words by Adina Glickstein
The journey into the second half of our investigation of “Codes Words Spells” began with an overview of several creative projects involving Python, artworks collaboratively engendered by humans and machines. So much of the “discourse” about tech-assisted art in the “art world proper” (a domain towards which I cast a heavily skeptical glance—what are its boundaries? its criteria for entry?) seems to result in overly-ironized and frankly (in my opinion!!) aesthetically uninteresting products—I’m thinking here of the Portrait of Edmond de Belamythat freaked the auction circuit in 2018—that are just that, products, items ultimately made for market circulation. The projects that Melanie shared, on the other hand, glowed with this fundamentally human quality, resoundingly non-corporate and non-evil, reminding me again that the things we build with our computers can be a world away from the cult-of-productivity proprietary tech that seems to pervade most programming bootcamps.
All afternoon, I craved a mojito, the gif of Nicole He’s “high heel that muddles” imprinted in my brain. He’s work, alongside the projects of Melanie’s own that were overviewed, used Python scripts in service of tender re-thinkings of the question: human and computer, who’s programming whom? From He’s “the best art” (a series of receipts that auto-generate creative prompts for a person to enact with their physical body and objects in lived space) to Melanie’s discussion of a private Twitter bot remixing a partner’s journal entries, the bit that stuck with me was not some sense of hi-tech novelty, which so often misses the mark in its relentless drive for innovation, but instead, a calming, warming sense of spaciousness.
Same goes for the “notes we passed” to partners, Python poems that we pasted in the are.na and shared a few of during class. The internet is now full of our loving words to one another, whispered across distance by being emailed, snail-mailed, or slipped into the comments of some obscure SoundCloud stream. We let our devices work over our dreams, crushes, and recollections, staging our inputs into poetic structure with the satisfying push of a button.
Simply put, I’m leaving Codes Words Spells with a newfound sense of empowerment. As an artist and writer, I personally struggle with the more “left-brained” quantitative tasks that are conventionally associated with computer science in its orthodox forms. I came to the (proverbial/distributed/zoom-hosted) table already feeling powerless, mortified as though my ancient unimpressive SAT math score would flash across my face at any moment—but a few deep breaths later, the notebook that Melanie structured for us to work through is so inviting! What if coding is just naming things, manipulating patterns someone else has named, doing math on words? I think it’s easy to get caught up in the abstraction of it all, but reframing Python in the context of “magic words” has precipitated a shift in mindset.
Writing poetry—writing in general—has always felt, to me, like a mystifying process. I know that I do it but I couldn’t begin to explicate how; suddenly, the schematic nature of mooshing together words and mixing up lists, enumerating and joining with emojis, is delightful in its repeatability. Far be it for me to lapse into full tech-bro fetishism extolling the cleanliness of code, but I have learned to appreciate its consistency, the certainty that when we name a function, we are endowing it with stability, building tools that we can re-use. I like the clarity of an error message—the immediate feedback. I also like the way it’s called a “python library”: it’s like we borrow pre-wrapped functions, use them, lend, circulate, and return. We are sharing agency, not only with our machines but with the developers who came before us. Normally, I don’t think of proprietary software this way, but the idea that we might have a meaningful bearing on our computational “environment” by contributing our creativity and care is a reframe that this week of DLL helped me embrace.
Learning to write poetry with my computer as a collaborator has encouraged me to reflect on the nature of all the other language that I take for granted: as is the case with defining functions, sometimes words are vested with meaning by the structures that we sit within, and other times, we get the luxury of taking them fresh, free from pre-ordained meaning, enchanting them ourselves. Tuesday’s class session coincided with Nonbinary Day of Visibility, and while I am still not always particularly visible in my own nonbinariness, I am mega-grateful to our digital classroom space for providing a forum that I feel more comfortable leading with it than I ever did when I attended a (cringe) “women’s college.”
Gender is a code, albeit a social one and not exactly computational, and it renders us functionaries of a wider system—an entrenched system of colonial oppression and expropriation that intersects with racist and classist hierarchies, deepening its grip on the most vulnerable. Now that I’ve moved through my fear of writing Python functions, I hope to spend some time this week journaling around gender and thinking of ways to further embrace and express the diversion from the binary that I have long felt in my body. Ironically—or is it fittingly?—these feelings manifest as a nagging unease that makes me want to be enmeshed with my computer, to sink into digital disembodiment. I wonder what it would look like to negotiate this tension with the warmth and candor that permeated the projects Melanie shared with us in class, which precisely the warmth I had once feared code to be incapable of expressing. I wonder, and I don’t hope to arrive at any stable conclusions, but should any further insight arise as I’m fumbling around in there, you have my word (my code, my spell): I promise to share it.