Pedagogy, Problem Solving and Survival

Training in digital art and new media should always exceed its own boundaries by 1) recognizing the queer and avant garde legacies that precede digital art, 2) by using technologies to imagine just futures, and by also 3) always uncovering the violent histories that digital media continually seeks to hide. The ways we understand how we shape and conceive of technology fundamentally work along the lines of labor and class, which in turn work along a global color line that ranks what kinds of labor is of value. As we learn digital tools, it is ever important to ground their histories, which can be a critical and creative process simultaneously. An example of this is how, in a ‘creative coding’ class called Code Recipes Spells, I track a feminist history of computation back to Ada Lovelace (who conceived of software for the first time in 1836), through the disregarded all-female ‘computers’ who computed ballistics trajectories in WW2, and Alan Turing, the queer cryptographer responsible for some of the most important developments in computation in the early 20th-century. After considering works like Martha Rosler’s Semiotics of the Kitchen, and Lindsay Kelley’s Plumpinion, our first assignment is to follow a recipe. Here, students are also invited to narrate a story of their own family, ethnic, or otherwise cultural history with food, while simultaneously exploring a relationship with parameters, constraints, rules. This assignment shifts ideas of where artwork is located, and grounds a series of lectures and artworks I show that make connections across recipe, instructional, algorithm. The recipe assignment is also a way for students to get to know one another in class, breaking up the atomization and sterility of a computer lab, where students feel alienated and shy. As the course advances, students are invited to think in increasingly complex ways about the role of code in generative artworks, to consider the legacy of artists and radical artist movements in the 20th-c whose work is instructional, and crucially, where the aesthetic is located (is it located in the visuals, in the code, somewhere else in the computer, or across collaborations?). Students are at ease with one another in the classroom, and like to work together; this is essential to managing the learning curve associated with coding, so that students — who have had less exposure to code, or who have internalized the message that coding is not for them – are able to learn and flourish.

Of equal importance is to use technologies in order to imagine, connect to, and sustain kinship networks beyond the screen: to support afro and indigenous futurisms; to support models of horizontal networks that require mutual aid and least authority to function; that can intervene in — and maybe even momentarily undo — everyday capitalist flows that determine our interactions and our value. In my course Distribution and Intervention, students are introduced to practices such as reproducible art, telematic art, multiples, fabrication, and interventionist practices, all of which are tied to the rise of distributed and decentralized networks, and resultant do-it-yourself and do-it-together cultures. The internet, as a congregation of centralized, decentralized, and distributed, protocological networks, is a major focus of the class in terms of how we think about our materials, contemporary aesthetics, and distribution of our works. We learn basics of artmaking on the internet using html, css, php, and javascript, and we look at projects from the 1990s to today. Community mapping, copyleft, and the basics of fabrication using laser cutters and 3D printers also come into play. These tools and platforms operate as sites for interventionist art practices, which in turn address pressing issues of networked culture, such as algorithmic justice, surveillance, data collection, identity on social media, e-waste and extraction. Here, artists such as Ricardo Dominguez, Moreshin Allahyari, and MTL offer us powerful models of resistance as well as new visions for the future.

The military history of digital technology, and the evolution of cybernetic capitalism – these are histories we need to keep close as we engage these alluring and powerful tools, always mindful of both the utopian and the dystopian narratives that come with them. Speculative fiction is a way into these histories that also allows us ways out. Students become animated as they are invited to imagine the ways technology can defend black life and enable it to flourish, as they read Nnedi Orkorafor, Samuel Delaney and Octavia Butler, for instance. Speculative fiction gives us ways to do time and temporality differently, and understand space and place in ways that enable a deeper reckoning with white supremacy and decolonial ethics. In a recent advanced digital studio course of mine, students read speculative fiction by Octavia Butler as a launching point to create their own interactive narratives (using Max/MSP) that dealt with this moment of the pandemic and possible ways to reckon with its origins and outcomes. Using digital technologies to understand time and space in new ways is important work for advanced undergraduates and for graduates; particularly in terms of uncoupling capitalist narratives of progress with ideas about technological advancement, and the resultant reckoning that must come with recognizing the ways that our capitalist and colonial pasts are always in the present; how can we use technology to ensure this recognition of the-past-in-the-present, rather than maintaining that the past (and its series of ongoing catastrophes) is always separate and therefore something we can avoid?

I support my students in making work that engages the conceptual, perceptual, and technical components of new media. Rarely have I taught courses that exclude the conceptual in favor of the
technical or perceptual or one over the other in any combination; if one aspect of digital art is foregrounded, the others provide supporting roles. Framing our critiques in the digital art studio, in terms of conceptual, perceptual and technical work, also helps students understand the importance of, and relationship between these elements, and how they, in turn, tie to the larger themes of the course.

Courses are comprised of lectures and demonstrations, class discussions, small group projects inside and outside the classroom, studio time, demonstrations, guest artists, critiques, one-on-one meetings, art assignments, and readings. In advanced classes, class time is more focused on in-process and final critiques, allowing also for studio time, guest artist visits, and discussion. In studio classes, we may develop several small projects, or work on a large project that has frequent iterations due throughout the course; in general, more introductory level courses have more frequent smaller assignments evenly spread throughout a semester, while advanced courses may begin with smaller projects and then build toward a larger final project.

To foreground problems of any kind in studio courses allows for both criticality and creativity to be in productive dialogue. I pursue this process not only as a means to teach about networks, systems, conceptual art and code, but also as a means to teach students about how to meet the challenges of this century. We consider the impact of our cultural production in the classroom, while working to keep the exposure and possible solving of good problems within reach. I am always experimenting with holistic strategies to achieve these goals, and have most recently incorporated the worksheets from Susan Jahoda and Caroline Woolard’s book Making and Being into many of my classes. These worksheets encourage students of all disciplines to consider the relationships between identity, race, material, audience, labor, place, extraction, production, an artwork’s lifespan. As I work with these worksheets and observe how my students are responding, I am conceiving of new course material that can more seamlessly overlay these issues, in order to cultivate a community that is deeply engaged in the power and promise of revolutionary aesthetics.

As an educator during this time of rising calls to end white supremacy, to defund the police, abolish prisons and to take reparations seriously, I am committed foregrounding BIPOC artists in my syllabi, channeling resources to BIPOC artists that I have at my disposal, and to ensuring that students of color have the material support and encouragement they need to succeed in my courses and beyond. I am also committed to ongoing dialogues around race, class, gender and ability that happen in the communities where I teach. Most recently I have participated in intergroup dialogue workshops that are open-ended, as well as sustained, semester-long intergroup dialogues with a small group with whom we can build trust and go deeper into issues connected to race. I believe this work is fundamental to all the other work I do as an educator, as an artist, a collaborator, an activist and as a community member.

Ultimately, my own learning has always been most profound when I outline problems to others and invite collaboration on their solutions.