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Semi-Permanent Recap

by Ami Kealoha in Design on 13 September 2005

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After two days in a darkened hall watching a near-constant stream of images and a diverse speaker lineup, my brain started confusing music videos with dreams and vainly tried to come up with the common thread in Semi-Permanent. Tying it all together (props to the planners for the choice), the over-caffeinated concluding speaker, Joshua Davis took the stage. His talk, centered around the concept of what he calls "dynamic abstraction," neatly summed up themes of analog vs. digital, addressed the ways that technologies shape aesthetics, and demonstrated how the Internet has changed the industry.

(pictured: Liz Diller, all images courtesy of m ss ng p eces)

Internationally renowned for his web design and Flash innovations, Davis' work, like many of the speakers, uses the Internet as his medium and the unprecedented access and connectivity it enables shapes his success. Today's design industry has everything to do with fluid communications between peers and consumers provided by the online design community. Brazilian-based Mateus de Paula Santos of Lobo joked about an accusation that appeared on the motion graphics forum Mo Graph claiming his Diesel Dreams project was a Joshua Davis rip-off, showing just how small the design world has become thanks to online capabilities. On the same note, it's hard to imagine the notoriety of the unbelievably young upstart Chuck Anderson, 20, (who called blogs "boring") before he was able to track down art director emails and point them to his online portfolio, No Pattern. In his talk, Anderson attributed some of the attention he received early on to a link that the Semi-Permanent founders Design is Kinky posted and noted that one of his first jobs was working for skinnyCorp, a company also run by people in their early 20s and also impossible without the Internet. SkinnyCorp's most well-known and lucrative enterprise, a t-shirt retail site where users elect designs, Threadless has redefined concepts of retail and interactivity. Following in that model's footsteps, the skinnyCorp team discussed a number of new sites in the planning stages or that they've recently launched, pointing out that their business eliminates some overhead by creating built-in research and development.

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Democratic principles shaping e-commerce and the web dovetail naturally with street art. Second generation graffiti artist Fafi (pictured, right) shared how experiences world traveling have influenced her unique depictions of women, told tales of arrests in her native France, and weighed the advantages of techniques such as wheat pasting over more traditional graffiti. The graffiti ethos in many ways presages the internet, making an artist out of anyone who throws their name up on wall and bringing art to a widely public venue. Much in the way that the nature of graffiti dictated its aesthetics (instantly recognizable styles and names, paint drips, massive scale, bubble letters, Krylon palettes, etc.), its no secret that art in the digital age has been profoundly influenced by its the new tools available. Like Davis said, "I can't even begin to understand how I would make this stuff in Illustrator."

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Insertsilence, pioneers in interactivity, create Flash programs that involve the user in the way images and animation perform onscreen. Davis' distinctive patterns, generated by programs he makes, incorporate principles of randomness by setting up elements like color (both shade and frequency), composition, and movement to function within given parameters. Davis (pictured, above right) explained, "I don't like to make decisions. I'm interested in parts rather than complete wholes," a statement that's in stark contrast to traditional art's object-oriented position and that raises issues of what constitutes authorship when artists are essentially creating artificial intelligence.

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Charlie White, in contrast (pictured, right), who is often regarded as more of a fine artist, seeks to control the image as much as possible. He spoke about how the goal of his work, largely made using digitally manipulated composite images, is to flatten ideas, "a constant reduction of nothingness." His dark imagined melodramas address subjects like human nature, insecurity, and masculinity, using "fictional realities to probe the surface of reality." In other words, topics like "the nothingness of LA" use digital tools to create something fake as a way to talk about simulations that exist in everyday life.

Constructing buildings and installations that become fixtures of daily life, Diller, Scofidio, + Renfro's talk highlighted a famed project titled, "Blur Building," that used 13,000 nozzles to create a fog bank in Switzerland, as, speaker Liz Diller explained, a way to "see and show nothing." Another project, "Facsimile," uses a giant screen/camera on a track that moves around the perimeter of a building to project images of scenes (both real and staged) happening within the building. Other artists use the tools to take completely imagined realities and make them all the more fantastical, like de Paula Santos, who described an exquisite corpse-like drawing exercise that he then used a computer to translate into 3-D for the Diesel Dreams piece.

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Several Semi-Permanent artists shared Lobo's hybrid approach, fusing analog with digital techniques. Comic book artist Paul Pope, perhaps the most purely analog of the bunch, questioned his inclusion in the conference, but his comics fit logically between traditional art forms and motion graphics. The Orphanage's Dav Rauch (pictured, above right) explained his choice to use stop-motion for work he did on MTV's show, "Trippin'" as a method to avoid costly redoes that digital technology gives clients the leeway to request. Animator Peter Sluszka related a client anecdote where he had to "rough up" a Bacardi Limon commercial of animated lemon peels to look more like stop-motion.

While these topics have been widely discussed since the dawn of the digital age, Semi-Permanent represents one of the first institutional forums to discuss tensions between digital and analog aesthetics and the new business and community models as they evolve along with technology. We'd call it a success.

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