An image that is generated by Net Art Generator with the keyword “Aesthetic Coding”.

This is a site about my research on aesthetic programming beyond some of the engineering and computer science approaches that are primary focused on the skills of programming and problem solving, as well as the development of computer applications or models with the aim to achieve efficiency and optimization. Computational thinking is used to be defined by Computer Scientists, Mathematicians or researchers working in the science disciplines (Papert 1980, Wing 2008). However, with the increasing demand of computational practices in arts, software studies, platform studies, new media studies and digital humanities, how might the concept of computational thinking or the practice of coding is being challenged and expanded by other disciplines? Scholar Michael Mateas suggests teaching computational thinking and programming to arts and humanities is to connect with social and cultural issues through theoretical and philosophical considerations (2015). My research on aesthetic programming is to introduce humanistic/aesthetic/cultural perspective in examining code and coding practice, understanding the interplay between technical processes and human meaning-making processes in both micro and macro scales. Considering coding/computational practice (including programming – read/write/execute code and processes) as a mode of critical and aesthetic inquiry to understand/reveal, and think with, the implication and affordance of digital culture- a condition that we are highly engaged with, and surrounded by, software and networked systems, I ask how might we think with code and coding practice beyond building functional and pragmatic applications? How might we understand and reflect upon cultural systems through aesthetic programming?

– Winnie Soon (Who Am I?)

What is and Why 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 works of Winnie Soon, Daniel Howe, Shelly Knotts and many more). 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.

– Winnie Soon and Geoff Cox (We are both working on a book called Aesthetic Programming)