May 12th,

Creating Art Through Code


Interviewing Creative Technologists around the Globe

Creating Art Through Code

Casey Reas / ケイシー・リース

Art and Code

Ask a creative technologist

The theme of this interview series is about “creative output” and “technology.” By creative output, we define this as by someone transcribing one’s thought or emotion into something else which others can perceive. In that sense, TV spots and documentary movies, for example, are creative outputs. Technology is a tool for creative output. For example, technology such as filming equipment were used to describe what is like to fall in love as an creative output. In the same manner, technology such as musical instruments were used to describe the music that emerged within one’s head, as an creative output. At Dentsu Lab Tokyo, we call those who aim to provide creative output through the use of technology as “creative technologists.” Through the series of interviews, we will interview creative technologists worldwide and understand what kind of creative output comes forth through the use of technology. (This interview was conducted through online correspondence.)

This is our second interview. Since the last article which we interviewed Aaron Koblin who tells story through technology, we have interviewed Casey Reas who makes art with his code. He is a professor at UCLA Design | Media Arts program, and also the founder of the programming environment, Processing. Togo Kida from the Dentsu Lab Tokyo is a former student of Casey Reas.

※ Processing…Processing is a flexible software sketchbook and a language for learning how to code within the context of the visual arts. Since 2001, Processing has promoted software literacy within the visual arts and visual literacy within technology.

Casey Reas
Reas is a professor at the University of California, Los Angeles. He holds a masters degree from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Media Arts and Sciences as well as a bachelors degree from the School of Design, Architecture, Art, and Planning at the University of Cincinnati. With Ben Fry, Reas initiated Processing in 2001. Processing is an open source programming language and environment for the visual arts.

A Sketchbook to draw with Code.

Togo:Hello Casey, it’s an honor to interview you.


Togo: You’ve founded Processing, an environment to sketch with code. Since I’ve been exposed to this at UCLA, I’ve been using it since. Can you explain what Processing is, to begin with?

Casey: Processing is a way to design with code. It’s a way to make interactive media like installations, visualizations, and games, but it’s also used for creating posters, books, fabricated objects, and more…

The Processing IDE.
Togo: Why did you make Processing in the first place?

Casey: We made it for ourselves and as a way to teach people how to code within the context of the visual arts. We made it as a first programming experience and language for university students.

Togo: If I recollect correctly, when Processing first came out, it was originally used by artists. But then, the population Processing gradually enlarged, and as a result, going beyond the artists’ community, the users spread out to industries, such as architecture and communication. Looking at this shift as an artists’ point of view, what is your take on this? Do you think your initial thoughts and goals are shared with them too?

Casey:There was never one audience, it has always been used by hybrids. For example, by an architect who also programs, or a scientist who wants to make their own visualizations. It started out for university students and professionals, but it’s used more and more by high school students, researchers, and also within computer science programs. We have always discussed the idea of “sketching” with code as a way of thinking through ideas through short pieces of code.

Togo:There are no boundaries for how technologies are used. At Dentsu Lab Tokyo, there are technologists like me, but there are staff members who are expert in other realms. The usage of technology for creating something is solely dependent on how the individual utilizes technology.
Togo: Can you please briefly talk about your art work?

Casey: These are my works from 2002. I’ve defined elements of my work as a software and I got these results by executing the software.


Specifically, the viewer can place several points while interacting with the software to dynamically change the results. The viewer defines the input, and the visual output is determined by that.







Also, I was interested in having shapes emerge and grow over time. I have had interests in mass media recently, and made the following works utilizing the radio wave emitted from television towers.













How do you learn to sketch?

Togo: Despite the similarity in both expertise, as opposed to learn how to draw using a pencil, learning how to sketch on code looks intimidating for beginners. How do you teach them, and make them overcome that? Also, how do you go even further to let the students understand that writing a software is essentially, in a way, similar to sketch?

Casey: Think about how long it takes to learn how to draw. How about learning to write? What about learning to take good photographs? Most of my students come to college with these skills, but they have never written software or thought about it. It’s hard to start at the beginning but we do, and we do it with patience because it’s important. It’s essential to understand how the digital tools work – to understand how to read and write code to become truly literate in the twenty-first century. 

Togo: How do you teach your students about expressions/creative output which are unique to software?

Casey: We do it by looking at professional work and discussing it. This is the purpose of the Form+Code book. We mostly do it by making software and discussing it. We primarily learn through doing and making, through working on projects and discussing what we’ve made.




For instance, a student is given an assignment, such as “make a drawing which a shape follows the mouse input.” Individual students will write a software, and discuss the results and the code during class.

Your old code is on the UCLA archive too.

Togo Kida’s course work while at UCLA. Various source code and the results are viewable.

Togo Kida’s course work while at UCLA. Various source code and the results are viewable.


Togo: It reminds me of the past. Not just my code, but my classmates’ code are archived and they are all viewable. I think it really shows the process of making, thinking and learning. It’s what I aim while I work on projects at Dentsu Lab Tokyo.  

That is like asking Haruki Murakami if the act of writing down his thoughts limits his expression.

Togo: Upon looking at your work, I see there is a strong connection with the concept of process, and I believe this relates strongly with Processing itself. Did you make Processing in order to explore the concept of procedural drawing which you had originally, or did the idea of procedural drawing come after you made Processing? It would be helpful if you would refer to your past works.

Casey: We named the software “Processing” to place an emphasis on process, rather than final results, so the two have been intertwined since the beginning. In my artworks from about a decade ago, for example “Process 6”. [リンク挿入] the more important code isn’t written in Processing, it’s written in English and it can be translated to any language. The foundation of the work is a system that exists outside of a specific notation.




Togo: Let’s take a look at the instruction, or the code.

“Position three large circles on a rectangular surface. Set the center of each circle as the origin for a large group of Element 1. When an Element moves beyond the edge of its circle, return to the origin. Draw a line from the centers of Elements that are touching. Set the value of the shortest possible line to black and the longest to white, with varying grays representing values in between.”

It’s a set of relationships between shapes that unfold in time that can be described with English or Japanese as well as with computer code. I write code to perform the instructions.
Togo: Do you think the act of writing a software limits or defines the individual’s approach to make something? Does the mindset of writing a software affect the creative output? Is it a positive effect? It would be helpful if you would refer to your past works.

Casey: I think every medium (and material) affects the mindset and the output. In the last year, for example, I’ve been learning more about ceramics and choreography than ever before. I’m listening to other artists discuss their work and process and I see similarities across a wide range of media. So, writing software certainly affects the way ideas flow and are expressed, but that’s true of every type of art and design. I couldn’t realize my work from the last fifteen years without understanding how to code. Learning how to code enabled me to think in the way that I needed to in order to make my vague ideas and intuitions real. This is true of every work that I have made.
I think the core question you are asking is similar to asking Haruki Murakami if the act of writing down his thoughts limits his expression. I think the answer is “yes, it does” but it does so in a way that makes it possible for them to be expressed clearly and to other people.

Togo: After Processing, there came environments such as Cinder(C++), Nodebox(Python), openFrameworks(C++) which were based on other programming languages. What is your take on this movement? Do you have any thoughts for other environments that are out in the public?

Casey: From that list, Processing and openFrameworks have the same origin, a library called ACU that was used in the Aesthetics + Computation Group at the MIT Media Lab. Cinder was completely different and Nodebox is different because of the base language, Python. NodeBox was forked from DrawBot, much to the disappointment of it’s original creators. Processing has many origins, most specifically Design By Numbers by John Maeda and PostScript by John Warnock et al. I used to keep a Wiki page of related languages and projects and there were dozens — there is so much wonderful activity and all of it has an audience. In another area, there’s Max, vvvv, and Pure Data. Also, we can’t forgot the impact of HyperCard, Director, and Flash in this story and going back further, BASIC and Logo. It’s a deep, long history.

Togo: I want to shift the conversation a little more to the advertising industry. Historically, in the advertising industry, upon presenting and idea to the client, “pen” and “paper” were the defacto standard tool used to describe an idea. However, as more and more interactive contents were introduced to the world of advertising, merely using pen and paper was not enough to describe the idea. Upon explaining an idea to others that takes in interactivity and generative aspect incorporated, what do you think is the best way/method to do so?

Casey: Pen and paper work well when you’re sketching things that will be printed — meaning the final output is similar to pen and paper. Imagine that you’re making a building or a sculpture — it’s good to get out the cardboard or clay to you can experience the space. Now imagine you’re making software. It’s important to eventually sketch with code before making the final work. It always starts with ideas and sketching with a pencil, then it moves into messy sketching (prototyping) with code, then finally, some clean code to realize the final work.

Togo: Thanks for the insightful talk! Looking forward to hear more from you.

[Post Note]

Digital creation has become something common, so writing a software and interacting with it is not a rare thing anymore. However, Casey Reas reminds me the importance of knowing the tool upon creating something. If one is trying to draw something with pencil, knowing the physicality and usage of a pencil directly relates the output. The same goes for writing a software. In that sense, making art with code would not be something uncommon.

Upon creating Processing, Casey has introduced thousands of people into the realm of using software as a tool. Many artists have gained access to write software, and started to explore the possibilities.

(Interview by Togo Kida / Written by Naruki Higashi)


Dentsu Lab Tokyo