[October 28th 2003]
Sean Treadway. Photo: Martin Kjems
A Programmer's Perspective
A late night chat with Sean Treadway
In this part of our special on software art,
Thomas Petersen meets up with the American programmer Sean
Treadway for a late chat session on Messenger. Originally from
Seattle, Sean came to Denmark in 1999 and ended up collaborating
with the Danish artist group Superflex, with whom he founded the
project Superchannel (www.superchannel.org).
Superchannel is a tool and a platform used by diverse groups to
produce and publish streaming media content.
Presently Sean is working as a software developer at Oncotype (www.oncotype.dk).
Among other topics this chat touches upon the difference between
the development of commercial software for eg. RealNetworks and
Microsoft on one hand and an art project like Superchannel on the
other. Other subjects are the aesthetic aspects of coding and the
nature of tools. We enter the chat just as Sean is getting thirsty..
Click here to find the
other texts within the special on software art
(just making a cup of coffee)
so, how did you end up in Copenhagen?
I was transitioning between hourly and salaried work at RealNetworks,
which ment that I would be getting stock options, but couldn't cash
them in for 3 years. So I was looking at a 3 year sentence, with
maybe 2 weeks of vacation each year. At the age 24, I was watching
my future pass before my eyes. I asked for 3 months vacation during
the job transition and they granted me that. the last words from
the human resource woman was..."whatever you do, don't meet
so, my friends and I were hanging out at the "Lux" in
Seattle, drinking (good) coffee and talking shit, when my friend
said that he was going to the "Burningman Festival" http://www.burningman.com
and asked if I wanted to go. I had been meaning to go for 3
years now and really wanted to make it. It was a spur of the moment
kinda decision which usually always turn out for the best. The next
day I had a ticket to Reno. And they rented an RV to drive from
Reno to the middle of fucking nowhere.
so this is where u met Signe?
yeah. Signe had a similar experience, after being in the states
for 2 days, she met someone who was heading out to Burning Man from
San Francisco. He said, "If you want to come along, meet me
here at 17:00 with a bag packed.". She and 3 friends got together
and headed out to the same camp we were at. We ended up meeting,
connecting, and hung out throughout the festival. At the end of
the festival, I asked her, "Now what?"
when was this?
This was September 1998. The next week, we talked on the phone,
and I visited her in San Fran. We traveled to Colorodo, then decided
to find a place to live together in San Fransisco. (things were
moving pretty fast). 3 months of living together flew by. I think
it'd be better now compared to before (during the dot.hype era)
how was the situation then?
Every time you went out was a job interview. I was on my 3 month
break. I had a job to go back to in middle of November (or was it
December). Well after the 3 months, we asked each other "What
now?". and I called my work and talked with the same
Human Resources woman. There was an awkward pause. And she asked
promptly, "You met a girl, didn't you?". Yeah, I left
RealNetworks to follow and develop a relationship with a Danish
woman in Copenhagen.
Like many have done before u
yeah, i found out that it was far from original
how did u end up at Superchannel - I mean how did u transfer from
a job at Realnetworks and San Fransisco-dot.com... to an art project
in DK? Must have been pretty different ?
Well, I had worked at Microsoft and RealNetworks. Two very well
functioning corporate environments. And was up for experiencing
something else. I didn't know what and was looking for work in Denmark.
I had the luxury to not worry about money for a short period so
I took my time. However, 2 months after I arrived I was at a party
that Jakob Fenger (one of Superflex) held. Signe had a connection
with Superflex through a series of friends and Jakob had just returned
from an exhibition in Japan ...literally the same day. This was
in February, 1999. So we were sitting on the floor talking and he
asked me what I did. I gave him my story and when I mentioned I
had experience with streaming media, he perked up. He said that
Superflex was thinking about the possibilities that are present
with using the internet as a medium to challenge existing media
structures. They had some loose thoughts about television production,
live broadcasting and the possibilities of the net.
From the publication Supermanual.
Check out: http://www.superchannel.org
I described to them what they needed to do to setup a system to
run the thing that they were thinking about and didn't think much
about it afterwards. A week later they called me and asked if we
could meet again to talk a little more about the idea. We did, and
I described a little more about the possibilities. At this point
I didn't have a concrete idea of what they were really intending,
so I acted like a tool for them to understand the technical feasability
of their ideas. One of the things I missed at RealNetworks, was
that I never had a connection with the people that were using the
software I was developing. I never saw their faces when they used
my software for the first time. The more we worked with the ideas,
the more curious I got about how it would affect the people that
used it. We had a exhibition at Artspace 1% on Vendersgade in May
where we opened up a studio and broadcasted with the first superchannel.
When I saw the way people responded to project, my perception of
what it was, what it could do, and how it achieved what it did changed.
what did you want to change - and what can you change with
We wanted to change the way people though about what most consumed
every day without thinking twice about it. television, radio and
print are mostly 1 directional mediums. we put a timeschedule on
the window of the gallery and people could schedule their own productions
the primary way this medum was 2 directional. We also had chat during
the broadcasts so people could affect the broadcast while it was
how was the response at this time?
The response was really good. People changed when they were on the
other side of the camera. They got to live out their desires in
public. Whether it was political, entertaining, cozy, provocative
or just weird. There was nobody that said "No, that's not appropriate
for others to see."
Images from the different Superchannel studios.
Left: The first Superchannel. Middle: The studio in Blågårdsgade
as a debating platform after 9-11. Right: The Tenantspin studio
in Liverpool. Images from http://www.superchannel.org
free access media?
yeah at the time. we provided the studio setup and the labor to
run the thing..all people needed to do was show up with an idea...and
there were LOADS of ideas
how was the process of construction - compared to more commercial
There were pros and cons of working with non-programmers. The process
was completely different to what I was used to, but really enjoyed
the flexibility of the process. It was a constant brainstorming
that felt limitless. in commercial projects a significant effort
is made defining the borders of a project and given a timeline must
be met it is most common that those borders shrink over time. it
was opposite with the Superchannel.. over time the possibilities
there have been a lot of artist/programmers/engineer-collaborations
through the years - how did this particular collaboration work?
we all exchanged ideas about what it could do and I pulled in the
reigns now and then because it would take to long or have other
negative effects elsewhere. but I felt really connected with them,
a peer and part of Superflex during the process.. They never said
it had to be a certain way, they were open to all kinds of ideas.
when did you decide to go permanent, and did the tool change in
After the first superchannel at Artspace 1% our goals shifted slightly.
When we realized how little work it was to learn and run a studio,
and how easy it was to setup studios, we changed the Superchannel
to be a collection of channels where each represented a seperate
studio. There was strength in the number of Superchannels under
one Superchannel. We then changed our focus to train others to produce
content, the result of all that was successful behind the first
Superchannel. So, we redesigned the Superchannel website from the
ground up. I found Zope, http://www.zope.org,
which is an open source web publishing framework written in Python.
what were the goals at this point?
The goals were to provide those that already have a social network
a tool to strengthen that social network internally and externally
through the use and control of their own media.
how many channels were you going for?
we had no idea at the time, I think we were hoping for 10-20. it
all depended on how successful it was
who were supposed to use superchannel?
groups of people that share a similar but minority interest, interests
that are not commonly shared, but exist as pockets around the world.
the net has had the effect of bringing people together in that sense.
where there may be 1 person in a town that likes underwater basketweaving
(for example). there are 100 on the net.
what was the biggest success at this point - in which context did
it work best?
personally, the biggest success was to see the expression of peoples'
faces change when they realized what the superchannel could do for
them in their own situation. When they applied the use and control
of their own media to their own lives. This worked best with people
that had a common passion.
whos using it today?
Right now, there is a very successful group of public housing tenants
using the superchannel to get closer to the politicians making descisions
about their living environment. http://www.tenantspin.org/
Images from the Tenantspin studio. http://www.tenantspin.org/
why is it relevant to create alternative software tools? isn't it
like a drop in the ocean compared to all the standard stuff, like
windows etc? what's the point in contesting them?
yeah, there are many tools out there. one tool will not solve all
the problems of everybody. but many tools will allow others to choose
which tool is most appropriate for their needs. That's where the
gratification comes from. When someone chooses superchannel as a
tool for their own needs.
theres a lot of interest in the more radical type of software from
the art world. like hackers as artists, political software. like
the injunction generator: http://ipnic.org.
why do you think that is?
well, hacktivism is something that people can relate to. It's kinda
like those that look at graffiti and feel proud that the streets
still belong to the inhabitants. that power is still held in the
this whole thing about software in art, like the readme-festival
and the code theme of Ars Electronica this year http://www.aec.at.
why is code important to deal with on that level?
The logo of the Ars Electronica festival 2003. Code.
Even though technology is around us all the time (or at least we're
led to belive this). there are some that find it their creative
domain. I think it's important to feel a sense of connectedness
with technology through the humanization of it. when I relate to
an innovative use of the computer, i'm assured that it's still the
humans controlling the machines and not the other way around.
or a hype controlling the creation of software
naw, I think it's human nature to create in every form possible.
the hype comes from the scarcity of medium.
have you sensed any change in the role of the programmer since you
started? like through the eighties and nineties. I remember the
demo-parties.. i think it sort of came back with the www
but it was about man vs. machine. well, with www it became man vs.
man. the demos were all about the limits of the silicon, and with
the web it's more about carbon.
yeah - but back then I remember the programmers being the real artists.
I remember Andreas Broegger mentioning the representation of code
in mainstream culture. I think Matrix was his reference (check it
...programmers as magicians, hackers as heros and so on.
yeah, there still is the man behind the curtains that seem to run
the ghost in the machine.
it's a bit like the movie War Games: the 'programmer-hero'. Code
is usually inaccessible, or undecipherable for anyone else than
programmers. It could seem unlikely that code would be possible
to deal with in a broader cultural context. but it pops up everywhere
yeah, the programmer-hero does contain an impetus for many. I have
a little more pragmatic approach to the computer as a tool. Imagine
that we had no arms or legs. and then watch someone that had arms
pick up a rock and smash something with it. I would be amazed that
what he achieved with this ability he had. but when it comes down
to it, he just moved the rock. one doesn't need the arms to move
the rock, just the will to find a way. (heh, "there is no spoon"
rings a bell). the coder may have access to some parts of the computer,
but there are others that have access to other parts. But it takes
a similar understanding to grasp the more subtle elements of code.
There is a seperate aesthetic within the code. Just as a painter
would be able to appreciate the brush strokes of a painting a coder
can appreciate the logic and structure of a program. Not just the
composition of the painting or the output of the program. As more
people learn code (and grow arms) the mystery behind the result
will be replaced by the appreciation of the method.
aesthetic interpretation of code.. I remember a piece. .
W. Bradford Paley's contribution to Whitney Artport's CODeDOC
heh, it's a visualization of my visualization when I code.
its very zen - nothing to do with functionality - just rythm
inspiring. in regards to media control, i like the frequency clock
project - http://www.frequencyclock.net/.
it's about actors in physical and virtual space creating semantic
relationships which result in a video/text stream. A really cool
media artist (Phillip Pocock) sent me this link to a project he's
working on. http://www.unmovie.net.
Screendump from Unmovie.
(checking out unmovie) what are the bubbles?
they are different "personalities". each with a database
of expressions. I ended up having a very surreal conversation with
them. until finding out they were autonomous
but at the time, I was too.
i gotta sleep
ta ta, and sleep well.
more about Sean Treadway at: http://sean.treadway.info/
Mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org