Code and a response to art


I took some time the other day to go to the Tate Britain and catch the Hepworth display. I had mixed feelings about it tbh – it was rather short and the curation was a bit odd. I didn’t get a sense of time and influence from the layout of the work so it was hard to get the context of each piece. That said, there were some remarkable pieces in there and it’s worth a visit.

I got home and felt like writing some code and so built this response to what I’d seen. I’ve always been struck by Hepworth’s use of string and the similarity with the mathematical models which I used to be fascinated by at the Science Museum when I was a kid. There is, of course, a direct influence which the exhibition touches upon here and there. In this, we see the influence of science on the arts at this time, and a direct reference in her work to non-artistic methods of visualisation.

It’s a bit of a work in progress this, limited to straight lines rather than the arced forms which Hepworth so beautifully renders. Maths is hardly my strong point but I’d like to crack that next.

What did strike me, though, was how like an artist’s process the workflow of writing code can be. You’re building something through process, shaping function and form from the clay of the tooling (language and frameworks). Making aesthetic decisions, sure, but also following a craft to create your vision. I’ve touched on this before in my experience of playing music, but I think it must be even more so with sculpture.

I suspect that all programmers could learn a lot, not only from the practises of artists, but also from their routines and the development of their craft. When I was in Barcelona earlier this year, and spent a hugely emotional afternoon at the Miró museum, I immediately bonded with the idea of Miró’s trips out of Spain to Paris in particular, where he connected with other artists. This is also true of Hepworth, whose associations, particularly with Nicholson (obviously) and Mondrian can be traced through her early work. In that respect, coding communities do a great job in bringing movements in coding together.

One could argue that we’re in a golden age of community-driven quasi-artistic movement in code. In the spirit of innovation, I’d strongly recommend learning a little about how artistic movements have helped shaped the work of great artists, and drawing some inspiration from the organic developments in the history of art which resulted.

A grumpy post about Dinovember and digital creativity

Family ipad time

Standard Sunday morning iPad sessions

This week’s cool thing on the internet: A couple set toy dinosaurs up into little vignettes to give their kids a nice surprise in the morning. And I love it. I do. It’s quirky and fun and awesome – it’s dinosaurs being cute, it would be pretty hard to mess that up. Way to engage little minds. I do similar stuff by dressing up as a tiger and letting my fat tummy be a racetrack, I just thought that it was the fun bit of parenting, when you’re not clearing up shit and doing all the washing in the world. I didn’t realise that playing with my kids was a new frontier of creativity.
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Thoughts on being creative. #reasonsto day one…

He probably didn’t know it, but Paul Trani set the tone. “[I don’t like the term Creative…it’s used too readily]”. You know what Paul, I couldn’t agree with you more. Everybody wants to be creative like everybody wants to be a geek (and there is another word which is rapidly devaluing). From the vacuous numptys on The Apprentice to every Dalston Douche that emin their way into their 15 mins…creativity is perhaps the most overrated word in the lexicon.

And yet, here I am, sitting at a conference called Reasons to Be Creative, bearing the lofty title “Creative technologist”…sitting, in fact, in the exact same seat I was two years ago when this conference was still broadly a tech conference for a now almost indefensible tech. I said once before that conferences like this are creative oxygen for me, this one in particular. I don’t know if John has been paying attention but their logo now shows a recharged battery, which, after a pretty hefty couple of months at the agency coalface, couldn’t come at a better time.

My own creativity has wavered, this I know. At the risk of giving a standard parent-and-manager whinge, there just aren’t hours in the day for the work I want to do in the face of the work I must do. Repeated throughout the day, by Grant Skinner, by Amit Pitaru, by Carlos Ulloa (who needs a separate blog post soon), is the need to play, to explore and to create. It’s something I’ve talked about at length and a central part of the culture of my team at work. I will say it again in the Elevator Pitch I’ll give at this conference in two days time. But now, sitting on the pisshead’s train back to London after marvelling at the ease with which Stefan Sagmeister once again makes being a world-renowned artist and creative seem, I *know*, really *KNOW* that I’ve been coasting, and that I’m not nearly as creative as I would like to think (or project) I am, not through a lack of ideas or skill perhaps, but because I simply haven’t picked up a tool and contributed to something.

It’s the thing I love about – it simultaneously lets you feel like you can achieve anything you want to, whilst at the same time, reality checking you that having the thought is not enough. You must do. Dominic Wilcox (whose work I did not know but instantly fell in love with) kept sketchbooks and littered his talk with cartoonish inventions that stick in the mind more somehow than his considered (and presumably well funded) work. The flow of ideas was irresistible…ideas of all scales from throwaway gags to incredibly emotive and thoughtful pieces of great depth.

I made some resolutions to myself today about the gulf that exists between having an idea and seeing it executed, even if that’s just a sketch, or an outline or a snippet of code or a todo list. It’s not difficult to find Reasons To Be Creative. It’s quite another thing to do something about it.

10 things I have learned working for Sky

So there it is, a little shy of 7 years under my belt at that most divisive of entities, the corporate media empire.  My time at Sky has been characterised by a mixture of emotion – huge frustration, great passion, an organisation that is capable of the most amazing leaps of imagination and sharp business acumen and yet cannot address it’s own, relatively simple internal problems.  Most of all, a lot of lessons learned.  As I prepared to leave Sky to take on the role of Technical Director at Grand Union, I put together a short presentation for my team, reflecting on my time there and the great many things that we achieved, failed to achieve and aspired to.  Here, then, are ten things that I learned working for BSkyB.:

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The creative gene pool

“Good artists borrow, great artists steal”.

So goes the oft-repeated quote, normally attributed to Picasso, Wilde or Eliot.  In researching the quote last week whilst preparing my final internal talk at Sky which reflected on my time here (to be posted shortly), I found this fascinating investigation into it’s providence.  The full quote, it transpires, derives from a piece that TS Eliot wrote:

One of the surest tests [of the superiority or inferiority of a poet] is the way in which a poet borrows. Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different. The good poet welds his theft into a whole of feeling which is unique, utterly different than that from which it is torn; the bad poet throws it into something which has no cohesion. A good poet will usually borrow from authors remote in time, or alien in language, or diverse in interest.

TS Eliot.

This ties in neatly to a principle that I have followed throughout my creative life, both in technology and in writing music:  The gene pool for inspiration in any creative endeavour needs to run broad and deep.  Replicating directly from within one’s peer group leads inevitably to watered down ideas and shuts off any possibility of producing original work.  I’ve never understood those that only listen slavishly to one style of music, or those that repeat design tropes again and again because they are told that it is a ‘standard’.  It has also shocked me how many times in creative brainstorms somebody has presented a portfolio of competitor’s work and said ‘we could just do this’.  It is useful to refer to pre-existing work as a touchstone or mood-setting device, something to direct the conversation and provide a reference point, but to simply steal an idea and execute it with your client’s branding is unforgivable.

Some time ago I saw Contrast  give a fascinating talk about expectations and convention that I still refer to on a regular basis.  The slideshare seems to have disappeared but there’s a good rundown of the talk here.  Key to innovation, they claimed, was the breaking of conventions.  A wireframe IA derived from accepted wisdom can only really be designed and coded one way.  Whilst this gives us consistency and a certain recieved robustness, it can also hold back progress and removes any possibility of new, better paradigms emerging (until somebody like Apple, with no regard for convention, comes along and does it anyway).  Though there are clearly use cases for conventions, such as the symbol for a  play-button or a traffic light system of colour coding (there was a lovely example of a ticket machine that chose to flag a successful purchase up with a bright red flashing light!), there are also clearly times to break such convention, particularly if one is moving away from that convention’s native environment and into a new context (c.f. my hatred of skeuomorphism and relief that Microsoft are bucking the trend with Windows 8).

Influence and inspiration are key factors of the creative process to be embraced, but they are at their most powerful when they are abstracted away from the task in hand and netted from the widest possible array of sources (authors remote in time, or alien in language, or diverse in interest), then the concepts behind them transferred into the creative ideas as they emerge.