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Taeyoon Choi: Strategies for Embracing Our Contradictions

About this talk

Taeyoon Choi, an artist and co-founder of the School for Poetic Computation, is well-practiced at finding beauty in the chaos, and unafraid to dig into the complicated ways we connect and learn from each other. In this nuanced talk, illustrated with excerpts from his journal, he discusses the concept of unlearning, nurturing relationships that allow room for disagreement, and making space to be your whole self (contradictions and all).

This talk was recorded remotely on May 24, 2020.

Taeyoon Choi, Artist & Co-founder, School for Poetic Computation

Taeyoon Choi is an artist, educator, and activist based in New York and Seoul. Taeyoon teaches at New York University’s ITP program and co-founded the School for Poetic Computation, where he continues to organize sessions and teach classes on electronics, drawings, and social practice. Recently, he’s been focusing on unlearning the wall of disability and normalcy, and enhancing accessibility and inclusion within art and technology.

Full Transcript

Thanks for taking this opportunity to listen to my talk over distance. My name is Taeyoon Choi, I’m an artist, teacher and an organizer. I’m a co-founder of the School for Poetic Computation in New York City. Currently I’m in Seoul, South Korea, in my family home. I’m super thankful for this opportunity to connect with you despite the distance. I wanna take this opportunity, to talk about the concept of unlearning. Let’s say learning is about creating fractures in the world, it’s about breaking knowledge into small bits, understanding in our own ways. It’s about breaking down a really large and complex topic into something that we can learn in our own ways.

On the other hand, unlearning is about reconciling. There’s a word in Korean that I quite like called “hwahae”. It means to reconcile, to heal the broken relationship and to mend the broken pieces. I wanna take this opportunity to think about learning and unlearning and creating new habits. And these are notes that I wrote in the past six months in Hong Kong, New York, Seoul, and other places that I traveled. And this is a letter to my friends, my students, and my collaborators. The School for Poetic Computation was founded to explore the poetic and artistic possibilities of computation.

By computation we mean code electronics, but also critical theory, the poetry, and the aesthetics. To get to the point of the poetic computation, let’s start from the world of zeros and ones, the binary division of the world, the numerables and innumerables, the computables and uncomputables. For me, computers are first a medium. It’s a thing that exists in a real world that do things for us.

But second, it’s also a space for creative exploration, it’s this unknown space that we can find poetry, that we can find beauty, and we can challenge what we know as the world. This is an image of a handmade computer, a series of project that I started in 2013, in order to teach the foundation of computing. It’s a very low-level computer made out of transistors and logic gates. These are the fundamental building blocks of computation today. What is computer anyway? I like to answer that question by saying it’s three things essentially. First, it’s an abacus. It’s a tool that we can use to calculate.

Second, it’s a notepad. It’s a tool that we can keep memory over a long time. And last and most importantly, it’s a clock, it keeps track of time. When we have these three elements, we can have computation. Underneath the surface of every computing device that we use such as the laptops, smartphones, and et cetera, there’s essentially an abstract machine. It’s a machine that takes repetition and abstraction and then create a system which we can automate.

Here’s a drawing of a 8-Bit random access memory that I drew. I don’t have a technical experience as an engineer, like I come from the arts, so for me, the whole journey of learning to compute, was about discovering the beauty and the systems and abstraction through drawing, through writing, and through making the computers myself. Let’s scale back from our computers into the larger world for a minute. If we look at computers, there is the solid layer. The solid layer is the physics, it’s the rocks that are tricked into thinking. It’s the physical layers of transistors, that are operating in a certain way according to how electricity flows.

With that, we can create logic gates, which are the symbolic modules to create computers. With logic gates, we create a microarchitecture, which is the foundation to have assembly and a machine code and other types of more sophisticated languages that run underneath the operating system that we use today. Most of the time, we use computers and an application layer, which are the different various operating systems, spreadsheets, word documents, photo editing software, those are all applications built on top of these rocks.

If we scale back even more, there’s the network layer, the more invisible layer of clouds and stars. From a poetic computation standpoint, I like to think of these as just four simple layers, the fundamental layer of a thing and a not a thing. That’s the existential layer, of existing and not existing, of being and not being, zeros and one. On top of that, there’s a something layer, which are the infrastructures of computing. On top of that, there’s everything layer, which we use to communicate with everybody else around the world. The top layers, really fascinating, the nothing layer, the layer that seems invisible, but it’s still very present in our ways of communication.

I teach poetic computation with wonderful teachers at the School for Poetic Computation in West Village, in New York. Here’s an image of the Fall 2018 cohort. The students come from around the world, some of them are computer scientists, some of them are artists, some of them are journalists. And we don’t give degrees, we give experience for students to learn on their own. And it’s been fascinating and very rewarding, to be part of this community just because my relationship with technology has changed, by teaching and being part of the community. I’m very inspired by our teachers and alumnus, such as BUFU, they stand for, BY US FOR US, it’s a really unique collective that you all should check out. They’ve been organizing workshops and teaching at the School for Poetic Computation.

Here is an image of the BUFU members and some of their students, just really having a good time and approaching technology in a way that is not strictly technical, it’s much more cultural, it’s political, it’s artistic. With all of that, with the foundational understanding of code, I think we can have poetic computation. So, I promise to share some notes from my travels for my students and my friends. The second note, is about innovation. In the world as we know, there’s a big emphasis on innovation.

For example, when things don’t work, we try to find a solution to make it better and then we just repeat that process, until we have something new. There’s this notion of improvement and optimization. Innovation and progression, both ideas are fundamentally built on the premise of linear movement of perpetual growth. In reality, the ways that technology and culture evolve are often recursive and circular. For the recursion of a technical culture, notice the propagation of techniques from one field to another, methodologies of reflection between criticality and ingenuity. For the circularity of technology and culture, notice the uselessness. Entropy measures the uselessness of a certain amount of energy, perhaps it’s the uselessness that we need to focus on. I say this with a connection to poetics, because oftentimes, people say that poetry is useless, but first, I disagree, and second, I think there’s an incredible power in the uselessness of poetry, this refusal to be utilitarian.

The third note, strategies for embracing our contradiction. We’re made of contradictions. I’m a pacifist and a militant, I’m progressive and traditional, I’m an abolitionist, but also a reformist, I’m an anti-capitalist, but also a pragmatist. I’m both a pessimistic realist and a radical optimist. I struggled to reconcile these opposing tendencies in myself. You may also have two or more contradictions in yourself. The contradictions could be heartbreaking at times, in the new normal times, especially after the COVID-19, became the new normal. We have to be flexible, we have to be modular, we have to respond very quickly to the changing world. And that’s very hard, we are asked to be discarded and replaced at whim’s notice.

The strategies for transformation entails, noticing our plasticity. That word means, to give and receive form. It comes from the neural synaptic plasticity, and I take that as a metaphorical tool as well. Plasticity embraces contradiction. It doesn’t just break away, it allows the contradictions to give shape to our inner selves. We may adapt to the changing world, with this plastic approach for survival. Let’s thrive in our excellence, love generously, and build a better habitat for ourselves and others, including animal and the nature. We feel our self-worth, when we are seen from all sides.

When our contradictions are embraced as a whole being, I notice your inner beauty, your grace, your smile, your ethics, and your optimism. Your inner beauty and your strength manifest as your gentleness, your curiosity and your smile. Spend time with those who appreciate your contradictions, who challenge your beliefs, but acknowledge that you are your own person. Notice how you grow in their presence, notice how time slows down, when you’re with them.

Radical optimism does not aim for survival. Its goal is to create new systems of living and being, and loving. It engages with the world as we know, it breaks down that world into the small pieces, takes out the unethical, the exploitive parts, and then give us a chance to reconstruct them, almost like reconciling a broken relationship. And more than ever, I think it’s really important to think about radical optimism, because the world is very oppressive and there’s a lot of disappointment going around these days.

So, I highly recommend to think of yourself as a radical optimist. Is it possible to love someone whose views of the world, are fundamentally different from yours? Our strength won’t come from naming of the enemy, but from the effort made to enter one another’s geography. This is from a book called “To Our Friends” by Invisible Committee, published in 2014. Love requires challenging each other, believing in transformation and commitment. The fourth note for you, is about intellectual kinship that becomes creative kinship. Some relationships are bound by common ideas, shared passion for knowledge, and independent but interconnected obsession with the craft.

I was listening to a radio conversation by Ta-Nehisi Coates and Neil Drumming, recorded in 2015, they spoke about the intellectual kinship that they have. And I’m inspired to think that you and I, share this journey of seeking for truth, and the burden which we commit to, for the craft and our work. Our relationships, our signs of our commitment to each other and our practice, creative inquiries and critical examinations are like crossing a wild ocean on a tiny boat, and we don’t know where we’re going, until we find each other to navigate the ocean together. So that journey is creative practice. The map that we create together is the foundational text, which we share with each other, that becomes curriculum, that becomes inspiring artwork, that becomes reference for each other.

In my journey as a artist, teacher, and organizer, I often meet these wonderful people who I find as creative kins. They inspire me, and they’re so generous, and I’m eternally thankful for them. What’s the difference between a creative kinship and intellectual kinship? I think it’s very similar, except there’s a sense of intuition in the creative kinship that’s different from academic kinship. What kind of intellectual and creative kins that do you want? What are their characters? And how their work inform yours? And how would you find them? I recommend reading, writing, sharing your practice, being open about your challenges and sharing your growth together.

This kind of intellectual and creative kinship, is the foundation for your creative growth. And I recommend that you invest a lot of your time and energy into fostering that community of practitioners. And there’s this word called Oddkins, like odd, like strange kins. It’s a word that is coined by Donna Haraway in a book called “Staying With The Trouble.” I recommend you that book, and to think about your creative kins as oddkins. So it’s not necessarily, a kinship based on similarities, it’s the kinship based on the strangeness of the irregularities and unexpected, the connections that you can make through a creative practice.

Last note is that what is to be done? Lenin asked this question in 1902, I think we are still asking the same question. What do we need to do? As our friends, our lovers, and our community, adapt to the new normal of the world. I recommend to seek nuance. The world as we know, is super-complicated and it’s always changing its shape, and politics are never good or bad, although sometimes I question if I’m really complicit and indecisive about that. The most radical thing that you can do, is to seek nuance and to find the subtleties, in the issues that you are passionate about. The next thing is to make friends. This is obvious, but still very important. I think solidarity comes from friendship, and I think generational movement, comes from love and friendship and sense of kinship.

So, how do we make friends? Especially if you don’t agree with the person that you’re trying to become friends with. As the oddkins and creative kins, how can you co-exist, when you don’t actually agree on the fundamental beliefs? These are questions that I have, I don’t have answers. Archive the present. So, what we experience today, is soon gonna be history. I think it’s really important to think about our practice seriously, and to keep track of them, and to save them for the future. Your work may be more important than you think of it, so, take them seriously and respect your work and your friend’s work, and perhaps that becomes something that others could use in the future.

What is the role of art against the storm of prejudice and hatred? I borrowed these ideas from a book called “Poetic Justice” by Martha Nussbaum, published in 1995, where she writes, “Our society is full of refusals “to imagine one world with empathy and compassion. “Artistic imagination and excellence, is a fragile force “in a world filled with various hardness.” And I think all of you might be asking this question now too, like the world needs a lot of our help, and it seems like our creative practice has not much to do with the more significant issues of the world today. But Martha Nussbaum and many other folks, challenge us to think differently.

So human sympathies, are key for poetic justice. We need to construct new institutions and organizations, that embody the insights of compassionate imagination. Art, poetry, design, culture, education, they can be opportunities to collaboratively build our open future. And I like to consider that as a radical form of love. Poetic justice, according to Nussbaum is intimate, impartial, loving without bias, comprehending the richness and complexity of everyone’s inner world. To see the blades of grass, the equal dignity of all citizens, the erotic longings and personal liberty.

For me, poetic justice and poetic technology, is an invitation to explore futility, the uncomputables, the uselessness, the generosity, the queerness, the strangeness, the oddness of our practice, amateurity, which means to never consider ourselves as not good enough. Like oftentimes, my friends and students say like, “I’m not good at math, I’m not good at code.” And that idea, should be challenged first and foremost, like I’ve been doing this for many years, and I still feel like I’m not good at math and that’s okay.

So de-professionalize, don’t consider yourself as a non-technical person or non-creative person. It’s just your own walls that you have created, you could be all of that, if you wanted to. And diplomacy, I asked my students to consider themselves as cultural diplomats, those who carry the honor of representing, and performing the radical inclusiveness.

Coming back to the concept of justice, Martha Nussbaum wrote, that on top of literary and artistic imagination, we need technical legal knowledge, a knowledge of history, legal impartiality. This is true to other fields too. Every system, is a complex and compressed series of repetition and abstraction.

But more importantly, what distinguishes us from machines are the human sympathies, our abilities to understand each other, to be forgiving and to have the affect. So, listen to the birds, repair your old phones and fight the power as we know it, and let’s build the power as we desire it. Thank you.

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