CodeProfiles (2002, 2018) by W. Bradford Paley
is an historic conceptual artwork made
with code and inspired by leading
modern and contemporary artists
“I want the work to reveal how code grows from the inside like poetry or
“CodeProfiles looks at the computer program as text: how code is written
by programmers, read by people,
and executed by computers.”
Paley’s openness to interpretation of
his work from multiple perspectives
is a characteristic of his CodeProfiles:
he makes artifacts that reveal structure from the real world, so they're as multifaceted as the world itself;
data as subject—data as nature.
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 was commissioned by Whitney Museum of American Art curator Christiane Paul in 2002 for the CODeDOC exhibition. In its almost completely rewritten version it was exhibited at the Whitney Museum in 2018-2019 in Programmed: Rules, Codes, and Choreographies in Art, 1965–2018. That exhibition, 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. It traces how rules and instructions in art have both responded to and been shaped by technologies, resulting in profound changes to our image culture.
The choreography of its movement
W. Bradford Paley was commissioned to connect 3 points in space. He thought he'd have to refuse the commission since his work usually deals with hundreds or millions of data points; didn't have anything to say with only three—until he realized code itself could be the space in which those three points could move.
Each line has its own dynamic character, reflecting the nature of the process it traces: the green execution point jumps jaggedly from line to line; 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.
CodeProfiles in Programmed, 2018-19
The document describing the original commission for CODeDOC 2002
W. Bradford Paley by the CodeProfiles installation at the Whitney Museum. There are 3 moving points traced on the screen: the amber line traces how you’d read the code line by line; the white line traces how the artist wrote it; the green line traces how the computer executes the code as you see it on the screen.
A conversation with W. Bradford Paley on process and inspiration
Nina Colosi, Streaming Museum
Throughout history artists have been cross pollinating their ideas and styles. You had mentioned that you're inspired by artworks in various mediums and time periods. I introduced you to the contemporary artists represented by curator Yassana Croizat-Glaser.
W. Bradford Paley
Seeing Ms. Croizat-Glaser’s site—especially work like Morgan Everhart’s, my immediate response was one of recognition and respect. I'd be proud if I'm considered to be in such company. Ms. Everhart, for instance, seems to be dealing with many of the themes that made me devote my life to visual representation: paint-handling virtuosity (like my heroes Gorky, Frankenthaler, Richter), implied and varying 2.5 dimensional space (Picasso's/Braque's Analytic Cubism explorations, early Matta) and representationally-inspired/derived abstraction (Kupka, Diebenkorn!)
Your artwork is usually labeled new media art, but a description as conceptual art is more appropriate?
Yes, my work is pigeon-holed as "new media" (even when I'm making prints), but really I spend most of my time trying to do what my heroes and teachers did with their paint/lithography, but with data. Unfortunately, computer displays are so visually invasive that much of my effort is spent taming them so people can get past or 'see through' the medium to the subject. This is not to say I don't embrace the medium! (in that way I feel more Modernist than Post-). But tech visuals are generally so in one's face that just to get a balance I have to push the tech back so people can engage the idea, not the medium. I'm always trying to make something someone can live with for years, not a clever gimmick whose appeal fades to annoying after just hours or days. (Mom was an interior designer—not of the capital-D Design-Gesture brand, but a creator of places for people to actually live, and live comfortably. I try to make places for ideas to live.)
How do you shape the works in relation to other art forms that inspire you?
With CodeProfiles it took me months to make it look less like video, and balance the layers to embrace 2D but evoke 2.5D, e.g., by floating the annotation lines on top of the ground of the code itself. The medium does allow (force!) the use of the one extra dimension of time, so I’m lucky to be able to apply learnings from other heroes Trisha Brown and Elizabeth Streb.
Please talk about your creative process, the artists who have influenced you, and the vision you reflect in your art.
Generally I have a repeated, two-stage working process—
In New York I had a wall crammed with prints from many heroes & demi-heroes (Richter, Matta, Kupka, as I mentioned, plus Whistler, Twombly, Bury, Giacometti, Picabia, Ernst; antique maps, encyclopedia illustrations and early information visualization; 50-70 pieces in all). And the process was simple and effective: I'd work for months in my office/studio, tweaking the rules I write to turn meaningless data into insight-evoking (I hoped) imagery. Then when I was finally satisfied I'd make a print and take it into the front room to put it in the middle of that wall.
It rarely lasted more than a few minutes before, overcoming my embarrassment and trying to learn from context what I was missing, I’d go back into my office humbled—but more important: mind on fire with the brilliance of what those other people did. And how they did it. (Yes, I've appropriated many of their techniques... ;)
Top, left to right: Tom Phillips, Klee, Whistler; Kupka, Giacometti, Picabia, Ernst, Jacques Villon, Matta
That set my agenda for the next weeks or even months (part of why my oeuvre is so limited), and iteration eventually would result in something I could live with on that wall (for a few days, for half of the projects, anyway).
I seem to share with you and Ms. Croizat-Glaser, an understanding of the truth-seeking and sensory-richness roles art can play in someone's life; I'd feel much more comfortable in that context then the company I'm often identified with.
W. Bradford Paley
W. Bradford Paley is a Cognitive Engineer who reverse-engineers the human mind so he can create tools that effortlessly reveal meaning in otherwise opaque sources. For more than three decades he has optimized knowledge work; he has improved analytical processes in domains from finance to insurance to basic research (didi.co). He is an Adjunct Associate Professor in the Wu School of Engineering at Columbia, teaching his own design methodology; he is a NYSCA grantee and NYFA fellow.
Many people shrink from today’s most disruptive, yet powerful transformational force: streams of abstract data; Paley works to make understanding them as easy as understanding a natural landscape. Even his juvenile work, 1973 Teletype prints of stochastically-shaded spheres, shaped random numbers to fit the eye’s expectations. In the mid-80s he committed himself to readable meaning: he focused on evoking insight—not just visual titillation. He adapts fine art techniques to ease interpretation, almost accidentally pleasing the eye. For instance, TextArc, his 2001 text analysis tool, was exhibited as design at MoMA and written up in the NY Times as fine art. Conversely, some coders thought his Whitney Museum art commission CodeProfiles was a programming tool—yet one viewer just wanted it as a scarf. This openness to interpretation from multiple perspectives is characteristic of Paley’s signature work: artifacts that reveal structure from the real world, so are as multifaceted as the world itself; data as nature.
CodeProfiles is part of the permanent collection and has been exhibited in 2002 at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 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 the We Write This To You From The Distant Future theatrical performance at Juilliard at Lincoln Center, 2011, curated by Nina Colosi; and the 2003 Grand Prize (non-interactive) at the 7th Japan Media Arts Festival.
New York Times: TextArt, CodeProfiles
Public Radio: Science Friday
Collectors may email for information on acquiring an edition of CodeProfiles, as well as prints.