Coming to an art gallery near you: Software code

Cartoon of man showing off his framed code.
Credit: ITworld/Phil Johnson

The recent Algorithm Auction demonstrated the aesthetic value of programming code and a possible alternative to commercial funding for technologists


We all know that software is an important part of everyone’s lives today given all of the things it now powers, from computers to thermostats. But can the programming logic and code behind software be admired not just for its functionality, but also for its aesthetic qualities? Based on the results of a recent art auction, the answer seems to be “Yes.”

The Algorithm Auction, described by its organizers as “the world’s first auction celebrating the art of code,” was held last month. It was organized by Ruse Laboratories with proceeds benefiting the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum and featured lots consisting of, well, software code. The basic motivation behind it, as Ruse co-founder Fernando Cwilich Gil told me via email, was to foster a patronage type of system, as exists in the art world, to support the work of technologists. “The traditional VC model works for many technological ideas, so long as they have a purely commercial application,” Cwilich Gil wrote. “But for many other worthy ideas the current system stifles, disfigures or ultimately kills their essence. Finding the right patron is a powerful alternative that can benefit all parties, but most importantly, advances the idea itself.”

The auction featured seven lots for sale. Five were physical representations of famous code or algorithms, including a signed, handwritten copy of the original Hello, World! C program by its creator Brian Kernighan on dot-matrix printer paper, a printed copy (again on dot-matrix paper) of the earliest known version of Turtle Geometry code, 5,000 lines of Assembly code signed by its creator Hal Abelson, and a pair of drawings representing OK Cupid’s original Compatibility Calculation algorithm, signed by the company founders.

Two other lots were “living algorithms,” as Cwilich Gil calls them. “That means you can take the piece and pretty much do whatever you want with it: keep it in your collection, open source it, modify the algorithm, or start a company with it, even.” One lot is a set of JavaScript tools for building applications that are accessible to the visually impaired and the other is for a program that converts lines of software code into music.

What was the level of interest in these auction items, I wondered? “Massive and we were truly humbled by it,” Cwilich Gil said. 81 bids, in total, came in from all over the world, he told me, during the course of the nine days the online auction was open for bidding. All seven lots sold, with Kernighan’s Hello, World! piece generating the most bids. Cwilich Gil wasn’t able to share the winning bids with me, only saying they were quite happy with the results. However, PSFK reported that bidding for Hello, World! reached $4,000, and Wired reported that the OK Cupid algorithm received a bid of at least $1,800.

The auction went so well, Cwilich Gil told me, that Ruse Labs is already planning a second Algorithm Auction, to be held this August. He said they’ve already been offered “all sorts of interesting pieces” from technologists for possible inclusion. The next auction, however, will focus primarily on living algorithms that the winning bidder can use as he or she sees fit, since the real goal of these auctions is to support technologists in their efforts to bring their creative visions to life.

Who knows? Maybe someday you’ll be able to look at original Facebook source code hanging in the Louvre.

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