Cutting across somewhere beween in the scalable city

Bruce Sterling

It was Kevin Kelly who first taught me to seek out and listen to people, areas, creative scenes, generating new language. Every creative subculture has an argot and a jargon, its own specialized terms of art. Journalists can smell buzzwords. Novelists love the specialized patter that suspends the reader’s disbelief. Since I’m a journalist and a novelist, this was some fine advice.

Then there’s the challenge of electronic art criticism, my task at hand in this brief essay. It’s tough work. Certain emergent fields of practice, frankly, suffer a torment of language.

The turbulent goings-on are so detached from everyday experience that the experts strain for conceptual framing. The very nouns and verbs tremble.

Sheldon Brown’s creative activities are well-considered, and elegant. They’re also quite hard to describe in today’s language. The streets of his scalable city have no names. The nicknames we might too-hastily give to them - harsh technical acronyms that repel the reader’s eye - or that brassy host of prefixes: "neo" this, "hyper" that, super, ultra, virtual, mega, poly, meta, cyber & nano. Do they help us understand? They’re jammed onto older terminology as if to knock the dust off it.

Those formulas rather badly serve today’s artistic public. Now, Sheldon’s works are very much what they are. Yet, they’re not cinema. Nor animation. They’re not computer games, or simulated architecture, or urban maps, or even sculpture. They do partake of those things. They are a form of expression that "cuts across somewhere between."

And he’s pretty good at that endeavor -- one of the world’s best. The electronic-art world is not colossal, but it’s larger than most people imagine; it’s genuinely global, and it’s busy all the time. New geographies of creative endeavor unfold from software like the tendrils of ferns.

I’ve seen Sheldon’s contemporaries. Since we critics tend to be scolds, we’ve got the bad parts of the enterprise figured out. Bad electronic art is ghettoized, self-indulgent, conventional, commercially greedy, snobby, cocksure, technically lazy, arrogantly geeky, and ignorant of its own history. It’s got the same problems, in short, that any and every art does.

Sheldon, by contrast, is technically deft, yet very insistent about aesthetics, clarity, poignancy, empathy and desire. He’s as deeply engaged with his own tools and materials as any contemporary musician, painter or novelist. So he’s good - yet I lack a simple way in which to prove that to you.

There’s a whole multiplex set of ways in which to describe the merits of Sheldon Brown - emergent critical vocabularies that themselves must cut across somewhere between.

First, and most obvious to the viewer’s eye, is advanced hardware. In "Scalable City," one is seeing landscapes, big thundering brothers to scrawny computer-game landscapes, rendered at San Diego’s California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology, or Calit2. Calit2 owns what programmers affectionately refer to as "big iron." Sheldon Brown, being the first artist-in-residence of that Institute, has the run of the lab. The effects are naturally formidable.

Still, the hardware is the least of it - it’s like a critic praising the painter’s canvas.

If we dig deeper into the discourse of computational aesthetics - and it has one, though it’s small and peculiar - we hit a neologism called "processuality." Deleuze and Guattari - I hate to drag those two in here, but they did in fact use this term quite early - claim that "processuality" is the antithesis of "arborescence." "Arborescence" is a static, tree-like hierarchy trying to exist in the world as a single, well-defined stable entity, while "processuality" has something weird going on. Carefully crafted layers of paint, in a frame, curated and hung on a gallery wall that has arborescence. Software has "processuality". Software is electricity flowing through circuits, algorithms being executed. The aesthetic look-hear-and-feel of software as it scampers through its repertoire of behaviors is its "processuality."

For an art-critical assessment of "processuality," it helps a whole lot to be able to parse software code. However, the qualities that programmers praise in code - tightness, elegance, absence of bugginess - those by no means translate directly into processuality on the screen or in a viewer’s perceptions. Good processuality has a kind of sweet-spot or emotional affect to it. There’s "transmediality" in the way the viewer’s senses are deftly addressed: the sound, motion, image, actions, and interactions.

We might compare this, in the analog art world, to a Calder mobile. A mobile is never still and it has no single definite shape. But it does have process, which is the mobile’s interaction with the viewer and the environment. A mobile that’s wired too tightly has an ugly herky-jerky quality; it’s mechanical, too-simple, and lacks a fluent ease. When wired too loosely, the mobile becomes sloppily chaotic; it whiplashes and tangles into itself. Its inputs will lack a viable, intuitive relationship to its outputs. So it misbehaves, and it looks either dead or crazy.

In "Scalable City" we clearly have a well-considered process which is... well... it’s forming weird tornados of small cars tearing across California. That’s good processuality because one has the innate feeling that... well... yes, of course a tornado full of Mini Coopers would surely behave in that way. When the suburban streets of the scalable city begin spiraling across their earthquaking landscape, it feels proper, somehow... those streets feel even more Californian than Californian streets actually are.

The French architect François Roche, who designs houses by using emergent software, likes to talk about software processing as a site-specific narrative. This effort works well, Roche declares, when the architect’s software tells a compelling story about the locale of the structure. The upshot of Roche’s building-generating programs is a building that annotates the architect’s chosen site. It’s documentation, a how-to, a programmer’s commentary.

"Scalable City," somewhat in this fashion, is a statement about San Diego - not San Diego as a static postcard, but San Diego as process. It feels like San Diego without mimicking San Diego. The knack of doing this with software is called "dynamic abstraction" or "organic abstraction."

"Dynamic" and "organic" tend to be synonyms here, because good processuality is lifelike. In chaos theory, there’s a distinct mathematical regime between processes which are rigid, sterile and monotonous, and those which are rackety, garbaged, annoying and out-of-control. This dynamic-organic narrow zone of quality is sometimes known as "gnarliness." An acorn is low on gnarly, while an oak plank has had its gnarliness mechanically planed out. A wry, old 400-year-old scrub oak clinging to a cliff face has supreme gnarliness. Gnarliness is the rich texture of processed experience. Scalable City skates quite elegantly between the boring and the incomprehensible, and thus has good gnarliness.

As you may have guessed, I’ve been struggling with these issues for some time. I’m about to go teach them in Amsterdam, so I hope that teaching will help me. I have nothing to teach Sheldon Brown. After eight minutes in his San Diego studio, I begged him for help.

What comes next? Well, that calls for another word, one notably dear to Sheldon’s heart - "speculative." I cannot yet speculate on "speculative," not in this brief essay. But I do plan to speculate, and I believe the results will be gnarly.

* Bruce Sterling is an Austin-based science fiction writer and Net critic, internationally recognized as cyberspace theorist. His novels Involution Ocean, The Artificial Kid, Schismatrix, Islands in the Net, and Heavy Weather influenced the cyberpunk literary movement. He co-authored with William Gibson the novel The Difference Machine, and is one of the founders of the Electronic Frontier Foundation. Sterling is the Editor of Mirrorshades, and co-editor of The Cyberpunk Anthology. Other books: Zeitgeist; Distraction; Holy Fire; The Hacker Crackdown; and Tomorrow is Now.