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The Art of Computational Tinkering with Paula Bontá

The Art of Computational Tinkering with Paula Bontá

This month, we hosted computer scientist and playful inventor Paula Bontá in the Tinkering Studio. Paula is a longtime friend of the Tinkering Studio and her work in the creative computation community runs deep. She's a tinkerer at heart who uses code as a material and encourages people to create art with code.

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During her residency, we took a deep dive into TurtleArt, an app she created that uses block-based programming to create digital art. These blocks tell the turtle to draw a line or an arc, what color to use, and where to move on the screen. As a fan of Scratch, many of these blocks felt familiar to work with but the final product felt completely different!

 

Code as a Material 

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Paula hosted a workshop for us to play with creating line drawings in TurtleArt and to cut out our designs in the material of our choosing. It was an opportunity to be expressive with code as well as the physical manifestation of our digital creation. What material best represent our geometry? We each explored generating shapes and followed our interests to see where they took us.

Paula used code cards to get us started. They contained some simple (and not so simple) illustrations that can be made in the app. At first, it seemed like creating one of the examples might be complicated enough. But once you have a piece of computer-generated art on your screen, it's easy to see the a desire to customize it and make it your own. "I want these lines to be longer" or "This part should be smaller" were common utterances as we worked on iPads and laptops.

The real fun came when we chose what material and machine to use to bring our creations to life.  The possibilities felt truly endless.

  • Laser cut pieces of plexiglass, wood, and cardboard (Luigi and Steph made cool new pieces for Light Play). 
  • Stitched designs using a computerized sewing and embroidery machine (Ahra messed around with the cool new toy).
  • Polaroid photographs of creations (Sebastian was exciting by this form of documentation).
  • Vinyl stickers created on a vinyl cutter (That was my jam).

 

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I took the opportunity to explore one of my favorite machines in the Learning Studio: the vinyl cutter. I made a piece that explored the arch tool in TurtleArt. I enjoyed the complexity and simplicity of the design. It wasn't until I cut it out and removed the negative space from my vinyl sticker that I saw the piece in an entirely different light. There were so many tiny pieces that needed to be removed! It easily took me at least half an hour to remove each individual strip of vinyl, a process I found quite medative. The process of preparing my vinyl sticker afforded me the opportunity to slow down and closely study my design. When I was manipulating my design in my hands, it felt much more personal and a part of me. It was my design that I chose to share with the world and looks quite nice as a decal on my computer.
 

The Tinkerability of Block vs Text-Based Programming Languages

The conversation arose around the affordances of TurtleArt versus more open-ended, high-ceiling technologies like Processing, a text-based programming language. While Paula was in residence, Ryoko was attending a professional development workshop on Creative Coding with the Wonderful Idea Company and friends that introduced Processing as a creative computation tool. Image similar images to what we created in TurtleArt can be made in Processing, and the threshold to code in text-based language is much higher. And yet, the depth and breadth of possibilities available in Processing are arguably more vast. So which language do you choose?

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The short answer is whichever one you want! Tinkering is available in both languages. Block-based languages give you a carefully curated selection of commands to choose from, whereas text-based languages do not have the same type of constraints. Both technologies are be capable of producing identical images, does one cause more headaches for you when troubleshooting challenges? You are in command of the tool, not the other way around. Understand what you want to create and how the tools available can either make that process easier or more difficult. For me, I feel the most creative confidence in block-based languages because of my exposure through my work at the Tinkering Studio. However, my experience with text-based languages from contexts outside of the Exploratorium has me itching to get my hands on Processing to see firsthand the depth the software has to offer.
 

The Art of Computational Tinkering

 

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The two weeks that Paula spent with us inspired me to see myself as a creative coder and to see code as a tinkerable, aesthetically-driven material. With TurtleArt, the code felt like an extension of the art piece, not solely a mechanism that created the design. And while it was nice to create both physical and digital art from code, the art of thinking computationally felt especially impactful in this activity. These creations are both rich with technology and aesthetics and I'm excited to continue exploring TurtleArt as a place to create images and think computationally. 

Over the summer, we will continue our computational tinkering explorations into TurtleArt. One exciting new tool in the Learning Studio is the Glowforge. We learned during Paula's residency that it's possible to cut designs on this laser cutter by scanning the design directly from the iPad used to create it! I'm looking forward to playing more with the physical outputs of these computational creations as well as tinkering with the designs themselves.


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This work was supported by a grant from Science Sandbox, an initiative of the Simons Foundation