Teaching Code through Collaborative Interdisciplinary Performance

SPRING 2012: V.08 N.01: CAA Conference Edition 2012

 
Victoria Bradbury
Ball State University, Muncie, Indiana.

“Code as Craft” Panel Presentation, Victoria Bradbury, speaking. (Used with permission.)

“Code as Craft” Panel Presentation, Victoria Bradbury speaking. (Used with permission.)

For many new media artists and educators, coding and teaching are mutually exclusive, ever-evolving crafts. Whether through computer languages or software, we are continually learning and employing new tools. While programming structures enable computers to form a large part of our lives, to most art students, the notion that the medium of code can give form to their work, is a new concept.  As a professor, I give students the confidence to approach computing in a new way. I ask them to think beyond the convenient veneer of daily social and academic computer use by drawing their attention to the limitations of pre-packaged software and the graphic user interface.

Here, I will mention ways that I introduce coding concepts in my introductory computer art classes and discuss a set of special courses that I created in the spring of 2011.  In these workshops, students explored the creation and implementation of custom software to make art.  With the objective of creating an interdisciplinary, large-scale collaborative work, students learned to embrace code as an expressive and craftable medium.

Code and craft are central to my own work, as I often use sculptural materials in tandem with electronics or coded interaction. These images are of my recent Electronic Ginseng project that incorporates sewn drawings, Arduino, and blown glass.

Electronic Ginseng, 2012, Victoria Bradbury, silk, thread, electronics, © Victoria Bradbury.

Electronic Ginseng, 2012, Victoria Bradbury, silk, thread, electronics, © Victoria Bradbury.

Growing up in the 1980’s with a COBOL coder parent, I didn’t perceive a difference between making with digital or physical materials.   I have always found the transition between the sewing machine and computer code to be a particularly fluent one in my studio. As a teacher, I strive to understand where my students fall on the timeline of digital progress and how this fits into their understanding of craft and new media.  While I have memories of computers before the graphic user interface (GUI), my earliest new media works were made on my family’s first GUI computer, the AppleIIGS (using Fantavision software).  For my current introductory art students who were born around 1993, code has been wholly hidden for their lifetime of computing.

On day one of my Intro to Computer Art course at Ball State University, I introduce the concept of “code as craft” by discussing the origin of computing as problem-solving through object.  Showing the class a woven rug, I discuss the ancestor of the modern computer, the Jacquard loom. Jacquard’s 1804 loom mechanized the weaving process, allowing designers to program patterns with punched cards that would “control [the] system automatically so that the loom in effect continually feeds itself with the information it needs to carry out the next row of weaving.” [1] Jacquard’s loom was a direct inspiration to Charles Babbage, credited as the father of the modern computer.  Babbage used Jacquard’s punch card concept in the design of his Analytical Engine; “the first calculating machine that was capable of being programmed.” [1]

My first Intro to Computer Art project continues to situate the computer as a visceral and performative medium not far removed from the art materials that the students have used before.  We begin the course by “live-scanning” objects on a moving scanner-bed.  This introduces students to the variability and chance inherent to performativity while a connection is made between physical objects and the final digital work.  As the semester continues, we move to projects in Photoshop, After Effects, and html/CSS (later in tandem with Dreamweaver).  This sequence stems from the need for art students in this required course to develop skills using the software models that have become ubiquitous in art and design.  Andrew Richardson, in his thesis, Truth to Material: Moving from Software to Programming Code as a New Material for Digital Design Practice, discusses the changes that software brought to the field of design. He emphasises the difference between artists using software packages verses programming to create custom works. Richardson writes, “The development of software as a core part of creative and cultural practice within a single computing environment dominated and unified the approach and process across the creative spectrum, and brought about massive changes to the field of design. Although not universally liked, the influence and ubiquity of [the] shift towards ‘cultural software’ cannot be underestimated, and the impact of software on culture in general and on graphic design in particular cannot be overemphasized.” [2]

Pre-packaged software mediates our work and translates our analog thoughts and creative actions into the limited range of possibilities offered by the interface. Software dictates what we do, where we click and how we create.  Richardson discusses designers at the onset of computing who were open to incorporating digital tools into their practice, but resisted the primacy of software, saying: “These designers actively involved themselves directly with the nature and material of digital technology by using programming as part of their practice.” [2]

To open students to new ways of approaching the computer as art, they should be taught to peek under the hood of their digital tools (or at least know there is a hood to peek under).  In an ideal future, computer programming will be taught in early education in tandem with native languages, but the idea that students will arrive in art programs as fluent coders is still far off.  Given this environment, as new media educators, we need to find ways to insert concepts of code into the curriculum. Once student artists learn the basics, they can expand their repertoire and skill sets to shift their practice with evolving semantics. Casey Reas, creator of the Processing language, has said, “Mastering programming takes many years of hard work, but understanding the basic principles of the medium is within everyone’s grasp.” [2]

Coding concepts can begin to enter the classroom in tandem with software. In an After Effects animation project I emphasize concepts of nesting and parenting.  In web art projects we hand-code html and CSS in a text editor, moving into software only when the students are comfortable with the idea that a website is nothing more than a series of files in folders.  Learning that rich interactive experiences can be created outside of the bounds of pre-packaged software gives the students the confidence to create without it. Reas’ Processing and other programming languages for artists, including openFrameworks, Arduino and MAX/MSP/Jitter, have made it more manageable to incorporate coding concepts into the classroom.

Metabellum students, 2011, © Metabellum.

Metabellum students, 2011, © Metabellum.

There are current examples of undergraduate art programs where programming is central to the curriculum, but for many teaching in new media, the infrastructure to teach code in a full-semester course is not fully realized.  In the spring of 2011, my colleague Maura Jasper and I had the opportunity to create several one-credit elective workshops at Ball State that would allow the topics of performativity and code to be explored and practiced in some depth.  Jasper’s course was “Live Art: Action, Participation and the Everyday” and mine were titled “Video Live! and Collaborative Electronic Performance with Max/Msp/Jitter.” Our students were drawn from three areas—some from our “Introduction to Computer Art” courses, others were Jasper’s advanced video majors, and a few were PhD students in electronic music. In my workshops, students practiced programmatic structures and began to think of coding as a choreography of components. The project that developed became an immersive learning collaboration called Metabellum.

Metabellum evolved from a project that was originally developed with glass artist Mark Hursty to coalesce the mediums of video and inflatable sculpture and to mimic hot glass on a grand scale. To begin the collaboration at Ball State, I approached dance instructor Audra Sokol, who had been looking for ways to introduce working with electronic artists to her students.  Sokol invited two other dance faculty, Jenny Showalter and Susan Koper, a musician, Adam Crawley, and five student dancers into the project. In initial discussions we divided the piece into four sections of choreography. We discussed the shape of the air sculptures that each choreographer would use, built prototypes of the forms using plastic sheeting and sewed them in ripstop nylon fabric. The choreographers began to generate movement on the four themes while the coding workshops commenced.

Metabellum Ball Gym Studio, 2011, © Metabellum.

Metabellum Ball Gym Studio, 2011, © Metabellum.

In dance, the liveness of bodies onstage creates variability in each iteration of a performance.  We wanted this same flux to be present in the code, so I chose to teach Max/Msp/Jitter as the tool to create the software. Jitter offers “a set of building blocks for creating programs… the user manipulates graphical symbols (called ‘objects’), and the embedded, hidden mathematical code moves with them… The user can immediately see… the results of a particular congregation of objects, and accept, reject or modify as appropriate.” [3] The building blocks of Jitter articulate concepts of programming including parenting, nesting, loops, objects and modularity.  It gave us the flexibility to program modules that could be edited as the movement was coded and the piece evolved.

In the workshop classroom, the Jitter platform was introduced and the students began building patches.  Two students were assigned to each of the four choreographic movements. Their approaches were varied; some used web-cams to create a recursive process projecting the dancers’ and audience’s images back on to the scene, some used open GL to generate live 3-D forms, some manipulated their patch using physical buttons and sliders, and others used live-processing on pre-recorded Quicktime videos. We kept the performance loosely scored and many elements wouldn’t be resolved until we were in the performance space.  This modular approach can be likened to object-oriented programming, which Alexander Galloway defines as a “series of simultaneously generated entities, with each entity possessing its own qualities and actions.” [4]  Alexander Richardson says, “Defining objects with their own behaviours which can act upon and interact with other objects… offers important and influential ways of thinking about and structuring code.” [2] And I would add to this, performance. Like the modularity of object-oriented programming, the structure of our project challenged each collaborator to resolve his or her part of the piece so that the elements could come together and still leave room for variability and chance.

Metabellum Ball Gym Studio, 2011, © Metabellum.

Metabellum Ball Gym Studio, 2011, © Metabellum.

Metabellum was first performed on April 1, 2011, at Ball State’s KDS dance studio. We wanted the audience to identify the relationship between the liveness of the code and the liveness of the dance and inflatable forms. It was important to avoid the perception that the projections were pre-created stage effects or scenery. To make this obvious, the programmers were situated at a conspicuous table downstage.

The group worked on their collaboration over the course of six months.  In the early improvisations, as the choreographers built movement, the electronic artists, sculptor and musician reacted to the dance unilaterally. The interaction between the groups became more conversational as the modularity inherent to the piece allowed it to be presented in two venues outside of the university.

At Ball State, Metabellum’s one-hour format fell between a stage performance and an installation.  The second iteration was presented at Hallwalls Gallery Artists and Models in Buffalo, NY, in May, 2011. This version included two of the four choreographic sections and half of the electronic artists and dancers. The show was in a disused warehouse and the performance lasted for five hours.  This format allowed for a more improvisational mode than the four-part Indiana piece. The third performance was in October, 2011, when part of the group traveled to Brooklyn, NY, for the Triskelion Arts Dance Festival.  In Brooklyn we performed two of the four original sections on consecutive nights.  The small theater setting was different from the Indiana and Buffalo performances.  Here, the electronic artists sat directly on the stage instead of behind a table that separated their bodies and code from the dancers and audience. This difference was experienced as a more reciprocal mode between sound, movement, object, and image.

Metabellum Ball Gym Studio, 2011, © Metabellum.

Metabellum Ball Gym Studio, 2011, © Metabellum.

In Buffalo, the impact that this code-meets-performance project would have on the students became clear. Because our university is away from a major city, most of the artwork students see is through documentation. Rarely do they get the chance to experience a live performance or installation in a museum or gallery. Despite our classroom efforts to expose them to contemporary practice, nothing can replace first-hand participation in a community of like-minded digital artists.  Buffalo’s Artists and Models put the students among professionals working in the medium of code. They participated in Punch Option 4, a mixed reality fighting game and performance by Timoth Scaffidi, Alice Alexandrescu, Kevin O’Keefe, and Marc Tomco. [5] They saw videos that emerged from custom Jitter patches by Jason Bernagozzi and Eric Souther, and many other programmatic, installation, and performance works. [6] [7] Experiencing these works and meeting the artists moved my students forward in their comprehension of the field and the medium. One student commented on what it was like to be surrounded by people who, in his words, “think and do exactly what I think about every single day.” He was validated in his aesthetic interests and goals in a way that could not happen in the classroom. The variability of the performances also challenged my students to set up, perform and break down their installation in a professional setting—honing the essential crafts of drills, gaff tape and firewire cables. Video major Kelsey Ebbert said, “I’ve been so lucky to be a part of three very unique interpretations of Metabellum; each involving a different set of challenges and possibilities for exploring new creative avenues. Travel, troubleshooting, creating and interacting have been just a few of both the stimulating and demanding aspects of this project.” [8]

Metabellum student Kelsey Ebbert, 2011, © Metabellum.

Metabellum student Kelsey Ebbert, 2011, © Metabellum.

Those who participated in my workshops or took my introductory computer art class didn’t walk away as fluent programmers, but they did see what could be accomplished, artistically, with code.  Code as craft transformed their relationship to the digital medium and provided tools for them to continue learning.  As an artist and professor, I maintain that a more versatile and rewarding approach to computing lies beneath, behind, under, and around the façade of proprietary software in a domain where we engage with code itself.  The tools in new media may be constantly changing, but the basic concepts are established.  It’s not Jitter as craft, C++ as craft, Photoshop as craft or html as craft, but code as craft that challenges us to re-present and re-consider the range of media that inform our process.

References

1. Essinger, James. Jacquard’s Web: How a Hand-Loom Led to the Birth of the Information Age. (Oxford: Oxford UP, 2004).
2. Richardson, Andrew.Truth to Material: Moving from Software to Programming Code as a New Material for Digital Design Practice” PhD thesis, (University of Sunderland, 2010).
3. Dixon, Steve, and Barry Smith. Digital Performance: A History of New Media in Theater, Dance, Performance Art, and Installation. (Cambridge, MA: Leonardo, 2007).
4. Galloway, Alexander R. Protocol: How Control Exists After Decentralization, (Cambridge, MA: Leonardo, 2004).
5. Timothy Scaffidi’s official Web Site, “Punch Option 4,”
http://www.timothyscaffidi.com/collaborations/punch-option-4/ (accessed February 17, 2012).
6. ,” Jason Bernagozzi’s official Web Site “I Believe it is a Signal,” http://seeinginvideo.com/Believe.html (accessed February 17, 2012).
7. Eric Souther’s official website “Impermanence,” http://www.unseensignals.com/unseen/impermanence.html (accessed February 17, 2012).
8. Ebbert, Kelsey, 2011, e-mail message to author, (sent November 23, 2011).