Capacity to act in a world

Computers afford us the ability to run processes and execute rule-based symbolic manipulation. In computer ‘games’ or ‘simulations’ we can represent how real and imagined systems work.

Interactive installations too are logical systems which create relationships between a few interdependent elements, one of which is often the viewer.

The workings of these rule-based representations can be partly exposed in a visual ‘debug’ mode. While the game scene shows the seamlessly integrated effects of the rules implemented in the system, the visual debug mode is designed to shows the effects of each of the rules, to literally ‘picture it’ and see it work. In this view they can be easily scrutinized to improve, detect anomalies and assess impact, but more interestingly they also form a raw and unmediated snapshot of the ‘conflicts’ or relationships from which the project is built.

While the outward expression is communicated to the audience as a narrative metaphor, the internal symbolism of the debug lines can be read on a different level. Even without the knowledge of what the debug symbols signify, they form an impression of bearing a meaning encoded in a visual language, behind which are rules of logic. The abstract debug symbols, interposed on the renderings of elements whose behavior is driven by the debugged rules, imparts to those elements the weight of their rule-bound necessity. At their meeting, the two pictorial spaces inform and enrich one another, the illusion is both exposed and justified.

Even though these simulated systems tend towards clean abstractions and explicit rules, they gain ‘noise’ as they are implemented and expressed in visual terms. The appearance of the debug symbols is subservient to their function, but it is arbitrary as far as it serves the preferences of perceptual analysis (and as far as being within the vocabulary of the software tool). Their color is meant to stand out from the other colors, their size is meant to be seen from a perspective at which the given phenomenon can be observed, their form is chosen to communicate the position, direction, movement or other property of the element. Thus their arrangement and the resulting composition are the pictorial translation of the stakes portrayed in the work.

Alex Galloway writes about games being ‘the occult logic of software’.

Code hides itself in the very act of consummating its own expression. A game expends itself in the very act of its being played. And so the game retreats from its own essence. But only in such a way as to be more true than the essence could ever be.

Eddo Stern writes about the ‘artifacts’:

Most fantasy game designers would regard visible signs of any technological underpinnings as unwanted anachronisms that would threaten the constitution of the immersive fantasy they are attempting to construct. The resulting by-products of this problem can be found in the designers’ introduction of metaphors that function to assimilate unwanted technological residues into the narrative diegesis.

•A note on “Artifacts”
I am borrowing the term artifact from computer science where the term is used in reference to undesired cosmetic disturbances such as jagged edges or dirty patches in an image file (common in compressed digital video or jpeg images for example), excess noise or hiss in a sound stream, or unpredictable ASCII characters in a text file. Artifacts differ from bugs, which are usually caused by programming mistakes; artifacts don’t prevent functionality per se, but cause an unperfected aesthetic disturbance.

The images in this project show the visual ‘debug’ mode of the project Forth in which deterministic forces are pitched against the questionably ‘willful’ efforts of the people.