Art as Problem Solving

It’s interesting to think of art as problem solving.

Art does this in many ways. And maybe it doesn’t actually ‘solve’ any problems, but kind’ve looks at them, from different angles, exposes problems, considers them, and starts conversations or critiques.

But when something like programming enters the equation (quite literally), the whole process of making becomes a process of figuring out a problem.

In a sense making a work becomes like a puzzle. You put pieces together. But I’m not sure if anyone, in any discipline that uses computer programming, would find that the scope of the work was in some ways made monotonous by computer programming.

Quite the opposite. In programming one always tries to optimise, and along the way is always learning new techniques and ways of doing things that were unknown previously.

I’m sure there are always more things to learn with programming, because every day I try and code something, I get one step further. It might only be a small step, but a step nonetheless, which then becomes part of your veritable tool box of techniques.

And this I find incredibly rewarding, personally. It’s fair to say one never hits the limit of any tool, but the thing about programming is simply being caught as you create. I’ve read or heard elsewhere that this is a blight of programming, that the creative process is halted by a bug or some error. And you get caught in this loop for hours, trying to figure out the tiniest detail.

It’s a strange challenge in the creative process. It’d be like trying to create a chorus for a song your working on on guitar, and then having to fix the guitar halfway through the writing process. I’m sure this isn’t unique to programming, building as you go, learning as you go, and solving problems as you create. But it’s something I find particularly fascinating about the medium.

That creating art becomes a kind of brain teaser. You know what you want, but how do you get there? It reminds me of John Maeda, in his book Creative Code, when talking about this process: “and in a flash of lightning it is suddenly there”.


I’ve always felt like there’s a key difference between live software and video that I could never quite put my finger on. With video, there’s always compression involved, unless you go full uncompressed. But with software, the image is never compressed – it’s a fine grain of sharp – a kind of communion directly between the graphics processing of the GPU and the screen on which you watch it.

Rarely however, is one watching an uncompressed video. We live in an age of compression, from YouTube, to DVD, to Blu-Ray – all video displays artefacts of its downsizing to smaller file sizes and more economical formats.

But the thing that blows my mind is how uncompressed video is in the magnitude of 10’s of 100’s of Gigabyte’s of data, whereas software, for the same experience of clarity, is but a few kilobyte’s.

There’s this kind of efficiency in that process, a kind of conservative aspect to software, computationally. Rather than being a massive chunk of data, its an incredibly efficient and lightweight process. Of course, software brings with it countless other unique qualities, but this one in particular has always intrigued me.

So it kinda hit me today, this thing I love about software: its the aesthetics that I love. Not in any kind of stylistic way – like fashionable trends or particular forms – but in the sense of its pure form – direct, pixel for pixel representation and its computationally inexpensive nature.


Recently I’d been playing with Touch Designer, a real-time production tool for all sorts of media. And lately I’ve begun working with vvvv, another real-time tool.

On the top of this fascination with the aesthetic qualities of software, I’m also drawn toward another one of its prime qualities: that of runtime.

Both vvvv and Touch seem to offer excellent ways of exploring both of these core elements, with each offering their own advantages.

And strangely, as much as I enjoyed the text-based process of Processing, somehow my progress with both Touch and vvvv seems to be an order of magnitude greater, even though I never really took to patching programs.

So to that end, I’ve backed a Kickstarter project called Framed*, which I have been following for some years, and which seems to be a first step in bringing the runtime art of software to a screen native to it, for use in the home, galleries, and all manner of interior spaces.


Framed* is a lovely, minimal screen design with wooden edges, smartphone connectivity, motion sensors, and an app store for digital art.

Whether it runs Touch or vvvv remains to be seen, but it will run a range of apps and software out of the box via an internet browser.

Still, one can’t help feeling that it’s still a bit of a way to go for this kind thing, as a few players emerge within this field (Sedition, Electric Objects, for example) the vibe is somewhat proprietary. And some creators will, if their software tool of choice is not supported, potentially remain rendering real-time software to uncompressed/compressed video for upload to linear playback.

Fingers crossed the Framed* team (or even Electric Objects) get it right, and runtime, digital art can finally take its place among the traditional artforms in its display in interior spaces.

Touch Designer



It’s easy to get stuck between creating things and learning new tools. Somehow you have to strike a balance between technique and results.

But maybe software is kind’ve different. With paint, it’s a direct 1:1 relationship. Same for almost all other mediums. But with software there’s a level of displacement between what you know about the software, and how you can achieve your ideas.

Maybe it’s more like weaving, or knitting. You at least need to understand the technique before you can achieve it. Or you could just create knots. Improvising with mistakes. Its never black and white I guess.

Lately I’ve been looking into the tool Touch Designer by Derivative. It seems to provide a nice middle ground where I can get stuff done and realize technically complex ideas, but still keep some of the benefits that would come with writing your own software – such as real-time, iterative, generative, reactive, adaptive, interactive etc.

Plus, you can easily work with static media such as rendered audio or video. But it always seems to be this game of chasing down the right software, Max, Processing, VDMX, etc. Ultimately they all do their own thing. I think Processing remains a fantastic tool for learning programming. But coming at it already with a fairly strong digital media background, it’s always disappointing when you don’t achieve the same finish and polish as you could with traditional software like Apple or Adobe suites.

Even Max is a headfuck, requiring a lot of abstract and esoteric objects to chain things together in a desired way. I made a commitment and bought Max recently, but after some initial frustration had the thought to start experimenting in Touch, and quickly started achieving real-time 3d results. This is a real leap forward.

And VDMX which I’ve used in live shows is incredibly extensive and I love, but the idea of jumping into Quartz Composer to extend it became a kind of barrier for me, maybe in part due to its haphazard documentation and its questionable support from Apple.

Somehow I think Touch is going to become the mother program. Where other apps and software environments can feed into it, as well as any other media created elsewhere. In this way it becomes a useful bed for organising media, but also for presentation and performance.

Time will tell tho, it’s currently a Windows only app, and requires a fairly formidable system to run well. This provided a barrier of entry for me for some time until I recently got a new machine that supported it, but it also turned out surprising more easy and intuitive to use than I had previously thought.

I think after some initial surveying of the field (Unity, Processing, three.js), Touch Designer will serve as the main tool through my Masters degree for achieving work in real-time 3d.

More on this soon.

Mirror Drive

We’re living in this weird age where it’s like half your stuff is in the cloud and half isn’t. If anything that’s the future of computing and why an NBN or whatever is so important. 5 years from now consumers will be close to running entire computers from the Internet. But the only real point of the cloud is, on the one hand, backup, and on the other, sync across different devices. Right now my dilemma isn’t the files that I can back up to the cloud, or the ones that I can already sync – it’s everything else. But more than that, just having to maintain different machines is a chore. If we’re going to live in a multi-computer future, I can’t have one computer being the Mother. They’ve all gotta be children to the same parents. I want a Mirror Drive, where no matter how many computers I have, every hard drive is exactly the same – it’s just the format that changes, the ergonomics, or the resolution. In this way Internet speed is everything.


I don’t want to sound presumptuous, but for the longest time I kinda felt like using code to create art was kind’ve some penultimate way forward. I really tried to push that, and I do believe that some of the work laid out by practitioners going before us, its really great, moral work. And the history of it fascinates me. Coding *should* be easier, it should be available to all and I have really high hopes for its future.

But after about 5 years of pushing that envelope, I really feel like I have to admit to myself that I’m not a coder in the current manifestation of what programming is. Sure, I can tinker, I can play, but I don’t think I’ll ever reach the grandiose visions I have inside my head, with programming. And if anything, it restricts me. And this did come from a conflict inside me, which was realtime versus rendered, timeline versus non-linear, static versus reactive. People have kinda told me this before, that it wasn’t for me, that I wasn’t a programmer. Well I guess I had to be stubborn and go figure it out myself. And code is important, you always need a little of it here and there these days.

So I don’t really know what’s coming up next for me, but I do know it wont be through some abstract process. It’ll be direct, like a pencil on a page, an actor on a stage, fingers on keys. Things I can see and think and do with, instantly.

I guess thats the mind I was born with. Coz if I think back, to High School and even before, the abstraction of math and things that were supposed to represent other things always fucked me. The thing I got the most was the thing in front of me, and if you poked it – it poked back.

Digital Magazines

I don’t know why the Internet has to be so different from print editorial.

If you ask me, reading a magazine or a newspaper, or a book is just so much more enjoyable than reading online. The Internet is like the soundbyte of text. I can’t read one thing for long, it’s all about darting around.

The iPad, or a tablet, I find that to be so much better designed. It really is beautiful. But things like Issuu really miss the mark for iPad, in my opinion.

If the magazine hasn’t been designed for the tablet specifically, then its ruining all the possibilities. People just end up scanning in magazines that already exist, or uploading PDF’s.

But even still, why hasn’t iPad magazine dev taken off? I’ve seen some great examples in the past… but it’s as if no one can be bothered delivering the truly rich experience that’s possible.

One of the first real iPad mags I read was a Steve Jobs commemorative issue of Time magazine. It really was well made, a thing of beauty and a joy to read.

I don’t know what’s happened. It’s as if the Newsstand app came along and ruined everything. Even still, magazine style desktop websites rarely touch on the kind of print quality design you get in a physical magazine.

So many little boxes, ads and small pics.

But I guess a magazine is something editors work up to, over a week, or a month, whereas an online news aggregator seemingly has to invent stories out of thin in air daily just to hold its readership.

I guess it’s just one of those things that will evolve over time, and I hope it does. Graphic design did all this amazing evolving for the better part of the 20th Century and it’s as if the digital just killed all the rules.

Or maybe it’s good it sucks to read for too long on screens. At least you dont need to adjust brightness, sync and charge your device, and deal with background downloading just to read a magazine.

Dymaxian Map

This image was designed by Buckminster Fuller, whom I discovered after reading the preface for Expanded Cinema (Gene Youngblood, 1970).

Fuller calls this the Dymaxian map, a version of the globe that attempts to illustrate it as a connected whole island, stretched out across a singular ocean.

Our usual conception of the planet tends to divide things into separate oceans and continents, with a polar cap and bottom.

The Dymaxian Map breaks this conception, giving the insight of a whole, connected world.

I find this whole period so interesting. Some great texts came out of this era such as Radical Software, the Whole Earth Catalogue, Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television, and of course Expanded Cinema. Buckminster Fuller’s text are also great and a great resource on his work is online here:

With so many blogs these days I guess there’s no real need to collect things in magazines or catalogues. But I can’t help feel theres something special in collecting some of the current age in a physical, printed edition.

Of course, artists release catalogues all the time, but it would be great to see a periodical or text that dealt with some modern themes and processes of art and the Internet, kind’ve like a modern day Radical Software… Perhaps also, it would consider consciousness and the ecosystem, in similar ways as these texts from the 70’s did with video, tv, and the mental environment.


One of the interesting things about the web is the way it’s not linear. Actually I like how it’s called the Web. Coz that’s actually kind’ve the way it is. You go one way then you go the next.

But it’s also this place where stuff changes always. Even if I upload a movie, tomorrow I could upload an edited version. Or, I can could change the start date of a blog post, add an image, change the entire text.

Nothings set in stone on the Internet. Tomorrow I could change my URL and say my band was called Followers, instead of Programs. And I’d just release under Followers from then on. I could just go change WordPress Theme’s, relocate to Tumblr. Or some other provider.

I think growing up with this reality in front of me, that nothing is stable, has had an effect on the way I think. I always change my name, Matt Leaf, m. Leaf, Leaf-tierney. All this ridiculous stuff. But I think it grows out of the username generation. We live in a world where we’re expected to use avatars and passwords and profiles. So it has this natural effect of displacing those things.

Maybe it spills over into other activities too. People often talk about how no one has an attention span anymore. Maybe it’s not just because I can have twenty tabs, it’s this kind’ve ‘stability’ thing too. Ephemerality.

For Steve

For Steve


Like many, I too cannot pin down the sense of loss I feel for a person I’ve never met.

That’s the thing about artists, about actors, musicians and cultural heroes – they live with you. They live in your cd player, as a poster on your wall, a portable music player in your pocket.

Ultimately I think it comes down to a few things. That Steve was literally at the height of his powers – and in the short 14 years since he returned to Apple he brought them back from the grave, and onto being one of the worlds most successful companies.

There are many out there who have never owned a Mac product, those who, for various reasons, turn away from a Mac perspective on their computational lives.

For those of us who have supported and lived with Apple through this revolutionary period of Jobs, the impact runs deeper.

For many, I believe people felt Steve was an entertainer – as CEO of Apple, his keynotes were literally events that Apple fans couldn’t wait for – like a favourite bands new CD, or a new movie coming to the theatres.

In the end, rather than seeing someone pass whose career was long past its used by date, Steve was at his professional peak – not a burnout, not a suicidal genius, not an over-worked creative on meds.

Steve’s artistry was invention, business, design – and he facilitated a new road for artists in this digital future. His very career affected the cultural fabric of countless creative industries, and the lives of almost every civilized individual on the planet.

In many ways I think the pace and the speed with which Steve executed his final gifts to the world, were perhaps from a secret knowing that his time was short, that the cancer inside him fuelled his ambitions to proceed at extraordinary proportions.

It’s the usual story of not knowing what you’ve got until it’s gone, and I, like many, have benefited greatly from his insightful innovations for the better part of my creative adult life and career.

A man who never complained about his condition, never gave into the disease, and resigned only at the final straw.

My admiration and thanks for the work of Steve Jobs is without question, and I offer my sincerest condolences.


Hackerspaces, Digital Labs, & The Future of Art School

Creative communities across the world are jamming in new cultural centres, for hobbyists and professional fine artists.

Ever wanted a space where you could tinker with electronics, or maybe just edit a video with Final Cut Pro? Don’t have the gear to build a project but need to get started somehow? Or maybe you never went to Art School but always wanted to discover something about making things, while meeting a bunch of cool people? Creative centres across the globe are providing a space for this very need.

Meet Hackerspaces, member-based labs where participants meet like-minded people with like-minded creative practices. Loaded with a bunch of tools and equipment, all hackerspaces share a similar ethos – a place to make, share, create and engage.

It’s not too dissimilar from the Dorkbot model (which has flourished all around the world) – regular meet-up labs and critiques for hackers, designers, engineers, programmers and artists.

Hackerspace team Electromagnate are currently creating a doco on US-based Hackerspaces, called REMADE: THE REBIRTH OF THE MAKER MOVEMENT. They’re documenting NYCResistor, Noisebridge in San Francisco, and Pumping Station: One in Chicago, to name but a few. The goal of Electromagnate is to help the world understand what’s going on in the hackerspace scene, as you can see from the trailer :

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