Cover photo

Computer art self help guide

Some people will literally learn p5.js rather than go to therapy. Four creative coding psychology hacks they don’t want you to know about:

  1. Beginner computing arts mindset

  2. Holding the mirror self

  3. How to do nothing while coding

  4. Being creative


When I first began learning p5.js, I heard artist Matt Kane talk about his recovery from a life-fracturing event, supported by the meditative practice of developing creative coding systems. At the time, I was moving coloured ellipses around a digital canvas, showing my friends like I was 8 and it was my rock collection (still am, sorry about that). Now, a year later, I’m more convinced that creative coding can be a deeply sustaining practice filling all kinds of everyday voids. To make sense of some of those void-filling capabilities I reflect on the three vectors of my own experience: The methodical practice of learning new skills via Daniel Shiffman’s enthusiastic videos (how to do it), the surprisingly amniotic discords of NFT communities pumping ideas (what to make / make it better), and the revelation of learning by unlearning through a chaotic-brilliant live and fluid computing arts course gifted by artist 113. The sketches included below were created during the first few weeks of that course - seeds, scribbles, test systems, fragments. They look silly, but behind them are personally profound steps forward. Like therapy, the work happens inside.

1. Beginner computing arts mindset

Whereas creating in flow state depends on a level of expertise and control, creating with a beginners’ mindset embraces instability, mutability, un-surety. The concept was pilfered from the zen Shoshin, applied to calligraphy and martial arts among other specialised extremely-non-beginner practices. Beginner mindset isn’t necessarily naive, it’s open to possibility. Expert mindset isn’t necessarily sophisticated, it’s fixed on a target. Both states are fragile for different reasons.

A computing arts beginner mindset allows confusion to be piqued, rolling on the waves of not understanding why is this happening and not what I expected to happen, fucking around, finding out, glimpsing control for a moment, then releasing it when a new confusion breaks over you. A ride.

Creative coding interfaces support beginners’ mindset more than a high pressure blank sheet of paper because they give immediate feedback, conjure it here in the left window, and see it there in the right, allowing a gentle incremental leap into making before you know what to make, following along with Shiffman and sometimes (often) not understanding the logic, and being ok with that. The ‘rightness or error’ of code provides a scaffold for learning creatively, and allows a kind of open play that is an energising space for amateurs, professionals, degens and serious art collectors, nurturing the making and the owning of computer art as ripples of the same dynamic. More on that here.

2. Holding the mirror self

Making something and sharing it is no innocent practice. Everyone’s personal code runs this loop or something similar:

if (I am proud of it && I think they will like it){ share hope for heart reacts }

Sharing a png of a sketch is a vulnerable act asking for aesthetic judgement, sharing the code itself amplifies this - saying to anons you respect: check out my intellectual failures written clearly.

Looking glass self is the relational phenomenon where individuals understand their sense of self through what they perceive to be others’ views of them. A kind of circle where being / performing is modified by the reflections of ourselves that we think we see in others’ appraisals. A conga line of imagined judgements. This can obviously be damaging, i.e. being very online. Alternately, practicing holding rather than feeding the mirrored self can be critically grounding and anti-insular.

By holding the mirrored self I mean embracing the social sharing potentials of computer art and showing off ones guts: the basic, pastiched, codified aesthetic languages absorbed and shoehorned, and the imperfect, dirty spaghetti code. And then asking people to look at it, while you look at theirs, cushioned by anonymised relationships that focus on the work not person - a buffer to undeserved self-judgement and unearned self-satisfaction.

This is possible through the global networks clustered around projects like Mathcastles and 113’s Intro to Computing Arts course. And, it’s possible because creative coding is open on web and can be always in progress. I can open someone’s sketch and learn how they made it, I can modify variables to test it, I am playing in their WIP and reflecting it back on mine. This practice has been the true miracle of NFTs - opening new gaps new wormholes for a community to form around artist and work as they develop, all the way along the amateur-professional spectrum.

Little intestinal GTA

3. How to do nothing while coding

The challenge is to resist wringing productivity out of a practice which is all about efficiency. It’s like in meditation (acknowledge the discomfort, back to the breath) where constantly rejecting mental distraction gradually builds rather than weakens focus on that thing beyond whatever lists of unachieved needs, desires, expectations, hours grind in your own head.

The challenge is to resist projecting finished outcomes out of a practice which is all about production. It’s like gardening (is it like gardening?) where menial work one day is repeated the next. Am I being completely present, I wonder, while visualising the validation I’ll taste in the cherry tomatoes that will burst from the dry seeds I am right now pushing into the dirt.

Creative coding practices join meditation, gardening, walking in the roses, as another (easier) way to be fully present. Deceptively effortless, deceptively hard, multi-tasking prohibitive. A lot of methodical repetition, a lot of incrementing, a rhythm. What’s harder is to remove from your mind the juicy cherry tomato before the plant’s even blossomed, to resist seeing everything you do, every silly sketch, as a future NFT to be sold. Acknowledge the ambition, back to the loop in front of you. This, then that. If, then, else.

Little zero-purpose surveillance game

4. Being creative

Creativity is a wind, not a well. An action, not a talent or resource. I don’t know if artists feel this fear - that the thing you are currently working on is the last idea you will have - and then this relief - that inspiration is everywhere, both infinite and rare.

Creative coding is a revelation because it puts making something from nothing (literally the act of creation) into a convenient, everyday, accessible format of computer and internet connection. Because creativity is an action, making something even without a clear vision invariably leads down pleasant and rough pathways to an array of cool or bad outcomes. Share, consider, talk about it enough to slowly, socially, help clarify why we are using this medium? What are the values of being able to draw ten thousand things in one second and make them move in random and relational ways? Where will we take it? Where will it take us?

But, even before attempting to parse fully formed computing art meta meaning and purpose, there’s a very basic motivator that, as with all self-help, is kind of obvious - making, creating, sharing is good for you.

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