“There are countless tiny tools scattered across the internet, all made with love from independent developers.
They might not look like much at first, but if you start using them in combiation with your Professional Everyday Tools, you open the doors for wonderful, unique, and beautiful art.
This workshop will demo a tiny handful of these tiny tools, using them in combination with the Electric Zine Maker to make a zine!
My hope is that you will leave inspired, and start collecting tiny tools of your own… to regularly find use for in your work.”
Today I gave a workshop at ZineCamp Rotterdam in which I demoed a bunch of tiny tools and used them in combination with the Electric Zine Maker.
This post is the workshop turned into a blog post so that you can explore all the links I shared and hopefully be inspired to start your own tiny tool collection!
The list of links is below, after the notes.
Points I tried to go over in the workshop was how there’s this very rich, very abundant history of code projects, tiny open source experiments that kind of lean into a “tool” direction, and lots of generative art projects that let you create in them… They are everywhere. They’ve always been.
They are often easy to take for granted.
In the workshop I showed some Flash projects that I saved from WonderFL. WonderFL was a Flash portal that let you code Flash projects directly in the browser, and share them without the need for compiling. It’s pretty much identical to what we have with things like editor.p5js.org … Except that it was much larger, a stronger leaning toward community, and I think much more influential at the time.
People even went so far as to make and share very complex games in it. They were extremely popular, and often shared in a similar way that memes are shared. I like to call these “code memes”.
Their popularity was kind of a mix of giving non-technical people access to these experiments where they could still “play” around with them, and other more technical people could build on them.
It’s unfortunate that WonderFL wasn’t really preserved as much as it should have been. There’s this preservation project for it but most of it is simply lost. See also Beautifl, still holding in there.
All that said, I showed some choice projects from that era that behaved kind of like creative tools.
The “Harmony brushes” is still one of my favorite because it so captures the essence of this time period.
They were a collection of very strange, very “living”, digital brushes that you really can’t dream up anywhere else. Something like this could only have come into existence from a community like Flash.
“3D draw” projects (drawing lines in a free-moving 3D space) that came out of this community preceded even things like Tilt Brush by decades, but these concepts were being explored.
Also worth highlighting is how these code projects, generative experiments, and tiny tools all capture the values of the digital era they are coming out of.
Stripegenerator.com and Tartanmaker.com were created as a response to very popular web design trends at the time. Stripe Generator was made because web designers (a lot of Flash based websites too) were including these really cute tiled stripe backgrounds. This is the same era as the 3D glossy GUI that was a trend on the web.
These visual style, and design trends, are largely dead… but the tools (at least the ones that are still accessible) remain as a shadow of the artistic values of that time.
The same rings true for old Flash projects, or other dated tiny tools. They capture the style values of that era.
This alone makes them very valuable to preserve because there’s a constant loss of these values.
The ones that write digital history are the entities that monopolize it, the ones with money, but the zeitgeist of all the many people that powered these trends forward is more often than not lost.
I like to point to how we remember video game history. When we talk about it, most everyone will talk about older Nintendo titles. We don’t really talk about all the homebrew games that we were sharing on Floppy disks. For example, see Cheesy Software.
I think really preserving a space, and building a history, will have to involve community effort to preserve it while it’s still happening.
So, for example, doing that with tiny tools…
While building the Electric Zine Maker a lot of research work has gone into digging up, saving, and re-constructing, these older Flash experiments to turn them into tools. This makes using the Electric Zine Maker something like creating art from that “lost” history. There’s a type of tone to what you creatively achieve in it that I think would otherwise be lost or completely forgotten.
My point with all that is that it is really important for artists to kind of incorporate a preservationist mentality in the tools they use, and start saving all these projects.
These projects, ones like the Glitchy 3bit dither demo, can often easily be saved by just saving the page itself. They are browser projects.
Make a collection of all this, and use it in your own work.
Create a custom tool box!
I mention the Glitchy3bitdither because it’s become incredibly important to me. I saved the page and have a version of it running locally on all my computers. To me, the way it glitches images is exactly what I want in my artwork. It’s singularly perfect (to me).
Projects like these are really easy to hack around in. In a way, if you start building your own tiny tool collection, you can also customize your own tools.
I think that’s really inspiring. It’s a contrast to the closed off world of professional tools.
You don’t even need to be really technical to do any of this either. It’s accessible to artists.
When you collect and use these tiny tools, you end up with something of a magical tool-box, each of them adding some kind of special flavor to your work. You build your own digital world. It’s completely YOURS.
For example, glitchart is really popular. It’s grown in popularity, but when you look into how to do it, it isn’t really easily accessible in Photoshop. Tutorials for accomplishing it require some level of technical literacy (like importing your image into Audacity…).
But when you use all these tiny tools in combination you get glitch art that is ridiculously unique. It’s super easy to explore your own “voice” in this space of computery art.
In the workshop, I demoed using a handful of these browser experiments in combination with the Electric Zine Maker. You can see how easy it is to get these otherwise complicated looking effects without really needing to know much.
Another important point to highlight too is when you collect them, the type of “creative world” you are able to build for yourself… It’s my favorite point actually because our digital spaces are a home to us. Smaller experimental software lets us build that home in ways that we really can’t with software from monopolies.
Try running the Electric Zine Maker alongside Textreme 2.
Textreme 2 is such a wonderful example of this. It’s this bizarre, silly, playful, cartoon-like space in the form of a word processor. Write your text in that, and then bring it into the Electric Zine Maker.
I think the experience you have from combining all these silly tools ends up being really interesting. It’s a complete contrast to the type of work experience you have when you use something like Adobe tools.
It reminds you of how playful, goofy, disarming… existing and creating on a computer can be.
One of the biggest challenges of building the Electric Zine Maker is maintaining it within the encroaching restrictions of the modern software ecosystem.
For example, macOS’s Gatekeeper has made it all the more hard for me to build for macOS. I’m really holding out on that platform as long as I can without having to pay forward $100 a year to notarize it… This being the last time I looked into all that.
Or observe things like what’s being discussed on this Twitter thread…
“”- Google had a plan called “Project NERA” to turn the web into a walled garden they called “Not Owned But Operated”.”
Discussions like this are very important to highlight because it shows how hard it is becoming for creative software to keep existing the way it does. What is often sold as basic changes can wreck decades of work that exist on the web.
Tiny tools… this entire experimental space… isn’t something to be taken for granted. I think it’s a valuable point to make that artists can preserve these things by building their own curated tiny tool collections. In a way, when you do that, you become a software preservationist.
Following is the list of tools that I demoed.
I hope this can be a starting point for you to start building and preserving your own tiny tool collection.
Someone asked if there are communities or spaces for finding these tools. I think the best starting point would be to explore the Tiny Tools Directory and check out the people that made each tool. It’s kind of the type of space that once you start exploring it you can’t unsee it. It’s everywhere!