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Syed Salahuddin


When did you start working with code?
My first encounter with coding was around 5th or 6th grade. I remember using a dated IBM PCjr (they were obsolete even by 90s standards) for Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing and Logo, a programming language for children created by Cynthia Solomon and Seymour Papert. It let you control a little triangle ( or it might have been a little turtle) on a screen with code. You would feed the little triangle/turtle some instructions and it would move, as it moved it would draw according to the commands or functions you entered. I really loved changing the line colors it drew, it was kind of like have one those multi-colored pens but instead of just having 4 or 5 colors you had 16! I still use Logo to teach my intro to programming students,it comes with Python and is called Turtle Graphics now.

What makes you seriously want to geek out in terms of code/math/computation in general?
I think this is obvious to most people but what excites me is that software, which has no real shape or form other than the bytes of space it takes up and the ideas it's composed of, can be executed by a machine and affect our world. It is the closest thing to a spell or any sort of magick I've encountered. Structure and Interpretation of Computer Programs by Sussman and Abelson, a book that used to be the introductory text for Comp Sci majors at MIT also equates programming to wizardry:

"People create programs to direct processes. In effect, we conjure the spirits of the computer with our spells."

Are you also a hardware person?
I wouldn't call myself a hardware person but I definitely enjoy working with hardware. I've always had an interest in electronics as a hobby and my uncle was an electrical engineer at TI ( who ended up in Neurology ) played a big part in getting me into it. I remember working on kits from RadioShack ( rip ) as a kid and taking things ( sometimes functioning things ) apart and tried to figure what made them work.

When did you become interested in games?
I think I got into games around the age of 5. I remember when my family got our first Nintendo in 1988 or 1989. I was completely absorbed by Bubble Bobble and Super Mario Brothers 2. Almost 20 years later I started getting into independent and art games when my friend Ivan Safrin invited me to a event called Kokoromi, curated by Heather Kelly, Cindy Poremba, Phil Fish, and Damien Di Fede. Kunal Gupta (co-founder of Babycastles) went to the same party and came back with the same conviction that "this has to happen in NYC".

Do you consider yourself a hacker? And are you proud of that? (For example you talked about dumpster diving for parts)
I do identify as a hacker. Most of the folks I deeply respect in computer science are hackers. These people created things like graphical user interfaces, the internet, video games, the personal computer and new mental models for computer programming such as object oriented programming. All the folks who do interesting work were and are passionate weirdos.

When we started Babycastles we wanted to show at least three games at a time every exhibition. Which required a substantial investment in computer hardware and most independent games ran on Windows PCs back then, so it wasn't cheap. Since we had an annual budget of less than $650 during our first year of existence, of which we spent mostly on a neon sign, paying $500-$700 for new computers wasn't feasible. So I dug around electronics recycling centers, Materials For The Arts and Craigslist for old PC parts. Most independent games ran pretty smoothly on commodity hardware that was 4-5 years old. We did have a problem once where one of the computers was so slow that it affected the physics of a badly coded game. And it did it in such a way that when you jumped across a platform the computer spent so much time crunching numbers that the distance you covered was far less than what the game designer intended. So imagine if Mario could never make any of his jumps. He'd sadly fall to his doom every time. This is what happened to some games on our dumpstered computers.

The ability to run independent games on commodity hardware also let us put games on crappy netbooks that we either strapped to ourselves or on to giant stuffed animals. This let us have a mobile arcade exposing people to what we did at parties, museums and galleries.

What medium(s) have you not used yet that you would like to explore?
The next medium i'm seriously looking at right now is DNA. Synthetic Biology and Genetics are getting to the point where you can almost code DNA as if you were to code software for a computer. The tools and services required to fabricate biological systems and components are now cost effective enough to be accessible to everyone. There are community run DIY biology labs such as Genspace that offer classes to citizen scientists and artists on things ranging from Genome editing to Fungi Fabrication where you can grow your own leather-like textile alternatives.

Tell us how games and babycastles jive with your overall approach to work and life?
For almost 5 years Babycastles was my life and work, so it shaped everything I did. I've taken a step back in the past few years and what I've noticed as an "outsider" now is how lucky I've been to meet so many cool and inspiring people in the games / tech / art and music communities. Even as a "spectator" now I still run into the most amazing people when I attend Babycastles events.

What are some of your favorite art works, games, emerging tech flavored designs lately?
I'll circle back to Biology again. I really love everything that Heather Dewey-Hagborg is doing, especially her work around surveillance, identity and DNA portraits. She creates these sculptures of strangers faces constructed from DNA found in the streets of NYC from hair, nail clippings, cigarette butts. Christina Agapakis' has been creating cheese from bodily bacteria with her Self Made project, making us rethink our relationship with what lies between our toes. And QUALIATIK by Arielle Herman visualizes how people listen to music by looking at their brain waves via an EEG device.

Do you see emerging tech as platform that naturally supports inclusion, or conversely do you find it currently to be fostering a pretty homogenous brew of people and work?
I think there is still a lot of work that needs to be done to make tech more inclusive. It's incredibly annoying to see the same kind of people working on the same kind of problem and talking about it at the same kinds of conferences. Tech is still very homogeneous. It's cool that people are finally talking about it and identifying it but not enough is being done to fix it.

Can you tell us about the early days and building up of babycastles and how things might have shifted over the years?
The early days of Babycastles were pretty chaotic and full of nonsense because we were working at a pretty relentless pace. As we grew up we started incorporating some more formal structures like meetings, a mission statement, and a safer spaces policy. These structures were pretty necessary when were just two people but now are essential as the group has grown substantially.

How do you feel babycastles fits into your vision of the world and your work?
Like Babycastles I want my work and the way I view my world to reflect the values of DIY culture. I want my work to be accessible and inclusive, unpretentious, and politically conscious.

How do you feel Babycastles serves the community and do you think it naturally supports inclusion?
Babycastles was created in the basement of the original Silent Barn, a DIY venue in Queens. We inherited all of Silent Barn's shared set of values and convictions on being an aggressively inclusive all-ages space that did not book sexist, racist, or homophobic art, music or games. What also fell out of being in/near Queens was that our shows were also inherently diverse with most of the crowd being composed of women and people of color.

Since now you have nonprofit status at babycastles, has it opened up your options as a venue and an organization?
Having a non-profit status will give Babycastles the ability to apply for state and federal arts funding. Which is really exciting since the community right now relies 100% on the support of people who go to the shows and events. The funding will allow for weirder, more intimate and slightly less frequent shows while not having to worry about making rent.

Anything you want to leave with us as inspiration? Excited about any upcoming gigs or projects for both the space and you?
This isn't exactly a gig but I'm hoping it might lead to something: I'm really excited about a CRISPR/Cas9 course I'm about to embark on at Genspace. CRISPR/Cas9 is a gene editing tool that is a cheaper, faster, more accurate way of editing DNA. It was discovered only a few years ago by two scientists at UC Berkeley named Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier. I just made my first genetically modified (glowing) organism a couple of weeks ago and looking forward to do some more weird science in the lab.

Lastly, this is the construction issue, what do you think in terms of that word and your work? What are some constructs that inform your work?
I really believe in composition and decomposition. Taken a really hard problem and decomposing it into a primitive form or starting with something simple piece and composing it until you reach a level of complexity you want. I like to make things out of simple and accessible materials such as cardboard, duct tape, fabric, and cheap commodity computer components because it’s much easier and cost effective to fill a space with than anything else. The more space you take up the more people feel like they are invited to interact with your work. Interviews
Syed Salahuddin Vol 1