Digital Talent: Ben Fry and Casey Reas

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Ben Fry, a designer based in Cambridge, Massachuetts, and Casey Reas, associate professor/chair of the UCLA Department of Design/Media Arts, are the fertile minds behind Processing, an open source program that allows visual artists to expand the capabilities of their digital palettes beyond those afforded by commercial software. Simply put, it's "software that makes it easier to create visual things," says Fry (pictured below). So much so that since its conception in 2001, Processing has racked up a fan list of industry cognoscenti: the Barbarian Group, Firstborn and Motion Theory have all used the software on projects for clients like Nike, Saturn and Microsoft.

"Ben and I are both creators first and software developers second," says Reas (pictured left). "It's not very common for artists and designers to be the primary authors of a programming environment, but this is changing. I hope Processing has helped to demonstrate that we don't need to rely only on what software companies market to us and what engineers think we need. As a creative community, we can create our own tools for our specific needs and desires."

The pair started to develop Processing while working toward advanced degrees at the M.I.T. Media Lab, under the tutelage of John Maeda (see p. 42), whose "Design By Numbers" project (an earlier programming language and environment geared toward designers) served as an inspiration for the software. Since then Processing's fans have been instrumental to the program's massive evolution—according to Reas, users have contributed over sixty libraries to extend its capabilities. Meanwhile, for Fry and Reas the software continues to serve as a means to their own artistic ends. Their time spent behind the computer has manifested in works at the world's finest galleries and institutions. Currently, a number of Fry's projects are in the lineup at MoMA's "Design and the Elastic Mind" exhibit in New York (see p. 14), while Reas at press time was opening concurrent exhibits at the Bitforms and Pratt Galleries in Manhattan.

What's the one piece of tech or software that you can't be without?
Reas: It's easier for me to think of technologies I would like to live without. I would prefer my personal world to be free of telephones and calendar software, but I can't function within other people's expectations without them. From the other side, there are many technologies that I feel that I need, but are not technically feasible yet in 2008.

Frye: I'd like to think that I could remove anything and still move along fine. I strive to be away from laptops, cell phones, and the internet at least a couple days a year. As long as I have books or music instruments or a sketchbook or something I think I'll be OK. But these may be the lies of an addict.

Tell me a little bit about your backgrounds.Where are you from, what have you studied? You both hail from the M.I.T. Media Lab—what did you learn from your experience there, and how did you arrive at what you're doing now?
CR: I've been drawing my entire life; that's the way I began to make images. I studied graphic design at the University of Cincinnati. That education encouraged a rigorous system-based approach to visual design. After working with print media for a few years, I transitioned into software (cd-roms and then the Web), and then I started writing software more seriously and began working with electronics. At M.I.T. I worked as a research assistant in the Aesthetics and Computation group led by John Maeda. There, my research into technology and the arts opened the way to my current work.

BF: I was interested in design and software as separate things since being young, so I majored in graphic design and minored in computer science at Carnegie Mellon University. In meeting John Maeda I saw a way to combine these interests in a way that was closer to what I wanted to do, since I found other combinations of the two like interface design to be lacking.

For the layperson, can you please describe what Processing is?
CR: Processing is a programming language and environment developed for the visual arts community. It's used by designers, artists, architects, and people in many other fields to create images, animation, and interactions through writing code. Alternatively, it's also used by engineers and researchers for the same reasons. Processing is comfortable for visual people because it's specifically for making images and it's comfortable for people who already know how to code because the programming language is familiar. For some people, it's a way to develop a deeper understanding of how software works. For others, it's a convenient way write software.

BF: Software that makes it easier to create visual things.

Why/how did you go about developing it? What roles did each of you play in the development?
CR: We both actively discuss every component of the project from the development of the language, the programming environment, the support infrastructure, and the website. We co-wrote the book Processing: A Programming Language for Visual Artists and Designers that was published in Fall 2007 by M.I.T. Press. In getting down to work, Ben is the code monkey and I push pixels.

BF: When it comes down to it, Casey has more responsibility over the externally-facing things (like curating the exhibition, and documenting the software), and my part is more internal (like making the software behave properly, and fielding bug/feature requests). Somehow we manage to work as one mind, even if our hands are doing separate tasks.

Why do you think it's been so well-received by the creative community?
CR: The creative community is the primary audience. Ben and I are both first creators and software developers second. It's not very common for artists and designers to be the primary authors of a programming environment, but this is changing. I hope Processing has helped to demonstrated that we don't need to rely only on what software companies market to us and what engineers think we need. As a creative community, we can create our own tools for our specific needs and desires.

BF: This is probably better fielded by members of the community... I agree with Casey but there's not much we can say about this without being presumptuous.

What have been the new developments in Processing since you first created it? Where do you hope to see it go?
CR: We starting working on Processing in the summer of 2001 and it has branched in many unexpected ways along its journey. The new developments have mostly originated with the community of people using Processing. Processing is open-source software, which means the source code is available for everyone to see and modify. Largely because of this, many people contribute to the project by writing libraries. There are over sixty contributed libraries that extend Processing to do things far beyond what we originally imagined. For example, libraries have been built to run many screens at the same time (Most Pixels Ever by Dan Shiffman and Chris Kairalla), to help build graphic interfaces (controlP5 by Andreas Schlegel), and to execute advanced computer vision (BlobDetection by v3ga).

BF: My bottom line is that I want more designers to use computation to move their work along. So if Processing gets other people to create things that they couldn't with commercial software then I think that's a great success. As for where it should go, I think the most interesting things in the next few years are at opposite ends of the spectrum—large scale installation work and mobile/small-scale computing.

Your careers/work represent an intersection of design/art/technology. How do you characterize your own approaches/points of view as creative people?
CR:With Processing, I'm contributing to one of many initiatives to make it easier for designers and artists to understand and work with technology. As an educator (I'm a professor at UCLA in the Design | Media Arts department) I'm trying to challenge students to think first about ideas and then to challenge and support the realization of their ideas. Independently, I pursue a line of visual research and exploration. My visual ideas are naturally expressed through writing software.

BF: I like working with data, and code is my tool of choice for doing so. I think I may have answered this question better in my previous answer.

What sorts of avenues does technology open up for you as artists/creative people? Are you faced with any sorts of limitations when it comes to bringing your art to the general public/or the art world?
CR: I think those limitation have largely eroded over the last ten or so years. There are works that utilize sophisticated electronics and software in public art installations, galleries, and museums everywhere. This greater intersection is fostered by cheap hardware, open-source software, and their integration into education within design and art institutions. Working directly with software and electronics is no longer considered high tech. For example, my students at UCLA are fearless; they tackle any technical challenge in the service of their ideas.

BF: I agree wholeheartedly.

What's the biggest creative challenge you've faced in recent years?
CR: Learning to discuss and write about my work has been the greatest recent challenge. I'm still working on it, but I'm in the process of expanding by reading activities. This is a conceptual challenge, but I've had to overcome technical difficulties in the past. In 1998 I decided that to make the work that I imagined, I would need to learn how to program computers at a much deeper level than simple scripting. I enrolled in C and C++ classes at NYU and a year later I started studying at M.I.T. It took a few years to become comfortable expressing my thoughts in Code.

BF: I'm not sure I'm terribly unique in this area, I think my greatest creative challenges are the same as anyone who creates things—finding time to make things, having confidence in your work, having the concentration to finish, maintaining the motivation to push yourself harder...and then continuing that process ad nauseum.

Given who you are/what you do, do you find it difficult to keep up with the changes in technology? How do you keep up to date with everything?
CR: I avidly read a few newspapers, magazines, and many blogs, but I've never aspired to become an expert in technology. I learn what I need to know to create my work. Once I reached a certain level of technical proficiency and understanding of how software and hardware works, it's not difficult to learn more when I need to.

BF: I think it's impossible to keep all that up to date, for me it's more a question of following things that you're curious about. The danger being having too many things that are interesting which can be distracting.

What's the one piece of tech/software/hardware you can't be without? What would life be like for you without it?
CR: It's easier for me to think of technologies with I would like to live without. I would prefer my personal world to be free of telephones and calendar software, but I can't function within other people's expectations without them. From the other side, there are many technologies that I feel that I need, but are not technically feasible yet in 2008.

BF: I'd like to think that I could remove anything and still move along fine...I strive to be away from laptops, cell phones, and the internet at least a couple days a year. As long as I have books or music instruments or a sketchbook or something I think I'll be OK. But these may be the lies of an addict.

What/who are your biggest creative inspirations? Why?
CR: Over the years, I've become obsessed with a few art movements. I've been working my way to the present. First it was early 20th Century (Lissitzky, Schwitters, Moholy-Nagy, Duchamp, et al.), then kinetic art (Tinguely, Calder, et al.), then experimental sound composition (Cage, Reich, et al.), then conceptual/system art (LeWitt, Haacke, et al.). These histories forms the foundation for my current work in software. I was very inspired by the work of the Visual Language Workshop and the Aesthetics and Computation Group at the M.I.T. Media Lab and that's why I chose to study there.

BF: It's tough for me to point out specific examples since there aren't many cases where things were so overwhelmingly influential, but most of my inspiration comes from books, movies, typography, science research, etc. Given a particular project, it tends to vary a lot. The inspiration for Processing, for instance, comes from learning programming from people who were kind enough to share their code with a ten-year-old, and projects like Maeda's Design By Numbers.

www.processing.org
http://reas.com/
http://benfry.com/
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