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Kelli Anderson: Materials for Computer People

About this workshop

Designer and paper engineer Kelli Anderson creates incredible things from analog materials: planetariums, cameras, and speakers. In this workshop, Kelli walks us through the computational thinking of artists including Sol LeWitt, George Perec, and Marjan Teeuwen, and introduces us to analog computing through exercises that engage our observation and reverse engineering skills.

Kelli Anderson, Artist & Paper Engineer

Kelli Anderson is a designer and paper engineer who pushes the materials of graphic design to their interactive extreme. Kelli is best known for her design, animation, and illustration work for NPR, The New Yorker, Wired, MoMA, the Exploratorium, and The New York Times, as well as her redesign of New York brands such as Russ & Daughters and Momofuku. Her experimental and interactive pop-up books (This Book is a Camera, which transforms into a pinhole camera, and This Book is a Planetarium, which houses a tiny planetarium and other contraptions) have been called “A marvel of paper engineering and imagination” by The New York Times.

She teaches at the School for Poetic Computation and the New School in New York City.

Additional materials for this talk:

Cross Modalities worksheet

Inputs and Outputs template

Rules template

Perpetual Calendar template

Paper Calculator template

Full Transcript

My name is Kelli Anderson, I’m an artist and designer and I make animations from physical materials, like risograph prints. And then also from paper. I also make these program pop-up books that are about paper and tech. So, this for example is a book that I made called, “This Book Is a Planetarium.” that has all kinds of different paper tech experiments in it. Most relevant to this discussion are these program paper cards.

So, this was my New Year’s card this year and what it is is a paper magician. So, you pick a color, you turn the wheel and it reveals your selection to you. Another one is this volvelle which advises on whether to take a job or not. So, there are four different physical inputs that you turn and answer question about the job under consideration. It gives you a color, kind of like a mood ring which you flip over to the back and find your color and then you can trace it out to the different situations that will apply to you if you have that job.

So, this workshop is called Materials For Computer People and it’s all about crafting material logic. In addition to the information and examples I’m providing in this workshop, I’ve also made these different activities which you can download as PDFs. You can either pause the video and do these activities as they come up or you can go ahead and do them all at the end. Whatever works for you is great. So, the first activity that I want to do to set up the idea behind this workshop is for you to build a simple volvelle.

So, this is a little paper mechanism that will generate calendars for you for the next 50 years. It’s two layers and it’s a really good introduction to how these paper calculators work. This was inspired by a trip to the bagel production factory. This factory is shaped essentially to produce this specific thing. So, it takes all of these inputs of flour and water and rolls this dough into these bagel shapes. So, it’s this process of conversion of raw materials that your eyes can follow.

The logic is, no pun intended, baked into the shape of the equipment. So, this is how everything used to be made. Everything used to be mechanical. All logic used to be physical. But what if you end up in a situation where you wanted tiny bagels or square bagels? You’d have to rebuild the entire machine. So, this becomes a very big, very practical problem when your machine is producing things where you’d naturally want that kind of variety. For example, a jacquard ribbon. So, computers and the way we think about logic and computation today comes from this problem of jacquard ribbons. Because producing those patterns and ribbons requires a lot more sort of physical infrastructure around it. They’re very complex machines than you’d need to produce a bagel.

So, this is a jacquard loom and it essentially uses these punched cards. They’re binary that specified a pattern on every single row and column of these jacquard ribbons. If you wanted to change the output or the pattern, like say you want a different kind of flower pattern on your ribbon, all you would have to do was change how these cards were punched.

So, this brings us to this… Really, like the whole thrust of computing history is one of like designating it and separating the material realm from the programming realm from the logic. It’s not that materials like ribbons or bagels don’t have their own inherent logic, but it was a way of getting these machines to be more powerful, so they could do different things, run different programs, make different ribbon patterns essentially. So, this begs the question of why think about materials at all? Why think about analog stuff at all when we’re living in the 21st century and we have one, like we have made computers that can do almost anything now.

So, I thought about it and there’s basically four reasons, that I think are instructive in making work that’s really interesting at this moment in time when we are still thinking about analog things in a digital world.

The first reason is really that humans don’t think like computers. This, for example is what computer parsable numbers look like. This is what computers want, they want an Excel spreadsheet, they want a CSV, they want a whole bunch of numbers. But, when we look at it, it’s really hard to tell what’s going on with those numbers. It’s really hard to discern any patterns. But as soon as we take those same numbers, and we put in an XY coordinate, and we start putting them on a map, we start to be able to understand what’s going on.

Bret Victor has this really great essay where he writes about how to scatterplot graph which is like a very basic type of data visualization, empowered humans to use numbers in a way they hadn’t before and is essentially like one of the most important inventions of the last century because it makes the relationships between those numbers spatial, so we can automatically fall back on this human superpower honed by thousands of years of evolution of navigating the world spatially. We can see where the outliers are, what the highest number is, what the lowest number is. Like all of those little patterns.

So, the answer really to like why make logic physical is because we are physical. We intellectually think about the world through our bodies and through touch much more than is acknowledged. The nervous system, for example, doesn’t end with the brain at all alone, it extends all the way to the skin. So, all information, not just like the super touchy feely stuff, even technical information flows in through our senses, everything we know as human beings is an event on the skin. So, we are just hard wired to have this very deep, very rich intellectual and philosophical life through our tangible exchanges with the physical.

Quite frankly, most real things in the real world that we really live in aren’t data in numbers anyway. There are a lot of things that are complicated that are physical. You can explore them only by tinkering. This for example is a mobius strip which you can make by taking a strip of paper, twisting it once, taping the ends together and you’ll notice if you draw a line down it, that that line ends in the same place that it began.

So, this is something that defies our idea of like how reality works and yet you can make it very easily. It’s something that you can understand in paper, but is really tricky to try to understand on paper. So, this is the Wikipedia article explaining how a mobius strip works. It’s just much more accessible, if we tinker with it, if we make it physical, if we can apply that super power of like human physical intuition to that problem. So, I want to pause and take you to our second activity. So, for activity two, it’s a jump in magnitude and complexity for these paper calculators. So, this one has four different wheels. If you download the PDF, there is an explanation printed on each page of what each wheel does.

But the best way to understand it is to print it out and then start coloring in those little blank spaces where the dia cuts are and you can see what each wheel does, how each wheel eliminates and reduces options from the whole possibility set that you’re presenting and allows a user to hone in on a specific answer. Okay.

So, reason number two that we’re thinking about this is simply that physical things are really interesting. So, when physical things fail, they tell us something about how the world works. I want to just show you this example photograph with this woman with this really warped head and point out that this is not done in Photoshop, it’s not done with digital technology, it’s done by shaping the morphology of a pinhole camera, which is just like a really simple handmade camera, basically, the film bed is angled so that it really emphasizes people’s foreheads.

So, there are ways to do this digitally, but if you do it physically, you’re able to interact with all of the laws of physics, all the ways that light works, which is pretty interesting. This is from a book by Peter Olpe called “Out Of Focus” and in this book, he creates hundreds of different pinhole cameras for other artists based on their specifications of what artistic output they want. So, he has a lot of things that look like this where the film is being subjected to these almost like glitch-like compositions where there are all these super ornate holes where the light is projecting through and it’s really fun to look at this and like wonder about what photograph it’s going to make and the answer is it makes photographs that look like this.

So, we are humans in this moment who are straddling this time period where we are one foot into the analog world, one foot into the digital world and can we have fun with that? So, this is a work by Marjan Teeuwen and it’s based on this digital concept of being able to draw a black square in the middle of a white composition, but if you look closer, you can see that it’s actually made from physical things. So, she is taking something that would be very easy, very simple to do in the digital space and rendering it in physical reality.

This is another piece that I saw at the Armory Show which looks so much like you just pasted in a new layer into Photoshop and it cuts away reality on either side. But, if you look a little bit closer, you’ll see that it’s actually a physical construction. So, she built this scene in her bathroom and cut through the toilet paper roll and cut through the towel in order to create the illusion of Photoshop in real space. So, this is a way to play with this space that we’re in and I provided a work sheet to help you think through making an art project.

Activity three is a work sheet. So, this is more of a thinking activity. What I want you to think about here is how to cross modalities. Make a list of what you feel is a digital experience and then list what you feel is resolutely analog and physical. And then think about a way to cross those two. So, right here I’m showing you sort of like a pixelated RGB display that I printed out and turned into a physical thing that I can play with.

So, reason three that this is interesting and will help us make better art, when we’re talking about digital and analog translation, going back and forth between the digital world and the analog world, we’re able to tinker with exactly how we pay attention. This is a book by Damon Krukowski and it’s called “The New Analog” and it’s all about what we’ve lost in the translation from going from music being mostly physical, going to record stores, having records, into this new realm where we’re all in Spotify. What he points out is that any time we translate from the physical world into digital space, we are having to make like active decisions about what is signal and what is noise, what are we keeping and what are we not keeping?

So, for example with Spotify or all these other services, it’s really easy to find the music that you’re looking for, search is great, works way better than the record store. Access is great. You can get any music you want, but the things that we’ve lost were things that people who were involved in the transition didn’t necessarily prioritize. For example, that serendipity, that we didn’t really talk about of walking into your favorite record store and just some album art you love catching your eye and being able to connect with that. The background noise of more analog recording processes where we can hear The Beatles like talking to each other between sets.

So, being able to control your attention and to reassess what you consider signal and what you consider noise is a way to have like a really unique point of view as an artist. So, I want to give you an activity that will prompt you to consider what you’re paying attention to, in the style of Jenny Odell, in the style of Rob Walker, this is George Perec and he wrote this in October of 1974. He sat himself down at a Paris cafe and made the choice to not pay attention to anything that wanted his attention, so he didn’t think about the loud noises, he didn’t think about the big buildings, he didn’t think about anything that was specifically an event but he changed his perception so he was paying attention to all of the minute details of life, the small events, buses coming, people walking on the sidewalk. He paid such close attention to it that he transcribed everything that happened and he started turning it into numbers.

So, it’s interesting to think about what the fabric of life actually is. Like, what are the increments of your day? How can we change our relationship to time and our surroundings by paying attention differently? George Perec is actually like the basis of a lot of data visualization classes because it shows how you can be sitting at a cafe and then turn it into numbers. So, that’s part of the translation into digital.

So, I prepared a worksheet and I want you to just find a place, find a place in the world that you find interesting, maybe your apartment right now and just list what is happening. Think about it on different scales, scales of time, physical scales, think of the tiny things that are happening, the piece of dust that might be floating through the air, and then try to quantify it, and then think about what patterns you discover with this new mode of paying attention, and how could you emphasize it? How could you turn it back into an artistic experience?

Okay. So, this is our last one, number four. Here, I want you to write a program for yourself as a strategy for conquering the intimidating blank canvas. To do that, we are going to learn from how computers work. So, there are a bunch of artists, some names you might already know who predate or simply just don’t use computers, but work in a way that’s very similar to how computers work in that they write a set of instructions for themselves and then execute it much like a computer would.

Sort of the patron saint of this idea is Sol Lewitt who did not even execute his own work, he would sell, for example, the Boston Museum a set of instructions for them to execute on the wall, saying that like the instructions set is really what’s important in art at this point in time. So, for example, this instruction set says that, on any wall surface, any continuous stretch of wall, use a hard pencil and place 50 points at random. The point should be evenly distributed over the area of the wall and all of those points should be connected with straight lines. So, it’s fun to read this and not see the art because hopefully your brain is like generating what you think this looks like. That is the resulting drawing. Another Sol LeWitt.

The first draughter has a black marker and makes an irregular horizontal line near the top of the wall. Then the second draughter tries to copy it without touching it using a red marker. The third draughter does the same using a yellow marker. The fourth draughter does the same using a blue marker. Then the second draughter followed by the third and fourth copies the last line drawn until the bottom of the wall is reached. So, are you imagining it? Can you see it? This is what it looks like.

In the Blanton Museum of Art where this piece is, actually shot this time lapse of the team that made this work happen. This highlights something that’s really interesting and like really human about following a rule set that you’re then executing with your hands, is that it seems like maybe this is like a very cold, rational way to engage with the world, but actually, look what’s happening to that line. It almost looks like some natural phenomenon of geologic strata littering in. We can see what’s human about it. We can see people’s hands getting shaky and we can see that as they go down, those aberrations and anomalies, like in the process get emphasized more and more. So, it actually has the opposite effect in a way of like really highlighting what is human in what we create. This is the finished piece. Another example of this is Karel Martens, who came up with a system for print making that uses these rules. So, Karel Martens has all of these different plates of numbers and he is mapping a specific color to each number and then laying down a grid of numbers and allowing the ink to mix together and I’m just going to let him explain it to you.

So, the last one in this category that I want to show you is by Studio Moniker and they created this series of instruction based drawings which they called conditional design which they put together in this book called The Conditional Design Work Book. What they’ve done in this book is come up with a whole bunch of multi-player games where one person is given one set of instructions and then the next player is given a different set of instructions that reacts to the first player’s lines. They’re able to create these really vast sort of sprawling, generative design compositions based on very, very simple instructions.

Another reference that you might’ve heard of is John Cage worked this way. So, he didn’t use computers, but he would create these flow charts of different programs that he would then hand off to his musicians to create the generative compositions. The Eameses also work this way. If you go to the New York Hall of Science, you will see this display. This is a flow chart showing how an answering machine works and the Eameses are showing a real life process next to it. So, you have how the alarm clock works and then you have a flow chart of the social interaction between a wife and husband and the alarm clock below.

So, you can see that John Doe is asleep in bed and then the alarm rings and then he has to make the decision about whether to consult the clock or reset the clock, then consult the calendar, get out of bed. So, it’s this whole real life process that has been outlined in terms of these computer terms. So, it’s kind of absurdist and it’s kind of fun but it’s also a really good way to work if you get stuck. Oftentimes the blank canvas is really intimidating and you kind of just need to be told to do something in order to get a line down and start reacting to it. So, that leads us to our next worksheet.

Activity five is all about looking at an existing work of art or design and understanding the rules that construct it. And then creating your own set of rules to structure a new work of art. Okay. So, this is the last one, and this is sort of like a bonus like next level one. The reason it’s interesting to think about digital and analog is because we can really make something surreal when we treat the physical world like a digital experience and we can really mess with people’s assumptions about what can be programmed and what can’t be programmed.

So, as your audience, we’re all used to being presented with things on a computer versus things in real life, and there’s a different set of expectations that accompany both of these experiences. So, this is something that I learned from the first big design project I ever worked on which was about 10 years ago. A couple of us developed this crazy project. Early one Thursday morning, we blanketed New York City with an alternate reality. One where the Iraq war was ended, Guantanamo was closed, we created a real service that criss-crossed the US, Appalachia got high speed internet and the US government gave land back to native people. We came up with all kinds of economic policies to put the country on the path to equity rather than driving people apart and we set this groundwork for this more informed future citizenry.

So, these are all just headlines, but we created this newspaper that was very carefully written as this like road map for progressive victories, that was all achieved through collective action and popular pressure. We made this little utopian simulation where everything we wanted came true and we didn’t use VR or AR, any kind of like high tech stuff, we essentially did this by hacking the authority of this familiar morning time object. So, we dissected a New York Times, we studied the style guide, if someone had uploaded and forgotten about and then we put it back together again as this pristine counterfeit depicting this utopian future that’s better than our own. We didn’t bother telling the New York Times about these improvements, we just mass produced it, we created some nice silk screened news boy aprons and then we put it in the hands of hundreds of thousands of unsuspecting commuters.

The hoax part of this worked so well because even though people knew it wasn’t real after about five seconds, they had a moment where there was really some very strong cognitive dissonance where they looked at it and they believed that we lived in this world for a second. So, this project was sort of amazing to work on as one of my first design projects because people were just so surprised by it and so smitten and it was really fun because we were concerned about getting arrested and it was just an exciting project in general. But the thing that no one talks about anymore with this project is that we also made a website.

So, we made a fake version of The New York Times website with all of the same content, and no one cared about it. Not one person cared about it. So, the physical newspaper ended up on the real news all over the world and we got people asking these big questions about what is possible, like why do we live in a democracy if we can’t have the nice things we want? It really provoked the debate we wanted. So, I was thinking about this and I think the reason we got this enormous response was that it’s just really hard to argue with something that you’re holding in your hands.

There are different assumptions about what is programmed, about what is manipulatable in digital spaces versus analog spaces. As your audience, my expectations might come to your project, whether it’s a design project or an art project, is if it’s digital, I assume that a human has programmed the space, but when it’s analog, I don’t have that same assumption. Even though as a creator, you know that you are programming it.

So, just to give you an example, these are some of my favorite programmed projects. So, this is a game called Universal Paper Clip that exists in a digital space that was made by Frank Latz who’s a game designer professor at NYU and one of my favorite physical programmed experiences is by an artist named Zardulu. Zardulu’s art is that she or he, very mysterious person, we don’t know exactly who this person is, they’re anonymous, programmed subway rats to perform different tricks, and then people catch it on camera on their smartphones and put it on the internet and blow people’s minds. So, this for example is her pizza rat piece, which she did not upload to the internet, someone else did, but it’s a really interesting thing because it just kind of messes with your world for a second.

So, with this digital experience and paper clip scheme, I’m impressed with it because of the depth of the thinking, with the way that he’s taken a very simple thought experiment and thought through like every single aspect of it. But what impresses me about Zardulu’s project, and I think what impressed people so much about the New York Times project that I worked on with The Yes Men, was that it really pulls the rug out from under reality for a second. You have to question about like what is programmable in the world and what isn’t? So, there’s a dimension of surreality, of the surreal, that’s brought to you a lot of these physically programmed things.

This is just like another example of that. This is by a Dutch artist named Johan Rijpma and he noticed that cats chase the laser light. So, he wanted to make a music video with dancing in it. So, he set up a laser sight at the top of this room and got cats to run where he wanted them to run by adding cats to the room essentially. So, basically, if you pay attention and you can figure out how things work, then it’s a really fun way to figure out how to interact with it. People believe what the newspaper says, so you can change the newspaper and get people to think differently. People believe that they’re witnessing the real unmediated behavior of rats in the subway, so, you can play around with the rats and train them to essentially do what you want.

So, just to summarize this concept, so much of material and so much of the world around us that we see is programmable somehow. All of these things have these depths of hidden complexity to them that are either observable or you can access through tinkering and testing and if you can pay attention and bear witness to these structures, which govern that complexity, you can build something that hacks into it and runs off of it. The first step in any of this is just paying attention, sort of finding the grain of how that experience works and working with it.

So, that’s what we can learn about craft and that’s what we know as artists and designers that we can bring to this new digital age, is that we can pay attention, observe how a thing works and then lean into it, learn what it can do and impose these different rules that will yield interesting results. So, I just want to do a little bit of show and tell and show you some of my favorite physical objects that have been programmed, just to give you like some inspiration and a jumping off point into your own experiences.

This is one of my favorite ones, just because it’s so beautiful. Again, this has been replaced by an app. There’s an app that you can hold up to the night sky and see where all of the stars are, but this is the paper version of this. So, this is a star explorer volvelle that you can point in your different direction, you turn the wheel to tell it what month and what day you’re in and then you can see what night sky should look like above your head and be able to identify the stars. This one is called the Triangulator and its whole aim is to make trigonometry easy. So, you have these little slide tables showing you the different relationships between the different parts of a triangle. Find the hypotenuse basically is like what the deal with this thing is. I just want to say a few quick words about programming paper, because this is something that I get asked a lot about my paper engineering work.

So, the idea with programming paper, it’s binary like the computer. Either there’s a fold there or there’s not. The way that we manipulate these programs or have them run is by applying pressure. So, I’m applying pressure left right and this amazing spinning choreography happens. That doesn’t happen when it’s not folded, right? I’m pushing this tension, it doesn’t know where to go, but as soon as I put a crease in it, now, as soon as I apply that left-right pressure, see what happens? It’s immediately directed into that crease. So, when we create these paper engineering experiences, we are playing with the material memory of paper to always remember where it was creased. We can use that material memory to create things like this flasher and then we can also use it to create more complicated things like pop-up books. We can tell the paper to slide and pop up, just by virtue of where those creases are, where the glue is and where the creases are. Those are the two things to play with.

Okay. So, one more fun programmed paper thing. So, this is a Miura-ori fold which is a really complex way to bend paper. So, this piece of paper is bent into a pattern that is considered an auxetic metamaterial. Meaning that if I pull it left, right, it springs up and down to you, which is a behavior that you don’t see in nature, but is actually very desirable from an engineering standpoint. This shape has been used in nanotech applications. So, they use it in like a tube form to put in stents in people’s veins that have collapsed. So, when it goes in, it’s really, really super small and then as they’re exiting, you could pull it from one side and it opens up and it will open up a blocked vein.

This is also floating in outer space. The Japan space flyer program has a satellite in space that’s an array of solar panels using this shape. So, each place where you see a rigid side has a solar panel on it. The advantage of that is that it uses very little energy, pulling it only in one direction to allow those solar panels to tilt and track with the sun. So, this is an amazing little low energy machine where an entire complex choreography of things happens when you pull it. The cool thing about it is that it does scale. You can make it super small and you can make it really big and it still does exactly what a piece of paper does when you’re holding it in your hand.

Okay. I hope you all feel super inspired to jump back and forth between the digital world and the analog world and have some ideas for new projects and experiments. Thank you so much for joining me on this sort of strange voyage and yeah, I look forward to seeing what you make. Thanks.

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