The Rhythm in the Machine: Black History Month Edition

First pages from “The First Book Of Rhythms”

In 1954, writer/poet Langston Hughes published “The First Book Of Rhythms” with illustrations by Robin King. Hughes explored the rhythms of life from visual patterns to rhythms in nature. The book’s text and images offer examples for readers of all ages such as clapping the rhythm of a favorite song, scrutinizing the lines and wrinkles of our hands, or looking at dining room chairs for “charming and graceful rhythms.”

First pages from “The First Book Of Rhythms”

According to Hughes, rhythm comes from movement. He writes that “rhythms go around the world” where they are adopted and molded, mixed with other rhythms to create new ones. I propose that rhythm is computational. In my upcoming book, I include a section on remixing that includes visual programming languages such as Scratch, CSnap!, and Tinkercad Codeblocks. The computational (and improvisational) aspects of funk music is described by the late James A. Snead:

In black culture, the thing (the ritual, the dance, the beat) is ‘there for you to pick it up when you come back to get it.’ If there is a goal (Zweck) in such a culture, it is always deferred; it continually ‘cuts’ back to the start, in the musical meaning of ‘cut’ as an abrupt, seemingly unmotivated break (an accidental da capo) with a series already in progress and a willed return to a prior series.

Cold Sweat in visual programming language
Top: Kuba textile; Bottom: Music visual (pixels)

What Snead describes as repetition and “the cut” in black (funk) music production can be found in visual art, design and even in digital fabrication. I recently wrote a lesson plan about algorithms that can be used to create cultural designs and 3D models. Whereas Langston Hughes explored rhythm and movement and Snead explored rhythm and music, I decided to expand on both using computation (the machine).

Four elements of computational thinking

The examples mentioned here all have some computational aspects to them. Hughes’ book connects to pattern recognition; Snead’s essay breaks down funk music into parts or units that can be abstracted and remixed the way a DJ samples from songs or a quilt maker creates patterns by assembling patches of fabric.

Langston Hughes
James Snead
Gee’s Bend quilt makers

While exploring the use of algorithms to make art I realized that the Deep Dream Generator software wasn’t simply repeatedly processing a stable set of instructions (algorithms). The machine learning system rewrites (remixes) the code as it works. In other words, the system was working much like Snead describes James Brown’s performance of “Cold Sweat” or how artisans produce and respond to fabric samples and patterns to create quilts. Behind the hood, the machines are learning how to improvise.

“Hank Shocklee” by Nettrice Gaskins
Pages from “The First Book Of Rhythms”

In order to create the portrait of Hank Shocklee I used a photograph taken of him as a source image that was uploaded to the Deep Dream machine. I created and uploaded patterns I created using a mobile app. The machine processed the images and produced the result you see above. The key parts of this process connect to methods in black cultural and creative production. This is why I named my collection of Deep Dream images Art & Algorhythms.

“Respite” or “Gas Pump” by Nettrice Gaskins

When historian Carter G. Woodson created Negro History Week (later Black History Month), the goals were to recognize the contributions of black people to society; and to celebrate the importance of this work every year. My goal is to channel the past and imagine new futures by exploring present, emerging technologies and art. I also want to inspire and educate others. Art & Algorhythms is one example, as is developing lessons or educational projects that explore computation and digital fabrication.

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