I only became acquainted with Taeyoon Choi a few months ago, but after I heard his name once I began seeing it everywhere. In 2013, Choi co-founded the School for Poetic Computation (SFPC) with a group of three other artists and teachers. At the time of its launch, SFPC got a fair amount of attention for its unusual model for teaching code, physical computing and theory outside of an institutional context—and with a focus on artistic practice and open-ended experimentation. (The school’s motto puts its ethos succinctly: ‘more poetry, less demo.’) In the four years since it opened, the school has earned a quiet yet well-regarded reputation as a place for learning about code from several different perspectives, alongside a community of like-minded individuals. Classes range from Poetics and Politics of Computation to Radical Computer Science, and past instructors include MoMA’s Paola Antonelli, artist and programmer Sam Lavigne and bot-poet Allison Parrish, among many, many others.
Beyond his work at SFPC, Choi is also an artist and a writer of comics and essays. Since we spoke in May, he has become a 2017 Data & Society fellow, published a book and spoke at Eyeo Festival. In June, SFPC co-organized a summit on Computing and Stories, the first of what Choi plans to make an annual event. A couple of weeks before the summit, we talked on the phone about the school, diversity in tech, and what it means for a practice to be poetic.
Can you start out by talking about how School for Poetic Computation came about? I’ve read that you and one of your co-founders, Zachary Lieberman, met through Eyebeam Art and Technology Center. What were the conversations you were having at the time?
There are four co-founders: me, Zach Lieberman, Amit Pitaru, Jen Lowe and Casey Gollan helped us on administration. We were all teaching art, technology and design. Most of the co-founders were all either teaching at a university, or just leaving. I was coming more from a grassroots organizing and free education perspective, but I was trying to get into more formal educational spaces to teach. We struck up a conversation around 2013 because student debt was such a big issue for teachers. We thought that there must be other ways of sharing what we do without charging that much. We wanted to make the SFPC because it’s the kind of thing that’s not offered in other places—that intersection between poetry and code. There are great programs for art and technology; music and technology; and computing and literature. But we are specifically interested in looking at code as a poetic medium and also code as artistic tool. We wanted to expand on poetics with a broader meaning, thinking of poetry both as an exploratory and also a personal medium.
We had these two things in mind when we started: our general dissatisfaction with the structure of academia, and wanting to teach something that we really care about and we want to research for our own purposes, but that was not possible in our existing structure.
I love the concept of thinking about a medium itself as poetic. Since I know you’re an artist yourself, I’m curious what ‘poetic computation’ means for you personally with your practice.
The first type of poetic computation is poetic nature of computers. When I make computers from scratch, or design computer programming languages from scratch, it’s like painters making paint from raw materials. I really have to understand what is possible with the medium because I invented it. Making the tool and the medium itself has a lot to do with the expressive qualities I explore with my work. For one of my pieces, I made a handmade computer, a very primitive CPU and the whole interface. I present it as a drawing and a sculpture.
The other aspect is that poetic computation is poetic expression and effect with code. I have a project called Errantic poetry. The title is a catachresis inspired by the word erratic; mischievous and creative disorder, and the errant; an adventurous journey of languages between the medium. The title is inspired by Édouard Glissant’s book ‘Poetics of Relation’ where he addresses the language of errantry, like a poem that’s permanently wandering or in exile.
I speak two languages, Korean and American English. I’m learning American Sign Language and programming. These four languages are very different, and I’m always translating between these languages. So I created a series of software that translates English to binary and binary to other languages. That’s another example of poetic computation.
I’m interested in online spaces because it is a computational space. There are really interesting possibilities with code because the way that it repeats and abstracts a command into something grand. To me that is poetic.
On the SFPC website it says that the school approaches code like creative writing. Do you have a writing practice? I’m wondering about the way those two things connect for you personally, and how writing has influenced how you think about code and vice versa.
I do have a writing practice. I write essays and lectures and tutorials. I write comics as well. These are all very different from coding, actually. The process of writing is more personal to me. But I have to say there is coding that is personal or expressive. I just don’t think every kind of coding is like that. It’s not that simple.
There are languages that support that sort of exploration. Python, for example, is really powerful for exploring generative language aspects, where the poetry makes itself. Then there are codes that are very much about efficiency and division of labor, like the whole Object-oriented paradigm.
I’d like to elaborate, not all code is poetic. Poetic computation is not aestheticization of software. To me, it’s the exact opposite of the Silicon Valley catch phrase of “Code is beatiful.” I find it troubling how the technology industry tries to brand code as pretty candy. Code is not neutral, it’s used for massive exploitation and war machines. However, poetics is never without politics. Poetics, mechanics of words at play, can inspire and realize – restructure of power dynamic. When poetry meets logical thinking, words can bring accountability to automated society. Code can become a medium of self-expression, independence and a vehicle to decenter reliance on technology.
There are also more esoteric languages, with beautiful logic that have the sublime quality of simplicity or obscurity. There’s a language called brainfuck [created in 1993 by Urban Müller, a physics student at the time] that is all made out of symbols. At SFPC, our students have made a language made out of emojis. One student made up a Turing-complete language with the New York City subway line called Trainfuck [where riding trains in a certain way would execute the program.] These are impractical, eccentric programming languages, but they are really interesting as artwork. We can’t do much with the languages, but the language itself is a statement.
How has the school evolved in the four years it has existed? Has the underpinning philosophy changed at all, or has the scope broadened or narrowed?
Every year is a bit different. We consider the school as a project. We don’t see this as a business, although we do charge a fee for the students because we want to be independent. We don’t want to be reliant on grants or sponsorship, so we thought charging a minimal amount would be the best way to sustain the project and also pay our teachers fairly.
As far as the curriculum goes, we have developed a more thematic focus. During some terms, it is more about code and narrative. Sometimes the focus is code and subversion, and taking a more activist approach to art and technology. We have different teachers come in, so the school is always changing. We made the structure loose so that it could change and so it’s exciting every time we run it.
We do always have three main focus areas. The first is code. The second is hardware—physical computing and the electronics. The last part is the theory. We curate the classes in those general categories but some of the classes overlap in these focus areas. We have creative coding classes. We have a Generative Text class, and a computer science class called Radical Computer Science. And then we have an electronics class, and Critical Theory of Technology, which I’ve been teaching.
It’s really an ongoing R&D, and it’s exciting to develop new content and to teach incoming teachers to develop new content, as well as teach in a new environment. Currently, Zach, Lauren Gardner and I organize the 10 weeks sessions that happen twice a year and special projects, and we work a steering committee that consists of alumni and co-founders
Have the classes gotten bigger?
We’ve always had a fixed number of about 15 students. That’s part of the mission, too, is that we want to know our students really well and give them the attention that they need.
We were just an idea when we started, so people didn’t know what we were and just applied. But now that we’ve been around for some time, they know the kind of work that comes out of it and the students we attract, so there’s a bit of a self-selection that happens.
This year, SFPC is holding Computing and Stories Summit. Is this new or have you done something like this before?
No this is brand new. This is my collaboration with Linda Liukas, a children’s book writer. She’s the author of Hello Ruby, a children’s book on learning to code. This is a field that we really like, but it’s not something that I do personally. But Linda does, and she’s really interesting and very nice.
The whole conference is all female speakers except me. And I’m probably not even going to speak, I’m just going to help. This is definitely my most feminist project. I really see this is as a way of opposing the mainstream tech conference where it’s just white dudes talking about stuff. It’s been amazing.
How you are thinking about the summit in terms of diversity?
We have to have role models for young people to look up to and say ‘this person is a programmer,’ and ‘that person is a hacker’. The people participating at the summit are leaders in the field. They are incredible engineers. But they’re not men. They’re not the typical engineer or entrepreneur that we see in the mainstream media.
There’s also the craft of creating a story and making these complex ideas accessible. These are two things that we want to achieve at the same time [with the summit]. It’s a work-in-progress—we’re trying to make this an annual thing.
I want to switch gears quickly because I love your Memory and Archive channel on Are.na. There was something you wrote as a note for a working essay that especially stuck with me. The question: “How can we use computation as a tool to understand how we think and remember?” Can you talk about your research with memory and how it relates to your other work as an artist and with SFPC?
It started with a lecture I gave at SFPC. And then, I taught a class called To Remember and Forget at NYU a few years ago. As of more recently, I’m writing a book called the Poetics and Politics of Computation. It’s going to be an online book read on a browser. One of the chapters is called ‘Memory and Archive’. As I was writing it I realized memory and archiving data is such an interesting topic and it needed to be two different chapters. I was using Are.na to aggregate these things and show it to my editor and get feedback.
Archiving is different than remembering, but they are often conflated. There’s also a difference between the notion of storage and memory:the physical, the hardware of the data, is as important as the virtual version of online data. It’s something I’m working on.
I saw that you are one of the 2017 Data & Society fellows. What are you going to do as a fellow—personal work or something with SFPC?
I think it’s going to be some combination of the two. I’m definitely excited about engaging the researchers at Data & Society and learning more about Artificial Intelligence. I’m interested especially in the notion of ethics in A.I.—the ethics of delegating human agency and simulation. My plan is to soak all of that in and make comics and publish online.