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You Won't Find Typical Homework Projects At The School Of Poetic Computation

One of the school's founders talked with The Creators Project about how the school runs and shared some amazing tech-based student projects
December 18, 2013, 7:30pm

Earlier this year, we highlighted a new school that makes Stuveysant look like the product of Luddites. Re-meet The School of Poetic Computation, a special education program that exposes art within computer code. Here, students are taught how to use code to create art, rather than design websites or exercise in cornea-melting, tech-based pragmatism.

The program was founded by coder and designer Amit Pitaru, artist Zach Lieberman, researcher Jen Lowe, artist Taeyoon Choi, and artist, designer, and educator Casey Gollan. Together, they are described as “a group of artists, hackers and educators who are super committed to open source and open hardware, to radical openness and generosity.” This might be the digital A-Team needed to push education to its next tech-based frontier.

The school's first ten-week session just ended, culminating in incredible projects created by the 15 students who were accepted for this seminal term. The topics covered in the school included basic electronics, programming, math, cooking and walking (really, think of Baudelaire), and were also accompanied by guest lecturers and roundtable discussions. Students were treated to lessons from the founders, as well as from other artists.

But what did the founders learn from the experience, and how will the school grow from here? We talked to one of the founders, Taeyoon Choi, about the process and what has come out of it. You won't be assigned your typical homework at The School of Poetic Computation.

The Creators Project: Tell us about the application process for the first session.

Taeyoon Choi: We had an overwhelmingly positive response as soon as we announced the school. About 60 candidates from all around the world applied to the first class. The students were selected based on their application and previous work sample. Our questionnaire included “What do you want the school for poetic computation to be?” and “Describe your ideal learning environment?”

We selected students from diverse background and professional paths. We also made sure to leave door open for the ones who were not selected to be involved through our public events. Roughly about half of the students have either background or experience in programming and engineering and other half come from art and design. We paid close attention to the curation of students as a potential collective. And we made sure the students knew this is a first trial experiment and lots of logistics are to be determined as the term progressed. We are proud of the individuals who were part of the first class and the amount of energy and devotion they shared with each other.

How did this first term prove to you that this school is necessary and useful?

We were fortunate to have our colleagues, some of whom are our heroes, to come in for guest lecture and workshops. Their response to the school was very positive and they expressed interest in contributing to the school and students in the future. Bret Victor, Ramsey Nasser, Takahiro Yamaguchi, Paola Antonelli, Zach Gage, Golan Levin, Kyle McDonald, Christine Sun Kim were just few of amazing visiting artists. Also we had special treats of having Jacob Tonski, Caitlin Morris and Jurg Lehni to stay with the students on extended period to help them develop projects on conceptual and technical aspects.

Most importantly, the students expressed their excitement during the difficult process as we were literally building the school together, from the ground up.

[Roundtable discussion with students and teachers from School for Poetic Computation and special guests Michael Mandiberg,  Lauren McCarthy and Kyle McDonald.]

I'm sure some of the pieces fell into place while the class was in session. Can you talk a bit about that? What are some things that surprised you?

The students were some of the most hard working and talented people I’ve ever met. Everyday we were surprised by the dedication and intuition they shared with everyone. About a month into the school, students were beginning to express interest in focusing on their own projects, and classes naturally became topic based workshops as opposed to large scale lecture we delivered in the beginning.

The organizers admit some things didn’t go as we planned, and thankfully the students took control over the missing spots. One recurring problem was over scheduling of workshops and students not having enough time to focus on their work.

Describe the feeling of the class together. What was the environment like? How did the students end up interacting with each other?

The school really felt like a home to students and teachers. We were spending average of 10+ hours a day, 6+days a week in a sunlit loft in downtown Brooklyn. We cooked together and ate around a large round table in Thursday evenings. After the first week, everyone started to carve out a corner of the space for their work. It was very common for students to eat together and continue to work until late evening.

The students were assigned daily homeworks for the first month. These homeworks became more of proposition for learning and teaching, rather than rigid instruction for the class. Since we had students from varying technical skills, it was very important that students help each other to learn. For advanced students, advising another students quickly became a self organized workshop sessions. This opportunity to brush up their own teaching skills and engage with another became core element that made School for Poetic Computation special.

Also, there were some sessions were about color and design, philosophy and so on. We planned four major classes lead by each teacher: Zach taught a series of class on coding, computer vision, animation and so on. Jen taught Math for Aritsts, and Art for Mathists class, a class on math, art and poetics. Amit taught Learning to Learn class, a sort of meta class about the process of learning. I taught Poetics of Circuitry, a class on building electronic circuits as well as Art of Walking which was about reading, writing and walking.

What have you learned in your first year?

We learned to trust the students to find out what they want from the school. Once they had specific questions and requests, we tried to share our knowledge or find someone who can help them learn through practice. We also realized being an institution and teaching at the same time is a challenge. There is simply tons of administrative duty that comes with running a school that we overlooked. In the future, we hope to work with more professional management in charge of financial aspects, curatorial direction of the final exhibition, as well as documentation and archive throughout the semester.

How were some of the principles of the school reflected through these students' projects?

We were often asked what we mean by ‘Poetic Computation.' I like to say there is poetics in the nature of computation: the points where math meets electricity, and logic meets language, which we find beautiful. And there are also poetic things that people do with computation: be it art, design or applications. What we hoped the students do at School for poetic computation is to bridge two worlds via collaboration, improvisation and conversations.

And the projects truly are incredible. Here are just a few of them:

Student Simona de Rosa created “TASTED,” a project that explores ingredients and their flavors. She created a data set that identified flavors in over 1,000 ingredients and combined them into over a million combinations. The combinations were then organized from most similar to least similar.

A selection of the ingredients were displayed. The menu was arranged in two sections: similar, or J+, and dissimilar, or J-. Viewers were encouraged to try out combinations by placing two ingredients in their mouth at once.

Student Andy Clymer created “Insecurity Camera,” which is a response to feeling constantly surveilled in today’s society. The project takes what looks like a security camera and creates an artistic representation of our own everyday nervousness. When the camera, mounted on a wall, detects no movement, it monitors the area that its in quite normally. However, when the camera detects movement, it immediately swivels and turns away, as if in fear, making sure not to capture any person.

The camera uses the openFrameworks C++ library to detect motion, and moves using two servo motors. It is built to detect motion, and then to quickly discover the most efficient and quickest way to avoid that movement. According to Clymer, “It’s just as uncomfortable with you looking at it, as you probably are of it looking at you.”

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Student Paul Chang created "Haze霾,” a face mask that not only shields the wearer from pollution, but also measures the pollution in the air. The piece is in response to the issue of air pollution in China, where there have been reports of very seriously harmful air, with the first orange alert issued by the government earlier this year.

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The face mask includes a sensor that measures air pollution, and LED lights that turn red when the mask comes into contact with air pollution. The mask will also emit a noise. Chang created the mask to stimulate conversation about the air quality, as the mask is a visual representation of the harmful gases that many people breathe in every day.

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Student Rachel Uwa created “Fuck You Bitch V.02,” a system that makes your love for a specific person audible. The idea was born out of witnessing people screaming “fuck you, bitch!” at each other in anger. Uwa wanted to turn that message of anger into a message of love, because, as she says, “While its easy to scream out in anger, it's not so easy to vocalize the nice things.”

The viewer of the piece is prompted to text a number with the name of someone they love. Then, a speaker screams out “I LOVE YOU, [the name of the person].” This is all accomplished through a phone service called Twilio that translates SMS messaging to a web server and Google Hangout, two services we might use in any day life.

Each student's creative output deserves its own article, and we're sure these bright minds will be making waves in the tech and arts world in the near future. With a school like this, they have the right platform and mentorship to truly embrace their passion and push the boundaries of creativity. They may be young, but these students are ripe with inventiveness.

For more amazing projects, check out The School For Poetic Computation’s blog.