Exhibition Turns Programming Code Into Art

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For most people, computer code is abstract, an endless invisible stream of binary code running on hardware. Although programmers would disagree, computer code would hardly be considered art on its own.

But at "Decode -- Digital Design Sensations," an exhibit at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, those with both technology and art savvy have created a set of vibrant, interactive pieces that leave viewers with a greater understanding of broad concepts behind many of today's technologies.

Decode is divided into three sections: Code, Interactivity and Network. Code focuses on visualizing the digits behind applications and new ways to understand what's going on in the background when, for example, an algorithm is at work.

Los Angeles artist C.E.B Reas' piece, titled "T1," is a group of round circles onto which morphing designs are projected. The circular projects are almost like looking at living tree stumps or ever-changing bacterial colonies. Reas, a professor at UCLA's Design Media Arts department, is also behind Processing, an open-source programming environment for producing images and animations.

An arts collaboration called Troika created a "Digital Zoetrope." A zoetrope is a cylinder that has small slits on the outside and an illustration within, that, when spun, appears to create an animated image. Troika's custom-built and custom-programmed zoetrope displays words or alternating patterns as the frequency of rapidly-blinking LED lights are changed. The words and patterns are random and ephemeral -- almost as if you're looking through a window of a non-human brain.

"The viewer cannot see the flickering of the lights due to an effect known as persistence of vision whereby the eye retains a visual image for a fraction of a second after the source has been removed," Troika's Web site says.

Works within the Interactivity section invite crowd participation. A four-member Danish collective called Yoke created "Dandelion," which is a giant screen onto which a 3D-rendered dandelion floats in the breeze. With a hair dryer that's been modified to shoot an infrared beam, participants can blow the seeds off the dandelion. The technology is far from new, but the effect is pleasant.

"The intent of the piece was to make a playful and magical experience with a simple and satisfying interaction for young and old," says Yoke's Web site.

Large crowds gather around Ross Phillips' "Video Grid." On one side, viewers see a large grid of a very short video clip. On the opposite side, viewers can pick a grid in which they want to appear and then, after a short countdown, can make a brief video clip, which is then shown on the grid. The resulting collage of clips is a busy scene bursting with energy -- with people smiling and horsing around -- albeit, in a relatively quiet gallery.

In the Network section, the piece titled "Flight Patterns" by Aaron Koblin shows a time-lapse illustration of actual flight paths over the U.S. Traffic starts to pick up over the East Coast in the morning, and the spidery tentacles stretch over the rest of the country as the day progresses. A running tally shows as many as 16,000 planes in the air.

Decode runs through April 11 and costs £5 (US$7.50).

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