Field notes from the School for Poetic Computation
There are fruit flies emerging from the grass artist’s grass art.
On the 7th floor, Genspace: vials and pipettes, warning notes on refrigerators, an invitation on the door to learn DNA barcoding. There is an artist who makes car-sized musical instruments out of Stella Artois beer chalices.
On the 5th floor, writers. Do Not Disturb.
A CSA delivers. Al owns the building and offers us the extras. We hack the squash and potatoes and collards into soup. We are overflowing in turnips and greens and eggplants.
We are at odds with the flies; to spray would kill the art, and yet — how are we to go on while the tiny distractors gather in the projector’s light, tickle our faces, and drown in our wine?
There is a mechanical horse rescued from Coney Island. Imagine hitting its butt; imagine that makes it gallop. Imagine the grinding, the squeals of its metal skeleton forcing wood to life. If it worked, that’s how it would ride.
There is a 20-foot-high totem made from the legs of tables and chairs.
There was to be a sauna on the roof but it was Against Code.
We are starting a school from air.
In the summer of 1997, I spent my nights painting the hood of my first car and my days studying vector calculus and working at Pretzelmaker in the Tucson Mall. In my vector calculus class, my voice sounded strange. I was 19, and it was the first time I’d ever noticed it. It sounded like this: the only female voice in class. When I wasn’t asking questions about wafers and rings and rotations, my voice was asking Mall Walkers: “Would you like to try a soft pretzel?”
On the hood of my car I painted a quote from Willy Wonka: We are the music makers, and we are the dreamers of dreams. Before I started painting, I cleared the canvas, paid $300 of my Pretzelmaker money to have the factory’s sparkling turquoise covered in Maaco’s cheapest white.
In the summer of 1997, in the last months I would ever live in my childhood house, there were no cell phones and there was no internet. The only picture of me and the car was taken with a Polaroid, which may or may not be in a box somewhere. The font was Wonka Chocolate Bar and the color was #003EFF. “We are the music makers…,” I learned from Wikipedia on the day we started the school, was written in 1874, in an ode by Arthur O’Shaughnessy.
Strangers left notes on my Willy Wonka windshield. They wrote “Thanks!" and “I was having a bad day until I saw this.” I painted the car because I was half-crazy broken under other people’s expectations and I wanted to talk to strangers, to send them a message I couldn’t quite believe myself. I drove that message around until the axle broke in the middle of the road and the tow truck driver gave me a ride home and everyone knew it was beyond time to put the car down and my wheeled poetry was over.
O’Shaughnessy’s ode ends:
For each age is a dream that is dying,
Or one that is coming to birth.
When I needed to escape the martyrdom that is teaching high school math, I went to grad school. A Los Alamos recruiter invited me to intern for the summer for more money than my mother ever made in a year (and we were not poor). I told him three times politely — and one time impolitely — that I wasn’t interested. For the next few years, I listened to my grad school friends insist that they weren’t working on defense problems at their classified summer internships at National Labs — they were only working on problems of fluids moving over a solid.
Numbers don’t lie, exactly. They tell a lot of different truths, surely. They’re like us that way.
Numbers from The Internet: one quarter of US mathematicians work in defense-related jobs. The NSA is the world’s single largest employer of mathematicians. Eighty-one percent of mathematicians employed by the federal government work for the Department of Defense.
We have a complicated relationship with computation.
Experiments with computation are restricted by marketing demands, by defense support, by the pressures of grant funding. AT&T killed Bell Labs one laid-off researcher at a time. What is the new Bell Labs? Where are the spaces for open-ended creative computational experiments?
There is very little support now for creating what one imagines. There never was much, but now there is less. You have to clear the space yourself. Paint the car at night for no good reason. Create an open community biolab. Start a school. Ignore everyone’s expectations but your own.
Field notes, continued
People want to know how the school is going. Friends, professors, my partner’s parents. The thing is, I’m not even sure what the school is. One of the students says it’s an art installation. I hope he means that in a good way.
There have been workshops on 3D printing, color, circuits, math, Node.js, Python, openFrameworks, storytelling, Raspberry Pi, Arduino.
Every week: The Art of Walking and Kitchen Table Coders. Also: Open Dinner. Upcoming: Wifi Everything. (Only a few of us are sure what that means.)
Readings: Deleuze. Alexander Galloway. Kate Crawford. Jan Zwicky. Et cetera.
Questions: How can we measure time with space? How can we get the machines to see each other? How do I make the world more loving? How do I know the machine understands me?
Discussions: What the hell is poetic computation, anyway? Are we being poetic enough? How do we decide what to make? What is the final show? Should we schedule workshops or should we schedule making? Should we find solitude or stick with the group? The theme recurs: now that we’ve cleared the space, how do we fill it?
A typeface designer and a creative technologist turned a red LED into an occupied light for the bathroom.
Someone wants to make grass scream when it’s stepped on.
Someone is feeding weather through a music box.
Starting a school from air goes like this: First, clear a space. A floor of a building. Ten weeks of your time. Fill the space with people. Don’t let the flies get the best of you. Ask all the questions. Build some answers. There you have it.