When I arrived in New Orleans, I had no idea what to expect for my first INSTINT. I had signed up as a volunteer in hopes of discovering the digital art community; however, the conferences and trade shows I had attended in the past were often a test of endurance rather than a fruitful effort. They required attendees to sit through endless hours of dull speeches in hopes of finding a glimmer of useful information, and to walk innumerable miles just to find the same brochures and sales pitches easily accessed on the internet. INSTINT was my first foray into the digital art world, and I was cautiously optimistic that it would be different – fortunately any skepticism was erased the moment I entered the rustic Chicory for the Expo on Sunday night.
The INSTINT Expo was a vibrant exposure to what the week had in store, with hundreds of artists gathering among a handful of unique, interactive pieces. All of the pieces on display were exceptionally impressive and beautiful, and aside from the common technologies used in creating them, each was entirely unique.
Rick Snow’s A Rippling (Sound) Space was an especially playful sound art installation that could be controlled via hand motions. Using a leap motion it read the player’s hand position and orientation and played a corresponding chord through a set of transducers attached to three cymbals. The intuitive interface could be compared to a theremin, but operated on much more than simply pitch and amplitude and made both beautiful harmonies and intense noise, allowing the player to sing or shout to the room.
In a purely visual display John Carpenter’s Lagerstroemia demonstrated the aesthetic potential of a Kinect. This hypnotizing piece took the depth data from the Kinect, tore it apart and abstracted it into a beautiful piece that is meant to be reminiscent of a blooming Lagerstroemia flower. The visuals are based in the viewer’s physical presence allowing for interactivity through movement, but the data is abstracted to the point that their appearance is destroyed, integrating their being into the flower.
At first glance, W. Michelle Harris’s Can’t/Breathe Mirror seemed very similar to Lagerstroemia, at least in its use of technology. It used a webcam to capture the viewer’s image and projected an abstraction of it on the wall. For some reason I enjoyed it from afar, and hadn’t thought to look closer to find out what might be there beyond the technology. Fortunately, while everyone else left to go watch the first round of show and tell, I had to stick around and keep an eye on the pieces in case anything went wrong. Finally I got closer and spoke with the wonderfully approachable artist and discovered the incredible depth to the piece. The reconstructed image is a collection of the faces of African-American lives lost to police violence. Despite the difficulty of doing so, WM Harris updates the piece as new data is released, finding images of the individuals listed in the latest reports to keep the piece alive and put equal priority on remembering all of the lives lost.
Show & Tell
Show & Tell was also overflowing with talent. 22 incredible artists took full advantage of their brief 5 minute opportunity to stun the equally prolific crowd with their latest work. It was a bit overwhelming covering so much ground so quickly, but it made it abundantly clear that this conference was the place for installation and interactive artists to share the cutting edge knowledge in their field.
Adam Carnes from Vurv presented an interesting approach to encouraging interaction and collaboration in the portable installation Flow Factory. Two participants don augmented “Skip-Its” and the system responds to the speed of their movement. By getting into rhythm with each other, the participants can cause the piece to enter a “flow state” which theoretically should coincide with their own entering “flow.”1
Jingying Jiang presented a stunning sound installation called Path. In this piece based on raking a zen garden, a participant can meditate by tending to a virtual soundscape with an augmented rake. Sounds are generated relative to the location, speed and direction of the rake, allowing for a generative exploration of the piece.2
In addition to incredible artwork, there was also new technology on display. Josh Vekhter showed off the successful result of a Kickstarter campaign: the Woah Board. This Arduino compatible device is focused on using electro-luminescent materials both as input and output, making them into both lights and capacitive sensors.3 Michael Hill also presented a piece created for the launch of the new Vive Tracker at CES 2017. Exoplanet is a demonstration of this new VR peripheral which allows developers and artists to create new controllers and easily integrate them into VR through the existing Vive system.4
Two Days of Inspiration
After getting a good nights rest thanks to the brilliantly late 10:30 am start, I was ready to absorb as much as I could from the renowned artists who were to be giving talks throughout the next two days. They couldn’t have picked a better venue than the beautiful People’s Health New Orleans Jazz Market. The newly built (2015) facility housed a relaxing, open lounge area, and an exquisite hall adorned with sweeping wooden panels.
The day started with Mary Mattingly presenting her latest work, Swale: A Floating Food Forest in NYC. The project involves a barge that travels from dock to dock in New York city to make free, fresh food available for the taking. It seeks to defend the water as a commons and establish thinking about fresh food in the same way.5
In perhaps one of the most impressive talks of the whole event, Rebecca Fiebrink gave a crash course and improvisational performance in using her new tool The Wekinator. This tool allows for quick, simple, and intuitive implementation of supervised machine learning into any project. Rather than spending hours writing and testing code, this program can be used to create a complex input/output relationship in minutes through simple training. Rebecca’s focus is on efficiency in art, using machine learning to make computers more like instruments so that artists can spend more time being creative. The tool works well enough that her implementation of it became a sort of on-stage improvisational performance. Thanks to her engaging talk I went from not really understanding what machine learning was, to knowing a method for implementing it in virtually any project. For those who want to learn more she is also offering a free online course in machine learning through Kadenze.6
Complex Movements, a Detroit based artist collective, presented their latest work, Beware of the Dandelions. This unique experience surrounds participants with audio and visuals through three projections and eight speakers. The group wanted to experiment with new ways of performing and encouraging audience interactivity. Using a Kinect the system tracks the position of the audience, requiring participation to proceed to the next phase of the show. The system uses Touch Designer for much of the processing and projection mapping. This experience incorporates live performance, with interactivity, music, generative and pre-rendered visuals to completely rethink the relationship between audience and artist. In addition to being an incredible performance piece, Beware the Dandelions also can enter a stand alone installation mode between shows. Complex Movements work is not only technically impressive, it also incorporates much deeper political meaning. The ideology embedded within Beware of the Dandelions is rooted in complexity science and Grace Lee Boggs “quantum view of participation.” The group wants to encourage ideas that distribute leadership and to move towards making a large-scale difference by focusing heavily on smaller, local changes that perpetuate. With this in mind they define success in an exquisitely simple way, as “the frequency and depth of unlikely relationships.”7
Luke Fiscbeck & Sarah Rara spoke on the technologies of peace and Rafael Lozano-Hemmer wrapped up the first day showing off his many incredibly creative installations including the beautiful Pulse Corniche and somewhat repulsive Vicious Circular Breathing. After performances by Oracles at the Marginy Opera House, many invaded the bars along Frenchmen Street to check out the legendary local jazz scene on a surprisingly lively monday night.
The next day started with Delaney Martin & Jay Pennington presenting their incredible Music Box Village project that went from a simple, “patently dangerous” collection of installations in a previously abandoned lot, to a permanent venue with regular performances. During the day it is a public space for discovery and play, and at night it becomes a one of a kind performance venue that encourages visiting artists to incorporate its many sound art installations as instruments in their shows.8
In “Orchestral Manoeuvres in the City,” Melissa Mongiat and Mouana Andraos showed off their numerous interactive public art projects. These robust works stood out in their permanence, designed to last years as an integral part of city plazas and parks. Despite the complexity behind the scenes, all of them were incredibly simple and intuitive from the perspective of the user. Their project The Swings, is exemplary of their approach. Taking advantage of the periodicity of a pendulum, they turned the simple swing into an interactive musical installation. As the participant swings higher, they get a higher note, but regardless of their weight or how far they swing, they are able to stay in rhythm, producing a beautiful collaborative melody. While the original piece was a moving spectacle, they have begun to receive requests to develop permanent installations all over North America.9
The afternoon was chock full of tough questions in the interaction & outcomes panel, and further inspiration from Golan Levin’s demonstration of his many talented students’ works. Much of the talks gravitated towards what artists can do to promote positive action under the newly inaugurated president Trump. While the questions outnumbered the answers, it was clear that everyone wanted to do their part to maintain civil liberties through the frightening four years to come. Unfortunately I missed the last presentation of the afternoon on open play by Emily Gobeille & Theodore Watson due to volunteer duties, but the fact that I only missed one throughout the entire week speaks to the quality of organization of this event.
In the evening we went to the final venue of INSTINT, the Civic Theater with an ornate vaulted ceiling contrasting the technically advanced movable floor. Refik Anadol stunned the audience with his casual discussion of his breathtaking work. His presentation “Architecture as a Canvas, Light as a Material” brought us on a journey from his beginnings as an architectural photographer to his incredible projection work that transforms buildings into living, breathing works of art. Some of his most incredible recent pieces include Winds of Boston and Virtual Depictions San Francisco. These latest works take real, live data and turn it into imagery that defines a refined aesthetic of public digital art.10
Wrapping up the conference, Kelli Anderson spoke to her incredibly complex projects built out of something as simple as paper. This Book is a Camera is exemplary of her latest work, featuring a working camera made of nothing but paper. Exploring the size of the internet she produced a rendition of the Powers of Ten using nothing but images found online. And with that, INSTINT was over – the overwhelming experience had flown by in a flash. At times intimidating, it was an inspirational experience that offered a unique opportunity to exchange ideas and expand knowledge.
Not only did I learn about all of these great artists and their incredible work, but I brought back concrete examples of new tools that I will be able to apply to my own work. With Carlos Garcia of Complex Movements personally recommending TouchDesigner, and Revik Anadol suggesting VVVV as tools for creating and projecting beautiful live work, Leap Motion and the Vive Tracker as solutions for interacting with VR, and The Wekinator as a way in to machine learning, I have for once returned home with more answers than questions. I discovered the importance and ubiquity of artist-oriented programming suites including Processing, openFrameworks and P5.js as powerful tools for even the most experienced programmers. I also got to meet some of the most amazing volunteers from all across the United States and learned about the new education programs at the intersect between art and engineering such as NYU’s Integrated Digital Media. In all it served to solidify my departure from a traditional role and my pursuit of an interdisciplinary MFA as a fruitful one that aligns with the forefront of technological and conceptual progress. INSTINT was for me a turning point where I realized I was going with the flow rather than against it – I now find myself following a different stream with an incredible community of people who are the avant garde of the contemporary art world. INSTINT is a collection of artists demonstrative of the current state of the art and where it’s headed.
1. Adam Carnes, “INSTINT Show & Tell: Vurv,” (presentation, INSTINT, New Orleans, LA, January 23-25, 2017).
2. Jingying Jiang, “INSTINT Show & Tell: Path,” (presentation, INSTINT, New Orleans, LA, January 23-25, 2017).
3. Josh Vekhter, “INSTINT Show & Tell: Woah Board,” (presentation, INSTINT, New Orleans, LA, January 23-25, 2017).
4. Michael Hill, “INSTINT Show & Tell: Exoplanet,” (presentation, INSTINT, New Orleans, LA, January 23-25, 2017).
5. Mary Mattingly, “SWALE, A Floating Food Forest in NYC,” (presentation, INSTINT, New Orleans, LA, January 23-25, 2017).
6. Rebecca Fiebrink, “Creating Interactions with Machine Learning,” (presentation, INSTINT, New Orleans, LA, January 23-25, 2017).
7. Carlos Garcia, Ill Weaver, and Wesley Taylor, “Hyper Local High Tech,” (presentation, INSTINT, New Orleans, LA, January 23-25, 2017).
8. Delaney Martin and Jay Pennington, “Collaborative Harmonics,” (presentation, INSTINT, New Orleans, LA, January 23-25, 2017).
9. Melissa Mongiat and Mouana Andraos, “Orchestral Manoeuvres in the City,” (presentation, INSTINT, New Orleans, LA, January 23-25, 2017).
10. Refik Anadol, “Architecture as a Canvas, Light as a Material,” (presentation, INSTINT, New Orleans, LA, January 23-25, 2017).