Declarations (FRART 2023)

This text served as an application for a research proposal for FRART 2023

Artistic research project overview

(5,000- words max.)

Main language selected: English

Type of instrument: FRArt Research project (PDR-FRArt)
Full name of the main author: Doriane Timmermans
Shortened title of the project (40 characters max., including spaces): Declarations

Note summarising the project

Declarations is a research into the poetic materiality of the CSS web-standard (Cascading Style Sheets) and its echoes on design and artistic practices. Declarations is a love letter to the crafts of shaping with language.

Cascading Style Sheets

Cascading Style Sheets (CSS) is part of the ground matter of websites, with HTML (HyperText Markup Language) and JavaScript. Though this metaphor has its limits, we could say that HTML creates the objects, CSS gives them shape, and JavaScript allows them to activate. CSS is both a programming language and a standard, with designing the web being the kernel of its practices. It tells to the apparatus of web-technology (a browser1, a screen, a phone, etc) how the elements of a web-document should present themselves and flow2. The ways in which texts flow on a screen, typographic choices, more-or-less griddy or flexible spaces, hyperlinks and buttons appear clickable, unfolding menus, notifications boxes and messages bubbles; but also colors, scrolling, animations and responsiveness, all of them manifest themselves on our screens through this layer of CSS.

From a web that was thought without fonts or colors, a web of documents, slowly transforming into a web of apps and consumerism that revolves around a few centralized platforms, the CSS standard has since been bent in many directions. The traces of these transformations are hints on how different actors have forced their point of view on what it means to shape 'content' on the web. Today, everyone who interacts with technology has to go through a layer of CSS: on every website, social network or app. But CSS does not only live in the browser: it lives in emails, pieces of software and operating systems. CSS is also not bound to screens as it is more and more used to produce printed documents, notably as an alternative publishing practice3. Writing CSS has become part of the job of many people: developers, designers, publishers and websites amateur·ices. As more and more of our life happens on a screen, design affects our lives and our narrations around technology, as well as aesthetics and cultures. At it's core, Declarations re-thinks how the language of CSS shapes the relation to our (technological) environment and investigates its narrations.

Poetic Material

CSS has an ambiguous nature: it's both a language and a material. Unlike most programming languages it doesn't work around algorithms, but by describing what should happen. By shaping through language, it weaves intentions, narration and meaning into them, as well as it creates visual cultures. The research postulates that the relations between language and design in CSS induces inherent poetics on the material.

"I believe every material has a grain, including the web. But this assumption flies in the face of our expectations for technology. Too often, the internet is cast as a wide-open, infinitely malleable material."

— Frank Chimero, The Web's Grain (2015)

However, for practitioners in the field of design, its singularities as a material are often taken for granted or forgotten as some kind of technical or purely functional artifact that we have to accept. The research will use artistic gestures in order to talk about CSS ambiguous nature and bring it somewhere else than from it's purely functional technicalities.

Transdisciplinarity

The research is initiated and coordinated by Doriane Timmermans, and working in togetherness with a variety of practices. As a daily CSS writer from both digital art and graphic design, she has become intimate with its materiality in different environments, each with their respective technical, economical and aesthetical constraints. She is part of Open Source Publishing, a graphic design collective that works with open-source and libre softwares and investigates the affordances as well as non-neutrality of digital tools.

From the different web-standards, the research decides to focus on CSS from an observation: seeing an ensemble of spread, alternative gestures that revolve around CSS, in ways that deviate from the standardized web and design industry, and where its role seems to escape from a purely technical position. Those diagonal CSS-based practices gather internet artists, alternative designers, hacking developers, and makers of handmade websites. However CSS is still too often approached as a mean, putting its materiality and specificity aside, and those experiment are often presented as "tricks" where it could be claimed as a form of crafts.

"In today's highly commercialized web of multinational corporations, proprietary applications, read-only devices, search algorithms, Content Management Systems, WYSIWYG editors, and digital publishers it becomes an increasingly radical act to hand-code and self-publish experimental web art and writing projects."

— J.R. Carpenter, A Handmade Web (2015)

Declarations aims to bring together a local network of CSS artisans, by creating moments where practitioners can cross paths in a transdisciplinary artistic environment. Transdisciplinarity in the research is both a political and social choice as it is a mean to constantly shift our views. Declarations starts a process of documenting and collectivizing knowledge on the alternative crafts of CSS.

Declarations invites the expertise of Open Source Publishing and Varia. Within the project they'll research collaborative digital tools and spaces, initiate conversations, and start forming a larger network of CSS practices.

Artistic note to develop the proposal and its major axes of inquiry

Through dedicated research time for the research coordinator and two worksessions, the project will investigate theoretical questions, and experiment artistic gestures, in order to form a corpus of material on CSS poetics and politics. The research will revolves around the following axes and questions, influenced by political and situated motivations detailed here.

Language & materiality

CSS has an ambivalence as a material and a language. The fact that CSS is text-based fundamentally differentiates it from other design paradigms that imposed themselves as the normative way to publish with software4. In CSS, there is no fixed canvas onto which we visually compose, no tools we can select from a toolbar, no other files to import: we no longer place elements with gesture but with words. A design becomes as much about its visual implications rendered by the browser as it is about the text that declares it. This particular paradigm of the web hybridized design practices, extending to a vastness of publishing practices.

"My favorite aspect of websites is their duality: they're both subject and object at once. In other words, a website creator becomes both author and architect simultaneously."

— Laurel Schwultz, My website is a shifting house next to a river of knowledge. What could yours be? (2018)

The research proposes to investigate how designing with language has hybridized design practices. It asks for new methods to approach CSS that acknowledge its duality as a literary and visual material, or as Laurel Schwultz puts it how it makes us "both author and architect simultaneously".

As it by uses a set of defined and limited English (key)words taken from the common language (and numerical values), it can feel both rigid and meaningful. An example can be shown by the following CSS line: "position: relative;". To say that the position of an element is relative to another can become a way to reflect at how we situate thing in relation to one another. In the same way we can think about the following CSS properties - casually parts of every websites - as symbols to be activated: background, display, border or transition.

Dina Kelberman - Web Poems is a series of artworks that are visible in two places at once, the visual web-elements transforms themselves as does the code of the page, using custom HTML tags as narrative elements.

Declarativeness (unfold CSS techno-poetics)

CSS is a declarative programming language, meaning it "expresses the logic of a computation without describing its control flow". Programming languages that we most often use and quote aren't declarative, but imperative: we precise explicit steps for the program to execute, creating algorithms - like a recipe. Declarative programming doesn't work by precising the how, but by declaring (or describing) the outcome directly - more like the description of a meal. So in CSS, we're not building sequences of actions, we're declaring direct intentions. Every sentences of CSS, technically a couple of a property and a value inside of a selector, is called a declaration. The research investigates how, similarly to the choice of words we decide to use to tell a story, declarations in CSS can speak about our intentions, and encodes narrations into the things we make?

In her video essay Why Is CSS So Weird? (2019), Miriam Suzanne presents how this declarativeness is specific to the complex technology that is the web. From the start of the internet, websites have been thought as something that could be accessed through a multiplicity of interfaces: on a desktop computer, on a phone, a smart watch, and devices from the past or yet to be imagined. Moreover than the obvious change in screen formats, they have different web-browsers, colors, fonts; and have to deal with constraints like available bandwidth, user customizations and alternative accessibility interface like screen readers. This caused a big problem: how can we design for "a multitude of unknown canvases". CSS answers that we have to "accept to give up control".

"The control which designers know in the print medium, and often desire in the web medium, is simply a function of the limitation of the printed page. We should embrace the fact that the web doesn't have the same constraints, and design for this flexibility."

— John Allsopp, A Dao of Web Design (2000)

Declarativeness opens a new door because unlike imperative programming descriptive language allows for a fluidity of interpretations. We can use this fluidity to adapt to its context of execution, taddressing all the multiple canvases at once, knowing that we can't decide the final result with certainty. Unlike the printed design industry, the web had to let go the idea of a fixed image and make fluidity part of its fundamental thinking. CSS as a material, is a like a clay that is for ever wet, never baked. Declarations think of declarativeness as something fundamental yet complex about the way we dialogue with technologies. Declarations want to dive into what could be Declarative art, a form of digital artistic practices of its own that (could) already exists in the margins, distinctively from Algorithmic art.

Images taken from: Frank Chimero, The Web's Grain (2015). First: The Scrabble Game, by David Hockney, 1982, as a metaphor of the broken space-time fluidity of designing for the web. Second: Spectrum of Android Fragmentation sizes from OpenSignal, 2012, various screen formats that can welcome a webpage, overlayed on top of each others.

Standards, cultures & power dynamics

The edges of CSS as a (programming) language are blurry. CSS is a standard maintained by the W3C (the World Wide Web Consortium)5. At its core, CSS is a set of recommendations6, suggesting how things should be interpreted. Coming from dreams of accessibility and openness, it leaves the freedom to each software to follow or deviate from the standard. By having these choices, browsers vendors hold a political power: to bend the language we use to build the web ecosystem. History -- notably the "the browser wars" - showed that there are divergences about which logic should dictate its evolution. Preferences of default styling, properties considered superfluous and thus removed, or unofficial ones forced in the standard. Knowing whether it makes sense to use a properties has became its own science, culminating in the well-named website Can I use. Declarations aspires to learn from the historical divergences of opinions on the CSS standard, and see how artistic gestures could enter in dialogue with its evolution.

As with every standard, it would be naive to ignore the power dynamics that are at play here. While taking space on the web progressively became a synonym of power, corporations redefined the environment of the web, notably through CSS. It is then no surprise that actors like browser vendors, the GAFAM, and Adobe are particularly interested in directing its evolution. The very recent acquisition of Figma7 by Adobe for the unthinkable sum of $20bn is only a hint at how owning the means of webstandards is a source of power. Technical decisions lead to cultural impact. We can only imagine how the choices of what makes it to the CSS standard could have redefined our attention to various visual elements, its impacts on our lives expanding far outside of the screens space. Therefore it seems fundamental for Declarations to ask what are the power dynamics, as well cultural positioning, at play in the CSS standard? Who are the actors of this political ecosystem and what are their motivations?

Meaningfulness (design as an articulation)

Before CSS came out, web styling was a part of HTML, leading to a rather wild reality of compatibility problems. In 1996, CSS was proposed from an effort of standardization through its own interesting paradigm: the desire of a split, allegedly separating the "content" from the "style" by putting them into distinctive files, namely HTML and CSS. A binary distinction between the object and its shape that left a definitive impacts on web-design practices, compartmentalizing designers and developers by restraining them to different files.

"But what are we supposed to separate exactly? From the meticulous documentation of the discussions that led to the development of CSS, it seems that not much time has been spent on discussing the choice of the word pairs 'substance' versus 'form', their later equivalent 'content' and 'style', or even more outrageous, 'meaning' and 'presentation'. The ease with which the various working groups are able to put such porous concepts to use as binary oppositions, is not surprising coming out of the bureaucratic culture of the W3C."

— Femke Snelting, Dividing and Sharing (2008).

To say that CSS is about presentation would be a suffering limitation. As Femke Snelting suggests it, "webdesign is a work of articulation". By giving specific shapes and behaviors to web-elements, CSS articulate meanings. Uses speaks about intentions, and by repeating and spreading them, it creates visual cultures. Declarations argues that CSS, as a material that shapes (the web), has an deeper than skin impact and that it articulates meaning. Declarations emphasizes the necessity to to overcome the binary limitation of the industry, and to decompartimentalize practices.

Laurel Schwultz - Coding from Life, an exercice at Yale 2018 that consist on making still life drawing using only HTML and CSS. Credits for first image unknown.

Romain Marula teaches digital culture to painting students at le 75, he asks them to make a painting and then redo it using CSS, becoming both a description and representation of the original painting. This one was made by Corentin Deschamps.

Gesture (slowness and craft)

On the industrial side, CSS has been over-standardized and packaged into templates, frameworks and utilities, creating generations of look-alike websites, and ready-to-use services. Lots of them, like Wordpress or Squarespace, use the fact that you don't have to code as a commercial strategy. It's suggesting that design has already been solved for you by their experts and packaged into some CSS files, removing all senses of agency we can have in participating to writing the web. But the alienation caused by mainstream online spaces is more and more acknowledged, and desire to come back to some forms of independence and simplicity has grow.

"I want our personalities to come through not just in the words or links we share, but in the URLS we use and the code we write."

— Zach Mandeville, Basic HTML Competency Is the New Punk Folk Explosion!

There are movements of handmade websites that cultivate processes of "slowness and smallness as a form of resistance"8, handcrafting websites as we would build furniture for our room instead of buying them at IKEA. Libre and open-sources designers have been investigating the potential of HTML & CSS to produce and publish printed documents, as an open standard alternative to the hegemonic approach of Adobe softwares. Artists have also been using HTML & CSS as a poetic medium since the early days of the internet, notably in Net Art. But today this preoccupation goes beyond a specific art movement: by being an artist with a website you also become the authors of you own space, creating ways of telling a practice through web-standards. Sometimes out of necessity, sometimes out of curiosity, those contexts gave CSS the opportunity to be written closer to its facture, creating visual cultures and folklores.

Because of its complex history of exceptions, writing CSS can requires precise knowledge. By taking alternative paths to the standardized one, web artisans dived into the vastness of its fragile possibilities. Those crafts are often poorly documented or put aside as technicalities. Moreover the occasions discuss CSS uses are constrained: either by discipline (already suffering from the designer versus developer separation), or by the format (highly limited to teaching design or online code tutorials). Declarations creates moment for the multiplicity of CSS practices to meet and approach it like crafts. Through sharing stories and writing CSS in togetherness, it starts a process of documenting, and collectivizing knowledge, and make the fragile voices of CSS artisans heard.

Development and chronology of the proposal

Within the framework of FRArt, Declarations includes two workessions, bringing together a local network of CSS practitioners. They form an input for the research coordinator to collect and investigate example of friction and craft on CSS. Each of the worksessions will be followed by a respective public window that serves to make those experimentation echoes in public open formats. It will also launch a collaboration with Open Source Publishing (Bruxelles based) and Varia (Rotterdam based), through an initiation phase that focuses more on the how of the research.

Initiation phase

OSP and Varia are sollicitated for their expertise as hybrid artistic and designers collectives and their knowledge in collaborative practices. They will create web tools and spaces that can act as companions for practicing the research, coming up with alternative methods to explore CSS collaboratively, as such methods have yet to be developed. Those will be hosted online to become a platform:

It will also activate an inter-locality network, and help diffusing calls. Those tools can later be updated in-between worksessions.

This phase also includes a research into worksession formats and methodologies that are inspired by different cultures of doing: the ones of collaborative designers and from collaborative writing as a literary process.

Worksessions

The worksessions core is to invite CSS practitioners to share a story about their crafts and experiences with CSS. Participation will be partly on invitation, partly through open call, to ensure a diversity of practitioners and focus on the locality of Brussels. Taking part in the worksession you join the network by bringing in your own problematics. Worksessions include both moments of sharing stories and of experimentation. The knowledge on singular CSS uses will acts as a starting point to experiment collectively with the companion tools.

Even though CSS mostly happens on our screens, these sessions aim to be performed in the intimacy of a common physical space, a step away from our individual and non-oralised relation to technology. Discussing the language of CSS aloud can become a process to perform its linguistic nature and declarativeness. The places hosting the workessions have a role in relocating CSS into a transdisciplinary artistic context. Considered places are such as: La Balsamine, Meyboom-Artist-Run-Spaces, La Maison du Livre, la Bellone and local bookshops.

Public windows

After each worksession, the local participants are commissioned to co-create a public moment in various potential forms: in between online-art, installations, publishing and performances. They offer a new context to the stories initially shared by the invited participants to become something new. Those public moments aims to question local designers and artists on the current investigation of the research. Those events are seen as both of technical and poetical nature, and one of the dreamed achievement is to be able to weave with both at the same time.

One public window has been planned in collaboration with Constant, active in the fields of art, media and technology which includes (cyber)-feminism, transdisciplinarity and libre and open source software.

Open Source Publishing - Up Pen Down, "This performance was the first public moment of a research focused on that which is between digital type design and bodies. Letters and movements, dance notation and programming, digital codes and coded physical gestures, plotters and body parts interacted with each other and blurred the distinction between choreographic and digital practices."

Raphael Bastide - https://otherti.me/other/box/, "Recording of a friend describing a box, a CSS animation tries to follow its description." The screenshot has been taken when the narrator says "it should be somewhat visible to the person that grabs the box or put something inside can understand how the box was made".

Solidifying

Time is dedicated in between events for the research coordinator to documents the worksessions and public windows. With those inputs she creates a corpus of shared stories and deepens the initial questions of the research. It includes the writing of the activity report, and the publication of certain experiments online. Another preoccupation is to keep the local network active, and see how it can continue its dialogue with standard politics and artistic gestures, notably through the platform.

The author and artist An Mertens, ex-member of Constant and active member of Algolit, solicited for her expertise in coordinating long-term research and her knowledge of cultural sector related to digital culture, will be an occasional soundboard, advising the research coordinator through recurrent meetings.

At the end of the research a workshop will be organized with the teachers of erg to see how the results of the research, developed methodologies and tools can be used in school curriculum.

Preminilary calendar

The calendar is subject to changes, and also does not includes all the researcher's works on deepening the research tracks and coordination of research. All mentioned collaborators have been contacted in the framework of this application, and are informed of the calendar.

June 2023, Initiation:

September 2023, Initiation:

November 2023:

January 2024, worksession 1 (4 days)

February 2024, solidifying:

March 2024, public window 1 (at Constant)

May 2024:

September 2024, worksession 2 (4 days)

October 2024, solidifying:

November 2024, public window 2 (to be defined)

December 2024, closing chapter

Time for the workshop at erg is yet to be defined.

List of potential invites

This is kept private

The reasons for collaborating with the Facilitator (esa)

As a previous student of the school ERG, the research coordinator continues to construct both a social and ideological link with the school and its community. This particular link definitely create a solidity in the possible interactions between Declarations and ERG. As a member of OSP, and an active person in open-source and libre design communities of Bruxelles -- an approach particularly emphasized in design teaching at ERG, she is often in contact with teachers of the school. The bringing of Declarations local network is closely related and intersects with the students and teachers of the school.

She had many occasions to see how the pedagogy at ERG is rooted in transdisciplinarity, often blurring the distinction between design and art practices, digital native or non-digital native, poetics and techniques. As one of the methods of Declarations is to decompartmentalize practices this confirm a strong ideological parallelism of methods, that hopefully could feed each other.

Of course Declarations pedagogic dimension is important: as it aims to elaborate a new angle of approach on the digital materiality of CSS, and with it, constructing methods, resources and tools. All those could be used as pedagogical material as CSS is already taught with different approach, and by entering in dialogue to echo gracefully within the pedagogical practices of the school. Declarations has the particularity to address artistic and linguistic problematic, hoping to create interest in non-design students for those web-related problematics.

Selection of the 5 most significant productions and/or artistic research of the author

This is kept private


  1. A browser or web browser is one of the most common interfaces to access websites, the most used are Chrome, Safari and Firefox, They are not only a door but also the engine interpreting the code of the website, interpreting the HTML, CSS and Javascript to render the website as it is requested. 

  2. CSS is not « autonomous » as it applies on web-elements created through other languages. However it is not limited to HTML, and is used to describe the expressions of other markup languages like SVG (Scalable Vector Graphics) and even non-visual one, like the volumes and interactivity of sounds. 

  3. Making printable documents by using web-standard, sometimes referred as « web2print », is being more and more developed by alternative and open-source designer communities (notably by PrePostPrint, Open Source Publishing and paged.js) and teached as an alternative publishing practice through workshop and cursus in schools. 

  4. As wikipedia says "Desktop publishing (DTP) is the creation of documents using page layout software on a personal computer." Editorial practices have been heavily influenced by DTP softwares. Most of them being WYSIWYG (What You See Is What You Get), meaning the systems through which you edit the content is the same systems that displays the result; which is the case for inDesign by Adobe, but is not the case when working with CSS. Because of both the history of design and the widespread use of Adobe, some specifics ways of thinking/doing about layout, editions and typography have been culturally implemented as norms, and to divert from it often ask for a particular willingness. 

  5. "The work of the W3C is financed through contributions of member organisations; software vendors, universities and telecom companies pay up to 65.000 dollars (41,600 euros) per year out of interest in codefining the way the web can be made (inter)operable." - from http://www.w3.org/Consortium/ 

  6. "The CSS Working Group creates documents called specifications. When a specification has been discussed and officially ratified by W3C members, it becomes a recommendation. These ratified specifications are called recommendations because the W3C has no control over the actual implementation of the language. Independent companies and organizations create that software. The World Wide Web Consortium or W3C is a group that makes recommendations about how the Internet works and how it should evolve." - from https://www.tutorialspoint.com/Difference-between-specification-and-recommendation-that-introduced-CSS 

  7. Figma is a web application that allows designers to prototype and design websites and interfaces in a collaborative manner. It is widely used in the web-design industry, though working with it is a specific approach that was also criticized. 

  8. The term "handmade web" was coined by J.R. Carpenter to describe a relationship to crafting website. She characterizes this relationship both as an opposition to industrial ("individuals rather than businesses or corporations"), and to emphasize their object-like materialities - shaped by hands, as situated constructions and artifacts. This relationship forms a resistance against a capitalistic data-oriented web.