Entering the pixels at the Creators Project

Pub date March 19, 2012
SectionPixel Vision

The computer mouse was invented by Douglas Engelbart in 1963, and don’t get Jamie Zigelbaum wrong, because he thinks it was a great invention.

For its time.

But, surrounded by his and other feats of computational art at last weekend’s Creators Project at Fort Mason, Zigelbaum was understandably over the mouse.

“I don’t want to poke at things with a stick anymore. I want to form things with my hands. And touchscreens, that’s still like poking stuff behind glass,” he says.

I’ve had my share of psychedelic discussions at festivals, and this is actually not one of them. Zigelbaum and creative partner Marcelo Coelho created the epic-sized Lite-Brite behind us that allows Creators Project-goers the chance to manipulate pixels with their hands. Touch one of the palm-sized magnetic boxes and its oscillating light will change colors – touch one and then another and the second will swap hues to reflect that of the first. Your body becomes a conduit. We stayed far away from technical details in our interview, so don’t expect me to explain how this happens. 

His project is one of many lining the Herbst Pavilion hanger early in the afternoon on Saturday. Hours still lie between us and the festival’s musical headliner the Yeah Yeah Yeahs (check Guardian music editor Emily Savage’s report for the best of the day’s sounds), and the space is relatively calm, lacking lines, and resembles a museum more than part of a weekend-long affair of big ticket bands and hype organized and curated by VICE and Intel. 

Jamie Zigelbaum guards over his baby at Creators Project. Guardian photos by Caitlin Donohue

There is a constant, ambient hum. One side of the space is lined by Chris Milk’s “The Treachery of Sanctuary,” a massive three-panel interactive projection that allows users to be converted into a wing-flapping guardian angel or two other flight-related visual trip-outs. Outside in Fort Mason’s bitter winds stands the festival’s version of Mecca: a 40-feet by 40-feet cube made of scaffolding grid traversed by beams of light, perfectly calibrated to match the work’s haunting soundtrack of chords arranged by composer Scanner. 

Zigelbaum’s piece is situated in what he calls the “Media Lab triangle,” a triad of works by artists who studied at MIT’s Media Lab. The other two are Casey Reas, who has made a slow-doodling Technicolor algorithm and Sosolimited, with a Big Brother-skew of a live TV channel feed.

Compared to other places where Zigelbaum and Coelho have shown work (Design Miami during Art Basel Miami Beach comes to mind), Zigelbaum says the Creators Project has a less commercial focus, and is more dedicated to the kind of computational, gestural art that he does. 

Be the bird: Chris Milk’s “The Treachury of Sanctuary”

“These people are just really interested in this stuff,” he reflects. Zigelbaum’s primary interest lies in getting people to realize that “computing can be a much deeper and richer form,” than is typically employed by our hunt and peck iPhoning era. His Creators’ piece “Six-Forty by Four-Eighty” could be adapted for commercial use, he thinks, though the right offer hasn’t presented itself to himself and Coelho yet. 

But surely having his piece at a traveling festival that has been incarnated everywhere from Sao Paolo to Seoul gives him a wider perspective on the capabilities of the system he and his co-artist have built. Festival-goers constantly discover new features of the piece, like when one pushed all the pixels together, and left a human-shaped shadow on their surfaces after someone changed the color scheme with the piece’s remote behind their back. Zigelbaum is still surprised by what his creation is capable of.

Wandering through “Origin” by United Visual Artists

The human traffic is also a good reminder that not even computational, gestural interface art lasts forever – hence the three staff members positioned around the velvet ropes of “Six-Forty by Four-Eighty”. 

“Oh yeah, people will take the pixels,” Zigelbaum sighs. “It’s like, c’mon – that thing isn’t even going to be lighting up after a week! The pixel will end up in the garbage.”