Winnie Soon is an artist-researcher whose works intersect media/computational art, software studies, cultural studies and code practice. She has been awarded the Top-Ranked LABS Abstracts 2017 by Leonardo and the Winner of The 2018 Aarhus University Research Foundation PhD award with the thesis titled “Executing Liveness: An examination of code inter-actions in software (art) practice”. Artistically, she has received the Expanded Media Award for Network Culture at Stuttgarter Filmwinter — Festival for Expanded Media, WRO 2019 Media Art Biennale Award and Public Library Prize for Electronic Literature (short-listed), Literature in Digital Transformation in 2019. She is a member of the Critical Software Thing Collective, co-founder of NN Cluster at Aarhus University, senior research affiliate of the Humanities and Critical Code Studies Lab, Information Architect and advisor of A Peer-Reviewed Journal About. Currently, she is Assistant Professor at the Department of Digital Design and Information Studies, teaching Aesthetic Programming and Digital Culture.
» What first drew you to critical code studies and to making work where humans are "not the sole actors"?
Although I have been working with software and programming for a fairly long time (since my high school study), I haven’t really paid attention to the idea of authorship, and more just considered software as a supporting and technical tool to actualise my idea in the past. Not until I was introduced to the field called software studies in my Master study and started to think deeper with and through software, in which writing, reading and executing code actually inform my creative processes and conceptual thinking. The classic book Software Studies: A Lexicon opens up my thinking about the in-between technical, culture and art by unpacking keywords yet are technical terms at the same time e.g interface, algorithm, class. I was truly inspired by reading this in 2008, in which code or technical elements can be studied differently.
Besides, some of my artworks are made through programming. It is the practice of coding that provides insight for my on-going interest in the invisibility and liveness of software and infrastructure. This article “The aesthetics of generative code,” which is written by Geoff Cox, Alex McLean and Adrian Ward in 2001, is especially influential, calling for a deeper understanding of how machines and code sense differently, and to think about code and the resultant actions together, but not in separation, that constitute an aesthetic experience. Last but not least, code can be thought differently beyond the technical and functional applications, such as code poetry that is illustrated in the article. I found all these just open up my mind in thinking about code critically and aesthetically.
During my PhD study, I was also drawn into Critical Code Studies which emerged at the University of Southern California, the HaCCS Lab. Their approach to code has a reference to literary studies, exploring computer source code as text for interpretation. Source code becomes a key object of study and research, exploring rhetoric, material history, linguistics, politics, culture of code and many other aspects. This gives me another way of seeing code as material for inquiry, investigation and research.
» Tell me about the "throbber," the symbol appearing on the cover of your dissertation (and as a Processing sketch). It seems almost a personal totem embodying issues of liveness and the buffering of the digital present.
In the past four years, I have been thinking about the iconic symbol in our contemporary culture called Throbber, and it is especially seen when we are loading webpages, waiting for social media feeds, streaming movies, etc. It is presented as a spinning icon and perceived as repeatedly spinning under a constant speed as well as hinting at invisible background activities for an indeterminate and unforeseeable timespan. I have been interested in how this icon obscures our conception of time and especially the thinking around ‘nowness' that is embedded with unknowable and invisible computational processes and infrastructure. This graphical icon serves as an interface for me to think about machine and micro-time and extends to a more planetary scale of time.
With the processing sketch in my dissertation, that is the source code as well as the book cover, I want to exemplify the way of how I inquire time, which is through reading, writing and executing code. The throbber symbol appears on the cover of my dissertation is actually part of my project called "Throb" http://siusoon.net/throb/ that utilizes four different keyboard characters —, \, |, / with a reference to the loading icon in Unix operating system that operates in an animated and clockwise direction. It is manifested as an installation and a screensaver that can be freely downloaded.
I used this icon as my central focus in one of the chapters, investigating the associated micro-temporal activities that are related to critical time decisions, such as digital signal processing, packet switching, buffering and the drop frames with glitches and/or jitters phenomena to illustrate the time-critical processes and parameters in technological infrastructure, and how our perception of ’nowness’ is constantly changing.
The cover of Soon's thesis
» Is the liveness of social media the liveness of code?
My interest in liveness is not necessarily about code or standalone software that are constantly updated, but code inter-actions within a dynamic networked environment, which is process-oriented. Code alludes to the activities of executing and running code, inter-acting with different systems, objects and materials which together generate the phenomena of liveness.
» After investigating early web throbbers/spinners, like the famous S in NCSA Mosaic, you chose the common circular spinner for The Spinning Wheel of Life. I'm reminded of when Facebook removed their customized loading icon (because users blamed them, rather than the network, for slowness). Also, previous work on spinners used a variety or oddball variations like Always Loading by Brian Piana and then there are the great many sites helping people customize their loading icons. Can you explain a bit of the thought process leading to selecting the more common spinner icon, and presenting it in a few different ways (as a Processing sketch, as a series of prints of each frame, etc)?
This investigation of throbber is actually a long process and is still on-going. It was started with the prototype called “The Spinning Wheel of Life”, consisting of a raspberry Pi, a small screen and a small speaker that display the ellipses based on the real-time arrival of networked data, and it is not a static animated gif like many loading icons are being designed. With a customised-program, one can say each ellipse is a representation of a data packet that exposes the micro-temporality of network relations. My starting question was ‘why is this icon loading in a regular tempo? What does this icon mean in terms of what they are telling to, and hiding from, us?’ I was not questioning why does this icon look in such a usual way (such as design with ellipses and move in a clock-wise direction), though I found some possible and interesting linkage in relation to the design of a throbber and the history of time in World War I (see here) I use this throbber icon as a key figure for me to think about how networked data is being operated and transmitted in real-time by focusing on digital signal process (investigation of discrete time signals and the clock cycle in computer architecture), data packets and network protocols (investigation of network handshaking, TCP/IP transmission, time parameters etc), buffer and buffering (investigation of sliding window protocol and organization of a playback buffer). You can see more of my analysis in my PhD dissertation or in the forthcoming article in computational culture journal. The poster [above] includes 20 different snapshots that were taken from the customised program as mentioned above. Sometimes the data were arrived in much quantities and at once, but the other time the internet was just loading the buffered data without any new packets' arrival. These 20 instances are showing different micro-temporal variations of networks.
I’m aware of the change of Facebook loading icon, and this has been also discussed in Jason Farman’s article with his notion of false latency, in which our perception is highly influenced by what we see. Interestingly, sometimes even though I encounter the throbber but there is literally nothing in progress at the back end, and it just freezes at the animated gif until you quit the program or reload the application. As such, this is how I see the throbber / buffering displaces our sense of connection to the present. What we are seeing (a throbber) is not what it is doing (buffering), and even what we are seeing we don’t know what it is doing and we are just waiting for an unknowable timespan. The nowness is not simply the time that we experience through waiting and counting with minutes and seconds, but rather the machine times and the micro-temporality of network relations that constitute the now.
As you can see, my focus is more on time specifically on how the technical and computational infrastructure and architecture (e.g network protocols, clock time, the TTL parameter, handshaking time, etc) constitute the present time when we see this icon showing on a screen. What’s the relationship between time, storage, memory, transmission and perception? My argument is that micro-time matters, as it decides how things are shown and what to include and exclude in the network transmission process. Frame drops is a case in point in which the provider can decide what is the threshold that should drop the “slower” frames, and in that sense data can be potentially be treated differently.
The series of throbber projects is a continuation of my inquiry towards the micro-temporality and poetics of computational operations and processes.
Throb installation/screensaver, custom software, 2018
» In discussing Thousand Questions, you reference Strachey's Loveletters, which ran on the first widely available computer, the Ferrati Mark 1. A combinatory poetic work, with simple rules leading to fairly complex output, it's a 60's idea of the machine as an automation tool executing repetitive tasks. Your piece Thousand Questions both expands the machine into the network, and, by interfacing with social media, ties into the endless present of social media. I'm wondering if you could expand on why social media (apart from true vs pseudo-randomness)? Do you see the work as a reflection of the networked nature of the machine in 2019?
The full name of this project is called "If I wrote you a love letter would you write back? (and thousands of other questions)”, and that was collaborated with British artist Helen Pritchard since 2012. The piece collects discourse from Twitter and translates it into spoken words as well as unreadable characters. Tweets are queried from the live platform based on the presence of the “?” character, which renders the search an at-time poignant record of questions that might otherwise go unheard and unanswered on Twitter’s broadcast network.
We were on the one hand very much inspired by the pioneer computational literary work by Christopher Strachey in 1952 utilizing random algorithms and procedures to generate 318 billion unpredictable variations of love letters. On the other hand, we were also interested in queer computation [see Jacob Gaboury’s excellent series of “A Queer History of Computing" in four parts on Rhizome]. This remarkable work was influenced by the queer figure of Alan Turing that used computation as a way of emotional expression. Loveletters was also inspired by Turing’s earlier essay and his encouragement to write programs and explore computation for the world’s first commercial computer, the Ferranti Mark I, at the University of Manchester. Loveletters utilised Turing’s random number generator that was built in Ferranti Mark 1 to produce love letters that were romantic and expressive. In all the love letters, the header never pointed to a specific person but had used various abstract and affective text such as “Darling Sweetheart’, ‘Honey Dear’, ‘Dear Love’ etc.
But of course, the idea of getting questions in our piece is also inspired by Turing test to see if a machine has the ability to exhibit intelligent behaviour through the text interface.
Depart from all these, Helen and I are interested in voices that are marginalised and unheard in a broader sense in computational culture. For our work, we see that social media platforms like Twitter are a broadcast network where people post a lot of questions, but these might never get answered. The use of social media is, therefore, a response to our contemporary networked culture, queering endless unheard stories that are posted and archived into a big hole for personalisation and data mining instead.
» In Hello Zombies, you combine the undead media of spam with the zombie-like machines of the past. How did you put this project together, and how was it coded? How did you harvest the spam email addresses? Did any particular pieces of spam stand out to you as you worked on this, or any observations about the bulk of spam processed?
Hello Zombies is a project about the zombie figure that was developed in 2014. I consider the spam that we encounter every day is a zombie, something you can’t really avoid because it is part of the economic and social system that we are living in nowadays. The interesting thing is that they are in the state of live and dead. You can’t really reply and talk to them as most of the email addresses are fake, but they exhibit certain agencies in the network culture, such as the machine learning spam filtering function, a special spam folder, and sometime they cause networked traffic jam. Spam uses network resources to distribute their desire, in which I don’t click on them specifically but I have been always wondering who will click those emails.
The piece Hello Zombies consists of three main custom programs written in python. One is made in regards to harvesting new spammer’ addresses regularly; the second one is to process these addresses and then sending them spam poems. The last program was made to check the networked replies from spammers and see if there were any real reply. The spammer addresses were harvested from stop forum spam, an online provider who supplies spammer information, contained around 23,000 spam email addresses for just one day. I have written a longer piece that discuss the technical and conceptual aspects of the piece, in particular to zombification in software culture.
Here is one of the spam poems and it was composed by American poet Susan Scarlata where we had collected spam as the found materials. This is also to answer your question about if any pieces of spam stand out. I actually found the language in spam is highly poetic and interesting.
[JUST RENT THE DATA]
Can it forensic?
The apple is too full?
Carrier locations arise from what?
When was it sent?
Which encrypted customers?
IQ's up the what?
Configure this. Just rent the data.
» readme.SpamPoem retains spam's commercial sound, while making it dream-like and associative. How were the poems constructed?
Hello Zombies is an extension of readme.SpamPoem and they both produce spam poems. Inspired by Dadaism and the Oulipo school of poetics, it is a spam series shaped through instructions, constraints, randomness and found language. By re-appropriating spam-language, and asking the questions: What is spam? How does it appeal using various rhetorical devices to engage with others? and How is it filtered, generated, received, and can that reception be altered? An intimate relation is established with banal medium and language as what you called the “commercial”.
» In the lecture-performance piece of Vocable Codes, you play off the satirical Feminist Software Foundation's C+=, avoiding x and y, and other signs of binary thinking. Within the piece, it nicely brings together the textual content of the work (exploring queerness) with the text of its code. But it's also a reminder of the blow-up around the HASTAC discussion. What is the state of feminist/queer computing as you see it? What advice do you have for people exploring non-normative paradigms at the code level, who want to escape binary thinking?
Through working closely with code, I can see procedural and computational thinking impact my everyday life e.g simplifying the decision in binary like yes or no, without considering the possible third option like ‘maybe’. Extending this to a wider cultural context like either accept or cancel the terms and conditions that we read online, without any room for negotiation. The concern of binary thinking is my reflection towards the idea of coding/digital literacy where young people start to mandatory learn coding in their curriculum. That is a good thing in general, but we need to also admit that computer programming structures a particular way of system thinking in a precise and categorising manner which is fundamentally different from natural language and ways of communication. Additionally, implementing a computational system brought our perpetuated societal and cultural biases into software program and applications. One of the examples I often give to my students is the launch of more than 50 custom gender identifiers instead of the previous gender binary options (with radio buttons in 2013-2014) on the Facebook platform. Moreover, biases in AI such as language translation that automatically labels the pronoun of being a doctor as ‘he’ or babysitter as “she”. Another example is the discussion of racist facial recognition, to name but a few. How should we address these important issues around biases in which technology/programming are not neutral tools? Perhaps, it is equally important to bring the concerns within humanities and society into the discussion of literacy and this should be addressed to computer science too. In other words, it is not just only about making something functional, efficient and workable, but also need to develop a critical understanding of abstraction in order to challenge the assumptions and methods, examining the wider cultural implications behind in order to build a better system in the future.
There are increasingly more people working in this area of queer computing, I am wondering how non-normative paradigm of programming can be imagined and offered an alternative way of thinking and implementing software. I actually think that Feminist Software Foundation’s work C+= is a very innovative attempt to impose alternative ideologies to programming languages, which actually many software artists have addressed in different ways beyond the gender focus. Another case in point is Whitespace (2003) by Edwin Brady and Chris Morris. It is a programming language without a practical value insofar as it questions the injustice of white space, a syntax that is often hidden or ignored in computer programming culture. The artwork ignores any non-whitespace characters and only gives meaning to various forms of white space, ‘Space’ and ‘Tab’ for instance. My interest in queer computing is to queer the normative use and thinking around programming in order to allow more voices come into play and to reimagine a different possible future (and in this case is programming). For me it is not only about gender issue which is equally important of course, but more broadly is the ecology of programming practice that goes beyond the absolute binary thinking and allows rooms for thinking about programming differently. For example, by asking what does it mean when we say something ’notTrue’ instead of assigning it as absolute ‘false’, and what if we take decimal seriously and to think about what’s a number. (Can see more on: Vocable Code (13082018): A lecture-performance in six parts). There are some other artists who explore something similar before such as Class Library by Graham Harwood (2006) and femme Disturance Library by Zach Blas and Micha cárdenas (2012).
» In Nonsense, you develop a Facebook dislike button that addresses social media manipulation, including China's 50 Cent Army. What is the connection to HK Police, and what does a dislike button represent in this context?
That is a piece developed in 2015, a post-umbrella movement period in which there were tensions between citizens and HK's police force in the political regime. Nonsense is a piece specifically and quickly responding to the phenomena that a sudden increase on the number of "likes” within a night on a Facebook page called “Hong Kong Police”. Many ordinary people raised concerns about the fact that the page was automatically being liked by them in which they haven’t clicked on anything explicitly. One online user explained that it was caused by merging different page groups, an existing feature on Facebook, that can lead to a result like this. So the piece nonsense, developed in the era where only the like button was appeared without other emoticons on Facebook, questioning what constitutes the metrics of likes, and why only a like button was there? What’s the meaning of ‘like’ linguistically and semantically in a wider cultural context. What I want to express is that there are many agents involved in social media, more than just people who are cautiously aware on the posts/pages/groups by clicking them, but to call for our attention to the meaning of these easy-to-manipulate buttons and their political implications. I think the exhibition “All I know is What’s On the Internet” curated by Katrina Sluis last year showed different artworks and projects about the factory of click workers. Additionally, that was the year (2015) I started to think seriously about metrics beyond conscious clicks and the desire of more (to use Benjamin Grosser’s term), but to think of the roles of click workers, 50 cent army, bote, commercial purchase of likes in bulk etc in the society like Hong Kong, which is highly capitalised and political with the history of British colonisation and the “handover” to China since 1997 - what I called “Post-colonisation”. But I think it has currency to wider continents as we also observe how data is being manipulated in other political and voting campaigns.
» Your piece "How to get the Mao experience through Internet" continues the study of time and space displacement, in this case through the mediation of other peoples' photos of the Mao image in Beijing. But unlike Britton's work, this one has quite a gap between how a tourist sees that image than someone who grew up in Hong Kong. Has this work or your other political works like "Unerasable Images" been shown in China or are accessible to users in China? Has the response been very different from these audiences?
I haven’t shown Unerasable Images in China nor Hong Kong but the piece won the network culture prize in Stuttgart Filmwinter - Festival for Expanded Media and the WRO 2019 award in WRO media art Biennale, and it had been exhibited in London, Denmark, Amsterdam and Australia next year. I don’t think this work is possible to exhibit in China honestly as you might know that any Tank Man images, or its' appropriated images, are erased on all platforms, including the specific image, the lego reconstruction of the TankMan that was successfully uploaded in 2013, that I have been focused in my piece.
Regarding the previous work, yes I am more following Britton’s method in placing the portrait in the middle of the frame. Of course I have a specific relation to Chinese political scene in regards to my own identity, and a person that witnesses both the ruling of Britain and China in Hong Kong. Experiencing the change of Hong Kong's situation with the increasing awareness of self-censorship that exists in both as an individual and institution, as well as the sensitivity of the so-called ‘red line’ (see here). Many artists are making artworks with fear and their works are self-censored by institutions yet they still have the desire to express, negotiate and challenge the boundary. This specific work, “How to get the Mao experience through Internet...”, was shown in Hong Kong as part of the June Fourth commemoration in 2014. I am glad that it could be part of that exhibition.
Though both of the works with a similar subject matter in the Chinese context as their departure point, but my interest has always been related to wider digital culture, such as network circulation, geopolitical sites and spatial-temporal parameters. There are also other materials and computational dimensions that are useful in thinking and problematizing the notion of erasure, yet they could be poetics by putting familiar things (such as search images) together differently and go beyond what we used to see. I just do my part that I think I need to and can do as a scholar and artist, reminding the fact that human rights and freedom should never be taken for granted and keep exploring the aesthetic and politics of infrastructure and technological materials.
>> What are the most pressing questions for you currently in software studies? What are you working on next? Who is making great work in this space (involving the text of code) that I should interview next?
I have an interest in code and coding practice, using technology to think about technology culturally and critically (the collapse of object and subject in relation to technology). In humanities, there are increasing awareness about algorithms and technology but it is too separated from practice. Same as programming practice in artistic or computer science disciplines, there seems too much focus on the outcome and applications without the deep awareness of the invisibility, cultural and aesthetics of technology. As such I am interested in bringing practice-oriented approach to software studies.
I am currently working on a book called Aesthetic Programming: A handbook for software studies with Geoff Cox. Trying to think about programming beyond the focus on functionalities and practical applications, but combining this and creative coding to examine how we could study software critically, aesthetically and conceptually through programming in a wider cultural and societal level. The book responds to the perceived gap in literature and a growing interest in computational thinking thereby expanding programming beyond the confines of computer science and engineering and emphasizing a ‘critical aesthetics’ of code. Whilst operating broadly in the spirit of Software Studies, the book offers an overtly practice-oriented approach to understanding the centrality of reading, writing and thinking with soft-ware as a critical tool for our times - one rooted in computational literacy and in recognition of the way in which our experiences are ever more programmed. It is offered as a deep learning tool - a handbook for those unaccustomed to the field - and one that allows for the agency of the student-programmer to develop as they become more proficient in both their technical and conceptual skills. We would like to address humanistic issues, such as race, gender, class, invisibility of data processing and computational processes, with the mentioned approach and to explore new ways of teaching programming and understanding the aesthetics and politics of software and algorithms.
Re last question and recommendation: Ian Hatcher and Joana Chicau. Vocable Code is inspired by Ian’s work and he has a fantastic voice. Many of his works address computer language. (See this: http://anomalouspress.org/books/all-new.php and The All-New). Joana is a live coder, working across choreography, graphic design and coding practice. I really like her works to think about code as a constantly changing form, and it definitely gives a new way of working with code. [Ed note: a piece on Joana Chicau's work went live after this question was answered]