Happy accidents and the transformative power of coding
Written by Barbara Adler
Interview conducted by Barbara Adler, video recorded and edited by Harley Spade
On March 14th, a new, interactive public artwork will launch at VIVO Media Arts. Permanent Deviation is an online project that allows the public to create artworks using computer code. The launch party will feature public coding stations connected to a live-projection of the project website, allowing spectators to watch transformations of the artworks as they happen in real-time. All ages and levels of ability are welcome to participate in the creation of the code, which will be constructed in short ‘snippets’ that build onto the work of other participants. Conceived and designed by artist Julie Gendron, and programmed by Brady Marks, Permanent Deviation is an introduction to the interactive possibilities of coding and the aesthetic possibilities of the programming language known as Processing. Envisioned as a friendly competition (complete with code-related heckling), the Permanent Deviation launch party offers audiences an insight into a growing movement that fuses accessible technology with personal, political and aesthetic transformation.
Processing is a free, open-source programming language that has been embraced by computer programming literacy initiatives as well as artists and creative coders. Designed specifically to simplify the act of coding, Processing allows beginners to generate art installations, data visualizations and sketches without the use of expensive, proprietary software. According to author Ira Greenberg, Processing “also seems to have been created to just have fun with.” The playfulness that seems to go hand in hand with this language has made it a focal point for a new way of socializing. Permanent Deviation taps into the enthusiasm of a growing community of creative coders who gather online and in-person with Processing meet-ups. Yet, the project also marks an important contribution to the ‘social life’ of this community, and could well be the beginnings of public participation on a much wider scale. Processing is normally performed on individual computers, but Marks has built and adapted the existing language into an online compiler. As a result, Permanent Deviation marks the first time that coders will be able to interact with Processing, and with each other, in real-time, through a live, modifiable website. Marks cheerfully notes that this means that the coders competing with each other in-person at the project launch will also have to contend with the programming amendments (and heckling) of virtual participants.
It’s this combination of accessibility and playfulness that makes Processing an excellent medium for Gendron and Marks. Although they both work across a range of disciplines and media, the pair share an ongoing interest in using participatory creation and interactivity as ways to imagine new models of public agency. They are quick to point out that coding can no longer be dismissed as the pastime of a handful of lonely ‘computer geeks.’ Instead, they believe that coding is essential to contemporary society, both as a tool for personal transformation and as the real measure of technological self-determination. On the individual level, coders often perform under imaginative aliases and alternative personas. This practice offers an exciting opportunity for participants to take on ‘other’ lives and identities, and as Gendron notes, it also suggests a way for people to experiment with new modes of communication. Seen in this light, interaction through technology doesn’t spell the end of meaningful human connections; it simply marks an alternative for those who don’t thrive within the traditional models. In other words, coding can be a space that gathers diverse voices.
This line of thinking has long been understood as part of the utopian promise of both computer culture and the internet. Yet, for Gendron and Marks, the key to realizing any part of this potential lies in increasing public use of the ‘building blocks’ of these worlds. Put bluntly, Gendron and Marks think it’s high time that the public learned how to code. Gendron sums up the political stakes with a quotation from Douglas Rushkoff’s book of the same name: “Program or Be Programmed.” Although various platforms like Facebook, WordPress, and online gaming sites all seem to offer opportunities for public participation and interaction, Gendron believes that our use of pre-existing, corporate-controlled structures will always limit what we can make. VIVO Media Arts has been at the forefront of increasing public participation in new technologies, and the Permanent Deviation launch exemplifies its very successful strategy of making novel practices accessible to first-time participants. Learning how to take control of your digital life doesn’t need to be a dry and lonesome exercise; it can be a party.
Importantly, the launch of Permanent Deviation will also signal the end of Marks’ and Gendron’s artistic ‘control’ over the project. Consciously rejecting any aspirations of fixed outcomes or ‘correct’ methods, the artists instead envision Permanent Deviation as an exercise in open creativity. That’s good news for people who don’t have much experience with coding. Instead of imagining code as a fixed sequence that can be either ‘right’ or ‘wrong,’ Permanent Deviation is designed around a philosophy of ‘happy accidents.’ In fact, Gendron and Marks relish the participation of new coders. From their educational outreach work at VIVO Media Arts, they’ve learned that unconventional approaches can translate into unpredictable insights. Excitingly, Permanent Deviation transforms these insights into visual imagery, promising a novel aesthetic experience for its viewers. Marks compares the intellectual and artistic rewards of this project to hiking without a map: by creating a framework where coders are free to meander ‘off trail,’ Permanent Deviation offers the possibility of discovering new vistas.
About the Artists:
Julie Gendron is a designer and artist who works in the areas of interactivity, accessibility, playfulness and change. Julie designs experiences that allow people to explore and create their own point of view, culture and communities. Julie completed her graduate work in the department of Art, Design and Technology at Concordia University, specializing in Participatory Design.
Brady Marks is an artist working in sound, light and interactive sculpture, using code. She lives in Vancouver and holds a M.Sc. in Interactive Arts from Simon Fraser University.
Barbara Adler doesn't faze easily. In over a decade of touring, she has told stories, performed poetry, and played her accordion all over North America and Europe.