Muse in the Machine
Michelangelo summoned angels with a simple paintbrush, and Leonard Bernstein catalyzed star-crossed love with a composer’s pen and conductor’s baton. But today, the creation of groundbreaking art often involves tools that were unimaginable even a few decades ago. Instead of wood and horsehair or pen and ink, many modern artistic implements are as microscopic as they are mighty—copper and silicon, ones and zeros.
Ben Fry is co-founder of the Processing Foundation, an organization dedicated to making digital art creation accessible to experienced computer coders and technological newbies alike. A Massachusetts Institute of Technology graduate who has crafted award-winning works of visual art using computer programming, Fry began the foundation in 2012 with fellow programmer and digital artist Casey Reas.
The technological core of the foundation is a computer programming language and integrated development environment simply called “Processing,” which Reas and Fry first built in 2001. Unlike other programming languages, Processing is designed to help artists turn their ideas and inspirations into actual images on the screen, while teaching the fundamentals of computer programming at the same time.
“We want the process of writing computer code to feel as easy and natural as sketching something in a notebook, rather than having to learn a complicated language and obscure symbols,” said Los Angeles artist Lauren McCarthy, who joined the foundation in 2015 and serves on its board of directors. “All of our tools are designed with that sketchbook metaphor in mind.”
In practice, this means that artists experimenting with Processing-fueled tools can create images, animations, games, websites, and more, while seeing the related code—the digital DNA on which their creations are built—front and center, on the very same screen.
“We put the code in the foreground in the hope that, yes, you can make whatever you want, but along the way, you’re also learning how to code,” said McCarthy. “That’s a skill that you can then take to a job, to another programming language, or to create completely new kinds of art.”
The success of this approach speaks for itself, with a vibrant and expanding community surrounding the foundation, and hundreds of thousands of coders and artists using the language worldwide.
The inspiration for Processing, as both a language and a foundation, began nearly two decades ago when Fry and Reas became frustrated at seeing talented, aspiring coders repeatedly drop out of computer science. The reason? An unfriendly “eat your vegetables” approach to teaching the subject, Fry described, as well as an elitist flavor of “priesthood” when it came to who could code and who could not. “That’s not a very interesting place to be,” he said. “When it came to getting involved in computer science, we wanted to significantly lower the barrier to entry.”
As a result, he and Reas tapped their own programming skills, and Processing was born. “Usually when people take a class in computer science, they’re first made to learn a lot about concepts and structure, not necessarily building things right away,” Fry said. “We think that’s backwards. We try to focus on helping people create things first, and find their way to those more advanced ideas when they’re ready.”
The Processing Foundation helps to actualize those goals not just through custom tools offered online, but through a robust fellowship program as well. Supported by the National Endowment for the Arts, Processing Foundation Fellowships support artists, coders, and anyone else interested in taking Processing-themed technology—and the foundation’s inclusive vision—in new directions.
One successful fellowship provided coding education opportunities to prison inmates in Washington state, while another funded the development of audio capabilities for Processing-related software, making it much more usable for people with impaired vision. McCarthy also describes a fellowship, given in 2017, that supported an organization for Latina girls in Los Angeles called DIY Girls; the foundation’s support helped DIY Girls develop new coding-related curriculum projects, offering free, creative, multilingual learning materials online for all who were interested in them. The list of inspiring projects—all centered around spreading the tools and knowledge to program software and make art—goes on.
For those unfamiliar with the worlds of coding and digital art, it may be easy to question the importance of learning to forge and manipulate software. Yet with computers becoming an increasingly ubiquitous part of our world—for artists, computer scientists, and laypeople alike—Fry sees learning to code as key to gaining vital perspective on our current way of life.
“Frankly, part of the reason that computers can be so dreadful is because decisions for how they work are being made by people who are comfortable in that realm,” he said. “I hope that we’ll bring more people into coding who want to blow all of that up, because they have a different perspective on the way things should work, but need enough coding background to help express it.”
Fry also encourages people to think of the broader importance of coding in terms of Processing’s core metaphor: analog, pencil-and-paper sketching.
“Why do you take a drawing class?” he said. “Is it because you’re going to do illustration the rest of your life? Probably not. But you do train your eye to see things differently, to understand composition on a page, how light hits objects, and how color works, which opens an entirely new perspective. It’s the same with music classes. A tiny number of people will be professional musicians, but it’s all about expanding a different part of the world to you.”
Despite its worldwide user base and inspiring mission, funding has been a challenge for the foundation. “We’ve grown steadily and organically and, as a result, we went from being unknown to being something that was just ‘there’ and taken as a given,” Fry said. Many funding organizations are uninterested in supporting what they see as ongoing “maintenance” work, he continued, even though such support is particularly vital to the foundation’s success.
Fortunately, the National Endowment for the Arts’ support has the potential to transform the situation, Fry believes. He sees the grant as not just helping to keep the proverbial hard drives spinning, but serving as “a green light to other funding organizations to be willing to sign on.”
The Processing Foundation’s leaders hope to see its efforts broaden in the future, particularly in ways typified by the fellowship program, “where we bring in a wide range of people and projects to help us stretch into all sorts of new areas,” Fry said. “The point of the project has never been the Processing language or syntax itself. That’s just a means to an end.”
Michael Gallant is a composer, musician, and writer living in New York City. He is the founder and CEO of Gallant Music.