After Processing Community Day
by Taeyoon Choi
On October 21, 2017, at the MIT Media Lab, Processing Community Day convened for the first time, bringing together longtime and new contributors, fellowship and Google Summer of Code alumni, guest speakers, and the Processing Foundation Board. This series of articles reflects the experiences of three participants who were there.
Processing is a software and teaching tool used for art, design, and technology projects, popular among creatives because it is intuitive, approachable, and well-documented. The Processing Foundation is a nonprofit organization that supports fellowships, advocacy, and community initiatives around the software. I joined the foundation’s Board of Advisors in 2016, and was asked to organize the inaugural Processing Community Day at the MIT Media Lab in October 2017. In this blog posting, I’d like to respond to the survey questions that we sent out to participants.
What was the highlight of the day?
I have many highlights. When the 200+ participants entered the space in the morning, I felt like the spreadsheets we’ve been working on for months were coming alive. With a team of dedicated and talented volunteers, we saw the Media Lab’s sixth-floor space fill up with people from faraway places and different walks of life. The whole day felt like an unchoreographed dance, people meeting each other, creating new relationships, and sharing energy. I loved meeting the volunteers. There were a few amazing Media Lab students, like Kalli Retzepi (doing impressive data-driven projects) and David Su (doing experimental work with sound). I asked the generous Sands Fish to fabricate cloud signs that were placed onstage and around the space. With Mindy Seu’s help, we finished making the signs with cardboard the night before the event.
We had diverse volunteers from the Boston area: Nina Cragg, a young and kind volunteer from Nuvu Lab and Doyung Lee, a friendly and witty pal from Cambridge. I can’t thank the Fathom Information Design team enough for their hard work, as well as the cohort from the School for Poetic Computation.
While all the talks were engaging, my personal highlight was Rosa Weinberg’s lightning talk about her work with students and people with disabilities, designing and fabricating non-traditional wearable mechanical/mechatronic devices to help with activities and experiences.
After the day’s program was over and we had deinstalled, Danielle Freiman (my key collaborator in Boston from Fathom) and I looked at the space and it was as if nothing had happened there. It was all very quick. Compared to the time we put into planning the event, the day felt like a short moment.
The after-party was really fun. I enjoyed spending time with friends I don’t normally get to hang out with very much. Processing Community Day was a chance to foster new and old friendships, and spend time with online collaborators in real life. Most of the times, open source software development is done remotely. It’s important to cherish the joy of sharing each other’s presence.
How would you describe this event to a friend who couldn’t come?
Processing Community Day was an opportunity for people who are excited about the software to have surprise encounters, and for people who collaborate online to meet in real life. We enjoyed talks and workshops and sitting around in a sunny room.
What are some memorable conversations you had?
Sydette Harry and Johanna Hedva led a workshop where they addressed systemic injustice in the fields of art and tech from dynamic perspectives. I appreciated their powerful and candid thoughts on bias against marginalized communities, and their suggestions for the community at large to be more supportive.
Was there something you didn’t enjoy?
For Processing Community Day, I was responsible for curating the series of talks and workshops, and directing the production of the day. I communicated with multiple vendors, services, and venues. It was the largest scale event I’ve worked on, compared to most of my DIY and grassroots organizing. In joking with a friend, I said, “My advice for anyone who wants to organize a conference is don’t organize a conference. But if you are like me and love to organize, make sure to communicate, delegate, and empower others as much as possible, and don’t try to do everything on your own.”
Compared to the smaller conferences I organized before, Processing Community Day was larger in scale. I had to dance around more rules and and some vendors required more bureaucracy than others. While I was frustrated when bureaucracy did not guarantee professionalism, now I have a better understanding of why certain rules are necessary. During the planning period of Processing Community Day, I enjoyed reading how David Graeber elaborated the perils and beauty of bureaucracy in his book The Utopia of Rules. I wonder if administrative language can be art form — if one can write poetry in Gantt charts? For the future Processing Community Day, I put together a guideline detailing possible contingencies, and a framework for a larger team of organizers and volunteers.
Would you like to attend the Processing Community Day again?
Definitely. I think the real question is what to do in between Community Days. Earlier in the planning phase, I asked the board of directors what PCD would ideally result in, to which they said new projects and stronger community bonds. We were initially inspired by Scratch Day. As we developed the program, I imagined Processing Community Day to be somewhere between Maker Faire and Creative Time Summit. While Maker Faire is inclusive to a wide range of makers, artists, and engineers, it tends to focus on demonstrations of technology and sometimes lacks critical discussion about technology and the industry. Creative Time Summit invites radical thinkers and artistic practitioners, but the content is contextual, nuanced, and often inaccessible to people outside of the art world.
The first iteration of PCD aimed to be as inclusive and diverse as possible. There are many things to improve: the programming could be more inclusive to people with different passions and backgrounds, as some participants asked for more technical content and some asked for more community-driven, participatory activities. The organizing team could grow to include more local players and become a platform for future leaders. I think, as a community, it is our job now is to reimagine what Processing Community Day could be next.
In the months of preparation and production, I thought about the technology conference as a social sculpture, an expanded notion of art’s utility to facilitate social relationship. As Joseph Beuys states, “EVERY HUMAN BEING IS AN ARTIST who — from his state of freedom — the position of freedom that he experiences at first-hand — learns to determine the other positions of the TOTAL ART WORK OF THE FUTURE SOCIAL ORDER.” Though I feel it would be a bit of stretch to call Processing Community Day a social sculpture, I definitely approached it like a social practice (art), a convening of people for a group experience; there were many sculptural elements. I think there are previous lessons people in the tech world can learn from social sculpture and social justice work. I encourage the Processing community to help the future organizers to reify their vision of inclusion and experimentation over many iterations of Processing Community Days.
I had a trusting and supportive relationship with the Board of Directors of Processing Foundation. I thank them for the opportunity. I thank the sponsors and partners including the MIT Media Lab, Fathom Information Design, School for Poetic Computation, The Frank-Ratchye STUDIO for Creative Inquiry, Refik Anadol Studio, Emergent Digital Practices at University of Denver, IDM at NYU Tandon School of Engineering, and ITP at NYU Tisch School of the Arts. The Data and Society Research Institute provided generous support for me through out the planning period. I also thank my studio assistant Livia Huang for helping with the logistics, automating, and creating many spreadsheets.
More photos by Olivia Glennon and Rebecca Leopold.