Arts + Culture

Processing Community Day: A Q&A with digital artist Lauren McCarthy

Event promotes software literacy within the visual arts, and visual literacy within technology-related fields, while increasing accessibility for all

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Processing Community Day
Courtesy Processing Foundation

The first Processing Community Day in 2017, which was held at MIT.

The UCLA Broad Art Center is home to the faculty and students in the UCLA School of Arts and Architecture and of course includes classrooms, galleries, studio space and auditoriums. On Saturday, Jan. 19 it becomes a hub for artists, educators, designers, and coders of all ages and and backgrounds and from all over the world as it hosts Processing Community Day.

Processing, a free and open-source software platform for learning how to code within the context of the visual arts, was created by Casey Reas, UCLA professor of design media arts, and Ben Fry. It is complemented by a web version, called p5.js, created by Lauren McCarthy, assistant professor of design media arts at UCLA, who also earned her M.F.A. from the department. Processing and p5.js are used by a worldwide community of artists, coders, educators, students, who will gather to share, connect and collaborate.

McCarthy and Reas worked with Processing Community Day Director Xin Xin to organize the event at UCLA and satellite sites around the world.

In an interview, McCarthy explained some of the origins behind the event and said she “hopes that people will leave with some new perspectives and ideas, questions they hadn’t considered before, and new tools to address the problems they’re trying to solve.”

There are still a few tickets left, for those who want to join in. More info and registration at day.processing.org.

What are the origins of the Processing Community Day event?

Lauren McCarthy
UCLA
Lauren McCarthy

So much of our work and activity happens online, and the Processing community is very distributed. We wanted to have a day where we could come together in person and reconnect, perhaps meet for the first time, and share ideas, projects, goals and tools. We were also inspired by events like Scratch Day and Arduino Day and wanted to see what having an official “Day” might open up. It’s important to note that while many of the connections we make through Processing are very strong, we use the term community in a very open way. Anyone can be part of it, they need not use Processing software or code at all.

This is the second Processing Community Day. The first one was held in Cambridge, MA at the MIT Media Lab in October 2017. The first event featured lectures, workshops, roundtable conversations, lightning talks and art exhibits. There were people of all ages, backgrounds, and interests, ranging from young students to seniors, artists to engineers to full-time caretakers, people that have been using Processing software for decades to those that are completely new. Most importantly, it was a chance to occupy space together and connect.

The goal is to move the location from city to city each year, and this is the first year that we’ve also added satellite events where any city in the world can join in by organizing a local event.

What has the global response been like?

The global response has been overwhelming. We’ve had over 100 organizers register events around the world, on every continent except Antarctica (next year!). The events will take place between Jan. 15 and Feb. 15, and the format varies in each, based on the goals of the local organizers and community. Some events have a more conventional lecture or demo format, while others are based around show and tell sessions, zine-making sessions, audio-visual performances, DIY art shows, game jams, or group discussions on software art. There’s a lot of energy around some of the big cities like NYC and Tokyo, but we’re very excited about some of the cities we’ve heard from where the Processing community is just starting to grow including BangaloreMontevideo and Dakar. Those events are focused on introducing new people to the software and community.

Tell us about the four programming strains and why you’re focusing on these issues.

There are four different tracks for this event that grow out of our core mission to promote software literacy within the visual arts, and visual literacy within technology-related fields — and to make these fields accessible to diverse communities.

The “Accessibility, Disability and Care” track investigates accessibility of software development and creative expression. It grows from our belief that accessibility is not only about explicit technical solutions. True accessibility begins by building on the understanding of normalcy, impairment, mental and physical health.

One of the core goals of Processing has always been learning and education, and specifically, finding ways to increase access. The “Radical Pedagogy” track calls on us to imagine how transparent teaching, modeling vulnerability, and positioning teachers as human beings could create spaces for radical openness and productive dialogues. It asks: as teachers and students, what are some ways to model radical kindness within an institutional setting? How might integrating elements of uncertainty and unknown into the lesson plan open up possibilities for collective learning? How do we support each other to resist fear, injustice, and inflammatory rhetorics, on and off-campus?

The “Epic Play” track ties into the heart of Processing philosophy. Coding should feel like sketching or playing, a creative experiment. Play is ubiquitous, a relationship, a stance, that someone can take up at any time or place. How can creative practice undermine the present and produce an imagination for alternative futures?

Finally, the “Under the Silicon, the Beach!” track questions the role of programmer and the world today. As software becomes increasingly central to all aspects of human life, artists and designers working with code play an important role for imagining the world outside of the status quo. How do practices that use software and design for esoteric, discursive, political and aesthetic ends, help us break free from predominant narratives?

We hope by pulling out four different tracks, the community will be able to bring their own ideas and conversation to these goals. We envision it being a learning experience all the way around.

Creating an inclusive and accessible community is a prominent aspect of the event (and Processing in general) — from offering the event for free, to programming strains, to accommodations and childcare, to the opportunity for people to participate from anywhere in the world. Tell us about these values and their relationship to technology. How do community day and other in-real-life events allow you to further your work and the mission of Processing?

Creating an inclusive and accessible community is core to Processing. The technology we interact with shapes our world, and it’s never neutral. Every tool carries the beliefs and biases of its creators. In order to move toward a more just and equal world, we feel it’s urgent that there are a diverse range of people creating the tools we use, including the ones for creative expression. This mission drives the software and community we’ve been building online, and it is carried through this event from programming, to disability accommodations and childcare, to the opportunity for people to participate from anywhere in the world.

Having an in-real-life event like this challenges us all to see how well we’re following through on our goals and be opened to ways we can make things more inclusive. Last year was a big learning opportunity for us and this year already has been, too.

The relationship between art and technology is at the core of your work and this event. How is that relationship changing? What is the future of art and coding/how are you engaging/shaping that future?

When Processing began in 2001, art and technology was still relatively new. One of the goals was to bring ideas like combining design and code out of institutions and to the broader public. Since then, Processing, and the space of art and technology in general, has grown tremendously. During this time, we’ve joined other open-source toolmakers in maintaining that it’s crucial for artists to make their own open tools, rather than relying on expensive, proprietary software tools made by companies.

We’re happy to see that the space of art and technology has remained largely open, and artists are still hacking and imagining their own technologies. Despite trying to open up tools, many barriers still exist.

Going forward, we want to continue to work to expand access to these tools, with special focus on people of color, people with disabilities, people from under resourced communities, and anyone else that doesn’t currently feel able to participate as they’d like.

Thank you for sharing more about Processing Community Day with us. Is there anything else you’d like to highlight?

We want to highlight our fantastic Processing Community Day Director this year, Xin Xin. We invited them to lead this year’s event based on their strong practice in activism, network culture, and open source and it has been wonderful collaborating. They have been working for months to put this together and we are so excited about the inclusive vision, new ideas, and inspiring lineup of presenters they’ve brought to it.

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