December 22, 2011 | Borough of Manhattan Community College
“I think comics are a fascinating way to get technical information across to students,” says Media Arts and Technology professor Jody Culkin, whose 15-page comic strip, Arduino—which explains a popular, single-board microcontroller of the same name—just went viral.
“The reaction to this comic has been way more than I ever expected,” says Culkin. “I put it online and contacted someone who is involved in the Arduino platform, who put it on their site. It was on Boing Boing, which is a culture and technology site that gets a lot of traffic, and after that, it went on Gizmodo, and then Engadget…I’ve had well over a million hits, which was completely surprising to me.”
Fusing art and technology
Culkin’s comic Arduino is about a microcontroller—but what’s that?
“A microcontroller is a little computer that doesn’t have inputs and outputs like a keyboard and mouse,” says Culkin. “With an Arduino, you can program it yourself to control objects, and you can attach sensors and switches to it, so it can take in information from the outside world.”
Culkin first saw the Arduino microcontroller in action at an ITP Summer Camp, “which is sort of like summer camp for geeks,” she says. The Camp, sponsored by NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, showcases projects fusing art, science and technology.
It also provides workshops. Culkin led the session, “Instructional Comics: Comics That Explain Technology,” and met a number of Arduino fans—not just computer experts, but artists who use electronics in their work, attracted by its ease of use.
Arduino, Culkin explains, is an “open-source” type of microcontroller, which enhances its accessibility.
“I made this comic as a gift to the open source community,” she says, referring to the growing international movement that supports electronic hardware made with readily-available materials, and featuring an open infrastructure and unrestricted content.
Online message boards are ringing with praise for Culkin’s contribution to Arduino’s usage. “You have done a great service Madame!,” says one comment, and others offer helpful corrections: “Shouldn’t the values from the A/D converter range from 0 to 1023 (not 1024)?”
“It’s this great response where people are helping you edit your own work,” says Culkin. “I think that’s really wonderful, very generous.”
Closing the digital divide
Before creating Arduino, Culkin worked on a couple instructional comics with fellow Media Arts and Technology professor Chris Stein.
One explained the binary system—a groundwork for computer software design. The content, Culkin admits, “is incredibly dry, but I’ve always found it wildly fascinating. I tried to explain the concepts of converting from base ten, and what is ‘base two’, with very simple graphics and super bright colors. Then Chris did an interactive flash application, so you could test your knowledge when you’re done reading it.”
From there, they made the comic, Digital Media Life Cycle, “which was about taking information—analogue information that we perceive with our senses—and processing it into digital information, and then back to analogue.
According to Culkin, “for students who are more visual learners, comics can be a really useful resource.” Arduino features a narrator who bears an uncanny resemblance to Culkin herself, as well as the vibrant colors and clean drawings that characterize her work.
“I wanted the technical drawings to be quite accurate,” she says. “I have a lot of drawings of sensors and of the actual platform itself.”
From hand drawing, to digital media
Culkin, whose art career centers on sculpture, has also worked in photography. “I did a series of photographs taken with an electron microscope, of jewelry,” she says, adding that the highly magnified images “take on this other-worldly kind of quality; they look a little bit apocalyptic, like gigantic sculptures made at the end of the world.”
Photography, Culkin says, “is what got me into digital media; that was really the first thing I did, to fool around with Photoshop.”
Her drawings today are done in Adobe Illustrator, a 2-D vector graphics program—and a far cry from the hands-on drawing techniques she first learned at the Rhode Island School of Design, followed by a Bachelor’s in Visual Studies at Harvard and Master in Interactive Telecommunications at NYU.
Long before Arduino went viral, Culkin’s sculpture, photography and installation pieces were featured at museums and galleries throughout the U.S., as well as in Italy, Germany, Cuba and England, and she has won numerous fellowships.
The good news is, she’s passing her success forward, bringing BMCC students into technology, art and computer science, explaining both theory and mechanics, structure and design, engaging tomorrow’s media professionals with hands-on projects, creativity—and comics.