Andi McClure is an artist whose main medium is code. She uses proverbial `1`s and `0`s to make games and game-like creations, a programming language called Emily, and digital sigils. Andi and I chatted on Skype recently about these various projects and her artistic practice(s).
This is the full transcript, which is messy like most IM conversations. I sent a collection of quotes to the newsletter subscribers.
[2/12/2016 5:46:21 PM]
Sonya Mann: hi!
Sonya Mann: how are you this fine evening?
Andi McClure: Hello!
Andi McClure: Hello?
Andi McClure: Can you hear anything I am saying?
[At this point Andi tries to call me on Skype and it doesn’t really work.]
Andi McClure: Okay, testing one more time: Can you hear me?
Sonya Mann: aha! got that!
Andi McClure: ah! cool!
Andi McClure: apparently i needed to upgrade Skype before we could talk *_*
Sonya Mann: yay! software breaking all over the place! a fortuitous beginning ~
Sonya Mann: okay if I launch right into asking you questions?
Andi McClure: yup!
Sonya Mann: for starters, I’m familiar with (some of) your web-available work, but I don’t know much about you as an offline person. do you have a day job?
Sonya Mann: or like, what is the main thing you do on a day-to-day basis
Andi McClure: Yeah! I write software for a living. I’m pretty meticulous about not talking about my employers in my online mode, though.
Sonya Mann: Ah, gotcha.
Sonya Mann: that’s good opsec!
Andi McClure: I try!
Sonya Mann: how did you get into coding / learn how to program?
Andi McClure: But, I’ve worked for a variety of software companies over the last ten-fourteen years. Generally doing enterprisey stuff with nothing to do with my web art 🙂
Andi McClure: I got in pretty early? My parents had an apple // when I was 6, and it had BASIC in the bios, so if you turned it on without a disk in and then entered the “force quit” key sequence it would crash you into the BASIC prompt, and I got books from the library that had BASIC programs in them and I’d enter them in one by one.
Andi McClure: And then I could mimic a very small number of the things those programs did.
Andi McClure: Later I got into this thing called Hypercard Apple used to make, then something called FutureBASIC which was probably where I made my first real software, and then… there was this really cool thing called ACE Computer Camps back in the 90s where you’d go for a week and learn to program, I went there one summer and learned C, and then by the next summer I was working there.
Andi McClure: So basically I banged my head against it for ten years until I sort of started to understand what I was doing 🙂
Sonya Mann: do you remember what was initially appealing about it? like, why you kept trying to fiddle and build things?
Andi McClure: Um, I guess I just had this drive to make stuff. I didn’t really question it. I guess at the beginning, when I was making things, I seemed focused on making worlds people could dip into? all my BASIC programs were grossly simple text adventures, and hypercard I was all making point and click adventures (it’s suited for that, it’s technically the program Myst was eventually made in)
Andi McClure: When I was a teenager the idea of making video games was really captivating to me. I played a lot of video games and the idea of being able to design my own was just captivating. But I wasn’t good enough at programming to make anything nontrivial and back then we didn’t have the easy accessible tools we have now. (Once hypercard went away anyway)
Sonya Mann: I assumed you played games early on as well as making them? Did you have favorites?
Andi McClure: i played a lot of games *_* i liked nintendo stuff, mario and mega man and the generic things, and then jrpgs.
Sonya Mann: jrpgs!!!!
Andi McClure: JRPGs .<3
Sonya Mann: it’s weird how crazy influential those were
Andi McClure: i did get REALLY into the stuff the Miller brothers made. Cyan? Before they made Myst they had a series of very strange games that were sort of like proto-mysts
Andi McClure: they were all made in Hypercard, and they were like Myst with no goals. you’d explore these bizarre alice-in-wonderland worlds that were full of stuff that reacted in funny ways when you clicked on them.
Sonya Mann: that sounds a lot like the internet at large =P
Sonya Mann: I click on things and get all sorts of reactions
Andi McClure: heh
Andi McClure: when I was REALLY young… there was a series of apple // games made by a company called The Learning Company? They were by Warren Robinett, who was the guy who made Adventure for the Atari 2600. And they were all based on this sort of similar engine where you could move a little person around a map and pick things up and drop them
Andi McClure: but they made a bunch of different games with that basic premise, and one was this AMAZING thing called Robot Odyssey
Andi McClure: you were exploring this little world, and you had a little robot companion
Andi McClure: but you could crawl inside the robot, and there was a room in there, full of these little mechanical devices, and you could move the devices around and connect them with wires…
Sonya Mann: whoa
Andi McClure: and you could sort of “program” the robot by hooking up the wires between the devices? It was SUPER COOL
Andi McClure: i played this when i was like seven, and then like 15 years later i get to college and I take an introductory electrical engineering class
Andi McClure: and it turns out that the “devices” in the game were like, literally, the standard digital gate symbols from digital design
Sonya Mann: that’s beautiful
Andi McClure: like the class was like, here is how to build a circuit diagram, and it was literally just the same symbols from Rocky’s Boots/Robot Odyssey
Andi McClure: Warren was secretly corrupting a generation to be electrical engineers without even knowing it
Sonya Mann: kinda like Minecraft and architecture!
Sonya Mann: Minecraft and whole lotta fields, I guess
Andi McClure: It does feel like Minecraft.
Sonya Mann: do you conceptualize yourself more as engineer or artist? somewhere in between?
Andi McClure: A “game” that’s really about creating rather than just solving something.
Sonya Mann: ^ yes I love those
Andi McClure: Well, assuming I’m not at work, I do definitely think of myself as an artist. Code happens to be the thing I know how to express myself through, so that’s how I create art.
Andi McClure: Sometimes I think of the way I approach certain things in life (politics, day to day problems) as being sort of an engineer’s mindset, but if i’m writing code, that’s art.
Andi McClure: My programming language project is maybe not itself art, but I’m doing it with the goal of making art WITH it, so.
Sonya Mann: I think you can make the argument that it qualifies as art, but that’s a whole semantic mess of a topic. Can you tell me a little about dryad.technology?
Andi McClure: Yeah. Semantics are boring.
Andi McClure: sure. so dryad.technology is … so toward the end of the time i was making conventional games, i got in this pattern where the stuff i most enjoyed doing was making kind of small standalone toys?
Andi McClure: like things that i didn’t even care if they qualified as games. Just little minimally-interactive systems.
Andi McClure: I’d spend, like, a day making something.
Andi McClure: But then I’d have this problem that the only way anyone could see this little bitty thing I made, that I spent like a day on and that takes about a minute to two minutes to appreciate fully, was to download this 2MB .exe, and run it on their computer, and half the time have to disable their antivirus or something.
Andi McClure: So that was awkward.
Sonya Mann: ugh yeah
Sonya Mann: happens to me a lot with charming itch.io gamelets
Andi McClure: I eventually tried packaging a bunch together at a time into an “album” sort of (or that’s what Zolani called it), I called it Sweet Nothings, but it was a lot of pain, Sweet Nothings II i never got out the door.
Andi McClure: Anyway, dryad.technology is kind of my attempt to recreate that workflow I had with Polycode and the little “antigames” i was making, but in the web browser environment.
Andi McClure: It’s almost too simple to think of as a project, but it’s my new project, basically. I’m going to be trying to update it once or twice a month with just strange little single-page web apps.
Andi McClure: It’s going slower than I’d hoped. I made two little pages for it, and then the third thing was sort of a musical instrument. But that took longer to finish than I expected because web programming is just very awkward and unnecessarily difficult.
Andi McClure: So it took me weeks just to figure out how to get webaudio and React working such that I could do what I wanted to do.
Andi McClure: Hopefully once I’ve got four or five things up, I’ll get in a groove where I can make things quickly again.
Sonya Mann: I find it really interesting that you chose the word “dryad” and a lot of the language surrounding the project is somewhat mythological / magic-adjacent
Andi McClure: It will help a lot if WebAudio TR 2015 ever makes it into a browser. If I have that, and I have webgl, I can make my own structures, and it won’t matter that Web is broken and contentEditable is not actually spec’d 😛
Andi McClure: I like dryads! I identify a lot with the symbol of a dryad. it is easy to think of myself as standing out in the woods with leaves in my hair.
Andi McClure: dryads are trees that are also girls and that is very compelling to me.
Sonya Mann: hello we are the lady trees
Andi McClure: Yes
Sonya Mann: I like that all manner of witchery is flourishing online
Andi McClure: But, I decided… okay, this is sort of embarrassing, but the way i got the name was i spent all of december thinking, i’m going to start this new project, and it will focus around a website with some kind of weirdly memorable name
Andi McClure: and then i just spent all month typing different things into namecheap to try to find something that wasn’t taken
Andi McClure: and then i found dryad.technology and i was like NO. THAT ONE.
Andi McClure: but, it was the case that most of the things i was trying were … i was very specifically trying to find something that evoked a sort of a tension between something organic and wild and something mathematical and technological.
Andi McClure: like some of the ones i didn’t go with were “glitch dot flowers”, “fleshy dot rocks”, “screaming dot computer”
Sonya Mann: fleshy.rock :0
Sonya Mann: *rocks
Sonya Mann: that is
Sonya Mann: mildly horrifying
Andi McClure: thanks!
Sonya Mann: you’re welcome 🙂
Andi McClure: anyway once i had dryad.technology, that made it very easy to sort of run with that. i really really liked the idea of a dryad trying to design technology and what that would look like.
Andi McClure: i imagined that it would involve lots of crystals.
Andi McClure: i had this mental image of a tiny plant girl holding a wrench about as tall as she is, looking out over some kind of cryptic crystalline machine.
Sonya Mann: ahhhhh dryad programmer yes
Sonya Mann: I imagine she would explore the innards of the robot
Andi McClure: Again I’ve only got two things up so far but the descriptions are all going to be completely inaccurate descriptions as if the little toy I made was some sort of device built by dryads, with a specific purpose which is vaguely incomprehensible to humans but makes a lot of sense to a tree.
Andi McClure: If the musical instrument gets working, it’s going to be something like “language for embedding in wind chimes”, or something
Andi McClure: I feel this works with my artistic style because a lot of what i do is about taking something super mathematical and cold and trying to make it seem alive or uncontrollably growing
Andi McClure: glitch is good for that
Sonya Mann: this reminds me a lot of lolcats actually in a totally different way
Andi McClure: finding the fleshy imperfection in algorithms
Andi McClure: how so?
Sonya Mann: yes glitches are wonderful
Sonya Mann: the idea of like, “what would a tree doing computers think?”
lolcats is kinda, “what do cats think about their human-determined environment?”
Andi McClure: ah, i see
Sonya Mann: it’s not a perfect parallel >.<
Sonya Mann: anyway, glitches
Andi McClure: it makes sense! i do want to make sure this doesn’t feel like trees trying to use human technology and make sense of it. this is trees doing their own thing that may or may not have anything to do with you.
Andi McClure: a little bit i like the idea of art that seems indifferent to its audience. like, this will exist perfectly well on its own without you.
Sonya Mann: ironically it takes a lot of stress off of the audience as well
Andi McClure: maybe!
Andi McClure: i’m not sure if that thing i just said is very compatible with making art programs, tho.
Sonya Mann: art programs like programs that other people can also use to make art?
Andi McClure: Yeah. A few of the final things I made before I went on hiatus were just literally art programs. BECOME A GREAT ARTIST IN JUST 10 SECONDS (my collaboration with michael brough) probably being the most direct example.
Sonya Mann: you went on hiatus?
Andi McClure: Well, when I was working on Emily. If you look, I released Icosa and Scrunch in summer 2014 and did literally nothing, game/art wise, until dryad.technology went up on new year’s 2016.
Andi McClure: i did one final ludum dare at the end of 2014, but that game isn’t even on my website.
Andi McClure: I mean, I was still *making* something, and there was definitely creative energy going into Emily.
Sonya Mann: ahh, I didn’t pay special attention to the timeline
Andi McClure: But it did feel like a hiatus. I was starting to feel like I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do with games, and I was like “I’m going to make some things that let me make games the way I really want to”
Andi McClure: no reason you would!
Andi McClure: i mean, a year and three months between releasing things is really not weird for an indie/art game dev. it only feels weird to me because i was releasing things at such a breakneck pace for a while there.
Sonya Mann: what are your thoughts on the community around your subset of indie games?
Andi McClure: I don’t know! Sometimes I feel like I understand it and sometimes I don’t. All I know is if I show up at Indiecade or GDC I find a bunch of really wonderful people who are wonderful to talk to about art. Things seem a lot more diffuse than they used to though.
Sonya Mann: why do you think that is?
Andi McClure: I’m really glad that Patreon is finally starting to solidify as a way for people to make strange small personal things. That’s a cool development.
Andi McClure: Whyw hat is?
Sonya Mann: why do you think things seem more diffuse?
Andi McClure: well… i think there’s definitely more people than there used to be, and as the community gets older i think people are starting to realize they don’t have to talk to someone just because they’re in the same artistic space so they’re splitting up into groups more. and then there’s the thing that i think a lot of the people in what i think of as the Small Strange Personal Interactive Art world are starting to maybe think of themselves as, or act like we are, something separate from “Indie”
Andi McClure: Whatever “Indie Games” was
Sonya Mann: I suppose most lovely subcultures must decay at some point
Andi McClure: I mean, it’s also definitely the case … maybe not to bring up unpleasant subjects, but I think the community really was hurt by the right-wing attacks on the community that started in late 2014. There were definitely people I can identify who either dropped out, or interacted with the community socially less. I’m probably one of those people.
Sonya Mann: because of the volume of abuse?
Andi McClure: the volume of abuse, the fact abuse suddenly was a daily thing you had to live with, the fact that suddenly just existing was going to be fighting a battle instead of this being “we are going to make things and express ourselves”. i don’t know. it is difficult to separate my own feelings from the mood in the community, so maybe i cannot speak accurately about things.
Sonya Mann: I think it’s probably pretty hard to understand from the outside, too.
Sonya Mann: to understand the emotional experience, I mean
Andi McClure: *nods*
Sonya Mann: is it okay if we wrap up for tonight now? I think I may have more questions for you, assuming you have time to answer them, but I want to let this conversation percolate for a bit
Andi McClure: sure thing! i might be out tomorrow evening but i’m usually on IM. maybe if you have follow ups it would make sense to send them to [redacted], if they are less interactive questions.
Andi McClure: thanks! 😀
Sonya Mann: okey dokey 🙂 thank you so much for talking to me! enjoy waving your leaves about this weekend ~
Andi McClure: thank you ! 😀
[2/12/2016 6:57:39 PM]