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August 14, 2023

The Power of Processing

Casey Reas and Lauren Lee McCarthy explore the future of social software with Alex Estorick
Credit: A Full Room — Romi Morrison performance, 2023. Photography by Gabriel Noguez. Courtesy of the artist.
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The Power of Processing
This conversation is also available as a podcast.

Casey Reas is one of the founders of Processing, a language and community that for more than twenty years has inspired artists to code and coders to make art. Lauren Lee McCarthy is the creator of p5.js, a free and open-source library that has helped to make JavaScript accessible to everyone. Based at the department of Design Media Arts at UCLA, together they represent the core of a progressive movement that is demystifying code and imagining technologies that engineer equity. 

They are also two of the world’s leading artists. On the day that Reas launches his new collaboration with Art Blocks and Bright Moments, “923 Empty Rooms,” RCS is pleased to announce Lee McCarthy’s participation in a new edition of FEMGEN for Marfa Weekend 2023. Here, they explore the future of social software with Alex Estorick and explain what makes Southern California a different kind of art world.

Casey Reas, 923 Empty Rooms — Los Angeles Colorform, 2023. Courtesy of the artist

Alex Estorick: Looking around the world of digital art, what becomes clear is that the politics of a particular community are encoded in its language. Recently, Alida Sun drew attention to Processing for its transparent open-source community and p5.js for its ethics. Casey, could you perhaps say something about how the Processing community emerged all those years ago?

Casey Reas: In the early days of Processing, the code language prioritized being minimal, quick, and light. 

Processing was definitely made to be a sketching language. It was designed to make digital art and the language was very direct. For example, the line() function draws a line. [Laughs] 

Built into all of that is the layer of things being non-proprietary, open-source, and completely free. That meant that people had the freedom to look at the source code, modify it, and download it without having to pay for the software, which, in the arts community of the early 2000s, was really rare. 

The early days of Processing focused on three things: the community, the language — and how to use it for sketching with code — and education. The ethos of the early online forums was about helping each other and sharing. When it first started, it was a relatively small group of people; I’d say there were hundreds of people using it. Ben [Fry] and I would often spend hours a day on the forum listening to people. It was a really generous community whose kindness and openness was there from the start.

Lauren Lee McCarthy, SOMEONE, 2019. Photography by Stan Narten. Courtesy of the artist

AE: For the Processing Community Catalog, one of the questions asked was: “what does being a part of the community mean to you?” Lauren, how would you answer that question?

Lauren Lee McCarthy: I think the community is the essential aspect; it definitely was for me working on the p5.js project. For me, it was never about making tools, but more about how we could come together as a community and make something. From the start, Processing felt different and really welcoming. As a woman of color starting out in the space in around 2011, it felt difficult to get into some of these tools or to really be a part of the community because it was so male-dominated. From the beginning, Processing has been about thinking through access and who has access to these tools. 

With my work on p5.js, core to the project was the question: “what if every design and technical decision actually flowed from a real commitment to access and inclusion? What does that look like? And how does that update over the years?” 

CR: p5.js and Processing aren’t commercial, proprietary software where the transactions are financial, but instead they are a community of artists making their own tools. It’s a very different environment in which to collaborate. Lauren pushed that in needed ways with the p5.js project.

p5.js web editor displaying Arrels (2021) by Anna Carreras. Courtesy of Lauren Lee McCarthy

LLM: [With p5.js] we drew really directly from Processing in some of the core ideas and a lot of the syntax, but the development was a little bit different. Rather than having a diversity of users and a smaller number of people working on the core code, we really put an emphasis on having a diversity of contributors actually working on it. One of my big points of emphasis was expanding the idea of what a contributor might be. It might mean writing code, but it could also mean writing documentation, making educational materials, leading workshops, and doing graphic design. 

It was really important to get back to the idea that, as artists, we can be tool makers. We don’t have to wait for a company to give us the tools under its terms.  

That opened up the project a lot because people would come to us with different ideas that they might contribute that had never occurred to us. One collaborator, Claire Kearney-Volpe, came and said: “you’re talking about how this project is about access and inclusion but your “Hello World” program is a circle moving across the screen. That won’t work for someone who is blind or has visual impairment. Are you saying that this art tool only works for people with really good vision?” That kicked off a whole line of the project that was about thinking through how people with disabilities might use the tool, which allowed us to expand the capabilities of what the tool could really do in the community.

CR: What makes the Processing Community Catalog so exciting is how it documents 20 years of the total project, with one page for each person from the community who wanted to contribute. Seeing everyone’s ideas and commitment and emotion expressed through those pages is extraordinary.

The Processing Community Catalog (Community Reading Edition). Courtesy of the Processing Foundation

AE: It seems to me that one of the powers of p5.js is that it allows individual artists within the Processing community to generate more progressive systems, not only aesthetically but socially. While a lot of generative art is visually satisfying, it also induces emergent outcomes, which could have disruptive implications. Is it fanciful to think of the generative artist as a political actor rather than a strict formalist?

CR: I really hear that strongly and I think we can and need to do more to expand the boundaries beyond making pictures. I think the aesthetics of generative art include change and difference over time. For me, that’s fundamental. I think generative art is a branch of performance — the way that something can always be unique and different every time it’s experienced. There are also strong connections to conceptual art and to things that are not purely visual. 

I think that when generative art is used to create still images that make strong reference to well-traveled paths of exploration in the 20th century, as a community we’re not pushing forward. 

It’s an interesting ecology because there is art that is radical in the ways that it’s being produced, yet a lot of the attention is driven by the taste of the market — the collectors, auction houses, galleries, and so forth. That’s always true with art. What I feel is the most interesting work is not the thing that has the most energy around it. The work is there, but a lot of the focus is directed in less interesting places. 

There are possibilities to push the visual arts forward through new media. For example, photography didn’t only develop its own terms, it also radically shifted painting and everything else. Now that more and more artists are working with code and we’ve settled on this term, generative art, I think we can do things that have never been done before rather than relying on innovations of prior generations of artists.

Casey Reas, 923 Empty Rooms — Berlin Colorform, 2023. Courtesy of the artist

LLM: I would agree with that. There’s a lot of really interesting work being done — I think about Morehshin Allahyari’s work that considers the portrayal of gender in Persian literature and then uses AI models to generate new imaginations of that. I also think about Mimi Onuoha’s work, which is highly relevant in the way it thinks about the data that systems are based on and how missing data is a political act in itself. Whether these artists get the attention or energy [they deserve] is a really big concern. 

The generative art space is dominated by white men, especially the people that are really succeeding in it. Sometimes I talk with curators about the lack of diversity, and they answer: “this is the best work that we’re seeing.” If that’s really true, which I would question, then maybe that whole paradigm of generative art needs to be blown up and we need to find a different frame that’s more interesting. Otherwise we’re just perpetuating the same imbalances and maybe exacerbating them. 

Limited aesthetics are what happens when you have a limited representation of perspectives making work. The more you start to diversify that, the more radical and interesting the work becomes.
A Full Room — Lauren Lee McCarthy performance, 2023. Photography by Gabriel Noguez. Courtesy of the artist

CR: The early days of the generative art scene were highly dominated by white men in America and Europe. If I go back and look at shows that were happening in 2001, it’s an embarrassment how limited in perspective they were. The fundamental idea behind Processing was to get this knowledge outside of institutions and into the world, because this field is not interesting at all if it’s only 15 graduate students at MIT who are doing it. It’s only going to be interesting if we have tens of thousands of people working in generative art around the world.

The primary aim of early Processing was to put code — as a conceptual medium rather than a technical medium — in the hands of artists, architects, and designers globally. But it was also intended to make it possible for people who were already fluent in code to be able to make images. It was really meant as a bridge. 

The first generation of Processing was really about getting software into the hands of more people and getting more people coding. The second generation, expressed clearly through p5.js, was about breaking out of the cultural stereotypes and biases around who a programmer is and can be.
Code/Art Miami workshop led by Cassie Tarakajian. Courtesy of Code/Art Miami

AE: I’m conscious that both of you have built successful careers as artists while working as professors at UCLA. Does teaching inform your different creative strategies? 

LLM: Teaching informs my practice very directly in many ways. […] I am doing so much work that involves interacting with people and creating different sorts of social situations that I always see the classroom a little bit as a workshop or playground where I, alongside the students, test different ideas in terms of how we interact around technology or with each other. A lot of that feeds into my performance practice. Sometimes I also bring elements of my art practice into the classroom and find that it transforms the teaching or the way that students engage with things. 

Both Casey and I are very interested in how community is made. That applies to Processing and p5.js as well as UCLA. […] It’s a challenge to do it within an institution, but it’s something we’re both really excited about.

CR: Teaching is a really interesting space of push and pull. At times I’m challenging the students and at other times they’re challenging me, which I think is healthy and productive. As an artist working with code and as an educator teaching code to new generations of artists, the two have always interweaved in interesting ways. The students — particularly the graduate students — have really different interests to mine. It’s an interesting challenge to get out of my own head, get into their heads, and push their directions outside of my own biases. That has helped me to grow as an artist. It’s like jumping into the river and swimming together while the river rages. Sometimes we go through rapids and sometimes we go through still water. 

We know that educational institutions have become more corporate over the years, but they are still an extraordinary home base within our larger culture where the focus is not on profit — places to be and to exist where ideas, community, and socially-oriented topics are the priority. The University of California is, importantly, a public university. We’re subsidizing education for students from California, and it’s a much more open and diverse educational environment than a lot of private institutions. It’s important for me that the Processing project and my own work are grounded in the University of California.

Casey Reas, 923 Empty Rooms — London Colorform, 2023. Courtesy of the artist

AE: What can you tell us about the new UCLA Social Software initiative?

CR: It’s a fresh project and this is the first time we’ve actually talked about it.

LLM: This is a new initiative that we’re working on at UCLA that we’re hoping to extend beyond the institution that thinks about the social impact of software as well as the power dynamics, inequities, and biases that are embedded in technology. It considers the possibilities that accessible tech affords for open-source communities, looking at generative systems, AI, social media, and the internet through the lens of social software as a starting point for different collaborative projects. 

CR: For over 20 years, making the Processing software has been the dominant thing in my life. This initiative is very much an extension of what we’ve been doing through the Processing Foundation but with less of a narrow focus. A lot of the energy that we were both putting into p5.js and Processing is now focused on the local community at UCLA with the freedom to do projects that are outside the precise domain of the Processing Foundation. We want to have fellowships and bring in artists local to Los Angeles to collaborate on projects that support the local community, while recruiting graduate students to work with us. One of the aims of Social Software is to support women of color working in generative art.

Lauren Lee McCarthy and Kyle McDonald in collaboration with Yamaguchi Center for the Arts, Unlearning Language, 2022. Photography by Shintaro Yamanaka (Qsyum!). Courtesy of the artists

AE: Art and technology have converged in California for many decades, but the combination of Processing with projects like NFTuesdayLA and Vellum LA is turning Los Angeles into a different, perhaps more horizontal, kind of art world. How does it feel to you?

CR: I’ve lived on the East Coast and in Europe, but the whole reason I moved to California in the first place was because I feel like you can still go out to a canyon or into the desert and really have space to do your own thing. 

I think that extreme hierarchies exist in Europe and in New York but there’s space outside of that here. 

I know that, in the art world, Los Angeles has really been changing. In the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s, you could do stuff here without any commercial pressure — the gallery and collecting just didn’t exert influence on artists and I still think that can be captured here. I feel positive that there are other places where you can still do that too, but Southern California is a place where you can pursue it.

LLM: There’s a real history of experimentation in California, and I see a tie from that to what’s happening today. There are a lot of art schools here and that means that there are lots of young artists imagining different possibilities. One of the most exciting things about LA is not the galleries or museums or any of the larger structures but the independent projects and artist-run gallery spaces. 

Commonwealth and Council is now getting a lot of attention, while FEMMEBIT — whose show is launching this week on Feral File — got its start years ago through some of the alumni of DMA [Design Media Arts at UCLA] and other art programs. They’ve been curating shows for a while so it’s exciting to see that project bring new artists into the NFT space. 

A Full Room — Casey Reas performance, 2023. Photography by Gabriel Noguez. Courtesy of the artist

CR: NFTuesday continues to bring people together every week and that’s new energy that wasn’t here before. Human Resources is an extraordinary space, while Supercollider is another collective that, like FEMMEBIT, is very aligned with the Web3 that I want to see and the NFT alternative art ecology that I want to see. There’s a lot of promise and potential in being able to connect those things.

In Los Angeles, the institutions are all really new. There’s no Metropolitan Museum of Art here; there’s not even a MoMA; LACMA and MOCA are really new. I think that the different art schools — CalArts, Art Center, Otis, USC, and UCLA — ground the arts community here rather than hierarchical institutions. A lot of artists in Los Angeles are educators intentionally. 

In New York, if you’re teaching, there’s a perception it’s because you’ve failed as an artist. In Los Angeles, it’s because you believe in the mission of education and supporting new generations. There’s just a very different culture here.
Workplace study group for Getting Started with p5.js, UCLA Design Media Arts. Courtesy of Kate Hollenbach

AE: I’m keen to hear about your forthcoming projects. Lauren, we’re very excited to have you participating in a new edition of FEMGEN as part of Marfa Weekend, which is a collaboration between RCS and VerticalCrypto Art. The original FEMGEN set out to confront the male dominance of the generative art scene but I wonder whether you feel such exhibitions can make a meaningful difference.

LLM: I’m happy that the show is happening because I think it brings attention to artists who are perhaps underrecognized. I’m curious as to what the event will be like this year. I haven’t attended before, but I’ve seen photos in the past and it looked extremely male dominated just from the photos on social media. Having a show of women’s art in a setting like that is a funny dynamic — it’s like we’ve collected a bunch of women’s art to show to all these men.

Some people would say: “I don’t want my work in a show that’s framed around it being about women. There are plenty of shows of work by men that aren’t called MENGEN.” But for me, I’m more of the opinion that everything helps, so I’m excited to be in the show and to support that. 

I think it’s also an opportunity to think about the aesthetics of generative art and open a space for new ideas and directions. I haven’t actually participated in a lot of generative art shows because, while there are generative aspects to my practice, it’s not the first term I would use to describe it. I’m interested to see how I can use that context to explore some of the ideas I’ve been thinking about in other parts of my practice.

Lauren Lee McCarthy, What do you want me to say?, 2021. Courtesy of the artist

AE: Casey, what can you tell us about your new release for Art Blocks and Bright Moments, “923 Empty Rooms”? How does it relate to your recent LACMA projects, An Empty Room and A Full Room?

CR: This all got started around 2015 with work that brought together the history of the still life in art with the history of simulation and software. I had a show at bitforms gallery in 2016 called “There’s No Distance,” which comprised a series of software still lifes of Platonic solids — ideas of shapes that were rendered in a way that pulls them apart so that you saw the image as data and the data as image.

Recently, there was a show at the LACMA called “Coded,” curated by Leslie Jones. An Empty Room was a contemporary commission to make a new work in dialogue with Victor Vasarely’s unrealized proposal for LACMA’s Art and Technology Program (1967-1971). The original was intended to be a generative Vasarely engine — basically a light grid that could generate infinite Vasarelys. The new project comprised a first part, METAVASARELY, and a second part, An Empty Room, where I pushed it further into my own realm of practice. 

A Full Room was a project that Lauren and I initiated for an old-style happening in the space where an empty room exists. We took over the LACMA at closing time and brought in Romi Morrison and Edgar Frías, with whom we did two five-minute performances in the space responding to the LACMA show.  

LLM: We actually posed the question to Edgar and Romi of “what does social software mean to you?” And we considered our five-minute segments as scripts or programs that we were enacting in the space. I’m excited about opportunities to bring together different artists and see what happens in the intersections between their practices. This is something we’re seeing a lot in Web3.

Casey Reas, 923 Empty Rooms — Mexico City Colorform, 2023. Courtesy of the artist

CR: The Bright Moments project is a collaboration with all six of their global spaces, set to be released over six days, moving in one direction around the globe from Tokyo to Berlin, London, New York, Mexico City, and Los Angeles. Bright Moments has created these sub-DAOs (decentralized autonomous organizations) in different cities and the idea is to do a release each day and then do a reception party in the corresponding city. An Empty Room was a more traditional generative art project — one piece of software that can do an undetermined number of different things. 

923 Empty Rooms is what I would call a long-form generative work. I’ve really embraced that term and I think it’s an exciting change in generative art. One of the pieces in the “Coded” show was Sol LeWitt’s Incomplete Open Cubes (1974/1982), which explored all the different variations of an incomplete cube. The reason there are 923 empty rooms is because that is all the combinations of six different shapes. Every city has a shape and a color associated with it, and when you do the combination with repetition algorithm, you get a total of 923 different ways of configuring those shapes, with the works divided across each city. For me, the work is the system behind the image and I want to give people the opportunity to perform the system by changing up the parameters. 923 Empty Rooms is both parametric in that there is something fixed — the 923 rooms — but within each output there are generative components too. My view of generative art is that it extends well outside the boundaries of computation. 

My definition of generative art is that the artist makes the system and the system makes the art. That expands all kinds of media: music, drawing, performance, etc. I’m less interested in computers and more interested in generativity.
A Full Room — Edgar Fabián Frías performance, 2023. Photography by Gabriel Noguez. Courtesy of the artist
LLM: With my art, I’m often thinking about making a system and then inserting that into humans — taking the program and actually installing it in people rather than in computers and seeing what emerges.

In our everyday interactions, more and more we’re having programs installed in us through the devices that we use and the systems we come into contact with. When artists turn around and make generative art, there’s a mirroring of some of the impulses that we’re experiencing by living in a world that is so generative itself.

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Lauren Lee McCarthy is an artist examining social relationships in the midst of surveillance, automation, and algorithmic living. She is the creator of p5.js, an open-source creative coding platform that prioritizes inclusion and access. She has received grants and residencies from Creative Capital, United States Artists, LACMA, Sundance, Eyebeam, Pioneer Works, Autodesk, and Ars Electronica. Lauren’s work has been exhibited internationally, including at the Barbican Centre, Ars Electronica, REDCAT, Fotomuseum Winterthur, HEK, ACM SIGGRAPH, Onassis Cultural Center, IDFA, Science Gallery Dublin, and Seoul Museum of Art. Lauren is a Professor at UCLA Design Media Arts.

Casey Reas is a software artist and Professor of Design Media Arts at UCLA. In 2001, alongside Ben Fry, he co-founded Processing, a free, open-source programming language and environment for artists. He is also the co-creator of Feral File, an online platform for exhibiting, selling, and collecting digital art. He holds an MA in Media Arts and Sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a BA from the College of Design, Architecture, Art, and Planning at the University of Cincinnati. Reas’s software, prints, and installations have featured in numerous solo and group exhibitions at museums and galleries in the US, Europe, and Asia. His work ranges from small works on paper to urban-scale installations, and he balances solo work in the studio with collaborations with architects and musicians. His work is included in a number of private and public collections, including the Centre Pompidou, Paris and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. 

Alex Estorick is Editor-in-Chief at Right Click Save.

Casey Reas, “923 Empty Rooms,” launches today on Art Blocks x Bright Moments.

Lauren Lee McCarthy will be participating in the Biennale de l’Image en Mouvement 2023 at the Centre d’Art Contemporain Genève.

The Processing Community Catalog can be purchased here.