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Group Of San Diego Students Use Computer Code To Make Art

The Art of Computer Code

Pushing past the edge of technology and art — students at High Tech High's Media Art Center learn how to make art one line of computer code at a time.

Creating art by programming computers is cutting edge for both computer programming and art. The students in Margaret Noble’s art class at High Tech High’s Media Art Center are walking up to that edge and trying to push past it.

Not only did the students have to learn a computer language, but they also had to choose a subject on which to focus their art. More than 50 students chose subjects ranging from police brutality to noise pollution to post-traumatic stress.

And none of the young artists touched a paintbrush or pencil to create their art. The artworks were made one line of computer code at a time.

Noble said this is the first year she taught how to write computer code in an art class. The theme of the class, an exhibition called "Unfamiliar Landscapes," was inspired by the relationship between the students and computer code.

“Code is an unfamiliar landscape and they’re navigating this technology for the first time,” Noble said. “But we also thought it would really open the doors for a ton of other topics from whether its literal, about the landscape or human body, or it’s social, political. It just seemed like a good framework for research inquiry and media art representation.”

The world of writing computer code has many unique challenges for the students. For the first eight weeks of class students studied a programming language called processing. Learning to program was a major hurdle for some of the students, Noble said.

“After the initial challenges of having to deal with this sea of black and white text, they acclimated pretty well,” Noble said. “It was definitely a different world having to learn how to program first.”

Processing was created for artists but it doesn’t necessarily make the artistic process easier. The young artists still had to think about the design, color, content and context of their artwork.

“They learned how to manipulate using a tablet, the brush stroke from a computer. They could write code to change, was there a thick stroke was there a thin stroke, was it spinning in a circle, did it do a semi-circle, when did it change colors?” Noble said. “So in that instance they understood that the computer could really be a tool to augment their creative design.”

The students began by learning how to program semi-circles before moving on to create more involved images. Most of the students weren’t interested in art. Branden Sade wants to be San Diego firefighter, and he said learning to code was tough.

“When I first started, I hated coding because it was so difficult. Then slowly, as I got better and more experienced with it, it started getting easier for me,” Sade said.

Brandon Sade Fire Withing

Sade made artwork that uses a camera attached to his computer. The computer interprets the silhouette of whoever stands with in its view and then fills that silhouette with fire, while the sound of a crackling log grows and fades away in unison with the flames.

He said it’s a visual metaphor for the post-traumatic stress that first responders can suffer. The fire slowly builds. It weakens over time but never goes away.

For Sade it represents how post-traumatic stress can be ever present, and if untreated, the fire within will burn hotter and longer.

Over the course of the semester his artwork evolved, Sade said.

“With this code I’ve had different drafts. I started with having just a small, little flame which was made out of squares and circles follow the person using motion sensing,” Sade said. “To having the actual silhouette of the person on fire.”

Noise Pollution Sound

Students Ernesto Becerra, Guillermo Felix and Michael de la Cruz created sound art that lets the viewer make music from the sounds of noise pollution. Felix said he wants the artwork to educate people about the negative effects of too much noise.

Los Angeles riots art metaphor

Chloe Barefielt, Brooklynn Bucky and DaShaun Lemelle picked the sensitive topic of police brutality and the Los Angeles riots. They wrote a program that tries to illustrate how rioters behaved, how the police behaved and how each reacted to the other.

It’s a hypnotic piece of perpetually running video. Rioters are represented by red dots traveling across the frame leaving a slowly vanishing trail of destruction behind them. Blue dots, representing the police, pop in and out, covering the rioters bit by bit. Both the red and the blue never vanish - a metaphor for one never stopping the other.

Barefielt said the project helped her see today’s racial unrest in a much broader light.

“With researching and with finding these things out I realize it is bigger than just Michael Brown, bigger than just Eric (Garner),” Barefielt said.

Bucky said her team’s artwork also shows how scared they are that more riots could happen.

“The Los Angeles riots happened because it was a reaction to police brutality,” Bucky said. “And we’re kind of scared that another instance is going to happen like this.”

For art teacher Noble, confronting fears and learning to take risks is part of what the course is about.

“They’re in high school, right, so how do you give an experience so that even if you’re not a (art) major you’re willing to take risks?” Noble said. “Some of them wanted bigger international global topics and some of them were very specific to the local, like the L.A. riots.”

Those are all questions painters and sculptors’ grapple with, Noble said. But computers are so young as an art, many wonder when the "unfamiliar landscape" of programing is the best forum.

“When do you use computer programing to make an artwork?” Noble asked. “And I think we’re still learning, because we are an experimental lab.”

The exhibition "Unfamiliar Landscape" is up and free to the public. Stop by on Thursday, Dec. 18, 5 p.m. to 8 p.m., on the third floor of High Tech High’s Media Arts Center at 2230 Truxton Road in Point Loma.

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