Code Words Day 5, with Everest Pipkin
Blog post by Liza St. James
On Thursday we were joined by Everest Pipkin who drove down from a residency in the Catskills to work with us. Everest began by relaying how they had gotten into the work they make. They mentioned spampoetry.org and described the ways in which some spam letters had caught their attention. In particular, they had come across messages featuring characters named Lizzie, Terry, and Carter, and because Everest was also writing bots they were aware of the fact that maybe the source material was all from one person. They scraped the data and tracked the spam to an internet romance author from the mid-90s named Judith Bronte, who was known for her prolific output. This led Everest to travel to meet with Bronte—an anecdote that inspired many questions from the class. Then we transitioned into discussions of student work, led by Lillian Yvonne Bertram.
Leandra Tejedor read a poem using the structure of house of dust, which she said draws from her experience moving between places she’s lived. During the workshop we made some changes to her code together.
Elana Sasson’s poem resulted from remixing past writing with code that selects lines at random. “What resulted was shockingly personal,” she said. “As a peer so eloquently put it — it was as if ‘the program was reading me back to myself.’ I see this process as a very helpful tool to integrate into my future work.”
I felt the same way about the poem I read—that it reflected aspects of myself and of my writing back to me. I had also used the randomizing code Lillian had given us to play around with writing I had discarded from previous projects or otherwise wasn’t sure what to do with. And, following the model of Lillian’s work, I also incorporated parts of sentences and fragments from my stories into the to-be-randomized document. I was drawn to her discussion of being self-referential within one’s own body of work.
After discussing student work, we took a short break, and then resumed for a data scraping lesson with Everest. We learned that scraping, as opposed to APIs, lets you get data from anywhere whether or not they want you to have it. Data you scrape usually has a human editor, and you can do it once, and then run it offline.
Everest provided a joke scraper, which works by going through multiple pages of a joke website, looking for phrases starting with ‘Q:’ and ‘A:’ and then saves them to a .csv file (which appears in the same folder as the program). It also downloads all the images on each page and saves them in the same folder. For this we used the python requests library to request the content of the website, and then BeautifulSoup to parse the html.
A student asked Everest how they feel using tools often used for scamming and other nefarious business in their art, to which they replied, “I’m more concerned about using data in a way that doesn’t hurt anyone… I think you can always make a tool behave poorly, but you can also make a tool do upright things.” They mentioned the ICE-related activist work of Sam Lavigne among others. Then we all downloaded the necessary tools to use the code, and walked through its arguments together. We could see occasional flickers of lightning out the window as we each tried out the scraping code on various websites.
By the time we finished class, the thunderstorm was in full force and rain was beating down into the Westbeth courtyard. Garments were fashioned out of garbage bags and we went off into the night, anticipating everyone’s projects for Friday.