Since 2013

zach lieberman
10 min readNov 17, 2023


If you ever came by to visit the School for Poetic Computation at Westbeth, the old space in the west village, you would have noticed that the wifi password was “since2013.” SFPC is turning 10 years old this year, which is worthy of celebration, and I feel a little bittersweet about it. I helped start the school in 2013, with Jen Lowe, Amit Pitaru and Taeyoon Choi, and in 2020, in this midst of some important organizational turmoil, I stepped down. There is a new group of stewards who are running it — and although it was not an easy transition, I’ve always tried to meet them with a spirit of generosity. In a lot of ways, I am reminded of this tweet from Jen Lowe, which kind of encapsulates my feelings of stepping down from the school:

And so while the school moves in a different directions, I wanted to take a moment and reflect on things I learned / noticed in the 7 years I helped run and teach at the School (2013–2020).

Connecting to your past self

One thing I discovered is that often, the most interesting projects students would create would connect what they are learning now with their past self, what makes them who the are. I am reminded of the tasting menu project, by Simona De Rosa, who was a student in the first year of the school (Fall 2013). She was interested in data visualization, and was struggling for a while during the term to find the right data set to experiment with. I remember multiple conversations where she talked about knowing the space she wanted to create in, but not knowing what to create. She was Italian, and loved cooking, and at some point in the term, she stumbled onto a data set of food compounds, essentially, for any ingredient, such as olive oil or cranberries, what are the chemicals that make it up. Once she found this, all kinds of wildness took place. We started talking about Jacquard distances, which is a way of computing set similarity, and she created a computationally driven tasting menu, where ingredients that were computational dissimilar and similar were shared together.

Simona De Rosa / Tasted

I think about this project a lot — to me it felt like this really nice loop had been connected, between what you love, what makes you who you are and what you are studying, and I often times ask my current students questions along those lines. A question I keep coming back to is how can we best support those loops?

Space matters

One thing I’ve noticed is how the various spaces SFPC has inhabited have had huge a huge impact on the way we learn. They were always wildly improvisational, like the school itself.

In the beginning SFPC was at 33 Flatbush, in Brooklyn, which was a remarkable space. Our landlord, who passed away recently, was a giant man name Al Attara — he was a dreamer and hoarder, and floors of this 7 story building are covered in old furniture he found on the streets of Brooklyn. When you first join the building, he would take you “shopping” which essentially meant finding a random chair and a rag tag desk. He was really insistent on us using a dentist’s chair to give lectures from, and kept quietly moving this chair out of our space. Everything was completely improvisational, and that spirit extended to the school. We cooked meals together, and ate around giant circular tables. The light at 33 Flatbush, especially the sunsets were incredible and often golden hour would inspire mini celebrations.

After a year of 33 Flatbush, we moved to the Lower East side, and were at the former offices of kickstarter. We went from the kind of, “found on the streets of Brooklyn” tables to folding plastic tables, which had a kind of corporate offsite vibe. I remember us covering these tables with paper, to make them more home-y and that they would get covered with scribbles, fragments of code, and also — since there was an amazing dumpling spot, the paper would get ruined and we would constantly have to re-cover them. Being in the lower east side was wild — I remember having an assignment where participants would go to the dollar store and have only a few dollars to create a sculpture to explain a computational concept. The results were often hilarious and unexpected. A line of pixels from a roll of toilet paper? Using paper cups and water to explain binary numbers?

After these two spaces, we longed for a more permanent home, and somehow, luckily and improbably, wound up at westbeth, an arts complex and housing center, which remarkably, was the former home of Bell Labs. People always joke about the meme, “meet me at the intersection of arts and technology”, but that’s pretty much where we were. It was an incredibly fitting spot for the school. Here, we had active work tables constructed, standing desks essentially, and we would also have long, communal dinners with tables put back to back. We had a kitchen, and often students would cook for one another — it was home-y. It was a great space for teachings and classes would invariable open up in to the courtyard or out into the west village space. We had a garage door that opened on to the west side highway, and I remember one of the nicest moments was showing students the space on the first day, then just opening that door, which required you to pull on a giant metal chain for a long time, it was so slow to open, and just as a group watching it open up a view of the Hudson River. That door would open up, but also, the ten weeks and what we could do there would open up. We’d hand participants the keys and tell them, this is your home now.

But the spaces of SFPC were not just physical. One of my favorite moments of teaching was seeing this text file on the desktop that a student had left on a Mac mini I had donated for exhibits, and it was a letter to the next generation of students. I don’t have it in front of me, but it was something like, “If you are reading this, you are in the next cohort, but in my position setting up before the exhibit. Don’t worry, you’ve got this!” I loved this feeling of seeing cohorts connect.

Learning happens away from the computer screen

One of my favorite moments of SFPC was the first week of school. We designed the ten week program in a specific way — thinking about the first week of school as a kind of onboarding, and the last week as a means of decompressing after exhibiting, and about 8 weeks of classes. The first week, which I often helped plan, was purposely designed to avoid using any electronics. We did drawing exercises to learn about generative design, we built physical prototypes to teach computational concepts, we designed speculative programming languages, we danced algorithms. The whole idea was to try to find a way to move away from just staring independently into laptop screens, each student in their own world and build more of a collective world. During these weeks we’d wind up with piles of paper everywhere, the empty walls would start to get filled up, and the space would feel electric with possibility. We always ended this week with a lecture series, and we’d have a range of folks come and talk about their works to the school — just get full of ideas, before starting to actually build things. I think this week was so important for setting the mood and tone of the 10 week program.

Together we know more

I was trying to think of my favorite moment at SFPC when I was there and it was probably in 2015, when we took the work of the school to the day for night festival in Houston. I had been teaching a class about recreating artwork from the past, and we were invited to show something from the school, and we designed an exhibit that would show both the code and the artwork side by side. The idea was to display the students homework but also to celebrate the artists like Vera Molnar, Bridgette Riley and Muriel Cooper, whose works we were recreating. When we got to the festival, all the equipment just had the word “poetic” on it, which seemed like a good sign.

What I love about this project is the fact that so many students contribute to it — from making sketches, to soldering knobs, to making a zine we handed out. It was a group effort. I remember we were hanging out the exhibit, at a booth and had our laptops and people heard the typing sounds from the exhibit and thought that we were live coding it, which would have been next level. The whole thing made me incredibly proud — especially to be part of a school that could do a project like this.

As a side note, that work personally inspired me to start daily sketching. I was just so jealous about all the sketches everyone was making. I start sketching on Jan 1st in 2016 (after that exhibit in December) and have been sketching for almost 8 years. It radically changed the way I work and the way I think about creative coding, so I’m personally grateful.

Here’s a photo where, at the end of the exhibit, where we were exhausted and elated and we found a sign with the schools name on it.

As a side note, as I write this, I’m installing artwork in Houston, and my students from MIT Media Lab and joining me tomorrow to install their own work as part of this exhibit, and feeling incredibly thankful to find opportunities to have chances to bring the classroom to exhibition space, something that was always a strong aspect of SFPC.

Roles change

One of my favorite things to notice at the school is how after time, roles change. Students became teaching assistants, teaching assistant became teachers, teachers become administrators, students went on to start their own schools, etc. For example, when I taught recreating the past in the summer of 2020, which was taught online during the early days of covid, there were three students Edgardo Avilés-López, Murilo Polese, and Hind al Saad, who expressed interest in collaborating. I was luck to have the chance to work with them, with Edwardo as a TA for a class on Augmented Reality, and later re-imagining and co-teaching Recreating the Past with them. I was really heartened to see Hind go on to teach the Alternative Typographic Histories class and Murillo offer Cellular Automata at SFPC, and even to see Murillo teaching a version of Recreating the Past at Konstfack this last semester. I think a school is healthy if things change, and people’s roles change and adapt. It makes me extremely happy see the students I have worked with become teachers and that cycles continue.

Happy 10th

As someone who was there from day 1, and not there now, it feels weird to me to watch SFPC as outsider — to see it grow into a new and different thing, but I’m so proud of everyone’s contributions along the way and wanted to just express gratitude to everyone who helped make the school throughout these years — those who came to help us paint walls when moved to 33 Flatbush, those that helped us move boxes throughout the years, people who stumbled into events, folks who taught or learned, and those that continue to support SFPC and take it in new directions. I think about that letter that one student left in a text file for the next generation on that Mac mini, and I think the sentiment is great and I’d love to echo it, as it touches on all the connections between cohorts: “You are in the spot I was in before. Don’t worry. You got this”