Artists and Hackers

A Podcast On Creative Tools

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February 26st, 2021

Ep. 3 - Can a Programming Language be a Radical Community?

p5.js is the name of a creative coding library and platform that aims to make coding inclusive and accessible for a wide range of people. We speak to the team that supports p5.js on how they make space for contributors within its nurturing, intentional community.

Tags:

Activism
Tools
Coding Languages


Today we’re talking with members of the community that contribute to p5.js, including its creator Lauren McCarthy, Processing Foundation Director Dorothy Santos, p5.js web editor Lead Designer Cassie Tarakajian and p5.js Project Lead Moira Turner.


People have been creating art with computers since at least the early 1960s. At that time computers were massive in size and price, owned primarily by corporations, governments and universities. So most early computer art was made by the engineers, scientists and others with access to these labs. With a few exceptions, art was not the primary interest of these spaces nor were early learners a main focus.


But over the years, there have been several programming languages designed to aid learning programming in education. One early example is LOGO.


Created In 1967, Wally Feurzig, Seymour Papert and Cynthia Solomon created LOGO as a programming language for children. Their radical idea was that children could program and that it could dramatically alter their educational experience. For the first time, LOGO allowed children as well as adults a simple language to program. LOGO languages feature a robot or onscreen turtle controlled with simple motion commands. The creators were inspired by swiss psychologist Jean Piaget, whose constructionist theory of learning placed students’ own making and experimentation at the center of their education. And it held that learners learn best when they can construct mental models to understand the world around them and when learning feels like play.


The first versions of LOGO were developed in Cambridge, Massachussets, and development and use soon spread to universities including MIT. And that takes us to more recent history.


Since that time there have been only a small handful of languages with a focus on being accessible to new learners, and even a smaller number than that with immediate visual output. In the past twenty years, the language that stood out with this focus is Processing.


Processing is a language for electronic arts, new media art, and visual design. Created in 2001 by Ben Fry and Casey Reas, at the time grad students at MIT’s Media Lab in John Maeda’s lab called Aesthetics + Computation Group. It grows out of Maeda’s previous work building a visual language called Design by Numbers. Processing is built on top of the Java language and is used today by interactive artists, students, designers, researchers, and hobbyists. It’s also an incredible tool to learn to program. But Processing was designed in an era when Java programs worked on the the internet. You could easily export your work and put it up on a website so others could try out your art and interactive projects. Unfortunately, Java no longer works inside web browsers. And so for a long time Processing was useful primarily on desktop computers. And that was the case until p5.js came along.


p5.js is a new implementation of the ideas of Processing in Javascript. It’s a flexible tool that feels like a combination of writing code and using scissors and glue. It’s used for everything from making experimental interactive artwork, to videogames, to interactive music, and you can even use it with machine learning.


One of the many things that makes p5.js so unique is its focus on intentional community. From its statement on community values, to its friendly error messages, to its welcoming documentation, its community stewards and invitation to new contributors, p5.js stands out as a model for a thriving, growing and supportive space.


In this episode we speak to members of the community that contribute to p5.js on the work they do to nurture this community.



Guests


Lauren Lee McCarthy (she/they) is an artist examining social relationships in the midst of surveillance, automation, and algorithmic living. Lauren is also the creator of p5.js, an open-source art and education platform that prioritizes access and diversity in learning to code, with over 1.5 million users.


Dorothy R. Santos (she/they) is a Filipina American writer, artist, and educator whose academic and research interests include feminist media histories, critical medical anthropology, technology, race, and ethics. She is a co-founder of REFRESH, a politically-engaged art and curatorial collective and serves as the Executive Director for the Processing Foundation.


Moira Turner (p5.js Lead) is a graduate from the University of Southern California, and has worked at the intersections of educational justice, computer science, and racial equity for the past three years. An anthropology major, Moira taught herself to code immediately after graduation and became a Computer Science fellow at 9 Dots - a nonprofit dedicated to teaching marginalized communities the fundamentals of coding. Consequently, Moira has taught over 800 students and worked at over 12 schools in the Los Angeles area using the p5 curriculum.


Cassie Tarakajian (p5.js Online Editor Lead)(they/them) is an Armenian-American educator, technologist, musician, and artist based in Brooklyn, NY. After receiving a Bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering from Johns Hopkins University, they focused their work on creative tools, working on the software Max/MSP at Cycling ‘74 and joining Processing Foundation as the p5.js Editor lead in 2016.



Credits


Our audio production is by Max Ludlow. Episode coordination and web design by Caleb Stone. This episode was supported by Purchase College.

Our music in this episode is: Sorry by Comfort Fit, Purplebutter by Breakmaster Cylinder, Transition by Acreil, Acme Coke by Roger Plexico, WELP by Glass Boy and note manual by The Books.

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