Golan Levin: Good morn­ing, every­one. It is Friday of Art && Code: Homemade. My name is Golan Levin, pro­fes­sor of art at Carnegie Mellon University and direc­tor of the Art && Code fes­ti­val, and it’s my plea­sure to wel­come you this morn­ing to the Friday morn­ing ses­sion of Art && Code. We’re going to have three pre­sen­ters this morn­ing at 10:00 AM, 10:30, and 11:00 AM. They are Max Bittker, LaJuné McMillian, and han­nah perner-wilson.

First up is Max Bittker, who is a teacher, artist, and soft­ware devel­op­er inter­est­ed in tool-sharing as a cre­ative prac­tice. His prac­tice com­bines an appre­ci­a­tion for the lim­i­ta­tions of dig­i­tal mate­ri­als with patience and care for human needs. Max Bittker.

Max Bittker: Hey. Good morn­ing. Thanks for hav­ing me. I’m real­ly excit­ed to be…I guess at the Art && Code fes­ti­val. My name’s Max. Thank you for the introduction. 

I guess that I want­ed to pref­ace my talk a lit­tle bit with the place that I’m com­ing from, which is I think that I’m some­body who has been mak­ing mak­ing sim­u­la­tions and games for a long time, and that’s been a way that I’ve tried to under­stand the world. And it’s been some­thing that I’ve got­ten a lot of joy from? But I’ve always had a lit­tle bit of like, a mon­key’s paw thing hap­pen when it’s hard for me to share that joy with oth­er peo­ple because on one hand com­put­ers in the first place just are so frus­trat­ing. Trying to cre­ate art with them and express your­self, you all can imag­ine the things that go wrong. But also I think that nat­u­ral­ly when you try to express an idea with a com­put­er it comes across as maybe opaque or does­n’t nec­es­sar­i­ly invite some­one inside.

And so, the ways that in my prac­tice I’ve tried to deal with that have been to I guess like, make not just sim­u­la­tions or games but also to make tools that real­ly put the cre­ative pow­er and the expres­sive pow­er in the hand of the per­son who’s play­ing with them? And addi­tion­al­ly I think that I’ve tried to make things that expose the inter­nals of the way that they work. And so com­put­ers are by default kind of opaque, and I think that any time a sys­tem can put a glass lid on what’s hap­pen­ing inside, or make it audi­ble in some way, is one step that you can take to share and make that less of a single-person experience.

So, I was teach­ing this fall to a class about design­ing tools. And I think that my favorite resource that I’ve drawn from and drawn from in my own prac­tice is that there’s this zine by Kate Compton called Casual Creators: Designing Tools for Casual Creativity. And this is a very won­der­ful and short PDF you should total­ly down­load and read. But the premise is kind of that humans do so much cre­ativ­i­ty for the sake of its own joy and for the sake of com­mu­ni­ca­tion that can be so fun effort­less. But often­times cre­ation process­es on com­put­ers don’t cap­ture that same thing—even if they’re still very pow­er­ful and expres­sive. And so, the zine itself kind of draws some con­nec­tions between what it thinks that often­times things like craft­ing sup­plies pro­vide to some­body that Photoshop does not. 

And I guess that when I was think­ing about this fes­ti­val and about the con­cept of craft and being home­made, I was think­ing about this zine, and I was think­ing about I guess design­ing cre­ative envi­ron­ments or cre­ative mate­ri­als and tools for peo­ple, and reflect­ing on what craft is to me. And I think that I see craft as…one thing that I love about it is how close­ly it is con­nect­ed to its mate­ri­als. And so when I think about a craft­ed object, often­times that’s some­thing where the mate­ri­als that went into it are very exposed and vis­i­ble, proud­ly. And because you can see the grain of the wood, or the stitch­es in the mate­r­i­al, it’s also vis­i­ble to you like the act of—like the process of the cre­ation is very vis­i­ble in the final result. And not only does that con­nect you to the process of cre­ation but it also con­nects you to the per­son who cre­at­ed it. Because their fin­ger­prints are kind of left exposed. And so to me, that’s one thing about craft­ed objects that draws my atten­tion to their rela­tion­ship with materials. 

And I guess that when I say mate­r­i­al, just for like a syn­tax dis­claimer for the rest of this talk, I’m talk­ing about mat­ter from which…or a thing that anoth­er thing is or can be made. This is a house made of wood. And a thing about mate­ri­als is that they in them­selves are often­times made of oth­er mate­ri­als. So it gets a lit­tle bit confusing. 

And when I say mate­ri­al­i­ty, I guess that I mean the influ­ence on a thing of the mate­ri­als that com­pose it. And so this is a skele­ton that is com­posed of pas­ta and glue. And it’s not just a coin­ci­dence. Like, it mat­ters that it’s made pas­ta and it affect­ed the expe­ri­ence of the per­son who made it, it affect­ed the shape and the way that it looks, and the way it fits togeth­er, and the deci­sions they made. And it also affects our expe­ri­ence per­ceiv­ing the pas­ta skele­ton and what we think about it. And so that’s its mate­ri­al­i­ty to me.

And sim­i­lar­ly, I think that in the world of dig­i­tal art, dig­i­tal things are made of dig­i­tal mate­ri­als, and they have a dig­i­tal mate­ri­al­i­ty. And so this is a paint­ing that is made inside of Microsoft Excel, actu­al­ly, using the line tools. And it has prop­er­ties that are con­nect­ed to the fact that it’s in Microsoft Excel. It’s not just an imple­men­ta­tion detail.

So, quick­ly I want­ed to go through like five ways—and this was just my attempt to maybe list out dif­fer­ent ways that a mate­r­i­al sup­ports a cre­ative process. And so, start­ing off with maybe obvi­ous is that a mate­r­i­al gives you your prop­er­ties that you exist in the world with. And so, if you want to make some­thing that has mass or vol­ume or ten­sile strength, or a col­or, there’s no way to do that besides through adopt­ing those prop­er­ties from a mate­r­i­al and then com­bin­ing them in a dif­fer­ent way. And so I guess that I did­n’t want to leave this one out, because it’s basi­cal­ly like, mate­ri­als let you make any­thing at all but I also don’t exact­ly know what to say about it? 

And I guess to move on to this one which is maybe the corol­lary, is that not only do they pro­vide phys­i­cal prop­er­ties, but mate­ri­als also impose their own lim­its and con­straints. And so, this can be a frus­trat­ing thing, obvi­ous­ly. But it also I guess is part of the process of mas­ter­ing a mate­r­i­al, or learn­ing to work with it is learn­ing to appre­ci­ate its con­straints and its lim­its. And how learn­ing any­thing from that zine that I men­tioned and Kate Compton’s work it’s that like— And also this is just I think a well-known thing in the world, is that noth­ing can help you feel cre­ative like a con­straint and a lim­i­ta­tion. And so, if you ask some­one to make an art­work about any­thing, they won’t know where to start, but the more con­straints and box­es and lim­i­ta­tions you put them in, it’s like exert­ing pres­sure on one part of your brain and an idea pops out some­where else. And so, phys­i­cal mate­ri­als have tons of con­straints, and that makes them plea­sur­able and easy to be cre­ative with. 

And it’s not just about I think know­ing where to start an idea, but I think that the con­straints and lim­i­ta­tions of the phys­i­cal material…like for instance these are Perler beads. They’re these lit­tle plas­tic beads that you can melt togeth­er to make lit­tle lit­tle 2D art­works and stick them to win­dows. And they have a min­i­mum res­o­lu­tion of like how big a sin­gle bead is. And once you’ve assem­bled them togeth­er, you can’t make any­thing more detailed, and you’re done. Like it’s a stop­ping point. And so, I think that mate­ri­als’ lim­i­ta­tions give you both cre­ativ­i­ty to start ideas, and it kind of tells you when to stop because they have a max­i­mum res­o­lu­tion or capac­i­ty to be worked with. And so for instance this is a pot­tery wheel. And clay, when it’s been manip­u­lat­ed for a long time it starts to lose its strength and get flop­py and fall apart. And so it means that if you are throw­ing pot­tery, you have to stop at a cer­tain point. And that makes the cre­ative process much more plea­sur­able because otherwise…it’s a hard part of mak­ing artwork. 

So I talked about the con­straints, lim­i­ta­tions. I think that maybe a lit­tle bit more eso­ter­i­cal­ly, I think the mate­ri­als hold their own knowl­edge and their own ideas. Especially it’s real­ly evi­dent I think if you look at nat­ur­al mate­ri­als. And so if you look at wood, or you look at wool, these exist as part of a liv­ing being and they ful­fill a need for that being—keeping the sheep warm, keep­ing the sheep dry, as well as many oth­er needs. And when you appro­pri­ate them into a piece of art­work or some­thing, you’re tak­ing on all those ideas and knowl­edge, and they ben­e­fit you—or they can work against you as well. But the wool holds infor­ma­tion, I think. And I would say this even applies not only to nat­ur­al mate­ri­als but mate­ri­als cre­at­ed by oth­er peo­ple, and mate­ri­als cre­at­ed by the nat­ur­al world. They all kind of hold ideas. 

And those ideas influ­ence… Like they don’t just influ­ence I think the thing that you make with them. I think that the ideas also end up in your own head and they teach you. If you look at the world of like Montessori learn­ing, or just the way that chil­dren nat­u­ral­ly learn about the world and my per­son­al favorite way to learn? It has to do with manip­u­lat­ing mate­ri­als and using your own sens­es and your own…like, mak­ing the­o­ries about them, and you can learn so much about the world in this way. So I think that the ideas that can be expressed here are not just about oh yeah, col­or and shape, and under­stand­ing how to use your hands, but more com­plex con­cep­tu­al things like a mate­r­i­al can teach you about angles and rep­e­ti­tion and tiling. And it’s not the same as read­ing a book where infor­ma­tion is being kind of giv­en to you in a rote way, but you’re cre­at­ing the infor­ma­tion on your own, with the aid of the mate­ri­als that are giv­en to you. And so some­one did pro­vide you with mate­ri­als that they though would be help­ful to you, and that’s I think the best thing that a learn­ing envi­ron­ment can do. But you’re doing the teach­ing your­self with the mate­r­i­al and the learn­ing. And it’s not just for kids.

So mov­ing on, I think that anoth­er thing mate­ri­als accom­plish is that they’re this com­mon lan­guage? So the same way that I can have kind of a con­ver­sa­tion with the world through a mate­r­i­al, then this mate­r­i­al is shared with some­one else, they’re work­ing with the same mate­r­i­al, they have their own rela­tion­ship. And now we kind of have a proxy rela­tion­ship with each oth­er because we both have a rela­tion­ship with weav­ing or some­thing, or with fiber, or with Lego. 

And so this isn’t just like a social amaz­ing thing that hap­pens, but I think it’s also very prag­mat­ic and prac­ti­cal, where if there’s a com­mon mate­r­i­al that has known ways that it behaves and com­pat­i­bil­i­ties, like let’s say plumb­ing fit­tings, I could repair plumb­ing with dif­fer­ent pieces that was installed by some­body who I nev­er met thir­ty years ago, because they fit togeth­er in a cer­tain way. It’s a phys­i­cal language.

And I think that par­tic­u­lar­ly when it comes to these famil­iar, every­day mate­ri­als that peo­ple have rela­tion­ships with, they take on this inter­ac­tiv­i­ty and this amazing…I don’t know, like men­tal reac­tiv­i­ty? And so for instance this is just an image an Acropolis made of Lego, but if you have a rela­tion­ship with Lego and you use them and touch them and you have expe­ri­ence in your mind, this image kind of becomes reac­tive, where you can imag­ine what it would be like to touch it and rearrange it, and maybe what it would feel like to put it in your mouth, or how it would break, or how it—what else you could make with these pieces. And this is I think some­thing… The effects can be real­ly strong. I think that’s it’s best with these com­mon, every­day mate­ri­als. Like this is a house made of match­sticks. And if you have a rela­tion­ship with match­sticks and you’ve touched them before, you can kind of imag­ine would it would feel like to touch this house, and then also when you see some­thing like this you can see in your mind’s eye what would hap­pen. And so because this house is made of a mate­r­i­al that you have a rela­tion­ship with, you would have the extra depth of inter­ac­tiv­i­ty… And I call it inter­ac­tiv­i­ty with the artwork.

So that was a lot about phys­i­cal mate­ri­als. And I think that I kin­da men­tioned a lit­tle bit about dig­i­tal mate­ri­als and the idea of some­thing being made of anoth­er dig­i­tal object. And this is again this Japanese Excel artist, Tetsuo. And he actu­al­ly was a retiree who want­ed to start paint­ing and thought that like… I don’t know, in an inter­view I watched he said that he thought that brush­es and paints were too messy. And he already had a com­put­er. And he said he was very stingy and did­n’t want to pay for any oth­er soft­ware? Which I like that sto­ry. He’s like, Eh, I already have Excel and it’s good enough.” 

And the mate­r­i­al of Excel real­ly affects not just like…you can see visu­al­ly there’s cer­tain motifs and tex­tures and shapes that show up because it’s influ­enced the way that the draw­ing tools work in the Microsoft tool. But then also I think that yeah, it affects the way that we per­ceive this art­work as well. And also I think you can imag­ine, just look­ing at this image, the chaos of all these lit­tle box­es all over the screen select­ed and what would hap­pen if you were to drag them or drag one of the lit­tle green buttons.

So, I think that anoth­er impor­tant prop­er­ty of dig­i­tal mate­ri­als beyond some of the oth­er prop­er­ties we talked about before is that dig­i­tal mate­ri­als are very much con­struct­ed. And so yes, phys­i­cal mate­ri­als can be con­struct­ed by humans. Like obvi­ous Lego does not occur in the nat­ur­al world. But in the dig­i­tal work like, every­thing is con­struct­ed by peo­ple and in a rel­a­tive­ly short amount of time, and is con­struct­ed also by com­pa­nies. And so it’s a much more con­struct­ed land­scape? And it means that when you’re work­ing with dig­i­tal mate­ri­als, the inten­tions of a human are very close. Even if they’re hid­den, they’re lurk­ing. And they’re strong.

And so, I think that this can be a real­ly beau­ti­ful thing? Like some dig­i­tal mate­ri­als are real­ly designed with some­body was try­ing their best to help you cre­ate things, or to help them­selves cre­ate things, then they shared it with every­one else. And maybe they have inten­tion­al con­straints built in and inten­tion­al prop­er­ties to help you accom­plish some­thing. But because they’re con­struct­ed by com­pa­nies and— Like I con­sid­er Instagram to be a dig­i­tal mate­r­i­al, the way that it has lit­tle pieces you can assem­ble in dif­fer­ent ways to pro­duce dif­fer­ent things of posts, and sto­ries, and mes­sages, and noti­fi­ca­tions. Like all those things can tell many dif­fer­ent sto­ries. And it is expres­sive, but it also has an agenda. 

And so I think that in the world of dig­i­tal mate­ri­als, you are swal­low­ing more of the envi­ron­ment around you and it’s worth being con­scious of it, because… I think that dig­i­tal mate­ri­als them­selves have a ten­den­cy to present as neu­tral, and to obscure that rela­tion­ship that some­one designed them with inten­tions besides your own. And so I think that one of the way that com­put­ing mate­ri­als do obscure that rela­tion­ship and that inten­tion is the way that they are so deeply lay­ered. And that’s the sec­ond prop­er­ty of dig­i­tal mate­ri­als that I think is worth adding on to the oth­er things I men­tioned before. 

And so when I say lay­ered,” I mean that all mate­ri­als are kind of made of oth­er mate­ri­als. Like I said wood is made of cel­lu­lose, is made of car­bon, is made of atoms. Like the phys­i­cal word has this hier­ar­chy of mate­ri­als being com­posed of oth­er mate­ri­als, but in the dig­i­tal world those lay­ers are very…there’s a lot of them, and they are very opaque. And so any­thing you make on a com­put­er is going through many lay­ers of—even just like, the pro­gram­ming lan­guage and then the machine code or the oper­at­ing sys­tem, and the the hardware. 

But in real­i­ty it can be a lot—you know, there’s many lay­ers, and they’re kin­da like his­to­ry, or sed­i­ment. And it’s all very opaque to actu­al­ly under­stand like where did this assump­tion or where did this idea come from? If I have a prob­lem with the way com­put­ers work, was that idea encod­ed way down here [points at the micro archi­tec­ture” sec­tion of an illus­tra­tion of lay­ers of abstrac­tion in a com­put­er sys­tem] like in the 70s? And can I change it still? Like can I swap this out? Uh…it’s hard. And so there are many lay­ers and it’s kind of opaque but it’s not like, infi­nite­ly lay­ered. It does bot­tom out some­where, and it can be under­stood. And so I think that maybe com­put­ers kind of some­times don’t want you to ask these ques­tions or don’t want you to look down here. But just because it’s opaque does­n’t mean its not knowable.

And so I think that I kind of men­tioned like oh yes, maybe you’re mak­ing some­thing in the mate­r­i­al of a game engine. And that game engine is assem­bled out of files. And maybe those files are just an image file and so the pieces of the image file are lit­tle pix­els. And the pix­es are made of bits. And the bits are then them­selves made of reg­is­ters in dif­fer­ent hard­ware, and that hard­ware is made of tran­sis­tors, and those tran­sis­tors are made of sil­i­con. And so at the bot­tom, when all the lay­ers go through, you con­nect back to the phys­i­cal world, and I think that it’s worth con­sid­er­ing that they’re not real­ly com­plete­ly sep­a­rate worlds.

This is some art­work that was etched a cou­ple nanome­ters wide onto some microchip in the 80s. I think it’s cool.

So I men­tioned all of these cool prop­er­ties that a dig­i­tal mate­r­i­al can lend to you art­work. And so they’ve got affor­dances of let­ting you build any­thing at all. They have lim­i­ta­tions that kind of tell you when to stop or give you some­thing to push against. They’re shared ideas that are kind of put by the cre­ator into the mate­r­i­al and that you can learn from. And that can express them­selves in your own work, for bet­ter or for worse. And they’re also kind of a lan­guage of col­lab­o­ra­tion, where if you are… I think of like, open source is a com­mu­ni­ty where peo­ple often­times are…the way that they relat­ed to each oth­er is by shar­ing a mate­r­i­al instead of actu­al­ly talk­ing person-to-person, but that con­nec­tion can still be real­ly meaningful.

And so I guess that I think that this is kind of like look­ing at the dig­i­tal world and per­ceiv­ing it through this idea of tex­ture, and of what are the mate­ri­als that com­pose some­thing, and what are the prop­er­ties that are com­ing from the mate­r­i­al, and what are the prop­er­ties that’re com­ing from the artist, and are those things in har­mo­ny, or what’s going on there is a real­ly beau­ti­ful thing to do. And I think it’s a way to learn from the world. And I think that if you’re a cre­ator, it’s good to lis­ten to what your mate­ri­als are telling you. And if they are push­ing against a cer­tain idea, or they’re push­ing you down a cer­tain path, it’s good to remem­ber that yeah, mate­r­i­al does have a say in what hap­pens a lit­tle bit. And if it’s not say­ing what you want it to say, then you can maybe try to use a dif­fer­ent material.

Maybe anoth­er kind of thing I would want to urge peo­ple to do is to expose the mate­ri­als in your work and leave them vis­i­ble? And often­times this is seen as like, ama­teur to…you know, you don’t want to use the default sky­box in Unity because peo­ple will rec­og­nize it. But I think that by expos­ing what mate­ri­als went into your work, it allows the view­er to expe­ri­ence it on that extra lay­er and to have a con­nec­tion to the process, and to you. And so I think it’s a good thing to do.

Another thing is that I think that the pow­er of a famil­iar mate­r­i­al that peo­ple have their own rela­tion­ships to, like for instance Minecraft blocks. If you can work with that mate­r­i­al and that tex­ture and express your idea with it, then you gain all of these oth­er expe­ri­ences that peo­ple have and all these oth­er con­nec­tions peo­ple have to the tex­ture of Minecraft, and then maybe your sculp­ture can be men­tal­ly under­stood in all the extra ways. And I think that this can be sub­ver­sive to work with famil­iar mate­ri­als. It can just help peo­ple under­stand what you’re doing. And I think that this is some­thing that can be real­ly fun and excit­ing about…I don’t know, like dig­i­tal mis­chief a lit­tle bit, sometimes.

And I guess final­ly that mate­ri­als are con­struct­ed, and if you don’t like the mate­ri­als that you have to work with in the world I think you can rearrange mate­ri­als and make new ones and either com­pose new lay­ers on exist­ing ones or try to tell an alter­nate his­to­ry of how mate­ri­als could’ve evolved. And this can just be for your­self, of assem­bling kind of like a work­bench of pieces that you like to use togeth­er. But it can also be for oth­er peo­ple, and this can help oth­er peo­ple cre­ate on the terms that they want to. And so I think that peo­ple talk about mak­ing tools and I think that maybe you should con­sid­er mak­ing mate­ri­als that can be com­bined, with a dif­fer­ent worldview.

So, that’s my kind of per­spec­tive on what a dig­i­tal mate­r­i­al is. And I real­ly appre­ci­ate the chance to talk to you today. And yeah, I hope that’s interesting.

Golan Levin: Max, thank you so much. That’s won­der­ful. What a beau­ti­ful talk. We have maybe one minute for a ques­tion, and then we’ll wrap it up.

Who do you feel like your work is for? Who do you want to reach with your work? 

And I should just say to every­one, Max’s work is intense­ly online and I encour­age you all to check out— It’s at maxbit​tk​er​.com, am I right? [Bittker nods] You can all see his many many projects, which are at your fin­ger­tips. But I“m curi­ous who you hope or would like to reach with your work.

Max Bittker: Yeah. I mean, I um… When I was grow­ing up, I had Internet access. But I could­n’t down­load or buy soft­ware. And so I spent lots of time play­ing Flash games and doing all the things you could do on the Internet that are free. And so that’s always the audi­ence that I have in mind, is peo­ple who…maybe they have free time, they have an Internet con­nec­tion, but they’re stuck some­where or they’re bored or they don’t know about some­thing. And I think that just by—there are so many beau­ti­ful things in the world that you won’t know about unless some­body gives you a book or you find it. And I think that just try­ing to pack­age things that I love into a web site is to me—like that’s who I’m try­ing to… I’m try­ing to bring things that I think are cool to peo­ple who have a brows­er, I guess.

Levin: That’s awe­some. Terrific, thank you. I’m sure there’s going to be more ques­tions for you over in the Discord. And to those of you who are online, if you are not reg­is­tered with Art && Code, if you go to artand​code​.com/​h​o​m​e​m​ade you can reg­is­ter for our con­fer­ence and that will give you access to the Discord chan­nel where you can have con­ver­sa­tions with our speak­ers and every­one else in the com­mu­ni­ty who’s fol­low­ing along and chatting.

With that we’re going to take a break for a cou­ple of min­utes. And then we will pick it up again at 10:30 with LaJuné McMillian. See you all soon. Thanks, every­one. Thanks, Max.

Further Reference

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