The Default Aesthetic
Vanilla flavored beauty, Etienne Cliquet, August 2002
(Translation by Jeff Guess, December 2002)

What is a default interface ?

  1. What is the origin of this text ?

    Almost unrecognizable, the Default Aesthetic can sometimes be a bit disarming for the user. Its simplicity may even be interpreted as an error and its content ignored. The Default Aesthetic is a product of the Internet and the Human-Computer Interface. The artist's collective Téléférique, which I’ve been a part of for three years, experiments with a default aesthetic on its web site. This text refers to and as examples. The Default Aesthetic is less about an author or his or her work than a collective idea, a context for working and living on the Web. Our interface lacks design. It wasn’t conceived by a designer, nor a human for that matter, but generated by a computer program. In computer jargon, " By default " refers to parameters defined when a computer program is launched, before the user has a chance to modify it. At start-up, the display is initialized by default2. Its appearance is defined by the program, which allows one to see the site. In French, " Défaut " comes from the old French " défaute", " défaillir " which means " to lack ", " to be missing ". In this definition, something that lacks rules or a belief system is beautiful or successful, a beauty by absence.

  2. Init interface

    A site always begins with the transfering of a file onto a server with the help of an FTP program (File Transfer Protocol), which is used to place the file in the correct directory. Although every site on the Web uses a branching structure of folders containing files, it is usually hidden from the user. Téléférique has chosen to show it. Our site gives access to a distant computer, usable by the members of our collective and visible to everyone on the Web. Connecting from any point on the planet involves scanning the micro-architecture of the hard-drive of our server located somewhere in the Parisian suburbs. One can see folders and the files they contain as well as the date of their creation, their size and maybe a short description. Connecting for the first time, those folders might remind you of your first experience with a computer or your first Internet connection. Who hasn’t gotten all excited upon turning on a computer and clicking on a folder for the first time. The world of the computer is for the initiated. Humans must get initiated with computers. Computers are initialized by humans. But if a human forgets something or makes a mistake, the computer corrects this automatically. The default interface3 can be considered a voluntary memory. We haven’t made a home page in the form of a book with the cover ripped off. One has direct access to the contents. Lacking a home page imbued with human intentions, display is relegated to the program.

  3. Interface and Interback

    A comparison can be made between the Default Aesthetic and a no man's land. Reassuring like a handrail at the edge of a precipice, disturbing like an administrative beauraucracy, such an interface puts the user and the machine back to back, "interback" rather than interface. An interface brings humans and machines closer, facilitating communication, whereas "interback" distances them. The machine shows its ass, a simple yet troubling gesture, which destabilizes the adversary. After a while, the user starts to find his bearings. He takes notice of what has changed and what has not from one visit to the next. Everything becomes tangible, localized by an address (URL4 or IP) but from one second to the next everything can change, files moved, renamed or erased. It's not a big problem if one has made copies of everything. Luckily, back-ups are always possible. Human relationships are much more complex and rich but we can't reboot when we have a system error.

Art vs. Design

  1. The monopoly of design

    Ten years after the Internet made its public debut via the Web, the creation of interface has become the indisputable realm of graphic designers (even in art schools). Fancy graphic page design tends to hide the deep rhizomatic structure of the Net. By abandoning this superficial layer, the default interface allows the machine to become manifest, producing its own cultural codes (the representaion of memory, time and hierarchy). Upon analysis, the graphical design monopoly is problematic. Architects, better than anyone could design a web site if one considers the architectural nature of the branching structure. Industrial designers seem more competant for the job considering that ergonomy is central to their work. Fabric designers might understand computers better than anyone given the historical link with the Jacquard loom.
    is a collective work. Several people participated in its construction and insure its evolution. You will not see a hegemonic graphical component but rather an overall Default Aesthetic. Such an interface is relaxing in that it breaks with the notion of originality, which depends on fashions and technological advances. On the other hand, the question is not to prohibit graphic design on our server. Locally, anyone can choose an aesthetic in the directory in which his or her work resides. For marketing reasons, institutions, galleries and even artists systematically team up with graphic designers to pretty-up their work for a catalog or the creation of a Web site. Hostages in a hostile marketing environment, we have decided to fight back. Following the example of astromomers who have become active to fight against light pollution in Western societies which prevents them from observing the stars in the night sky, the Default Asethetic defines an ecological framework in an oversaturated communications environment. As Ralph Waldo Emerson said,“The sky is the ultimate art gallery just above us”. Without a doubt, this applies to the Internet and information in general. Advertising pollutes information. Creating a new site becomes more and more problematic because we are already so bombarded with information. We are creating an information immune system.

  2. Our paths separate
    The relationship between contemporary art and applied arts is evolving. Artists and designers seem to be inversing their respective skills and zones of influence. They are mixing rather than merging. While more and more designers are being shown in museums and galleries, artists are infiltrating daily life in a quest for anonymity. Design, once the realm of the everyday object is beginning to infiltrate the neutral space of the exhibition. This change of context has allowed many young designers to claim a new identity as author. Instead of daily objects they propose models (limited series, prototypes), lifestyles and trends. This has led certain artists to abruptly leave the exhibition space all together in the wake of its transformation from autonomous critical space to insidious marketing tool. Or never really showing there in the first place, which is my case. I've decided to occupy the space of the Internet. All I had to do was open the door and I was instantaneously there. In contrast to a proprietary "multimedia" interface, Macromedia Flash, for example, (599 euros as of July 10, 2002), a default interface is free. By default, information travels freely on Internet for everyone's profit and not just a select few. We are not poor. On the contrary we're rich without possessing anything. The necessary tools are freely accessible by everyone (public domain, GPL licence, Copyleft) even those allowing one to do e-commerce! Most of them are open-source, meaning that they can be modified by anyone.

  3. The aesthetic of use

    Design's warm welcome into the exhibition space has been made possible by the transformation of art museums into cultural spaces. Marketing and communication have become mainstays for the art museum. In the 1960s, one questioned why Parisian museums were empty. The advent of Beaubourg has opened art to mass audiences as well as opened it to include displines like design, dance and the cinema. The neutral white-walled exhibition space has become more politically active even in its marketing. If art, design and marketing have become more and more intertwined, are their intentions really the same? Do art, design and marketing use the aesthetic in the same way, with the same goals.
    Interviewed in Art Press (July 2001), M/M, the graphic designers of the art space le Palais de Tokyo, claimed to be more artist than the artists they were in charge of doing the communication for. Maybe it's a question of strategy, positing an artist-designer relationship based on collaboration rather than sub-contracting. If in fact one can speak of collaboration, they don't use the aesthetic in the same way. For a designer he aesthetic is a means and for the artist it’s the end result. The lines between design and marketing are becoming ever more blurred. They propose concommitant services. In No logo, Naomi Klein describes new marketing and branding strategies based on the image rather than products: abstraction of the brand as image at the expense of the object, conceptual added value, shopping space as "experience" (IKEA), viral marketing (Starbucks). The products are no longer important. Design and marketing overlap but don't use communication in the same way. Marketing uses it as a means whereas the designer uses it as a goal.

Programming default interface

  1. Machine Language

    Computer programs generate a default interface. A programmer writes the program, using code5. He writes text in machine language that is interpreted by the machine.
    Code is machine language like French is the spoken language in France. The coder speaks the same language as the machine. The default interface is often text-based by default. Text is more easily manipulated than images and also travels much more quickly over the Internet. In the default interface one can find traces of the programmer but nothing really personal or subjective (neuroses or libidinal impulses) but rather a wider distinction common to the community of artisans of information and networks. "Artisans" makes me think of the word hacker, the origin of which means someone who makes furniture with an axe. Anti-design! The artisan, the hacker and the artist are all free-lance, which allows them to preserve a certain amount of autonomy.

  2. Playing god

    Skimming through computer jargon dictionaries one finds two terms that can be assimilated to "by default": "canonical"6 and "vanilla". Canonical historically means “according to religious law'”. This religious reference may be ironic but this analogy is justified. The coder's activity, giving instructions to the machine, is a process of transforming words into actions. In almost all computer language how-tos the first excercise is the same - write a program which outputs "Hello world"! For Christians, the verb is defined as the word of God. The Old Testament states: "By the words of Yahvé the skies are created". Programming is like playing God. As an example, here's a simple program, a counter that outputs numbers from 1 to infinity:
    // in pseudo code the syntax is like :
    i=0          // counter initialization to 0
    loop:        // creation of a loop
      print i    // counter displayed on screen
      i=i+1      // counter incremented
    goto loop    // back to loop
    // in C standard, the instructions take one line :
    for(i=0;;i++) printf("%d ",i);
    One line of code suffices to generate an endless process. About as interesting as spinning round in a square room, I admit. The French word for computer, ordinateur, also has religious overtones. The person who introduced this word into the French language, Yves Perret, justified his choice as follows: In the dictionary Littré, "Ordinateur" is an adjective designating God as He who gives the world order.
    Recent object-oriented languages like C++ and Java, which appeared in the1990s, reinforce the reification of computer code, accentuating its materiality. Object-oriented languages consider each problem as a class from which objects are created as instances. Object-oriented languages allow you to manipulate a concept as an object (Platonic philosophy). Each problem to be resolved becomes an object. For example, Eat with hands is a class, which has methods (to shock grandma, to amaze grandpa) and properties (speed of gesture, gross-out level).
    MOOs (Mud-oriented Object) are role-playing text-based multi-user spaces on Internet that use the same logic of manipulating text objects to create virtual worlds. Say I want to create a sled. If I want it to be red the other users will read that it is red. If a user puts my sled in another part of the game space, it will no longer be in its original location. The world opens up just by using words, without moving, sitting quietly in an armchair in front of a screen.

  3. Vanilla flavored

    The other synonym for "by default" is vanilla7 flavored, vanilla being America's favorite ice cream flavor, the default flavor. A vanilla program is a basic version without options like flashy buttons and menus. The American way of life and the standardization of taste are significative of Western culture and its capacity via language to unite and homogenize cultures. Programming languages are all written in English and originate in the United States. Instructions like Printf or the operators like if..then, switch, while, common to numerous computer langages are terms used daily by programmers all over the world on their personal computers. Computer code has become an international language like English and on a more fundamental level, the alphabet. Vanilla is to taste what programming is to language, standardisation. For Marshall MacLuhen in Understanding media, the Western phonetic alphabet which is used to speak many different languages using the same set of signs constitues a technique of uniformisation: "Civilization is built on literacy because literacy is a uniform processing of a culture by a visual sense extended in space and time by the alphabet." But English, as communication protocol between humans, and code, as communication protocol between humans and hardware, are used in different contexts. English is employed for the globalization of international exchanges while computer code (any programming language) allows private individuals to share the same interests, peer to peer. English can optimize the mergers of multinational companies while programming has been used to create a new operating system, which is free and not motivated by the rationalization of work and time (Linux). Vanilla brings to mind an old-fashioned dessert, modest but still delicious, a pleasant moment to share with friends, an elegance also embodied in the default interface.

  4. Spiritual and rational

    Should vanilla and canonical be thought of as ironic allusions to puritanical America, Christian fundamentalism being an extreme example? Despite the logical rigor necessary for programming, the vernacular language of coders is ripe with spiritual word play. Is it the rational rigor that makes programmers go a bit nuts. Logic pushed to its extreme limits often gives rise to impossible situations and uncanny worlds. According to Eric S. Raymond, the science-fiction that hackers love is a mixture of rationality and magic. Pierre Versins the author of the Encyclopedia of Utopia, from science-fiction to extrodinary voyages calls science-fiction "romanesque rational conjecture". It's no accident that hackers are fascinated by Escher's perspective tricks. It can be assimilated to doctors who love Dali's images because they are full of the sick and the damned.
    The Default Aesthetic represents a simple and light-handed response to a complex world. A default solution is a quick one. The Default Aesthetic looks serious but hides a gambler spirit. The Interface is initialized by default like the begining of a game. A game in which programs can be thought of as artists and search engines as excellent curators.

The Default Aesthetic

  1. My little bureaucracy

    Everyone is already familiar with default interfaces without actually knowing it. Every computer and operating system in the galaxy (Mac, Windows, Unix) uses them. Your computer uses the desktop metaphor, representing information as files within folders. Every computer is a little bureaucracy. This omnipresent metaphor resonates differently in different cultures, religions and ideologies. Imagine the Dalaï-lama checking his e-mail. Would the Default Aesthetic be Zen for a Buddhist, austere for a Christian, in accordance with the Islamic Sharia? Many daily activities are done by default. When you wash your hands in a restaurant's bathroom, there is a default water temperature. Have you noticed it's often freezing, so cold that often you end up not washing your hands, by default? Have you ever woken up so late that you get dressed in yesterday's clothes, by default; all day, you've got to deal with yourself as you are by default, a certain no frills beauty. It may seem insignificant but it's not, it represents a micro protest, tiny but symbolic. Imagine that you select your children's name by default, using the name of the Saint corresponding to his or her birthday. This could become problematic in that if your boy is born on the 4th of September his name is Rosalie.

  2. By default and Ready-made

    In the hands of an artist, the austere aspect of the Default Aesthetic can take on the allures of functionalism, suprematism, minimalism or conceptual art. But in fact there are no revolutionary or utopic pretentions. "By default" is more ordinary, although we can link it in some ways with Duchamp's ready-mades. Linguistically they are both idioms, "by default" is used as an adverb and "ready-made" is used here as a noun. An expression made up of a group of words, the idiom is often ossified by tradition, making its appearance in language by extension, by habit. In 1913, Duchamp borrowed the idea of "ready-made" from everyday language to describe contemporary art and the way it functions.
    A default interface is "ready-chosen" rather than "ready-made". We have installed our site and our server by carefully following the technical manuals. I would distinguish "choosing an object as an artistic act, an absence of making" and "setting up a server with default parameters, an absence of choice". This refusal of choice is motivated by a rejection of graphic design as the unique mode of existence for art on the Internet and in a networked society. Upon trying to imagine a painting by default I realized that it just didn't work. By deduction, I've decided that the Default Aestetic is network-based. Painting is almost strictly an individual art. Warhol and Basquiat made collective paintings, but two people don’t really form a community. "Art and Language" made some well-known group paintings but they seemed to be more about creating a label, an identity than making a group painting. Martin Kippenberger's paintings look like they were done by several people but in fact he is alone.

  3. All in the same direction

    Websites create human relationships because the Internet is group-oriented by default. But the Default Aesthetic concerns the permanency of relations between human beings and machines. We all look the same direction toward the machine, rather than towards each other. All of our bodies are hunched over a keyboard, facing a screen. But this doesn't necessarily mean that we are slaves to computers. Think of a group of demonstrators standing up to the government or to the G8. We turn our backs to interfaces and yet become comfortable with programs. We now live among the machines. Jean-Pierre Raffarin, the French prime minister, when speaking of income tax stated recently "we shall put the cursor on the priorities which (...) ", instead of the usual expression "we shall point at the priorities which..." (26/08/2002). In other words, the government apparatus becomes software. Wilèm Flusser in his book Towards a Philosophy of Photography gives an interesting definition of apparatus which conveys both machines and systems in general: « A toy that simulates thought and is so complex that the person playing with it cannot comprehend it; its game consists of combinations of symbols contained in its program; while fully automated apparatuses have no need of human intervention, many apparatuses require humans as players and functionaries. ».

[1] Designer : a person who creates and draws plans for things, usu. beautiful objects: She is a great designer of women's clothes (book covers, home interiors, etc.). The Newbury House Online Dictionary

[2] Our Web site is viewable with "mod_autoindex" module of Apache Web server. This module provides for automatic directory indexing. Our FTP is defined by the browser either Explorer, Netscape, Mozilla or any software to browse Internet. E.Cliquet

[3] Interface : (physical chemistry) a surface forming a common boundary between two things (two objects or liquids or chemical phases) 2: (computer science) a program that controls a display for the user (usually on a computer monitor) and that allows the user to interact with the system [syn: {user interface}] 3: the overlap where two theories or phenomena affect each other or have links with each other; "the interface between chemistry and biology" 4: (computer science) computer circuit consisting of the hardware and associated circuitry that links one device with another (especially a computer and a hard disk drive or other peripherals). Hypertext Webster Gateway from UCSD

[4] URL : Uniform Resource Locator. A standard way of specifying the location of an object, typically a web page, on the Internet. Other types of object are described below. URLs are the form of address used on the World-Wide Web. They are used in HTML documents to specify the target of a hyperlink which is often another HTML document (possibly stored on another computer). "The Free On-line Dictionary of Computing,, Editor Denis Howe"

[5] Code : Le code source est la représentation dans un langage humainement compréhensible du fonctionnement d'une oeuvre. Le langage est choisi initialement par l'auteur. Ce langage peut-être également standardisé, normalisé ou tout au moins reconnu et utilisé de la même manière par un ensemble de personnes. Le code source peut être complété de commentaires et de documentation en langage naturel. Le but du code source est d'être utilisé par un dispositif de transformation en langage compréhensible (processeur, compilateur, interpréteur) par une machine numérique (un ordinateur) qui donnera le code machine. L'utilisation de ce code sur la machine donnera l'oeuvre. Erwan Esnault

[6] Canonique : [very common; historically, `according to religious law'] The usual or standard state or manner of something. This word has a somewhat more technical meaning in mathematics. Two formulas such as 9 + x and x + 9 are said to be equivalent because they mean the same thing, but the second one is in `canonical form' because it is written in the usual way, with the highest power of x first. Usually there are fixed rules you can use to decide whether something is in canonical form. The jargon meaning, a relaxation of the technical meaning, acquired its present loading in computer-science culture largely through its prominence in Alonzo Church's work in computation theory and mathematical logic (see Knights of the Lambda Calculus). Compare vanilla. ``the Jargon File 4.1.0'' by Eric S. Raymond

[7] Vanilla : [from the default flavor of ice cream in the U.S.] Ordinary flavor, standard. When used of food, very often does not mean that the food is flavored with vanilla extract! For example, `vanilla wonton soup' means ordinary wonton soup, as opposed to hot-and-sour wonton soup. Applied to hardware and software, as in "Vanilla Version 7 Unix can't run on a vanilla 11/34." Also used to orthogonalize chip nomenclature; for instance, a 74V00 means what TI calls a 7400, as distinct from a 74LS00, etc. This word differs from canonical in that the latter means `default', whereas vanilla simply means `ordinary'. For example, when hackers go on a great-wall, hot-and-sour soup is the canonical soup to get (because that is what most of them usually order) even though it isn't the vanilla (wonton) soup. ``the Jargon File 4.1.0'' by Eric S. Raymond

[8] Hacker : [originally, someone who makes furniture with an axe] 1. A person who enjoys exploring the details of programmable systems and how to stretch their capabilities, as opposed to most users, who prefer to learn only the minimum necessary. 2. One who programs enthusiastically (even obsessively) or who enjoys programming rather than just theorizing about programming. 3. A person capable of appreciating hack value. 4. A person who is good at programming quickly. 5. An expert at a particular program, or one who frequently does work using it or on it; as in `a Unix hacker'. (Definitions 1 through 5 are correlated, and people who fit them congregate.) 6. An expert or enthusiast of any kind. One might be an astronomy hacker, for example. 7. One who enjoys the intellectual challenge of creatively overcoming or circumventing limitations. 8. [deprecated] A malicious meddler who tries to discover sensitive information by poking around. Hence `password hacker', `network hacker'. The correct term for this sense is cracker. ``the Jargon File 4.1.0'' by Eric S. Raymond

Links to others ressources about Default Aesthetic:
Le Jargon Français (Hacker french dictionnary by Roland Trique)
Ken Coar (Programmer of "mod_autoindex" module for Apache web server)
Kevin Hugues (Designer of Apache Web server icons , 1993)
Jean-François Pillou (author of a text about computer's history)
Ralph Waldo Emerson (International Dark-Sky Association)
Tour Martini (Aesthetic by default from point of view of Yves Bernard & Alain Geronnez )
Pseudodictionary (slang connotation of "by default", definition of lbd)
New Mediaeval Aesthetic (premice of the aesthetic by default, Rebecca E. Zorach, 1994)

  1. Thanks & License
    Thanks to my beta-readers Erational, Makoto, Robin and Sonia
    Special thanks to Jeff Guess for the english translation.

    Copyright © 2002 Etienne Cliquet.

    Permission is granted to copy, distribute and/or modify this document under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.1 or any later version published by the Free Software Foundation; with the Invariant Sections being LIST THEIR TITLES, with the Front-Cover Texts being LIST, and with the Back-Cover Texts being LIST. A copy of the license is included here.

  2. Readers contributed notes
    Suggestions about this text are welcome. I'd be very happy to hear what you have to say. I'll use it for myself to add some rectifications and new ideas for future versions. And it's here .

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