Why I Don’t Use a Screen Saver

Today I spent about an hour staring at my computer screen, unable to tear myself away. Not all at once, you understand — five minutes or so at a time. Or maybe it was longer.

I’ve been doing a little work learning Processing, which is a really good (though not terribly well-documented) program for creating real-time graphics. I started out by getting a colored line to bounce around in the display window. Then I added more lines and got them all to change color slowly, while leaving trails. Then I broke the image up into 30 large squares, in which slow overlapping patterns of color drift around. It’s thoroughly hypnotic. And it never, ever repeats — every minute something new is happening.

That’s why I don’t use a screen saver. Once the pattern starts, I just keep staring at it. My eyeballs have suction cups on the front.

The output of my little program bears a strong resemblance to some of the paintings my father did. The difference is, it took him days to do one painting. My program does ten or twelve new patterns every minute. I’m kind of glad he’s not around to see it. He might be amazed, or he might be as discouraged as jazz pianists were reputed to get, back in the 1930s, when they heard Art Tatum. Rumor has it, after hearing Tatum some of them went home and didn’t play for a month. They knew they could never be that good.

Not to say my software creation is as good as one of my father’s paintings, but it has its moments. I think you’d have to see some of the paintings from that particular period to understand what I’m getting at … and I don’t have any of those particular canvases anymore, so I can’t post photos.

Okay, twist my arm. Here’s a link that loads and shows my program in action. You do have to have a Java plug-in in your browser, you may have to assure the browser that you don’t mind the security risk — and don’t bother trying to view it in Internet Explorer, because IE can’t display it properly. (Why Microsoft should be so inept is kind of a mystery, isn’t it?) After about 30 seconds there’s a lull in the action, and you’ll think the program has stopped, but it hasn’t. All of the moving lines are off-stage, that’s all. Keep watching. Oh, and one more thing: If you refresh the browser window, you’ll get a different run each time. There’s some subtle randomization on startup, so that it never does the same sequence twice.

Does my little program have any artistic merit? Or is it just making eye candy? I’m not even sure there’s a difference. Not anymore. On the one hand, I’m compelled to admit that I would need a ruler to draw a stick figure. My hands can play music pretty well, but they have no ability whatever in the visual arts. On the other hand, skill was required to come up with code that presents a nice visual appearance — skill and a clear sense of what looks good. So maybe it’s art.

At the moment, though, it’s strictly minimalism. There are no events, just a seamless wash of moving color that goes on forever, always changing and yet never changing. I’m not a big fan of minimalist music; I find it dull. So I’m wondering how to create a piece of “visual music” in Processing that has a beginning, a middle, and an end. This is not terribly difficult at the coding level, but it’s not a simple challenge conceptually, because one doesn’t want to do something stupid or trivial. Our visual centers operate quite differently from our aural centers, so different perceptual factors and different expectations come into play.

Not sure what will happen next. If I come up with a good video, I’ll upload it to YouTube and link to it here. Or maybe just make it an animated web page you can look at in your browser. Processing will do that.

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