Artists and Hackers

A Podcast On Art, Code and Community

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Aug 17th, 2023

Ep. 14 - Liberatory Coding and the Transcode Manifesto

Summary

Transcript

Chelsea Thompto is a transdisciplinary artist and educator working at the intersections of art, trans studies, and technology. We talk about the Transcode Manifesto, digital preservation, and how software is not like sculpture.

Tags:

Radical Technology
Technological Criticality
Activism

This season we’ve partnered with the New Media Caucus, an international non-profit formed to promote the development and understanding of new media art. We’re interviewing five new media artists working today, both individually and at a live in-person event we held in February. This season of the podcast is supported by the National Endowment for the Arts grants for arts projects.

On today’s episode I’m speaking with artist Chelsea Thompto. I was looking forward to talking with her because in addition to working in code she’s also been active in sculpture and printmaking. I wanted to talk with her about code’s affordances for an artist. In other words, what potential ways of working are unlocked when you’re an artist who chooses to work with code as a medium? When she was creating sculptures, for example, she was designing systems for their creation, and this over time led her to thinking through ways she can leverage interactivity in her works: how to bring your audience into a relationship to relate to the work and to interface with it? And this is something that code in particular is uniquely suited for, where one can write code that directly integrates interactivity into one’s work, as sculpture, as software, as a website, among many other examples.

Chelsea talked about her project Transcode Manifesto, an always in progress manifesto.

Transcode takes up codes as an artistic material and as a trans methodology. While not only referring to computer code, transcode does view computer code as a material with immense potential in enacting the gesture of trans.

We also get into ideas of the handmade web, digital preservation, and teaching our values.

Chelsea Thompto
image description: Chelsea is smiling radiantly at the camera, with golden hair, in a dithered color image.

Guests

Chelsea Thompto is a transdisciplinary artist and educator working at the intersections of art, trans studies, and technology. Her research based studio practice spans a variety of media which often include code, video, sound, writing, and sculpture and her work has been shown nationally and internationally. Born and raised in Iowa, she has spent most of her life between the Midwest and California and she’s an incoming Assistant Professor of Creative Technologies at Virginia Tech. She is currently a member of the Year 9 NEW INC cohort in the Art & Code track, and serves on the editorial board of the Media-N: Journal of the New Media Caucus. She received an MFA in 4D Art and an MA in Gender and Women’s Studies from the University of Wisconsin Madison.

Credits

This season of the podcast is produced with the New Media Caucus for New Rules: Conversations with New Media Artists. You can find out more by visiting www.newmediacaucus.org. This project is supported in part by the National Endowment for the Arts. To find out more about how National Endowment for the Arts grants impact individuals and communities, visit www.arts.gov.

Special thanks to Jessye McDowell, Rebecca Forstater and Nat Roe.

Our audio production is by Max Ludlow.

Our music on today’s episode is SuperMash - Chior, Meydän - Away, Anemoia - Relay, and Kirk Osamayo - (Ambient) Fight.

Chelsea Thompto: Liberatory Coding and The Transcode Manifesto

Lee Tusman
You’re listening to Artists and Hackers, a podcast on art, code and community.

We talk to programmers, artists, educators and designers in an effort to critically look at online art making and the history of technology and the internet. We’re interested in where we’ve been and speculative ideas on the future. I’m Lee Tusman.

This season we’ve partnered with the New Media Caucus, an international non-profit formed to promote the development and understanding of new media art. We’re interviewing five new media artists working today, both individually and at a live in-person event in February. This season of the podcast is supported by the National Endowment for the Arts grants for arts projects.

On today’s episode I’m speaking with artist Chelsea Thompto, a transdisciplinary artist and educator working at the intersections of art, trans studies, and technology. Her research based studio practice spans a variety of media which often include code, video, sound, writing, and sculpture and her work has been shown nationally and internationally. Born and raised in Iowa, she has spent most of her life between the Midwest and California and she’s an incoming Assistant Professor of Creative Technologies at Virginia Tech. She is currently a member of the Year 9 NEW INC cohort in the Art & Code track, and serves on the editorial board of the Media-N: Journal of the New Media Caucus. She received an MFA in 4D Art and an MA in Gender and Women’s Studies from the University of Wisconsin Madison.

Lee
Just to jump into things, Chelsea, I think of you as an artist that works with code - and you talked about how at university you worked in sculpture. I guess I’m curious to hear a little bit about how you’ve come to combine your art practice that includes working with code, how did that come to be?

Chelsea
Yeah I think that for me whenever I was working sculpturally or in printmaking or anything like that I was really interested in creating systems in my studio. So I would always be figuring out how to set up a system of working and then work within that system to create a body of work or a singular piece and so I think naturally finding other systems that already exist that I can work within was really alluring. So I think that really became a pretty natural progression of having ideas around systems and then also having ideas around interactivity. So Some of my later sculptural work that I did before so turning to code as Well started to think about ways that the viewer or audience could be more directly engaged with the work. And because of that I started to think about other interfaces of interactivity and of course, especially now there are so many different ways to relate to pieces of technology and so that really opened up a different world to me.

Lee
One of the things that I find interesting about your work and your writing is you’re thinking about and writing about being trans and how that relates to not just to being an an artist but also to working with and wielding and using technology. I was curious to hear a little bit about your creation of the Transcode Manifesto and I’d love to hear a little bit more about it and and if you’re willing, maybe you’ll read a little bit from it.

Chelsea
Sure, yeah I’m happy to do both. So I think for me, you know when I was working with sculpture it didn’t feel as though there was a need for me to contextualize as much and that felt like a medium that that sort of had a place and my relationship to it you know predated my real deep thinking on transness. But really my my working with code and my working with my trans identity and thinking about Trans Studies not just from a identity standpoint but also from a theoretical standpoint or a political standpoint. Those two things coincided and so for me the Transcode Manifesto became a way to think through why I was drawn both to code and then also how I thought code was it was a really prime medium for trans expression. And so in writing this it was really about, I would say it was really about writing my self into the narrative of new media art. It was really about thinking about creating a place for transness within that space really explicitly and I started this I think the beginning writings came in around 2017. And it’s been in various states and versions since then. And I actually really love the idea that the very first version of the piece and the version right now and every version it has been or will be are all the current or final version. Another way to sort of resist this idea that there is always this kind of linear straightforward narrative and that’s a lot of what that manifesto is really about. And so I can read the first part if you would like.

Lee
I Would love that.

Chelsea
Transcode Manifesto. My body is encoded, coded and recoded always. When my body is projected across the country by the telephone system to talk to a stranger it is often coded as male by the operator while simultaneously my voice is encoded into a uniform digital system and compressed for its journey. This conversation to process a payment centers what is for many the most masculine seeming aspect of my body in this moment I am transformed, removed from the context of my corporeal body. I am imagined as male in the mind’s eye of the equally disembodied voice on the other end. But it’s not a transformation for the operator as my body has never been anything to them before the call. Maybe then it is simply another facet of the multiple ways my body is being processed and my failure to code my body as feminine within every system. I encode, code and recode my body always. My voice becomes higher wavelength. I shorten in response, posture changes despite this only being a voice call. I am left wondering if I have just reified the codification of voice as gender, left to wonder how much the system is changing me and how much I might be able to change it. I’m left wondering what a radical intervention might be in the face of definitional and categorical violence where the ever increasing drive is to define smaller and smaller aspects of ourselves. To separate catalog and index. To encode, code and recode. This version of the manifesto that you are reading is the first version, the rough draft as well as the third or fourth versions whose changes will be relatively minor. Or possibly cataclysmic. It is at the same time the final and most definitive addition. This is because transcode work at its core refuses a linear understanding of narrative time, knowledge making and labor instead. Transcode work insists upon lingering in the ebb and flow between categories and definitions and destinations. To see the many iterations and tangents of a work as inseparable from its final product and inscrutable to the logic of cause and effect. How might an ending have affected its own beginning? In the formulation A to B transcode invests in the liberatory power of the two as a space of movement, possibility and rupture.

Chelsea
So that’s from the first three paragraphs.

Lee
I Love that. I wanted to ask just a simple question: what are all the different meanings of code that you’ve been thinking of when you were writing the Transcode Manifesto? of coding, encoding, recoding?

Chelsea
Yeah, so this this really comes from thinking about this idea of transness is also being numerous so embracing the fact that when you engage in any taxological term or idea be it code , be it gender you’re really bringing a lot of other things into the conversation. So as I mentioned previously in a lot of my sculptural works I would create a system and that system could in some ways be considered a code or codifying a studio practice. Social codes. Penal codes. All of these different codes in some way do actually I think relate to computer code because it’s a system of rules that’s used to organize and you know make productive or legible or discernible a certain piece of material. So for me when I’m thinking about using code I’m also thinking about the kind of mindset that comes with writing code or the mindset that is made possible by code and the ways that code can also repeat violence. And so part of engaging with code in this way and thinking about it on these multiple terms is also about unpacking and then hopefully resisting these violent tendencies within codification and thinking about new more liberatory ways of coding and working with and around code.

Lee
Is there something about working with technology and maybe code in particular that allows you to speak on ethics and culture in a way that you think is different inherently than potentially working in a medium like sculpture or or other forms of you know installation or even photography, perhaps even writing? Feel free to push back if you don’t think so.

Chelsea
Yeah, I think, no no, I do actually think that I mean, I think part of you know you hit on that by adding writing in there and for me that’s something I realized you know about ten years or so ago was that I really…. writing was really a part of my studio practice. I don’t necessarily produce writing at the same level or the same scale as my artwork but I do find writing to be a really fruitful part of my studio practice and of course when we’re writing code we are writing right? And there’s something about that act of sitting down in a computer to write whether that is to write prose poetry or code that is fundamentally a bit different for me and so you know I might be sitting down to write, to create a website, or I might be sitting down to write a new version of the Transcode Manifesto. But for me that affective experience of sitting down to write is a little bit different than working with my hands in another way and I don’t necessarily think that the material itself lends itself better or worse. But I do think that my relationship to it allows me a deeper way in and so I still really love working tactilely with material but often now even when I am working with that material is activated or engaged in code in some way whether that’s using code in some way to generate Imagery or form or using sculptural objects as housing for coded works. So yeah, I think that part of it for me comes down to the act of writing and how writing for me fundamentally does feel a bit more -especially as someone who doesn’t see themselves in a lot of current art historical or contemporary art conversations- I don’t see a lot of people thinking and making like me. I do feel that writing is a maybe more potent way for me to make space for others like me and myself to have our work not just, you know, out there promoted or something like that, but understood and apprehended as part of a longer history of trans thinkers and makers who have been around for a very long time making but who haven’t always had the benefit of attention to their practice enough to really document and keep that history alive.

Lee
I Think the other thing that’s interesting too is that just like the Transcode Manifesto which is explicitly something that can change and adapt over time and and be kind of re reworked on , rewritten in in various kinds of ways. Working with code allows you to do that obviously too. There’s different iterations and different ways that your project can unfold over time. One of the works I was interested in talking with you about is your piece Landmarks which…what you say is an exploration of the ways machine learning and specifically facial recognition fail to comprehend trans bodies through misgendering and the threat that this failure possesses to trans livelihoods as these technologies become increasingly integrated into daily lives. I’m curious to hear a little bit about how you engage in the ethics of the work you do as an artist, as a researcher, as a writer, as someone wielding and building technology.

Chelsea
I think that this is a really important question and I think it’s really important to also highlight that it’s a moving target right? I think that even now that work is started in I think the late December of 2020, early 2021. And even now I think the conversation around AI and machine learning has changed so rapidly that I might approach that piece differently in some way but for me when I’m thinking about working with any technology I’m thinking about if I’m wanting to critically engage and push back against say the ethical or moral problematics of a technology like facial recognition then I have to be aware of the ways that ah even engaging with or reproducing that technology might be reproducing that harm. And so the Landmarks piece in particular, one thing I was really invested in was creating a space within the website to explore facial recognition but in a way that was still very focused on data privacy and in a way that wouldn’t actually help make facial recognition better in the future and so this involved a lot of the kind of boring backend work of understanding exactly how facial recognition was operating using the library that I was using, whether or not any data would or could be transferred in that process, and then making sure that my server that I ended up using for the piece wasn’t collecting or holding any data so that someone could be coming to that site, they could explore that but they would also feel confident in knowing that in so doing they weren’t somehow contributing to the problem. And so for me this became a really important part of the backend research. And so I decided to surface that in the piece by having a popup window in the piece itself that explained this because I think that there is a way that you know I could take for granted that people will trust that I’m not going to do something terrible with their data. But I think actually centering that and forwarding that as a gesture and making that a pop-up and having it be something that they think about is a gesture within the work and so for me, that’s what it really comes down to is thinking carefully about those ethics and about those morals and then thinking about how those things fit into the artistic gesture. Maybe they become the artistic gesture or at the very least they inform the artistic gesture in such a way that I’m making sure that the work itself isn’t doing the very thing that I am railing against or wondering against or ruminating against within the work itself.

Lee
You know in addition to the the creation of this work there’s also the maintenance of it to some degree, like our ideas change, our projects change over time. And forgive me for keep going back to for continually kind of revisiting this thing of what’s different maybe about working with code versus a media that we might think of as more inherently physical like sculpture? But there’s a lot of brittleness of working, writing software, making websites for example. How do you deal with that as an artist? And you know that might be in in multiple ways both like how do you preserve your work for the future? But also how do you make work that might be able to speak to the future too?

Chelsea
Yeah, that is a really great question and right now I’m I’m actually dealing with the sort of double the opposite ends of that spectrum because I’m moving and I have all of these sculptures from a long time ago and so I have the problem there of kind of wishing they weren’t so permanent and having to deal with like when it when is it okay to let go of this thing? But there is something really both for me alluring and also I think it can be a little bit of a trap like the infinite openness that I could dip back into that code and I could update it. And honestly, even right now I do have some other ideas for Landmarks not actually changing the piece, in terms of, you know, making it different. How might I make sure that it works well on mobile? And how might I think about bandwidth allocation? And these sorts of things. And so you know I really do love the idea of maintenance as part of the practice actually because I think it does allow you to continue to sort of reaffirm what that work was and what that work is about. I’m really drawn to this idea that a work is one thing when it’s first made but that that thing can actually change and in In fact, this month, back to the sculpture thing, I made a sculpture, a self-portrait sculpture in 2015 I no longer really believe in because I don’t have the same relationship to the politics of visibility. I don’t necessarily think that trans people being more visible is always the best thing and so what I was able to do was actually melt down that Bronze sculpture and recast it in a fog form which is part of my new work and and so you know in that way I think I am trying to bring that openness of code back into the sculptural process of like thinking about how the sculptural work might be able to function a little bit more like code does.

Lee
Wow.

Chelsea
You know when I’m thinking about code in terms of that idea of you know, thinking of the future or thinking towards a future or preserving for the future I’m really thinking about it in two ways. One is like, am I writing code and putting it in a place where it’s not going to get lost? Because I think anymore there are a lot of really amazing efforts towards emulation and I think building things particularly for the web which is what I’ve been leaning more and more into means that even if they don’t work on contemporary web browsers I think there’s going to be a lot of ways in the future to emulate old web browsers and make those works live. Also I try not to have any dependencies that don’t exist within the work itself. So it’s not like linking out to something that could then eventually break someday. So those are ways that I that I think about like this idea of durability over time. Although I’m not terribly stressed on it as long as I’ve I’ve created good documentation of how it was when it was first made. And then thinking towards the future I think anytime that you’re working with a more contemporary material - obviously code is one of those materials- you’re just a little bit closer to what is current, what is now? And then again, what is possibly the future? So I think just the relative newness of code makes it a lot easier to imagine futures with it, at least for me.

Lee
You’ve spoken a little bit before about being based at San Jose state university and about the CADRE Media Lab. I’m curious to hear about projects you’ve engaged with there. I think you had mentioned a project working with 25 year old web sites. Is there anything else you could say about that and maybe about how that might inform kind of what you were thinking about in terms of preservation?

Chelsea
Yeah, I’ve been working with a colleague here Rhonda Holberton on a project for the SWITCH Journal, which is a journal that was created here at the CADRE Media Lab starting in the early 90 s and so we worked with students to look through all of these websites through classes to make abstracts for them as a way of of getting students to think about new media art theory. And that is part of a larger project to take these websites and find ways to keep them alive, and to host that content in a variety of ways. And so we’ve worked with the library to create PDF static versions of the websites the way they would have looked at the time that they were originally published. And we’re also working on ways to have those older models of CSS re tooled so that they look the same or function the same on contemporary web browsers and then also thinking about how to bring that content into a more contemporary website and so for us it really became about like not thinking of a one size fits all solution right? Not to say that web preservation is this, or conservation is this, or rekindling this thing must only be this one form but rather than to say that, like if I’m going to create an archive, or if I’m going to be thinking about preserving this work that perhaps there’s a multi-pronged approach. So similar to what I was saying before like the Landmarks piece. Well there are screenshots. There are video captures, screen recordings. There is also the code itself right? and so there are these different ways that the work gets documented. And I think being okay, understanding that work is not always going to, that not every type of documentation or every type of archiving is necessarily going to be able to capture every aspect of the work. But that in archiving it along a variety of contexts and formats you’re really able to sort of capture what that thing was and and yeah I hope to be able to continue that work with with Rhonda and the CADRE Lab as I actually exit San Jose state and and move away from the bay area and Silicon Valley.

Lee
You have a website about hand coding websites essentially that kind of teaches both the basics and then gets into underlying structure, how they work, accessibility. And I notice on your website for example, there’s an emphasis on having dithered images which are, and correct me if I’m wrong in this, but a way to have I’ll call it a lower resolution but it’s still fully legible to me, images. But it’s also maybe lower bandwidth too. I’m curious some of these kinds of considerations that you’re taking in in terms of kind of rethinking computing and the web.

Chelsea
You know this is a big issue for me. So you know as artists working during what is undoubtedly a climate crisis it’s really hard I think personally to place myself within that. What does it mean to be an artist producing things in this time and how you know how might the production of artwork contribute negatively to this context, right? And so I’m constantly thinking about what does it mean to produce on the web or physical objects? What does it mean to be producing as an artist knowing that everything that you do has an ecological impact? But also knowing that personal choice In thinking about climate change is not actually the primary motivator or the primary thing that’s going to make huge change happen. And so for me the dithered image and the hand coding of the website is one way about just pushing back against this idea within technology, and I don’t think it’s rampant, through all new media, but I do think there’s certainly a strain where where folks really chase resolution fidelity, in the highest fidelity, the highest resolution, the highest frame rate. Those things become the real key. They become the really key ways to decide whether something has value. And so I think for me hand-coding websites using lower resolution images thinking about low power has a dual way of both pushing back against this idea that fidelity equals quality. And also that computing must always be on the cutting edge to be relevant.

Chelsea
So for me hand coding websites becomes a way of thinking about systems and thinking about the the way that those systems produce a certain type of form and so I’m really interested in encouraging folks to to make things in this way. And it’s really a funny thing about the dithering is that after I made that site and after I made those traces on my website a new image format called webp became much more available and in fact webp images look a lot like a jpeg but they’re incredibly small. And so anymore a webp image versus a dithered image might be the same file size. They are both quite small. But you get a higher quality, quote unquote quality, with the webp, which is great. Of course on a large scale. But for me on the small scale I still love the idea of dithering an image because it calls attention to the digital materiality of that object and it makes people slow down a little bit I think and think about why that image looks the way it looks. And you know that little bit of visual friction which can also become visual style is a way to gesture towards this idea that there are other ways to be thinking about how to display things on the web and while my personal choice might not actually be moving the needle it might inspire other folks in other industries or other spaces to be able to to think through those choices for the work that they’re doing as well.

Lee
I love that. Well Chelsea thank you so much for speaking with me today. Really appreciate it.

Chelsea
Yeah, it’s been a pleasure I Really really enjoyed talking with you.

Lee
I was looking forward to talking with Chelsea because I wanted to ask her about being an artist working in code. It’s not her only medium, she’s also been active in sculpture and printmaking, and I wanted to talk with her about code’s affordances for an artist. In other words, what potential ways of working are unlocked when you’re an artist who chooses to work with code as a medium? When she was creating sculpture, for example, she was designing systems for their creation, and this over time led her to thinking through ways she can leverage interactivity in her works: how to bring your audience into a relationship to relate to the work, to interface with it? And this is something that code in particular is uniquely suited for, where one can write code that directly integrates interactivity into one’s work, as sculpture, as software, as a website, among many other examples.

I was also taken by her description of code as a form of writing, and of the utility of writing in her practice as an artist. Chelsea described writing as a prime medium for trans expression and as a way for her to write herself into the narrative of new media art and of creating a place for transness within new media art. The transcode manifesto serves as a point that isn’t just speaking on trans identity but also trans theory and politics. When artists create manifestos and archives, that serves as one potential vector to push back on dominant narratives. Whose stories are told?

And this intersects as well with the limitations of code and digital media as we talked about. Chelsea worked with the CADRE media lab, with her students on preservation issues. As the web and software evolve, things break, links rot, websites 404 error out, old javascript libraries stop working. If you’re an artist who shows work on the web, as early net art, or as applications, or in many other forms, especially using a web browser as your platform, these things break.

So I was also interested in Chelsea’s advocacy for and tutorials for the handmade web. Increasingly there’s been online discussions about ideas of permacomputing, discussing longterm preservation issues, but also climate change, issues that I wish for us to cover in future episodes.

Chelsea writes on her blog and has written for various journals. In 2021 she published Building a More Sustainable and Accessible Internet: Lightweight Web Design with HTML and CSS, an open access resource for other academics. She’s presenting both a nuts and bolts, how do you do this: create websites meant for longterm sustainability, keeping in mind that the internet ranks 7th total in global energy consumption. She uses dithered images on this page on her website, and described how this was one way to signal to the reader and viewer, that she’s presenting low-bandwidth media, and why.

She says “We do not need the type of ‘more’ that the world of tech largely aspires to, instead we need:”

  • More access
  • More diversity
  • More compassion
  • More community
  • More introspection
  • More stewardship

Thanks to our guest on today’s program, Chelsea Thompto. My name is Lee Tusman. Our audio producer is Max Ludlow. This season of the podcast is produced with the New Media Caucus for New Rules: Conversations with New Media Artists. You can find out more by visiting www.newmediacaucus.org. This project is supported in part by the National Endowment for the Arts. To find out more about how National Endowment for the Arts grants impact individuals and communities, visit www.arts.gov. Special thanks to Jessye McDowell, Rebecca Forstater and Nat Roe.

Our music on today’s episode is SuperMash - Choir, Meydän - Away, Anemoia - Relay, and Kirk Osamayo - (Ambient) Fight.

You can find more episodes, full transcripts, music credits, and links to find out about our guests and topics on our website artistsandhackers.org You can find us on instagram at artistandhackers, and on mastodon at artistsandhackers at post.lurk.org You can always write to us on our website. Please forward this or any of your favorite episodes to a friend. And be sure to leave us a review or feedback wherever you get your podcast. And thanks for listening.

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