Server as Sketchbook: Pedagogy as Play


This presentation reports on a college level, digital course that invites students to make art by reflecting on their networked identities. Through a series of hands-on explorations of computer code, students come to hold internet servers as sketchbooks, and the digital as an expressive material. That is, most of my students have never written a line of computer code before taking this class, but during the semester they cross thresholds that are fundamental to the education of artists in the 21st century ‐ building capacity for playful innovation along the way.


The server-as-sketchbook approach has motivated introductory art and design students to cross learning thresholds that they sometimes presume are out of reach. I will share the methodology of the course by illustrating prompts and activities that are accessible to novice coders (and code-teachers), but challenging enough to engage intermediate and advanced participants too. Multiple examples will be provided. Session takeaways include actionable pathways for teaching digital innovation and creativity from a hands-on, constructionist framework.


Twenty-first century learners use the internet as a conduit for research, but rarely work with it for meaningful art making. By the end of this course, however, students share generative art, code poetry, and robots with a sense of humor, among other wild-eyed, impossible things. Time and again, I’m astonished: students sometimes begin the semester saying, “I hate technology” ‐ but end it with digital puzzles and Augmented Reality storybooks. How do they make these things? My answer points to the arts-based research community we build during the course, and particularly to the way it helps us push and pull on digital materialities. I realize that putting digital next to material sounds odd, because we often draw a solid line between the hand-made and the virtual‐but that’s not the way I approach it. Instead, I hold code as a material, and the internet as a place where objects made from that material (e.g., images, texts, navigational pathways) are known by their characteristics and affordances. What does interactive feel like? How does generative do what it does? These questions resemble the questions we ask in the painting studio, which suggests that we might have exaggerated the divide between things made of code and things made of other substances. Indeed, the emergence of any made thing often appears like a miracle‐as when you first feel the wall of a pot pull up from the turning lump in front of you ‐ whether the material is code or something less virtual. In this course students make exhilarating, bewildering things that hearken to a way of learning that goes beyond individual intentions. But side-stepping intentionality isn’t that strange, at least not for artists and designers. That is, practice as a materiality is central to innovation as a practice, because new work always comes from relational actions with materials ‐ an expansion of learning that rests on doing knowing, and on trusting that solutions evolve from just getting to work. This is true in our digital methods class, as well, especially when teaching enacts communities that empower individual achievement. There are several parts to this pedagogical playground: handling the tools; searching for learning thresholds; and expanding materiality beyond individual intentions. In this presentation, I’ll sketch some of these interactions and show examples of student works to describe the serendipity and innovation that emerge from this methodology that I’ve come to call server-as-sketchbook.