From Genetic Code to Dress Code: It’s Just Instructions

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After reading the introduction to Dr. Sample’s essay “Code,” I saw a lot of parallels to Casey Reas article “What is Code?” which is a part of his book Form+Code: In Design, Art, and Architecture. And the reason it is clear there is a connection is because each article gets to the core of code: that code is a set of instructions. So this blog post is going to be pretty off of the topic of video games, but the purpose is to de-fetishize code, as Chun describes it in the article, and show how code at its basic level is not a cryptic mystery.

Casey Reas breaks down code pretty well, saying that there is genetic code, health code, building code, bar code, Morse code, dress code, area code, secret code – and that all of these types of code are used for communication and clarity. He establishes that there are four basic truths to code (also called algorithm):

          There are many ways to write each algorithm.
          An algorithm requires assumptions.
          A complex algorithms is often simplified into modular pieces.
          An algorithm often includes decisions.

Coding is a just a different way of thinking. An example that demonstrates this way of thinking is the conceptual art of Sol LeWitt, who in his wall drawings series encoded his ideas for artwork in a set of instructions that he would give to artists to produces the work. LeWitt is proof of the lesson that “it is a mistake to think about code as always and only instructions to a computer” (Sample 57). An example of his work is Wall Drawing 797. The instructions were: “The first drafter has a black marker and makes an irregular horizontal line near the top of the wall. Then the second drafter tries to copy it (without touching it) using a red marker. The third drafter does the same, using a yellow marker. The fourth drafter does the same using a blue marker. Then the second drafter followed by the third and fourth copies the last line drawn until the bottom of the wall is reached.”

Images of Sol Lewitt’s “Wall Drawing 797“.

To be clear, LeWitt does not make the wall drawings himself. He just writes the instruction and other artists work on it, often in teams. This art can be reproduced by anyone who can follow the instructions at any point in time. While the art is temporary (because exhibits change, walls must be repainted), the idea and instructions are permanent. Back to the idea of coding: code is a language, and just like writing an essay, a person can have their own style of writing code. As Reas said, there are many ways to write each algorithm. While LeWitt provides the frame and guidelines for the art, the wall drawing is still subject to the varieties of each artist. In “Wall Drawing 797,” four artists are involved which means four different artist hands. Each component of the artwork is subject to human inconsistency. As complicated and scary as code can seem, when it comes down to it, it is just a language to be interpreted.

Works Cited

LeWitt, Sol. “Wall Drawing 797.” Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art. 1995.

Reas, Casey, and Chandler McWilliams. “What is Code?” Form Code : In Design, Art, and Architecture. Princeton Architecturel Press, 2011.

Sample, Mark. “Code.” Debugging Game History: A Critical Lexicon. The MIT Press2016. p. 53-61.

Posted from Intro to Digital Studies by Lauren C.