Hackers NYC: Algorithms, Art & Authorship


On Thursday, January 25, 2013, OLC attended Hacks/Hackers NYC: Algorithms, Art & Authorship hosted at Meetup HQ and featuring Jer Thorp. Thorp is an artist and educator using algorithms as computational and artistic, creative instruments. He discussed the use of algorithm to solve every day problems and designing architectural problems.

Jer Thorp started by stating that solving a Rubik's cube is difficult. "There are tools, however, to make solving it easier," he said. The record for a human solving a Rubik's cube is 5.66 seconds. "All you need to do is apply an algorithm to solve the cube," Thor said. "An algorithm is a set of instructions that we apply to problems until they are solved, they're basically a do/until—just like a marriage," he joked. "Algorithms aren't something that can be run just on computers. They're the first thing that artists fool around with," he said. He gave an example of simulating growth systems. "The Lindenmayer system consists of alphabets of symbols that can be used to make strings—and the algorithm very straightforward," Thorp said. He revealed the equation to be: A to AB, B to A, and a pattern was demonstrated, revealing a Fibonacci sequence.

"Algorithms aren't new for artists," Thorp said. "It was actually computer art that helped artists get re-interested in art again and they're called Algorists." He showed examples of Manfred Mohr, Vera Molnar, Roman Verostko and more. To Thorp, writing algorithms is key piece to art practice. He showed a video of a man solving a Rubik's cube in record time (28.8 seconds) while blindfolded and reiterated the algorithmic equation that was memorized and used to solve the problem.

Thorp said he became interested in genetic algorithms after playing around with the Lindenmayer system. "NASA uses genetic algorithms," he said. "They use it to find trajectories to find the path for rockets that would use the least amount of fuel and time when hitting the target." Thorp underlined the importance of algorithms to help "us find answers to complicated questions and combinations. Google can't do this, there's not enough computational power to handle it."

Alex Brim had requested Thorp to help design a 1000 square-foot playground, which Thorp thought would be some rectangular shape, but ended up to be a triangular, sloping piece of land to be developed into an exploratory space for disabled children. "We used an algorithm to design it," he said. "There's supposed to be a five percent grade to be accessible to children for playgrounds, but the land was at a 12 percent grade, so I developed an algorithm that created paths—they sort of looked like worms. The algorithm would create paths and me, playing as God would select the ones that I thought would fit and the algorithm would take that and evolve the paths to resemble the ones I chose, but with mutation," Thorp said.

Thorp talked about his involvement in creating the 9/11 Memorial at Ground Zero. He had received an email asking if he would be interested in the project. Thorp was tasked with a job that involved the design of the memorial, where the names on the memorial were to not have any visible structure. The names were decided to be engraved after requesting the kin for a memorial adjacency—who the kin wanted the name to be next to. "This became a math problem," Thorp said. "There were over 2,900 names and 1,400 adjacency requests." Thorp created a data visualization set and used it as a tool to show requested connections. He built a layout and the architects built the memorial—two to represent the two towers—and to shorten the distance of one family's request to keep two links together, they turned one of the memorials like a clock to have the two names face each other.

The planning of the memorial wasn't just a mathematical problem. It was an optimization problem too. "We built clusters of people that had to be together for the first algorithm. For the second algorithm, we developed a space-saving algorithm to take the puzzle pieces of the problem and fit it into the space," he said. Thorp also said it was a design problem. "There were .5" expansion joints around the metal to keep the memorial from warping in the cold and the heat," he said. "The architect didn't want that to be evident, so we had to develop an algorithm that would keep names that ended with letters with tails or middle names away from it, but that actually gave the algorithm more space to work with," he said. Thorp also said it was a human problem. "Algorithms were used to solve problems," he said. "An architect would load layouts that they could switch out dynamically."

"One biggest problem was the belief that algorithms are not human artifacts, but that's just an excuse to make it. Algorithms are authored by humans. We wrote all of the algorithms. We use it as computational and artistic instruments," he said.

Thorp suggested that people use the mutations in algorithms to develop better creative paths. "You can iterate and iterate and iterate and get to a solution, but you might be taking a path that's time consuming, or fuel consuming," he said.

On distant reading, Thorp said, "In the past with scholarship, scholars would have close readings of selected works. But with data, it's tough to try to close read. Instead, we have distant reading, which is basically looking at data from above," he said. Thorp said that a Shakespeare installation at the Public Theater was a great example of this, pulling out words from Shakespeare using a digital humanities project, which takes Shakespeare and provides deep annotations for words. Thorp looked at body of language and how it was stored instead of looking at it closely.

Thorp demoed an installation he worked on for eBay. "We used data as a cultural artifact," he said. "Instead of having data at the foreground, we had the algorithm the star of the piece." The installation started with a text, using human labor to make sure the data pulled made sense. There is a visualization of the data in map-form and a graph with randomized specific data.

Thorp, closing out the talk, said, "Algorithms are human artifacts. They hold a lot of promise, but there are many that have to yet be uncovered."

October's Hacks/Hackers Event Recap: http://www.officeleasecenter.com/articles/october-23rd-2012-hackshackers-ny-event-displaying-data-on-mobile-devices.html