Casey Reas

Visiting Artist Profiles

Casey Reas

By Matthew Harrison Tedford February 19, 2014

The Visiting Artist Profile series, which highlights some of the artists, curators, and scholars who intersect with the Bay Area visual arts community through the various lecture programs produced by local institutions.


Software undeniably plays an important role in contemporary creative work, from digital photo editing to architecture, but software is not usually regarded as key to the final work. A photo brightened or cropped in Photoshop is rarely discussed as being primarily about the nature of software, and most architecture seems more concerned with economically housing cubicles or pleasing stakeholder tastes than exploring the essential nature of AutoCAD. The work of Casey Reas (aka C. E. B. Reas), in contrast, claims software as its process, medium, subject, and lens onto the world, even as the resulting pieces may take the final shape of wall-mounted c-prints or video installations.

A member of the Tron generation, Reas grew up in the 1980s in an Apple II-equipped home in which he taught himself code. He earned an MS in the Aesthetics and Computation Group at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology,1 and is currently a professor of Digital Media Arts at the University of California, Los Angeles. Along with exhibiting in venues including the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Art Institute of Chicago, and Whitney Museum of American Art, Reas’ global claim to fame is Processing, an open-source computer-programming language with an emphasis on design and visual art, which he developed with designer Benjamin Fry.

Casey Reas. Process 18 (Software 2), 2010; screen capture from generative software; variable dimensions. Courtesy of the Artist.

Software is integral to the form and process of Reas’ work, and he has even said that all of his ideas about how the world operates come from software.2 Nonetheless, in many ways Reas is deeply indebted to modernist artists, including abstract expressionists, and process art, among other styles and schools that predate the ubiquity of code in art and daily life.3​ In fact, Reas’ work always begins with sketches and drawings. He then moves to writing code to express these ideas or forms. “You open up a text editor and start writing down your thoughts,” he explains, “but instead of, for example, writing a poem, or an essay, or a fiction, the thoughts are more about organizing logic and procedures, and in my case they always make images.”4 For Reas, code is a means of actualizing the idea of an image (or series of images), serving a function very similar to oil and brush for a painter.

Reas’ works are about the medium of software; they are visualizations of what code can and cannot do.

The medium in Reas’ work, however, is not completely separate from the content. Just as action painting might be considered to be “about” the act of painting, the materiality of paint, and the freedoms and constraints of the medium, Reas’ works are about the medium of software; they are visualizations of what code can and cannot do.

Casey Reas. Process 18 (Image 3, 4), 2008; pair of unique c-prints; 36 x 12 in. Courtesy of the Artist.

The series Process Compendium (2004–2010) is an exercise in the constraints and possibilities of the artist’s medium. Each work in the series—which comprises archival prints, videos of software in action, and even a live visual performance with musical accompaniment—is derived from a piece of code that dictates one or more behaviors (out of seven possible) to be applied to a form, either a circle or a line. (Reas calls these combinations of behaviors applied to forms “elements.”) The code was in turn derived from a text that instructs a programmer how to treat a given element. Process 4 (2005), for example, uses Reas’ Element 1, which is defined as a circle that moves in a straight line, constrains to a surface, changes direction while touching another element, and moves away from an overlapping element. The text for Process 4 is: “A rectangular surface filled with varying sizes of Element 1. Draw a line from the centers of Elements that are touching. Set the value of the shortest possible line to black and the longest to white, with varying grays representing values in between.”5

Reas explains that, “Like a score, the text defines a work, but it needs to be enacted to be experienced.”6 Though the instructions of Process 4 may seem overly constricting, there are an infinite number of possible interpretations and outcomes, as is the case with any performance of Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 1 or even John Cage’s 4′33″, a composition of three movements of silence. Reas makes his texts available for public use by other artists and programmers, further expanding the possibilities. Each decision a programmer makes within the given instructions ripples, creating a different work with each instantiation. With Process 4, one may choose the number of circles and draw them anywhere on the rectangular plain. The programmer may choose to draw only small circles, or large circles, or any combination of sizes. The process could run for any chosen amount of time, and the final form could be a video, a still image print, or even sculptural objects.

Casey Reas. Process 4 (Image 1), 2005; inkjet print on Hahnemuhle Photo Rag; edition of 5; 28.625 x 28.625 in. Courtesy of the Artist.

Process 18 (2007–10) instructs the programmer to begin with lines of varying gray values. In some iterations of this piece, Reas intentionally broke the constraints of the text by adding color. Though Reas uses mostly gray values in his work, he has stated that in recent years he has been experimenting with color to imbue works with different emotions. He likens this to the use of sound in film, which helps guide the viewer to various emotional states desired by the artist or filmmaker.7 Process 18 (Software 3) (2010), for example, created colored strokes akin to lyrical abstraction. Though the element is the same as in the grayscale version and the code is nearly identical, Reas’ aesthetic infraction creates a piece that dances with regal crimson, whereas the grayscale is somber and even borders on eerie. The beautiful result of Process 18 (Software 3) is possible only because Reas broke the rules, but it also would not have been created without them. It is through these experiments that one can see how Reas’ work is a meditation on the potential and limitations of this medium.

It is telling that Reas describes so much of his work in terms of analog forms of art: scores, writing, drawing. Though Reas’ life and worldview are clearly indebted to and inseparable from software, he seems to see himself as an artist like any other, rather than a practitioner of a new or more perfect form of art. In fact, Reas says that in contradiction to the stereotype of computers as calculating and precise machines, it is exciting to work with them in ways that allow for unexpected results to emerge.8 And if Process Compendium shows anything, it’s that even with software art, the human artist is as important as ever.

Notes

  1. “How to Draw with Code | Casey Reas,” YouTube video clip, accessed February 1, 2014, http://youtu.be/_8DMEHxOLQE
  2. “How to Draw With Code”
  3. “Interview with C.E.B. Reas & Drew Schnurr,” YouTube video clip, accessed February 1, 2014, http://youtu.be/7TQ2o5ck6ss
  4. “How to Draw With Code”
  5. "Process 5, 2005," Casey Reas, http://reas.com/p4_s/
  6. “Process Compendium (Introduction),” Vimeo video clip, accessed February 1, 2014, http://vimeo.com/22955812
  7. “How to Draw With Code”
  8. “How to Draw With Code”

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