Co-mentorship Dispatch: Patches, Circuits, and Metronomes


CDL members engage in regular, structured co-mentorship, with members pairing off to discuss and workshop projects every two weeks. We do this to distribute expertise and power, share unlikely skills, and theorize new possibilities for academic work. CDL member Maggie Mang reflects on a recent co-mentoring experience with artist-in-residence Kevin Gotkin, which offered her the opportunity to dabble with coding in Max7 as she worked through a project on crip time. 

-Maggie Mang-

In early February 2018, Kevin and I were paired up for the week and I was fortunate enough to learn some new concepts as they related to coding and music. Kevin and I started off talking about crip time and what “hacking” time might look like in the vein of critical design. From there, Kevin introduced me to a program called Max7, which allows the user to do video, audio, and visual manipulation through patch cords. Its programming style, which allows one to code through attaching patches to one another – kind of like circuit boards – allowed me, a beginner, to visualize what I was doing. To give you a sense of what this might look like, here is a screenshot of one of the first small projects that I put together with the help of online tutorials:

Mang Image 1.png

[IMAGE 1: Image description: A screenshot of a small Max7 project. The background is light grey. Scattered around the background are darker boxes, some square-shaped, others rectangular. The square boxes have X’s and O’s on them while the rectangular ones have words such as “Hello World” or “metro 1000”. Some of the darker boxes are linked to others to represent a closed circuit. There are some pieces of text on the grey background describing some of the functions of these patches, such as “object perform a function” or “left hand – activating; right hand – receives data but does not activate”.]

In other words, I was able to visualize how connecting one button to another would result in a metronome flashing at different beats (the left and right columns) or a comment box producing text (the middle part). I don’t have other user testimonials to support this, but I can imagine how the very process of this type of visualization can really help conceptualize the cause-effect relationship present in coding.

As one becomes more familiar with the tools provided in Max7, one can do more complicated projects such as programming animated notation for a Mobile Phone Orchestra video; creating audio files and clips using Max tools, such as one project that created “an ethereal shrieking sound reminiscent of church organ in the high register”; or audio visualization like this project dubbed “Singing Sand.” The reason that Kevin pointed me toward Max7 is because it also has a clock function where you can create your own clock and manipulate the rate at which the clock ticks, which might prove useful if I end up focusing on questions related to crip time and ways of manipulating representations of time vis-à-vis this program, as one example.    

As we were talking through Max7 and ways of learning how to work within the program, Kevin sent me in the direction of William Turkel, a professor of history at the University of Western Ontario in Canada who makes open-access tutorials for a variety of programs, Max7 included. I viewed his website, work, and general philosophy as a great example of design, making, and accessibility. He takes the time and energy to put forth pretty detailed tutorials (I was only able to dabble in the Max7 one), including the raw code itself, online as open-access. Of course it doesn’t contain everything, but it is in contrast to more capitalist ways of learning how to code. Some of these programs, though extensive, also are attached to pretty high ticket prices, which again got me thinking about access and barriers to access.

I dedicated the rest of my evening not to my piling grad school readings but to tinkering around in Max7, utilizing free tutorials from Turkel and YouTube. I also dedicate this blog post – and attribute all of it, actually – to Kevin for showing me these spaces and for encouraging these lines of thought. The process itself was incredibly insightful and beneficial for someone who has never even come close to dabbling in programs that dealt with these types of audio and visual tools. It was also hopefully mutually exciting and generative for Kevin, too, who had not touched Max in a while and could pick up new things as we both investigated and explored.

Kevin and I had a conversation near the end of our meeting on the concept of artistry, where I expressed to him that I didn’t feel like I had a place at the table because I have never once considered myself an “artist”. Kevin responded in kind about how artistry is a concept you must continue to explore and carve out. For me, then, if only it was a mere dabbling in code (and also as someone new and shaky to the field of art and design, largely construed), it was still effective (even if not efficient, per se) as a space of possibility and learning. That, too, helped me see the process of dabbling (of exploring and learning as acts that produce joy) itself as perhaps a small counter to the “productivity regime” that the Critical Design Lab seeks to contest.  

Though I don’t have a specific end project in mind outside of the small projects that allow me but a mere introductory handle on the Max7 tools, the process of learning new skills was, at least in my mind, itself a personal example of design and the making process.