Creative Coding Utrecht on transparency and co-creation

Informal platforms stimulating design skills among talented young makers have emerged in several cities in recent years. The Open Call Platforms for design-based learning offers these initiatives a further impetus. In 2023, the Creative Industries Fund NL is supporting fourteen of these inspiring projects, one of which is CCU Living Lab by Creative Coding Utrecht (CCU). On a late summer morning we visit CCU. This summer they relocated to a spot at the edge of the city.

A completely different world awaits you here. CCU has moved into a three-storey space in Het Hof van Cartesius: a zone of land alongside the railway in the city district of Zuilen, with pavilions built using circular materials, with recognisable parts of railway stations, trains and rail tracks. The pavilions are set in a wild green garden that is maintained by all members of the cooperative, which are mainly creative entrepreneurs. ‘The key words here are green, collective and circular,’ says Fabian van Sluijs, one of the founders of CCU.

open and transparent

All the pavilions have windows facing the garden. ‘It can get a bit warm in the summer and perhaps a bit fresh in winter,’ Fabian says, ‘but it feels very open and transparent this way. It’s more inviting for people to work together.’ Transparency is an important element in the overall concept of the zone, as a way to make the makers’ work process more visible. Which happens to be entirely in line with ‘creative coding’.

Once inside we also meet designer Saskia Freeke, who is involved in education, and Niki Scheijen, an independent maker who works with her as artist-in-residence in the Living Lab programme. The Creative Industries Fund’s Open Call Platforms for design-based learning contributes to the coordination of education and to mentoring artists-in-residence.

Fabian van Sluijs in front of the Creative Coding Utrecht studio. Photo: Lizzy Zaanen

platform for digital creativity

Creative Coding Utrecht is the leading platform for digital creativity that links together makers, organisations and sectors, inspires the public and shares knowledge with amateur enthusiasts and IT professionals. Fabian: ‘CCU offers opportunities for a first introduction to creative coding, but we can also help professionals with a more in-depth exploration. For us it’s all about sharing and exchanging knowledge.’ Contacts emerge by organising meet-ups. ‘What struck us at first is that the meet-ups not only attract creative makers but also interested people without a background in design or art. Many people are eager to connect with others in order to experiment. We offer a platform where everyone can be inspired and can gain knowledge and follow workshops. That’s how we’ve grown further. Thanks to the Creative Industries grant, we can enlist external experts to refine our own proposition and to make clearer choices as to our target groups. These groups are young makers seeking a stepping stone on the one hand, like Niki, for which learning-by-teaching is a suitable approach; and on the other hand we focus on young people aged 14 to 21. A new marketing and communication plan is currently being elaborated to help attract this target group to our new studio.’

Designer Saskia Freeke at the Creative Coding Utrecht studio. Photo: Lizzy Zaanen


‘By emphasising the making process, we believe you can also develop a different perspective on the role of technology in society. Whereas IT is strongly focused on efficiency, we feel that creativity and the process are much more important. Our workshops and meet-ups are characterised by co-creation. It’s not so much the result that matters, but that everyone helps everyone else. By focusing on the making process, you also learn to recognise the underlying systems and work processes. It is very transparent and very much in tune with today.

The Creative Industries Fund NL is supporting us through the Platforms for designed-based learning programme, and we are also supported by the municipality of Utrecht. The focus is on experimentation. Thanks to the support, we are able to keep the prices of workshops and other activities low. This reduces the threshold to participate.’

In the workshop 'Learning by Teaching' young makers learn to reflect on and to present their work.

learning by teaching

Saskia: ‘We have developed some strong partnerships with schools and universities; they know where to find us with their questions. We often collaborate with colleagues within our collective. We have also become increasingly professional in recent years. At this location we have sufficient room to organise all sorts of things, which has significantly boosted our visibility. We organise activities all year round, on the one hand for young makers who have recently graduated or are still studying. We work with them to develop workshops, such as Learning by Teaching. Here, young makers learn to reflect on and to present their work. On the other hand, others can learn from them. We have also set up collaborations with schools and cultural centres and large events where we offer workshops; for instance at light art festivals, where we can demonstrate what you can with digital creativity. The largest project so far took place last year: the exhibition Gardening Amelisweerd, devoted to cultivating the relationship between people and nature through technology and spirituality.’ Fabian adds: ‘There will be a follow-up to this in the coming time, by further developing the circular philosophy of the exhibition and of our hotspot in our programmes.’

Live coding demonstration at the Creative Coding Utrecht studio. Photo: Lizzy Zaanen

Saskia continues: ‘We are now working with secondary school teachers to identify needs. Artificial Intelligence (AI) is very much in the public eye and we’re getting a lot of questions about it, certainly also from teachers. We consider it a part of our job to help people overcome the prejudice that technology is only for nerds.

One example of a workshop that we organise for secondary school students is to make face masks, as a variation on the filters you can apply on your mobile phone camera. Working with artists’ collective Katpatat, we developed an app that lets you make drawn face masks. We focus especially on the making process, as it’s not just the digital technology that matters but also the underlying logic. In the workshop, participants literally make a drawing on paper. Next, you can have a discussion about what beauty is, but also about privacy. After that you can photograph it and in that way create your own filter. This is one example of combining an analogue method with the digital world.’

live coding

Niki joins the conversation when we want to know more about the concept of creative coding. Niki works on live coding, which is something she discovered when others shared it with her. Live coding means coding with other people looking on, and in that way literally offers others a peek behind the screens. Niki extends the projection screen and opens her laptop. Codes that she types on her keyboard appear on a black screen. She codes a triangle, adds colour to the shape, and lets the shape spin around. She adds lines and fields to create a visual spectacle. Niki: ‘You can use this as a visual show to accompany music, or as a background to theatre or dance. As you can see, it’s very transparent. I write something and the result is immediately visible. Since the coding language is relatively simple and it delivers immediate results, it’s a great way to introduce young people to coding. I often play a part in performances. You can also do this together with others, and then it becomes like a coding jam session.’

Live coding demonstration at the Creative Coding Utrecht studio. Photo: Lizzy Zaanen

Recently, CCU has also participated in the meet-ups organized by the Creative Industries Fund NL. ‘It’s wonderful to exchange ideas with others, to hear what other people are doing and to recognize the challenges that everyone encounters.’ A train speeds by outside. It’s time to go. By the time we step outside the quiet has returned to Het Hof van Cartesius, but the creativity remains palpable.

Text: Maaike Staffhorst