Casey Reas has been making abstract artworks with code for over twenty years. Crucially, he prefers that viewers experience his dynamic images as live “performances,” instead of screen recordings—that is, the work always should be generated in real time by a computer executing his instructions. (This is somewhat analogous to the difference between listening to a symphony live in a concert hall and as a recording.) In this way, he invites us to appreciate not only the outputs of his code—which are visually related to modernist art—but also the material and conceptual foundation of his work in the language of computation, which is his chosen “instrument.”
In recent years, Reas has used the popular software language Processing, which he coauthored in 2001, to produce a series of works that pay explicit homage to the icons of twentieth-century abstraction. As he notes, the forms of these works refer to movements ranging from “concrete and non-objective art to color-field painting and minimalism.” In METASOTO, Reas offers a “meta” reflection on the work of Jesús Rafael Soto, a Venezuelan Op and kinetic artist of the 1960s who explored the aesthetic possibilities of industrial and synthetic materials such as nylon, steel, and Plexiglas. Soto’s sculptural construction Bois-tiges de fer, 1964, is a Masonite board measuring over five feet wide and painted with vertical black lines, in front of which are hung thin steel wires bent into varying arcs. As the viewer passes in front of the work, the visual interference between the actual and painted lines creates a dizzying optical confusion. In the 1960s, this kind of “activation” of the viewer’s body using nontraditional materials was understood by some as a political act, insofar as it rejected the bourgeois model of art as expensive objects to be passively consumed.
In METASOTO, Reas uses live code that we experience via our browsers to reimagine Soto’s sculpture as a dynamic composition of black and white intersecting lines. The black lines remain static, while the white lines move over them in ways that can make the black lines appear to be animated. Clicking on the image reveals a new pattern (although reloading the work will begin the same cycle over again), and each edition of the work presents an entirely different set of configurations. While Reas’s work reiterates Soto’s embrace of technology to activate the viewer, it also invites us to consider what it means for the viewer to activate technology—or even create their own digital systems.