Computational Action: Romare Bearden’s Collage Algorithm

Nettrice Gaskins. “Bearden Revisited,” 2021. Created using deep learning software

Computational thinking, a recent development in CS education, focuses primarily on the concepts and processes of computing such as variables, loops, and conditionals. Some critics think CT is still too vague or too narrow in scope. Mike Tissenbaum, Josh Sheldon, and Hal Abelson recently proposed a new framework that they call computational action, which involves computing in ways that directly impact peoples’ lives and their communities.

Romare Bearden was a jazz and blues painter. He was stashed with information and imagery from the jazz-blues culture that Houston Baker and John Szwed have called the “blues-matrix.” — Robert G. O’Meally

The concept of an artist being ‘stashed with information’ or culture was interesting to me, especially as it relates to computation and capital (ex. science capital). I juxtaposed this thought with a quote by Bearden (as told to friend Albert Murray) that described his collaging process:

You put something down. Then you put something else with it, and then you see how that works, and maybe you try something else and so on, and the picture grows in that way.

Romare Bearden Black Odyssey Remixes. Courtesy of the Smithsonian

About 8 years ago I started thinking about Bearden’s approach to collage as a form of computation. I discovered the Romare Bearden Black Odyssey Remixes app for the iPad and I designed a workshop for 4th grade students based on the app. In 1977, Bearden created a series of collages inspired by ancient Greek Homer’s epic story “The Odyssey.” Smithsonian app remixes Bearden’s work: Users choose from a variety of backdrops and layer in shapes and forms from collages. They can add different elements and resize them.

4th grade students using the Bearden Remixes app
A 4th grader’s finished digital collage

Some of the student’s finished works reminded me of patterning and algorithmic design, which uses a set of instructions to perform certain tasks, for example, to generate a digital version of Bearden’s collage by repeating one motif over and over (to create a pattern). This allows students and their teachers to visualize other patterns and algorithmic processes.

Pattern generated computationally using Nontsi Afrofuturism software (CSDT)
Importing and using the Nontsi CSDT pattern in Tinkercad 3D Design

We can use these tools to infer pattern recognition that involves observing patterns, trends, and regularities in data. Students can identify the computational and geometric concepts used to create visual and physical projects. What begins in the 4th grade as a simulation and collage activity using an iPad app can be extended to culturally situated design tools, image editor software, and even a three-dimensional modeling program. Students can still follow Bearden’s algorithm: “You put something down…”

Nettrice is a digital artist, academic, cultural critic and advocate of STEAM education.