Spring 2018: Week 2

by yeli

Day 1: Illusion machines and Vera Molnár

Day 1 started out unexpectedly with Zach Lieberman, who co-founded SFPC and is teaching the code track, saying to the students: “I adopt you.” While the students in the SFPC Spring 2018 class all come from varied backgrounds, everyone is familiar with teachers who were not so invested in their learning. Zach encouraged them to “annoy him” and “keep him up at night thinking of solutions to their code problems.” He also encouraged them to engage with code as text: to print it out, write notes, and use highlighters.

Then, they discussed the binary number games they had made the week before and the reason for the assignment. Because the computer is a “giant illusion machine made up of layers and layers of abstraction,” Zach is interested in building things (particularly physical things) that combat that abstraction and make computer systems easier to understand.

Binary numbers as an image

To demonstrate the illusion, he played the sound of an image. He drew a small sketch in photoshop, saved it in the Photoshop Raw format, imported it to Audacity (a digital audio editor) and played it.

A smiling face being played in Audacity

Afterwards, the class had a bit of fun converting the camera pixels that made up their faces in a webcam and converting that to sound output.

“Everything is bits (0’s and 1’s) and we can choose to interpret them as images or as sounds.”

Next they talked about what the class would entail. Zach was inspired by the Recode project to center his class around recreating artworks from the past using modern tools. The recreation could either be a direct translation where the recreation is very close to the original or it could be more experimental and a response to the original artwork. The first artist they would study and recreate was Vera Molnár, a painter and pioneer of computer art. She was using computation in her work before she even started writing code. Key themes in her work were iteration, randomness and noise.

After an introduction to Molnár and her work, the class did some collaborative research and filled up a document with information about her work, her childhood, her collaborators, and her writings. Then, Zach walked the class through recreating one of her pieces called “Interruptions” using openFrameworks.

Recreating Molnár’s “Interruptions”

Afterwards, Celine Wong Katzman, who is a TA for Artist Toolkit class by Taeyoon Choi this semester, gave an artists talk. She spoke about her work at Rhizome interviewing artists whose work “makes use of or responds to network culture and digital technologies” and curating a show at Bitforms Gallery.

Celine talking about her work

Day 2: Intro to OpenFrameworks

Zach started out the class by talking about the origin of OpenFrameworks, which he developed along with Theodore Watson and collaborators because the library he was using at the time, called ACU, wasn’t open source he wanted his students at the time to have access to the tools he was using.

He went through some of his favorite openFrameworks projects which includes but is not limited to:

  • Chris O’Shea’s Out of Bounds that uses a x-ray torch to “reveal the secrets hidden” behind a wall in a museum.
  • Elie Zananiri’s Big Screams that encouraged users to scream as loud as they could.
  • Zach Gage’s Lose Lose, a video-game where aliens in the game corresponded to a random file on the player’s computer that would get deleted if the player killed the alien.

Zach said he likes to think of art as a “R&D for the future’ rather than the work a solitary genius.

DIWO (do it with others) instead of DIY (do it yourself).

He also shared some notes on his work ethic:

  • He tries to do something everyday.
  • Little variations produce new material. Focus on iteration instead of creating something new.

After class students worked on recreating one of Molnár’s works using computational tools. SFPC students Sarah and Agnes wrote about her experience doing so on their blogs.

Molnár recreations by students

Day 3: Vera Molnár recreations and Salon!

Before class started, every few minutes a group of students would gather around another student’s laptop, eager to see what they came up with. Conveniently that was exactly what Zach told them to do when class started. The class broke up into groups of 3–4 to discuss their Vera Molnár recreations. After each student got their turn to demo, the class re-grouped and shared what they learned through the process of studying her as an artist and then trying to recreate some of her work. Going through that process helped them gain a greater appreciation of her work and how much effort went into it, as well as of other mediums that are not computational.

Zach then intro’d the class to the next artist. John Whitney’s work is centered around audiovisual expression. A lot of his work can be recreated in OpenFrameworks using sine and the ofMap function which Zach called the “best function in the universe.” Zach demonstrated other concepts in OpenFrameworks including creating a lassajous figure, moving in a circular path and amplitude modulation.

Demonstrating sine waves

After Zach demoed his latest project (that just got added to the App Store), the class started preparing for the salon!

Zach demoing his latest AR project Weird Type
Getting ready for the salon

The salon was livestreamed for the very first time and featured presentations by Darius Kazemi, Deb Manville, Yvette King and Tega Brain.

Yvette King, an artist of many mediums, talked about her talent for “taking things, putting them together and making them work” with minimal computation. Her work ranged from traditional sculpture, to installations and performance art.

Yvette King

Her project, Popcorn Machine popped a fresh, single, piece of popcorn approximately every thirty seconds. “Trophy,” was a cast of the strip of her grandmother’s skin from back to belly during the years she suffered from an umbilical hernia.

Trophy, image from https://garlandmag.com/article/the-craft-of-ceremony/

For her project Boat Ride, Boat ride, she explored the Docklands in a row boat for 6 hours as part of an exhibition by Melissa Deerson called Field Trip.

Map of distance for Boat Ride

Deb talking about herself

Deb, a visual artist and curator, shared the story of a transformative period in her life, her journey with creating and then curating a collection of “silent art,” collaborating with artists from different countries, and the progression of her art practice. She stressed the importance of “sticking to the vision” while curating for 1MillionDiamonds and destroying the internalized beliefs that she wasn’t enough.

“Your art language must be learnt from your own practice. You have to go through the process of copying others to figure out what you want to say.”

Tega Brain, who was a SFPC student in 2013, started out by talking about her project, “Being Radiotropic” which explored alternative ways of designing wireless infrastructures, that focused on reprioritizing and rethinking our relationships with non-human organisms and environmental systems.

Tega Brain

One of the devices created as part of the project was “Open Flame” which is a router paired with a candle. “To bring up this network the candle must be lit and when it is blown out, the network disappears.”

Open Flame

“Open Flame” and the other devices created for the project, are examples of “eccentric engineering,” a running theme in Brain’s work. “Eccentric engineering asks questions of how we design the everyday technologies that sustain us. It is a provocation for thinking about infrastructures as negotiations with non-human organisms and systems, rather than as exclusively human services.”

Another project Tega spoke about was “The Good Life.” In 2004, The Enron scandal was, the largest bankruptcy America had ever experienced. The Good Life allows anyone to experience this event from the inside by signing up to to receive all 500,000 emails confiscated from Enron by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. The emails, at times mundane, at times intimate and other times revealing of corporate fraud and greed, will be sent to participants in chronological order.

One of the last projects Tega discussed was Smell Dating, the world’s first smell based dating service made in collaboration with Sam Lavigne.

Tega Brain — Smell Dating

The results of the matches were interesting. Expectedly, since the matches are only made based on smell, people were matched with the wrong gender. Unexpectedly, relationships did ensue from the matches. Perhaps unexpectedly and expectedly (knowing the nature of Silicon Valley), some investors and members of the startup ecosystem wanted to turn Brain’s project into the next big thing in dating.

“When making work, think of who the joke is on.”

The last speaker of the night was Darius Kazemi who began by talking about changes in his creative velocity. At some points in his career, he was shipping up to 5 projects every week. Then he admitted that recently, he hasn’t been working on much and stressed the importance of “being ok with not doing anything.” He went through some of his more recent bot projects, which he calls “meme assassinations.”

“I like stuff that surprises me. That’s what keeps me going. I’m primarily entertaining myself.”

He explained how he made his Expanding Brain Bot (it uses abstraction chains in ConceptNet to come up with the words) and his decision to make things as computationally simple as possible. While he takes care to follow best practices on his “work” projects, for personal projects, his advice was to be comfortable with imperfection and to:

  1. Start with the dumbest possible iteration of the thing.
  2. Use the least amount of technology.
  3. Say “eh it’s good enough” then ship it.
“Most of what we think matters doesn’t.”
Darius showing his recent projects

Then, he changed gears to talk about the discourse around bots since Trump got elected. He mentioned a shift he’s seen, from people saying “bernie bro” to “bernie bot.” The word “bot” has become an all encompassing term meaning “fake,” “sock puppet” or “anyone with robotic thinking.” It no longer necessitates a computer. A human being can be called a bot now. Kazemi also talked about the inanity of tools that could “identify bots” or news articles that paraded their dubious findings about Russia and bots as fact. He reiterated one of Tega’s points (that she made while discussing The Good Life) which was that there is value in looking at individual data points ourselves to get valuable information and admitting that computational tools can’t and shouldn’t do everything.

After Darius’ talk, the audience stayed for a bit to talk with one another and to the students in the Spring 2018 class, who you can meet tomorrow!

SFPC Salon

Day 4: Meet the teacher: Taeyoon Choi and Meet the TA Talks

Taeyoon, who is a co-founder of SFPC and teaching the hardware track, started the day by telling the students about his background. He spoke about the first time he saw developers making art at Eyebeam Art and Technology Center and how he got his start in coding by re-appropriating technologies. Since then, he’s worked as a artist, teacher, writer and activist, teaching computers using dumplings, illustrating technical concepts through comics, making computational objects, and cultivating better dialogue in technology about disabilities.

In his hardware class, students will be making a handmade computer. While the students are free to decide what making a “computer” means to them, at the very least it must have a clock, a notepad and an abacus. In addition to helping them create (for many of them)their first computational object, he’ll also help them combine the technical and artistic and tell a story with their work.

Taeyoon Choi

Pam Liou who is TA’ing the craft class, started her talk by asking the students, “What are you wearing?” She talked about craft practice and its un-sustainability in existing supply chains, her work with 3D Printing and creating an affordable loom and the software for making patterns for weaving using that loom.

Pamela Liou, TA for Craft track

Ed Bear, who is TA’ing the Hardware track with Taeyoon Choi, walked in with something he rummaged out of the trash. He talked about what he had to offer the students which included an endless supply of radios to hack, LittleBits kits, and 7 years of experience working with creative electronics. He likes to explore “building second lives into objects that for financial reasons have to be rendered obsolete at some point.” He also posed a question about products we used where parts had been manufactured in different places: “What are the systems we are all connected to that brought these objects to us and what does it mean to redeem it for educational purposes?”

Ed Bear

Matt Jacobson, who was a student this past fall and is TA’ing the Software class with Zach Lieberman walked the class through some of his generative code experiments on his tumblr. He spoke about his background as a mathematician and how his current uses code as a way to make math beautiful.

“I don’t focus on what I’m trying to make but focus on just making something.”

Ann, who was also a student this past fall, and is TA’ing the Critical theory class with Morehshin Allahyari, talked about two projects that sprung out of questions she had about her identity as a person of mixed race. She spoke of “racial imposter syndrome” and the need to prove “you are who you say you are.” The first project revolved around questions of food, race and politics and how she felt eating Korean food, which she grew up eating, in public. The second project, which she showcased during the final project showcase in the fall of 2017, was Blood Battery, where blood powers an LED.

After the TA talks, the class hung around in the space working on their homework assignments.

Please join us for Meet the Students Salon on 3.6. 2018 7pm. at SFPC. RSVP
The talks will be livestreamed.

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