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Monday, August 12, 2013

Code to Joy: The School for Poetic Computation Opens

New computer science graduates jumped by nearly 30 percent last year, and a bevy of professionally oriented programming courses have erupted to teach start-up ready skills like, “How to Build a Mobile App.” So it makes sense that programming is widely considered to be this generation’s “Plastics” â€" a surefire professional skill that can bring success, security and maybe even stock options.

But fewer people talk about how programming and engineering can be used for pleasure, beauty or surprise.

Now, four people with a variety of backgrounds â€" in computer science, art, math and design â€" have banded together in Brooklyn to rethink how programming is taught.

Their school, the School for Poetic Computation, is intended to be more passionate, free-spirited and curiosity-driven than other kinds of private coding academies that have cropped up in the last few years, like New York’s Hacker School or Seattle’s Code Fellows, which offer practical classes with an aim to get their students a job after graduation.

In contrast, the School for Poetic Computation is taking a different approach. Imagine the Robin Williams character from the movie “Dead Poets Society” teaching Objective C instead of “O Captain, My Captain.”

The founders of the school say they want to promote work that is strange, impractical and magical.

The school’s motto? “More poems less demos.”

A start-up venture in its own right, the school has 15 students enrolled for fall, selected from a pool of 50 applications, who will not receive any formal credit, but will pay about $5,000 to spend 10 weeks tinkering, building and tweaking projects of their own design.

“People are coming from a programming background, and thinking, how do I make art with these skills? Things that are whimsical? Dreams?” said Zach Lieberman, one of the school’s four founders and instructors, who has taught at the Parsons School of Design and like his collaborators, has one foot in the technology world and another in the art world.

The school’s first crop of students include both traditional programmers and designers, but also a beatboxer from Canada, and a Ph.D. candidate studying criminal justice who wants to use data visualization to highlight problems in the prison system, said Mr. Lieberman.

While the curriculum is still being formed, a glimpse at the instructors’ earlier works offers some sense of the kinds of projects their students might tackle.

The “Eyewriter” is a piece of hardware created by Mr. Lieberman that allows disabled graffiti writers (or any person, really) to draw with their eyes.


Another instructor, Amit Pitaru, who has taught at New York University, is the creator of the Sonic Wire Sculptor a musical instrument that creates muted and dreamlike dissonant tones with a three-dimensional drawing tool.

And Jen Lowe, a researcher at Columbia University, works with scientists and designers to make things like this vector field that represents wind flow.

Still, they struggle to explain to people what, exactly, “poetic computation,” is. Is it making art with computers? Writing poetic code, with structure, rhythm and form? Or simply allowing yourself to be completely impractical, using the tools of our hyper-productive digital age?

They instructors offer one interpretation on their Web site:

Noise is undesirable in engineering, but artists find glitch to be beautiful and revealing inner workings of the system. Poetic computation may value expressive nature of code and computers more so than efficiency. This might an answer to questions like “Why Less Demos and more Poems?” Demonstrations are driven by end goal. It values practicality and functionality, while poems desire aesthetic and emotional impact. Hopefully what we make at School for poetic computation is for people, not computers.

Applications are now closed for their fall program, but the founders hope to run additional sessions throughout the year, and one day dream of making the school free of tuition fees. Mr. Lieberman said he has seen the high debt burdens that traditional graduate programs can place on students, and believes some kinds of skills do not need a full two-year program, and can be learned in other ways.

“In the world we’re in, we’re used to “media labs” and residency programs and going some place for six months and using that as a launching point,” he said.

A starting point for what, however, will be up to the students themselves.

Their first class begins on Sept. 16th.