Foreword for Sheffield Institute of Arts
Sheffield Institute of Arts very kindly asked me to write the foreword for their new prospectus, What Am I?, designed by Peter and Paul. Here's the full text.
"It's very creative and everything but really, what's the point?"
This was the question that had been asked of me after showing a piece of work I'd made were I could manipulate Play-doh in real-time and have it control the speed of a digital video. It was kind of ridiculous but also kind of fun. Now here I was at a large respected design conference in Chicago having to answer the question "what's the point?" I took a moment and quietly answered back "there is no point". Well actually there was a point but not in the way he was thinking. The point was simply to disrupt the expected. Why would anyone think that Play-doh - a soft super-analog material - be able to control anything digital. Yet here it was, questioning what we perceive an interface could be. The point? Well the point was to ask questions.
In an interview the film director Terry Gilliam once commented on the difference as he saw it between Stephen Speilberg and Stanley Kubrick. Spielberg he said was all about providing answers whereas Kubrick was about asking questions. Watch 2001: A Space Odyssey and there's no doubt you're left with a thousand questions darting around your brain. For me the same is true when I think about the difference between design and art; design is about answers, art is about questions.
Everyday I wake and ask myself one simple question – what will I learn today? What will I know by the end of the day that I didn't know this morning? The older I get the more I realise the less I know and each day is an opportunity to expand my knowledge on even the smallest, most insignificant thing. Once it was "how do I map fluid lines around a sphere in 3D with code?". I'd seen other people do it but I knew nothing about 3D. All I had was my naivety and my willingness to figure it out (and yeah a bit of help from Google), but by the end of the day I had something that was starting to look like what was in my head. By the end of the second day the gap between what I saw in my minds-eye and what was on screen had gotten a lot closer. That's the goal. To try and remove as much as you can the disparity from what you see in your head to what will eventually spring forward. The two never match. Ever. That's the game though - to constantly battle and do your utmost to bring those two things closer together.
In order to do that though everyone needs a space; what I like to think of as a space to play. Everyone should have a space to play, a place were they are free to explore unknown paths, to wander down a winding route fuelled by nothing more than curiosity and the idea of what if? Many of these excursions will end up in failure but that's fine - it's all just part of the process. You simply never know where these fanciful trips are going to lead you and often times you have no destination in mind. One such time I was playing with the idea of DVD as data; what could I do if I treated each frame of a film as source material to be manipulated in anyway I see fit. I was asking "why do we have to watch films one frame after another? What else can we do?". So with that idea in mind I played with the frames of a film spilling into my Mac, writing code to cut, splice and paste frames of a movie in hopefully interesting ways. A lot of the things I made were just OK, or didn't even work. Then eventually something appeared out of all the playing. I called it Cinema Redux. It showed every second of a movie with each row representing one minute, creating a mosaic or a cinematic fingerprint of a film. After putting in online it got some attention from various blogs and the like. Then in 2008, four years after creating it, The Museum of Modern Art in New York contacted my through email to say they'd love to feature two Cinema Redux pieces in a new exhibition called Design and the Elastic Mind. I still remember staring at the email for ages – I found it completely ridiculous that I was going to have a piece of work shown in New York at MoMA.
That work is now part of the permanent collection at MoMA. A piece of work that simply came about because I asked a question and began to explore things within a space I had defined as a space to play. Treat Art School as your space to play – there's no finer environment in which to ask questions of yourself, your peers and the world around you. Will it provide answers? Maybe, occasionally. Though I'm pretty sure they will only lead to more questions.