Making Dynamic Media: Aesthetic Computer ▣
Jeffrey Alan Scudder and Georgica Pettus on creating a software-based play.
Known for his “Radical Digital Paintings” and for his collaborative, performative drawing project called Whistlegraph, Jeffrey Alan Scudder has been making digital art for more than a decade. He has recently shifted his focus to one large-scale project: Aesthetic Computer, a programming language that lets artists create, share, remix, export, and exhibit all kinds of digital art and software.
Georgica Pettus is the artist and playwright behind the dialogue in “textfence”, a new Gemma-commissioned artwork written in Aesthetic Computer. “Textfence” changes every time the program runs, with varying possibilities for both lighthearted and dark conversations—all of which lightly allude to the passing of time, and the recirculation of life and death.
Below, Scudder and Pettus talk with Gemma contributor Willa Köerner about how AI is enabling text to evolve as a powerful creative medium, and about the origins of their new collaborative piece, textfence.
Willa Köerner: Georgica, can you tell me about your practice and how you ended up creating a piece with Jeffrey using his in-development platform, Aesthetic Computer?
Georgica Pettus: I started programming with Jeffrey on a piece of mine called Screenplay, where I wanted to have two computers talk to each other. Jeffrey wrote the code that allowed the two computers to actually be in communication, so that when one character was talking, the other would be listening and waiting to speak.
After that initial collaboration, we started working together on pieces that use “pre-prompt programming,” which is basically how you instruct ChatGPT to respond to questions from a certain perspective, or as a certain character—often in a very stereotypical way. For one piece called girlfriend, I wrote a pre-prompt that told GPT to respond as “a doting girlfriend who just wants to help.” We also have a piece where GPT responds as an avoidant boyfriend, and then there's another character that just spouts lies.
Once GPT is instructed to embody a character, certain behaviors and conversations become possible, which is where things get interesting. In our work together, Jeffrey and I are excited about dialogue, and the variations that a dialogue can contain.
Jeffrey Alan Scudder: Also, with AI, text is becoming more of an active, living thing that can spawn new creations. Programmers have thought about that for a long time, but right now there's a palpable feeling about text changing its overall purpose. And that's why it's great to be interested in text as an artistic medium—because it's so flexible, and the possibilities of what can be created with text are evolving so quickly.
Willa: Tell me about textfence, the piece you’re releasing with Gemma. Is it meant to read like a poem?
Georgica: We think of textfence as a play that loops and has different iterations. It’s composed of four sets of phrases, with a left side and a right side—with one side changing every time the piece loops. There is a female computer voice reading one side, and a male computer voice reading the other side, and these are meant to come across as characters. The piece loops after about a minute or so, and takes a different turn every time. Sometimes the play will feel very dark, sometimes it feels funny, but it always tends to feel like a dialogue about a life cycle.
Jeffrey: Textfence is also one of the first artworks made with Aesthetic Computer, a platform I've been writing for two years now. In a way, I have the role of lead dev or medium designer for the piece, and Georgica has the role of artist, who's learning the new medium that I'm designing, and writing the content of the piece.
Willa: Can you share more about Aesthetic Computer? What’s the overarching vision for the platform?
Jeffrey: Aesthetic Computer is a Processing-inspired language built into a web-based platform. The way it works is you go to aesthetic.computer, and you can navigate to different pieces, users, and tools by entering commands. The program aims to solve a number of technical and cultural problems that I’ve experienced as an artist who makes software. And, by making an open system and language, I'm trying to solve those problems on a more massive scale—not just for myself.
Willa: It feels both niche but also potentially like it could have a lot of users one day.
Jeffrey: I'm still working on it, and am just starting to open up the doors to more people. So far I've mostly been dogfooding it on my own work.
In the beginning, the way that most people use it will probably be to make paintings. You can draw a shape, for example, by entering the name of the shape you want as a computer command. Different commands can be combined together to make all kinds of things—from paintings to interactive pieces to 3D stuff, sound, and games.
So initially, most people won't be writing digital interactive artwork, but it certainly can be used for that as well. It's a programming language, so it has a really wide range of options. Lately I've also been working on ways to get pieces out of the computer. So if I'm finished with a painting, I can enter “done.” And then I can automatically upload it as a post, print it, or mint it.
Willa: So there’s a baked-in NFT component?
Jeffrey: Yes. I think it’s necessary for the digital artifact community to have the mint option. I'm still not sure exactly how to integrate the blockchain in terms of the media, but I do believe that users should have control over what they create, and have multiple options for getting their creations off-platform.
Aesthetic Computer is also designed as a social machine. So, if I want to use a paintbrush made by another user, all I have to do is type their username and route myself to their code. Then I can paint with their brush instantly.
The overarching concept is to have this central space where you can make media, send copies to other people, get notifications about your media, trade media, and include that media in composite works.
Willa: It reminds me a little of TikTok, where you can remix other people's TikToks and respond to them and so forth, in what feels like an infinitude of ways.
Jeffrey: Exactly. It's like if you were to take TikTok and think about the video remixing, but then think back to Macromedia Flash and the kinds of dynamic media that tool could produce—like online games and cartoons—and then consider that everything created in this environment could also be attached to users and shared and included in each other's pieces. The goal is to create a big dynamic media ecosystem, and the potentially chaotic nature of that network is what I'm most excited about.
Willa: Do you feel like this will continue to be an artist project for you? Or do you have ambitions to scale it up into something more massive?
Jeffrey: I have ambitions to scale it up. I'm working really hard on making it as big as I can.
It's a little bit scary to start something as an artist project. I'm used to my code always being my code. But I'm in this game for the long haul, you might say. And my goal is to try to give people a really great option on the internet for making dynamic media again.
Aesthetic Computer itself is an educational product, and its target audience is teenagers, or kids in school. I'm trying to bake all the things I know about teaching into my software. Aesthetic Computer is kind of an educational-computer-programming Trojan-Horse product, if that makes sense. I want to get the average internet user hooked on the idea of creating with text commands, making software-based artworks, and experiencing dynamic media.
Willa: That sounds much better than all the kids using Instagram or whatever.
Jeffrey: Or Roblox or Minecraft, which bring such heavy environments with them. I wanted to create something that was just very light and easy for anyone to get into.
Georgica: There's such a scary manipulative aspect to things like Instagram and TikTok, too—especially for little kids. And it's all being developed in secret. This is something that Jeffrey and I talk about a lot: the idea of Aesthetic Computer being very transparent, where you as the user get to shape it rather than it shaping you and your behavior.
It's inevitable that whatever software, or whatever tool you're using, will have some sort of effect on the way you're thinking or making art or doing anything. So the goal with Aesthetic Computer is to not have this weird invisible system that's pulling the strings and teaching you how to behave, because you are creating Aesthetic Computer as you use it.
Jeffrey: Aesthetic Computer is designed so that a lot of the behavior is in the hands of the users from the beginning. They can create environments and media and artworks that change how the thing itself works.
Willa: Georgica, when you worked on textfence, did you feel like you could have made it in another software program, or was it very specifically reliant on Aesthetic Computer as the medium?
Georgica: Creating pieces using Aesthetic Computer has really been my introduction into programming. So the answer is no, I couldn't have made it on another platform.
As someone who's not a programmer, I’ve found that the coding system Jeffrey has set up is very accessible. Also, Aesthetic Computer is a unique mode of presentation. That's something I really like about it. With this piece, sure, it technically could have been made in another programming language, but then it would've ended up somewhere else, looking a different way. So, the fact that it was made in the place that it's now being shown—I think that is really cool.
Gemma is an emerging community co-inhabited by artists, curators, and contributors with a shared vision for how culture can shape our future. Gemma is currently releasing a series of commissioned open edition artworks, which you can mint now. Subscribe and follow us on Instagram and Twitter to be notified about new releases.