Bjorn Johansson's new interactive project, inspired by Spike Jonze's "Her"
by Mike Giles in Culture on 17 April 2014
We were first introduced to digital creative Bjorn Johansson’s work a few years back when we profiled one of his projects, Big-Ass Message, which allowed users the ability to create full-screen, text-based messages across the screens of co-workers and friends for amusing results. Since then, he’s been hard at work at his day job, yet still finds time for self expression. His latest endeavor titled “Him” is an interactive site, based in the world of Spike Jonze’s film titled “Her.” Much like the character Spike created, "Him" the website has an interactive element allowing users to converse with the pseudo “operating system" that Bjorn has created. You can chat with it about the complex or mundane, and even play with its knowledge of pop culture—it finishes the sentence “What’s the time?” with, “It’s time to get ill." Currently the site is limited to those who use Google Chrome and have a microphone, however Johansson feels these technicalities just help him illustrate his elaborate proof of concept. He spoke with CH about the project's inspiration and plans for its future.
Where did the idea stem from?
The seed for the idea was planted a while ago when I learned about Google Chrome’s speech recognition capabilities. That instantly struck me as something I wanted to use for a project, even though I had no idea what that project would be. A few months later, I had a meeting with Avery Lipman, who is the COO of Republic Records. It was an interesting meeting, but we never got around to talking about what I could or would like to do if I got a chance to work with one of their artists. Nevertheless, that’s what I left the meeting thinking about. And then finally, while doing research for another project, I just happened to learn how easy it is to incorporate computer generated speech into a website. With Spike Jonze’s “Her” fresh in my memory, all these things just came together in my mind. And the outcome was the idea to make a "Her"-inspired website you can talk to, with me replacing Theodore (the film’s protagonist) and at the same time portraying myself similar to a music artist. Add to that the fact that I’ve been a Spike Jonze fan since he wrote for Grand Royal magazine in the mid to late '90s, and the whole thing felt like an even better idea.
Just how easy is it to incorporate Google Chrome’s speech recognition into a website?
The basic functionality can be achieved with just a handful lines of code. Customizing the implementation takes a lot more work though—depending on what you want to use it for.
What do you hope others will get out of interacting with the site?
I just hope people realize what a badass digital creative I am! Due to the fact the there’s a pretty high threshold to enter the site—Chrome only, no mobile, mic required—I consider this project a very elaborate proof of concept. Speech-recognition is a very nascent concept on the web, and I think it'll take a few more years before it breaks through and becomes mainstream. When that happens though, hopefully people will remember this project.
Do you execute these ideas as a way to simply express yourself outside of your day job, or as way to ideally get them sold or marketed to allow you to work on them full-time?
This project in particular was almost exclusively about self-expression. Even I have a hard time seeing how voice recognition could be put to good use for something like an online advertising campaign at this point in time, due to the previously mentioned hardware and software requirements. However, I believed in the idea for this project so strongly that I wanted to see it come to fruition anyway. It was also a great opportunity to finally do a photo shoot with my very talented friend Aaron. Connecting with other creative individuals is the most rewarding part of embarking on any kind of project outside of work to me. I usually don’t consider the possibility of “selling" the ideas I use for my side projects, because I have so many other ideas that I’m just waiting for a chance to present to clients.
Images courtesy of Bjorn Johansson
A discussion with the 2014 TED Fellow and sculptor on his work that blends technology and nature
by Kat Herriman in Culture on 17 April 2014
Since Marcel Duchamp and his bicycle wheel (and urinal), countless artists have included daily objects into their work. There may only be one, though, who uses them to create bioluminescent "living" organisms. Taiwanese-American artist Shih Chieh Huang’s unique approach to sculpture stems from his fascination with the intersection of technology and the natural world. A recently minted 2014 TED Fellow best known for his large-scale public installations, Huang's dynamic work brings the viewer into a fantastical world where trash bags, plastic toys and computer parts become "living" creatures that breathe, spin, fly and light up the darkness.
Huang’s animatronic sculptures display both his mechanical prowess as well as his ability to straddle the line between aesthetician and engineer. While working with marine biologists as an artist fellow at the Smithsonian Natural History Museum in 2007, Huang was inspired by bioluminescent organisms from the deep sea—those shape-shifting beauties that illuminate the oceans’ Twilight Zone-like regions. The artist was struck by the commonalities between the animals’ mutative evolutions and his own creative process.
With his latest installation at the Amsterdam Light Festival earlier this winter, Huang traded a gallery and its white walls for a network of trees. Floating between the branches, his whimsical structures looked even more life-like; further collapsing the boundaries between nature, art and tech. Here, the artist discusses the evolution of his work, what it's like developing brains for his sculptures and how art can seduce.
Technology plays a crucial part in creating your art. Do you see it as a tool or as a medium onto itself?
I see technology as a medium like red or blue paint a painter would use in their painting. My work focuses on taking common ordinary materials, including software and apps, and transforming them into magical experiences. I don't view these materials as technology; they are these common things we use today, easy to access and obtain and most importantly they are personal and sometimes intimate.
When beginning a new piece, where does the inspiration come from?
Inspiration comes from many different unexpected places. Sometimes walking around on the street or in the woods. For instance, while walking in the woods one day, I came across an area where there was a pile of garbage bags left by a passerby. I decided to put computer cooling fans inside one of the garbage bag and set it on a timer, so when people pass by, they would see one of the garbage bags breathing—inflating and deflating—as if the pile of garbage bags mutated and began to take on a life of their own in the woods. This was the starting point of many creatures I made later on. I start by thinking of the single breathing bag, like a single-cell organism. What happens when a bag grows up? [Does it] become more complex?
You often use found objects in your work. With the movement towards sustainable design, how do you see your art fitting into these larger ideas?
My work does fit into the idea of sustainable design in some ways, but it also doesn't fit in some ways. I see my work undergoing some evolutionary selection process at this moment. The works do eliminate some negative environmental impact, and they are respectful of environmental and social differences at this moment, but what is still unknown is if the works generate long-term relationships between user and object.
What are you working on now?
I am creating a more evolved “brain” for my creatures, which is inspired by biology. Technically, this new system gives the work more functionality, and at the same time allows me to not only program sequences of movements for display, but it can also be controlled live through an iPhone, iPad or other mobile devices. These more evolved creatures will be part of a new project, an interactive visual and sound environment where seduction becomes a form of play and exploration.
Are there any innovations or new technologies that you are particularly excited about right now?
I am really excited that many technologies are becoming more affordable, abundant and accessible. More and more varieties are appearing, in mobile devices, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, apps, visual programing and probably more will pop out after this interview. That’s how exciting it is!
Lead image courtesy of Janus van den Eijnden, all other images courtesy of Shih Chieh Huang
A personal portrait of the celebrated musician as he toured across the US
by David Graver in Culture on 17 April 2014
Each track Bill Callahan crafted during his (thus far) 24-year career posses unfathomable depths of beauty and thought. There's an ever-intimate progression within the singer/songwriter's lyrics—moving, melodic and masterful—which all the while keeps his message simple. With APOCALYPSE: A Bill Callahan Tour Film, documentary filmmaker Hanly Banks matches that intimacy and beauty with an impressionistic assemblage of travel scenes and the performances that fall between. Now, thanks to distribution through Factory25, the video portrait can be seen through a series of on demand options, with a limited theatrical run not far behind.
Callahan's 2013 album Dream River further solidified his influential role—carrying tremendous weight as it drifts skyward and back again. His previous album, 2011's Apocalypse shared similar aesthetics and musings, and it was during the US leg of this tour that Banks shot her film. Across two weeks (and with a microbudget of only $8,000) the filmmaker created one of the most complete portraits of the songwriter—while preserving the mystery he maintains. "It was a dance," Banks explains to CH, "I definitely wanted to preserve the mystery."
In order to do so, the filmmaker shares that, "it took a lot of editing myself and intuition to be able to do that. There were certain strategic aspects of it." Callahan only speaks directly at the beginning and end of the film. The rest of the film is kept to voiceover and live performances. "Bill explains in that film that the stage is where he feels the most real and authentic. I wanted to give him that justice and not strip it away." With that in mind, Banks portrays a poetic, emotive figure as true to real life as most will ever know.
The film itself was directly influenced by the album Callahan was touring to promote. Banks felt that extending much further beyond Apocalypse would skew a vision of the singer. "I couldn't really capture—and no one could, unless if you're doing a posthumous documentary—the entirety of Bill's work. I really wanted to focus on what was happening at the moment, rather than encapsulate everything." She further notes, "You can go so many places when making a documentary. I kept it specific to this tour as it gave me leeway in terms of focusing." With that lens—direct yet non-linear, shaping moments into a memory—that the film delivers magnetic honesty.
Banks began listening to Callahan's work back in college. Soon after, she saw him perform live and filmed it for the Fader, where she was working at the time. "There was such a difference filming that show than anything else I had filmed before," she recalls. "I knew if I were to continue making films it would be about him." For most of the shoot, it was primarily Banks—five days up California and later again across the US. The resulting 65-minute documentary reflects this private access and honed vision. Even with its enigmatic subject preserved, it stands as the most insightful entry way into the nature of a musician who's larger-than-life but shielded except for the songs he sings to the world.
"Apocalypse: A Bill Callahan Tour Film" is available for download at iTunes, there will also be limited theatrical screenings in NYC and SF commencing 2 May 2014.
Images courtesy of Hanly Banks