SFPC Fall 2018: Week 8

by Neta Bomani and Tomoya Matsuura

This is the last week of classes in the Fall 2018 session at SFPC. Students are working diligently on projects which will be shown during the student showcase this Friday and Saturday on Nov. 9 and 10.

Recreate the past: On masks, facial recognition, critical thinking and project planning

Monday morning with Zach was all about body sketches. In lieu of the showcase coming up in less than two weeks, Zach ramped down by introducing students to a final set of code. He brought in a Microsoft Kinect to show students how to start making sketches that incorporate human body form and movements.

The class started by looking at references, including some projects Zach worked on and other artist’s such as Nick Cave. More specifically, Más Que la Cara. Mas Que la Cara is a public art project Zach’s collective YesYesNo worked on in 2017.

In response to Zach’s mask project, one student asked what Zach thinks about using technologies like facial recognition to make art while knowing the same tools are being using by governments and corporations to surveil and/or harm people. Zach talked about how difficult it can be to think critically or make critical work for big brands like Google, Facebook, etc. given their respective agendas. But he said it’s important to make work like Mas Que la Cara that isn’t about advertising technology or pushing a commercial application, but instead making people play or happy.

Zach then walked students through the project from pitch to installation. He showed students his email correspondence between himself and the art consultants who hired him for the commission to help students get a sense of how projects are communicated before materialized.

Next he showed students the presentation deck for the pitch, which hosted the entire scope of the project, including references, budget and timeline. Lastly, Zach went through the project code. The project file was more complex and involved object-oriented programming utilizing the concept of “scenes.” Scenes are a way to organize long-form interactive projects and oscillate between different states (e.g. sleep mode, screensaver, gameplay) in a more modular, concise and legible way beyond if statements.

Scrapism: On videogrep and reusable code

Tuesday morning with Sam began with answers to questions and frustrations with videogrep from the previous homework assignment. Videogrep is a command line tool Sam created that searches through dialog in video files and makes supercuts based on what it finds. It was throwing errors that mostly said the program couldn’t find close captioning files (.vtt) which made finishing the homework difficult.

Some solutions Sam presented to the class were to take a close look at the close caption files. Captions generated by YouTube have word by word timings, while subtitles uploaded by YouTube users might have sentence by sentence timings. And when using youtube-dl, consider formatting all videos downloaded to be the same size, extension and encoding. Or opt for using sphinx to transcribe videos for caption consistency. Basically, consistency across all files is key.

Next Sam showed students how to create python code that can be used in multiple contexts or in other words, write reusable code. Sam showed students how to create bots. First, the class looked at how to make an email bot. Then, he walked students through how to create a Twitter bot. Twitter recently increased security, so it’s harder to make bots. Lastly, he showed the class how to make a web app bot.

Hardware: On inspiration and mechanisms

The last hardware class with Che-wei got us inspired for the final showcase. Che-wei shared some of his favorite artists who use hardware as a medium.

As per usual, class started with students presenting their homework assignments from the previous week.

Student Eli showing Che-wei his hardware homework project.

After projects, Che-wei shared a few artists with the class, namely Reuben Margolin, Meridith Pingree and Adriana Salazaar.

Next, he got into mechanism. He introduced students to cams. A cam is a rotating or sliding piece in a mechanical linkage used in transforming rotary motion into linear motion.

Next Che-wei showed the class how to attach things to motors. He stressed the importance of always mounting motors. How a motor is mounted could be the difference between a functional and nonfunctional project.

Finally, Che-wei ended with a hardware ask me anything (AMA).

Ilona: “How to do you choose a motor for a project?”
Che-wei: It depends on how fast you want something to move. If it’s slower than a clock, use AC sync motor. If it’s faster than that, use a DC motor. If you want to control the rotation, also use a DC motor.
Eli: What do you do if you need more pins on your Arduino?
Che-wei: Use a multiplexer. It’s an IO chip used to control more pins on the Arduino.

After the Q&A, Che-wei ended in a discussion about mental health and studio culture. He advised students to steer away from the glamorization of suffering for the sake of the work and stressing to make deadlines.

Image description: SFPC studio, window to the courtyard and students.

Feedback dinner

Various scenes from the feedback dinner. Photos by Taeyoon Choi.

This week’s family dinner was centered around a closed feedback session for students and their showcase ideas. Tommy Martinez, Cynthia Hoffman and TAs joined the dinner.

Critical theory: On algorithmic policing and restorative justice

Jackie Wang reading from her book Carceral Capitalism at the Green Arcade in San Francisco. Image description: Jackie Wang is standing in the slightly off center and to the right behind a microphone, reading from stapled white papers surrounded by packed bookshelves.

The last critical theory class with American was about Carceral Capitalism by Jackie Wang. Students were assigned the chapter titled “’This is a story about nerds and cops’: PredPol and Algorithmic Policing” to draw final connections between readings of previous classes, specifically Wendy Chun’s “On Software or the Persistence of Visual Knowledge,” American Artist’s “Black Gooey Universe” and Simone Browne’s Dark Matters.

PredPol co-developer P Jeffrey Brantingham at the Unified Command Post in Los Angeles. Image description: Brantingham is standing in front of a large monitor split into 7 x 4 cells showing various CCTV footage, map views within the PredPol software, and news reels.

The chapter focused on PredPol, a software named after an abbreviation of predictive policing which is used by various police departments across the states. American led the class in a close reading of Wang and her discussion on the way crime statistics have been used historically since the late nineteenth century to legitimize the existence of police, prisons and the continuation of institutionalized violence directed at black people. Wang also looked at the relationship between the software industry and the carceral system, or the “intimate collaboration between domestic law enforcement, the university, Silicon Valley and the media.” This is evident in the $14 billion IBM spent on the development of predictive policing technology, the formation of PredPol startup at the University of California, Los Angeles, and the collaboration between the New York and Los Angeles police departments in implementing and collecting data in support of PredPol.

Programmer Joey Buolamwini showing how a white mask isn’t identified by facial recognition software while her black face is not.

PredPol is a reactionary response to what Wang called the crisis of legitimacy police are faced with given protests ignited by police violence against black people — from the beating of Rodney King in 1992 by the Los Angeles Police Department which started the LA riots, to the killing of Trayvon Martin in 2012 by the Sanford Police Department in Florida which started the Black Lives Matter movement. While the distrust of police has existed among communities of color long before mass civic unrest erupted, protests within both the Occupy and Black Lives Matter movements marked a significant shift in the public perception of the police to be more critical, particularly on the subject of the brutalization and militarization of the police. Wang also connected the increased militarization of the police with the crisis of uncertainty which is defined as such:

“Uncertainty is at once a problem of information and an existential problem that shapes how we inhabit the world. If we concede that we exist in a world that is fundamentally inscrutable for individual humans, then we also admit to being vulnerable to any number of risks that are outside our control. The less “in control” we feel, the more we may desire order. This desire for law and order — which is heightened when we are made aware of our corporeal vulnerability to potential threats that are unknowable to us — can be strategically manipulated by companies that use algorithmic policing practices to prevent crime and terrorism at home and abroad. Catastrophes, war, and crime epidemics may further deepen our collective desire for security.”
A closer look at the PredPol interface which is a Google maps image with red boxes indicating zones where crime is likely to occur.

After the close reading, students split up into groups of three to four for a small group discussion which was followed by a large group discussion. When the class reconvened for the large group discussion, American led with an opening question of: “What is crime?”

The class questioned where American laws come from and whether or not people care about most of the things people are arrested for. Students talked about how laws are often arbitrary distinctions like which side of the road to drive on or definitions of petty crimes (read: crimes of low seriousness) like jaywalking, public intoxication, petty theft or trespassing. The class looked at what one student identified as an idealized definition of crime as a violation of the social contract agreed to in the organization of the community which is implicitly or explicitly agreed to by people in their existence in certain places. Students asked: Do people actually agree to the social contract? In what context does a petty crime become about criminalization? What is the relative severity of the act of a crime versus its consequences? The class talked about how the social contract is used as a weapon against people who are not in power as powerful people often exploit and break laws.

The First Mourning (Adam and Eve mourn the death of Abel), 1888, William-Adolphe Bouguereau

Students linked law and order to the colonial and Christian foundations of America, referencing the story of Cain and Abel in conversation with the story of Abraham and Isaac, two bible stories which deal with sacrifices made to God. In the story of Cain and Abel — the sons of Adam and Eve — Cain murdered Abel because he was jealous God favored Abel more than him. Cain is used in the bible as a record of the first source of violence and evil. Compared to the story of Abraham and Isaac wherein God asks Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac as a test of faith. The class questioned the arbitrary moral decisions of God and why it was okay from God’s perspective for Abraham, a person in a position of power over his son, to commit murder in service to a higher power, but not okay for Cain to murder someone on the same level as him. Which led to the class discussion of police power as a colonial and patriarchal power.

Students talked about gender violence and sexual assault within the context of restorative justice and finding alternatives to the carceral system with people who have been harmed in mind. Some people in the class talked about how shaming or incarcerating people isn’t a way to hold perpetrators of violence accountable or honestly address the harm they’ve done. Some students also questioned why there seems to be more trust in the American justice system compared to other countries. Others talked about how local communities should determine what justice looks like for them and address issues like gender violence and toxic masculinity without placing a further burden on survivors of harm to do even more work to repair the harm someone else inflicted on them.

The class determined that we have inadequate answers to the question of the definition of crime and that its definition often changes historically, situationally and geographically. Students circled back to Wang’s text and asked: How can we predict the future if we can’t even decide or define what is going on now? Ultimately, the class ended on the note that emphasized the importance of realizing most people aren’t inherently right and because people are fallible, it’s best to be forthcoming in the ways we are wrong as people without taking it as a personal affront to our identities, especially those who are privileged.

Field trip to MoMA

Students visiting MoMA Library

On Friday morning, students took a field trip with Taeyoon to the MoMA. Students visited the MoMA Library and viewed a special collection was prepared by reader service librarian Jennifer Tobias which included artist books and documents related to artists covered over the curriculum such as Vera Molnar, John Cage and Alison Knowles.

Peter Moore’s photograph of Trisha Brown and Steve Paxton in Brown’s Lightfall. Performed at Concert of Dance #4, Judson Memorial Church, January 30, 1963. © Barbara Moore/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY. Courtesy Paula Cooper Gallery, New York

Students met with Rob Giampietro, the Director of Design at MoMA and toured the Judson Dance Theater exhibition.

Image description: Rob Giampietro and SFPC students in a gallery

Showcase with Lauren

After the field trip, students made their way back to SFPC for showcase class with Lauren. The rest of the day was dedicated to working on showcase projects. Students worked on their project descriptions in addition to a list of materials needed for projects. The student showcase is this Friday and Saturday on Nov. 9 and 10.

Make sure to check out the Fall 2018 Student Showcase on Nov 10 ~11


Apply to Spring 2019 program by Nov 17.