An Artist’s Journey with Code

By

Matthew Epler is a creative technologist based in Brooklyn, NY.

Matthew Epler is a creative technologist specializing in creating one-of-a-kind interactive projects with an emphasis on the Internet of Things. 

His work, which blends digital and physical design practices with computer programming, has been featured in museums and a variety of media outlets around the world including The Milan Triennale Museum of Design, mudac Lausanne, and on Wired, Huffington Post, Newsweek, Reuters, Vice, and Creative Applications.

Some of his most well-known pieces include the Netflix Switch, Levi’s Station to Station, Grand Old Party, and Big Bats

Matthew describes himself as a designer who can code, and a coder who can work with his hands. Read on to see how learning to code transformed his passion for art and film into a thriving career in creative technology.

One day, in a black box movie theater in the Middle East, I decided I wanted to learn how to code. There was just one problem: as an artist with zero technical background, I had no idea where to start.

I could barely use Gmail. I was not given the gift of nerd knowledge by the computer gods. The engineering gods didn’t even know I existed. Today, the code gods are probably just trying figuring out how I’ve lasted this long. But I’m doing it. I’m a creative coder. And my mind hasn’t stopped exploding since I started.

As a kid, I’d always been interested in art and in college I chose to pursue film as my career. After school, I worked in the industry in L.A., then found a love of teaching which took me to Brazil and Jordan where I taught film history and aesthetics.

My life was built around talking about art and helping young people develop their creative practice. It was in Jordan that I found myself in that black box theater, feeling like I needed to try something new.

I wanted to see walls that would shift with the wind, make a keyboard that would paint an entire room as you typed, turn a building into a video game. I started to get that feeling that you get as a kid with a new box of crayons—I just wanted to go nuts.

From Code to Color: My First Project

To do this, I was going to have to learn how to code. And code is not a box of crayons. But I was determined, and after a few weeks of struggling to get the basics, I finally had a project idea. I wanted to turn letters into colors.

 

Completing my first project gave me the confidence that I could “do” code. From then on, I focused on the ideas I wanted to see realized and filled in the coding blanks as I went along.

Pursuing projects I’m passionate about has made my career change possible. People noticed that I was making things with a purpose and that’s what they were looking for on their teams, not just another developer. Now I’m a full-time creative technologist at a startup in New York where I work on physical computing projects, data visualization, and interactive applications.

Every day I get to solve problems I find interesting and present them in a way that’s engaging to the public. My skills also allow me to continue to pursue my own artistic projects which is a huge part of what makes me happy.

I had no idea where I was going when I made the switch to a career that included coding. But I took it one project at a time and I’ve never regretted it.

A Creative Approach to Learning Code

Jer Thorpe’s Infinite Weft is a woven art piece built with Javascript and 1980s algorithms for cellular automata.

The opportunities to power your artistic vision with tech are endless. Take Jer Thorpe’s Infinite Weft is a woven art piece built with Javascript and 1980s algorithms for cellular automata.

If you like making things, consider yourself creative, and are thinking about adding coding as the next tool in your belt, chances are, you don’t want to start with Computer Science 101. You just want to make your idea come to life.

This is good news because it means that you can approach learning code differently. By starting with your creative intuition instead of abandoning it as you dive into code, you can use it to your advantage. 

The possibilities for creative work with code is as vast as any other field. Here are some examples across the wide spectrum of code-based artworks: 

Jer Thorpe’s Infinite Weft is a woven art piece built with Javascript and 1980s algorithms for cellular automata. Rune Madsen’s Tiny Artists series are generative poster designs created with a program called Processing whose code deletes itself after the poster has been made. Briccolo by Nick Yulman uses an electronics coding platform, Arduino, to make programmable musical robots. 

What do they all have in common? A basic knowledge of how computers think. That’s what learning code really is—learning how to speak the language of the machine. What the machine does is up to you.

Getting Started: What You Need to Know

Is it hard?

Not gonna lie, yes it is. But so is every other art form when you first start out. After the pains of the initial learning curve, everyone learns as they go. The best way to get over the hump is to strive towards one project’s completion. You might want to check in with someone more advanced before you get started, though, so you know your idea is feasible. Don’t start off trying to build a flux capacitor.

What do I need to learn?

You should start off learning one language, something that is versatile and can help you achieve your goals. I highly recommend starting with JavaScript. Often used to create interactive effects in web browsers, JavaScript interacts with HTML, CSS, and data both on and off the screen to manipulate their appearance, size, number, shape.

Will this help me in my (not art) day job?

Yes. Once you have the basics down you can branch out with those skills into any number of fields like web development, design, data science, internet-of-things, etc.

Where can I see more cool stuff?

Glad you asked. Here’s a list to send you off into a series of “HOLY WAT?!” moments. Best of luck out there. You have an amazing journey ahead of you.

  • Creative Applications An awesome, all-purpose blog devoted to creative tech works.
  • Eye-O/INST-INT: Conferences focusing on creative code arts. All past talks are on Vimeo.
  • Resonate.io: Early conference on art, tech, and education. Previous years on Vimeo.
  • Eyebeam: A gallery in New York.
  • bitforms: Another gallery in New York.
  • Holo MagazineA print publication now in its second edition published by Creative Applications. A good way to get to know some of the practitioners.
  • Ars ElectronicaAn Austrian institute focused on new media art.
  • TransmedialeInternational art festival focused on digital works.

Ready to transform your artistic vision into a reality?

Learn to code at GA