Record of a twice-weekly cocoon

In November 2022, computer art studio Mathcastles announced an experimental course for artists and coders. Six months later, final projects were completed, and group art crits concluded. What happened in between was transformative. Below is a personal record. Other records exist in 100s of sketches, in the projects minted immutably as NFTs, and, more mutably, in the projects germinating, in the strengthened chats and networks, in the changed texture of ideas about technology and art. For an experience which was ephemeral by design (artist and facilitator 113 in the first class: if anyone records these lessons I will end it immediately), there are a lot of records, a lot of threads woven and marks made.

This one is focused on the creative learning process in course shape > experience > people.

I worry that articulating will diminish it, so know these classes were the highlight of my week and unlocked a pivot point in my life.

Shape

Held on twitch stream and in discord chat, free for any of the 1900 or so holders of a Terraforms NFT who wanted to join, no formal enrolment process, no announced end date. About 50 joined. Classes were a combination of p5.js tooling instruction, technology discussion and art review. Some moved methodically through programming techniques, most included delightful / dramatic detours into the spokes of culture and politics radiating from computing art in 2023.

Each class had a timbre, and the course had an arc shaped by accelerating content (classes got hard, fast) and accelerating context. The outside world came into the twice-weekly cocoon. It was a crypto winter, and the start of the course coincided with the exponential adoption of AI through Chat GPT, the end with an exponential zombie rise of memecoins, and in between the gutting of artist royalties and the fulsome realisation of digital art marketplaces as gambling dashboards.

Experience

Introduction to Computing Arts is a case study in learning by leaping. A group of amateur artists and coders with unstated competency pushed to an edge of fresh confusion then asked to lift up our eyes and refocus from the code loops to the context and back again. This creative vertigo is a counterpoint to Shiffman’s (also great) gently paced step-by-step tutorials.

The refocusing demanded by this ItCA teaching approach exercised a fundamentally human act: Skills and outputs directed by thought and feeling. AI acceleration met with a shrug or open arms is an inevitability of economic capture; where objectivity and judgements of cultural meaning are assumed not to mix; where explanations of what people do are detached from normative philosophies of why things matter to them; where human groups are understood as actors of practices without appreciating the meaning of those practices for them.

In a recent essay [here] Tina Rivers Ryan talks about distances between appreciating the tech and feeling the artwork. There is a tendency by some readings of computer art, she says, to privilege the medium, to become fixated on the affordances of a software program:

I don’t want to dismiss the importance of framing “art and technology” as technology, but I do wonder if our focus on how these works are made tends to inhibit our ability to also fully experience them as art, pushing us away instead of drawing us closer.

Focusing on technological traits and tools draw us much closer when we connect intentionally with the building blocks and machinery of our extremely real and incredibly tactile online experience, and engage with the way their everyday aesthetics shape how we view images, perceive color and light, touch screens, store, remember and remix digital media. The aim is both 1) see the technological traits as real parts of culture without nostalgia and without being overwhelmed by their sorcery, and 2) connect with what they are communicating independently of their cleverness.

Three moments from class where technological traits drew me closer:

  1. Pixels: Engaging with the pixel as a materiality that has behaviours and relational complexity. Zooming in to comprehend its fixed yes/no existence, zooming out to see the rigid primitive fold through multiplication till you no longer see it. (Also considered in this talk by artist Jeffrey Alan Scudder).

  2. Keyboard controls: The narrowed viewport and game-based interactivity of keyboard controls in artwork Passage bringing the viewer close to the entwined aesthetic and emotion (familiarity, nostalgia, intimacy, brevity, endings).

  3. The empty array: No matter how many times I use them, I’m hit by the weird power of the empty brackets [] as a place for storing an unknown quantity of unknown visual elements, and how from this agnostic and simple command can spring abundant and serendipitous outcomes to surprise the operator.

In each moment, shifting gaze from new code learned (foreground) to the connected materiality and meaning of computer art (middle ground) to its presence in yonder intersection of art and technology and (horizon) its embedding in our relationships with and within culture and society.

People

It isn’t normal for a busy artist and project founder to dedicate hours each week to teaching a free course, it isn’t normal as an amateur artist or coder to be taught by one of the best, it really isn’t normal for a 6700-member NFT discord to be a soothing cocoon, and for it to feel this productive.

People from many timezones and sleep schedules joined the class, meaning we responded to shared work and questions in a rolling asynchronous chat. Classmates giving extended creative feedback and technical suggestions in my DMs shocked me with their generosity. Despite some obvious baked-in fundamentals, in that the class was quite nerdy, people with a wide range of creative and code backgrounds (or neither) attended. 14 of us presented final projects. After chatting in text to anon avatars for over 100 hours, voice chat in the concluding weeks of final project crits (and some clues of gender and geography) felt close and gently moving.

Among the cohort and during the course, Neokry launched Persistence, a permissionless contract and front-end to enable minting p5.js works, and offered invitations to test it. So far, seven of us have used it to mint and sell NFTs. The Mathcastles art stream, home to the meditative delight of watching 113 work on Terraforms upgrades, is now open to the cohort to also stream on.

Class is dismissed, but we are still making and learning loosely together. So much to be gained from each other in this subculture setting; creativity sustained by connection, finding porosity in boundaries, building scaffolds for openness instead of cynicism.

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