I’ve had a paper accepted for the 25th CHArt conference on the subject of live coding, here’s the synopsis.
Programmers do their work by writing and modifying software in text form. That is, a piece of software is a structure made from words. These structures are generally too big to comprehend in their entirety, so programmers instead focus on small detail and overall plans; looking up for parts to combine and simplify and looking down for places to build. But this is not architecture, these structures are more like machines than static buildings. A programmer’s work is set in motion by a program interpreter, with information flowing in and around processing units before being directed outward in response.
Usually a programmer will build their work off-line, stepping back to start it up, watch it work and decide upon the next edit. Live coding programmers however work on their software while it runs, much like modifying a running machine. Because the software is built from words, this is done by editing it as text, adding new routines or changing the nature of an existing one. Such a change affects the output immediately, allowing fast creative feedback.
Where a written novel exists to describe human activity, written software exists to simulate it. Therefore the live coder can take the role of an artist, constructing simulators in order to generate patterns of movement, either as music, video animation or both. This can be done in front of a live audience, so that the process of building software becomes the process of improvising music or video in performance art.
In this way programmers are finally taking to the stage, introspecting and encoding their musical thoughts before an audience. A tradition of live coding has quickly formed where computer screens are projected, making the programmer’s reactions to their work visible. Questions of authorship disappear; the performance is live, the programmer improvising through the medium of written language.
Live coders allow us to look upon the interplay between language and performance art with renewed interest. In this paper the current activity of live coders will be reviewed, to try to understand where this relatively new practice is taking us.