Last year was the inaugural Urban Prototyping (UP) Festival, which is a Gray Area Foundation for the Arts initiative. What exactly is urban prototyping? Easy. Watch the video. Not satisfied or don’t have much time to watch the video? Okay, I’ll try to offer a simple, straightforward answer. Urban Prototyping entails gathering artists, technologists, makers, or anyone interested in creating something useful, fun, and engaging for city dwellers as well as visitors and re-imagining the urban environment. From a heart-shaped device capturing your heartbeat and turning it into a musical composition to a street planter using bio filters (yes, urine in this case) to re-purpose waste material, Urban Prototyping re-envisions urban space, landscape, and experience.
On San Francisco’s bustling, highly trafficked Market Street, the organization Gray Area Foundation for the Arts (GAFFTA), is changing the face of arts and technology in a significant and dramatic way. Seeing a lack of representation in the digital arts movement accompanied by a profound interest in creating a space where such art could be seen, founder and Executive Director Josette Melchor created the nonprofit in 2009 in the midst of a financial crisis. Despite the downturn in the economy, Melchor dedicated her efforts to creating a space for both aspiring and established artists and creative technologists. From interactive artworks and data visualization to creative coding, this organization has become one of the most prominent spaces for arts and technology, fostering change and innovation not only regionally, but also internationally.
At its core, Gray Area works with established artists such as Aaron Koblin and Camille Utterback to expose the public to software-based works that are both interactive and immersive through various tools of technology, such as programming, coding and data visualization. Integrating audio- and sensory-based controls, the works you might experience at a GAFFTA exhibition or event undoubtedly showcase most ingenious and experimental uses of programming technology and how contemporary art is created. Even donations to Gray Area have been made into a work of art. The nationally recognized and award-winning work Seaquence is a virtual art piece intertwined with a participatory aspect where donors are given a gift in return: a musical life form. Resident artists Ryan Alexander, Gabriel Dunne and Daniel Massey co-created this interactive music platform, forming multifaceted art to dynamically and physically enable donors to see their contributions transform within a virtual environment, thus becoming part of an even larger visual- and music-based system. Gray Area artists, technologists and faculty are constantly forging radical new ways to bring the community into the creation and discussion of the work. Although the organization can easily boast its tremendous creative talent, the exceptionally skilled faculty aims to teach novice technologists within the community both technical and artistic skills such as programming and electronics. The goal is to draw different sets of curious minds into the discussion and progression, bridging the gaps between arts and technology.
Gray Area is particularly well known for weekend events called hack-a-thons, which gather creative professionals across multiple disciplines such as art, engineering, education, architecture, journalism and writing. These events facilitate the creation of mobile applications, with objectives such as fostering transparent communication between citizens and government officials. Hack-a-thon participants also produce conceptual artworks that transform public data into visually dynamic pieces. More recently, the nonprofit was awarded a $100,000 grant by the National Endowment for the Arts to put toward the implementation of a National Data Canvas Project. According to Gray Area, “The project will distribute data-driven art in urban environments across the United States and will include a mobile application for public use. Utilizing data.gov, the project will allow the general public an enjoyable and engaging way to discover new information through artistic data visualization and interactivity.” Essentially, the project will allow for artists, designers and developers across the nation to create works in their own region based on creative coding assembled by the San Francisco–based Gray Area team.
Situated in San Francisco’s Tenderloin, Gray Area wanted to take part in the overall revitalization of the neighborhood by bringing some the city’s brightest creative talent to the district to assist in affecting change. As this center takes on even more demanding and worthwhile projects, there is one particular initiative that is both notable and eye-opening. The Creative Currency: New Tools for a New Economy is the latest initiative seeking to bring community leaders and organizers, politicians, artists and technology professionals together to affect change within a community with their collective skills.
Originally published and posted to Asterisk SF Magazine, please click here to view
Over the weekend, I volunteered at the Art Hack SF Weekend held at Gray Area Foundation for the Arts. There were artists, programmers, art directors, designers, musicians, and other creative types. How àpropos that Soundquake was one of the winners for the weekend (with the 5:33 am 4.0 magnitude morning shaker)! Below, are short impressions while I was sitting in on the presentations. Overall, it was a great group of mega intelligent folks working together to meet at the intersections of art and technology. Great weekend, awesome food, brilliant people, and phenomenal ideas coming to fruition. Please check out The Creators Project and Gray Area Foundation for the Arts to learn more about the collaborative event and upcoming Creators Project exhibition at Fort Mason mid-March!!
* Please note: The list is organized by order presentation.
Soundquake – From different vantage points, Soundquake enables the viewer to experience an earthquake through sound and visualization. The project team used about 900 different data points, mapped, and overlaid on a 3D plane. For each earthquake, the team took into consideration the magnitude and epicenter. Currently, a banjo plays music at varying speeds. As the project team explained during the presentation, the concept entailed looking at something terrifying (Note: SQ created by transplants) and turn the experience into something beautiful with audiovisual effects. Being both a literal and abstract representation of earthquakes, both natives (I fall into this category) and transplants alike will appreciate something beyond themselves. This is a visualization and representation of nature. The 8-bit graphics, banjo recordings (done over the weekend!!) along with low-fi elements that combined cutting-edge technology were impressive. (WINNER) and (Dorothy Santos Favorite)
Letter Spacing – With the varying skill sets of designers and artists in the group, the team based their project on their collective interests, both aesthetically and personally. The series of letters rendered in WebGL and ‘spirit lines’ projected and animated based on orientation of shapes also relies on the a displacement map. The interactive component allows the end-user to interact with the piece through an exploration of the alphabet through a webcam feedback functionality that changes the texture of the letter and lines. Someone in the audience commented that it would be great for children learning the alphabet and language. I agree. It would be great to see where this project goes.
Spinny Video – For anyone learning WebGL, this was a unique project. Spinny Video, although vertiginous, shows the viewer a virtual world where they can move 360 degrees in a virtual space. We’re not talking video game play but in a space that is photo realistic and represents real world images. Imagine being in a snowglobe coupled with audio (within a cube or sphere). Cool, right? At the moment, the open format video is available for download and makes a great break from the lackluster workday.
Gabulous – The Gabulous team created an immersive and massive multi-player game based on Twitter. The objective is to allow the user to navigate a 3D virtual world where friends have the ability to walk through a Twitter virtual world accompanied by music and sounds. This team was definitely organized in their approach and accomplished a great deal of work during the weekend. From technical art to 3D modeling to programming, this team used their time well.
Flying Toasters – This group took a nostalgic look at the early 90s screen saver – the Flying Toasters. The project was an “homage to screen savers of yesteryear”. The premise of encouraging non-interactivity caught my attention. In a world glut with constant activity, Flying Toasters was a pleasant surprise at an art hack. Most, if not all projects, incorporate interactivity, which is great. However, I’m also a big fan of taking breaks and meditating, which many people cannot imagine in a highly connected world. Yet, this project reminded me that it’s OK to sit back, relax, and enjoy home appliances in flight!! (Dorothy Santos Favorite)
Jordan and Jeff – Jordan and Jeff worked with graffiti markup language, GML, that could also be plugged into other software. The visualization is available on GitHub as a series of blocks. The audio/visual web-based music experience has a lot of promise. The original composition was memorable and I’m looking forward to accessing the piece at a later date to view further developments.
Audio Shader – Essentially, Audio Shader is a music visualizer with specific parameters the user can change. Now, before you go thinking, “Doesn’t iTunes visualizer do this?” The answer: No. This is different. Very different. The varying source coding for the shader is the greatest aspect of this project. With a visual artist as part of the group, the code he produced for his visualization was reminiscent of light-based artworks found at new media arts gallery!! The group’s desire to explore how visuals can accompany a DJ’s music set or an artist’s visual work was definitely a commendable effort. Looking forward to seeing the fully developed project at The Creators Project exhibition! (WINNER)
Falling Leaves – What an interesting concept! This team decided they wanted to look at simulation and movement of a population. However, Falling Leaves is based on an interest of dead organisms. As one watches the falling leaves, the viewer is able to see a figure walking through the application. The data (or falling leaves) fall helping to form a figure. Conceptually, a strong project because it can be used to look how history (through historical data and events) effects the figure.
Partyline – The presenter said it best, “…some of the best art is transgressive”. I absolutely agree with this statement. Partyline certainly delivered on the concept of the arts and technology hybrid. Essentially, Partyline is based on true hacking. As multiple phone numbers are dialed before the audience, an increasing cacophony of sound forming a cloud of noise is produced. Partlyline easily made my favorites list. It was a crowd favorite, actually. This piece would make an (insanely) phenomenal performance piece. Aesthetically and conceptually, it’s was one of the brilliant projects at #arthacksf because it looked at the human voice, sound, the post modern audio landscape, and how communication has changed (significantly). I spoke with one of the team members (Casey Rodarmor) and discussed looking at other regions (then again, international numbers would be difficult to dial, logistical nightmare, actually). Fantastic art hack!! Also, this project served as a great reminder of the following: Don’t go leaving your phone number on Craigslist! (HONORABLE MENTION) and (Dorothy Santos Favorite)
Graffiti Jam – Graffiti Jam (GJ) was created to serve as a browser plug-in allowing Kinect to come through. The fractal patterns based on hand movements was intriguing. Similar to Audio Shader, it is an interactive music visualizer but the browser for Graffiti Jam is through the Microsoft Kinect. Out of all the projects, Graffiti Jam seems like a great opportunity to build and develop an actual game. Since the GJ responds to the user’s movement, I’d like to see where this particular project goes. Great start and potentially something worth exploring further!
Lone Wolf – LSD (Layer Synthesis Device) - Video DJ + live performances = Awesome but Team Lone Wolf took it a step further. With one of his current jobs as a video artist creating projections for bands, Lone Wolf used the weekend to develop video and audience participation-based application. He was interested in how the audience is affected by music and how they can integrate their own videos onto live projections as a part of the overall music experience. Mr. Wolf even had a QR code available for collaboration but this is still in the works since he was unable to beta test the application with multiple users. The fact that he created a collaborative video experience piqued my interest and fascination. Definitely a favorite. (Dorothy Santos Favorite)
Shared Cinema – Activating and enabling public space is something we’ve all seen before (i.e., The Great Wall of Oakland or the SMS Slingshot - both extraordinary projects). But Shared Cinema will serve as a video jukebox available in public space. Ideally, people use their mobile device thus producing a video queue where users could vote on videos they would like to view. The mobile app is in development and really wanting to see the final product. Theoretically, this is something I would love to see (literally). Click here to see the inspiration behind Shared Cinema. ANY hack project that ties back into the arts has my vote!! (Dorothy Santos Favorite)