Inside a Single Line of Code, a Labyrinth

Reading between the lines.
Nov. 30 2012 11:24 PM

BASIC

A single line of code sends readers into a labyrinth.

(Continued from Page 1)

10 PRINT wouldn’t be able to build its maze without the “RND” command, the “random” element that makes the maze varied and endlessly interesting. “The RND command acts as the algorithmic heart of 10 PRINT,” the authors write, “its flip-flopping beat powering the construction of the maze.” Artists have, of course, long used randomness and chance to lead them in unexpected directions. John Cage often used the I Ching, the ancient Chinese divination system, to make compositional decisions—to help him bypass the prejudices of his own mind. “I use chance operations instead of operating according to my likes and dislikes,” he once explained. “I use my work to change myself and I accept what the chance operations say.” But as much as Cage ceded creative control to the I Ching, the pieces were still unmistakably him. The listener wends his way down the path of Cage’s mazes, drawn into his work, his mythos.

Helpful things can happen when we give up some control. I wrote a book using a deck of “oblique strategies” cards, originally developed by Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt in 1975. When I got stuck in the mazes of my own mind while writing the book—which happened fairly often— would draw a card for advice. “Turn it upside down,” the card might instruct. “Use a different color.” Sometimes, I’d rip up a chapter, after drawing a card with potentially disastrous—and freeing—consequences: “Make a sudden, destructive, and unpredictable action. Incorporate.” In a way, the cards became a second author of the text, leading me in odd and often revelatory directions. In 10 PRINT, the randomness introduced by the program makes the program as much of a player in the game as the user.

A random element is important, but repetition is important too. 10 PRINT couldn’t build its maze without the GOTO, which instructs 10 PRINT to keep returning to the beginning, repeating endlessly. A chapter on patterns, grids, and repetition makes the unlikely jump from 10 PRINT to Tony Conrad’s classic experimental film from 1965, The Flicker. Each tiny diagonal line that builds up 10 PRINT’s maze “could be seen as a panel of a film strip,” the authors write. But The Flicker, minimal as it is, has a beginning and an end—while “10 PRINT maintains the same pace, does not vary in any way as it begins, and continues running until interrupted.”

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The book touches on modern music and its myriad parallels with 10 PRINT, but the short passages beg for more depth. The composer Steve Reich’s phasing pieces in the ‘60s and ‘70s—in which simple melodic lines overlap, generating a complicated result—gets discussed, but only briefly. The related concept of generative music—“growing” complex pieces of music from simpler sonic seeds, as championed by Eno and others, would have fit in well here. There are literal connections from John Cage to computing; Cage collaborated with the composer Lejaren Hiller in a work called HPSCHD in the late 1960s, which used Fortran code based on the I Ching to generate music. The inventive scores created by many 20th-century composers could provide intriguing fodder for their parallels with computer algorithms. The composer Conlon Nancarrow also deserves a mention; he wrote awe-inspiring pieces for player piano in the mid-20th century that were impossible for a mere human to play, using a system of punches on paper scrolls. There is a strong connection there to the punch cards used by early computers, and to the sets of instructions fed into jacquard looms—topics that the authors do address.

“Like a diary from the forgotten past, computer code is embedded with stories of a program’s making, its purpose, its assumptions,” the authors write. It would be impossible, of course, for the authors to explore every path that 10 PRINT creates. Without ending somewhere, you would be led forever through 10 PRINT’s endlessly beguiling maze. Control-C.

BREAK IN 10

READY.

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10 PRINT CHR$ (205.5 + RND (1)); : GOTO 10 by Nick Monfort, Patsy Baudoin, John Bell, Ian Bogost, Jeremy Douglass, Marc C. Marino, Michael Mateas, Casey Reas, Mark Sample, Noah Vawter. The MIT Press.

10 PRINT CHR$(205.5+RND(1)); : GOTO 10 (Software Studies)

~ Noah Vawter (author) More about this product
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Geeta Dayal is the author of Another Green World, a recent book on Brian Eno. Follow her on Twitter.

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