Deborah Johnson is an artist who works in the alluring and sometimes overlooked field of performance and projection design. While many of us enjoy the experience of a performance that utilizes a visual element it isn’t often that the visuals are attributed to the designer. Viewing the highly textural and detailed work from Candy Stations has inspired me to consider this animated practice as an intricate and laborious form of digital craft. Deborah has designed and developed visuals and sets for a range of artists including M.Ward, Wilco and Sufjian Stevens. I spoke with Deborah last week about her experience in live video projection and quickly learned that it is one of constant collaboration, extreme craft and, in Deborah’s case, story telling.
One of the pertinent areas of focus in our conversation was about the working relationships that develop over the course of a project. Something that has been on my mind as of late is the growing interaction that artists and designers have with programmers. When I asked Deborah if she felt that programmers have become the new artisans who work in facilitating the vision of the designer, she immediately answered, ‘yes’. While she has a solid understanding about the ins and outs of the software she uses, when developing code she works with a network of select programmers, each with their own skill set. Working together both designer and programmer seem to benefit as the creative concepts fuel technical skills and vice versa. Continually pushing the boundaries to potentially ‘break the software’ in Deborah’s words, ‘We are super passionate about making stuff that people haven’t seen before, or that WE haven’t seen before’. Getting to that point can take some serious time especially when you are trying to get something to look like a Nebula or a Star Tunnel.
Going into a project the decision making process that Deborah encounters falls somewhere in between a fiction writer and a textile designer. Some of the challenges that arise in the beginning of a project are the theme, interactivity and rhythmicity. Finding the tools to deliver those effects is key to the design process. We talked a lot about the qualities of one software like Director that give a more analogue affect versus a fluid software like Quartz that allows her to deliver a live show. Often the work she presents is a combination of what she refers to as ‘pre-baked’ content with a layer of ‘liveness’. Using these different tools she develops a set that could be anywhere from 20 minutes to 75 minutes long with a production time of anywhere from 6 months to only 2 weeks. Just to note, in our discussion we talked about a minimum of 7 different software options she uses to produce one set.
While a Neblua or Star Tunnel might be a time consuming challenge it is not an unusual one in the illustrative visuals designed by Candy Stations. Context, imagination and surreal liberty are the vehicles that permit the tools to be utilized to the fullest. In designing that context for say an ‘apocalyptic sci-fi’ piece she might watch 5 seasons of Dr.Who to seek some inspiration. Once the context is cultivated the texture, rhythm and energy of the music come into play. This is when the magic starts to happen and the collaboration between designer and musician come together. The goal is to present the audience with an experience in which the audio and the visual were made for one another.
The experience is the driving force in this time sensitive and highly diverse form of digital craft. With the growing possibilities of Microsoft’s Kinnect and advancements in sensor based technology, the prospects of generating a user defined experience opposed to artist defined is one of prevalence. Deborah’s response to this, ‘Personally, I am so much more interested in story telling, and narrative from a point of view, than having a lot of crazy interactive stuff happening’. The interactivity in her work does not come from the audience but the live audio feed from the band manipulating the visuals. Her decisive method of narrative is a refreshing approach at a time when we are continually being bombarded with yes/no decision making processes on computers and smart phones.
Artists and designers like Candy Stations have developed techniques and methods not unlike those of tangible material designers. This past September the Crafts Council of London put a show together called ‘Reel to Reel’. It highlighted film and video as a tool in the practice of many designers and artists. With one or two exceptions, the pieces didn’t focus on the material of video or film but instead video as a means for documenting a craft or illustrating a design process. The beauty of the digital medium, and perhaps its fault, is its intangible and natural ability to be uncommodified. As we are entering an era in which he value of an experience over the ownership of something is being revisited, I believe that audio visual driven events that allow us to spend time without massive consumption will gain momentum. With that said, I’m hopeful that this will trigger an increase a greater understanding of the intricacies of live video and animation. Clearly the level of technique, experimentation and narrative found in Deborah’s work is an exciting catalyst for the future of digital craft.