What I appreciate most about being an artist is the community. While some might imagine the lone artist toiling in their studio, what I have experienced is artists coming together on the internet and in-person, sharing ideas and questions, and finding ways to work together. One way this happens is through the creation, modification, and sharing of tools for artmaking.
However, working with proprietary software can make this nearly impossible. It can be difficult to use it in any way other than its intended functionality, allowing companies to put limits on what is possible. Open source tools provide an alternative by making their source code freely available, allowing for modification and redistribution. Artists have embraced this concept, making or adapting software tools for themselves and sharing them with others.
After years of creating artwork with these tools myself, I wanted to get closer to the communities behind them, and give something back.
First, I tried to join developer mailing lists to figure out how I could help. The responses were uninspiring: “it’s too complicated to explain”, “it’s too hard”, or “why don’t you answer some questions on the forums”. If I was going to be a part of their community I would have to elbow my way in, and that’s not really my style. Especially not in a situation where I already felt like an outsider.
I shared this experience with one of my mentors, Casey Reas. He, along with Ben Fry, created Processing, a platform for learning how to code within the context of visual arts. Processing makes working with code as intuitive as sketching in a notebook. With one line of code an circle shows up on the screen, with another it changes color.
I told Casey about my failed forays into open source. How I wished there was something I could do about the lack of diversity in these communities. I didn’t feel like I could be an activist or an advocate. I didn’t have a big plan. What he helped me realize was that I didn’t necessarily need a whole plan, but if an opportunity arose, perhaps I could just embrace it and see where it led.
Soon after that conversation, I got that opportunity: the Processing Foundation (Casey, Ben, and Daniel Shiffman) invited me to be a Processing Fellow. My task was to spend a few months doing experimental research reimagining the Processing platform for the web.
This was it, I had an in! I was contributing to open source software! I was excited and quickly spent the next three months… doing absolutely nothing. The truth was, I was scared. Despite having a CS degree from MIT, I had never worked on something like this. I didn’t know where to begin. But just when I was ready to give up, the same idea came back to me: just do something, you don’t need a whole plan. Each week I took a little step, sharing my work with the team along the way, and the project began to grow into p5.js.
As the project grew, so did the team. I realized what I wanted more than anything was for everyone to have the feeling I did when I was given a chance. I wanted to help people feel like they didn’t have to elbow their way in, but that it’s enough to have curiosity and a willingness to learn. What would it look like to have inclusivity and access be a core value from which all decisions flow, rather than an afterthought tacked on after a platform is built? Could we challenge our assumptions about what was reasonable or normal, and be open to different perspectives?
There are so many people I’ve worked with along the way that have pushed me, and pushed this idea, further than I could have ever conceived. Johanna Hedva, the Director of Initiatives of the Processing Foundation, helped shape our first contributor’s conference. Framing the event with group discussions about community and diversity, we were able to set the tone for a different kind of space. Everyone was expected to be willing to stop and help someone else out whenever it was needed; no question was too silly or too small. The spirit of that conference was carried far beyond that week. Claire Kearney-Volpe asked how our visual programming platform could work best for the seeing impaired and now she is heading up groundbreaking research into audio feedback for code editing. A number of collaborators are creating targeted educational resources and workshops to provide access to groups that might not have it otherwise. Taeyoon Choi has been teaching workshops to North Korean dissenters and deaf programmers, while Aarón Montoya-Moraga is translating the project to Spanish.
These are just a few of the many people that have inspired me and who have pushed the project forward through collaboration. At times I’ve felt doubtful, worrying that we don’t know enough, that we’ll make mistakes. But they have taught me to trust and to listen. If you are able to do this, you won’t be stuck or frustrated when your first attempt fails, but you can keep asking questions and iterating until you find the design that works.
If you are interested in getting involved in these projects, we currently have an open call for Processing Fellows. We are open to applicants from all backgrounds and skill levels. We place emphasis on proposals that demonstrate enthusiasm, innovation, and the evolution of your practice rather than your pre-existing technical skills.
Lauren McCarthy is an artist based in Los Angeles whose work explores social and technological systems for being a person and interacting with other people. She is the creator of p5.js, a platform for learning how to code on the web within the context of the visual arts. She is an Assistant Professor at UCLA Design Media Arts, and her web-based works, performances, videos, and installations have been exhibited internationally.