A chat with Creative Coder, Alexandra Cardenas
42 Berlin chatted with Alexandra Cardenas to talk all things code & all things creative. Alexandra does incredible and innovative work in the field of music; playing around with algorithms while performing live compositions to an audience. She is a central member of the international live coding and Algorave community and has performed all over the world. Alexandra studied composition at the Los Andes University in Bogota, Colombia, and then went on to complete a Master’s Degree in Sound Studies and Sonic Arts in Berlin. Alexandra perfectly exemplifies how creatives can thrive in coding endeavors and how the programming skills you learn can be used to contribute to the arts. Read on to see what Alexandra had to say about what she does and her call out to women to find their place in this algorithmic world and, of course, why #CodingisArt.
42: Your work centers around “the algorithmic behaviour of music and the exploration of musicality within code.” What an incredible area of interest. Can you tell us a little bit about your background and how you got to where you are today?
Alexandra Cardenas: I am a classical composer. Since I was a kid, I have been interested in musical patterns and loved discovering and creating them. I didn’t know what an algorithm was, but it turns out that what I was most interested in was discovering what the algorithms we use (consciously or unconsciously) to make music are. All music is created with patterns, and all of them can be described by algorithms. What algorithms we use depend on our culture, the function of our music, and our personal expression. The academic study of music allowed me to understand this from an intellectual perspective, mainly analyzing classical music and traditional music from all over the world. I also discovered electronic instruments at the university and, most importantly, the computer as a musical instrument. With this fantastic tool, I could not only make all the sounds I wanted, but I was able to perform calculations so enormous that I could experiment with all kinds of algorithms to create music. This led me to perform live writing algorithms on my computer.
42: What does a live-coded music work entail exactly? Walk us through.
AC: First, it would be helpful to understand what “live coding” is. On the one hand, live coding is the practice of performing arts by creating or manipulating algorithms in real-time. This can be music, visuals, dance, weaving, theatre, or literature. Pretty much anything that can be performed can be live-coded. One unique characteristic of this practice is that live coders focus more on the process than on the result. That’s why you will see that we share our screens when we perform, so everyone can see the code being written and look at the artist’s mental process. On the other hand, live coding is a community. We are a thriving global community that constantly works to be inclusive and diverse and nurtures values like transparency and sharing. We have created a celebratory space to create together, which offers an alternative to the music and art industries, mainly based on competition and elitism. Live coding was born in academia, thanks to a beautiful collaboration between composers and computer scientists. It was born from the open-source philosophy, so you will see that all the software we use and create is free for all and libre; this means anyone can use them and is free to make changes to the software. It all started in England, but soon it spread worldwide. Although live coding is still well-rooted in academia, it has anchored roots in experimental, urban, and traditional spaces. Live coding started as a way to create electronic music in real-time. There is not a specific genre attached to live coding; any music has the potential to be live-coded. When you perform live-coded music, you are thinking about music differently than what we typically think about music. We are entering another dimension of musical creation, in which you are creating your instrument, notating your music, and performing it simultaneously. You are creating and manipulating generative music and being completely honest about it at the same time: all your errors and fears are there for others to watch. And it is through this communal acceptance, this authenticity, I think live coding helps recover the collective roots of music.
42: The field of technology is male-dominated, and this is something here at 42 Berlin we are trying to change. How has your experience as a woman in the tech world been? How important is gender diversity in the field today, and how do you think we can improve things for a better future?
AC: Sadly it is not only the field of technology that is male-dominated but the academic music world too. As a woman in tech and the arts, it has been a painstaking process to be able to live my passion and to live from my passion. I noticed that I would not be able to thrive and bloom in such an arid environment. I was lucky enough to find live coding in my mid-thirties and discovered immediately that this was the space and community I was craving. It offered me a safe space where I was finally not being discriminated against because of my identity, gender, or race. It was a space where I could be heard. And this changed my whole life. Gender, race, and all kinds of diversity are crucial because that’s what life and nature are. Nature thrives in diversity, and we are nature. The artificial idea of making it all centered on the male gender and white race is not sustainable, and it’s harmful to human life and all life in general. Humans are technological from the beginning. Let’s not forget that technology is not only digital technology. Technologies are methods to create something that can be useful. Language is a technology; culture is technology. So starting from the language, it’s essential that we educate ourselves on what we use and why we are using it. Education is the key, and it doesn’t have to come from an institution. Self-education is probably the most critical asset. Follow your passion, ask around, follow your gut, keep away from toxic environments and look for safe spaces. And if you can’t find any, create a safe space for yourself, and others will follow. I can give a lot of advice to women and people of other genders who want to live in a world free of oppression, but equally important is advice to men. Many of them are oblivious of the problem because they live with the most privileges. But again, this is unsustainable. At some point, this discriminatory way of living will break apart. My advice for everyone, but especially to men, is to educate themselves on feminism and read and learn what it means, not what they hear about it, which is mostly wrong (most men haven’t even read one book about feminism!). We need to understand that equity is the way to ensure life, and it’s also a responsibility of males. Patriarchy is harmful to everyone, not just women. We need to work on acquiring this balance as a community, in our case, the tech community, but it needs mostly inner, individual work to become conscious of our problems. Once we achieve that, the solutions will show themselves.
42: And finally: For you, why is #CodingisArt?
AC: Coding is a natural vessel for art. It is an activity that engages our creative powers and allows us to dream of other worlds, other realities, and universes. It has been the task of artists in human societies to open our consciousness to new codes, to new ways of perceiving reality. Digital computers have enhanced our computation capabilities, thus giving us the possibility to dream way beyond what we have imagined. Art empowered with digital technology is a blessing that is giving us the opportunity to rethink time, presence, embodiment, culture, and reality itself. It might be the mix that can save humans from their own destructive habits. Become a conscious coder, become a conscious artist, and you can create a better world for all.
To find out more about Alexandra Cardenas, head to her website.
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