Talking Poetry and Pedagogy with the SFPC Team

One of the more exciting developments to bubble up within art and technology circles over the last few months, is the announcement of the School for Poetic Computation (SFPC). Operating under the motto “more poems less demos”, the educational venture will offer an intensive code, design, hardware and theory bootcamp operating out of Brooklyn, New York. Emerging from the formidable partnership of Zach Lieberman, Jen Lowe, Amit Pitaru and Taeyoon Choi, SFPC launches this September. On the eve of the closing of their first call for students (now extended through July 4th), CAN sent some questions along to the SFPC team to get a glimpse into their preparations for the fall.

Chase No Face
Chase No Face (2012)

Let’s start with the most obvious question: what is poetic computation and why does the world need a school dedicated to it?

Zach Lieberman: Poetic Computation is the field of experimental and artistic uses of computation. It’s commonly referred to as “Creative Coding,” but this is a term I know I personally have some trouble with. For one thing, “Creative Coding” seems to present the notion that other forms of programming, like designing a database for a bank, is not creative, which seems sort of wrong. There’s also such repetitive uses of “creative”, “creative class”, “creative city”, it starts to feel like a pretty strange term. Also, it’s become something of a commercial term – we like the word “poetry” which has a sort of anti-commercial feel. No one gets rich writing poetry, poetry books are for the back of the bookstore, self published, etc.  We want to focus on that use of computation for that. There’s also really rich comparisons of code and poetry, from a standpoint of how you read and write code. Projects like code {poems} for example, we totally dig this and want to explore this further.

On the flip side, Jer Thorp suggest to think of “creative coding” like “creative writing”, which I can totally appreciate… At any rate, this is a school for the creative writing of code, and for looking at the intersection of art and technology.

Taeyoon Choi: There are some formal similarities of programming and writing poetry. Poetry utilize rhythm, rhyme and form to create a piece of writing that can be experienced. Programming language have syntax, semantics and taxonomies which, if used correctly, command machines to perform mathematics and logical operations. These similarities are obvious enough that anyone can write pseudocode poetry without understanding computation.

However I think the greater connection between poetry and programming is that they are executable. Poetry is meant to be read aloud and shared. Programs are compiled to run software. This process of activating set of instructions are similar, while difference remains that programs rely on algorithm and data, poetry use sonic quality of speech through dictions and so on.

On a higher level, it’s important to reference the root of word Poetry is poeises which means to make, create and reconcile thought with matter and time. It’s a powerful idea that by making, one can connect with the world. [Taeyoon’s comments are excerpted from this SFPC blog post]

Jen Lowe: My education is in math, so I’ve got a long personal history with computation. Most of our society’s computational power is focused on practical pursuits: defense, optimization of processes and costs, scientific research, etc.

Poetry, for the most part, is about transcendent themes: love, pain, loss, beauty, joy, humor… I want to create and support computation that investigates these more poetic themes.

SFPC, pedagogy sketch

Zach’s talk at Eyeo was pretty critical of the post-austerity educational climate, with references to the state of student debt and the troubling ‘look at our cool new building’ arms race that many institutions are involved in. Should we read SFPC as a ‘response’ to the current state of art, design and technology education? Furthermore, what are your plans for ‘keeping lean’ to help students get the most bang for their (tuition) buck?

ZL: I am just on the process of checking out / leaving the academic world after teaching for over 10 years, so I have a bit of skepticism about things. In the US, tutions are through the roof — it’s almost 40k$ / year for private graduate school. In NY, in particular, you have institutions like NYU, Cooper Union, Parsons spending tons of money on shiny new buildings, and it feels like something really strange is happening that feels not right for the students…. You have “extension” campuses opening up in places like Singapore, Bejing, Dubai, Abu Dabhi, it seems really strange. And you have places like Cooper Union, which have been free for over 100 years, losing their mandate and having to charge tuition because their board of directors, perhaps criminally, squandered their financial position. It’s incredibly sad. So much of what’s happening seems to be built on debt and given the way the housing market imploded, one can’t help wonder if there’s some sort of crisis brewing here.

And when you discuss MOOCs, online education, books like Kio Stark’s Don’t Go Back to School, it freaks the administration out a bit. It’s reactionary, I think these institutions know there are important changes coming, but don’t know yet how adapt.

On our side, we aim to be low cost (around 1/4 of the cost of private graduate schools in NYC) or in the future free (we are in the process of trying to reduce tuition through sponsorship and donations), and most importantly, transparent. All the decisions we make about money will be made openly. Students will know exactly what the space costs, what teachers costs, what we’ve set aside for lectures, etc. The point is to try to have better accountability.

TC: Adding on to Zach’s comment about transparency, I think transparency is most important aspect in thinking about money at school for poetic computation. Also to note there are many artist residency programs that charge for artists to participate, but help them to search for funding/grant opportunity. So the labor of fundraising for artistic production is shared between hosting institution, sponsor and artist.

I think of the tuition as ‘using money’ to make best learning experience. We are not looking forward to ‘making money’ from the students or the school. The money will be used to realize the school, bring in additional teachers and space. I think it will be rather clear that the money will be a form of support for the shared dream to come true.

JL: It’s both a response to the current state of education in general and—I’m speculating here—the inevitable effect of the educational climate. I taught high school and college math and science and became fond of Paulo Freire’s assertion that resistance and change necessarily have to come from outside a system. The educational system is constricting, allowing less freedom for teachers and students. Even after finishing school, students overwhelmed by paying back loans can’t choose their next steps freely; they’re trapped under the weight of debt. SFPC is a radical move outside of traditional education; we’re moving outside of the system to try something new.

Tuition should be in the sweet spot between affordability for students and sustainability for the school; achieving this will be an ongoing struggle and discussion. Zach and Taeyoon covered our focus on transparency, but I just want to add that the focus on transparency creates the opportunity for reproducibility. SFPC is an open-source school.

Sonic Wire Sculptor
Sonic Wire Sculptor (2003)

The four of you have quite diverse practices and disciplinary knowledge. How is each of your personal philosophies, personalities and experiences channeling into the curriculum that you are developing?

ZL: I am a firm believer in preaching the idea that using code to make art is not hard, here’s how, etc. Project like openframeworks come out of that — it was a toolkit to help students get started. I’m personally interested in code, in understanding software, and experimenting with sensors, imaging, building reactive and interactive systems, appropriating new technologies (as my friend Kyle McDonald describes this) for artistic use, etc. I am also interested in gesture, how movement and aspects of the human body can be transformed through software.

Amit Pitaru: It is becoming increasingly easier to learn to code – many of us have all the required hardware in our hands, while great new tools and learning materials are available for free.This is great news to those who want to jump into the craft for the first time. At the same time, while reaching for the low hanging fruit has become easier, coding is still like any other craft – it takes time and space and then more time to achieve true creative flow with it. One of the most recurring comments I get from former students (some of which I’ve taught over 10 years ago), is that they’ve wished to have had this space and time when they were in school. I’d like the school to be a safe zone for our students in that respect – a place where its ok to take your time and really find that spark that happens when creativity meets true craftsmanship.

I’m also excited to see how some of the ideas from Kitchen Table Coders can flow into the school. I feel that over the past 2 years KTC has taught me a few important lessons about the ergonomics of teaching, that I’d love to apply here.

TC: I approach the school from a bit of different perspective: inspired by community organizing and activist point of view. I think learning to code and working with electronics in low level (at the fundamentals of transistor, resistor, capacitor and ICs) is essential for anyone desiring to be creative in the present and near future. I think what Public Access Television and community media education achieved in the 80s and 90s will need to happen with computation now. Organizations like Paper Tiger in NY or Inigo Manglano-Ovalle’s Tele Vecindario project which later grew to become Street Level Youth media are great example of how technology and media empowers youth and community.

I went to an art school and an engineering school, but the way technology was taught in both environment did not work for me. Art schools training on graphic and media production tools (like Adobe software) really limit the way an idea takes form. And the skills and tricks students learn from such training is usually outdated by the time they are in the real life work environment. Engineering schools experience was dry as one can imagine. However more importantly, engineering schools (especially graduate education) are highly specialized. So students in CS department might not have much EE Experience. Its common that students in a certain department and research assistant at a laboratory will not have any experience in outside of their given parameter.

It’s also important to note this is an artist-run school. I make best work in a creative environment where ideas flow freely and colleagues inspire rapid collaboration. The school is an artistic project as well, one which will be complete by participant’s will and contribution.

JL: Things I’m thinking about right now include: small gestures in design and life, data, math, algorithms, protest, freedom, humor, lightness. I’m particularly inspired by learning from the history of Black Mountain College – applying their successes and learning from their failures.

I’m developing a curriculum that encourages people to be unintimidated by math and excited about being a part of and contributing to the art / code community.

Zach’s fond of saying I bring a radical empathy to the group, which is flattering but probably a massive overstatement. I am deeply committed to making this scratch-built school into a supportive, diverse community.

Taeyoon’s excited about cooking regularly as a group to build community, and I bring years of (until now secret!) restaurant cooking experience.

I’m pretty serious with a decent sense of humor. And now I’ve written a strange sort of personal ad and will stop.

SFPC, pedagogy diagram

Can you give us some insight into how the curriculum will be organized?

ZL: We are approaching this first session really open minded — it honestly depends on who the students are, what they want to learn and how they want to learn it. We want to have the right mixture of structured vs unstructured time. We don’t think having a class once a week for 10 weeks make sense, but we also want to make sure it’s not completely formless. We have some artists who were talking to for doing residencies and workshops at the school, and we want to have regular guest sessions / lectures so there’s a steady stream of good people coming to talk to and work with the group. We definitely want it to more of a residency then a classroom type experience.

The are a few things we’re pretty sure of. We’re definitely inspired by the Interactivos? workshop model, where there’s different periods of time —lectures, working, exhibition—and that the whole time is open to the public in some way. We’re sold on the Kitchen Table Coders model of teaching, sitting five people around a table, no projector, just talking about the craft of coding. We also have firm belief that publishing as we go will be really important.

TC: We will also respond to student’s needs and desire. There are classes that we will teach for sure, but much of the fall schedule will be determined in response to students wishes. I am looking forward to hacking electronics and using logic gates to build oscillator and synthesizer. It will help students become familiar with computing with zero and one on the level of signal and circuit. I’d also like to investigate on the history of art and technology: especially revisiting archives of Experiments in Art and Technology in the 60s. Some of those ideas can be the seed for assignment.

JL: We’re keeping planning on curriculum light until we choose students; this way we can be responsive to what students want to learn and how they learn best.

Night’s Starred Face: The Magic Hand of Chance
Night’s Starred Face: The Magic Hand of Chance (2011)

Whereas other schools such as CIID are clearly pro non-specialization, i.e. producing ‘foxes’ rather than ‘hedgehogs’, SFPC appears to be quite specific. Is the school trying to contribute to a broader programme of education (especially considering its short yet intense period of study)?

ZL: I think it’s hard to have a broad focus in 10 weeks, but we really aim to be part of a larger group of alternative schools, places like the Brooklyn Institute or Hacker School, where people are really forging alternative models for education. I could easily imagine shaping an education out of multiple programs like this – not worrying about degrees and requirements, per se, but on the quality of the work you make.

JL: Great question, as I hadn’t thought of SFPC as being specific. It’s specific in terms of the focus on poetic computation, but I’m hoping our first class will have wild diversity in how they hope to apply poetic computation. So while the art and technology skills might be specific, the outcomes will be broad.

SFPC is contributing the the broader program of each student’s lifetime of self-education – offering the opportunity for intense study focused on the student’s own goals.

Occu-bot and Management-bot
Occu-bot and Management-bot (2011)

The clock is ticking on your first call for student applications. What differentiates an ideal SFPC candidate from someone who might apply to schools like ITP or MIT?

ZL: Well our first call was due June 30th, and for the sake of people who’ve applied, we will be reviewing their applications first, but we are extending the call to July 4th to make sure we’ve properly reached everyone we need to.

TC: Not everyone can afford time and money for graduate school. And some people with masters degree might need to be back in nurturing environment to jump start their creative practice. Ideal candidate for SFPC will need to be adventurous and driven about learning and making with computers.

JL: I’m keeping an open mind on who an ‘ideal’ candidate might be. They’ll need to be self-directed, comfortable working closely with others, invested in creating a new school, and probably more than a little bit reckless.

SFPC will be based out of the Made in NY Media Center in DUMBO, Brooklyn. Given that NYC is buzzing with energy at the moment, do you plan on partnering on any organizations and communities? If so, to what end?

ZL: Yes, we’ve already reached out to Eyebeam, which has been a big supporter of our workshops and work in the past. We’re also working to connect with both larger institutions, museums, etc that have the libraries and facilities that will be helpful for students as well as the makerspaces and labs, which can help with fabrication. This sort of connection is crucial. One of my dreams, which could be an offshoot of the school, is to have a bus tour of maker spaces in NYC—to spend a day actually seeing where to get boards manufactured, things 3d printed, steel cut, etc.—actually going to different shops and meeting people and making useful connections. At any rate, our hope through the school is try to connect as much as possible students to the maker/hacker scenes in NYC.

SFPC | All sketches by Taeyoon Choi, from Zach Lieberman’s Eyeo 2013 slide deck


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