A metaphor of the nature of understanding in
historic digital artwork,"CodeProfiles" (2002)
by W. Bradford Paley

CodeProfiles looks at the computer program as text from 3 perspectives: how code is written by programmers, read by people, and executed by computers.

CodeProfiles was commissioned in 2002 for the Whitney Museum’s CODeDOC exhibition, in which curator Christiane Paul focused on the process behind computer-based art. Artists were asked to “move three points in space.” This is the space of code itself: the program reads itself, prints itself on the page, and traces three points that moved through the code. 


The written code stacks like unkempt piles of books; colored lines trace three different interpretations, binding it all together. A paper-white line traces the writer’s insertion point.  A warm amber line simulates a fixation point: where the eye might flow as it reads. And a cathode-ray-tube green line follows the execution point of the program; merging overlapping traces into wide swaths of light where the code was executed thousands of times, but scribing a barely distinguishable lace where the processor visited rarely. 


Each line has its own dynamic character, reflecting the nature of the process it traces: the white insertion point flows like the programmer’s thoughts: character by character—calmly in one place, then surging to conform other parts of the code. The amber fixation point just plods along, reading every word with bookish rigor. The green execution point jumps jaggedly from line to line.

Whitney Museum curator, Christiane Paul, talks about CodeProfiles during a tour of the 2018-19 exhibition Programmed,: Rules, Codes, and Choreographies in Art 1965-2018

CodeProfiles 2018, in its almost completely rewritten version, was exhibited at the Whitney Museum in 2018-2019 in Programmed: Rules, Codes, and Choreographies in Art, 1965–2018, featuring works drawn from the Whitney’s collection, establishes connections between works of art based on instructions, spanning over fifty years of conceptual, video, and computational art. Programmed traces how rules and instructions in art have both responded to and been shaped by technologies, resulting in profound changes to our image culture. whitney.org/exhibitions/programmed

Streaming Museum commentary:
CodeProfiles can be considered a metaphor for the nature of understanding--viewing a subject from different perspectives

Paley says he wants the work to reveal how “code grows from the inside like poetry or a novel.” Perhaps the poetry in CodeProfiles emerges from the metaphors reflected in the process of the work that is viewed from 3 perspectives. Norwegian mathematician Roger Antonsen, a professor at the University of Oslo in Norway. Antonsen talks about the essence of understanding which has to do with the ability to change your perspective. "Mathematics and computer science are the most imaginative art forms ever." The patterns involved in math that can be viewed from different mathematical operations and reveal different perspectives and solutions is the same action necessary for building empathy and conflict resolution. Antonsen's engaging lecture on the topic can be viewed here.

W. Bradford Paley

I'm a cognitive engineer, applying the mind sciences to create tools to help us think: readable artifacts. To me, something’s “readable” if it supports thought and discourse about its subject—not just itself, its medium, style, historic context, or creator. Nonetheless, my hero painters, sculptors, designers, typographers, writers, dancers, filmmakers—brilliant communicators all—make reading a pleasure, and that only supports understanding. So I’ve spent a lifetime studying (and copying) their techniques.

I'm pleased that sometimes the techniques are engaging and evocative enough, and perhaps I capture enough of the subject's essence, that people categorize my tools as art or visual poetry.




CodeProfiles is part of the permanent collection and has been exhibited at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 2002-3 for the exhibition CODeDOC, and in 2018-19 for Programmed: Rules, Codes, and Choreographies in Art, 1965–2018  curated by Christiane Paul, Adjunct New Media Curator; Museum of Modern Art in New York, in 2008 for Design and the Elastic Mind, Paula Antonelli, Curator of Architecture and Design; Arizona State University; Chelsea Art Museum and 
Google’s New York headquarters for the exhibition in 2010
Digital Art @Google: Data Poetics, and 2011 for We Write This To You From The Distant Future theatrical performance at Juilliard at Lincoln Center, 2011, curated by Nina Colosi; and the 2003 7th Japan Media Arts Festival.

Selected press:
New York Times
Smithsonian Magazine

Collectors may email contact@StreamingMuseum.org for information on acquiring an edition of CodeProfiles, as well as prints. 

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