Thursday, April 23, 2009

Processing Time (A code jam, a party and competition!)

At Processing Time you can: Compete individually or in pairs to design and develop beautiful programs in Processing. Snack and refresh yourself. Present completed projects to other participants and visitors at the end of the day. Anyone (not just MIT students or community members) can compete, anyone can stop by to see presentations. Meet the creators of Processing, Ben Fry (in person) and Casey Reas (via video), who will give awards.

Last week, I sat down with Nick Montfort, the organizer of Processing Time as well as author, editor and professor at MIT, to talk about the event.

MCE: Why did you decide to organize Processing Time?

NM: The long answer is that my involvement in the Boston Cyberarts festival started in 2001 with this event called the Boston T1 Party, an electronic literature reading that we put on with eleven authors and nine different works in the main auditorium of the Boston public library. I think it’s probably the most successful public event outside a university or some other similar context as far as drawing in people to see what electronic literature was like. It was a great event in many ways.

Once I came back to the Boston area, I knew I wanted to participate in the Cyberarts festival again and organize some sort of event. I started to think about what might work well from the standpoint of MIT's engagement with the arts, as well as things that weren’t otherwise represented in the Cyberarts festival. Electronic literature would certainly fit the latter category; as far as I know there isn’t going to be a reading this year.

But one other thing that seemed to be missing from the festival was events that looked at how computation was aesthetic, how it was a part of art practice. Obviously, we use computation in almost any sort of digital work, not something on a DVD but anything that is on a computer. And that is not the element most often foregrounded -- it’s the visual element, it’s the interface. But how it is that a program could function in a beautiful way, could do something interesting -- that was pretty intriguing.

So, thinking about these things, talking with Leila Kinney, who is the Director of Arts Initiatives here at MIT, it seemed like it would be nice to have a party, a coding session, a competition--not like an in ACM programming contest sort of way, but more in the sense of the Interactive Fiction Competition or various other competitions people hold online. That is, where a community interested in a particular type of coding practice in digital media form gets together, does these things, shows them to each other and appreciates what they’ve done -- and has fun.

MCE: Have you, yourself, made any time-based work in Processing?

NM: My own practice is much more involved with text and writing, so I haven’t looked at that very much. … I’m generally interested in unusual displays of time because they play with the convention that we know of for how time is supposed to be displayed, which is very seldom questioned. But when it is, it’s sometimes questioned in a really interesting way,

I’m also interested in clocks as functions. You want to map the time, which you have as an input, to an output, which could be sound, could be text, could be visual. When you build a clock, you’re doing something you can’t do in Illustrator. You’re actually creating this mapping between what you see and the time as it is represented in your computer internally.

I should say that also, to give us something to do, we’re going to start off and say ok, ‘build a clock.’ But some people’s programs may have the display of time as a rather incidental thing, and they may do a bunch of other things. We’re not restricting anyone from doing anything else. But in order to have something that all of us that afternoon are working on in common, we’re all going to throw that out there.

MCE: During the presentations, are people going to be encouraged to show their code?

NM: Encouraged or required! I think that the point is to see what beautiful programs are like. So, when you run them, you see what you do. But you’d also like to be able look at code and see how they are written.

MCE: Should people know Processing if they want to come?

NM: They should either know Processing or bring a teammate who knows Processing.

We’re not having an introductory workshop or training sessions. But we did want to accommodate people who have an interest in this type of work, who want to come and be part of the event, but their knowledge of how to program Processing was limited. The way we thought to do this was to have individuals allowed to compete, but also pairs of people.

MCE: A coding party. It’s awesome. Any words of encouragement or final thoughts?

NM: A lot of people want to come and watch and see the results and that’s great. But people should come compete also! We have some people signed up already, and we’d like to get more!

There you have it. To sign up, contact :

For more information, go to or download the .pdf.

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