Universal Paperclips

Am I winning?

Am I winning?

I finished “playing” Universal Paperclips last weekend. This is a “cow clicker”, also known as an incremental game. Incremental Games often start out as web sites or web apps. Popular ones might make their way into an app store where you can pay for the opportunity to simulate work.

I’ve played a number of these, Cookie Clicker, SpacePlan, one based upon particle physics that I can’t remember…they all have this common theme. You start with something innocuous like making paperclips, or baking cookies, or reactivating your space probe with a potato-battery.

Each of these actions are simulated by a single click of the mouse. Click - you get a cookie. Click - you get a paperclip. As you click, things begin happening. You click enough cookies, you can buy a clicker to click for you. Keep it up, and you’ll soon have an army of grandmothers baking cookies. And then it gets weird.

“Universal Paperclips” works the same way. Make some clips, sell some clips, buy an auto-clipper, sell some more clips, buy a tool to automatically buy more wire. Soon you’re investing in quantum computing.

This game is an exercise in minimalism. While the visual aesthetic is “old fashioned internet” and pretty minimal, that’s not really what I mean. The game - in as much as it is a game - is a minimal pavlovian experiment. Proper actions are rewarded. Improper actions are not. The game logic or internal mechanics ultimately become management of an artificial resource. In this case you can trade paperclips and money for computer operations which you can trade for machines that make more paperclips and money.

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After a while the reward for clicking goes away, and the game becomes fountain of streaming numbers, getting ever larger and more and more ludicrous. Adjusting this or that changes your flow of the fountain. And then the space combat begins.

So...should I click it?

So...should I click it?

That’s the other aspect of these games that makes them work - the innocuous activity ultimately reveals something wholly opposite. Click enough cookies to reveal an eldritch horror. Make enough paperclips, and you create an artificial intelligence that consumes the universe.

Universal Paperclips is an unfolding epic story told through a silly game mechanic that pulls you in with pavlovian trickery. Universal Paperclips is evil, but is it art?

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All I Possess

Look at it go!

Look at it go!

I saw “All I possess“ linked on an Internet Art thread on Reddit.

It’s a straightforward idea - the artist (Simon Freund) is documenting everything they own on a web site.

At first the artist appears to live an incredibly minimalist life. But then you scroll. And things keep loading. There’s always more stuff. Each item is photographed against an off-white ground as if it were a high-end product in a boutique retailer’s shop in NW Portland, OR. The project is “supported” by Shopify - which lends heavily to the shopping aesthetic.

Freund has good taste in things - and I found myself tempted to click an item and shop for it, even though it’s already owned. I also found myself comparing my own possessions to Freund’s. Would mine measure up? If I photographed everything would my stuff look as good?

There is a small amount of glee in scrolling past something which I also own. Oh hey me too I own the same thing an artist owns.

I don’t have a grand unified field theory of art or anything, but once you get past the particular media or execution I think art comes in two categories.

  • Art that makes you think
  • Art that makes you feel

This art work, being the work of a conceptual artist, definitely succeeds at the former. But it also, perhaps accidentally, succeeds at the latter. In reviewing all of the items on this site, I become conscious of everything I own. I think about my own failed attempts at minimalism. I think about all those books that I know I will never open again, but I feel guilt for recycling.

If you scroll far enough, you will find that the artist possess old his own artwork. And well, of course he does. No artist sells everything, and no artist can part with everything.


When I saw this work I was immediately reminded of Sol Le Witt:

“LeWitt’s practice of photographing the contents of his Hester Street loft eventually led to the 1980 publication Autobiography, a composite self-portrait comprising hundreds of snapshots organized in a grid. His possessions are documented with a leveling, deadpan aesthetic: artworks by his close friends are given the same banal treatment as bathroom fixtures or potted plants. This indexical presentation belies the intimacy of the project, in which readers are invited to become voyeurs, peering into cabinets or scrutinizing personal notes on a bulletin board, admitting a certain fascination with the historical and personal circumstances of the artist’s life and work. Autobiography is read with different levels of specificity or abstraction relative to the reader’s knowledge of the subject—the items she recognizes, the extent to which the significance of a bottle of liquor or book on the bookshelf is registered. It exemplifies the project of LeWitt’s conceptual art: indexical clarity that recognizes, even elicits, the subjective and historical nature of perception and experience.”

Excerpt From: Kirsten Swenson. “Irrational Judgments.” iBooks. https://itunes.apple.com/us/book/irrational-judgments/id1054383969?mt=11

Sol Le Witt’s Autobiography is different in tone - it’s somehow more intimate in recording family photos and more focused on minutiae like keyholes. It’s not so laser focused on things. Freund’s approach to this idea, particularly the execution of the web site, frames all of their possessions as former things for sale. All of these possessions are ex-products. Le Witt seemed to be capturing evidence of his existence while Freund seems to be capturing the end of a vast funnel of supply chains, commerce, and kipple.

ReactJS as an art tool

The modern man's conceptual art studio, Visual Studio Code

The modern man's conceptual art studio, Visual Studio Code

My work life and my art life are colliding a bit lately. I have started using ReactJS for small art projects I make for the web after using the framework at work for work-like practical things. I recently wrote Guacamole Tips in ReactJS and a I rewroteShtacks in ReactJS a little while earlier.It’s probably entirely unintended, but the design principles of ReactJS make it a good artistic tool.

When I started tinkering with the idea of making net-art projects I was pretty dedicated to the idea that I should write most things “from scratch“ barring some build tools or similar. Therefore, I didn’t use a framework for anything and wrote my own code to, for example, set up the download link on Shtacks.

In retrospect, this was silly. What I wanted was to write minimal code that was future-proof and broadly compatible with modern browsers. I was worried about the “archival” nature of the work. But the brainy engineers at Facebook care about the same thing when writing the ReactJS framework, so why not profit from their contributions? Besides, it’s not like I grind my own pigments if I want to make a painting.

React is bricks

ReactJS is a popular framework for making web applications, and its popularity is spreading far and wide. If you use Slack at work - you’re actually using a ReactJS application. ReactJS resonates with engineers because it provides just enough tooling to make small components which can be clicked together with other components to do complex things.

Yeah, it’s basically playing with Lego bricks.

Each little component you might write for a React application is small and simple and is completely knowable. When these components are stacked together, complexity emerges. This is like sticking wheels on your Lego castle.

Art is object oriented

In my ReactJS art projects I create components with names that correspond with their subject matter. My web painting “Guacamole Tips” has a Garlic component. It has an Onion component. These objects are the subjects of the painting and they can be stacked and composed with other objects to make a piece.

Like any traditional painting, elements are arranged from background to foreground

Like any traditional painting, elements are arranged from background to foreground


In visual arts “composition” refers to the visual or graphic arrangement of elements in an artwork. In programming “composition” is a logical arrangement of small units to complex jobs.

In a ReactJS art piece - these ideas are the same.

I compose React components to appear in the art work and do their job together with other components and an artwork emerges.

Guacamole Tips


I’ve gone back to the well to turn an analog painting into a piece of net art.

I think a lot about time. I think about the strange nature of experiencing linear but relative time. I remember 3 months of summer vacation from school yawning out over the year like it had no end. Today 3 months blinks by and seasons suddenly change. I think about my hour-long train ride to work in Seattle and how long that ride is and how much time it costs me but how the experience of that ride is a fleeting vague memory.

When I woke up in Monica’s guest room, jet lagged and confused, I felt for a while like I had stepped out of time. Good travel can do that.

For this piece I wanted to capture this room again and express the feeling of time passing and thoughts bubbling up. When I was hunting around for a domain name for the work, guacamole.tips was hilariously available. An entrepreneurial person might turn this into a SEO rich link bait farm slathered in ads. But to me, it was just the sort of random brain flotsam that I had while waking up slowly in that room. So scribbled notes and ghosts of ingredients appear with the change from day to night.


All of the imagery was created using Procreate on my iPad. Text was hand scribbled with an Apple Pencil. The components are composited and animated using CSS3 animation and blend modes. The entire piece is executed as a simple ReactJS application.

Browser compatibility

All modern browsers should display the painting. Microsoft Edge does not currently seem to support CSS3 blending modes. I don’t care. While MS Edge is a great improvement over traditional Internet Explorer, it’s usage is a rounding error compared to mobile Safari and Chrome. Besides, I build for the future, not the past. Speaking of Internet Explorer, it will probably not work at all. I don’t care. I didn’t test it. Netscape Navigator 4.0 won’t work either.

This + That = This-n-That


I’m working on a long tail of typography for Shtacks. I just added a plus (+), an equals (=), and a hyphen (-). The parts of minus, en dash, and em dash will be played by hyphen in accordance with the traditions of our typewriting ancestors.

I also take notes in ProCreate.

I also take notes in ProCreate.

I don’t think I want to complete the entire ASCII character set with lowercase and whitespace characters. But I do at least want brackets, braces, colons, and semi-colons so I can type a painting of programmer humor. I think also I need an ellipsis for pregnant…typographical pauses.

Once I get these last characters complete, I’d like to look into creating a mobile app. I want to inject type-written paintings into text messages and share them directly to Twitter and the like.

I also experimented with Emojipacks and created some custom emoji for Slack. The site above sells packs of emoji commercially (I love this) and also created this clever little widget which automates the uploading process for you. While this is fun, I think the real fun will be to create a small Slack slash-command so images can be dropped right into Slack. (Yes, Slack is the new exhibition space, why do you ask?).


Everything, Always, Everywhere


I just finished Rafaël Rozendaal’s new monograph “Everything, Always, Everywhere” and I am baffled that this book exists as a traditional paper art book from an small publisher. On paper. Like a cave painting.

The book includes a number of critical essays, an interview, photographs of gallery installations and other physical works, and also screen prints of many of his websites.

How is this not an app? Why is this not an ebook? Such a wasted opportunity! I can imagine an ebook where one page is a scrolling essay accompanied by audio of the author reading aloud. I can imagine turning the page to reveal a video of a net-art-website in motion. But no, it’s paper.

My favorite essay is by Kodama Kanazawa entitled “A hint of Japan in the works of Rafaël Rozendaal”. The essay is written first in English, followed by a translation in Japanese. It’s interesting to flip through the Japanese text to find a URL in English or one of Rozendaal’s off-kilter haiku. It’s the visual equivalent to hearing your name uttered from across the room.

The worst essay is by Christine Paul, “Remotely Distant Never Nowhere: The art of Rafaël Rozendaal”. It’s tedious museum-speak. It lost me particularly because of this passage:

“The simultaneously cartoonish and painterly language of Rozendaal’s net art projects is created through his use of vector animation, which allows for a cleaner, smoother, motion than moving pixels since images rendered and resized using mathematical rather than stored pixel values.”

This is both false and wrong. How are pixels “moved” if not mathematically? By nudging them with a pencil? Vector graphics are geometric shapes defined by points and mathematical curves and lines, yes. This much is true. But vector graphics (and video and 3D graphics) they are converted to 2D pixels to appear on a screen. Remember - “pixels” is short for “picture element”.

That is why it was wrong. It is false because while Rozendaal’s early website projects used Flash, which was a vector animation tool for the web, his current work utilizes the HTML5 canvas element which is a programmatic drawing surface for pixels.

I may have unrealistic demands on an art critic, but I think if you’re going to discuss the technical underpinnings of an artist’s work and how it relates to their influences, you should probably get the facts straight. It’s like saying Andy Warhol was a lithographer.

The book itself is a joyful object, full of different weights and textures of paper. The cover is a reproduction of his popular site http://www.muchbetterthanthis.com/. It has a subtle relief that is pleasing to hold and run your fingers over…which is probably why the monograph is paper and not electronic. It’s a work of art like Rozendaal’s textiles and lenticular prints. But still. I’m disappointed I can’t carry around a portfolio of Rozendaal’s sites on my iPad.

Butter fingered tragedy

The naked core of an Apple Pencil

The naked core of an Apple Pencil

On Thursday I was working late and scrambled through traffic to get to studio to join my figure drawing session. I was there late enough that it was hard to find a place to work. I stood in between two easels. As the lights went out, the person to my right turned on their clip-lamp to illuminate their easel. I was blind. I stepped forward and back and finally turned 45º to keep the light out of my face. If only everyone carried self-illuminating drawing tablets this wouldn’t be a problem.

A ghost of a painting that might have been.

A ghost of a painting that might have been.

I got moving on a drawing. Still a little rushed. I made some drawing errors. But I liked the direction my colors were headed.

Then I fumbled and dropped my Apple Pencil. Its tip struck the concrete floor and broke in such away that the mounting sleeve is jammed well into the barrel, with no way to extract it.


I’ve already ordered another, it should be here Monday. I don’t put a case on my phone. I don’t shield my laptop in a special sleeve. I just try to be careful and not be foolish. But a pen is so easy to drop. Maybe I need one of those foamy pen-grips you can slip over the end of your pen so it stays in your clumsy hand. Maybe I need a pen-lanyard. Maybe I need to learn to paint with my fingers.

Turntable tempted

I mean it even has USB

I mean it even has USB

I am a mighty oak. I have $49.99 but I did not spend $49.99 on a turntable. I resisted and bought the cheapest 3’ HDMI cable I could find.

Before we moved to Tacoma, we lived in the St. Johns neighborhood of Portland, OR. St. Johns was a small town that was merged into Portland back in the ‘30s. St. Johns has it’s own little downtown and feels slightly different from the rest of Portland. It’s one of the more diverse neighborhoods in Portland, though new housing development and rising costs will probably ruin that soon.

On the West Coast, pizza is generally pretty poor. Recall that “barbecue chicken pizza” was invented in California. But here and there you can find a pizza place that understands that pizza is bread and you must make good bread first and then worry about the rest.

In St. Johns there is an old gas station that has been converted into a pizza place. They make a flavorful dough that bakes up with a chewy center and crispy exterior. It’s not the best I’ve had, but it’s very good for Portland. They sell whole pies or slices. On many Saturdays I would walk over and get a slice or two and a beer. The kids who worked there had a tiny little turntable and a milk crate of punk rock records. They played those records at full blast, distorting the sound and rattling the windows.

I paid for college making pizza, though it wasn’t in nearly as romantic a place. Not a small part of me wants to run away and join the circus get a job at that pizza place. If I buy the record player now then maybe I could borrow some of their records…