Managing technical complexity in art making

Art involving technology, especially constantly changing media technologies, or multi- or cross-disciplinary work, is a peculiar thing. Practitioners of specialized fields, such as more-traditional video, audio, robotics, often work towards a degree of mastery in a field by persisting at it over time; they gain depth that lends "authority" to them and their knowledge.

Alas, art technology practitioners are necessarily in a constant state of insecurity and ignorance; rather than becoming deep specialists within a field (that may soon enough become limiting, niche, or obsolete), we are constantly challenged with a sort of "meta" problem -- 'how much do i have to learn to take my idea to realization?' Rather than needing to learn a specialty, we need to learn how to do research.

Research for art+technology practice is an open-ended subject for another time and place. The purpose of this article is fundamental to that, however -- how to organize technical complexity in your art making, and secondarily, how to communicate your ideas to co-workers.

How do you work?

I'm sure you take your art/work seriously, as a pursuit worthy of your time and effort. But how do you go about your work?

Art involving technology, especially constantly-changing media technologies, puts far more demands on your "process" than do specialized fields. You need to get organized. This organization ought to be fun and enjoyable, not tedium you think of as dull obligation. If you enjoy thinking up and developing art projects, it behooves you to make the entire process of art making pleasurable -- and useful.

Until you have completed a number of projects involving technological complexity, taken them from idea to fruition, some of these suggestions may seem like too much work. But when you have years (or decades) of work, you simply cannot remember all the details, you need to write them down. Probably on actual paper. The reasons for this are many, some will be discussed below, but the two primary reasons here are:

You need to assume, starting now, that your work process matters; and significantly, that you and your ideas will outlast your present computer. That you will have a history you want to refer to now and then.

When you persist long enough to have seen entire computer "platforms" come and go like weather -- CP/M, DOS, Macintosh floppies, DOS diskettes, ... and yes, MacOS and Windows and CD-Rs will go away as did reel tape -- you need to assume that you and your ideas ought to outlast whatever random consumer technologies they are recorded on.

Everyone means to "document" their work once it's completed; in the real world, once the thrill of the opening, or launch, or installation is over, we've moved on to the next project -- the last project is old news. Few go back to write it up. But if you have been putting your ideas to paper -- and computer in an organized way -- most of this task is de facto complete when the project is complete. There are ways to accomplish this that are fun, interesting and useful.

I don't pretend what's outlined here is the only way -- it's simply my method. Start with this, or make up your own, but i do think some of the concepts in here are of critical importance.

All of my completed projects end up with the following artifacts:

The object (or video or sound) in technical art practice is the instantiation of your idea; but your ideas and their research and development are your bountiful legacy for you to re-use and incorporate into future work. Don't throw it away.

Per-project notebooks!

I strongly recommend a per-project notebook, in addition to work that lives on the computer (more on the computer side later). Completely separate from a journal or bound book, if you use those. Expensive bound notebooks are not appropriate here for reasons i will make clear shortly.

Paper notebooks. I'm no Luddite -- but to date, i have found nothing that can do what pencil on paper can do -- transparently render drawing, text, scribbles, drawings, revisions, whatever -- with no "mode" changes. By transparent i mean that with a pencil in your hand, applied to paper, rendering an image or text is immediate and instantaneous, within the limits of the medium. More on this later. If you find a computer program that does this as simply let me know. Paper also requires no boot process, software updates, licensing, and read errors are easily correctible.

My system is simple but flexible. While I encourage you to find your own system -- i only outline mine as mine, not as 'correct' -- but gently suggest you start with something like this and modify to taste. I use cheap paper report binders, 10 x 10 ruled graph paper pads, fancy mechanical pencils, Mars plastic erasers. A three-hole punch.

There's usually a graph paper pad in my backpack, and a couple around our house and my lab. Often my projects starts from a single idea, usually some object or text that strikes me. Sometimes I send myself email, or scrawl some note, drawing, or something, into a pad. Sometimes projects end -- die -- there. Sometimes I add to them... an idea at a time, or a deluge in an evening.

I usually have multiple project ideas going at one time, some active, some not. Ideas are developed on the graph pad; sometimes one project dominates my days, sometimes many at once. They're just randomly on sheets in the pad, which come loose, and start to become a pain when the pad gets full.

There's a point where using the pad becomes a pain; it's time to deal with all the drawn sheets. Here's where those report binders come in. What may have started as a single drawing or note is now a stack of notes, and if it still holds my interest, i start a new project notebook -- grab a new report binder, write the name of the project on the cover -- naming the project often takes some effort! -- and in there go those sheets. To me, this isn't a chore, it's a joy -- a new project forms! Notes/drawings for existing projects go into their binder.

Not everything associated with a project is hand drawn; this is why i use report binders (and a computer, see next section). Datasheets for components, photos, printed matter, receipts, post-its, sometimes CD-Rs, small components fit in the binder covers. When I'm non-lazy I actually three-hole punch the sheets and use the tabs, or just stuff things into the pockets.

Computer hygeine

Much of my work resides on, or begins on, a computer. A decent work practice here will save you countless hours and errors later.

If you find yourself launching programs or files from your web browser's "download" window you are doing it wrong. Configure your browser to store downloaded files somewhere you can find them -- i use the Desktop. If a file pertains to a project, by all means, move it immediately to that project's folder. Files left on the desktop are therefore "junk", a playground for new files, and can be deleted at any time.

The root folder for my projects is called "WPS", for not very good historical reasons. Doesn't really matter. This folder only contains project folders:

Each project folder contains folders and files for that project. If two projects use the same file, a copy goes in each. Disk space is cheap; if you make a copy of the folder it's then a complete copy of that project's files.

Technological research for art

Most technologies we use to make art have a primary industrial or commercial use, and embody a specific guild-like culture, complete with private vocabularies, hidden complexities, etc. Likely the particulars will be new to you.

While this may seem too daunting to contemplate, do not fear -- few industrial users of electronics, for example, have in-depth knowledge of electronics. Even degreed Electrical Engineers have only a faint idea how the innards of a transistor works. They don't need to. All but the most sophisticated design work is done by what's called rule of thumb -- tried and true solutions that have been worked out through practice; simplified and sometimes "standardized" assemblages that accomplish some useful end: an amplifier, a switch, etc.

If there is a trick to working novel-to-you technologies into your artwork it is to understand the way in which people pursue disciplines, to look for the colloquialisms, rules of thumb, common solutions, commonalities that make mundane [insert name of technology here] design work simpler. To use a 90's worldWideWeb metaphor, you need to learn to surf a technology -- glean what you can from a casual survey, in a determined way.