Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Pins and Needles

Yesterday I attended one of the sessions at UCLA's Mobile Media series, a talk by web artist Jonathan Harris.

The slides in Harris's talk contained words and phrases like OPINIONS, BELIEFS, VIBRATIONS, OUR DIGITAL CRISIS, NO TRUE ESCAPE, WORLD BUILDERS, SIMPLICITY, LANGUAGE, SPECIAL EFFECTS, IDEAS, ACTING ALONE, IMITATION, REPUTATION, IRONY, and SCIENCE + SPIRITUALITY that were spelled out in leaves, pine needles, or dirt to represent his reflections about technology and digital participation seen from the perspective of his Oregon cabin. Harris mentioned a range of possible icons for work that addressed what he saw as fundamental questions: Frank Lloyd Wright, Donald Judd, and Andrei Tarkovsky, who was mentioned several times. (My favorite Tarkovsky clip is below, starting on the middle of the YouTube timeline.)

Harris expressed his concern that too often designers missed the fact that "mystery is an ally if you are making stuff," and that the "vibrations" that make up the sounds, images, and colors of an artist's palette had become -- in the era of digital social networks -- about a "volume of communication" and a "number of relationships" that had become too difficult to manage. Not only was the intensity of such Internet vibrations increasing, Harris also argued that they were becoming "more homogeneous."

Harris also had harsh words for our "mania with social networks," which he asserted reinforced sameness and were "making us stupid." He forecast that if the forces of "compression and velocity" continued unchecked, people would be reduced to transmitting "monosyllabic grunts" on the Internet. He said that his general message to people from "journalism, publishing, and radio," which were "collapsing," was that they should have "patience," since it is not their business to "make tools to get their stories out," but he worried that the Web's tendency to be "good at breadth" and "bad at depth" might keep the trajectory headed toward crisis rather than encourage users to "bounce to something earlier."

So he also counseled his audience of design students to think about being "world builders" and "deciding what the digital world will look like." He argued that this would involve thinking critically about "simplicity," which he argued shouldn't be confused with what he called its "fashionable idea" incarnation as John Maeda-style minimalism. Rather Harris insisted that designers should reject the "prudish," "fascist," or "hardass" character of minimalism in order to embrace "organicism" as a more appropriate approach that is guided by nature and its regulations of complexity.

(Disclaimer: I actually like the wit and political engagement of Maeda's work, and I don't agree that his information design is as soulless as Harris implies.)

He also argued that "language" was a major category for design, as a "system for expressing ideas," which could include photography and dance as well as Java and Flash. At this point he acknowledged the presence of audience member Casey Reas, co-creator of the language Processing. He argued that earlier Internet projects of his, such as We Feel Fine, might have been too much like "going to the opera" and not enough like "playing Beatle songs" at home to elevate one's mood. (His newest story-generation project, cowbird, is being done in "basic HTML and Javascript.)

However, he did concede that there could be value is some "special effects," such as "motion," "interaction," "physics," or "layering." But he argued that web interface creation should be less like "fashion design" and more like the zen of sword making.

At the point in his presentation where he talked with the slide with the word "ideas" spelled out, he claimed that ideas were not like "memories stored in the brain" and that brains were more like radio receivers than hard drives.

In closing, he said that he was not a big fan of "irony" and was similarly skeptical about imitation. His final 1-2-3 dictum had to do with having a 1) universal concept that was 2) executed with as much simplicity as possible and 3) contained an element of play, nostalgia, or beauty that humanized the work.

During the question and answer session, he explained how the Whale Hunt had been a defining moment in his career and how he would still choose his laptop over his sketchbook and pen and paper.

Those in the mood to look back at the "web evolution" that Harris deplores can check out the Internet Archaeology site, which shows screenshots of social network sites becoming more complex with each iteration.

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