SciTech

Conference blends together art and programming

March 7–9, the conference "Art and Code" took place, focusing on the common ground between art, design, and computer science pedagogy.

According to conference organizer and Associate Professor of Art Golan Levin, many people have creative ends in mind for the computers that surround them, but they hesitate because programming seems too hard.

"The problem, it turns out, may not be programming itself so much as the ways in which it is conventionally taught," wrote Levin in the conference’s forward.

Multimedia-based programming environments under development — such as Processing, Alice, openFrameworks, or VVVV — use art and music as the hook for attracting creative individuals, with the goal to expose programming to more left-brained people.

The conference began with half-day workshops led by the creators or developers of these programming environments, including Casey Reas of Processing, Zachary Lieberman of openFrameworks, and Sebastian Oschatz of VVVV.

The workshops aimed to both give an idea of what is possible with each of the software packages, and also to teach people from all skill levels how to use the basic features. On Sunday, the leaders of the workshops took the stage and gave hour-long talks to demonstrate the successes and future potential of each package.

On Sunday evening, the conference attendees were encouraged to attend a meeting of the Pittsburgh Dorkbot chapter, which, as stated on its website — www.dorkbot.org/dorkbotpgh — is an organization celebrating "people doing strange things with electricity." Sunday's Dorkbot meeting at the brillobox in Bloomfield was a special event, where individuals gave five minute–long presentations on their ideas or projects in progress. The presentations ranged from demonstrations of general-purpose interactive systems to overviews of unique designs like that of the music-driven lighting system of ARS Electronica in Linz, Austria.

Monday's activities centered on giving short introductory lessons to students for each of the software packages, and culminated with panel discussions on ways to teach programming that encourage exploration. The idea is that by making program effects immediately accessible by visual or auditory means, the beginner can more easily make connections between what he types in and how the computer interprets his commands.

"Why the Lucky Stiff," or Why, for short, is the pseudonym of a computer programmer best known for his book Why's Guide to Ruby, which teaches the programming language Ruby through stories.

Why's The Little Coder's Predicament reprinted as the conference's afterword, begins with an anecdote: when he was young, it was simple for him to write programs on his TI calculator and share them with his friends. This was a formative experience that encouraged him to explore more in depth. However, according to Why, "current versions of Windows have no immediately accessible programming languages" — in general, it is not as easy today to get one’s feet wet and to get excited about programming.

Why then details some principles which he believes, if implemented, may make programming accessible again: transportable code, meaning code that can quickly and freely change hands. Simplicity means that it should be straightforward to do tasks such as load and display images, which typically take tens of lines of code. There should be a sensible environment: the environment should be tuned to the interface. For example, a programming environment on a console should be easy to use with the provided game controllers. Finally, any such environment should be free, to encourage people to actually use the thing.

"Art and Code" brought artists, designers, and computer scientists together, and in doing so developed their senses of what is possible with the computer as a medium. The workshops and panels, and the coffee breaks, led to conversations that in cross-pollinating developers, will lead to more usable and powerful tools for artist-programmers.