It’s such an hon­or to speak among my heroes and inspi­ra­tion, and thank you Lauren and Golan for hav­ing me here, and all of the pan­elists. I’d like to speak about the School for Poetic Computation and espe­cial­ly on the issue of gen­der diver­si­ty, espe­cial­ly focus­ing on the stu­dents’ diversity. 

I’m an artist and illus­tra­tor, a hack­er. My con­tri­bu­tion to p5 has been most­ly for illus­trat­ing some of the basic con­cepts through comics that Lauren asked me to do a year ago, and I was pro­duc­ing these comics for a book that we’ll be pub­lish­ing through the Studio in the near future. 

As an artist, I’m a hack­er and a mak­er of small com­pu­ta­tion­al devices. This is a shift reg­is­ter made out of D‑type flip flops. I like to make these very sim­ple hand-made com­put­ers for a few rea­sons. I’m inspired by the poten­tials of com­pu­ta­tion out­side of pro­gram­ming. I like to diver­si­fy the way that we work with tech­nol­o­gy, and I like to think of it as an art object, and an instal­la­tion where we rethink and rein­vent com­pu­ta­tion, espe­cial­ly focus­ing on alter­na­tive pos­si­bil­i­ties of the com­put­er as not dri­ven by war agen­das or cor­po­rate mass production.

This is a hand-made 8‑bit com­put­er that’s installed as an art object in a muse­um. A lot of this is about demys­ti­fy­ing tech­nol­o­gy to a per­son like me who comes from a fine arts back­ground, so look­ing at the beau­ties of com­pu­ta­tion and espe­cial­ly the rep­e­ti­tion and abstrac­tion that is quite fas­ci­nat­ing if you start to look at it.


Public engage­ment is a very impor­tant part of my prac­tice, so youth, adults, peo­ple who are not often at muse­ums are invit­ed to the projects that I do. This one is at LACMA. We were mak­ing time­keep­ing devices.

Today I’d like to speak about the School for Poetic Computation, which I co-founded with three oth­er indi­vid­u­als who are big heroes to me, Zach Liebermann, who’s been con­tribut­ing to open source through openFrameworks; Amit Pitaru, who’s a user expe­ri­ence design­er but also a musi­cian and an inven­tor; and Jen Lowe who’s a math­e­mati­cian and data visu­al­iza­tion artist. 

We weren’t hap­py with how we were teach­ing at the exist­ing uni­ver­si­ties for a few rea­sons, but name­ly it was too expen­sive for stu­dents, and we did­n’t like the idea of intro­duc­ing these amaz­ing tools and ideas and leav­ing them in a wild world with­out depth. Part of the oth­er rea­son is that we want­ed a school to be a place where new ideas could take shape as opposed to a place where insti­tu­tions recre­ate the exist­ing ideas.

Our class­es are quite uncon­ven­tion­al. I teach bina­ry log­ic and log­ic gates and low-level elec­tron­ics. We focus on three kinds of code, func­tion­al pro­gram­ming, imper­a­tive lan­guage, and script­ing lan­guage, and the the­o­ries, espe­cial­ly crit­i­cal the­o­ries and aes­thet­ics, and visu­al cul­ture, and hard­ware, which is phys­i­cal computing.

I’d like to show you a brief clip of the very first class that we held.

What’s hap­pen­ing is that we teach the con­cept of bina­ry num­bers on the very first day, and we ask stu­dents to cre­ate a game to teach oth­er stu­dents about that the very next day, so this is a very fast process of learn­ing and teach­ing. We like to think the best stu­dents are the best teach­ers and vice ver­sa, so this idea of empow­er­ing stu­dents through teach­ing has been a very effec­tive way of engag­ing dif­fi­cult mate­ri­als in a very inte­grat­ed manner.

We like to open source most of our teach­ing mate­ri­als, either code or the lec­tures. This is my teach­ing mate­ri­als for log­ic gates. These are usu­al­ly in our school repos­i­to­ries.

Also finance. This is some­thing dif­fer­ent from oth­er schools. We release most of our finan­cial data, and you can see how much I get paid through the past three years.

We’ve run the school four times, each time fif­teen to eigh­teen stu­dents from all around the world, who are either engi­neers or artists or some­where in between. We’ve always had issues of how to make our school more invit­ing for oth­ers because that was an idea of a more trans­par­ent school.

Let’s go back to 2013. We had 54 appli­cants, which was quite sur­pris­ing, and I think that was due to a large amount of pub­lic­i­ty that we got as we were start­ing out. But the num­ber of appli­cants did not mat­ter so much because there was a lot of mis­con­cep­tion about the school. A lot of peo­ple thought we were a code boot camp, but we’re like an art school that uses code. We accept­ed fif­teen stu­dents, and this was the ratio between two genders.

This term, two years lat­er, we had 31 appli­cants and believe me it was much hard­er to choose the stu­dents this time because there was a whole self-selection process that hap­pened with the appli­cants. We had 62% male appli­cants, we accept­ed at about 52% male and 48% female, how­ev­er what hap­pens is that it ends up being 44% and 56% male. There’s a lot of instances where the female stu­dents that we accept­ed were not able to come for a vari­ety of rea­sons, because we charge tuition, which keeps us inde­pen­dent from any brand­ing, and also just schedule-related issues.

This allowed me to think about these two worlds that we are liv­ing between. So, the art world. The Guerrilla Girls are these his­toric fem­i­nist activist per­for­mance artists who did amaz­ing data visu­al­iza­tions of the inequal­i­ties of the art world through very ana­log posters.

This is a very recent work just this year. They recre­at­ed a poster they made in 1985 of the woman artists hav­ing a solo show at the major muse­ums and com­mer­cial gal­leries in New York. In 2015 the num­bers did­n’t change so much. So this does not look so good. 

And the tech world as we all know is this real­ly unbal­anced world in terms of edu­ca­tion and also in terms of indus­try. This is Tracy Chou’s ongo­ing research about how many woman employ­ees are in the tech start­up world. She has a repos­i­to­ry where she keeps updat­ing these num­bers as new com­pa­nies open their data, and you can see that the last com­mit was just twelve days ago. Just for exam­ple, Dropbox has 275 employ­ees and only 26 are female engineers.

On that note, the world is real­ly dif­fi­cult when we think about diver­si­ty. The ques­tion that was giv­en to us was what kind of future do you want to see?” The future that I do not want to see is the future of a very long tale of oth­er­ness, which is what Haiyan Zhang, who co-founded OpenIDEO talks about. 

The Long-Tail is sub­tle and hard­er to spot – it’s moments like being divert­ed to home eco­nom­ics class­es instead of wood shop, it’s not hav­ing female engi­neer­ing role mod­els, it’s being told you look too young and too much like a girl to be tak­en seri­ous­ly as a pro­fes­sion­al, it’s find­ing out you’re not being paid quite as much as your male colleagues.
Haiyan Zhang, On Gender Inequality and Being Other’ 

This is the world that she grew up [with] and had to resist as a female engi­neer. The world that we want to see through the school is empow­er­ing our stu­dents to teach and lead their own schools. Rachel Uwa, who is an alum­ni from our first class, start­ed her own school in Berlin. We encour­age every­one in this room and your com­mu­ni­ty to start a small orga­ni­za­tion for yourself.

I’d like to end at the larg­er ques­tion of audi­ences, and new audi­ences, and build­ing the com­mons. We start­ed this approach of work­ing with the local com­mu­ni­ties in Brooklyn and Bushwick to intro­duce what we love to a wider audi­ence. This is the Poetic Science Fair:

We invite the local com­mu­ni­ty to hack with us and [it’s] an oppor­tu­ni­ty for our stu­dents to meet and teach younger folks and old­er folks in that same manner.

Thank you so much for hav­ing me, and please sup­port our school by com­ing to the school or mak­ing your own school and hav­ing a com­mu­ni­ty of schools all around us.

Further Reference

Overview page at the Studio for Creative Inquiry’s web site.

Taeyoon post­ed an edit­ed tran­script of his pre­sen­ta­tion at Medium.