Editor's Choice

Programming as Art?


The man sitting across from me is a programmer by heart. He is not a programmer by fortune. His name is Joe Flores, aka Mojiferous Industries, aka Admiral Mojiferous J. Colossus, Esq., and he makes art on the internet – art in the non-conventional but still tangible meaning of the word. When Marcel Duchamp said, “I am interested in ideas, not merely in visual products,” Flores grasped the concept and took it a few steps further.

“It’s not hanging a urinal and calling it art,” Flores says. “More like painting the urinal and still pissing in it everyday.” His useless programs range from Lobster Petting, where we are tasked with petting a lobster in a variety of settings, and Zoltan, where a giant stone head gives out useless information and changes with the weather, to Desktop Cigarette, which merely sits smoking on the OS X dashboard. His future projects include an MMOG in which players are tasked with “setting off on a quest, only to find out you were duped by some crazed homeless guy that you mistook for a wizard, and he sent you to Tulsa to get a can of beans,” Flores says. “Or maybe you have to battle a huge group of tricycle-riding bears and clowns with nothing more than a herring.” Also on the brink is Atomic Combat, a game that operates similarly to Battleship but has a difficult time defining any clear winner.

But certainly this isn’t art. Art is something higher, further reaching – a mind-touching, heart-cradling mirror of social culture, no? Flores believes art can be something completely different. “Everything I do is always a work in progress. There aren’t enough programmers with an artisan’s sense. They see it as a finished project, something to sell.”


Maybe the word “artisan” needs to be defined to include a section on binary code: “the beauty of logic and problem solving.” A computer program could have just as much appeal as a Mona Lisa or a Nude Descending a Staircase. It could symbolize our society as a whole just as much as a film or piece of music. Why not? We have been able to define civilization by its branding; why not on its graphic interfaces? Perhaps we can learn something from programs that have tricycle-riding bears and wicker robots. If inspiration and expression define the beginnings of art, it’s hard to argue certain programs aren’t art.

“I’ll be sitting there at 3:00 a.m. and it’ll just hit me. ‘Oh, that’s what I did wrong,'” Flores says. “Inspiration can come at any moment but usually arrives at the most inopportune times.” As much stress, thought and anguish go into one of his “pieces” as any work of modern art. Instead of a brushstroke you solve a problem; instead of splattering paint on a canvas you create a lobster that makes sounds when you click it with a mouse. Obsession, too, plays a key role. An artist might find himself painting the same woman’s face for years before realizing he hasn’t done anything else; a programmer might find difficulty letting go of a certain adorable little crustacean.

“I’ll admit that I go through periods. But unlike a painter’s blue period where everything I paint is blue, I’ll go through a lobster period where I’ll go and add more functions to lobster petting, maybe a disco ball or a fez.” This freedom is the key feature of Mojiferous Industries, the freedom to create and recreate whenever and wherever Flores sees fit. He has no responsibility to any platform. His universal binaries can run on nearly any operating system. Since people don’t pay for his programs, he is free to go back and add or delete things on a whim. If one day he decides Zoltan needs more options or Desktop Cigarette needs more ashtrays, he just does it.

“I could go off and make a lot of money somewhere; I could make programs that are useful, but that isn’t the point.” The point is self-satisfaction. The nearly primal need to stop and create something new and unusual – something the world hasn’t seen before. It doesn’t really matter if Mojiferous Industries creates useful products, just as long as they are interesting. Flores says, “With programming I get to express myself freely. I guess it really isn’t that different from the art world.”

The difference, of course, is the lack of a gallery. Flores’ work just exists on his website. It would be easy to get a massive touch screen and hang his on a wall to allow gallery patrons to pet a lobster.


We are still left with the question – a question often pondered by Intro to Philosophy students and parents of art majors – what is art? In a world where a urinal is art, where an advertisement for BMW is art, where photographs are an artistic medium, what is art? Maybe art is anything that appeals to our aesthetic senses. Things like Havok’s physics engine, a program created simply to mirror real-world physics, is a tool to create and capture untouchable beauty, no different than a photographer’s camera. On the same token, perhaps something like Desktop Cigarette really is art. “I guess since I created it to sit there and be looked at, maybe it is.”

Perhaps we’ve found it then. Art simply is something that has to be created. The mind and body cannot stop it from spilling out onto a page or screen. Maybe the high art world has it all wrong; maybe art isn’t supposed to sit in a gallery. Maybe it’s supposed to exist in a constant state of improvement and enhancement. Mojiferous Industries has made art a spectator sport in which we all get to share in the act. As the tide turns and changes, as lobster phases come and go, we are there, interacting with it as it moves along, in the modern art gallery of our computers and phones. Interactivity alone doesn’t make it art, but perhaps social connection does. These programs will sit on our desktops, waiting for a day when we can show them to others – just like art on a wall.

When it boils down to cold, hard emotion, we have to ask ourselves if we care why the nude was descending the staircase, or if we can find simple satisfaction in the fact that she did. If we can be content in modestly looking at an object through its various stages of completeness, maybe there is hope and justification for all of the useless programs out in the world to be considered, if nothing else, art.

Thorin is a freelancer and blogs under the guise of being a king of his of fiefdom at blog.mcbya.net.

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