29 Giraffes

So you’ve got one more week to view my solo show over at the Axiom Center for New and Experimental Media (through November 6). The centerpiece of the exhibition is my 6-channel, real-time, algorithmic sound installation Kaleidoscope Music, the history, aesthetics, and inner workings of which are amply documented elsewhere (Dig Boston feature, Artforum critic’s pick, Kickstarter project, and several exhaustive blog posts, for starters).

Kaleidoscope Music at Axiom
Kaleidoscope Music at Axiom

Rather, what I’m here to tell you about today are the prints from my 29 Giraffes series that are also included in the show. I usually do a pretty good job of documenting my pieces when they go up, but I never got around to blogging about this series when it was first exhibited at [the studio] in Shanghai, back in August 2009 (check out the press release, flyer, and this fine review from That’s Shanghai magazine). So allow me to take a few moments to fill you in.

First exhibition of 29 Giraffes at [the studio] in Shanghai in 2009
First exhibition of 29 Giraffes at [the studio] in Shanghai in 2009
29 Giraffes represents my first foray into visual art. The earliest source file I could find dates from July 29, 2007. You can see some of the images on Flickr and additional images (including some early tests) on Facebook.

These images were a natural extension of my work in sound, and the original goal was simply to create an album cover for my CD Radiospace 040823 (as featured last night on Gregory Taylor’s radio program Remember Those Quiet Evenings!). That piece performs algorithmically modulated granular synthesis on a live radio signal, sort of sandblasting the sound into new patterns and textures. I got the idea in my head that the album art ought to be generated the same way, and this stubborn notion delayed the release of the album (recorded in 2004) by about five years. It took a while to conceive of how to translate the process into the visual domain, and then another long while before I realized I could use software I already knew (Max/MSP, specifically the lcd object, before I learned Jitter) to pull it off, and then an extended period of experimentation and testing before I felt the results were worth sharing with anyone.

After all that effort, I kind of hate the image I rather hastily chose for an album cover, but I was in a hurry to get the CD pressed in time for the exhibition opening. If I had waited a little longer, this is the image I would have used (and still hope to use for a reissue one of these days).


Giraffe 2009719144455
In the same way that Radiospace samples bits of radio, these images sample fragments of digital photographs. The final images manipulate images of neon lights from Shanghai’s Nanjing Dong Lu pedestrian corridor (the stretch of street where the Sofitel in which I recorded Radiospace 040823 is located), not too far from the Bund (taken on a photo shoot with Jutta for my birthday in 2007, four years and one day ago). The software excises little chunks from these images and statistically arranges them into new patterns, according to various parameters that I can set (min/max size of the image fragment, location in the original image, density, opacity, etc.). The final compositions are comprised of one or more layers (sometimes quite a few) of these statistical passes (horizontal or vertical), which I think of as analogous to brushstrokes, over the black digital canvas.

The boundaries of these digital brushstrokes into which fragments of photographs are statistically pasted are derived from curves I’ve drawn by hand into tables with a mouse. My earliest studies involved Gaussian patterns and other types of statistical distributions, but I eventually decided I wanted to incorporate a more tactile, hand-drawn element. I felt at the time the need to emphasize that these works weren’t simply the cold, rational, impersonal result of a some obscure mathematical formula. Rather, I was involved in an intuitive and iterative process with my software, guiding the generation of new material, and then responding to it to see if I liked it or not, shaping its evolution much as I imagine an artist in a more traditional medium would.

When I moved to Shanghai in 2004, I read that Shanghai was the second largest city in the world, behind Mexico City. These images convey something of the density of urban life I experienced in one of the world’s most bustling metropolises, the exhilarating disorientation and striking juxtapositions. I think of this work in terms similar to those Robert Hughes used to describe the Merz collages of Kurt Schwitters:

Their common theme was the city as compressor, intensifier of experience. So many people, and so many messages: so many traces of intimate journeys, news, meetings, possession, rejection, with the city renewing its fabric of transaction every moment of the day and night…

Kurt Schwitters, Merz 410: Irgendsowas (1922)
Kurt Schwitters, Merz 410: “Irgendsowas” (1922)

The final images have nothing to do with giraffes. When I started developing software to manipulate digital images, my earliest test subject was a photo of a giraffe I took while visiting my parents in Kenya in 2005. I started using the term “giraffe” as shorthand for the whole project, since it was quicker to explain to my Ubisoft coworkers that I was staying in over the lunch hour to work on my “giraffes,” rather than my “algorithmic image manipulation software” or whatever. There aren’t 29 of them either; the number was chosen as arbitrarily as the name, and I kept both to emphasize the idea that arbitrariness (or artistic intuition) is a key part of the piece.

The original giraffe photo I used as the basis for my first visual studies
The original giraffe photo I used as the basis for my first visual studies
Giraffe study, lines between random points in Gaussian distributions, with colors drawn from the original giraffe image
An early Giraffe study, lines between random points in Gaussian distributions, with colors drawn from the original giraffe image

In addition to the first show at [the studio] and the current exhibition, several of these images were included in my solo show “The Point of Departure” at the True Color Museum in Suzhou about a year ago (read the little blurb I wrote about the series at that time here). I also sell these images as limited edition prints on archival paper, and several are already in private collections. If you’re interested, by all means, drop me a line! I guess these are the images CNNGo was referring to when they described my work as “very pretty.”

Going over my notes from the time of the first show, I’m reminded of several follow-up avenues still unexplored. The unanimous feedback I received from that first exhibition was that people would like to see these images larger; at the time I was constrained by what I could fit on one screen at once, but now that I’ve gotten into Jitter, I should look into that. Also, right before I left Shanghai last year, I collected a bunch of additional potential source images from backlit fashion advertisements, and I had the idea of doing digital collages based on awareness of different body parts, but I haven’t jumped on that yet either. As Morton Feldman said, “Now that things are so simple, there’s so much to do!”

Shanghai Traces

My newest video piece, Shanghai Traces, is just finishing its 7+ week run at OV Gallery in Shanghai.

It was part of the Make Over show, curated by OV’s Rebecca Catching as a response to the remarkable face lift that Shanghai has been undergoing for many months in anticipation of hosting the World Expo this year. Construction has been even more madcap than usual, with new subway lines being built, streets being repaved, and housing blocks being repainted several lanes deep (typically dingy bricks painted brick red, with the gaps between them painted caulk white). The Shanghai apartment I vacated last December was 23 floors up, more or less just across the river from the manic construction at the Expo grounds, and the dust that accumulated was amazing. I was considering bottling it and selling it, like Mount St. Helens ash.

Unfortunately, I managed to miss the entire Make Over show, as I was traveling first in the USA, then in Kenya (more on that later), but it seems to have been pretty well received; I’ll try to get some press up here soon. For those who, like me, were unable to check it out in person, here’s a sample rendering of my piece:

It’s a real-time, algorithmic (or, if you prefer, generative) video running continuously in Jitter on a computer screen in the gallery, which means that this video represents a unique configuration of images that will never occur again. I find the topic particularly well-suited to the medium of real-time video, as this is the way people move through a city, constantly coming and going; you never know who you’re going to bump into on the sidewalk. It’s a never ending process. The same thing’s happening in the video: images fall in endless variation, their traces mingle, and then they disappear.

Here’s the blurb I wrote for the show catalogue:

Perhaps to a greater extent than most cities, many of Shanghai’s residents are just passing through. From the poorest migrant worker to the flushest CEO, people come from all over seeking opportunity, adventure, and fortune. Shanghai Traces is a meditation on the manner in which these passing characters leave their mark on the city. The tumbling images are cobbled together algorithmically in real-time, mirroring the interactions of the city’s inhabitants in ever-changing patterns and configurations. Some stay, many move on, but every life leaves a trace, however fleeting.

My video ran as a companion piece to furniture designer Jutta Friedrichs’s sculpture Paved Landscape. She conducted a series of interviews with street vendors who are being evicted from the city center during the Expo as part of the city’s beautification plan, and brought home an assortment of their brightly colored wares. She photographed each item for me to incorporate into my video, and then she encased them in resin and set the resin in a concrete shell with a plant inset. Here’s a photo:

Jutta Friedrichs's Paved Landscape
Jutta Friedrichs's Paved Landscape

She also compiled a book describing the project and collecting the interviews she conducted. (Contrary to what That’s Shanghai reported, that part of the project was hers, not mine.)

Shanghai Traces exemplifies a lot of the ideas I’ve been using in my audio work, in videogames as well as installations. The computer is selecting parameters to keep things unpredictable, but items aren’t falling completely randomly; rather, you can notice that certain parts of the screen develop their own rhythms, sometimes speeding up or slowing down. There’s a list with a range of values for each item; you’ll notice that some items never change color, or that some items tend to be consistently bigger than others.

In addition to the video itself, I also made some limited edition, hi-res prints (88.9 cm x 66.7 cm), captured from the video and printed on archival paper, which are available for purchase from OV Gallery. They make excellent gifts. Here are two examples:

Shanghai Traces 2010119121916
Shanghai Traces 2010119121916
Shanghai Traces 2010119120335
Shanghai Traces 2010119120335

See some more on my Flickr feed!

The piece was originally conceived as a video only piece; no sound. I think in this silent form it works very well in a gallery setting, especially in a group show. After certain past experiences, I’ve gotten very picky about sound in galleries where other pieces are present. Nonetheless, when I started thinking about posting the video online, I decided to add an audio component, so folks wouldn’t waste time wondering what was wrong with the sound instead of just watching. So I implemented a simple idea I’ve been wanting to play with for a long time: from a stream of speech, little excerpts are plucked out and kind of frozen in time, suspended and fading out. In this case the stream of speech is a continuous babble of fragments chosen statistically from recordings of the interviews Jutta conducted. There are 30 layers of this behavior going on at once, creating a nice, ambient din. I like the way the delay time of the little frozen fragments matches the rate at which the vendor objects are falling down the screen. Further, the frozen bits sometimes take on a mechanical quality, evoking the jackhammers that have been enthusiastically tearing up the streets as part of the city’s renewal.

Like any good project, this one leaves me with lots of ideas for further work. I love the density of this piece, but after this experience I’m really curious to do some smaller scale studies, to really get into details of maybe just pairs of objects, and to finely hone the combinations of color and movement (which was kind of the opposite of the objective here). It would also be fun to contrast different types of behavior as part of a larger piece, perhaps spread across multiple video screens.

Big thanks to Rebecca for instigating this exhibition and inviting Jutta and I to participate! Thanks also to Jutta for being a sounding board for ideas, and for helping with the source photographs and audio!