What to Read Next

What Does 'Poetic Computation' Look Like? Here are Six Cool Answers

Rob Walker
Tech Columnist
June 13, 2014

While it may not seem like a natural pairing, technology and the arts mingle in museums and galleries and even universities these days. The latest forum for experiments in mushing the disciplines together doesn’t quite fit any of those categories — but a year in, the School for Poetic Computation has already spawned an array of impressive work.

Based in New York’s Lower East side, the school is itself something of an experimental take on the term “school” — it offers no degree, college affiliation, or even training that’s likely to port neatly to the job market. “The goal,” its mission statement explains, “is to promote completely strange, whimsical, and beautiful work.”

More practically, co-founder Taeyoon Choi explains the idea is to explore “code and hardware as an artistic medium.” Doing so in the form of a school run by artists, outside traditional academic structures, is part of the point. 

Choi and co-founder Zachary Lieberman met through New York’s Eyebeam Art & Technology Center (both are former fellows), “and the experience of being [in an] environment dedicated for open-source art and technology definitely inspired making of the school,” he says.

Courses have ranged from “The Poetics of Circuitry” to “Computer Vision and Image Process,” and mix practical mastery of the latest hackable hardware to more poetic concerns, all taught by an impressive crew of instructors and guest lecturers. Currently funded by way of student tuition, the school is actively seeking sponsors and donors as it works toward nonprofit status.

The first program lasted 10 weeks, in the fall of 2013, and a second, intensified, two-week version concluded late this spring. Dozens participated, including students from Chile, Australia, Japan, and elsewhere. Here are some highlights of student projects from the school’s first year — from the charming to the chilling.

1. The True Emotion Indicator

Jessica Wolpert created the True Emotion Indicator. An arduino-controlled, spinning wearable, it allows the user “to indicate their true emotions during a social interaction,” by way of handheld buttons — thus foiling less reliable “socially-conditioned facial expressions.” It’s an interesting comment on use technology to route around human behavior that often (involuntarily) hides the truth.

2. An Air-Pollution Sensor for Your Face

Paul Chang’s Haze project involves strapping a hilariously huge proboscis to your face — but its improbable function is quite serious: It measures air quality, and lights up to indicate heavy pollution. “A wearable air quality detector,” he suggests, “a strong appeal for people to pay attention to issues of air pollution, a very serious issue facing China today.”

3. Who Gives Better Hugs: Robots or Humans?

Rachel Uwa presented Human Vs. Robot: A Hug Voting Booth. Procuring a “hugging robot” (that cute stripey thing at left in the image above) from the Brooklyn Robot Foundry, she held a simple contest. A subject would receive a robot hug, and then a hug from Uwa herself. “Then people voted on which they preferred,” she writes. “‘Human’ won with 90% of the vote— a pleasant surprise considering I myself might have voted ‘Robot’. “

4. The Insecurity Camera


Andy Clymer writes that his “Insecurity Camera” is “just as uncomfortable with you looking at it, as you probably are of it looking at you.” Tricked with code and hardware that detects motion in its intended field of view, it operates normally when there’s no one around. “But as soon as the camera sees movement it’s startled awake,” Clymer continues, “and a signal is sent to an Arduino microcontroller,” which causes the camera to look away.

(As he notes, Ben Chang, Silvia Ruzanka and Dmitry Strakovsky, also created an (In)Security Camera, which functions somewhat differently, some years ago; I mentioned that in my recent list of art and design projects that will change the way you view security cameras.)

5. Re-Imaging Drone Strikes

One of the more chilling projects, Humming, was created by Shobun Baile. Drawing on available data about the location of U.S. drone strikes collected and distributed by dronestre.am/, it “pulls random images uploaded to Flickr” from those very locations.

The documentation video is punctuated by the ominous, rising sound of a military drone “pulled from a random YouTube video in Yemen.” Baile’s effort was partly inspired by the 2012 Living Under Drones report from the International Human Rights and Conflict Resolution Clinic of Stanford Law School and the Global Justice Clinic of the NYU School of Law, which notes “the mental health issues caused by the sounds of drones regularly flying over head.”)

6. An Interactive, International Seesaw

Hiroaki Yamane, meanwhile, built a curious object: a little see-saw-style toy that rolls a ball back and forth. The catch: Its movement is controlled by the phone-tilting of multiple users, even from a distance. Yamane calls the result an attempt to recapture a more genuine version of “sharing” through technology.

Think you can do better? Applications open again later this month for the fall term: Follow the school on Twitter, or subscribe the mailing list on its home page for details.

Write to me at rwalkeryn@yahoo.com or find me on Twitter, @notrobwalkerRSS lover? Paste this URL into your reader of choice: https://www.yahoo.com/tech/author/rob-walker/rss.