Image: Book Vortex by schaduwlichtje

A History of Creative Coding

Blair Neal


Spoiler — this is not a sprawling timeline article about the history of this field. It’s a writeup meant to spur discussion about why there isn’t one yet and whether we should start making something.

Historical research in the arts and tech field is really enjoyable. I’ve looked into the past for live visuals, alternative displays, and even fireworks. I sometimes wonder what it will be like for someone like myself trying to piece together the history of creative code in 50+ years. They are going to have a lot of internet to sift through. Is there a way we can take steps towards the preservation of important information for future historians?

What should it include?

Whatever box you want to put around this stuff — creative code, new media art, creative technology, poetic computation, interactive installations — We can trace our current work back 60+ years, even pre-computer if you frame it a certain way. Many students are still exploring ideas that were being worked on decades ago, but they aren’t always aware of that past (even if the work they are doing was done even 5 years ago). There are books and exhibitions and websites to help us track some of that lineage.

I keep coming back to the question of — how well have we done at tracing that history of creative coding (or whatever you feel like it deserves to be called) in the last decade or two? What does the history of Creative code 2000–2020 look like? It certainly feels like it exploded in terms of accessibility and use in other industries.

This is an incredibly broad area to start in on. So many points of focus — we could look at:

  • Tools
  • Work made with those tools
  • The individuals or companies/collectives making that work
  • The communities that are formed around the above

The longer you look, the deeper the problem gets. I am also not a historian — so maybe I’m just thinking about this all wrong.

Even looking at the dates and version milestones of the creation of:

  • Max/MSP
  • Processing
  • OpenFrameworks
  • Cinder
  • Arduino
  • Touch Designer
  • Vvvv
  • Pure Data
  • VDMX/Resolume
  • Unity
  • Quartz Composer, Flash, Director
  • Hardware like: Microsoft Kinect, Leap Motion, Oculus etc

Those creation dates are not something you can readily find online. Some of it is just word of mouth from the still-working creators. Or even they dont know — they might need to dig on some ancient harddrive to give you a date. OpenFrameworks, for example, has a collection of all of their previous releases, but you have to look at server records for dates. If you go forensic style. You can download one of the old releases and infer from file dates that Jan-March 2007 was when of_preRelease_v0.01 was put together though. You can also use Github to trace a few projects back in their history. Here is a link to Cinder’s first commit on April 21st, 2010. However, these start dates don’t tell you a whole lot about when people started using those tools more regularly. Max/MSP has a decent wikipedia page but doesn’t show a lot of detail in history. Touch Designer actually has one of the better pages on their site in regards to recording their history. The Processing Foundation has a pretty detailed historical writeup as well. The CLOUDS documentary is also something that attempts to take this on in more of an interview format. Knowing these dates can help show how long these communities take to build, mature, (and disappear?).

Artists and their works are a whole other thing. Blog entries from just 8 years ago are harder and harder to track down — obviously and the wayback machine can help with some stuff, but not all. Some artists might just get embarassed and delete stuff. Getting dates of release and other info are also difficult — maybe dates based off when a project’s video was posted to Vimeo or Youtube? Maybe it was posted about on some publication? Who actually worked on it besides the topline artist?

It’s understandable that we’re still trying to put a ring around this whole phenomenon. Many artists are still writing this history. Rhizome is one of a few institutions trying to do this kind of preservation work for web art, like their webrecorder project. And of course for general internet preservation. However, the Wikipedia entry for Creative Coding is pretty weak at the moment. For all the work people are putting into this field every day, I think we can do better than that. Here is the thing though — old stuff is disappearing — faster than we probably think.

  • Artist websites go away or are redesigned and culled
  • Old software cant run anymore
  • Videos and documentation of seminal works are lost
  • Necessary hardware isn’t available anymore

What should it look like or include?

Currently, looking through blogs, artists personal sites, pieces in gallery exhibits, classes being taught, personal interviews, and github are the paths to piecing together info. I’m not aware of something that brings all of this into a more collected timeline format — or really any collective format.

I think having a timeline framing at a high level can be valuable for a number of reasons. For one, its a concise way to look at events and can be an at-a-glance way to see cause and effect and how different things may have influenced eachother. It can show us where things are going. It can show us what we’ve lost along the way. It also gives new folks a way in — a way to understand what types of things may have come before. Lots of works we’re seeing now are versions or repeats of things done in the 1960’s and 70’s.

For an example of how this might be applied to the creative code world, here is a timeline of AV work going back to the 1900's

Timelines only allow for a surface level introduction though. There needs to be a collection of discourse, and other information as well. It needs outside context, and people need to give their views to give it that context.

Who should write it?

Where has creative code gone in the last 50 years? 25? 15? 10? 5? In our collective consciousness we all have different takes on this.

I’m fascinated by trying to take some small part of this effort on, but I’m just one white male working primarily out of New York for the last decade. My perspective on everything would be incredibly warped and I would leave a lot of important stuff out. Maybe some of the stuff I wrote above isn’t even important to some of you (or worth recording). Maybe a bunch of solo historians working on their own versions would be better than nothing, though.

Would a fully open Wikipedia-style collective effort be the right choice either? Year after year, it would require dedication to keep the servers running and maintained, the content updated and accurate, etc., etc. What happens if it disappeared or didn’t have a way to be easily downloaded and distributed? Does it store just text and images, or is it video too? And code? and compiled apps?

Who decides what influential works should be included? How do we handle the line between artist works and commercial works in this space? There are projects that were funded by huge companies that may be considered as influential or memorable as an independent artist’s work.

Do you want to get involved?

I don’t have a complete plan for this yet, but maybe together we can figure something out?

I created a google group if anyone wants to join a mailing list and figure out ways to tackle this kind of project and make something we can share and archive for others. The more perspectives, the better.



Blair Neal

Creative Technologist/Artist/Writer — (previously at Fake Love and Deeplocal)