Karsten Schmidt and the art of coding

From teenage video games author to digital artist, Karsten Schmidt confirms that computer programming is a creative act

Karsten Schmidt entered into his chosen profession earlier than most. At 13 he signed up to an after-school computer club in his home town of Chemnitz (then Karl-Marx Stadt) in East Germany and, over the course of a year, wrote and designed a platform video game with a group of friends.

The huge computers had no software and no manuals, so it was a case of design by discovery. It paid off: by the middle of 1989 the group had a game they could play – guiding a submarine through an underwater cave – which Schmidt now considers a life-changing experience. Later that year the Berlin wall came down and Schmidt’s nascent career as a software developer shifted gear again.

Twenty years on and Schmidt is now basedin London where he works under the moniker PostSpectacular. He’s the embodiment of where software development, generative design and creative coding are today. Processing, the Open Source computer programming language conceived by Ben Fry and Casey Reas at mit’s Media Lab, dominates Schmidt’s life as a designer and artist. “What I do now is comparative luxury,” Schmidt says, reflecting on his time in Germany which eventually saw him head up his own software company at 18. “Back then it took us months to do a simple game on a computer that cost 5000 marks, or three month’s income. But it taught me how to break projects down and to work collaboratively.”

Processing itself has kicked off a whole new movement, which can be traced back to John Maeda’s seminal Design by Numbers project, created in his Aesthetics and Computation Group at mit. “Maeda taught students to approach design through a computational, abstract way,” explains Schmidt, “and to break down its elements, to try and find the systems, the processes involved.” This thinking underpins much of Schmidt’s own work as a designer whose principle means of expression is via computer code. But Schmidt (like Maeda, Fry and Reas) is certainly no unfeeling technologist. He rails against the cliché of the computer as cold and distanced, both in his work and in his capacity for theoretical discussion.

“Think about how the word ‘computer’ was introduced to society,” he posits. “Some people would have first heard about them from the war effort, their cryptographic, mathematical appli­cations; perhaps through their later use in industry or academic circles. They became part of the cultural heritage. But they were creative tools as well – there have been computer games since the 1950s [William Higinbotham’s Tennis for Two premiered in 1958] – and there has always been a minority who try and subvert the technology available.” Perhaps, Schmidt suggests, only slightly tongue-in-cheek, we would have a radically different understanding of what we refer to as a ‘computer’ if it had been called something like a ‘magic box’ instead. “If artists had been involved more with them in the beginning, it may have all been different,” he claims.

So since the mid-90s, Schmidt has used a ‘magic box’ to work on a wide range of projects. After a brief musical career as a remixer and producer, he enrolled on a Media Informatics course (where he also studied hand-drawn typo­graphy) and, following college, worked heavily on Flash applications using Macromedia’s Director programme. But in 2003 he returned to using Java, the programming language he had originally studied, hoping to tap into a burgeoning mobile communications market that was beginning to realise the power of networked applications. By this time he had relocated to London where he found work at Zinc, Lateral and, most recently, as design director at Moving Brands. Now freelancing as PostSpectacular, Schmidt is enjoying collabo­rating with designers such as Universal Everything and Marian Bantjes and making work for a range of different clients such as Nokia, Audi, Faber & Faber and even the v&a museum.

“Moving Brands was interested in generative design, in building whole identity systems, not just logos and letterheads,” says Schmidt. “Plus the work I was doing there was going further away from the web and getting more physical.” This way of working suited Schmidt perfectly and now, as PostSpectacular, he has more time to work on projects that require this approach, be they client-based, self-initiated, or, as with his piece for the recent Advanced Beauty project, a combination of the two. Schmidt is behind one of the 18 audio reactive visual pieces that form part of a wider dvd initiative started by Universal Everything’s Matt Pyke and his brother Simon, a sound designer and composer. “It’s all made in Processing,” says Schmidt of his own sound sculpture piece. “It’s creating a structure that constantly breaks up and reforms again.” His film Enerugii is a beautiful piece of work and, tellingly, offers a key to understanding the appeal of creative coding. Schmidt’s work, while being formed (and viewed) within a computer screen, actually owes much to inspiration from the natural world.

In describing some of the static art pieces he has created using the Sunflow renderer and uploaded to Flickr, Schmidt relies on organic metaphors. “I started working with a growth algorithm,” he says, “which is basically the same process as how lightning forms in the sky – how the electrons get illuminated one by one. It’s also how corals grow, how funghi grow – it’s all the same principle and you can simulate that process to create a structure one particle at a time.” Some of the images he’s produced contain around 200,000 particles and it’s this kind of generative work that sees him poring over the computer like a scientist works over a petri dish with a microscope. He’s essentially cultivating digital organisms, unleashing them on-screen and allowing them to follow a set of predetermined rules.

In fact, his personal art projects led him to employ a similar concept for Channel 4’s New Shoots series. This Is Real Art contacted Schmidt, having seen his images on Flickr, and commissioned him to design a title sequence for c4’s series on disabled directors. Schmidt’s finished piece sees the letters of the programme’s title literally ‘grow’ on-screen into a thick, verdant hedge. “The piece is eight seconds long but it took a week to render,” he admits with some satis­faction. “At the end of the sequence there are four and a half million particles and every frame for the 3D file is about 50MB.”

It’s an intensely detailed piece, but Schmidt’s latest project will be displayed on a much larger screen, in the courtyard of the v&a as one of the museum’s new digital art commissions. Under the Advanced Beauty umbrella, Schmidt is working on a project that will contain both generative visuals and gener­ative music – the point being that both sound and image will affect each other during the course of a performance that, theoretically, is never-ending. “The idea is that Simon [Pyke] will create hundreds of different sounds and soundscapes in the same key,” Schmidt explains. “It’ll be a generative system that will evolve over its three month installation. It’s called Forever because you’ll never see or hear the same thing twice.”

Weaving different sounds in and out of phase (akin to modernist composer Steve Reich), the music will react to Schmidt’s visuals and vice-versa. “When the sound is intense,” he says, “it will trigger pulses and new visuals. There’ll also be things happening which will then feed back to the music. We were bored with solely ‘sound reactive’ visuals so, with this project, there’s a proper relationship between the two – it’s more organic.”

Despite his work involving a great deal of innovation, Schmidt is staying true to his Open Source roots and sharing knowledge. On finishing a piece of work, for example, he has begun to release the code for the project on his website, sharing his thought processes with the rest of the coding community. “I hate this idea that when something is ‘my idea’, you can’t have it,” he says. “Ideas are free, they don’t belong to anyone. There are hundreds of examples of memes going round the internet where suddenly four or five people start work on the same thing. In a few days you can spot those patterns – we’re all exposed to the same media and it can trigger the same ideas.” (Indeed, his choice of studio name, referencing Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle, hints at a state that might lie beyond our age, where the emphasis is on ‘contribution’ rather than ‘consumption’).

And contrary to suggestions that this isn’t a viable business model, Schmidt’s commitment to sharing and learning from others in return, is far from commercial naivety. “We all stand on the shoulders of giants,” he says. “Although I helped write a part of Processing, far more has since been done by other people and now I use it everyday without even paying for it. People are still wonder­ing how you can make money if you give part of your product away for free. But look at the guys behind Processing. They’ve got the reputation of having made the programme – they get lectures and professorships. Plus there’s the social kudos, which is not to be underestimated. It’s a new ‘post-spectacular’ society, if we want to let it happen.”

Schmidt and Pyke’s V&A commission will open in the museum’s John Madejski Garden on November 21. Segments from the work will be available as podcasts. More details at vam.ac.uk and postspectacular.com


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