The following conversation was re-published with permission from the brand-new publication Spheres by Swiss graphic designer Philippe Karrer. Rafaël Rozendaal and Jürg Lehni discuss their shared interest in vector graphics, which are based on mathematically-defined geometrical entities such as lines, circles, and points, in contrast with more commonly used bitmap graphics, in which values are assigned to grids of pixels.
Rafaël Rozendaal: Vectors are based on mathematical equations. The equations are perfect. No matter how we try, we can never render a perfect circle in any medium. And even if we did, our imperfect eyes would not be able to register its perfection. Do we have to accept that such shapes can only exist in our mind?
Jürg Lehni: What a start of a conversation! This distinction between the abstract mathematical formulation of geometric shapes, and their realization into concrete, physical forms is pretty much at the core of my fascination (or shall I say obsession?) with vector graphics. The shift is always there, whether it is illuminated pixels being turned on or off, a mark-making tool being moved by motors, or a laser beam being guided by electronically-moved mirrors, burning a line permanently into a physical surface. What it boils down to is the difference between the abstract idea behind something on one hand, and its concrete form when it becomes reality. Plato’s theory of forms comes to mind, with its ideal or archetypal forms that stand behind and define the concrete, physical things.
What’s funny about the example you mention is that vector graphics and bezier curves are actually not even able to describe a circle perfectly. Four cubic bezier curves can be used to approximate a circle pretty accurately, but mathematically this is not a perfect circle either. It is close enough for most human purposes, though.
RR: Have you ever tried to explain what vectors are to your mother?
JL: Not really! I have tried to explain vector graphics and the mathematics behind bezier curves to graphic design students though on multiple occasions, when teaching scripting workshops based on Scriptographer and Paper.js, together with Jonathan Puckey. What I like about that is that the students often already have an intuitive understanding of the nature of such curves, since they are used to working with them by hand in graphic design softwares such as Adobe Illustrator. They know how to use the tangential control points to manipulate the velocity, tension and curvature to achieve the desired curves. I think they are able feel the mathematical nature of these curves.
But since you asked, did you ever explain vectors to your mother?
RR: No, I never tried. I think it’s something that is hard to explain to someone who doesn’t really use computers to make images.
JL: I wonder how you ended up more or less limiting yourself to this format. Was there first a fascination with the idea of pure form and its abstract mathematical representation, or was it more a question of what tools were available at the time?
RR: As long as I can remember, I’ve been drawing. I enjoy converting thoughts into lines. I have an affinity for "abstraction in service of reproduction." What I mean is that in order to make images that are easily copied/transmitted, artists have invented different ways of simplifying. Think of Egyptian reliefs, Japanese woodblock prints, early Mickey Mouse, early video games. In all these cases the medium forced artists to simplify. Vectors are honest about the fact that they are computer imagery. It is clear that they are made on a computer, they’re not trying to be real. I would describe my work as "lossless image compression by making human decisions." I don’t let a digital camera decide how to compress an image, it is my choice how I convert thoughts and perceptions and feelings into lines. Isn’t lossless a beautiful idea?
I always felt that using a computer, we should not try to depict the world in ways that were possible before, like photography and video. We should find new ways of depicting. I always felt like pixels are an approximation of reality, and vectors are a reconstruction. It is the job of artists to reverse engineer reality into their medium of choice. I chose the computer screen as my medium because I like that these screens are everywhere. Vectors felt like the best solution for bringing impressions from “the real world” to the screen. I’m trying very hard to explain why I think it is better. I just feel like bitmaps and Photoshop filters and pixel displacements and mpeg compressions are trying to be something they are not. But that doesn’t really make sense, you can use them in a way that is truthful. But when I see textures in 3D renderings I just feel like they are trying to be something they are not. Does that make any sense?
Vectors do have their limitations. It is really difficult to make something look dirty. Everything always looks clean.
JL: While I never was good at drawing, I can totally relate to this interest in the limitations enforced by the technique/technology of choice. A lot of my work deals with that and attempts to make it visible. Computer companies like to pretend that there are boundless possibilities, that our softwares do not dictate the way we work, that our devices are magical and always there for us. As an attempt to change the role of technology in our lives, and our relationship to it, talking of limitations and celebrating them seemed like an important step.
The observed lack of dirt in vector graphics was also what motivated me to start making drawing machines that would convey the abstract information behind these drawings in imprecise, sometimes clumsy, almost human ways. A machine that struggles with gravity is more approachable than one that impresses with seemingly endless precision, and when working with such a machine, one has to draw for it, with these limitations in mind. My biggest beef with Macromedia Flash was that everything looked so clean, and sort of cheap at the same time. It was almost like a graphic designer who would print everything with a color laser printer on glossy paper.
RR: Did you find Flash rendering vectors noticeably different from other vector software?
JL: Flash as a piece of software has a very interesting history. It was originally called FutureSplash Animator, and was released by FutureWave Software in 1996. The company found a really interesting way of dealing with vector graphics that was very different to what we are used to from Adobe’s prevailing PostScript model, which is what most other applications and standards are using. Since the file format was designed for vector graphics animations on the web, it had to be rendered as fast as possible, and consume as little memory as possible when stored.
Their solution was to use only quadratic curves rather than the cubic bezier curves that we know for example from Adobe Illustrator. These are mathematically less complex and easier to render. And instead of having these curves describe shapes that are to be filled and/or stroked with colors, they decided that each curve (not shape) can describe a stroke, a fill color to its "left" and one to its "right." It is hard to explain what this meant mathematically, but I am sure you know how this felt like when working with these curves in the application, as they found a really clever way to embed this into the user interface: you could treat vector graphics almost like pixels, fill any interior shape, cut through existing drawings with a simple line or curve, and move segments that were divided this way around independently. If you did not want this to happen, you could move things to a different layer, or group them.
All these technical differences behind the scenes also means that the way these curves are rendered differs quite a bit from other approaches. I am not quite sure why, but I believe it is due to speed optimizations that were introduced in these early days, that Flash’s antialiasing never looked quite as good as it should have. There was weird rounding going on, coordinates were not stored as floating point numbers, but the less precise fixed point arithmetics were used, which seemed like a good way of optimizing things back then, but nowadays makes little difference and leads to imprecision.
Also, the initially really creative and powerful concept behind these curves unfortunately then got watered down through a series of acquisitions, first by Macromedia, and later by Adobe. Now it’s just a mess of many different models that are layered, like any software that Adobe acquired and merged into their Creative Suite.
JL: When you started working with Flash, were you attracted by this aesthetic? I think you have found a really good way to master it while avoiding all the pitfalls that come with the territory.
RR: What is interesting is that most people need a level of irony or nostalgia to appreciate the beauty of something. It has to go through a number of years where something becomes safer. Think of early video games, it took 20 to 30 years for those images to be appropriated/used in art. Perhaps it’s the same with Flash, in 30 years Flash movies will have the same nostalgia (and warmth) as VHS tapes do now.
I chose Flash because it was the best tool for me. The choice was quite practical. small files, reliable, cross platform... Other options like JPEGs, Quicktimes, Shockwave, Java applets, were all bitmap based and did not scale well. Browser windows are never fixed size. I see the entire web page as my canvas, not part of it. So I needed an image format that can adapt to the wishes of the user.
RR: Is antialiasing a more truthful rendering of a vector shape on a pixel screen, or is it a lie?
JL: I can see how you could think of it as a lie, because it is using different shades of a color at the border of a shape to trick the eye into thinking there is more definition to the image. But at the same time, if you would print the shape at really high resolution on a paper, and then take a digital photograph of the printout at lower resolution, you would get very similar "blurred" borders. In that sense, I would call antialiasing (and even more so, subpixel rendering) a very convincing trick. One can also argue that any rendering of such pure information into a grid will be a lie, since it will be imprecise. An antialiased version of the same shape would then just be a more convincing lie. In that logic, I can see how an aliased version is then so obviously a "lie" that it is more approachable, likable.
JL: This might be a rhetorical question, but which aesthetic do you prefer? Did you ever experiment with pixelized styles and aliased graphics? Do you see a risk of things looking nostalgic when going down that route?
RR: Yes, I felt like antialiased vectors are closer to what the vectors are. Ed Halter wrote that pixelated graphics are a form of "digital materialism," they acknowledge that there are physical building blocks. But now those pixels are becoming so small that to show pixel art you have to use 4 or 9 or 16 pixels to show 1 pixel of a pixelated image. We are moving to post-pixel displays.
JL: I agree. Eventually, the two will become the same, and the artifacts will disappear. I feel the same about any kind of digital artifact, be it the blotchy JPEG compression, its animated twin with MPEGs, or the phonetic qualities of badly compressed MP3s. One could argue that’s the cathode ray tubes and the VHS of our times. The younger generation probably will hold similar nostalgic feelings for them once they are replaced with a new reality that is so intensely digital that it will overwhelm us with its perfection.
JL: Are you looking forward to this moment where all these artifacts eventually will disappear? A sort of singularity where all media merge into one and become indistinguishable? The lack of any kind of artifact as the final artifact?
RR: I think the future is very uncertain. That is exciting and scary at the same time. I imagine at some point the idea of a display will be old. Why do we need displays? We will just inject ideas into our brains. Maybe we won’t even need ideas, we’ll just inject feelings…
RR: Do you find your audience to be mostly geeks?
JL: I hope not! I am not really trying to speak to the geeks with my work, but I appreciate their interest in it. One of my aims is to demystify technology and make it seem approachable, transparent, humble. I try not to impress with complexity, magic and opaque glossy touch surfaces. In that way, the work should really speak to anybody, not just the technically inclined.
What about you? Who would say is the main audience of your web-based pieces? Is there a clear demographic across the people who buy/collect your works?
RR: My web audience is huge. It’s almost 50 million visits per year. I don’t know who these people are. Some are accidental visits, who happen to find my work when they Google the word "Toilet Paper." Others follow my work for years.
As far as my collectors, they are not geeky at all, they just respond to my work and they like the challenge of owning a website as part of their art collection. I’m hoping at some point the startup/software/tech community will be into the idea of collecting art websites. They would be really good at preserving the works in the long run.
JL: It is interesting you mention these new communities of wealth. I recently had multiple discussions about that, and from all I hear it seems these people are not at all into collecting art yet, even art that relates to their own work, although they would have the financial situation to become collectors. Do you have a theory as to why that is? I have a feeling that the person who will crack that mystery will become rather rich in the process.
RR: I consider the tech community as people facilitating a cultural revolution, enabling everyone to be an artist and to speak to their audience directly. Image software, browsers, social media, they made a whole new way of creating art possible. If you are creating a system where anyone can create and share, why would you be interested in the old centralized gallery-collector system?
I’m hoping we can live a less material life, not needing too many things, just some good screens.
RR: Has your relationship with vectors changed over the years?
JL: Not really! But I do recently get a refreshing new sense of emancipation from the preexisting tools thanks to Paper.js, which in one sentence is the effort to free ourselves from corporate constraints that Scriptographer.org was suffering from as an Adobe Illustrator plugin. It feels a bit like the buddhist exercise where you take the temple apart into the smallest pieces, and rebuild it again, with the added challenge of moving all the pieces to a new location, and adding all the missing pieces, which do not exist outside the host. In this process I had to learn a lot about the mathematics behind bezier curves, in order to be able to calculate their lengths, bounding boxes, intersections, unions, etc. It is a very interesting project that is still ongoing, and a whole lot of fun to work on!
JL: Do you program yourself? Or do you collaborate with people in order to build your works?
RR: No, I don’t program myself. I met Reinier Feijen when I was in art school. He was studying A.I. and he helped me out with some small issues. It turned out it was fun & easy for him. I had some more ideas and he helped me realize them. It’s a great collaboration… He’s very relaxed and practical and we don’t have creative conflicts, our roles are clear. I’m happy I worked with him from the beginning because if I had been programming myself I would not have been able to produce as much as I do now. I would love to work with more people at some point and realize as many ideas as possible. I love love love the process of coming up with something and creating it. That’s why I always loved the web, you can make something and publish it immediately. A direct connection between artist and audience.
RR: Were you always into the web? Or did you do a lot of offline computing before you discovered the WWW?
JL: I did work on offline projects before the web, for example a 3D game engine and design software around 1996, and a modular software synthesizer, coupled with the concepts of a mod tracker in 1998. But after that, I started focusing on applications online, since the possibilities of reaching many instantaneously, and working with online communities seemed way more interesting. But after a series of online design apps, toys and playgrounds (Lego Font Creator, Rubik Maker, Vectorama.org), I soon became interested into moving beyond the limits of the screen, and started exploring physical drawing devices as another way of working with the same information, as a sort of extension of the software back into the physical world.
RR: Have you experimented with vector displays/monitors?
JL: I mean to do so, and during my residence in New York in 2007, I even bought a Vectrex with a couple of games on Ebay. I was really fascinated by the aesthetic that results from a directly controlled ray in a cathode tube, with a complete absence of pixels. The idea was to write custom software in assembler for the device. But given its enclose and appearance, I felt that such a work would always feel nostalgic, and I could not find a good purpose for the work yet. I still feel that there is a piece in there somewhere. In a way the project Moving Picture Show in Chaumont last year was going back to that interest, where I transformed a 35mm film laser subtitling machine into an animation machine. The setup normally burns subtitles into the emulsion layer of the film, frame by frame, by using a galvanometer which consists of two mirrors deflecting a laser beam. The system was changed to instead draw vectors on the whole surface of the film, from a folder of pdf files, 25 per second. This became a slightly insane undertaking, where the production of 20 minutes of film would consume 10 hours of burning and cleaning film.
RR: You like to develop your own software, and you teach others to do this. How has this developed over the years? Are you hopeful that artists will develop their own digital tools? Or are most people content with mainstream software?
JL: I already explained some of the reasons as to why I prefer open software in my various answers. In the end it really has to do with freedom and control. I don’t like being tied into an ecosystem that is provided by one private company. Technology should be our friend, it should be available to all of us, and it should be dynamic like our languages are. I see technology as a core component of our culture, and just like how we all use language and participate in its constant change, we should get to a point where we see technology not as something that controls us and that we are afraid of, but as a liberator, a means of expression, and a catalyst of change.
This week, there are many deadlines that are relevant to the Rhizome community. You can submit your work to VIDA 15.0, or to Transmediale, or to the Celeste Prize. Someone out there is looking for videos made during the last Manhattanhenge, and someone else wants self-portraits made using a cameraphone and a mirror. Here at Rhizome, we also have an important deadline: today is the last day to apply for the post of Community Manager and Program Administrator at Rhizome. Which means, sadly, that Zoë Salditch is moving on to pastures new.
While at Rhizome, Zoë curated The Download, which offered artworks for users to download and experience on their own computer. She fostered the Tumblr Internet Art Grant, and she organized events ranging from New Silent Series talks and panels to a workshop hosted by The Reanimator Lab where visitors could make hand-drawn animated GIFs, like the Rhizome logo shown above. She leaves quite a legacy, and we can't wait to see what she does next.
Now, without further ado, here are selected events, exhibitions and deadlines this week, all culled from Rhizome Announce.
Wednesday, July 31: Espace [IM] Media is a media art & digital culture biennial event showing the work of more than 30 international artists.
Thursday, August 1: The Videoholica International Video Art Festival begins, screening 147 video works over 6 days.
Friday, August 2: Rock Paper Scissors Collective presents Limited Connectivity, and exhibition where artists Brian Hicks, Larissa Kaul, Rachel Lewallen, and Peter Pendergrass join with collaborators David Broadway and Stephanie Russ to confront identity, persona, desire, sexuality, and spirituality in the digital world.
Saturday, August 3: Echolocation invites the public to take a sound art audio tour of Wychwood Barns Saturday morning Farmers' Market.
Monday, July 29:
29 July: "Rhizome seeks a highly capable, communicative and organized internet native to care for and cultivate our community."
Wednesday, July 31:
VIDA 15.0 offers awards for recent or envisioned art projects that offer innovative perspectives on artificial life.
MON3Y.US has extended the deadline for MON3Y as an 3RRR0R, calling for artworks that deal with the concept of Glitch/Error.
The Celeste Prize is looking for talented artists around the world, regarldless of age, profession or gender, to submit to their board of international cutrators.
Espacio Enter is seeking works in all sectors related to art & digital culture for their international art festival in November.
Anders Weberg and the Stian Gallery asks artists to submit a creative self portrait using a mirror and a cameraphone. All submissions that meet the requirement will be included.
S/N Coalition has an open call for videos taken during the last Manhattanhenge. Videos must have been captured between 7:30 and 9PM in Manhattan on July 12, 2013.
The Lumen Prize seeks 50 artists with digitally-created work for an exhibition set to tour the UK, USA and Asia, along with cash prizes.
Artfetch has put out an open call for work from undergraduate, graduate, and recent art school alumni for an upcoming online exhibition.
Transmediale 2014 asks contributors to reflect on the 'afterglow of digital culture' through trashed technologies, ideas, and narratives.
Thursday, August 1:
PixelPops 2013 is seeking works confronting the idea, act, or process of regeneration, or replacing what was lost in an environmental sense.
Marialaura Ghidini, ed. On the Upgrade: WYSIWYG (or-bits.com, 2013).
One of the most intriguing things about On the Upgrade, a series of publications resulting from the activities on online exhibition platform or-bits.com, is the way it considers shifts in formats. At first look, the book series seems like a kind of flexible archive. The web-based projects of or-bits.com are reflected in printed form in the books: artists who contribute to the publication are those who participated in the various online projects of or-bits.com. And the book is used as a way to disseminate, document, or expand the work within a different scheme.
But the transition from online to print is not always seamless. In the introduction to WYSIWYG, the latest On the Upgrade publication which came out in May, the book is described as "a new configuration of the works." While some of the online pieces are more amenable to the book format (Julia Tcharfas’s research, presented in typewriter typeface, looks natural in print in a way that would always look precious online), others are distant cousins of their online iterations (a transcription of a live online radio piece by Sara Nunes Fernandes).
A book is a more stable format than a webpage, for sure, which is one of the reasons why a lot of online publications publish physical books as well. But if considered purely as an archive—and especially as a way of archiving, or even simply documenting artworks—a book also introduces a number of new problems in relation to other iterations of any given project online. For example, in WYSIWYG, the footnotes to artist David Horvitz's contribution include multiple references to Wikipedia—content that is subject to change over time in a way that a book is not. In comparison with online publishing, the book format is not just stable, it is also rigid, unable to reflect shifts in circumstances or any other development.
The real contribution of or-bits.com’s publishing initiative is the way in which it considers the book as an interface. In the case of WYSIWYG, this concept led to a series of guidelines sent to the artists (the book will be an A5 size bound book, the work should be presented linearly across five pages, etc.) in preparation for their contribution. Thinking about the physical form of the book and referring to it as an interface seems pretty radical, especially for an organization that publishes online. The transition from the internet to the offline, printed book shouldn’t be seamless and mindless, it should be considered—and it so rarely is.
The materiality of the interface is a great guideline. WYSIWYG needs to be held vertically and horizontally, which would be a problematic exercise on a device that automatically rotates the page to keep it upright at all times. It has certain contributions (like Renee Carmichael’s and Maria Theodoraki’s pieces) that extend across the width of a two-page spread. These don’t translate well in a PDF format, but look natural and graphically enticing on the page.
Excerpt of Maria Theodoraki, the line (2010-) as published in On the Upgrade: WYSIWYG.
The more we use the internet for experiments with ways of displaying and disseminating art, the more discussions will be generated about how contemporary art is communicated online. WYSIWYG is conceived as a book exhibition (or an exhibition bound in a book) and it’s a good example of an offline translation of or-bits.com’s particular exhibition structure. We should support such structures that work beyond the binary division between offline and online presentation, because bringing these spheres into dialogue reveals new possibilities and impediments for artists and publishers.
These questions are relevant to Rhizome’s own activities. Could The Download program, which offered digital artworks to be downloaded and experienced on individual users’ computers, somehow be translated to an offline publication? Would that be valuable? Why should we want to move it offline? On the Upgrade doesn’t provide an answer to these questions, only one good example as to why we should be thinking in these terms—because the result can be an inventive, yet still self-reflexive space in which to consider formats of presentation and dissemination of work.
Publisher MIT Press write: Political acts are encoded in medial forms--feet marching on a street, punch holes on a card, images on live stream, tweets--that have force, shaping people as subjects and constituting the contours of what is sensible, legible, visible. Thus, these events define the terms of political possibility and create terrain for political actions.
Sensible Politics: The Visual Culture of Nongovernmental Activism considers the constitutive role played by aesthetic and performative techniques in the staging of claims by nongovernmental activists. Attending to political aesthetics means focusing not on a disembodied image that travels under the concept of art or visual culture, nor on a preformed domain of the political that seeks subsequent expression in media form. Instead, it requires bringing the two realms together into the same analytic frame. Drawing on the work of a diverse group of contributors, from art historians, anthropologists, and political theorists to artists, filmmakers, and architects, Sensible Politics situates aesthetic forms within broader activist contexts and networks of circulation and in so doing offers critical insight into the practices of mediation whereby the political becomes manifest.
Allan Sekula. Untitled [from the Waiting for Tear Gas (white globe to black)
Spatial Information Design Lab and the Justice Mapping Center, the Million-Dollar Blocks, a project of criminal justice mapping in the U.S.
I left this book untouched for months when i saw that it counted over 650 pages. That wasn't the smartest thing i've done this year. Once i finally opened it, i realized that Sensible Politics was a brilliant series of short essays written by smart people about some of the artists, thinkers and works i admire the most. Think Trevor Paglen, Eyal Weizman, Michael Rakowitz, Allan Sekula, Rebecca Gomperts, etc. There's also Jean-Luc Godard, i'm only mentioning him we're all supposed to worship his work.
Surprisingly, there's no lame duck in these essays. I was expecting to skip through a couple of stodgy or irrelevant texts but all i've read so far is a series of very informative and well-articulated essays.
Here are just a few examples of the scope and pertinence of the essays: Ariella Azoulay discusses how images taken as casual souvenir can quickly become evidence that document a crime (think of the torture of the prisoners held at Abu Ghraib) or conversely, turn an abuse into an act of kindness, Meg Mclagan explains how successful documentaries such as An Inconvenient Truth or Supersize Me have paved the way for socially-engaged documentaries that double as commodities with box office appeal, Carrie Lambert-Beatty analyzes how labeling Women on Waves as an art project enabled the activists to bypass legal hurdles, film maker Kirsten Johnson shares her experience of being an embedded journalist in Guantanamo Bay and talks about the military's restrictions surrounding the prison and the trial of Salim Hamdan, Sam Gregory, Program Director at the human right organization WITNESS talks about the fate of grassroot human right footage in the youtube age, the two editors of the book interview Eyal Weizman about forensic architecture, Fayne Ginsburg raises the story of the virtual appropriation on Second Life of Uluru, a major Arborigenal sacred site where non-Aborigenals are not allowed to take photos or to film.
Sensible Politics. The Visual Culture of Nongovernmental Activism decodes and dissects the multiple interconnections between visual culture and the domain of the political. And it does it in a series of texts that are far-reaching, bold and never predictable. I'll recommend this book for anyone interested in activism, politics, social science, culture or/and visual art.
Image on the homepage: © Oliver Weiken, Germany, Shortlist, Current Affairs, Professional Competition, 2013 Sony World Photography Awards. Image Description: Palestinian morticians prepare the body of a man who died during an Israeli airstrike for his funeral in a morgue in a hospital in the Jabalya refugee camp, north of Gaza City, 21 November 2012.
On Wednesday, the Saatchi Gallery will open Red Never Follows. The exhibition features 20 contemporary artists and celebrates the 20th anniversary of HUGO. In fashion speak, the show has been called a 'pop-up exhibition'.
Judging from the programme, Red Never Follows should make for a very entertaining Summer distraction (whether you're interested in fashion and aftershave or not): inflatable architecture, virtual painting using visitors body movements, pulsating kinetic sculpture, floor to ceiling ultra violet-light installation, robot and a bit of street art thrown in for good measure.
I was commissioned an editorial for the exhibition website and I was in jolly company. Filip Visnjic from Creative Applications wrote about Breeding Innovation, Julia Kagansky from the Creators Project was assigned Creativity and Lifestyle, Peter Kirn from Create Digital Music wrote about the discipline blur, Verena Dauerer from Design Journalists produced a text about global trends & innovation. That said, i didn't win the lottery with the theme i was given: Brands as creative enablers. But i do like a challenge, the result of which i was asked to copy/paste here:
From alcoholic genius Orson Welles celebrating the virtues of Paul Masson chablis on TV commercials to rapper Nicki Minaj designing a line of lipsticks for MAC Cosmetics, the idea that brands are champions of creativity can be taken in its most literal guise. It's a case of elementary mathematics, of iconic figures adding their aesthetics and/or charisma to the surface of a brand. When the temporary alliance is successful, both parties are happy, the product acquires edge and visibility, profiles are raised, everyone takes their share of the profit.
Over the years, however, several collaborations have demonstrated that the brand/creator coalition can enter into a more mutually fruitful dialogue. And in these instances, the mathematical operation generates a result far greater than the sum of its parts.
Various scenarios can emerge at different stages of a creative career. Brands can intervene early, at educational levels, partnering up for example with interaction design departments to investigate the future of money, mobility or health care. The goal is not to come up with the next killer app or gadget but to help both the brand and the student sharpen their discourse, focus and outlook at upcoming potential areas of investigation. At the other end of the spectrum are brands that team up with a creator, or group of creators who have already gained recognition (albeit sometimes a fairly marginal one.) The company will commission them to devise a new intervention, a performance or an artefact. Creators might then have free rein, either exploring further a direction they were already working on or taking the commission as a challenge and opportunity to experiment with even bolder ideas. The results can definitely be arresting. The most absurdly endearing example I've ever seen dates back to 2007 when a British style magazine asked Miltos Manetas to come up with a website that expressed the huge debt felt by artists towards Andy Warhol. The outcome is a seemingly never-ending animation of cute creatures literally saying a million thank you's to the pop art guru. More recently, Yuri Suzuki drove around London in a taxi equipped with a microphone that recorded ambient noise such as traffic, police sirens, pneumatic drills, etc. while specially designed software analyzed the frequencies of the rather unpleasant urban sound, and used them to compose and play music in real time. All in the name of a new headphone release that would not have generated such a buzz among design and music aficionados.
As the examples above demonstrate, the dialogue between the commissioning company and the creative individual(s) doesn't necessarily involve any direct commercial application. Sometimes, it is not even about long-term brand building. Instead, we are talking about two partners reveling in the freedom to experiment, take risks and surprise.
I won't conclude that one model of collaboration should be abolished at the benefit of the other. I am perfectly happy with the idea that both types of alliances coexist. The one that involves little more than Shepard Fairey slapping his OBEY Giant character onto a pack of Trusto Cereal. And the partnership that requires both parties to challenge themselves, throw their own boundaries through the window and look for new forms of expression. Whether we're talking about graphic design at breakfast or remastered urban cacophony, all directions deserve to be explored. If anything for a practical reason: long gone are the days when the artist had to be this romantic figure who starved in the name of pure beauty. Nowadays, creators need to pay their rent too and as long as they don't feel like they are losing their soul and credibility in the deal, they can use the collaboration as a platform to gain wide exposure and opportunities for professional and artistic development.
But the other reason is that most people don't feel the need nor desire to enter art galleries, theater halls and museums and that is fair enough. Art, design, music and other creative disciplines are never as powerful as when they exit the air-conditioned safety of institutional and commercial white cubes and go directly to the public. That's precisely where brands have an opportunity to step in and play a more nurturing role to young creativity. Because, for better or for worse, brands are everywhere we look, walk, eat and socialize.
I've never met anyone who said that our cities and sheer human existence were in dire need of more branding. We could, however, all do with a little more creativity and imagination in our life.
One last project exhibited a few weeks ago at the Sight + Sound festival in Montreal. You might remember that a while ago I interviewed Arthur Heist about the workshop Analyze Dat: TOR Visualization & online black markets. Before that, i talked with Nicolas Maigret about The Pirate Cinema.
This time, i had an exchange of emails with Mario De Vega to talk about Thermal, a performance in which he uses microwave ovens to alter the molecular composition of different materials. The work also uses custom-built hardware to sonify the electromagnetic activity produced by the overheating of the content of the ovens.
Hi Mario! Thermal is an audio-visual performance in which several objects are modified using a microwave oven. Now I'm sure you've been asked that questions many times but isn't it dangerous to put objects inside a microwave? The photos from the performances look a bit on the hazardous side to me. Do you have to take certain precautions?
I over-expose danger and confront human vulnerability through a frontal situation. Security advices are given before the performance starts and audience are free to leave the room. I give information and advice of possible danger.
Of course, by overheating a device which development comes from radar technology research from WWII, confronts a complex paradigm: the oven could explode during the performance, gases are highly toxic and electromagnetic activity aim to be materialized thorough acoustic pressure.
Thermal is a confrontation with our own vulnerability using an electronic device that mainly everyone can recognize, a device that modified nutritional facts, social interaction and climate. The action has a political content itself without intending being political as principle. It confronts and intimidates through presence, ambiguity, over-exposed information and acoustic pressure. It also has a visual aim. I'm interested in how electronic devices or arrangements suggest context through ambiguity, in other words, I'm interested in producing events and situations in which codes are visible but not completely "readable". We could be able, in this case, to recognize an object (microwave oven) but our understanding of things reduce our approach, resulting in a situation with dislocated semantic structure in which things are there, frontal and visible and more over we can not understand what is happening.
During the performance, you put materials such as wax, ceramic, magnesium, carboxylic acid, pvc, etc. inside the microwaves. Could you describe how some of them react? Did any of the material you used react in a way you did not expect?
This has mainly a sculptural mean; with Thermal I'm interested in research materialization, irritation and modification as main topics. I modify materials, amplify, expose the process and materialize the results through different outputs. Technically, by irritating the molecular composition of matter, microwaves reflection change by absorption. We can think this in terms that certain materials absorb more than others, and here absorbing means less reflection and less dynamic range in an audio event.
We can understand amplification through four semantic layers.
The first one has the aim to amplify electromagnetic activity, high frequency mainly into the 2.4 GHz range. For this I use SNUFF and LIMEN, electronic devices based on logarithmic detectors used to demodulate high spectrum electromagnetic signals into a human audible ranges.
The second later is luminal activity. Using mainly a custom amplifier (BABEL) to convert lumens into sound.
The third part is electro-mechanic, using mainly a contact microphone to amplify friction and mechanic activity produced by the oven, rotating plate movements, for example.
The forth and last is probably the most dynamic part, reduced in a switch. On / Off. I turn on and off the device in order to maintain tension and produce a dynamic event.
Window of the microwave oven during performance
More generally, could you describe what is going on during the performance? What can the audience see, smell and hear?
What you hear is mainly activity that in a normal situation humans would not be able to codify as acoustic pressure. I use electronic media to demodulate, amplify and over expose highly toxic electromagnetic pollution produced by an electro-domestic device used by 40% of the population worldwide. Burnt plastic and overheated corrosive materials are toxic; smell is an important issue for Thermal.
Moscow Biennale, Moscow, 2009
If I understood correctly, the main instrument for this audio-visual performance is the microwave oven. Did you have to modify the household appliance for the work?
No, the ovens are not modified. This would be a very complex and even dangerous task. For me it's even more interesting to use the devices as they are, I just simply amplify its activity.
Any upcoming project, event or research field you'd like to share with us?
Probably I should then here expose deeply my apologizes to delay this interview so long. I've been working in a solo exhibition in Mexico City during the last two years (SIN); the opening was on the 20th of June in a Museum located downtown named Laboratorio Arte Alameda. It's composed by 6 site-interventions, curated by Carsten Seiffarth and a retrospective salon curated by Michel Blancsubé.
If you're curious about Mario's work, head to Berlin Art Link, they recently visited the artist's studio.
Other works exhibited at Sight and Sound, a festival produced by Eastern Bloc in Montreal: Analyze Dat: TOR Visualization & online black markets and The Pirate Cinema, A Cinematic Collage Generated by P2P Users.
Photo on the homepage: © Kimberley Bianca / transmediale. All other images courtesy of the artist.
On 12 July, the Arts Calalyst organised one last evening of discussions in its Clerkenwell Road HQ.
Ariel Guzik, Resonador espectral armónico
The Language of Cetaceans brought together two men who share a passion for whales. One is environmental scientist and marine biologist Mark Peter Simmonds who investigates and raises awareness about an issue that is far away from our sights: the threats to the life of marine mammals caused by the increasing emissions of loud noise under water. The other is artist and inventor Ariel Guzik who has spent the last ten years looking for a way of communicating with cetaceans.
The evening started with Nicola Triscott, Director of the Arts Catalyst, showing us the Field Guide To UK Marine Mammals. I had no idea there were whales, dolphins, seals and sharks sharks on the coast of the UK!
Next was Simmonds' talk. It was very entertaining but also almost heartbreaking.
We might think that oceans are silent but they are filled with noises and animal conversations. First of all, marine mammals, fish, and a few invertebrates depend on sound to locate food, identify mates, navigate, coordinate as a group, avoid predators, send and receive alert of danger as well as transmit other types of information. It's very dark deep in the ocean so hearing is the sense they rely the most on.
Nowadays, however, whales and other mammals cannot hear with each other because of all the man-made noise intruding on their habitat.
Some of these sounds are so loud, they are driving the animals away from areas important to their survival, and in some cases injuring or even causing their deaths. The intense sound pulses of mid-frequency military sonars, for example, have been linked to several mass whale strandings. But it's not just the military that is to blame. The fossil fuel industry is firing loud air guns fusillades to detect oil buried under the seafloor, undersea construction operations drive piles into the seafloor and blast holes with explosives. Add to the picture, the dramatic growth in shipping traffic that generates a constant noise.
Whales are particularly vulnerable because they communicate over vast distances in the same frequencies that ship propellers and engines generate. The whales are not only unable to communicate with each other but they also panic when the noise gets too loud. When they are hit by a blast, the creatures flee, abandon their habitat and with that the source of their alimentation.
NGO Ocean Care has launched the Silent Ocean campaign. Have a look at their video, it explains the issue with more clarity and details.
Underwater Noise - The Overlooked Catastrophe
And here's the video of Mark Peter Simmonds's talk:
The Language of Cetaceans - Introduction and presentation by Mark Peter Simmonds
Ariel Guzik then presented his attempts at creating instruments that would mediate the communication between cetaceans and humans. One of his latest instruments is currently shown in the Mexican Pavilion at the Venice Biennale.
The devices that the artist developed over the course of his career go from Laúd Plasmaht which uses the electric variations of Mexican cactuses to make a concert for plants to Nereida, an underwater capsule that doubles as a musical instrument to establish contact with cetaceans.
Here's Ariel Guzik's talk. It is not as fast-paced and entertaining as the one by Mark Peter Simmonds but Guzik is one of those 'crazy' visionary artists whose work involves biology, physics, music and a deep respect for the environment. His work, i'm sure, will fascinate you:
Ariel Guzik - The Language of Cetaceans. Part 1
The rest of Ariel Guzik's talk is over here!
Photograph of Drop City dome. Courtesy: 7th Art.
“This dome feels gooood!” So proclaimed the mellow, avuncular Clark Richert on a breezy early summer evening at the MoMA PS1 Dome in Rockaway Beach, Queens. Richert is one of the world’s experts on dome vibes: he was co-founder of the Drop City community in southeastern Colorado that constructed fanciful geodesic structures out of improvised materials in the mid-to-late 1960s. He and Richard Kallweit, another Drop City founder, were on site to discuss the eponymous film about the collective, which had its NYC premiere in Rockaway on June 21 (the PS1 dome opened in March and was dismantled in late June). Directed by Joan Grossman, the feature-length documentary probed the history and legacy of the seven-year experiment in communal living in which members, in pioneering proto-environmentalist fashion, lived on their neighbor’s castoffs while hunting for car tops and construction materials in dumps and scrapyards from which to build domes of various kinds around their communally-owned property.
The documentary charts Drop City’s origins in the Lawrence, Kansas friendship of Richert and Gene and Jo Ann Bernofsky, who began an Ab Ex-inspired form of splatter art they termed “droppings.” Even in its early moments, drop art had public dimensions—at times, they threw paint and other objects out the window of their loft to startle passersby. After pranking around Kansas, the group joined forces with Kallweit to establish the community outside of rural Trinidad, Colorado, which was pretty square at the time, but (as the local sheriff notes) is now the transgender surgery capital of the world.
The impetus to create Drop City derived in large part from a speech by Buckminster Fuller that members attended at the Conference on World Affairs in Boulder. In the film, Droppers recollect the galvanic nature of Fuller’s call for college students to remake the world in their interests, and they were struck by the potential of the geodesic dome as an easy-to-erect habitation. Combining these two elements, they decamped to the country and erected a eighteen-foot diameter dome out of donated and scavenged lumber and nails, and lived in the structure collectively as an artistic community exploring new relationships with work, family, and creativity.
Photographs of Drop City. Courtesy: 7th Art.
More domes followed, and new members joined in the coming years. Yet poverty and deprivation nipped at their heels, and they were never as totally committed to egalitarianism as they hoped. As the film points out, the division of labor in the community left the women to laundry, childrearing, and kitchen work; they also had to do the psychically dirty work of filing for welfare and dealing with the negativity food stamps got them in town. The way the Droppers saw it, collecting government services diverted pennies from the Vietnam War. (An interesting comparison can be made to fundamentalist Mormon communities in the same region that “bleed the beast” of the U.S. government by drawing welfare for “single” moms—in reality the ancillary wives of polygamist relationships. The shared anti-governmental hostility of these micro-cultures aside, unlike the libertarian fundamentalists, Droppers were dedicated to challenging social hierarchies and creating an alternative democratic community to the United States, in spite of their somewhat unquestioning acceptance of traditional gender roles.)
In focusing on Drop City’s origins on an urban college campus in the thick of anti-Vietnam war protests, the film probes what was perhaps one of the greatest pressures facing 1960s utopian communities: that young boomers’ disgust with the excesses of the U.S. consumption-based economy, which they felt masked America’s virulently anti-communist and jingoistic foreign policy, spawned idealistic, microcosmic communities in which a great deal of stress was put on members to function as exemplars of a new society detached from of violence, greed, and discrimination. Yet in spite of the back-to-the-land, drop-out impulses that led to the founding of not only Drop City but the entire network of dome communes in the west and southwest (including Red Rockers, Libre, Hog Farm, and others), such experiments were subject to a paradox of geographical isolation and media over-exposure, as they saw themselves commended in counter-cultural journals and condescended to in mass-media publications.
The film’s interviews don’t stray far from the talking head format, but charming hand drawn animations illustrate the major events the film describes. The radicality of the Droppers’ quest to leave all number of traditions behind—the necessity to perform uninspiring labor in a capitalistic society, the cultural imperative to consume more, and the fixation with private property, among many—makes the film a jolting report from a region of imagination seldom explored in practice.
The MoMA PS1 VW Dome 2 at Rockaway Beach, NY, exterior and aerial views. Photographs: Charles Roussel.
Projecting the story of an historic dome community in the Rockaway dome may just be such an exploration. In recent years, a sense of the dome as exemplar of a new art of utopian public sculpture has taken root, and many contemporary artists make use of domes as elements or even defining characteristics of their practices. Just to give a few recent examples: Raumlabor Berlin, Minsuk Cho/Mass Studies, Fritz Haeg, and Plastique Fantastique, and N55, and Mary Mattingly in the Waterpod, among others, use the dome as an architecture of gathering places. The geodesic dome was prevalent too in Occupy Wall Street encampments. And the geodesic dome continues to be a popular, one could say the predictable, choice for temporary outdoor exhibitions. The past several years have seen a boom in dome construction in specifically art display contexts; for example, the use of a geodesic dome as a hub in the 8th Mercosul Biennial in Porto Alegre, Brazil in 2011; a dome in Hyde Park, London at the Serpentine in 2012; as well as the large-scale “performance dome” sponsored by Volkswagen in MOMA-PS1’s garden and of course the one in Rockaway. It seems that every art institution’s getting in on it these days.
Why can’t you go far without hitting a geodesic dome in art contexts? Many use domes as sculptural structures, as temporary interventions in urban sites, as kiosk production, and as shelter/information display hybrids. Domes continue to be important to artists as a form of improvised construction using cheap or recycled materials, and in rethinking domes as multifarious structures, these urban kiosks can be seen as part of an argument against eroding the public functions of the city street in the face of neoliberalism’s tendency to privatize and limit public exchange. In these cases, the kind of information housed by the dome connects various struggles concerning the distribution of global resources, an argument that also buoyed the first wave of geodesic domes as exhibition structures in the late 1950s and early 1960s.
This emphasis on redistribution returns to Fuller’s argument that architecture can be a key element in understanding and representing the management of networked resources, and that the dome in particular could be a networked building—a site connected to real-time information feeds updated in various media. One can see this encapsulated in Fuller’s 1962 Geoscope proposal, a precursor to today’s “digital globes”). The Geoscope was envisioned as a 200-foot diameter spherical display covered with colored lights. Fuller planned to have the dome updated with networked information, data that would allow spectators to visualize, study, and possibly redesign the total human environment, including shelter, infrastructure, communication, and other interconnected systems—in order to quickly and efficiently allocate those resources globally. The enveloping space—literally, the environment—of the Geoscope was part of Fuller’s argument that architectural forms were embedded in systems that demanded to be understood holistically and as functions of society’s total needs.
It’s this idea of the dome as evocative of a networked Earth—or of networks in orbit around Earth—that helps us understand why the dome acquired its special purchase in post-war exhibition design and in political activist ventures, and why the viewing subject’s processing of complex media in such a space was deemed, and continues to be understood as, a crucial aesthetic confrontation with the psychic and physical demands of modernity. Dome venues did in the past, and continue to today, intensify the sense of human subjectivity as both enthralled and overwhelmed by the technologically-mediated networks that make advanced communication and the rapid mobility of goods and information possible.
These networks have played a significant role in the recent history of the Rockaway area. Throughout much of the second half of the twentieth century, the community was in steady decline. Its geographical isolation from New York made it a convenient hiding place for social ills of various kinds. Unscrupulous landlords rented shoddily winterized houses to the city’s welfare department at extortionate rates, giving rise to terrible slums. As recreation options dwindled, the summer crowds went elsewhere.
Fast forward to the summer of 2012. Between Memorial Day and Labor Day, 3.6 million people went to the beach at Rockaway. Rockaway’s geographical isolation became less important as its internet presence grew. #Rockaway appears in thousands of Instagram photos, Facebook updates, or YouTube videos of surfers. Last summer The New York Times published nearly an article per week on “Bushwick at the beach”– Rockaway fashion, Rockaway eats, Rockaway surf camp. Unsurprisingly, a cell phone company placed ads at bus stops around the city depicting a surfer on his way to Rockaway via subway, and of course using his phone to tell everyone about it. It was all made even more surreal by whispers about Klaus Biesenbach sightings around town (he’s the director of PS1 and Chief Curator at Large of MoMA)—Klaus was at Rippers on the boardwalk, Klaus was at the Rockaway Beach Surf Club on 87th—all confirmed when it was publicized that Biesenbach bought a second home in Rockaway.
The line at Rockaway Taco in Summer 2012. Photograph: Eric Konon.
In the immediate aftermath of Sandy, one of the unsettling aspects of the situation facing Rockaway residents (and I’m only a part-year resident) was the inability to access communications networks. A cone of data silence descended on the peninsula, hampering relief efforts and efforts to contact loved ones. One friend describes writing an SMS message consisting only of the word “safe” after her harrowing night, transmitting it to her parents during a flickering moment of reception. When relief made it to Rockaway, it was not the Red Cross or FEMA who could be seen canvassing residents to assess their needs, but loosely organized knots of volunteers. Biesenbach sent out impassioned tweets calling for help, and drafted an open letter to Mayor Bloomberg for help that was signed by Lady Gaga, Madonna, James Franco, Gwyneth Paltrow and Patti Smith, among others. Social media hubs such as the Rockaway Beach Surf Club Facebook page became places where resources were pooled and efforts coordinated. In many cases, the same networks that had contributed to Rockaway’s unsettling trendiness contributed to its recovery, and this did not go unnoticed. A recent article in the New York Times on Rockaway ended with this quote from a local resident: “‘There has been a lot of localism here, which is good in some ways, only in that keeps the down for the day — what we call the D.F.D.’s — in line,…. But we had so much help from the hipsters and all people that now everyone is friends with each other. It doesn’t matter if they’re not from Rockaway now. Because they’re here. There’s a whole new level of social camaraderie that never existed. We’re all in it together. It’s a real positive thing.’”
Volunteers gather at Rockaway Beach Surf Club in the wake of Hurricane Sandy. Photograph posted via 4Square by Anthony De Rosa on November 12, 2012.
Still, when Biesenbach pitched the idea of erecting a geodesic dome in Rockaway, as much as I admired his commitment to the area, I admit I was suspicious of the idea—and I wasn’t the only one. The website ArtFCity (formerly Art Fag City) questioned the motives behind the project earlier this year: “The museum will treat the area as a ‘test spot,’ according to one resident in their web video, where they will model the infrastructure that is necessary for the next generation of seaside towns. MoMA’s top curators Klaus Biesenbach, Hans Ulrich-Obrist, and Peter Eleey and its squad of architecture curators will select twenty-five proposals to be presented in the Rockaways this April. It’s moderately unsettling to see museum behemoths curating proposals for people’s towns, but, given how fucked things are in the Rockaways, who cares.”
Yet in my visits to the dome, I was been struck by how the site became a hub for locals and visitors alike, and how it created a space of gathering with public programming attuned to the community. At the dome I saw a friend’s film that was shot on our block in Rockaway, stopped in on a hacker workshop where issues of access to technology and the mobilization of communities through the Web were highlighted, and sat in on an artist talk in which a heuristic project to create barrier islands around the peninsula was proposed (and roundly criticized). In their questions, the dome audiences were keen to connect concerns of aesthetics with an engagement in the stakes of local planning and reconstruction. In this manner, in the Rockaway project, as in many dome-derived architectural works, the dome is not merely a stand-alone shelter, kiosk, or gathering space, but becomes a unique but hybrid object: a sculptural artwork cum pedagogical tool that foregrounds its connectedness to networks of various kinds: material resources, communities and communication.
In the documentary screened that June night, the founders of Drop City discussed how their remote location in Colorado soon became an obligatory pit stop for migratory hippies. Geographical remoteness mattered less and less, as their project was covered in countercultural publications and even Art in America. The social ills that Droppers tried to flee ended up following them, yet, as one admits, they still “somehow managed to have a good time.” In Rockaway, as in Drop City, the dome was less a stand-alone building than a node in a network with both positive and negative effects.
Thanks to the internet, Rockaway Beach is no longer in the city’s blind spot. What new blind spots—places isolated not by geography, but by their lack of visibility on the internet—have emerged in its stead?