Nick Montfort, Pall Thayer, and the spare poetics of code

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In “Programs at an Exhibition,” a recent show at the Boston Cyberarts Gallery, Nick Montfort and Pall Thayer offered a cluster of works that play with and subvert the divide between analog and digital art (the show closed on the 16th of March). While superficially similar, the work of these two artists is quite different in media and computational means—and it was that difference, as much as the wit and slow unfolding of the work itself, which served to animate the show.

BASIC, the language in which Montfort works here, is structured by the unique computational demands of the Commodore computer and the version of Microsoft BASIC its creators cobbled together in the late 1970s. Its processes take place in a universe simpler and more severely determined than today’s faster, capacious, richly-networked systems, and its constraints are severe, even harrowing. Perl by contrast, born a decade later than Commodore BASIC, lives in a realm of relative computational abundance, making easy reference to character sets, file structures, and networked assets beyond BASIC’s ken. The contrast is a striking one—and strikingly expressed in the installation at the Cyberarts Gallery, where Montfort’s chunky vintage machines lined up on a table opposite the sleek, flat display panels playing Thayer’s works in Perl. In their instantiations, both sets of programs wittily evoked analog works by the likes of Damien Hirst, Vito Acconci, and Joseph Bueys with cascades of characters and strobing colors.

The pieces comfortably took up residence in the light-splashed Cyberarts Gallery (which wonderfully lives in the MBTA’s Green Street station in Jamaica Plain). The decision to pair each machine with a printed-out caption of the code it ran put the starkly different means of the two programming languages into dialogue. Montfort’s involuted, single-line programs give BASIC something of the tang of the Old English of Beowulf—sharp and shorn, barbed and battered by the harsh economies of its habitat. Perl, by contrast, might be the programmer’s version of Occitan, the language (a cousin to latter-day Catalan) of the medieval troubadors, whose poems chimed with the decadent elaborations that flavored courtly life in medieval southern Europe—a fanciful dichotomy, which manages to caricature both the software and the vernaculars in question. Programmers of philological bent will find the comparison to Occitan especially laughable, given Perl’s cobbled-together nature and its reputation for clunkiness; a better example might be the macaronic jargon of the later middle ages, of which Pig Latin is an impoverished descendant.

Both artists have written about the expressive power and aesthetic powers of code—Thayer offers a comprehensible primer on the peculiar beauty of Perl, while Montfort has written copiously on the software’s artistic depth and richness (here, here, and here, for starters). In any case, Montfort and Thayer’s wit and economy are well-matched in these snippets of code which, while similar in length, are so contrasting in their ways and means. Taken together, their work offers the non-coder a satisfying look into the expressive possibilities of software, while deftly stretching code’s constraints into the realm of sensibility.