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Contents © 2020 Golan Levin and Collaborators

Golan Levin and Collaborators

Essays and Statements

For Us, By Us

Written to introduce the Eyeo Festival 5th Anniversary Book, March 2015.

Who remembers life before the World Wide Web? Though we scarcely knew it at the time, it was a kind of Dark Age. I remember my keen wish to find other people who, like myself, were interested in combining art and technology. I wasn’t even sure what that could mean. But not only did I not know the search terms – there was no place to type them. It was, professionally speaking, a lonely time, and I wondered how I might find my weird and hybrid peers, if such a tribe even existed.

Fast-forward twenty years. I’m a professor at an American research university, where I teach what is variably known as “digital art”, “creative coding”, “new media art”, or “arts-computing”. My work is a combination of encouraging the art and design students to get comfortable in realizing their imaginations through code, while also encouraging the engineering and CS students to find a personal voice in applying their skills to self-directed experiments in culture-making.

Like many new media arts educators, I teach my students with the help of several free, open-source, cross-platform “arts-engineering toolkits” – most commonly, Processing, Arduino and openFrameworks. Over the past decade, these community-driven programming environments (and others like them) have utterly transformed how people make, and learn to make, interactive and generative systems. When I introduce these tools to my students, I always reserve a special moment to underscore that they were created for artists, by artists – in a word: for us, by us.

The revolutionary nature of this fact cannot be emphasized enough, for these tools were created to fill a need that could not and would not be met by the marketplace. They were a generous rejoinder to a world in which the designs of the predominant software development tools – created by large corporations such as Microsoft and Adobe – were either entirely unsympathetic to the needs and interests of artists, experimenters and novices, or patronizing in the idiomatic assumptions they embodied about the kinds of things that ‘creatives’ would want to do. In responding to this situation, the open-source tools were designed from the ground up with inbuilt love for the learner, the experimenter, and the media arts researcher. There’s much more to be written about our arts-engineering tools, but the key point here is that, carried by the tide of the open-source movement, and guided by a vanguard of artist-engineer hybrids, they helped bring together new communities of practitioners, educators, explorers – and, in turn, new contributors. Ten years on, these initiatives have done more than just bootstrap ‘programming literacy’; they have helped thousands of people become first-class creators in the defining medium of our time, and have indelibly shaped the character and substance of 21st century culture.

The spirit that animates these communities runs strong in the Eyeo Festival, for indeed, Eyeo is where this tribe of explorers – elsewise splintered across the globe – gathers IRL. Unsurprisingly, the vanguard creators and spiritus rectors of these environments (Casey Reas, Ben Fry, Lauren McCarthy, Zach Lieberman, and Theo Watson, to name a few) figure significantly in the Eyeo pantheon, and in these pages.

There are many other venerable festivals for new media art: Ars Electronica, Transmediale, EMAF, FILE, DEAF, Tokyo DAF, and more. These festivals do an excellent job of staging the installations, performances and other spectacles that we work so hard to create – more often than not, under the remit of educating (or entertaining) a broad general public through ‘cutting edge’ media. But Eyeo? The Eyeo Festival is ours: truly for us, by us. I hope you will value it as much as I do – as the place where we (finally!) find and connect with our peers – and be moved to contribute back to it through your efforts, whatever they may be.