Episode 18  on November 11, 2018Hacking Culture

Joanne Armitage on Feminist Algorave

In this episode, Matthew Tift talks with Dr. Joanne Armitage, a lecturer in digital media at the University of Leeds. Joanne performs regularly with ALGOBABEZ, the Orchestra For Females And Laptops (OFFAL), and other collaborators. She recently won the British Science Association’s Daphne Oram Award for Digital Innovation. In this episode, we discuss feminist algorave, her live coding workshops for women and non-binary people, narratives around failure, inclusion and diversity in technology communities, and more.

There is a Spanish transcript of this episode available at https://colectivo-de-livecoders.gitlab.io/blog/posts/2018/11/25/joanne-armitage-algoraves-feministas.html

Transcript

Matthew Tift:
It's November 2018, episode 18. Joanne Armitage on Feminist algorave.
Matthew Tift:
My guest today is Dr. Joanne Armitage, a lecturer in digital media at the University of Leeds. Her research areas include physical computing, science and technology studies, and computer music. She performs regularly at algoraves as half of the live coding due, ALGOBABEZ, with Shelly Knotts. The two of them have been, according to their website, "blasting eardrums with incorrigibly industrial synth-driven algo-pop since 2016." Joanne is a member of OFFAL, the Orchestra For Females and Laptops. She recently won the British Science Association's Daphne Oram Award for Digital Innovation. I think the work she's doing is important and innovative, and I've never met Joanne before today, and I'm glad to have her on the show, and get this opportunity to find out more. Thank you so much for coming on Hacking Culture, Joanne.
Joanne Armitage:
Hi, Matthew. Thanks so much for inviting me. I'm really excited to talk to you.
Matthew Tift:
Me too. I think in general, the outline I had in mind was talking a little bit about your background, then maybe talking a little bit bit about algoraves and live coding sort of generally. And then maybe talk a little bit about some of the problems in technology and music technology, and then some of the things that you are doing to help with those problems. That was the sort of general I had in my head, but we can kind of go wherever you'd like.
Joanne Armitage:
Yeah, that sounds great. Yeah.
Matthew Tift:
Great. I tried to piece together your history based on a few different articles, and videos, and websites. Am I correct to say that you have a PhD in computer music?
Joanne Armitage:
Yeah, I guess it's pretty much computer music. It was based in the Interdisciplinary Center for Scientific Research in Music, which is a no longer active research center. It's actually when I'm at, Alex McLean, who is quite a well known live coder. That was my PhD, and I guess it kind of falls mostly into the realms of computing music in that sense.
Matthew Tift:
And that's maybe not something that a lot of people have heard of. Is that more of a music-type degree, or more of like a programming degree?
Joanne Armitage:
Yeah, it was practice-based PhD, so it was mostly looking at making things, but not making things to evaluate them. Making things to experience them, and then iterate them and redo them. So I think although there was a level of engineering and computation involved, it was definitely kind of a practice-based arts PhD, or music PhD.
Matthew Tift:
Oh, interesting. Now you're a lecturer in New Media at the University of Leeds, is that correct?
Joanne Armitage:
Yeah, yeah. So I've actually been in roughly this position since the final year of my PhD, and I kind of ended up making the jump to media teaching on a project module in supporting digital projects. I ended up kind of staying there, and I've been there for about four years now. My role is growing a little bit. I kind of contextualize my work much more within digital media now, from within music, but I still try and keep some of that academic work alive through my collaborations with Shelly.
Matthew Tift:
Sure.
Joanne Armitage:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Matthew Tift:
And Shelly being the other half of the ALGOBABEZ.
Joanne Armitage:
Yeah, Shelly Knotts.
Matthew Tift:
That's quite the name. It looks like you guys get to play all around the world.
Joanne Armitage:
Yeah, I think it's just the name that does it for us, really. I was calling myself an ALGOBABE for a little while, and when Shelly asked to play with me, I shared it with her and put a Z on the end.
Matthew Tift:
Did you say somewhere that you think you might be one of the first two women involved in live coding?
Joanne Armitage:
I'm not sure. I think in Europe Shelly Knotts and Norah Lorway were the first people I really encountered performing. I came on a little bit later. But for a while, it was just the two of us performing regularly on the UK scene maybe for about a year or so.
Matthew Tift:
I see, but either way, you are definitely among the first women involved in this movement and now it's really grown quite a bit. I guess that's sort of a transition then. It seems like the algorave and live coding movement has grown quite a bit around where you live. Could you maybe give us ... and I know this is a tricky question in a way, but a little sort of working definition of what you think of as algorave or live coding, or the connection between those two?
Joanne Armitage:
Yeah. For me, live coding is just kind of exploratory use of programming on stage. It's something that's performative, and something that's uncertain, and something that's embodied, and something that involves lots of listening, reacting and lots of complex relationships with the environment. So for my, live coding is that. I guess algorave is kind of the public facing part of live coding where it becomes a bit more socialized and a bit more of a party.
Matthew Tift:
Sure, so the algorave is kind of a place that people do their live coding in public, or with other people?
Joanne Armitage:
Yeah, yeah. Definitely.
Matthew Tift:
Would you say that all live coding concerts are algoraves, or are there other sorts of live coding events that aren't algoraves?
Joanne Armitage:
Yeah, definitely not. Live coding has origins in sort of things that spread out to electroacoustic music, so a much more experimental environments maybe in concert halls rather than clubs. So I think algorave is generally more of a party atmosphere and live coding is just kind of a broader term, like electroacoustic performances like that can fall under.
Matthew Tift:

I see. Another group that you're part of, OFFAL-

Joanne Armitage:
Yes, that's OFFAL.
Matthew Tift:
OFFAL. Oh, like awful. I see. I missed that.
Joanne Armitage:
Yeah. It's about a OFFAL awfully good name. OFFAL being the operative word perhaps.
Matthew Tift:
Mm-hmm (affirmative). But that would be more like a group that performs live coding, but not necessarily in an algorave situation.
Joanne Armitage:
Yeah, so OFFAL is not so much in an algorave situation. In fact, I don't know if OFFAL could play an algorave, because we really struggle with beat incrimination, so I think making it danceable would be a big computational challenge. We normally play kind of drone-y sets ideally on multi-channel speaker systems, so everybody could the position and the sound space.
Joanne Armitage:
We use some kind of high level live coding languages and instructions. It's kind of a little bit between the notation and code, although they could be argued to be a very similar thing anyway, to instruct each other and have voting systems to implement changes in the sound. It's all a little bit more about kind of texture, I guess. Texture and loudness rather than rhythm.
Matthew Tift:
Ah, well that's a nice way to put it.
Joanne Armitage:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Matthew Tift:
So is OFFAL a group that performs in person, or did I read somewhere that that also sort of happens online?
Joanne Armitage:
Yeah, so most of the band will join in remotely. We've had a few shows where there's been five performers IRL, which has been quite special. In Canada, in I think it was late 2016, we did a performance together and there was five people in the room, and some of us hadn't met and that was really special. But often people are all across the world and quite detached media there, and so people send in streams which we then bring together and play out of SuperCollider.
Matthew Tift:
Ah, so you're all working in SuperCollider?
Joanne Armitage:
No, people are working in different platforms. Some people are doing kind of live electronics with MaxMSP and violins. Other people are doing processed vocals. But they're all sending audio streams, which we then capture ... So Shelly Knotts wrote the software that kind of brings it together in SuperCollider, and then plays out through the sound system.
Matthew Tift:
I see.
Joanne Armitage:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Matthew Tift:
So there are lots of different ways then that people do live coding. It seems like a lot of them end up sending signals to SuperCollider which then helps with the transference to making its sound.
Joanne Armitage:
Yeah, so a lot of synthesis is done in SuperCollider. In fact, most of the languages from Tidal to FoxDot to Ixilang, to Conductive, all come back to SuperCollider on the sounding end.
Matthew Tift:
Gotcha. So that probably seems a little bit basic, but I think a lot of people aren't familiar with live coding. I have found just in six months of experience with it that it usually confuses people, and it takes a while just to get people a sense of what I'm talking about with live coding. So I'm in a sense asking these questions in a very basic way because I've heard them a number of times, as I'm sure you have as well.
Joanne Armitage:
Totally, and I encounter this all the time, particularly tying to explain what I do to family members and relatives. It's always quite a fun, or like innocuous meetings with people who ask, "Oh, what do you do?" Oh, here we go.
Matthew Tift:
So you do have a stock answer for that question, or does that take a while to explain?
Joanne Armitage:
I normally just say I'm an electronic musician, and I try and leave it at that where possible. But if I need to live coding, yeah I'll just kind of give maybe a similar definition to what I gave you, or say, "I code live," which feels like a bit of a cop out, or "Make laptop music." If people are really interested, I'll go into depth, and I always try and crack my laptop out and do a demo if I can.
Matthew Tift:
Yeah. I think you said in a talk in December 2017 that we still haven't quite figured out a good definition for live coding. Do you think that's still true a year later?
Joanne Armitage:
I think that live coding is actually becoming ... as it grows it's becoming more complex and hard to pin down. So I don't know if it's got easier. It may have gotten harder to define. I think people have lots of different definitions and understandings of it. I think that it's something that people talk through a lot. There's a general addition about algorave, but maybe hopefully ... well, I've contributed something to this.
Joanne Armitage:
I think it will be coming out at the end of the year, but hopefully, maybe advances some of these questions. I mean they're questions that have been asked for a really long time. I think the instability of defining live coding is something that's really good as well, and something that means that it's still alive in a way.
Matthew Tift:
Yeah, that's a nice way of putting it. You clearly have experience talking about this.
Joanne Armitage:
Yeah, I have a lot of experience in my head in person through these things. I try to talk with lots of different people about them as well to get some different perspectives. So live coders, and thinkers, and people in different practices, and people who have different experiences and knowledge, and a different kind of background, as much as possible.
Matthew Tift:
Sure.
Joanne Armitage:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Matthew Tift:
And we'll get into that in just a second, but I guess another way that you had put it is that live coding is kind of a Luddite activity. It's not necessarily something new. I should also mention that this was in response to some comments from an article in The Guardian that featured of picture of you and a very, I think, useful video I thought, that you're also featured in a number of places. But just like a short five minute overview.
Matthew Tift:
So The Guardian did this piece, and then some people responded and suggested that live coding is new, but you had described it as kind of Luddite activity, or something like that. Is that still true?
Joanne Armitage:
Yeah, that's the kind of notion that I've coined from Alex McLean, but I think maybe some other people have claimed that too. I think it's a really useful way to think about live coding, particularly when it's often described as, or experienced, as something that's really hyper-technical. And it's really easy to over-technicalize ... I don't know if that's a word, but the act of programming and the performance of code.
Joanne Armitage:
I think it's really interesting to pull those conversations back a little bit and say, "Actually, this is not as futuristic as it seems." And maybe that's a problem with how coding is placed in society, and how coding is put into certain spaces and not into others. That's the issue. I think it's a really useful way of provoking that sort of thinking.
Matthew Tift:
Yeah. It seems to be a unique activity that doesn't fit quite well with just programming or just making music, or some combination of those, or even just ... it's way more than a theoretical. It's a real sort of practical activity. But this notion of all of these different people coming together for an event like algorave, as a result you end up with seems like lots of PhDs, lots of musicians and lots of people that just want to dance to music and then curious people, and everything else in between.
Joanne Armitage:
Yeah, I think a lot of the people I know who really got into live coding and performed it have been able to obsess over it in some way. So rather that's through a PhD, whether that's through an obsession with sound, or whether that's through needing an obsession and needing something to work on. You do find a lot of PhDs in algorave. I think maybe that's something to do with time. But also actually, it's probably more to do with networks and how knowledge is transferred and shared. I came to algorave because I knew two PhDs, a few PhDs with ... If a scene starts in the academic community, it's going to have to work very hard to break out of it.
Matthew Tift:
Do you think that live coding is sort of a fundamentally anti-commercial venture? Like it's more geared towards academia or any venue that's not about making money?
Joanne Armitage:
Yeah, I think many ... I mean it's using free open source software, and that's obviously a stand against commercialization. But I think this is something maybe we will see changing over time. Personally, I recently did a workshop for a fitness studio in London, that's run by Adidas, so maybe some elements of commercialization will come in. It was actually a really fun gig. I did a coding workshop in a yoga studio. It wasn't very commercial. It didn't have a very commercial feel to it, which is why I actually enjoyed it and had a nice time. I think that ... I'm sorry, can we return to your question?
Matthew Tift:
My question had to do with whether it's fair to describe live coding as anti-commercial?
Joanne Armitage:
Yeah, yeah. I think it's anti-commercial and it's instigation. But at the same time, yeah so it was dependent on academic institutions. As it breaks out of the academy and is breaking out of the academy, other institutions need to come in and supplement it financially so it's sustainable. I know Alex McLean in the UK has got Arts Council England funding, which all kind like of national fund for the arts. I know the funding environment is very different where you are, sadly. But there is a national fund in the UK for Arts Council England. People get funding to run events, and institutional support to run events.
Matthew Tift:
That surprised when I've seen so many live coding events that were funded by some arts organization, and not just people sort of randomly getting together. It gives this sense that there's something else going on there when you have an Arts Council that's funding this kind of thing.
Joanne Armitage:
Yeah, I think the Arts Council in England is very, very interested in digital projects. They really want to support digital projects. So algorave to them might seem like a good thing to support because it kind of covers bases in terms of arts and technologies really well. But I think as well there has been some commercial sponsorship of algoraves, which has gone not so great from my experience. We had a tech company come and ask people about their A-levels, which is your final high school exam in the UK, kind of 30 year olds are a big thing asking about their A-levels and getting jobs in tech. It was just kind of a bit awkward and cheesy. I managed to avoid being interviewed myself. There has been some corporate sponsorship and interests. I think people sometimes pay gigs, to try to get a bit ... They can be well paid, they can be surprisingly terribly paid, and it's always quite enjoyable turning one of those shows down.
Matthew Tift:
Interesting. That's kind of fascinating because the community that I'm most familiar with, the Drupal community, went through, or has been going through, over I would say at least the last decade or so, a transition from people using Drupal for fun to people using it for their job. I've done a lot of research into the numbers, and I've posted some articles about the corporate influence and now it's more than half the community, the people that are contributing are sponsored usually the company or somebody else that's funding them.
Matthew Tift:
But with live coding, one of the things that makes it so attractive is it seems like it's an activity that's inherently less easy to turn into a career, shall we say. Maybe some people are doing it, but it just seems like in general that's, in a sense, one of the things that drew me to it was this sort of doing it for the fun of it, in the moment kind of thing.
Joanne Armitage:
Yeah, I think that's so interesting. A few years ago I did a talk at a conference at Lancaster University called Griswold's. And someone there, after my talk someone posted me, "Oh, well it seems like you're going to have an interesting career in live coding." It just blew my really because I never thought I would ... it's just not something you consider when you start playing with music with code. But it will be a career. What I found interesting is that a lot of my work wasn't really focused on live coding. As I started live coding, people were so much more interested in that than my other work.
Joanne Armitage:
So it really became the spotlight of what I do. It's really embedded into my career, but I think it's because the nature of live coding and the kind of ethos of it is really embedded in how I think that technology, and my relationship with technology and how I teach technology. So in some ways maybe I do have a career in live coding, but maybe not in such a direct way as someone whose performing live coding or has sponsorship to be a live coder. But I'm not sure if I really want that anyway, because I think live coding performance is ... performing live coding all the time would be pretty hard-going.
Matthew Tift:
Ah, it might make it a little less fun, too.
Joanne Armitage:
Yeah, maybe. Sometimes when the schedule gets really heavy, it start to feel a bit less fun. I might get a bit grumpy.
Matthew Tift:
Well I suppose if anyone is on that spectrum more towards the ... I get to perform a lot as a live coder. It seems you're certainly in that small group of people that get to do regular live coding performances. I don't think there's many people like that in the world as far as I can tell. Do you think that's accurate?
Joanne Armitage:
Yeah, I've been really fortunate just getting a lot of very cool gigs recently, and I feel very privileged to be asked to travel by a range of different institutions, whether it be festivals, or universities, or sometimes just smaller arts organizations. I'm going to Japan on Thursday, which is so exciting, with Alex McLean and Lucy Cheesman who's known as Heavy Lifting. Yeah, I do get to go to a lot of really nice shows. I do get, moving back to the financial side, and I do get ... managed to make some revenue off it, but it's very unreliable and patchy. I don't know think revenue's quite the right term. I think it sounds like pocket money, making up for my precarious job.
Matthew Tift:
There does seem to be some connection to that, and people that just like to pick up a good time on the weekend and play at a bar or something like that. Although, the whole culture in itself seems far more introspective, and analytical, and academic, and-
Joanne Armitage:
It's totally academics, yeah. Making people think too much about why are they doing things. I think a lot of live coders are like that anyway, and really reflective and trusting people. To make a sweeping generalization about the community I'm involved in.
Matthew Tift:
Could you talk a little bit about feminist algorave and your attempts to get more women involved in live coding?
Joanne Armitage:
Yeah, I think one of my shared ... one of my biggest contributions, this scene which I share a position with lots of other women as well like Shelly Knotts that we've mentioned, and Lucy Cheesman, and Miri Kat, is working towards greater diversity. To me, yeah, that's been a really important and motivating factor for doing what I do. It's had some shifts, and it feels special to have met so many amazing women through that process, whether they've ended up as internationally touring live coders, of just come to one workshop. It hasn't really changed their practice or what they're doing, but you can see them doing awesome things.
Joanne Armitage:
There's a video of the workshop that Shelly and I did, which was the first women's workshop that we did. She played it recently at her talk in Mexico. I was a bit tired and emotional, not in a drunk sense, just in a conference sense, and I was almost crying at this snippet of this video because during the time that video was filmed, I didn't really know many of the people in that room very well. But looking back at it, two years later, I saw a room of people who are now my friends and it made me feel so emotional just seeing how sometimes just doing one small thing can end up completely changing your networks and the area that you're working on, exploring.
Matthew Tift:
That's a very good video, and I will definitely put a link to it in the show notes. Is that workshop that you did with those women, is that the only women-only workshop that you've done? Or have you done other workshops like that, that are just for women?
Joanne Armitage:
Yeah, I've done quite a few workshops for women and non-binary people in the UK. I've worked with Siren, which is a London-based DJ collective, to do a workshop. In Japan, we'll be doing some women-only workshops. Yeah, I think there's been a few others that maybe is slipping my mind, but yeah we've done some special workshops. Yeah.
Matthew Tift:
It sounds like you also do other workshops. It looks like just last weekend you were doing a workshop that you called Unlearning Exercises, and that you did it one day it was in a community house, and the other day a town hall. Could you tell us a little bit about that workshop?
Joanne Armitage:
Yeah, that workshop was with a very close friend and collaborator of mine, Gretta Eacott, who's an amazing percussionist based in Copenhagen. It's in collaboration with this London-based collective [inaudible 00:31:30]. So we're kind of trying to make playful workshops with kind of slightly different exercises and learning exercises, and explore code and percussion, and kind of connections and spaces between them. We wanted to really go to rural ... not rural, but they were in towns, but maybe off a beaten track in terms of experimental music communities. I think both were in ... two were in community space centers and one was in the Town Hall. The Town Hall was a little bit lower on the numbers than we anticipated, but we ended up having a really great experience. So people of lots of different ages, and lots of different experiences considering the lower turnout. That was funded by Sound and Music, which is an organization in the UK which sponsors new music projects. So we were doing things like making drum machines, but out of acoustic instruments. And then a grid and people would put objects on the grid and it would define a certain drum pattern, and then translate that into code.
Joanne Armitage:
So trying to bring something that's really tangible like the grid, and getting people to perform that and then saying, "Well what if we notate that on the computer," and how or what are the possibilities for doing it, for translating between the two. I've only just got off. So it was ... we finished on Sunday, so it just hasn't really set in for me, but that was a really fun process that I'm looking forward to reflecting on. It was bit more in the couple of weeks. I'm looking at my notes and the records that we made, and maybe ... we're going to do like an evaluation and probably add a blog post about it.
Matthew Tift:
Great. That description of it where you're doing coding and you're having somebody whose doing percussion. It seems like that's another part of the live coding experience that maybe surprised me a little bit, and it could be somewhat trickier to explain in that you have somebody whose working on a computer working with somebody who is maybe banging on a drum. That kind of collaboration seems like it's another regular feature of live coding events.
Joanne Armitage:
Yeah. I feel it's not as regular as it should be. I'd love it to be more regular. But it's definitely something that people do. I've done it. Greta and I have performed together and it's always a challenge synchronizing, and it's always issues with ... We've had to choose before with the computer controlling the clock. The last time we played together I felt like tap tempo thing, so Gretta could shift the tempo a bit, which made it a bit more like a two way relationship in terms of how we decided how fast or slow to play.
Joanne Armitage:
Lucy Cheesman has been playing with bands, which has been really fun to watch. I think Miri Kat has been playing with a modular synthesizer person. A modular syn, a real human being. I love seeing those kinds of collaborations, but yeah sometimes ... I don't see Alex McLean and Matthew Yee-King play as Canute, which is a great collaboration. It'd be great to see more of those sort of things coming up. I think it's really nice to have the different sounds and freedoms.
Matthew Tift:
Yeah, it certainly would take a little bit more planning than just sitting down at your computer and playing around with code.
Joanne Armitage:
Yeah, yeah. And a bit more practicing as well, which live coding is notoriously bad at.
Matthew Tift:
Practicing?
Joanne Armitage:
A lot of the live code as I know. Myself included, as I'm not very good practicing. To be honest, my studio, I've just moved house and my studio is in pieces at the moment. I can't even go in the room.
Matthew Tift:
Your recent workshop you called The Unlearning Exercises and that reminded me of all of the things that I thought about maybe computers and programming and other notions that live coding has made me rethink because I thought of music in a certain way and now because of live coding I think of it differently. I thought of programming as a certain way, as something that's checked and quality assured, and to create a workable, usable thing, but now live coding has changed that. So is that part of what you're getting at with that title of Unlearning Exercises, because your sort of unlearning your preconceived ideas?
Joanne Armitage:
Yeah, I actually didn't come up with the title. It was something that ... So the project sort of existed before I got involved in it, and it was mostly centered around the percussion stuff, but it does come through that ethos, so actually thinking about things a bit differently and presenting things in kind of new ways, and how that's useful to learn and explore, and play with musical concepts. But that's translated, really, well across to incorporating live coding into it because it's kind of feeling of unlearning, unlearning and then relearning, and then unlearning again, and the nature of things like iteration and those kind of metaphors that came really nicely with that idea.
Matthew Tift:
That brings to mind another idea about live coding and something that you have said about live coding as a safe space to fail, and the notion that people could come into algorave or a workshop like the ones that you've led and then feel like here's a safe space to fail. It made me wonder how tricky is it to convince somebody that this is a safe space, because it does really seem like a lot of the people in the live coding community are open and welcoming, and don't have those preconceptions about you have to create this beautiful piece of music or you're failing. How has that been teaching all of these workshops and convincing people that it is a safe space to fail?
Joanne Armitage:
Yeah, it's really interesting dealing with failure in live coding, and particularly in workshops have been, the more feminist workshops I've done, is bound up in all sorts of things about technological knowledge and ownership of expertise. Sometimes I get a bit carried away in workshops, and I often get a bit carried away in workshops and end up shouting at people, asking them to fail for me. I feel like both Shelly and I have really pushed this narrative. At the moment we have a slide on our presentation that's just loads of errors on the screen and Shelly holding a glass of wine, and the comment's like, "Failing, and drinking through it."
Joanne Armitage:
So we really try and push this idea of failing, and failing as a creative process. That's not like a new idea. It's something that people has brought out in things like design. But maybe in computing failure and error is often treated as something that's a bit more rigid. We like to talk about the different ways in which we can fail. So we can fail because there's been an issue with the audio hardware, or the projector, that's one type of failure that's maybe kind of outside the space of the laptop. Or we could have failed because we've made an error in our code, a syntax error. We can fail because we've made a sound that just doesn't work very well.
Joanne Armitage:
There are other ways we can fail, which I can't think of right now. But yes, there's lots of ways to fail in live coding and I think that instability is what really drove me to challenge myself to develop and start playing more and more. I think failing is really hard, and something I've maybe become a bit more conscious of recently is asking people to ... asking to people to fail, but asking people to fail is quite challenging. It's something that no everyone feels comfortable doing. I've been doing this for quite a while, so I kind of find it funny ... I mean I can find failure very frustrating, but at the time I can look back and laugh and blow it off.
Joanne Armitage:
But for some people there's a lot more at stake. I think balance narratives are our failures, and is playful and fun. But it's also something that's frustrating, it's disempowering, it's embarrassing. I think being able to look back at that after an event is a way of managing it. I think it's just about creating a fun environment where everybody is failing together and it's playful, and no one's standing alone doing things wrong. We're all sharing that experience and doing it again, and again. I often fail in my own workshops in different ways.
Matthew Tift:
You are working with computers.
Joanne Armitage:
Yeah. It worked yesterday. It's a common theme.
Matthew Tift:
The rest of the world has a lot of places that aren't particularly safe places to fail, so I can see how that would be challenging. I'm wondering if you think of a workshop like that as a kind of sanctuary from the rest of the people's lives where they can't fail or do you think of it more as teaching people about live coding as a tool to understand that failure, in any aspect of life, is okay? Or just a constricted idea of something that we've kind of made up these narratives that we tell ourselves?
Joanne Armitage:
I think it's trying to place failure as something that we build up through our expectations, of ourselves, and our knowledge. It's also failure of something that is innately human and every day un-mundane. Just things like creativity, actually it's super mundane and every day, and human. As is failure. I think it's about repositioning failure, mostly ... I often always find it most important to push these kind of narratives in my feminist workshops where women have reported to me saying ... I've actually done a series of interviews with women about their experience of learning live coding, currently practicing live coders who came to early workshops.
Joanne Armitage:
One thing they make very clear is the activity in these workshops they thought they could fail outside of the male gaze, and that's their words and their experience. I think it's about being able to fail specifically with technology around people who make you feel comfortable, and that's what we try and do. I think it's shifting narratives of technological failure and how many of the women who come to our workshops have experienced that in a very gendered way. Does that answer your question?
Matthew Tift:
Yeah, I don't even know if I asked a question.
Joanne Armitage:
I think there was something there.
Matthew Tift:
Yeah, well it brings to mind something that my graduate advisor in graduate school used to say to me. She was a well-known feminist music history scholar, and she constantly reminded me over the nine years I was in graduate school that if we're not talking about gender, race or class, then what's the point? Your descriptions of live coding, it seems like there's a lot to that and I wonder if sometimes you just think of it as just a fun activity, or is it kind of you have these various narratives that, depending on the situation, one maybe is getting more attention than the other?
Joanne Armitage:
Yeah, I think that's a really interesting question. While thinking of it through the kind of more critical lens, and that does sometimes suck a little bit of the joy out of it, but I think at the moment not-so-academic thinking and writing around live coding. For me, writing doesn't come that easily so I do find it quite exhausting. And thinking. Thinking comes easier, but sometimes articulating it through text, ironically, is a bit more challenging. I think I've become a bit bound up in negotiating, live coding as a gendered embodied practice.
Joanne Armitage:
I'm kind of enjoying performing, a little bit less at the moment, but I think as well I've just some ... I'm working more, and I'm finding it really exhausting. I'm halfway through a semester at the moment, and I'm ready for bed by about 8:00 p.m. So playing with weekend codes is just ... it's been really tough, and I haven't had many weekends off. So yeah, some of the joy isn't quite present at the moment, but I'm hoping the trip to Japan next week will revitalize me a little bit in that regard. I think on a more personal level about what I'm playing is I need to really start challenging myself to do some more interesting stuff.
Joanne Armitage:
I was talking to some of the people on the tour the weekend, I feel like I'm still currently kind of riding off work I've put in 12 months ago, and I need to make it stop to buy a sense of new ways of working. Which I've been trying to do, but I haven't really been focusing on enough to feel confident to do that as performance.
Matthew Tift:
Certainly, the notion of teaching and correcting papers, and adding on live coding concerts is a lot to be juggling, especially when you're doing as many of these events, and workshops, and concerts as you're doing. So I believe you.
Joanne Armitage:

I know. Yeah. I have ... part of my contract isn't permanent, so I do feel the need to try and keep up as many of my external commitments as I can manage because I don't want to lose any work for the next ... In eight months, I don't really know where my work contract will be, so I don't really want to terminate in some way, so I am passing things on to other people, but some stuff is hard to resist. There's some quite cool things coming up that I don't know if I can announce. Actually I can announce that we're doing a panel at South by Southwest-

Matthew Tift:
Oh I saw that.
Joanne Armitage:
That's official.
Matthew Tift:
Oh, I saw the voting for it but I wasn't sure if it was accepted or not.
Joanne Armitage:
Yeah, it's been accepted. Hopefully there will be some other stuff around that, but I'm not sure if I can talk about that yet. But yeah, we're really excited about that.
Matthew Tift:
Is that part of the music South by Southwest or the more technology part of it?
Joanne Armitage:
I think I was working a music festival at the time, so I think I applied for the technology track. Which I was quite surprised I'd done. I thought I would have put it in music but maybe they would just fit us in.
Matthew Tift:
The music track, I think is a lot more about performance. Maybe that's what you're doing as well with the ... That conference, I've been there quite a few times and it's one of the largest technology conferences ... No, it's got to be the largest technology conference I've been to. It's so big, but it's a great place to give a talk because it's usually going to be thousands of people listening.
Joanne Armitage:
Yeah, yeah. We have a really ... I mean I know I'm on the panel, so I'm going to just include myself in this, but we've got a really, really great panel. It's Shelly Knotts, who I've mentioned a few times: Alexandra Cardenas, whose has done so much work in the South American and Central American live coding scene and is currently based in between Berlin and Mexico City. So she has those amazing experiences to bring to it, and she comes from a very much ... she's got very clear, kind of musical goal that really drives her work. Her album is released on Saturday. It's like a minor plug. Alexandra Cardenas; and Antonio Roberts, who is UK based as well and he's a visual live coder. I think it should be a very nice discussion.
Matthew Tift:
That sounds great. Getting back some of these questions around gender and diversity, I've been having some discussions with a couple of people in my local community, and we're going to have TidalCycles group, live coding group essentially, and when I see some of the work you're doing it makes me want to do the best that I can to help make sure our group is as inclusive and diverse and welcoming as possible. I can read lots of buzz words online about being gender allies, or creating a place where people assume positive intent or that kind of thing. Do you have any suggestions for us to help make our user group as welcoming as possible?
Joanne Armitage:
Yeah, I think really the best way to deal with diversity is find people from backgrounds that are different to yours to give them positions of power in your group, whether it be about gender, race or class. That's something that's hard to do when there's kind of no precedent, but the way to deal with that is opening up what you're doing a little bit to try and incorporate some different experiences better. One thing that happened in the UK is that Alex McLean really pushed to include things like crafting in live coding and thinking of live coding in craft, and worked twiddlers and knitters, and weavers. Whether it's through kind of facilitate collaboration or ... I think just trying to rethink what you're doing and how you're structuring things.
Joanne Armitage:
I think it's really important to think about and get other people from different backgrounds to read the copy that you've used events. I think that how it's pitched and framed is really important where events get shared who with. Sometimes ... A lot of the people I've spoken to, and of the women in particular I've spoken to, saw it playing gigs. They came to one workshop and someone was like, "Hey why don't you play a show?" And that was enough to make them become a live coder, you know?
Matthew Tift:
Huh.
Joanne Armitage:
So sometimes just slight provocations like, "Hi, why don't you just do a talk on your work at this and we can talk about how it can become embedded in what we're doing." Those sort of small nudges, you don't often ... You know, if someone's game you don't have to give them a big push, just a little nudge, and people jump right them. Obviously other people you have to work on a little bit, but once you've kind of got like a diverse team running events that all becomes a bit easier, I feel.
Matthew Tift:
Sure. Yeah, that makes a lot of sense that you essentially just have to model that behavior that you're trying to promote.
Joanne Armitage:
Yeah. Yeah.
Matthew Tift:
Having been to so many programming events and local user groups, and programming groups where it's pizza and beer at some cool, hip web design studio or something, and thinking about how just some of the ... like the location or just having alcohol at events can change the whole vibe of it in who feels welcomed.
Joanne Armitage:
Yeah.
Matthew Tift:
I've been thinking some about that in terms of structural kinds of things.
Joanne Armitage:
Yeah, that's really important too, actually, because alcohol can play something off limits to lots of different people. I've heard from quite a lot of people who, even if they do drink, they weren't going to coding events at bars because of like previous or negative experiences. I also know from experience that people often don't feel comfortable in institutions like universities always, and that puts up barriers for some people, which is something that I took for granted for a little while as somebody who's always been at university.
Joanne Armitage:
Not everyone feels comfortable in this space in which I work. So yeah, I think trying to find and negotiate mutual spaces and try different things out is really important. I think trying to take coding to nonconventional and different spaces is one of the most important things that you could be doing as someone interested in code and who codes. I think who codes is a really important question in itself.
Matthew Tift:
Yeah, one of the other people I've had on the podcast from a group called Asian Penguins, these kids in a school district where they make computers and they install Linux on them, and then they deliver them to kids in the community that come from families that don't have enough for a computer. So they've delivered hundreds of computers, and I thought it'd be interesting to somehow collaborate with those kids or teach them live coding, or do some sort of workshop for kids but then how nice it would be to be able to invite them to a meet up where those kids might feel welcome.
Matthew Tift:
But sometimes simply when ... like the time of day or the lack of transportation with some folks really, there's just so many reasons that you can leave people out that it can be kind of intimidating if you want to try and think of all of that. One of the things that I think is so great about your work is that you just keep doing these events and these workshops, and they're different in different places and that kind of thing. Seems like you're doing a very good job on that end.
Joanne Armitage:
Oh, we can always do better. Yeah, time of day, childcare, how much it costs to get somewhere, they're all massive factors that are very easy to take for granted. I feel sometimes I definitely do take that for granted. I normally do free workshops, but remember I've got one that's going to 50 pounds, I didn't realize it was going to be that much. We try to talk about strategies for managing that, especially as it's going to be a very cool workshop. They're really important questions to ask, and I think you can always do better and algorave does need to tackle some things around race and class, and kind of gender diversity outside of the binary.
Joanne Armitage:
I think not a lot is happening with respect to those things. I mean, we're doing some stuff like trying to reach under represented groups, but I did a lot of workshops at the National Media Museum, which is in a town called Bradford in the UK, not far from where I'm based in Leeds. That was really fun, with seven years olds from low socioeconomic areas of the city. Super fun, but it's just you kind of get 15 minutes with them and then ... and I gave loads of schools my email address, but I just don't think they have the resources, or the time, or the capacity to push these kinds of things any further.
Matthew Tift:
It sounds like ... Do you just apply for a lot of grants?
Joanne Armitage:
I apply for all things myself, but often I get added into other people's grants or people have fun, they need to put on an event and I think working in this very live tech environment, this super creative and experimental, and fun, and silly when you're in the right mood, sometimes you find yourself maybe a more obvious ... people will ... like an easy person to invite along. But I think in the UK where we have much better access to funding for these kind of activities than you might do in the US just from things I've heard from other people.
Matthew Tift:
Sure. Well it also sounds like your part of a group and I've heard people say things like, "50 activists working alone are not nearly as effective as 50 activists working together."
Joanne Armitage:
Yeah.
Matthew Tift:
If you have a desire to teach people, help people, welcome new faces and that kind of thing, it certainly sounds like the benefit of working together can be quite effective.
Joanne Armitage:
Totally, and people like taking on different roles. Some people I work with are really awesome at focusing and organizing things and managing completion of tasks, and I'm much better at thinking about things, conceptualizing, coming up with ideas and the actual meeting, and performing, and working on the teaching and the practice. I like doing things a lot. So yeah, it's finding good people to work with where you can kind of balance out each other's strengths and weaknesses.
Joanne Armitage:
I'm definitely not like a lone actor, and I feel working with other people gives me the energy to continue what I'm doing. I feel like I could be doing more, but I think it's just because at the moment I'm teaching so much so it becomes the noisiest part of my life and the other stuff becomes like, "Okay, just chuck through this work-it weekend, try and bring as much energy as you can, and see how convincing you can be," that you know, you got it together.
Joanne Armitage:
Also, what I love about live coding is that it places coding in the social and like I mentioned at the start of our talk, to me it's who I've met through live coding and one thing that really motivates me to keep going and keep pushing through and doing gigs. It's all the amazing people that you meet and encounter in the process. That's a big privilege.
Matthew Tift:
Indeed. Well I really appreciate you taking the time, again, to come on the show, Joanne. Is there anything else that you wanted to mention or plug, or if somebody wanted to get ahold of you? Do you want to share any information like that?
Joanne Armitage:
In terms of plugging, there is the tour we're doing in Japan so if you are anywhere around Osaka or Tokyo, it'd be lovely to come and meet and give me a shout. On email, for music stuff I normally use midigirl9090@gmail.com. I'm @joannnne, that's four Ns, @joannnne on Twitter. Yeah, they are the best ways to get ahold of me. If you're interested in hearing more ... I'm trying to plan to be better at having a website and figuring out about what I do, some of the things I make and build and some of my writing.
Joanne Armitage:
So hopefully, when I have a little bit of time at Christmas I'm going to develop that a bit more. I really want to be up to share my workshop materials a bit more freely and openly. Yeah, I mean that's so much to do when archiving yourself and your work is in there. It's so much involved in that. It's another thing that I'm not very good at in terms of ... and there are some people that are really good at it, and hopefully I need to get some strategies off them.
Matthew Tift:
Okay. Well, again thank you so much for your time.
Joanne Armitage:
Thank you, Matthew. Cheers. It's been great.
Matthew Tift:
Thank you for listening to this episode of Hacking Culture. All the music in this episode is music from Joanne. You can find links to ALGOBABEZ, OFFAL, Joanne's South by Southwest panel and more at hackingculture.org/episode/18. Thank you for listening.
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