On women and Max/MSP

Wednesday, December 10th, 2008

At the end of the Jamboree opening talk with David Ziccarelli, there was short discussion about Max/MSP’s overt and obviously masculine user base - and how this concerns David. This is something I think we’re all somewhat conscious of - in interactive art work, computer music, and technologically implicated arts of all kinds. Diversity is key to the advancement of a form, in my mind, as it helps develop voice as well as helps integrate. Also - myself and Atau are currently recruiting for the second year of an interactive digital media masters course we’re running out of the Culture Lab, and so have become very interested in questions of heterogeneity amongst our student population.

Yolande Harris - one of four women in the room when David brought this point up on Monday - put up a good post addressing the issue a bit on her blog scorescapes.net. I thought it might be good to try and move the discussion over here, if anyone’s up for it! (See my first comments on Yolande’s blog.)

David Zicarelli - on women and Max/MSP @ scorescapes.net

To David Zicarelli - from a woman using Max/MSP!

Monday, December 8th, 2008

David Zicarelli, founder and CEO of Cycling 74, company behind Max/MSP, introducing the design decisions behind the very different Max 5. The design improvements really reflect an attempt to incorporate creative users needs, aiming for fluency in programming so that the creative process is allowed to take the foreground.
I particularly liked the feature of presentation mode which recognizes the different processes of building/programming and testing, allowing two different views of the same patch to be open and worked on at once. This division of the programming process and the interface starts to recognize the conceptual mismatch between the process of technical design and the creative goals. Why is it that many Max users play around with their patches without having a predefined idea of the outcome that’s needed? Why does Zicarelli express surprise at this? Musically, how close is this kind of working to improvisation rather than composition? Does Max/Msp facilitate a way of working that allows fluency of conceptual musical ideas and not just technical fluency?

In using Max/MSP I tend to push the material around until I get the sonic results I want. I don’t try to define the outcome before embarking on it, I concentrate on the process. I aim to let the ‘material’ - the data I’m processing for example - find characteristics audible in sound that I wouldn’t be able to predict before I hear it. Sound is not programming! There needs to be a possibility to play with the sound while building, to play with the programming, to change, to tweak, to experiment, to allow mistakes, to allow the possibility of discovering new ideas, and to ultimately shape sound in ways that are not limited to the conceptual thinking of the programming language that it’s built in.

This is why I like Max and still work with after 10 years as the program of choice for the work that I make. But, as was pointed out by Zicarelli, I am one of a shocking minority of women in the Max/MSP community of users. Why? Why do I like it? Why am I one of only 4 women in the room? It points to a larger problem visible in the minority of women in electronic music.

David’s attention to the male dominance visible in Max, is at least an acknowledgement of the problem. But it cannot be seriously considered by following with jokes on the female nature of the roundness of button/bangs in the graphic interface ;-) a joke that made all the men in the room laugh, alienating the women, and continuing to talk on a male level.

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