Reserved Words

a solo exhibition by Logan Franken



artist statement

When writing a computer program, a programmer stores, manipulates, and references data in little buckets called “variables”. A programmer can name these variables whatever they want; you might store the word “logan” in a variable named “firstName” or the number “29” in a variable named “age.”

However, in a given programming language, there are certain words a programmer cannot use. These words, called “reserved words,” are part of the programming language itself.

As a programmer, these reserved words often feel like objective constraints imposed by an inhuman machine. If I use one of these words for a variable name in my code, my code simply fails to work. A purely technical limitation.

But this isn’t true: these words were chosen by programmers—just like me—when they were creating the programming language. Those choices were influenced by their thoughts and beliefs, by the constraints and freedoms of their environment. And, in using the programming language, I evoke those subjective influences, reproducing and adapting them in the products I create.

The programming language, then, is not the cold rule of the machine, but a continuously constructed product of human subjectivity.

In this exhibition for Deep Space, I wanted to expose and explore the inherent contradictions in attempting to separate humans from machines we create. We are rapidly adopting new technologies, from ride-sharing to predictive policing to drone warfare, and abstracting away the sociocultural conditions in which those technologies were born, treating the human biases baked into them as the unbiased mechanics of the system.

Through this exhibition, I hope to question: How do we differentiate the purely human versus the purely machine? How can we develop a set of epistemological tools for keeping both in focus? How can we use those tools to further question the biased foundations of more reified, fundamental human “technologies,” like science or law?

 

Logan Franken is a Seattle-based developer who works for the University of California, Santa Barbara and is interested in the mutual, sociocultural relationship between humans and technology. This is his first solo exhibition.

 

Layout

The show features five pieces. 

 
gallery_layout_reservedwords-01.jpg
 

Pieces A, B, C, and D are mounted on walls, with A across from B and C across from D. Piece E is sitting on a pedestal against the far wall.


Piece A: Origin

This piece consists of only a television screen displaying the output of a computer program, which we’ll call a “Machine.”

The Machine will begin with a movie whose frames, except for the first frame, have been placed in random order.

The Machine will then attempt to “sort” the frames back in order using the following algorithm: (1) start with the first frame of the movie, (2) find the unsorted frame that is the most visually similar and use this as the next frame, (3) repeat the process with the new frame.

After sorting each frame, the Machine will play the current state of the sorted movie: first playing only the first frame, then the first and second frame, then the first, second, and third frame, and so on, until the movie has been completely “sorted.”

But this is an overly simplistic sorting algorithm: the “sorted” movie will appear nothing like the original movie. It will likely look as if the Machine is simply playing a movie with randomized frames. A User may be inclined to call the Machine “stupid.”

However, the Machine isn’t stupid. I’m stupid for creating such a simplistic sorting algorithm. The User will be reminded of this fact as they watch: the movie will be a film of me writing the sorting computer program.

Then again, after I’m finished creating it, I’m no longer involved in the Machine’s operation. Maybe it is just stupid?

After playing the“sorted” movie, the Machine will then randomize the frames again, repeating the same process. Through this act of repetition, it will appear as if the Machine is laboring over its own origin story, piecing it together in a process that seems perfectly reasonable from its perspective.


Piece B: Reflection

There is no working prototype of this piece (yet?)

There is no working prototype of this piece (yet?)

This piece will consist of a television screen split in half: a Left Side and a Right Side.

The Left Side will display a video game that is being played by itself. The video game will look similar to the Atari 2600 title, Adventure, which pioneered the concept of including “Easter eggs,” or hidden secrets from the game developers, within games.

While writing the code for this video game, I will take a picture of myself for each line of code I write. When this particular line of code executes, the picture of myself writing the code will display on the Right Side of the screen.

Because video games generally run at a rate of 60 frames per second and thousands of lines of code may execute to display a single frame, the speed of the video game on the Left Side of the screen will be dramatically slowed down to ensure that all of the necessary pictures have time to display on the Right Side of the screen.

The procession of pictures on the Right Side of the screen will reveal a stark contrast in the User’s linear understanding of a video game’s forward progression versus the recursive reality of the game’s code. As the Machine relies on the repetitious programming loops to display the game’s changing state, the linear timeline of me programming the game will contort to fit the structure of the code, with pictures of me from different times of the day stitched together in successive, repeated loops.

As stated earlier, the game will be playing itself. Specifically, the Machine will execute a series of inputs, controlling the game. These inputs will not be random: they will be recorded from a time when I played the game.

Altogether, the piece exhibits the linear behavior of a Human morphed to map onto the recursive behavior of the Machine, while the Machine rapidly cycles through its recursive logic to present itself in a way that maps to the linear understanding of the Human.

The two co-exist in an ongoing relationship of mutual consumption and distortion.


Piece C: Secret

For this piece, a circular constellation of small holes will be cut into the wall, forming a speaker, and, to the right of the speaker, a black touchscreen will display the outline of a white circle and the words, “Press and hold to generate a secret.”

Each User will press the outline of the circle with their finger, causing the outline to fill with white until it reaches the outer edges of the circle.

Once the circle is filled, a robotic voice will recite a secret, at a low volume, through the speaker, forcing The User to lean in. Before reciting the secret, the robotic voice will plead the viewer not to tell anyone else the secret.

Through an undetermined mechanism, each User will only be able to hear a secret once.

However, the secret will be the same for everyone. Holding down the button will have no actual impact other than tricking the User into thinking the secret is dynamically generated.

When Users share their experiences with one another, they will discover the secret is just a static message. Not a secret at all. But they will only discover this if they break the trust of the Machine, revealing its secret even after the Machine explicitly asked them not to tell anyone.

Who is responsible for violating the sanctity of this secret? The Machine for passing off a static message as a secret? The User for violating the Machine’s trust? Me for creating a Machine built to deceive the User?

But, truthfully: the message will be a secret. It will be my secret. For this piece, I will record a robotic voice reading off a secret that I will have told no one before the exhibition.

This leaves the question: whose trust is being violated?


Piece D: Critique

This piece will also consist of a television screen split in half: a Left Side and a Right Side.

On the Left Side, the Machine will randomly generate a piece of art by placing different dots on a blank canvas.

On the Right Side, the Machine will then critique the piece by displaying a randomly generated phrase of appraisal, either positive or negative.

Based on the Right Side’s response, the Left Side will either add on to the existing artwork (positive response) or remove whatever it just added and add something else instead (negative response). The Right Side will then critique the piece again and this loop will continue indefinitely.

The Right Side’s critique will be based on how closely the randomly generated artwork resembles a portrait of me. 

Through this process, the presence of the Creator is slowly wrought through the seemingly lifeless operations of the Machine.


Piece E: Unknown

The final piece will be a small projector, facing the wall.

Through an undetermined mechanism, it will only turn on when the gallery is completely empty. Once turned on, the projector will display a single slide with the message:

“I told this projector to only turn on when no one is here”

With this, the Machine and its Creator are unified. In a place we can’t quite see.