The importance of taste

There’s an endless conundrum in the arts between the relationship of an artist and their own work. Who ought to be superior, the work or the artist? What does it say about an artist to produce something whose quality exceeds their own ability?

The ability to repeat. This is another crucial aspect of the story that is present in every single one of the arts and their techniques. It has its echo in acting, for instance, a discipline where uniqueness and “spontaneity” is so often heralded as a virtue. Ingmar Bergman used to say that repetition was inherent to a great actor’s performance — their ability to reenact the nuance of a scene over and over, be it during rehearsals, stage representations, or shot after shot in cinema. A creator that has the ability to replicate again their own work means they are both in control of their skills and of the result, even when it may seem the result is just a natural effect. Legend has it Marlon Brando used to mumble many of his lines on set to force himself to act again during the later stages of voice recording, given the new context the edited sequence provided for improving a performance.

Oh, but how it is often said that there’s a sense of wonder and irreplicability that occurs precisely in those fine moments by the singular chance of the occasion! 1

While filming Stalker, Tarkovsky had to shoot twice almost the entire film after finding a year’s worth of footage had been improperly developed at the laboratory, rendering the material unusable. He was in a similar situation again years later when he had to remake the complex and iconic sequence of his last film Sacrifice after the camera broke during shooting. (Which involved rebuilding the house that burns down during the scene.) Devastating for moral, but a testament of his creative will.

When taste exceeds one’s ability. Considering it deeply, that should be the most gratifying reality a craftsman, artist, or creator in general could posses. It means their judgement is sophisticated enough that it allows them to indefinitely grow, to indefinitely improve their technique and refine their renditions. The ability to create is swayed by the capacity to perceive a work and know how to improve it.

Leonardo phrased it with eloquence when he wrote: “The painter who entertains no doubt of his own ability, will attain very little. When the work succeeds beyond the judgement, the artist acquires nothing; but when the judgement is superior to the work, he never ceases improving.

If the work surpasses your own ability to judge it, it either means you’ve reached a ceiling when it comes to the refinement of your practice, or that the excellence of a work was done somehow by mistake — in a way despite its creator’s abilities. When taste is below the plenitude of the work the artist is inevitably left behind, a pale shadow of his own work. Yet when taste and judgement prevail, both the work and the creator’s abilities cannot but improve.


  1. It’s frequent in art to talk about the sacredness of the moment. Éric Rohmer was adamant about retaining the soundscape from the original scene, since the depth of reality cannot arguably be replicated later in a studio. He used to illustrate it with how the sound of birds is unique and specific to a place. Nevertheless, that goes into quite another subject — the relationship of artifice and nature in a creation and the means of representation. (How excellence and purity in art means doing the effect of nature while still being a human product.) It’s not my intent to dive into this now, so I’m just glancing over it. Another subject for another time.

On consciousness as an illusion

What is consciousness if not an illusion of the mind? Perhaps the mere result of a growing need by a living organism to construct intricate responses to external stimuli in their struggle to survive. This requires an acute sense of existence in time, giving rise to both the notion of an indefinite present and the perception of itself as it operates in this state. Has it been a survival trait for complex organisms to develop this real-time figuration of its behaviour towards a moment where consciousness arises in the mind almost as a side effect of its own activity?

For most living organisms, instinct seems to suffice as the inherent inclination towards a certain behaviour in response to a particular situation. Yet, eventually in the history of a complex being inherent inclinations are no longer enough to determine actions because the plurality of the scenarios faced becomes too vast. The responses need to be shaped in the very moment the behaviour occurs, it needs to draw from its own accumulated experience to figure out new action paths. Instincts cannot be the ruler of general behaviour anymore because they are not effective guiding it. Wouldn’t it be fascinating if this capacity to construct behaviour (of transforming instinct into active reflection) might be what ultimately gives rise to what we understand as consciousness?

As such, our decisions and intentions may not proceed from a sense of identity, but actually precede it — and only eventually give rise to it. Is sentience and recognition of this subjective state a characteristic of a sufficiently complex consciousness that now also needs to extend its understanding through time? That is, extend its attention to both the past and the possible future as it figures out how to act in the present, with the side effect that extending such an attention to the past and the future creates a notion of permanence through time — of something that persists through change. This identification of the consciousness with its own operativeness as a permanence may be the root of the illusion of us being the consciousness. (While consciousness might have been nothing but an evolutionary tool of the mind). The result is the illusion of a self, an intangible notion of permanence, a product of the mind acting in a state of present awareness that makes consciousness spring.

The representation of the self as an effect of the mind processing and acting on the world also forges one the most primeval assumptions of understanding: cause and effect. Our understanding seems to thrive in this reality, one which can be dissected in terms of causes and effects as it directs its own behaviour. In such a world the active consciousness is able to reflect on the outcome of its actions to figure out how to act, all of this coalesced simultaneously in a sense of present time and eventually harbouring the notion of will. It is perhaps a necessity of a sufficiently complex mind in a sufficiently complex organism that this simultaneous activity produces the notion of a conscious being.

The ancient problem of free will against a predefined fate for human actions may become, in this sense, a false dichotomy — free will is as much an illusion as predefined actions are spurious.

At a time of concerns around the possibility of humanity creating machines with a resemblance of sentience and intelligence, understanding the development and nature of what we call consciousness is not just a philosophical or speculative effort, but a fundamental background for any conversation around the topic to make any sense at all. Considering consciousness may not be more than an illusion created by the history of the mind as it grew on top of instinctual behaviour, where do we actually place the notion of being? The invention of consciousness may have been a bright spark in time (one which seems at times to hold itself eternal), but nevertheless, nothing more than a moment in our brief existence. Understanding its nature — the reluctance with which it exhibits its illusion — could be another step in our knowing of reality.

On the road to Calypso

A story about WordPress, JavaScript, and open source.

About eighteen months ago my team at Automattic set upon building an extravagant experiment for the interface. It was to become the most important, demanding, and rewarding project I’ve worked on at Automattic. Two weeks ago, we were finally able to unveil it to the world, and open sourced the project.


A modest beginning. Calypso 1 started as an idealized experiment, toying with the idea of what the WordPress UI could be if it was built today, entirely in JavaScript, and communicated with data only via an API. Yet, in the early days, no one really knew what it might become — if something at all —, and whether these pretentious goals would translate into a tangible thing that actually worked. Would it be possible to make such a technological leap from the current WordPress interface while retaining the solidity that was honed through years and made WordPress power a staggering 25% of the web? Would it be possible to overcome the legacy that an ageing paradigm of web rendering imposed on the evolution of the user experience but retain and foster its spirit? Given the steep learning curve such a shift would entail for everyone involved, it was also a lingering question whether we’d make it through, and if other developers would come on board to help build it.

This wasn’t the first try in this direction, either. Our previous efforts to push forward the user interface had yet inevitably faced the fact that the constraints and coupling of the existing codebase was too strong to overcome. Attempting to build a single page application in this landscape ended up as a convoluted attempt, with duplicated state and an awkward reliance on functionality that was not built with the considerations of a pure client application in mind. More importantly, the result was slow, hard to work with, and hard to extend. However, the emergence of the REST API around this period, which allowed a clear separation in responsibilities between the server and the client application, started to show a viable way in which a huge project like WordPress, with years of experience and legacy, could look at fully embracing modern client technologies (and with it faster iterative processes for polishing its user experience) but without dropping the solidity and permanence that had made it power such a large part of the web. In other words, an evolution of WordPress as a platform dictated by the divergence of its client application(s) and server services.

Not a framework. Even though we tried many of them, we avoided using “frameworks” to build Calypso because we appreciated the existence of single-purpose libraries that focused on one problem and solved it elegantly. Among many other modules, all pieced together via webpack, we used the small page.js router, custom data modules in raw JavaScript emitting single change events, wpcom.js as a an API connector, and React for the view rendering. The philosophies that came with React were also very appealing to us — a declarative view layer, the notion of UI as the predictable reflection of state, the importance of one-way data flows, and composition.

The fact that the client was now completely separate from the rest of the codebase would force us — and other engineers — to interact with data purely through the REST API, forcing our application to be designed without “inside knowledge”, while at the same time propelling the API itself to mature alongside the needs of a real and complex application. This decoupling naturally paved the way to fully embrace JavaScript for the entire client, no longer tied to the rendering procedures of all our legacy code, and still leveraging the backend reliability of core WordPress. Around the middle of 2014 we had a lean, modular scaffolding, composed of different JavaScript libraries running happily on our local machines (another aspect that significantly improved the developer experience) while authenticated with

A need for speed. Among all the initial obstacles, there was one main reason that kept us going. How significantly faster the experience was shaping up to be. As the foundation matured, we also started glimpsing the possibilities of crafting interesting solutions that would have been close to insurmountable before, thanks to the benefits of reusable composition and a strong core. During the second half of 2014 we rapidly built the foundation of the application, honed a new — for Automattic — development process, worked on on-boarding other developers, and finalised a strong design language. By end of the year we had somewhat timidly launched a small fraction of it, the first few areas powered by Calypso in, and quietly celebrated the milestone. This served as an internal proof of concept and to test the reliability of the API running for millions of pageviews. But the work was just starting.

The following year had the aggressive goal of converting most of WP Admin, the default WordPress administration interface, to this new pristine greek figure that was starting to stretch its legs. At this time, some of the core principles that were guiding us, together with examples of reactivity and composition, served as indicators that this was a direction worth continuing. The success of React in the JavaScript community, a technology we had adopted very early on, was also a good sign for the direction we had settled. But more importantly, seeing the enthusiasm of other developers at Automattic was invigorating.

There’s no “I” in team. With the certainty given by the technical success of the initial launch, the novelty of such a pure JavaScript application interfacing with the behemoth that’s WordPress, and a fresh look at a cohesive UI, contributors within Automattic rapidly grew — soon covering most of the development teams. It became a huge collective effort to rebuild an administration interface that had been refined through many years and hundreds of contributors, but one that was starting to touch the walls of its inherent limits. The spirit of “I’ll never stop learning” within Automattic was never truer than in these decisive months. We were constructing a complex interface from scratch, with the cumulated experience of years but still entirely novel, and we needed to come together to execute such a difficult task. Even more, it was larger than just a rebuilding, it also supposed some significant advancements — specially around site management since Calypso was from the very start, and at its core, a multi-site endeavour.

I personally admire how strong the sense of shared ownership started to become, with teams crossing their artificial boundaries to help others, fleshing out and refining a singular experience. The engineering usability of Calypso grew significantly as the collective efforts shaped a sizeable library of components, utilities, solutions, expertise, and willingness to help. Diving deep into JavaScript was pushing our engineering literacy forward. None of us would have thought two years ago that we would be writing ECMAScript 2015 in WordPress.

Some fuel for Jetpack. Another aspect of Calypso that was demanding from the very start was that it had to be a client that treated self-hosted sites via Jetpack on an equal footing with sites. The goal was to let you completely manage your site regardless of where you were hosting it. This required laborious focus on both the design and engineering, syncing with Jetpack releases to power our increasing API demands. It makes me really glad that I’m writing this on the new editor in Calypso, syncing to my Jetpack site thanks to all this great effort.

Speaking of which, a test of fire for the foundation we had built came earlier this year, around March, when we had to build this new WordPress editor to go with Calypso. We were able to accomplish such an intimidating task in a very short amount of time by strong collaboration among teams, and by leveraging everything we had built so far in Calypso to speed up the engineering and design process. The new editor was announced just about a month ago. We were able to introduce a couple of cool features outside of the initial roadmap thanks to this reusability and strong codebase. (I’m personally fond of the drafts panel that allows quick switching between your working drafts from the editor itself, something that wasn’t in the original scope.)

This was a huge bet, incredibly risky, and difficult to execute, but it paid off. Like any disruption it is uncomfortable, and I’m sure will be controversial in some circles. What the team has accomplished in such a short time is amazing, and I’m incredibly proud of everyone who has contributed and will contribute in the future. This is the most exciting project I’ve been involved with in my career.

Matt Mullenweg

I’m glad I was able to be part of this project from the very start as a member of the Calypso core team. It’s even more exciting to see all of this released to the open world, without reservation, with the spirit of putting a piece of human craft out there — for people to look at, learn from, contribute to, and make their own.


  1. Ultimately a project with about 26000 commits from around 100 people at the time we opened sourced it. See Andy Peatling’s recount of the journey.

The Kuleshov Effect

Andrei Tarkovsky once defined cinema as sculpting in time. The most distinct feature of web design, as it is compared to other forms of design, is precisely that it exists in time. If graphic design was often thought as the corollary of painting, then web and interaction design could very well be the corollary of filmmaking. As such, it seems to be in it’s infancy when it comes to the lessons discovered by cinema through its short centennial history.

During the early 20th century, film creators realized editing and montage were core aspects of the craft, so redefining that many held it as the one distinct essence of cinema. The one thing that moved it from a mere technical advance in photography and motion study, to an art form capable of wonders. One of these concepts was a particular study known as the Kuleshov effect, demonstrated by Lev Kuleshov, a Russian filmmaker of the golden era of montage exploration.

The experiment was quite simple, but with profound consequences. He chose a fragment of a close-up shot of a soviet actor staring, one in which the acting was particularly neutral. He then juxtaposed that fragment with other pieces of film — in particular, one of a plate of food, another one of a dead girl in a coffin, and another one of a child playing.

He showed this sequence, put together, to an audience — and the reactions were remarkable. The people specially lauded the acting, where the actor could so profoundly represent hunger (looking at the food), sorrow (looking at the dead woman), and nostalgia (looking at the child playing). The aesthetic consequences of this realization are captivating, and extremely vigorous. 1

This was the same exact shot of the actor doing nothing in particular, eminently not-acting. However, and as with most true art forms, aesthetic representation is synthetic. The viewer fills the gaps, connects the pieces, and infers more than what is the plain material. Particularly, knowledge, concepts, and experiences are being derived, created in that empty gap where two fragments connect. There was no “hunger” implicit in the acting (it wasn’t even the intention of the actor) nor in the food itself. The sentiment of hunger exists only in the evolving of time created by the assembling of these two fragments. 2

This, of course, has gigantic impacts on cinema, and good directors know how to work with this to achieve sublime beauty that goes beyond what seems to be represented on each screen fragment. It also matters greatly to actors, obviously, because their performance is not just what they intend to act, but how their shots are pieced together; what they look at, and what comes before and after. Good actors also know this.

And now, back to the field of interaction design, how does this affect those who practice it? I believe this has significant consequences here all the same. Largely unexplored. There’s a distinctive lack of thought around this in-between area where connections are created, emerging into something that cannot be reduced to the parts. What happens when someone goes from one page to the other? What happens in the switch of context? Do web designers acknowledge there is more being created in the viewer than what they explicitly intended to put there? There’s many studies and theories and practices revolving around what is laid out in the page. Or even in the flow and nominal succession of stages. But what about that invisible instant when two things clash?

The most web developers have concerned themselves is with transition states. Usually trying to even the journey, looking to smoothly transition from one state to the other. That’s a pre-editing stage of realization — make everything seem like it’s a continuum. One sequence. Film montage discovered that time (in it’s cinematic sense) is being created beyond the singularity of each screen, beyond shot-sequences. That the continuum is being sculpted at a higher level — in that whole dimension that transcends individual pieces, and gives tremendous creative power.

In a way, web design needs to find its own montage lessons to control their less tangible experiences, to control the effects that are being created when screens are switched (specially as the viewer is often choosing the path). When what is being designed is not just the specifics of a screen, or the abstract notion of a flow, but the gap between different fragments of an experience evolving in time.


  1. Truth be told, the last one was actually supposed to be a woman on a divan, casting the expression of desire on the actor. My apologies. But it functions the same way — I’ve grown accustomed to this variation of the experiment, as it’s the one I’ve constructed to carry myself, and enjoyed the more complex effect better.
  2. Described with precision by Eisenstein when he said a series of two film fragments is to be regarded not as their sum, but as their product.

On the sayings of contemporary art

It seems to happen very often these days, that the textual editorials that accompany an art exhibition give the impression of having been created randomly, using some sort of lorem ipsum 1 generator, distinctive perhaps to the gibberish of the art world. Sometimes, it even looks as if it’s egregiously mangling arbitrary philosophical terms, throwing ontological significance at random intervals, without any aesthetic sense — nor, sometimes, even literary — whatsoever.

It approaches frightening extremes when it just reveals its utter lazy intellectualism, that builds truth for itself and then holds it to universal value, applauding its own empty wit. Every phrase seems to be more mindful about displaying a glossary of terms than in saying something relevant about the art it’s supposed to comment on. It’s always vehemently self-aware, but in absolute denial of its ephemeral nature and vagueness. Generalities, which abound, are laid out with a pretentious sense of morality, a pretentious sense of urgency in its aesthetic irrelevance. To whom?, once should ask. Because, in turn, this means such thoughts can easily be applied to any art display; and it would make no difference at all. It would appear they are battling against the actual artwork to achieve their status, to be considered themselves works of art.

What results is almost reminiscent of a surrealist cadavre exquis composition — this time with all the veils of a truly thoughtful discourse shaped by a single mind. Let’s be clear — it’s building connections to a work just because it’s physically connected to the art pieces it’s supposed to refer to, and because the reader is vehemently interested in making those connections work while nodding at the pace of its ridicule. All the correlation is drawn by the fact it’s in the same spatial context. Remove it from that context and it becomes a generic mix, of more or less persuasive ideas, but with no particular coherence. Move the walls of text from one exhibition to the other, and you would be hard pressed to spot any mismatch — so generic that they are not saying anything at all.


  1. Placeholder text often used in graphic design that bears no meaning. More in Wikipedia.

On art

About a year ago I made an exhibition with some of my photography called “Pictures”. For that exhibition I wrote a small accompanying text in Spanish. Here it goes:

Someone once said that judgement ought to be always positioned well above a piece of work for it to be truly good. Yet again, this judgement doesn’t mean adding futilities to what is, ultimately, a picture. It matters perhaps in the moment of its creation, for the author, not in its displaying for the viewer.

The pictures that form this exhibition don’t share a properly delineated theme. They may hold their own, or not, by themselves, yet there is no message a priori to bond or shield them.

Even though an image suggests and conveys endless thoughts, it shouldn’t for that matter declaim them; nor need an orator to guide it. This would make it, at best, infinitely less interesting, and at worst, dangerously deceiving. When art becomes speech, and turns its eyes upon itself, then it becomes art for the sake of art. Something it never was, nor intended to be.

The text as a simultaneous offering to the work is already excessive. Even superfluous. It’s about another reflection, another medium, for some other moment. Its inclusion risks having none: nor reflection, nor exhibition. In this regard, when the concern is contemplating the work, like every text that’s created specifically for an exhibition, it shouldn’t deserve too much attention. Only enough. And from a distance.

We live in a peculiar moment of the arts, one that has been developing since the late eighteenth century, one that bonds discourse with the aesthetic act of creating art, in one keen combination. During the avant-garde the work of art became in itself a manifest of what art should be. Art was starting to be self-conscious and concerned about its own nature.

Now, a century after those practices, the art world finds itself congratulating so called conceptual works that have one distinct quality—so to speak. They are shielded in their duality against most valorizations! When confronted with an aesthetic reprimand they are quick to point that what matters in the work is the message, and if one were to criticize said message on account of its vacuity they would hence reply: “It’s art in the end, not a treatise!”

So the potential lack of aesthetic value is shielded by the fact it carries a “message”, and the potential unsophisticated naivety of said message is shielded by the fact it’s a “plastic” expression and not a thoughtful treatise. What magnificent protection against all possible critic! The result being, that excellence isn’t required because the piece in its ambivalence can be whatever we’d like it to be. And it’d be fine.