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“Programs at an Exhibition” opens at Boston Cyberarts Gallery

Posted by  March 3, 2014 01:54 PM

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George Fifield, director of the Boston Cyberarts Gallery, with one of the Commodore computers used in the new show “Programs at an Exhibition,” which opens Thursday, March 6. Artists Nick Montfort and Páll Thayer use computer code from the 1970s and 1980s to represent iconic works of 20th century artists.

Beth Treffeisen

Artists Nick Montfort and Páll Thayer use computer code and computation as their medium to represent the works of 20th century painters and visual artists in the new show opening Thursday, March 6, at the Boston Cyberarts Gallery located in the Green Street MBTA stop.

Unlike today’s video games artists, this show uses older technology from the 1970s and 1980s — with programs written in Perl and Commodore 64 Basic — to create work that is more abstract. For example, one computer monitor in the show represents Damien Hirst spot paintings by creating a random set of 16 different colored dots that continuously evolve on the screen.

“I think that we are trying to put forth an idea that is more conceptual and also accessible to people,” said Montfort. “One of the things that I’m really interested in, aside from the relation to art, is demystifying programing and computing.”

All of the underlying code is available for gallery visitors to read, take home, type in and run or rework the programs themselves. 

One of the things that differentiate Montfort and Thayer from other code artists is the use of the programming language Perl, which many see as outdated. 

“But what I like about it is that it was created to be a very flexible language and very expressive language,” said Thayer. “That works well for arts, but programmers really don’t like it.” 

The Commodore 64 was one of the first early home computing systems and was typically used for word processing, games, manipulating data for budget plans and to write basic programs. Montfort stated that many people would type in code from a magazine to try them new software. 

By using code that can be typed in 80 characters or fewer in the Commodore 64 Basic programming language, an arbitrary constraint is created that allows Montfort to write a tiny program that takes advantage of what is already built into the computer. 

Montfort, who also works with poetry, is interested in how non-traditional constraints can be used to create art.

“Of course writing a metrical sonnet is a type of constraint. It’s a very traditional one,” said Montfort. “But choosing to write a text using the vowel ‘o’ and no other vowels is a much less usual type of constraint.”  

Both Thayer and Montfort said they hope this exhibition will lead to more discussion on computing in a different way and to engage people with understanding what the code itself means. 

Director George Fifield, who is working on installing the exhibit, talked about the care the two artists put into their code. “One of the things that I really like about this, is that they are riffing off of art history,” said Fifield. “But they’re doing it in a very witty and respectful way.” 
The Boston Cyberarts Gallery is the only New England non-profit gallery dedicated to the use of technology as art. 

It holds about six shows a year and has two other large projects, including the ongoing show “Art on the Marquee,” an 80-foot-tall, three-sided LED marquee, located outside the Boston Convention & Exhibition Center in South Boston, and an exhibition at the Boston Harbor Islands Pavilion featuring “Phases” by Sophia Bruckner and Catherine D’Ignazio. 
The opening reception for “Programs at an Exhibition” is scheduled for Thursday, March 6, from 6-9 p.m. The show runs until Sunday, March 16. 

This article is being published under an arrangement between the Boston Globe and Emerson College.

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