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A Creative Coding School Run By Artists Opens In New York

Zach Lieberman, Taeyoon Choi, Amit Pitaru, and Jen Lowe open the School For Poetic Computation to teach people the magic of computational design.

Where would you go to learn creative coding? The internet? Read a book? Watch a tutorial? Download a copy of Processing and just get stuck in? Or would you go to a school to learn it? Artists Zach LiebermanTaeyoon Choi, designer Amit Pitaru, and mathmatician Jen Lowe have recently set up the artist run School For Poetic Computation in New York.

Lieberman is co-founder of open source creative coding kit openFrameworks and was involved with the EyeWriter project and with turning Hadrian's Wall in the UK into a line of glowing balloons. Choi's projects have included hacking an IKEA store and building a protest robot, so you'll be in very capable hands.

The school is there to teach anyone who wants to enrol about computational art and design, with a "focus on writing code like creative writing—focusing on the mechanics of programming as well as demystifying as much as possible the tools, techniques and strategies for making art via code." 

But rather than teach these skills for someone to go away and apply them in a pragmatic sense, the group want to teach these skills so people can use them to make more creative and poetic work, work that revels in delighting people for the sake of it rather than gearing you up for a vocation (but there's nothing stopping you using it for a career either).

Whether they'll just be preaching to the converted or will attract novices who want to try their hand at experimenting with code remains to be seen. The call for students for Fall 2013, September 16 to November 22, is open now until 4th July and you can apply here. They aim to get around 15-20 students for a 10 week course, costing around $5,000—but the fee still needs to be finalized.

We fired off a few questions to the group to find out more about the school and their reasons for opening it.

The Creators Project: What were your reasons for wanting to set up the school?
Zach Lieberman: I've been involved in teaching for a long time—around 10 years—but increasingly, I've felt worried about the direction of larger academic institutions. It seems like what's really interesting in education to me is happening at media labs, in workshops, in alternative schools, online, and in a different context then a typical graduate school. Also, graduate school in the US is getting increasingly expensive. 

Also, this year I was on a group with Carol Becker, dean of the art school at Colombia, who argues really passionately for what an art school could be—I started to feel like I wasn't sure about the school I was teaching in at the time, Parsons, and if I could shape it to be like the schools she was describing. Maybe starting our own school would be the way to go?  

Taeyoon Choi: After graduating from an art school and an engineering school and working as a full time artist/educator, I had chances to [a] teach wide range of students from high school to professionals. Teaching in and out of museums, festivals and university, my doubt in privatization of education, especially on arts, started to grow. 

Most Master of Fine Arts programs provide valuable experience and networks that will otherwise be impossible to connect. However paying more than 30,000/year to a big name university is an unfair game for students and teachers. Adjunct positions are just as precarious as graduate students. Also, international students are the breadwinner for the institution, because they can not take advantage of student loans or scholarship. In the late 2000s, student uprising around the world signaled urgency to change the way knowledge is shared, it was no longer just a problem for international students or those who wish to study at prestigious private schools.  

Student protests at the University of California in 2009 regarding education cuts, and in London in 2010 and also in South Korea, showed that this is a globally shared symptom of neoliberalization of knowledge and learning. Artists and activists responding to the issue were quick to make their own schools, open source learning and build a connection of like-minded people around the world. Thus projects like The Public School (I was involed in organizing New York Chapter for three years), Trade School and Bruce High Quality University were created around that time.  

On that note, it was natural that we wanted to make a school, as opposed to another hackerspace or research group. Also, a school is a very inclusive format. Other hackerspaces or collectives like F.A.T lab are doing great things but it's often self selective. So we wanted something that technically anyone can apply to and be part of it.  

Lieberman: The only pre-requisite is curiousity and a desire to be working at the edges of one's comfort level.

Jen Lowe: I'm always attracted to things I haven't seen before, and SFPC is something I haven't seen before. I'm motivated by the question: what kind of community can we create when we're starting from scratch? That's a rare opportunity, and one that I'm excited and proud to be part of. 

More personally, my background is in mathematics, and I left that field feeling very alienated. I'd like to teach math for artists—to grow a community of people who can use math to their own wild, weird, idiosyncratic ends. I'd like to inject math into unexpected places and see what happens next.

Do you feel there's a lack of schools like this around that help people to understand how to use code to make art?
Lieberman: There's definitely very good and strong schools for studying this. I'm thinking of programs like UCLA DMA, where heroes like Erkki Huhtamo, Casey Reas, and Jennifer Steinkamp teach,  ITP where Daniel Shiffman and Tom Igoe teach. These are great traditional undergraduate and graduate programs. Many of these programs have decades long history of looking at this medium. On the flip side, there are very few alternatives to graduate school to look at this medium. There are workshops, like Anderson Ranch and the Interactivos? workshop created by Medialab Prado, to name a few, but we didn't see much in terms of longer term programs to help promote this medium.

Choi: I think there are great schools with amazing teachers, such as ones Zach mentioned. However it is still very central to academic institutions that are expensive and selective. It is necessary to democraticize and make available this specific knowledge. Artists and engineers who teach in such institutions have been doing a wonderful job in sharing their research and open sourcing every aspect of their teaching. Shiffman's video tutorial on Processing is simply impressive. David Harvey has a YouTube channel on reading Marx's Capital which is simply amazing. And recent websites that present lectures and tutorials are promising the future of 'teach yourself'. However they all lack the essence of learning and teaching: people and space. How about we make a physical environment and a community of students and resources that will open up to larger group? So learning doesn't stay in the virtual world and within the doors of an academy, but can be brought out into the hands of a more diverse community.  

Lowe: Agreeing with Zach, and adding: It's common for people to realize they're interested in code and/or art later in life, and taking two years out for graduate school is often unrealistic for older students. There aren't a lack of schools, but there's a need for code/art schools like SFPC that have shorter timelines and more flexible approaches to teaching and learning.

Do you think these sorts of skills should be taught in high schools, just like reading, writing and algebra are?
Choi: It depends on the way art and science are taught in high schools. I definitely think it will be easier to get started the younger the students are. There are larger movements like S.T.E.A.M. around the world. However I'm not sure formalizing art education and 'creative practice' will work well. At least for me, I had aversion to anything anyone told me to do when I was a teenager. It is the things which students find on their own that leads to discovering their passion. I think something similar to public access media in the 80s (community television and radio workshops, etc) can happen to coding and hacking. It will be more grassroots and punk than an afterschool program.  

Lowe: Having been a high school teacher, I try to avoid adding to the glut of opinions on how k-12 education should be fixed. But since you've asked… I think art should be a central focus of all curriculum. Learning to see, to experiment, to use materials creatively, to develop craft, technique, to critique intelligently—this is all a part of art and is the type of thinking we need more of. It's popular to say now that "everyone should learn to code" and I don't quite buy that. Ideally I'd love a world where everyone is taught a basic understanding of code so that they aren't intimidated by it and can decide whether they want to learn more. 


The EyeWriter project

What's the idea behind having the students also teach?
Lieberman: The act of teaching is one way to solidify what you know.  Also, it's a way to spread the things we care about as far as we can, which I think should be the goal of any school. 

Choi: At least for me, this desire to make 'everyone teach everyone else' is partly inspired by horizontal pedagogy developed during Occupy Wall Street and Free University. Horizontal pedagogy is inspired by Pedagogy of the Opressed, participatory democracy, etc. The idea is to empower students and break the traditional hierarchical teacher-student relationship by examining an issue together, collectively question it and build a dialogue, not a definite conclusion.   

Lowe: There's an inward and an outward focus to having students teach. Students will come to the school with a variety of backgrounds and skills—we're hoping to make that variety complementary so that within the school, students can help each other fill gaps in their knowledge. It's also important to us to connect students to the community outside the school—by creating tutorials, walkthroughs, and other materials, students and teachers can contribute to the awesome ecosystem of sharing that already exists in the art/code community.


Taeyoon Choi's Hacking IKEA

What sorts of skills can someone hope to learn on the course? And why do you feel these particular skills are important to know right now?
Lieberman: I know I for one want people to get a sense of the magic of computation, and to be able to build projects that are expressive with the medium. 

Choi: I want people to be able to achieve more with less. I means less in using up material/ technical resource and achieving more with poetic minimalism. It matters little if they want to build a phone app, performance art, installation, or produce a graphic novel. I think computation helps achieve all of these creative tasks. 

I am looking forward to teaching hacking: circuit bending, working with CMOS chips to make a noise machine. Also hoping to invite media theorists to lecture on current issues in art and technology.    

Lowe: I want people to learn the skills that they hope to learn, the skills they wish they had at the moment when they feel compelled to apply to something called the School for Poetic Computation. I hope that people leave feeling unintimidated by math, by tech, by experimentation—that people leave feeling that they can find answers to their tech questions, and that they have a community supporting them in their next moves.

@stewart23rd