific drawing instances. Here the process of programming is aligned with the conceptual artistic side of things, while the sphere of computer operation is associated with the perfunctory work of actual drawing. Indeed the work of drawing largely disappears altogether. The spatio-temporal scale of computer functioning tends to elude adequate human perception. Very typically, it is invisible and instantaneous. Computer processes appear as a form of abstract labour taking place in an alien and inaccessible dimension. But what are the implications of this? Does it mean that computational labour is unimportant, that it is entirely subordinate to some autonomous field of humanly configured conceptual creation? I argue against this view and indeed against the whole notion of the autonomy of the conceptual from the field of material, mechanical and non-conceptual being and agency. For a start, one has only to consider the structure of software to see how closely oriented it is to the demands of computational labour. Programming represents both a framing and choreography of dimensions of underlying process – it shapes elements, functions, pathways and iterative cycles. While the relation to hardware is simplified and mediated, this realm of articulation, communication, instruction and translation is utterly directed to its non-conceptual other. Paradoxically, rather than displacing the spatio-temporal dynamics of process or rendering it insignificant, computer programming provides a medium for reflecting upon its nature and possibilities.