Teaching and learning at SFPC, Conversation with Allison Parrish and Surya Mattu

School for poetic computation (SFPC) is a hybrid of school, artist residency and research group that run for ten weeks in New York City. We focus on working with a small group of students from diverse technical and professional backgrounds each term. The core curriculum center around code, hardware and theory, along with classes on topics that investigate poetics, aesthetics, politics of computation. The visiting artist lectures, workshops and public events where students present their work in progress are also important part of the program.

SFPC started as an experiment to open source teaching and learning, a place to explore new topics of art and technology. SFPC team actively search for new teachers and visiting artists who will bring in academic rigor and artistic inspiration to the students. The goal of the program is to create an environment where students and faculty both grow as artists, learn to use new tools and also to learn to teach, and most importantly open up to more collaborations.

We recently finished the Spring 2015 session, the fourth session to date. I asked two artists who taught at SFPC for the first time, about their experience of teaching and artistic research. Allison Parrish taught “Generative Text Techniques” and Surya Mattu taught “Network geography” with Ingrid Burrington.

Allison Parrish’s class.

1. What did you learn from teaching your class at SFPC? Any discoveries or new ideas?

Allison: Teaching for me is a design task—it’s a matter of setting up the right abstractions and making sure that the students have adequate feedback as they put those abstractions to use. but no design is universal—a metaphor that works for one group of students will be complete nonsense for another group, or an exercise that for one student successfully brings together a lecture’s worth of material will be impossible for another. The special challenge of teaching at SFPC is trying to find the right combination of metaphors and applications that will make sense for students from such different backgrounds. That task is much easier at a school like SFPC where the students are highly motivated, vocal about their needs, and willing to experiment with alternate pedagogical approaches.

Surya: Our class focused around network and communications infrastructure, Ingrid and I were worried it would not be engaging. The hardware isn’t cheap, and also not easy to tinker with. Instead, we tried to focus more on the broad picture and how it relates to the technology we all interface with. Question we asked included, what physical locations does your data go to when you interact with the internet? What is the geography of this network? What physical spaces do we share with it?

The idea with the approach was to make it easier for students to make mental models for themselves and think critically about the infrastructure. Not just the technology but also the politics and power that are embedded in it.

We encourage students to print out their code and visualize their understanding.

2. How does teaching relate to your practice as artist and researcher?

Allison: I kind of alluded to this above—teaching is a lot like designing a computer program or a poem or a game. you have to create solid systems and then set up situations for other people to engage with those systems in meaningful and creative ways. In that sense, teaching feels like a natural extension of the other areas of my practice—just carrying on the same work by slightly different means. In my practice as an artist, I write computer programs that generate poetry; to the extent that designing a syllabus, or teaching a class, is like writing a computer program, when I’m teaching it’s sort of like I’m writing a program to generate programs that generate poetry.

Surya: Designing courses for environments like SFPC is an interesting challenge because you are dealing with people with a wide range of background and interests. It pushes you to find metaphors that are easy to understand, and show examples that poke behind the invisible curtain to reveal how things ACTUALLY work.

This is a challenging process that often leads to interesting research. It also really informs the output I wish to create in my own practice. The aim is to allow people with different levels of technical abilities to deeply engage with infrastructure they use everyday. It doesn’t always work, but you try anyway. I also find this very helpful in determining the questions I choose to ask in my own research.

Spring 2015 student Anastasis Germanidis performing at the Final Showcase.

3. What would be your ideal environment to teach?

Allison: One of my favorite things to do as a teacher is to help ambitious students overcome their difficulties in grasping technical concepts, and it really breaks my heart when students hold themselves back from asking questions in class, or even give up on ever understanding something, because they feel ashamed at not being as “smart” as the other students, or have some preconceived notion of what they’re “good” at. My ideal teaching environment would be one in which every student feels has confidence—in themselves, and in their institution’s ability to support them as they set out to achieve their goals. such an environment would be very aggressive in accommodating different kinds of learners and students from diverse backgrounds.

Surya: A set up where students could read/watch the lecture material before class so that we can be more hands on in class. To really think critically about this stuff I think its important to see how these systems work in their primitive form. That is much easier to walk through in a small group where people are comfortable interrupting when they don’t understand something. Also, incorporating more outdoor activities to see how these things live in the world.

Handmade computer class.
Spring 2015 student ML Kinnel making a paper circuit with transistors.
Spring 2015 students, Georgia Guthrie, Katie Simillie, Eve J Weinberg in discussion.

End note

In one of the class, Zach Lieberman introduced 10 Rules for Students, Teachers, and Life by Sister Corita Kent with attribution to John Cage. The rules became popular among artists who continued to see themselves as a life long student and teacher, a practitioner of artistic pedagogy. The “Helpful hints” on the bottom of the page reads ” Always be around. Come or go to everything. Always go to classes. Read anything you can get your hands on. Look at movies carefully, often. Save everything — it might come in handy later.”

10 Rules for Students, Teachers, and Life by Sister Corita Kent

As we organize the program over multiple sessions now, we realized being part of SFPC is a challenging experience for every student. While we try to keep things fun and exciting, there are constant stimulations to new topics, tools and people, and it is easy to feel overwhelmed and exhaust themselves by overworking.

At one point in the weekly check ins, I told students about the importance of “being good at not being good at something.” The only way to learn new knowledge is to be in an uncomfortable place of being lost. As you surrender to the constant stimulation, and gain confidence about being a novice, and more likely you will become persistent to try and sustain the curiosity. Also, taking care of yourselves and each other is the key to a group learning, where conversation leads to collaboration, and collaboration leads to new ideas.

On that note, SFPC is working on opening its doors to wider community by offering shorter sessions, inviting general public to select lectures and publishing course materials in video, code and text format. Also I will write about the Spring 2015 Final Showcase on next post on Creative Applications, including Matt Daniel’s Animals, plotted by intelligence and tastinessmatt

Follow @sfpc for the latest information. We also just announced call for students for Fall 2015 Program. Deadline is June 15th.

Title image: Ingrid Burrington and Surya Mattu’s class.


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